POV: “Let me learn – and enjoy the process”

Today’s “Point of View” was submitted by William Schmidt, a student from Schalmont High School. It is the transcript of his remarks given at the “Save Our Schools” advocacy event that took place at South Colonie High School on February 26, 2015.

Points_viewTonight, I’ve been asked to speak of my experience with the changes in testing policies in my school and in New York state, but first, I’d like to briefly introduce myself. My name is Billy Schmitt and I enjoy school. For me, education helps feed my love of learning and intellectual curiosity for the world. I relish the insights on humanity, science, and history that occur as we discuss sociology, human biology, and politics. I’m not the only one who has noticed the value and excitement of discussion and learning- I have several peers who commented on how thrilling and enjoyable a past class dialogue on social inequality was. However, this environment is increasingly being threatened by the number of tests I take and believe me, I’ve never heard “enjoyable” and “test” in the same sentence.

I’d like to highlight the evolution of testing I’ve seen in my school. When I began high school as a 9th grader in 2011, there were only two major assessments to take for each class: the midterm and final exam. Let’s look at a theoretical freshman entering high school today. If he’s lucky, he has six, maybe seven classes. Over the course of one year, he must take a pre-test, a mid-term, a post-test, and a local assessment or final exam. That’s approximately four major exams per class, over 20 tests in total, all of which, except the pretests, weigh significantly into his grade. Keep in mind this doesn’t include the smaller tests, quizzes, papers, and projects to check his learning on plate tectonics, polynomials, or Ancient China that are taken several times throughout the year. Clearly, tests dominate education.

What is the purpose of tests? To gauge how much students have learned? If this is the case, then how we can learn when we are drowning in a flood of assessments? When an English pre-test takes two days to administer, that’s two less days I have to learn the intricacies of how to craft a strong argument or to understand how to properly format a formal research paper- skills I’ll clearly need later in college and my career. Remember, those two days lost are the result of just one test out of the dozens that will have to be taken throughout the year.

Furthermore, the pre-test in particular seems superfluous. Why must I take a test to understand what I don’t know? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to take that time to learn that information I don’t know? In addition, it’s a rare case that a student takes the pre-test seriously. We know the pre-test doesn’t factor into our grade. We know that we don’t know anything about chemistry, so we fill in all the A’s on our Scantron. Basically, we get a day to make sure we color within the lines of the bubble marked “A”.

Yet, the pretest isn’t the only test that detracts from my education. At the end of the year, we spend many days in review for the post-test and final we must take- tests that not always, but sometimes look very similar. Some of this study time, while imperative to make sure we get good grades, could otherwise be used to further our learning and to hone our college and career readiness skills. I don’t blame my teachers – I’d want to spend as much time as I could reviewing if it determined my future. As a student, I’m thankful for these days of review because I also want a good grade, but think for a minute of the lessons that could be taught and learned in that time.

I’m asking here today for lawmakers and educators to work together to take another look at these testing policies so that I can experience more epiphanies that come from a fruitful class discussion, so that I can learn the mathematical formulas, psychological theories, and writing techniques that will help me navigate college and the workforce. Please, let me learn – and enjoy the process – instead of stressing over the tests I must take.

POV: “Enough is enough!”

Points_viewToday’s “Point of View” comes to us from Jessica Melchior, a third grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary School in the Schalmont Central School District. It is the transcript of her remarks given at the “Save Our Schools” advocacy event that took place at South Colonie High School on February 26, 2015.

I am not against Common Core.  I am not against APPR.  I am not against assessments.  These reforms can inform teaching in a professional learning community to meet the needs of all learners.  As a veteran, national board certified teacher I have seen these ideas evolve and grow.  I see their ability to reform education, not by tearing it down but by fostering it.

However, the governor has hijacked these ideas, these crucial aspects of the educational community. On our quest to race from here to there, to compete with other countries, to vilify the people who spend their days in service of others; we have failed to reap the rewards of these ideas.  We have digressed into partisan bickering about common core, turned APPR into a witch hunt and lost sight of the real purpose of assessment in a professional learning community.  As the self-proclaimed lobbyist for the students, Governor Cuomo has missed the mark.  The governor consistently fails to recognize what is truly important in our classrooms… and in our lives.

Last spring I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  It was on March 27th, only a couple of weeks before my 3rd Graders would be taking their first New York State assessment. I went from one day focusing on my students to the next wondering whether I would ever get to return to a classroom again.  I had taught and they had practiced basic test taking strategies, I had helped them see themselves as readers, modeled how to write extended responses and we had shared a variety of mathematical strategies to solve problems. I used yoga and visualization to help students cope with test anxiety.  But in the end, I couldn’t be there for them when they faced a test that was leaps and bounds more challenging than any practice they had taken or any experience they had ever had in a classroom.  I wasn’t there for them when they reached frustration points within the first few minutes of the test or when they put their heads down to cry because there was no way they could finish in time.

Why would we put our students through these assessments?  In the past I believe the state tests have improved education by driving us to increase rigor in our curriculum and standards.  I’ve taught valuable strategies for test taking and for coping with stress.   We celebrate successes and learn from mistakes.  And it makes sense to link the assessments with Common Core.  But that is not the full picture; these assessments represent a rigor that is above even our increased grade level common core standards.  The assessments are built upon standards that begin in Pre-K and increase in complexity.  However, students had to start with whatever grade they were in when the new tests were implemented. Meanwhile, the test-maker, Pearson, is being left unchecked; the Governor has re-negged on promises to parents and teachers; and teachers have become scapegoats for poor results.  The Governor proposes an equation that makes no mathematical sense; requiring that test scores account for 50% of a teacher’s performance grade but then adding the caveat that poor test scores automatically means a rating of “ineffective”.  Cuomo and Commissioner King have brought nothing but stress and heartache to the educational community, with the exception of Pearson executives and privatized schools.  Commissioner King decreed that there should be no “trick questions” yet he allowed for multiple choice questions with 16 lines of text for students to read.  They use literature by authors like Daniel Pinkwater which were never intended for multiple choice questions or essays.  They selected texts deliberately above students’ grade levels for a test that is supposed to measure grade level achievement. They wrote multiple step problems to assess a single math standard even though solving the problem would require understanding of several standards.  They graded teachers, principals and schools based on tests and cut scores that can change on a political or corporate whim.  The scores of these assessments are not even shared with teachers until the following year, and even then the data we receive is so limited that it cannot even be used to adjust instruction. This process is anything but transparent!

I am not only a teacher, but also a parent of two boys; a 3rd Grader and a Kindergartner.  My 3rd Grader uses Common Core Math Strategies naturally and is an avid reader but I wonder what he will do when the questions become too confusing and the texts become too challenging.  Will we be testing his true ability or how much of this he will put up with before he shuts down?  I wonder how many tests my Kindergartner will take before he gets to 3rd Grade.   If the purpose of all these SLOs and state tests are truly to inform his teacher’s instruction or to individualize his needs; that is fine by me.  If the purpose is to assess his teachers, at his expense, without any benefit to his learning than it has no place in the classroom or our educational system.  All kids need to learn, but these tests are becoming a distraction.

When I returned to my classroom after 10 months of doctor appointments, second opinions, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments I faced a new class of 3rd Graders.  They had built a classroom community without me and I needed to find my place in it.  No amount of common core, APPR or state tests could get in our way.  We needed to work together.  I would love to invite Governor Cuomo and our legislators into my classroom to see the community we have made and to see real learning taking place.  You won’t see my students filling in bubbles on a scantron.  You will see authentic tasks that imbed learning; you will see teachable moments and you will see cooperative learning.

I am a human being.  Our children are humans.  We all deserve better than this.  Let’s use assessment how it was meant to be used; as a formative or summative tool in a professional learning community.  Let’s judge teachers on things that matter.  Let’s not take common core out of context for a political agenda. Let’s not forget, Governor, teachers are human beings and their students are too.  Enough is enough!

