picking favorites

Eschewing Pearson, state goes back to McGraw-Hill for GED

Nearly a year after Pearson, the testing company, took a public beating for mistakes on the exams it produced for New York State, state education officials are piling on.

Today, the State Education Department announced that the state will forgo a new high school equivalency exam made by Pearson in favor of its own exam, which the publishing company McGraw-Hill will produce.

The state announced that it would consider other vendors to create an equivalency test after Pearson partnered with the non-profit group that had previously produced the GED, which people who have not graduated from high school can take to show they are prepared for college, work, or the military. Cost was a major concern: Pearson’s test will cost $120 to start, twice what the current exam costs.

“While the GED was run by a not-for-profit, the system worked fairly well. But a Pearson GED monopoly would put our students at the mercy of Pearson’s pricing,” Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in a statement today. “We can’t let price deny anyone the opportunity for success. That’s why, rather than pay Pearson twice the current cost or limit the number of students who can take the exam, the Regents approved a competitive process to develop a new assessment.”

The exam that McGraw-Hill produces will cost test-takers $54, state officials said today, although the state will have to shell out an undetermined amount to create the exam.

McGraw-Hill produced New York State’s annual exams before the state hired Pearson in 2011. Critics said McGraw-Hill’s exams were too predictable, contributing to widespread score inflation, and the state let the company’s contract expire.

Tisch’s criticism echoes comments she made last week about the city’s decision to recommend a Pearson curriculum as schools buy materials that are aligned to new learning standards known as the Common Core.

“I want everyone to know who’s listening here or across New York State, that if you simply cannot afford to buy curriculum from Pearson, there is content and curriculum available free to every person in this state,” Tisch said at a forum about the standards.

The state’s Common Core-aligned curriculums are being produced by nonprofit organizations, but they will not be complete by the start of the new school year. Using them will also require schools to buy some materials.

The heavy dose of criticism comes weeks before New York schoolchildren are set to take a new round of Pearson-produced math and reading tests. The company, which is in the middle of a multi-year contract with New York State to produce its annual exams, drew fire last year over its use of a nonsensical, heavily adapted reading passage that had previously appeared on other states’ tests. The state also identified errors on the Pearson-produced math tests.

At the time, Tisch called the errors “inexcusable” and publicly said she had grown concerned about Pearson’s ability to fulfill its contract with the state. Behind-the-scenes, state officials demanded that Pearson explain the “Pineapple and the Hare” passage.

New York is part of a multistate consortium, PARCC, that is developing shared Common Core-aligned exams. The state has not said for sure whether it will adopt PARCC’s exams, which are supposed to become available in the last years of Pearson’s contract with the state.

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”