NYSUT to rally at the Capitol today

With the state budget deadline of April 1 looming, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) will be gathering at the Capitol on Thursday to protest Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reform proposals.

Since Cuomo released his budget proposal in late January calling for significant changes to the teacher evaluation process, NYSUT has been on the offensive, launching numerous ad and social media campaigns.

On Wednesday, NYSUT president Karen Magee said the union would support a stakeholders panel that would vet Cuomo’s proposed changes to the teacher evaluation system. The State Assembly majority conference is currently debating establishing such a panel.

From Capitol Confidential:

“We’d be in favor of a panel … of stakeholders,” Magee said, adding that the panel would have to have no power over aid or the authority to put any changes to the evaluation system into effect.

Cuomo’s proposed plan that would change the evaluation process for teachers 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. A teacher who has two consecutive “ineffective” ratings would be removed from their teaching position.

NYSUT will also be protesting Cuomo’s withholding of state aid from schools until a budget deal is reached and high-stakes testing. Cuomo has tied $1.1 billion in education funding to the passage of his proposed reforms.

On Wednesday, Republican senators spoke out against Cuomo’s decision to withhold aid.

From the Buffalo News:

Sen. John J. Flanagan, R-East Northport, influential chairman of the Senate Education Committee, dismissed talk Wednesday that a decision on school aid will be delayed until June.

“I don’t envision any circumstance where we’d leave here without a school aid run and school aid numbers,” he said.

The NYSUT rally will be held at 4 p.m., Thursday on the “Million Dollar Staircase.”

 

POV: It’s time to restore funding for public schools

This Point of View was submitted by Matthew J. Downey, president of the Bethlehem Central School District Board of Education, and Charmaine L. Wijeyesinghe, Ed.D., Vice President.

Points_viewNow is the time of year when the New York State Legislature and Governor debate and formulate a state budget that includes funding for vital functions like our state’s public school system. This is also the time of year when Boards of Education in our State are formulating their district budgets for the 2015-16 school year. In Bethlehem, our budget development process is transparent, open and efficient, inviting community input. Like all school districts, our task involves evaluating state aid estimates, reviewing budget projections and determining the local tax levy necessary to support our educational program. This is a challenging task – with the provision of quality public education for the children of our community hanging in the balance. This year, the work of all school boards in New York State has been made even more difficult by the fact that we must put together our respective school district budgets without having the benefit of receiving key state aid figures that guide our budget development efforts.

The reason? This year, when the Executive Budget was proposed to the Legislature, it was instructed that state aid estimates be withheld from school districts, until policy changes proposed in the budget were enacted. Without aid runs, school districts are left guessing — about the amount of school aid that our school will receive, about what taxpayers might see on their tax bills in September, and about what a school district’s educational program might look like in the coming school year.

This withholding of state aid information comes on top of years of state budgets that eroded state education aid for all school districts – including Bethlehem. The loss of this state aid (through a mechanism called the Gap Elimination Adjustment, or GEA, and the freezing of state school aid through changes to Foundation Aid) caused upheaval for school budgets. In Bethlehem, the cuts caused an 18 percent reduction in teaching and administrative staff, the closure of an elementary school, the reconfiguration of bus transportation requiring students to walk longer distances, and other changes that resulted in fewer teachers and larger classes.

In the past six years, school districts statewide have lost nearly $9 billion in state aid. In Bethlehem alone, GEA losses have cost Bethlehem $18 million in state funding since 2010. This year, without the Legislature acting to get rid of the GEA, Bethlehem’s school funding will be cut by another $3 million.

In 2015, the state has a projected $5 billion surplus. With this positive budget environment, it’s time to stop the erosion of funding to our public schools by eliminating the GEA and the Foundation Aid cuts. On behalf of the thousands of school children in our school district, we ask our elected officials to stand up for public education and stand firmly in support of our public schools. Our students, parents, and community — as well as our educational program — depend on it.

Fiscal Policy Institute says NYS is responsible for failing schools

According to a report released by the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI) on Tuesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s funding proposal for schools does not do enough to adequately address the real needs of under-performing or “failing” schools in New York state.

A month ago, Gov. Cuomo released his report on failing schools, claiming that more than 109,000 students are currently enrolled 178 failing schools throughout New York. The FPI argues that the school districts that are home to these failing schools teach students who face many challenges, most alarmingly disproportionately high levels of poverty.

From the report:

  • They live in communities that are among the poorest in the state with the least resources to improve local schools. Three times as many school age children live in poverty in districts with priority schools than in other New York school districts.
  • Over three-fourths of the students in priority schools are eligible for the federal free or reduced price lunch program.
  • Many of these students are not proficient in English or are from minority families with disproportionately high levels of unemployment and poverty. More than 9 out of 10 students in these schools are minorities.

If the state wants to see a real change, the institute said it needs to increase K-12 school aid and funding for universal pre-kindergarten, improve services and aid to people in poverty and help boost the income of low-income New Yorkers so fewer children grow up in poverty.

“…The formula used to distribute additional aid will determine whether additional aid is directed to the students most in need. During the Great Recession, the state cut
school aid. Cuts were allocated to individual districts through a Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA). Some of that adjustment has been restored but the GEA still reduces Foundation Aid and other aid to schools by over $1 billion. The Executive Budget does not specify whether the proposed increase in school aid will be distributed by reducing the GEA or by using the Foundation Aid formula and the Assembly and Senate differ on the split in their proposals. The state should use the Foundation Aid formula to distribute increased school aid in order to direct more assistance to the districts with the highest needs.”

