Mary Adams Comments for October 22, 2012 NY Education Reform Commission

Comments for October 22, 2012 NY Education Reform Commission
Mary Adams, RN, MPH
Rochester City School Board Commissioner
Parent of Children who attend RCSD School #10 (Walter Cooper Academy)


The request here is for testimony focused on actionable solutions. Much criticism has been articulated from parents and students, highly qualified scholars, public school teachers, as well as from other members of our communities who watch in anguish as our educational system fails. It would be helpful if members of the commission were interested in opening up a truly meaningful analysis of systemic historical and current institutional power structures that account for gross inequities and inadequacies that characterize our public education system today. To do so would lead to a set of approaches to fundamentally changing and improving public education in NY, particularly in our large cities, that would be very different from the path the governor and educational officials have undertaken.

Framing Solutions Against Current Approach

The current intensification of accountability schemes, “data-driven instruction,” and competition driven by invalid measures and misplaced priorities are harmful. They are based on a world view that is market-driven and, despite rhetoric about critical thinking and deep literacy, one dimensional. The idea that children and their teachers can be driven to “achieve” through crude incentives and punishments is antithetical to meaningful education and human development. The fact that the dominating form of education “reform” is being defined and implemented largely by elites who did not attend public schools and do not send their children to public schools — as recently editorialized about by Cheryl Scott Williams (1)– is telling. Our urban public schools are obviously being engineered by elites to largely produce workers to function in low wage service jobs or to be discarded into the informal economy or prisons. This is true even if many of our own school district leaders do not know or want to admit it. To really address urban crises would mean to instill both the intellectual power to restructure society and the vocational skills to build a new economy.

The Rochester City School Board is currently reviewing our administration’s response to a state mandated evaluation framework for a district comprehensive improvement plan. SED’s directives are complex and prescriptive. I am concerned that our district level educational leaders are forced to focus more on preparing documentation aligned with the state’s new “Diagnostic Tool for School and District Effectiveness” (DTSDE) than with addressing the fundamental practices and resource allocation that will improve learning conditions.

The process reminds me of sociologist C. Wright Mills’ concept of “abstracted empiricism.” The elevation of quantitative measurements over all other ways of knowing and understanding complex social phenomena results in the legitimation of invalid and inappropriate use of numeric indicators. It blinds us and/or removes from legitimate inquiry the complex realities of our pervasively failing urban education system.   It is inappropriate to operationalize learning into scores from watered down, shoddy standardized tests; of evaluations of teachers and administrators into invalid and unreliable composites of those same test scores; of district wide “social and emotional health” into numbers of student suspensions, arrests and “violent incidents”, and so on.

The contradictions of this approach are obvious. As our leaders are describing the dimensions along which the Rochester City School District will demonstrate improvement, we are aware of the disconnect between promises to improve “school culture” and the reality of ongoing crises inside many of our schools as we speak. As we deliberate, teachers are currently forced to administer pretests that are not generally helpful for student learning, and in many cases are error-ridden and totally inappropriate developmentally. Instead of serious planning for higher quality teaching and learning, including supports for all of our students and real mobilization of family and community resources, we are describing rubrics and looking for “efficiencies.”

I am aware that this Commission assumes austerity conditions.   I do not accept this assumption, and believe that in order to meet the human rights of our children we must collectively demand a fully resourced public education system in which commercial profits are explicitly forbidden. Privatization of public education and imposed austerity operate cyclically and synergistically in the interests of the super rich, with a concomitant spiraling downward in economic and social conditions for the majority of us. The federal Department of Education and NY State Education Department are currently acting as the agents of the very most elite members of our society. The war on public education and on the public generally has been accompanied by a dampening of democracy and local control of schools.   A truly effective public response will require mass political action from ordinary people focused on Albany and the federal government.

Insisting on Real Solutions – Finding Spaces to Educate

Working within the state’s framework for district improvement, how can local policies and approaches exert local control that will have meaningful impact for our students’ education?

What should policy makers here on the ground in Rochester do with dozens of “Statements of Practice” from the state while “the house is on fire”?  Clearly, if we view this current narrowed, prescriptive process of accountability as meeting our obligations and promise to ensure a high quality education for Rochester’s children, we are sorely lacking.

Curriculum and Pedagogy – Complex, Meaningful Learning and Assessments

The SED Diagnostic Tool does include in some of its “Statements of Practice” some language that sounds more appropriate to holistic education. But how serious are they?

“Statement of Practice 3.3” says “Teachers ensure that unit and lesson plans that are aligned to the CCLS coherent curriculum introduce complex materials that stimulate higher order thinking and build deep conceptual understanding around specific content.”

The repeated insistence on data-driven instruction, data-driven culture, etc overshadows references to higher level learning. The distorting pressures of high stakes standardized testing, intensified beyond reason in the current APPR context, risk negating the ability for teachers to expertly teach to their best abilities.

Actionable Solution: Identify, develop and replicate multidimensional assessments, such as student portfolios evaluated in the NY Consortium Performance Standards framework.[ ] The current APPR system, if it remains law, should be adjusted to incorporate evaluations of the most meaningful learning experiences students participate in, rather than relegate them as “extra” within the dominant standardized testing context.  

