How do big donors influence education policy?

The Education Optimists blog is hosting interesting guest posts from researcher Robin Rogers on philanthro-policymaking.

Rogers writes about how the very wealthy can influence the direction of education with donations. In New York, a handful of millionaires recently saved the January Regents with a big donation, among other donations. She specifically discusses Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s large donation to New Jersey schools.

Rogers asks: Is this the rich saving our schools or using their dollar to experiment in education?

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State ed. official resigns after testing misfire

State Education Department Assistant Commissioner David Abrams resigned abruptly Tuesday, shortly after reports that the state pre-emptively released details on the spring math and English exams, according to the Daily News and The New York Times.

The state had to recall guidance documents on the tests, saying they were released before they were finalized. Educators also objected to some of the content, including a proposal for four hours of testing for elementary school students.

This wasn’t the first time this year that the state retracted information on the tests.


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School data quality report: NY has elements, needs action

When it comes to using data to inform school strategies and instruction, New York has much of the infrastructure in place, but needs more training and regulations.

For the last seven years, the Data Quality Campaign has surveyed states on ten elements the organization believes are essential for using data to improve education. In recent years, the campaign added 10 actions that states should take to assure the elements are used well, including professional development, governance structures and analytical reports.

The campaign is an alliance of 14 partners, including the national organizations representing teachers, school boards and school administrators.

The 2011 Data Quality Counts report found that most states have progressed in adopting the elements for data success. New York has adopted all 10 elements.

But the report calls for more actions by states. New York has taken just three of the ten suggested actions. No state has adopted all of the actions. Arkansas leads the nation in adopting 9 of 10 actions.

The state Board of Regents has been focusing on data as one of the pillars of its Race to the Top reforms. This year the state has been offering a number of professional development workshops on Common Core and the teacher and principal evaluations that include education on using data.

Commissioner John King told the Times Herald-Record this month that improving data availability and use is one of his top priorities.

More on New York’s status here.

Read the Data Quality Counts 2011 report

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Special education costs: What do researchers say?

I wrote in  my column this week about the balancing act with budget cuts between special education programs and the general education classroom.

Each Tuesday, I crash my computer by 3 p.m. by overloading my web browser with tabs on research, studies, blogs and news articles. Here, I’ll share some more of what I found.

The concern among special education advocates over funding is palpable. But, the issue is not just over cuts because of budget shortfalls – advocacy groups also are calling for reforms of the current system.

Research finds that special education costs are going up and there’s some evidence of improved graduation rates, according to this paper by the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

But, advocates are also saying that we can do better by implementing research-proven strategies. With budgets tightening everywhere, schools will need to do this with the restraints of current funding. One idea suggested to me by a reader today: Perhaps we could better train all teachers to address special education needs, since schools are increasingly putting students in inclusion classes.

There are more policy ideas in a report that looks at special education spending and student populations between 1996 and 2005. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute states it’s mission clearly, they “seek to help chart a different path, doing right by children with special needs while recognizing both that every youngster is special in some way and that the taxpayer’s pocket is not bottomless.”

Another good source for information was the Idea Money Watch site. Created to track the stimulus money meant to flow to special education programs, the site has blogs for every state that highlight special education stories and good summary data.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for parents and teachers, you can read about the Board of Regents actions on mandate relief for special education. And track their future agendas here.

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State flip-flopping on 2012 school tests – again

The State Education Department has flip-flopped at least twice now on the plan for this spring’s state 3-8 Math and English tests, sending out memos to administrators statewide – only to retract them.

On Monday, the state sent a memo to districts with changes and a guide to the testing program. Deputy Commissioner Ken Slenz wrote another email just two hours later retracting the previous memo, saying the department was still seeking field input prior to release. This came after some superintendents had already forwarded the guidance to staff in their district.

As the Daily News reported, educators in New York City objected to the initially released guide which includes four-hours of testing for elementary school students.  Spokesman Dennis Tompkins told the Daily News that the guides were posted in error and have not been approved.