The report also attacks Cuomo’s plan of tying school funding to teacher evaluation and tenure.

“By focusing on teacher evaluation procedures, the Executive Budget fails to address the fact that high-need districts throughout the state are straining under inadequate funding. Proposals such as requiring teacher evaluations to be based on test scores and the promotion of charter schools fail to directly address the educational challenges faced by low-income students. Teachers cannot control the backgrounds of their students, and they cannot overcome the resulting disadvantages on their own. In addition to an adequate increase in aid, broad-based solutions that address the academic, social, and health needs of students and engage the local community are needed.”

Pearson monitoring student’s social media accounts during PARCC testing

According to the superintendent of the Watchung Hills Regional High School District in New Jersey, Pearson, the world’s largest education company, has been monitoring student’s social media accounts for possible leaks about PARCC test questions.

Click here to read more.

POV: At the expense of a child

This Point of View – a poem –  was submitted by Jade Vangorder, a fourth grade teacher at Harry Hoag Elementary in the Fort Plain Central School District.

Points_viewHow can our leaders support high-stakes tests,
That supposedly measure a teacher’s success?
Ignoring innocent little minds that naturally run wild,
His satisfaction comes at the expense of a child.

Project-based, meaningful, hands-on learning is fun,
Those amazing experiences should be number one.
Yet test data will determine the score that is filed,
As his wishes are fulfilled, at the expense of a child.

My heart hurts to see our youngsters in distress,
But I feel the pressure, I must confess.
Our kids’ levels of anxiety are far from mild,
We can’t let this happen, at the expense of a child.

So moving forward, let’s do our best,
To try and ignore the high stakes of these tests.
Let’s continue to encourage inquiry and deep thought,
So the children flourish from what we have taught.

Cuomo is playing a game that isn’t right,
If we sit back and do nothing, he will win this fight!
A note to our legislators, or their numbers dialed,
We need to speak up, to save a child!!

No more political gain at the EXPENSE OF A CHILD!!

SFOS: High school student conducts groundbreaking Alzheimer’s research, wins Intel STS award

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Intel Science Talent Research competition semifinalist Muhammad Ali & Shaker High School Science teacher Nathaniel Covert.

Stories_schoolsAlzheimer’s is a disease that accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases, but has no cure. Shaker High School senior, Muhammad Ali, is trying to change that.

For three years he has conducted research focused on stopping the disease early on. Ali explains that a person may be 60 years old and have molecular malfunctions going on in their brain, but symptoms such as memory loss may not appear until ten years later.

“I’ve employed drug companies with information that is really crucial,” Ali said. “Currently there are no effective drugs out there. Companies have tried to attack the symptoms but its proven ineffective. I am interested in a new branch of Alzheimer’s drug research, looking to modify the disease at its core and at its basic pathology, stopping it ten years before any symptoms occur.”

Ali conducted his research with the guide of an elective course at Shaker High School, called “Science Research,” advised by science teacher Nathaniel Covert. In addition, he was mentored by RPI Professor Dr. Chunyu Wang and UAlbany Professor Dr. Igor Lednev.

Ali explained that plaques or conglomerates of proteins are known to cause Alzheimer’s when they accumulate and asphyxiate themselves around neurons in the brain, thus preventing neuronal transmission. A single protein, called Amyloid Beta, made up of 40 amino acids, is the major constituent of these plaques, which end up causing Alzheimer’s disease.

“This protein in and of itself, basically causes Alzheimer’s,” he said.

Through continued research, Ali found that a single change in the 40 residues of Amyloid Beta completely changes its functional role, by preventing it from asphyxiating around neurons.

“It goes from a disease causing protein to a disease preventing protein,” he said. “This has a lot of potential in future therapeutic drugs, because you can basically employ this model, apply it to a drug, target a specific region, and make it stronger to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.”

In addition to Ali’s ground breaking work about the protein, he also created a new protocol for the synthetic fabrication of the protein. Previously, labs around the world that wished to study this protein paid around $900 a milligram to obtain samples. Ali has found a way to fabricate the same protein for just $80 per milligram using a technology called Recombinant DNA Technology. Ali reprogrammed bacterial DNA to force bacteria to make the protein for him.

“Research labs in the area are already using his new protocol and he expects many more labs around the country and possibly internationally will adopt his protocol as well,” Shaker Science Department Supervisor Keith Bogert said.

Ali submitted his work to the prestigious Intel Science Talent Research competition. Students are selected based upon their scientific research and also on their overall potential as future leaders of the scientific community. Ali was one of 300 semifinalists, competing against 1,800 students nationwide. He and Shaker High School have been awarded $1,000 each.

“He’s the hardest working student we’ve ever had,” science teacher Nathaniel Covert said.

“The course is really not designed to do the research, the course is designed to coach kids while they do the research,” Bogert added . “The students have research that is extremely far reaching and many of them will ride their research right to and through college. Mr. Covert has done an exceptional job on coaching these kids and trying to get them to do real, genuine scientific research.”

Ali plans to major in biochemistry in the fall, with the goal of becoming a research scientist or physician scientist.

For more information on the Intel Science Talent Research competition, click here.

This story was submitted by Taryn Kane, public information specialist for the North Colonie Central School District.

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

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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 first-hand 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 (GEA), which takes money away from schools to help balance the state budget, has cost Capital Region schools approximately $445 million in promised state aid since its inception. 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.