on the record

‘We need an opposite narrative’: Chancellor Betty Rosa on her year of trying to reshape New York’s education debate

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

Betty Rosa, New York’s Board of Regents chancellor, came into power during a period of dramatic change.

Pushed by Obama-era policies, the state spent years engaged in an all-consuming campaign to fundamentally rethink education. Officials adopted new learning standards, a different teacher evaluation system, and made it tougher to earn a high school diploma — before the agenda ran into a wall of parent, teacher and union anger.

In the past year and a half, there has been a big shift in focus. The state’s Common Core learning standards are being revised, certain standardized tests no longer factor into high-stakes teacher evaluations (for now, anyway), and officials found new ways to help students graduate.

At the center of this turn is Rosa, who was elected last March. Her first day as chancellor, she expressed sympathy for the movement to boycott state tests and said she wanted to move away from “so-called … reform.”

Rosa’s critics have accused her of lowering standards. It’s a narrative she finds frustrating, she told Chalkbeat in an exclusive interview about her first year in the post. She wants to combat that criticism with an “opposite narrative,” she said.

“Just because you raise the bar [does not mean] the student can jump over that bar without building the steps to get them there,” Rosa said. “For me, it’s more important to build those steps.”

Rosa seems likely to continue the policy shift she has championed. Simply focusing on test scores or graduation rates is “very narrow,” she said, and at the last Board of Regents meeting, she defended the decision to drop one of four teacher certification requirements, an academic literacy skills test.

As the state creates a plan under the new federal education law, it has also begun to rethink how to define schools as “good” or “struggling.” It’s something Rosa told Chalkbeat she is taking seriously and could shape New York’s education policy for years.

In a wide-ranging interview, Rosa assessed her year as chancellor, talks about the future, and delves into other hot-button issues like charter schools, school segregation and Cuomo’s free college tuition plan.

When you took over as chancellor last year, you said you wanted to move away from “so-called … reform.” What did you mean by that? Has it happened?

The whole emphasis [is] on teaching and learning, on instruction versus the test-based accountability, which I found to be very narrow.

Remember we were transitioning from No Child Left Behind to ESSA and I think that has given us an incredible opportunity to really begin to incorporate the voices of the communities, the teachers, the parents, the legislators … Our ESSA plan and our accountability and assessments [have] really given us an opportunity to rethink how in New York state we want to see our accountability and our assessments.

You have been asked a lot about whether you have lowered standards. I want to ask this: How do you think you have raised standards in the past year or how do you want to raise standards in the future?

I want every single child to aspire to their highest level with all the support systems in place. I think that what people [call] lowering standards [are just] multiple ways of getting there. There are people who take a train to work, there are others who bike to work. I think we have a very narrow sense of what it means to raise standards … Just because you raise the bar [does not mean] the student can jump over that bar without building the steps to get them there. For me, it’s more important to build those steps.

I’ve never sat at that table and said that I expect less for my students in this state, so I think it’s more of a narrative that’s out there. We need an opposite narrative to [promote] the exciting and innovative work that we’re doing in terms of this board. We are building on a lot of the good work that has happened. The difference, I think, is that we are also, like any good organization, we take stock. So after you’ve done something, you evaluate it and you say, ‘Is this is working?’ And if it’s not, let’s figure out what we need to do to ensure that we’re moving in a positive direction.

When you talk about ‘building those steps’ for students to reach a certain standard, what does that mean? Is that different from raising standards?

Standards are standards. I don’t even understand this notion of raising standards. If all of us agree that these are good, solid standards, and that is what is being taught … then we say, “How do we get there?” To me, the how-do-we-get-there are the opportunities, the resources, the AP classes, the opportunities for extended day, the opportunity for kids who are acquiring the language to have additional types of instruction or models. Those are all part of the equation. We shouldn’t have two separate conversations.

I find it so frustrating when people say you’re lowering the standards. Could you define what you mean? Because obviously, when we look at kids who have an IEP [individualized education program], and they … may have issues with processing, well you know what? If a kid has been evaluated and has issues with processing, we need structural strategies to address those needs and that’s very different … [than], let’s say, for a student that may be in an AP class.

The same expectation [is] there for both children, they just have a different way of internalizing the information and so the strategies are not the same.

A lot of times when we talk about opportunities to learn, you’re talking about curriculum, you’re talking about resources. Those things often take funding, but that’s not something you can control as head of the Board of Regents.

I beg to differ on that because we do work with state aid and we set priorities.