Hundreds pack Colonie High for ‘Save Our Schools’ advocacy event


Watervliet City Schools superintendent Dr. Lori Caplan address local legislators.

Stakeholders from school districts around the Capital Region converged Thursday night at Colonie Central High School to continue an annual call to action on the fiscal crisis facing public schools.

Local legislators from around the region were in attendance and given prime seating – on the stage – providing them the opportunity to hear firsthand from area educators, students, parents and board members how a lack of funding, unfair assessments and performance evaluations are crippling public education.

According to organizers, the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which takes money away from schools to help balance the state budget, has cost Capital Region schools approximately $445 million in promised state aid. This loss in aid has forced many districts to lay off teachers and staff, and cut educational program offerings to students.

“Governor Cuomo said that teachers wouldn’t be impacted. Tell that to the 30,000 teachers that have been let go,” Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville Central School District teacher Laura Bellinger said.

District leaders directed their frustration at the inequitable distribution of aid and pleaded with local legislators to correct the problem.

“I’m not asking for someone else’s piece of the pie,” Watervliet City Schools superintendent Lori Caplan said. “I just want fair and equitable distribution.”

“We have to change the funding formula and make it fair to all districts,” Assemblyman James Tedisco said. “This is not a one-size-fits-all system.”

The teachers who spoke urged the legislators to use a common sense approach when it comes to student assessments and teacher evaluations.

The Governor’s budget proposal outlined a plan that would change the evaluation process so that 50 percent of scores are based on state exams and the other 50 percent on observations. Teachers would have to be rated highly effective or effective in both areas to receive an overall rating of highly effective or effective, and that this process would eliminate much of the local testing taking place in school districts under the existing evaluation process.

“We all deserve better than this,” Schalmont teacher Jessica Melchior said. “Let’s use assessment how it was meant to be used; as a formative or summative tool in a professional learning community. Let’s judge teachers on things that matter.  Let’s not take Common Core out of context for a political agenda.”

Students in attendance also spoke out on testing, questioning the importance of pre-tests, which are given before any subject matter is taught in a given area, to judge how much a student knows.

“It’s a rare case that a student takes the pre-test seriously,” Schalmont student Bill Schmidt said. “We know the pre-test doesn’t factor into our grade. We know that we don’t know anything about chemistry, so we fill in all the A bubbles on our scantron. Basically, we get a day to make sure we color within the lines of the bubble marked ‘A’.”  

The legislators in attendance urged those in attendance to stay vocal and keep the pressure on the governor in order to get the change they want.

“Keep your voices strong,” Assemblyman John McDonald said. “Stay strong. We’re going to get this done.”

Cuomo releases failing schools report

More than 109,000 students are currently enrolled in New York’s 178 failing schools, according to a report released by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office this morning.

The timing of the report coincides with Cuomo’s proposal to implement a Massachusetts-style program that would permit the overhaul of failing schools. The proposal would allow a nonprofit, turnaround expert or another district to take over a school after three years of poor results. This entity would be charged with overhauling the curriculum, terminating underperforming staff and recruiting high-performing educators.

A school is considered “failing” based on being among the bottom five percent in the state in ELA and math performance or having graduation rates below 60 percent. Of the 178 schools on the list, 77 have been failing for a decade. More than 250,000 students have passed through these 77 schools in the past ten years.

“This is the real scandal in Albany, the alarming fact that state government has stood by and done nothing as generation after generation of students have passed through failing schools,” Cuomo said in a statement. “This report underscores the severity and shocking nature of this problem. The time is now for the State Legislature to act and do something about this problem so we no longer are condemning our children to failing schools.”

While Cuomo was releasing his report, calling on state leaders to act in response to his failing schools announcement, many lawmakers were at the state Capitol, calling on Cuomo to be more transparent with the budget and release aid figures to school districts.


‘Save Our Schools’ advocacy event tonight

Tonight, Colonie Central High School will once again host stakeholders from dozens of Capital Region area school districts in what has become an annual regional call to action on the fiscal crisis facing public schools.

