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.

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing: