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.

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.