In fact, as policymakers, we are very actively involved in saying these are the areas that we are very concerned [about] and we want to make sure that these are the areas that we get funding in order to move the educational agenda for the state forward. … We’re not making policy in isolation.

You have been critical of state tests and graduation requirements as they currently exist. Those are the two most typical ways to judge student progress. So how do you think we should we judge student progress instead? Is it about improving those metrics, or using different metrics, or some combination?

If the only metrics that we use are [the ones] you just mentioned, then … that definition that you just gave is a very narrow [one].

I’m sure that’s not why you went to school and all of us went to school. That was not the only things that mattered to your parents, my parents and most people. The truth of the matter [is], education is very complex and very comprehensive.

If students go to a school, they do projects, they do internships, they engage in a year-long or sometimes even longer process. Some of them go abroad, the very lucky ones who can take another language and another culture. There is so much more to education than just a one, multiple-choice moment in time. That is one aspect. I’m not saying it isn’t important. What I am saying is it’s one variable in measuring success and that’s why I’ve been critical. We need multiple perspectives on measuring a student’s success.

So what yardstick should we be using? What multiple measures should count?

When you went to school, you obviously took classes. You got grades in your classes, right? If you didn’t live in New York, maybe you didn’t take Regents exams, but the fact of the matter is, there were pop quizzes, there were monthly tests, there were end-of-the-year tests, there were projects that you worked on. There were multiple ways that your teachers knew that you had been successful in acquiring the materials. So all I’m saying to you is that, I want the system to think about [that].

Last year, you said that you were “very concerned” that some charter schools are not serving students that represent their communities. But at the last meeting, the Board of Regents approved 16 out of 17 charter schools for renewal. Do you feel that, as a board, you are being tough enough on charter schools? Can we expect something different in the future?

The team [at the State Education Department] that has been looking at these charters has really been doing an incredible job in visiting [and] looking at the data … They’re giving us more and more metrics on the charters as they’re coming through. We’ve been able to not only look at the landscape of where they reside, the kinds of students [and] the population in terms of how they’re doing.

In addition to that, I think that more and more charter schools have been much more responsive to the issue of taking on more English Language Learners, more students with special needs.

So I personally feel very proud of the work that’s been done to move this issue, in terms of our charter SED group. The work that they’ve been doing to really be responsive to the board and be responsive to the public.

New York state schools are some of the most segregated in the country. Is the amount of segregation in state schools acceptable to you? If not, what do you plan to do about it?

I don’t think segregation would be acceptable, honestly, to anybody.

We want to create a diverse culture that really is accepting of differences [and] sees it as a strength … A world-class community is one that believes in tolerance, believes in using the strengths of the various groups and the contributions, so I do think that moving into a much more diverse school system is a major strength for our state and my hope is that we are working on this. I know that many communities are developing plans to address this. New York City is also working on this. This is not only for this board — and I will speak for this board and this commissioner — this is critical to the strength of this state.

Are you working on it?

I can’t even imagine anybody not working on this. Let’s put it that way. This is a universal challenge to all of us, whether it’s work that you do in your own community, work that we do on the Board of Regents, work that we do as educators. I work on it even as a professor, who teaches research … I can’t imagine not thinking about working on this every single waking moment.

The legislature is currently deciding whether to adopt Governor Cuomo’s free college tuition plan, but some have criticized it for not providing enough help to low-income students. What do you think about the plan? Do you see a role for the Board of Regents in helping students stay in and finish college if this plan passes?

I think it’s an overall great promise. And we use the word promise. I think that the concept is a good one, but that we all know that the devil’s in the details … We’re hopeful. I think [the Regents] will wait to see what happens and we will continue to figure out what role we will play in supporting his proposal.

'a bit stuck'

Impasse declared in Denver teacher contract negotiations, prompting criticism from union

PHOTO: Marissa Page
Teachers watch a bargaining session between Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union on June 22.

For the first time in recent history, Denver Public Schools has declared an impasse in ongoing negotiations with the teachers union over a contract governing teacher pay, workload and more.

The declaration means the two sides, which have been bargaining since January, will continue negotiations but with the aid of a mediator. In the past, DPS and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association have mutually agreed to mediation without one side having to call an impasse to trigger it, said DPS deputy general counsel and lead negotiator Michelle Berge.

But this year, the union refused. DCTA wanted to keep negotiations as public as possible and avoid private meetings with mediators, said DCTA deputy executive director Corey Kern.

