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.

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.

share your story

Teachers: How does your district handle family leave? How did it affect your life?

PHOTO: Logan Zabel

New York City is in the news because a petition there is calling for the city to create paid family leave for teachers, who currently must use accrued sick days if they have a child and are limited to six paid weeks off.

Chalkbeat wants to know: How do other districts and schools compare? What implications do these policies have for educators and their families?

If you have an experience to share, or can simply explain how this works where you work, please tell us here. Your answers will help guide our reporting.