The event, entitled: “Save Our Schools: Quality Opportunities for Public School Children” will bring students, parents, teachers, taxpayers and school leaders together to talk about how the educational fiscal crisis has affected programs and opportunities that are important to them and their neighbors. View the agenda for the event.

The event will begin at 7 p.m. in the Mark Cornell Auditorium at Colonie Central High School, 1 Raider Blvd., Albany, NY.

Ed Speaks will be there covering the event. Follow along with us on Twitter throughout the night, @edspeaksNY #saveourNYschools.

Leading education groups call for Tax Cap changes

The New York State Educational Conference Board (ECB) has outlined a series of recommendations that would fix some of the most damaging elements of the state’s Property Tax Cap for schools.

The ECB paper released on Wednesday explains that schools have always sought a balance between a budget that meets the needs of students and addresses the concerns of taxpayers, but the tax cap signed into law in 2011 has created some fundamental challenges with the school budgeting process.

The 11 recommendations in the paper fall into two categories: (1) changes to the policy framework that supports the tax cap and (2) technical corrections that adjust for shortcomings that are now evident based on three years of practical experience with the cap.

The framework of New York’s tax cap is uniquely restrictive for school districts. The ECB recommendations call for redesigning of the voter approval mechanism for districts seeking to override the cap, which currently requires a 60 percent supermajority. ECB also calls for the harmful zero percent contingency budget cap to be to be adjusted. Neither of these tax cap provisions, the 60 percent voter supermajority or the zero percent contingent cap, applies to the state’s towns, cities, villages, and counties.

The paper also cites tax caps models that are at work in Massachusetts and New Jersey that do not contain the restrictive elements of New York’s cap for schools.

A second group of recommendations in the paper would address technical problems with the tax cap calculation itself. They relate to items such as improving how the formula accounts for payments-in-lieu of taxes (PILOTs), BOCES capital costs, transfers to a Capital Reserve Fund, and the carryover provision.

The paper points out that the challenges introduced by the cap have only been exacerbated by the state aid losses of recent years.

Click here to read paper [PDF]

The Educational Conference Board is comprised of the state’s seven leading educational organizations representing parents, classroom teachers, school-related professionals, school business officials, building administrators, superintendents and school boards. Its members are: the Conference of Big 5 School Districts; NYS Association of School Business Officials; NYS Council of School Superintendents; New York State PTA; NYS School Boards Association; New York State United Teachers and the School Administrators Association of NYS.

POV: Is end of GEA near? Could be, if we act now!

This Point of View was submitted by Dr. Lori Caplan, superintendent of the Watervliet City School District.

Points_viewThe Legislature has a real opportunity this year to fully end the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), a measure initiated by the state that has diverted more than $9 billion in aid from schools across New York since it was first introduced in 2010.

Since that time, the GEA has essentially siphoned more than $4 million in aid from our school district—leaving us with significant budget deficits to overcome, but more importantly, cheating our students of the educational opportunities they deserve.

Both of our elected state representatives are on board with recently proposed bi-partisan legislation (Assembly bill A.2271 and Senate bill S.2743) that, if approved by both houses, would bring about a permanent end to the GEA. I commend Assemblyman John McDonald and Senator Neil Breslin for taking action and co-sponsoring this important legislation and have written letters to both encouraging them to continue fighting the good fight for our schools and for public education, in general.

Now I am asking the community to keep this momentum to end the GEA moving forward. Please send a letter, an email or even call Assemblyman McDonald and Senator Breslin and urge them to continue working diligently for the passage of Assembly bill A.2271 and Senate bill S.2743 during the 2015 Legislative Session. Their contact information can be found here.

The more legislators hear from us – their constituents – the better the chances they will make the GEA a priority issue this legislative session!

From ending the GEA to beginning the school budget process

This is typically the time of year when we begin in earnest to crunch the numbers and develop a school budget proposal to present for a public vote in May. Only this year, for the first time that anyone in education can recall, district leaders and boards of education are beginning this important process without having all the necessary numbers.

