reporter's notebook

How does New York set education policy? An inside look at the mad dash to make sense of a major diploma change

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

An hour before officials made sweeping changes to New York’s high-school graduation requirements Monday, only a select few knew the game-changing policy was coming.

That morning, I was standing with a group of fellow reporters outside the room where the state Board of Regents had just concluded the first portion of their monthly meeting. As we finished questioning State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia about the budget and were about to break for lunch, the department’s press secretary mentioned offhand that the afternoon session would cover new graduation requirements.

Graduation requirements? We looked at each other, puzzled. The only item on the agenda for the relevant session was a minor update on education-technology funding.

An hour later, the board would vote to ease graduation requirements for students with disabilities — a significant policy shift that will allow some students to earn a diploma without passing any of the state’s exit exams. But if members of the public (or reporters, for that matter) wanted to review the changes more than a few minutes before the board voted on them — they were out of luck.

Monday’s vote is an extreme example of the way New York’s education decision-makers often craft potentially controversial policies behind the scenes, then reveal them to the public shortly before they’re approved — leaving little time for debate. In this case, as I would later learn, officials intentionally withheld the policy document until the last minute so they could manage how the public made sense of it.

As soon as the press secretary tipped us off that morning, I scurried off to get food — including a large M&M cookie that I shared with another reporter — and settled in for the news.

Then, just a few minutes before the afternoon meeting, the state published notice of the graduation proposal. I fired off a tweet and joined a group of confused onlookers scrambling to figure out what it said.

The day’s other proposals had been published online the previous Friday  giving the public at least three days notice before they were discussed, as required by state law. Now, we would have to dig through the 11-page document as the Regents were discussing it. Before I’d figured out what it all meant, they voted unanimously to approve it.

The change, which the state called an “emergency measure,” went into effect the next day. The public-comment period begins Dec. 27.

As soon as the measure was approved, a group of about 30 parents who had spent months pushing for the change erupted in applause. They were thrilled — but, as it turns out, not entirely surprised.

“An agenda has been published that does not show diplomas as a topic,” one of the parents, Bonnie Buckley, wrote Friday evening on a Facebook page called “Multiple Pathways for a Diploma for All.” “We have absolute confirmation that pathways to a diploma will be on the agenda for the Board of Regents meeting in Albany on Monday in the 1:25-3:30 time slot.”

The page, which has almost 6,000 members, is a virtual meeting space for parents and other advocates who supported the policy shift. Members of the group had met with Commissioner Elia and other officials in November, and left with the strong impression that the rule change would be discussed at the next month’s Regents meeting, Buckley said. Then, last week, a state official emailed a group member in response to her inquiry to say they should show up to Monday’s meeting, Buckley added.

Still, while the group had been tipped off about the proposal, they — like the rest of the public — didn’t get to see the actual document until it was posted at the start of the afternoon meeting.

It was posted at 1 [p.m.], literally,” Buckley said. “We were all sitting together and I think somebody elbowed me and said, ‘There it is.’”

At 2 p.m., after the Regents had voted, the state education department sent out a press release describing the policy that had just been approved. Thirty minutes later, High Achievement New York, an advocacy group that promotes rigorous learning standards, sent reporters a statement under the heading: “Rule Change for Students with Disabilities Lacks Transparency, Step in Wrong Direction.”

The Regents shouldn’t make significant policy changes with an 11th hour and 59th minute addition to the agenda,” the statement read.

But if the public was scrambling to make sense of the change, the Regents had already had plenty of time to digest it.

Elia had floated the basics of the policy during a Regents meeting in July, but offered no specifics at that time. When it was finalized earlier this month, state education officials and Board of Regents members were given a copy — about a week before it was posted online, Chancellor Betty Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Thursday. In fact, the document — which bears Elia’s signature — is dated Dec. 5, six days before the vote.

“I talked about it with the commissioner and I personally felt that it was better to have an internal document that we were all going to look at prior to the meeting,” Rosa said.

She and Elia had decided that the policy was so important they would not post the document ahead of Monday’s meeting because she wanted the public to hear the board discuss it before trying to make sense of it on their own, Rosa added.

“There are times that you want to walk people through something and then let them react,” she said.

This is not the first time the Regents have passed policy as an “emergency” rule, which allows them to implement the policy before soliciting public comment.

But failing to disclose documents that were readily available before Monday’s meeting violates the state’s Open Meetings Law, said Bob Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government. If top officials had access to the document several days before the meeting, the law “clearly would be applicable,” he said.

In a statement, state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said officials consult with stakeholders as they develop policy proposals and that, in this instance, they had received input on the issue over the past two years. However, she added that the department had failed to post a notice of the proposal ahead of the Regents’ meeting “in error.”

“We are reviewing our processes and procedures to ensure this does not happen again,” she said.

After the meeting, I dashed off a first draft of the story and hurried to the Amtrak station to catch a train back to New York City. On the train, I was still making changes to the story — and making sense of a whirlwind day.

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.