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 closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.