Historically, the state issues what are known as “state aid runs” or projections for the amount of state funding that school districts should reasonably expect to receive. The aid runs are traditionally provided soon after the governor presents his Executive Budget proposal in January. In an unprecedented move, however, the state’s Division of Budget announced that it will not release aid projections until the Legislature passes the education reform agenda outlined in the governor’s budget presentation. This unfairly places school districts in the cross hairs of a political power struggle and further complicates the already challenging process of developing a balanced and responsible budget.

Not only does withholding this critical information create an impediment to crafting a sound fiscal plan, but it is also a disservice to our communities as it hinders the open communication and transparency that needs to occur throughout the budget development process.

WHS student to speak at regional forum on public education

Finally, I encourage teachers, staff members, parents, students and community members—anyone invested in the future of public education—to attend the upcoming regional forum “SAVE OUR SCHOOLS: Quality Opportunities for Public School Children” on Thursday, Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. at Colonie Central High School.

View a copy of the Feb. 26 event agenda.

I have been asked to discuss school funding at this event and Watervliet High School senior Theresa DeChiaro also has been invited to serve as a panelist speaking on behalf of public school students about the undeniable effects inequitable and inadequate state funding have made on educational opportunities in our schools.

I am extremely proud of Theresa for serving on this panel and being a voice for students here and throughout the Capital Region, and I look forward to having Watervliet community members attend the forum and help support our message.

Dr. Lori Caplan is the superintendent of the Watervliet City School District. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Adelphi University and her master’s from The College of Saint Rose. In 2010, she received her doctorate in educational leadership from Sage College and was appointed the Watervliet Superintendent of Schools in January 2012. You can read more from Dr. Caplan by visiting her blog.

Siena poll: More parental involvement, more time for tenure, voters side with teachers over Cuomo

A Siena poll released Tuesday morning shows that voters think that lack of parental involvement is the main reason why not enough high school students graduate college or are career ready.

The poll also indicates that 48 percent of voters generally side with the teachers’ union on educational issues, while 36 percent side with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

A plurality, 37 percent, says that not enough parental involvement is the single biggest reason that not enough high schoolers graduate college or career ready, followed by 18 percent who say it’s insufficient education funding, 17 percent point to the effects of poverty, 12 percent say ineffective state education oversight, and only 10 percent blame the quality of New York’s teachers. By an overwhelming 62-29 percent, voters say teachers should be eligible for tenure after five years, as Cuomo has proposed, rather than the current three years.

“A plurality of voters from every party and region says the level of parental involvement is the single largest problem facing schools today, more so than education funding, poverty, oversight, or teacher quality,” Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg said. “Downstate suburban and upstate voters think their local public schools do at least a good job of preparing students, however, New York City voters disagree more than two-to-one. A majority of all voters, including two-thirds from New York City, says that schools statewide are doing only a fair or poor job of preparing students.

“In the ongoing war of words between Cuomo and the teachers’ unions over a broad array of education issues, a plurality of voters sides with the unions, including a majority of Democrats and upstaters and a plurality of Republicans and downstate suburbanites. Independents and New York City voters are closely divided. Men and voters in non-union households are also closely divided, while women and voters in union households more strongly side with the teachers’ unions,” Greenberg said.

South Colonie to host regional advocacy event Feb. 26

Colonie Central High School will once again host stakeholders from dozens of Capital Region area school districts in what has become an annual regional call to action on the fiscal crisis facing public schools.

The event, entitled: “Save Our Schools: Quality Opportunities for Public School Children” promises to again bring students, parents, teachers, taxpayers and school leaders together to talk about what is at stake if state leaders do not reverse course and adequately fund schools. The event will also address the need to maintain local control of public schools and share information in regard to appropriate testing designed to evaluate and support student growth. View the agenda for the event.

“Save Our Schools” will feature the voices of parents and education leaders from throughout the Capital Region describing how the crisis has affected programs and opportunities that are important to them and their neighbors.

The event will be held on Thursday, Feb. 26, at 7 p.m., in the Mark Cornell Auditorium at Colonie Central High School, 1 Raider Blvd., Albany, NY.