In 2014, Colorado voters approved a change to state law that requires contract negotiations between school districts and employee groups to be open to the public. The Denver teachers union has been taking advantage of the public sessions, inviting teachers to attend and talk to negotiators about their experiences and how various proposals would affect them.

Union leaders see the impasse as a way to silence that voice. Their belief stems in part from the fact that the district wants to use a mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which helps resolve collective bargaining disputes free of charge.

Although the bargaining sessions would still be public, the mediator could meet with each side separately in private to help them craft proposals, a spokesman for the service said.

That’s not true public bargaining, Kern said.

He said it’s been DCTA’s experience that “the two parties spend most of the time in two rooms apart and the mediator is shuttling back and forth between those two rooms and talking about issues without the public present.” The two sides’ proposals would be shared publicly, but the public would miss out on hearing the thought processes behind them, Kern said.

Even though the district had requested several times to move to mutually agreed-upon mediation, Kern said DCTA was “blindsided” by the impasse declaration, especially since it occurred a day after a bargaining session that the union felt was productive.

Berge said the district decided to call an impasse because “a number of challenging issues remain where we’re a bit stuck.” Those issues include how much teachers should be paid, the benefits they receive and how they should be evaluated.

The hope, Berge said, is that a mediator will help the two sides find common ground. The mediator DPS wants to use is someone whom the district and union have worked with before.

“Those of us who are involved, we are deep in on this,” Berge said. “Sometimes we’re emotional. It’s tough stuff. A mediator is an independent person who can step above that.”

The current teachers contract expires Aug. 31. The two sides are scheduled to meet again July 24 at McKinley-Thatcher Elementary School in Denver. There are two bargaining sessions set for late July and five scheduled for early and mid-August.

feedback

Tennessee’s ESSA plan gets solid marks in independent review

PHOTO: Amanda Lucidon/The White House
President Barack Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act in December 2015, surrounded by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and other champions and supporters of the new law.

Tennessee’s proposed plan for school accountability rates strong on measuring academic progress, but weak on counting all kids, according to an independent review released Tuesday by two education groups.

For the most part, the state landed in the upper middle of an analysis spearheaded by Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success.

Their panel of reviewers looked into components of state plans  ranging from academic standards to supporting schools under the new federal education law.

“Tennessee has submitted a very solid plan for which they should be proud,” said Jim Cowen, executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success. “Their ideas for ensuring academic progress and supporting schools are exemplary. We hope that other states will look for ways to incorporate these best practices.”

The groups brought together education experts with a range of political viewpoints and backgrounds to analyze 17 state plans submitted this spring to the U.S. Department of Education in response to the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Calling Tennessee’s plan “robust, transparent and comprehensive,” the review praised its “clear vision for reform” and its design of “district and school accountability systems that rely on high-quality indicators.”

The state received the highest rating possible for its proposal for tracking academic progress.

“Tennessee’s plan clearly values both growth and proficiency,” the review says. “Every school, even high-achieving ones, have growth and proficiency targets, and even the growth measure tracks student progress toward grade-level standards.”

The state’s lowest rating — a 2 out of a possible 5 — was for how Tennessee plans to identify and rate schools in need of targeted support for certain groups of students. Reviewers questioned whether the state’s system might mask the performance of some by proposing to combine the scores of black, Hispanic and Native American students into one subgroup.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Tennessee is committed to supporting all students, especially those in historically underserved groups.

“When we say ‘all means all,’ that means much more than just accountability for subgroup performance,” McQueen said in a statement on the eve of the review’s release.

“The state’s accountability framework is designed to hold as many schools accountable for subgroup performance as possible while maintaining statistical reliability and validity, and it provides safeguards to ensure student information is protected,” she said. “In schools where there are a smaller number of students from a specific racial or ethnic category, we are combining them into one group. In doing so, we are actually able to hold schools accountable for more students — more than 43,000 black, Hispanic, and Native American students would be excluded from subgroup accountability if we did not use the combined subgroup.”

Congress passed ESSA in 2015 as a bipartisan law co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a former U.S. secretary of education. Signed by President Barack Obama, the law ended the No Child Left Behind era and redirected education policy back to the states.

States have since been working on their accountability plans, and Tennessee was among the first to submit a proposal. The state is now awaiting approval by the U.S. Department of Education, which would make it eligible for receiving federal funds.

For a breakdown of analysis on state plans including Tennessee’s, visit Check State Plans, an interactive website that spotlights the best elements of ESSA plans and those that fall short.