SED gets behind national standards
New buzzword: ‘Unprecedented accountability’
On Board Online • Top Stories • April 27, 2009
By Marc Humbert, Senior Writer
and Brian Butry, Communications Coordinator
Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and State Education Commis-sioner Richard P. Mills would like to see New York snag some extra federal funding by getting behind a new push for national education standards.
Since Mills became commissioner about 14 years ago, New York has been viewed as a pacesetter on standards. But the federal stimulus package has dangled billions in front of states as an incentive to quickly create national standards.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been given discretion over a $5 billion “Race to the Top” fund. He will also influence how a big part of a two-year, $32.5 billion earmark for “state fiscal stabilization funds” will be distributed next year.
Duncan has said the idea behind the federal stimulus is not to supply money so states can plug budget gaps but to spur innovation. “If states play games with these funds, the second round of stabilization funds could be in jeopardy and they could eliminate their state from competitive grant money,” Duncan warned.
Race to the Top money would go to states “fundamentally willing to challenge the status quo,” according to Duncan.
New York’s response? “We’re willing to engage in that conversation,” Mills said during the April 20 Board of Regents meeting in Albany.
Data collection is a major focus of the stimulus package requirements, which will require local school boards to provide information in new formats.
Johanna Duncan-Poitier, Mills’ chief deputy at SED, told local school officials in a recent webcast that school districts will be expected to provide accurate information on how money is being used and on results achieved.
“You will hear the term ‘unprecedented accountability.’ You will hear it again and again,” she said.
States to form consortia
Mills and Tisch attended a recent meeting of 41 states designed to jumpstart the national standards movement. Organized by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, the meeting encouraged states to collaborate.
Mills and Tisch said they learned at the Chicago event that some states were looking to draft high school graduation standards by the summer and grade-by-grade standards by December.
While many details of the federal plan are hazy, a report that Mills submitted to the Regents said large grants will go to a few consortia of states. Each consortium would be committed to building – pay attention, now – state-developed national standards that are internationally benchmarked.
According to Tisch, who became Regents chancellor April 1, the initial push will be to develop national standards in English language arts and mathematics. With New York already in the process of revamping its learning standards, she said the idea was to develop “college-ready” standards for everyone and not to backtrack or lower standards.
Federal standards are the next wave in public education, and New York must catch it, said Mills, who retires June 30. “This is intended to raise the level of student performance,” he said. “If they want to do that, they have to back the best. We want to be part of that.”
Duncan, the former chief of the Chicago public schools, recently told the Chicago Tribune that his own home state of Illinois might not make the cut.
“Business as usual, to be clear, would basically eliminate Illinois from competition,” Duncan told the paper’s editorial board.
Regular reporting required
The stimulus program also requires regular reporting by school districts and states. That data will be made public.
In an April 22 memo to superintendents and school board presidents, Duncan-Poitier provided a list of ways districts can lawfully spend fiscal stabilization funds, such as retaining staff, improving data systems and improving results. The money is intended to save and create jobs, improve student achievement, ensure transparency and prompt wise investment. The memo noted that the money must not be used for reducing taxes, increasing fund balances, buying vehicles and several other uses.
In quarterly reports, districts and states will have to provide specifics on jobs saved and created with the federal funding, programs delivered, and tax increases averted.
In return for the federal money, states are required to maintain peak school funding levels reached in recent years.
There are strict rules on how federal funds can be used for supplanting or supplementing local money that is aimed at students with disabilities.
Teacher unions have made it clear that they will be closely monitoring whether school districts preserve or add jobs.
Teacher union leaders are also wary of the stimulus package requirement for development of sophisticated data systems designed, in part, to determine how individual students progress with individual teachers.
Obama, in a March 10 speech, said such systems could “tell us which students had which teachers so we can assess what’s working and what’s not.”
In New York, teacher unions have battled with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others over whether such data should be used in deciding which teachers get tenure.
States are also required as part of the stimulus package to provide detailed information on their school districts’ teacher evaluation systems.
In an April 1 letter to governors, Duncan spelled out what is expected.
“In exchange for this unprecedented funding boost, we are asking you to collect, publish, analyze, and act on some basic information about how our schools educate our children, evaluate our teachers, and measure our success,” he wrote.
Duncan said that to gain access to the more than $48 billion in federal stabilization funds governors can use to help balance their budgets, they must pledge in writing to:
- Improve teacher effectiveness and ensure that all schools have highly qualified teachers.
- Move toward making all students college- and career-ready by adopting tough standards and rigorous assessments.
- Improve achievement in low-performing schools by providing intensive support and effective interventions.
- Develop enhanced data systems that track student progress.
How the money is spent is going to be closely monitored. In addition to the federal government’s General Accounting Office and the State Education Depart-ment, the use of federal stimulus money is going to be getting attention from the state comptroller and the state inspector general.
“We must ensure that every dime counts because there won’t be other opportunities like this,” state Comp-troller Thomas DiNapoli told On Board.
“If the money is not used appropriately, it will be discovered and there will have to be serious consequences because we will have no choice,” said SED’s Duncan-Poitier.
Meanwhile, DiNapoli released an audit on April 9 examining the accuracy of dropout and graduation rate reports from 12 high schools across the state.
In four of the schools, dropout rates were understated by more than 5 percentage points, the auditors said. In two of the 12 schools, graduation rates were overstated by more than 5 percent.
The audit covered data provided by the schools for the 2005-06 school year. SED officials said they have implemented new controls that should improve such reporting.
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