This wasn’t State Ed.’s first fumble this year as it tries to implement deeper tests and link them to teacher evaluations. In August, State Ed. released the new testing schedule, which moved up test dates in order to get data in time for teacher evaluations.

Districts reacted strongly to the initial release, because the state chose a week when many were planning spring break. The state retracted that schedule.


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Will more effective teachers solve achievement gap?

With policy-makers calling for improvements to teacher quality as the panacea for schools, a new paper looks at the difference in teacher effectiveness between schools in poor and wealthy communities.

What did they find? Well, overall the difference in teacher quality wasn’t as drastic as others have made it out to be. In fact, schools in poor communities had some experienced teachers who were better than their counterparts in wealthier communities.

But, in poorer school communities teachers with the least experience were less effective than their experience equals in higher-wealth schools.

The paper makes a weak argument about the causes. It suggests that burn out and stress, or lack of staff support might be a bigger issue that teacher effectiveness. More work surely needs to be done in discovering the causes.

Nonetheless, the findings are interesting. The study suggests that instead of asking: How do we make teachers at low-income schools more effective?

We should be asking: How do we prepare and support newer teachers to better succeed amidst the challenges posed in a low-income district?

Read the full study here.



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Students to ed. commish: Redistribute school aid

Education Commissioner John King Jr. this week visited with students in the Genesee Valley Educational Partnership, who told him how school cuts are hurting their educational opportunities.

The exchange included King challenging the students to come up with solutions on how to avoid cuts in an economic recession. The students knew their stuff, according to this Livingston County News report by Sally Santora.

“The students were quick with their response. Distribute the wealth fairly to all schools in the state, they told him.

“It’s important for all students in the state to get a good education. Distribute the wealth; we’d have a far better education system,” said Gillard.

King, during the same visit, said he would advocate for greater equity, according to a Daily News story.

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Meet TED: Top teachers union offers districts evaluation system

On Wednesday, the New York State United Teachers announced the Teacher Evaluation and Development system, also known as “TED.”

TED is the result of several years of piloting a new model that both holds teachers accountable while helping them improve. The model was funded by an American Federation of Teachers grant.

The Marlboro school district participated in the pilot program, for which they received accolades – and a visit – from AFT’s own Randi Weingarten.

NYSUT is boosting their model as the only one developed with input and collaboration from administrators and teachers.

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Research: King’s call for large district consolidation produces least savings

The Times Union is reporting that education Commissioner John King Jr. Monday wants to see “larger districts in more densely populated, and wealthiest, parts of the state explore consolidation to save money.”

Municipalities and school districts have long explored the complex issue of consolidation. Locally, Warwick, Greenwood Lake and Tuxedo recently had talks that haven’t produced any results.

In Sullivan County, the rural school districts have been doing back-office consolidations: sharing a business administrator through BOCES and exploring other shared director-level slots.

While consolidation talks have long been targeted toward small districts, King specifically suggested consolidation for larger school districts, according to the TU.

But research has shown that the larger the district, the less the savings through consolidation, according to a 2001 study on New York schools  called “Does School Consolidation Cut Costs?”

William Duncombe of the Syracuse University Center for Policy Research found: “Overall, consolidation is likely to lower the costs of two 300-pupil districts by over 20 percent, to lower the costs of two 900-pupil districts by 7 to 9 percent, and to have little, if any, impact on the costs of two 1,500-pupil districts.”

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The uncertain future of special ed. diplomas

I’ve been following with interest the state education department’s slow but steady shift away from the IEP diploma.

IEP – or individualized education plan – diplomas are alternative pathways to graduation for students with disabilities.

Students who currently receive IEP diplomas don’t count toward a district’s graduation rate. And in 2013, state ed. wants to eliminate IEP diplomas entirely.

The plan, which is currently open for public comment, would create a new “Skills and Achievement Commencement Credential” for students with severe disabilities beginning in 2013-14.

The New York State United Teachers has its list of feedback for the state, including arguing that the state should keep IEP diplomas until the new alternative is in place.

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