Actionable Solution: Repeal the new APPR law or make significant changes to it. The portion of the regulations requiring regular, required annual reviews, as well as the components that examine professional practice through observations of professional work are not overtly problematic. However the inclusion of aggregate student test scores in evaluating teacher effectiveness is not valid or reliable. (Darling-Hammond).

Curriculum and Pedagogy – Cultural and Historical Excellence

“Statement of Practice 4.4” states “Teachers create a safe environment that is culturally responsive, tailored to the strengths and needs of all students and leads to high levels of student engagement and inquiry.”

It is peculiar that the single reference to cultural responsiveness is linked to the creation of a “safe environment” by teachers. Cultural responsiveness and equity should be fundamental features of our entire curriculum and pedagogy.

The Rochester City School District is composed of majority students of color and yet we are being required to develop comprehensive academic improvement plans in a state framework that conspicuously and boldly excludes cultural equity and historical accuracy from the assessment tool which will be used to hold districts accountable for improvement.

Further, the state has, to date, selected curriculum plans and material for Common Core Learning Standards that are substandard. While all children  would  benefit from culturally grounded and historically accurate curricula, the omission of African centered curriculum and pedagogy in Rochester’s majority African American schools is particularly egregious.  High standards of cultural and academic excellence, focused particularly on addressing the needs of African American children, were articulated comprehensively in the 1980’s.  See [ ] The ideological backlash was fierce, and despite the undisputed quality of the “curriculum of inclusion” and its acceptance by then SED Commissioner Thomas Sobol, the promise of excellent cultural and academic curriculum and pedagogy for children of African descent was never realized in New York.

In fact, one of the prime advocates of the neoconservative rejection of inclusive curricula was, and is, E.D. Hirsch.  His work, “Core Knowledge” curriculum is posted by NYSED as recommended curricula for meeting K-2 common core learning standards.  This is the same type of curriculum that has failed our children for decades, and is damaging.  For example, high quality instruction accurately depicts ancient civilizations as starting with Black Africans, but the recommended K-2 Core Knowledge curriculum omits Africa from ancient history.  Eurocentric fairy tales introduced in kindergarten are centered in a portrayal of life as filled with violence, fear, and misogyny.   Fortunately, state posted curriculum modules are not mandatory – teachers can and should use more appropriate materials and approaches.  However the pressures this year to implement common core standards in the context of APPR evaluations are likely resulting in some teachers following the recommended texts to work with what they know is “state approved”, rather than reaching for excellence.

Actionable Solution: Teachers in Rochester City School District, as well as cabinet level leaders, should identify standards of cultural and academic excellence that exceed those implicit in the curriculum materials posted by NY SED.      Meaningful, in depth professional development will be necessary for teachers to disseminate culturally appropriate and historically accurate practices which will benefit all students, including RCSD’s majority, children of color. Guidance and demonstration from expert educators will be necessary. Local expertise should be tapped. [Goodwin and Schwartz] This solution, as with most meaningful ones, must be built from the practice and collegial interaction of classroom teachers rather than imposed through abstract language from the state about diversity or inclusion. 

Parents/Family – Rights and Responsibilities

SED “Statements of Practice” on parental and family involvement are oriented toward individualism and do not convey a recognition that parents should be the ultimate definers of standards for educating children. I believe this is consistent with an increasingly paternalistic overall view toward the families in urban school districts. For example, the emphasis on “extended learning time” for all students can convey a perspective that children are better off away from their homes and parents. The construct of “summer learning loss” describes the assumption that children lose knowledge when they spend time at home. But is it possible that the “loss” is due more to superficial teaching prompted by pressure to “teach to the test” the year before more than anything else? Was this learning really “lost” or was it actually never meaningfully found?

Actionable Solution: The Rochester Preschool Parent Program has demonstrated successful early childhood education for decades. A critical component is the Parent Group Leader role. This is a professional parent educator who facilitates groups of preschool parents to address areas of parenting concern, child development and to promote collaboration among parents of school aged children. Importantly, parents are encouraged to engage in individual and collective advocacy on behalf of their children, and to model responsible assertiveness for their children. The Parent Group Leader role should be included for all RCSD preschool programs, not only for RPPP; and it should be replicated in kindergarten so that parents are able to participate together for at least two consecutive years to build stronger advocacy skills and confidence that can develop through the duration of their child’s education.

School Communities and “Climate” or “Culture”

Some “Statements of Practice” cover elements absolutely central to education, but the formulations are such that the district seems invited to respond in similar abstractions without really examining current realities and potential solutions. To really respond would require major shifts in educational approach, and significant increased use of resources would be likely.

For example: “All school constituents are able to articulate how the school community is safe, conducive to learning, and fosters a sense of ownership that leads to greater student outcomes.”

As a parent, school board member and community member there is so much to unpack in this statement of practice, and there is so much distance between that ideal and the current realities in far too many of our schools.

First, if we are serious about having all school constituents “articulate” – in any meaningful way – ANYTHING at all we must first ask which school constituents are recognized as having a legitimate voice. There are schools in which basic mechanisms for voice are absent – no active student organization, no active parent organization, no fully constituted School Based Planning Team; schools where staff members are concerned about negative consequences for speaking out and in which there are few avenues for community members to participate in supportive activities. To begin to take this goal seriously, the district would need to seriously assist and encourage the establishment of free, sustained and meaningful expression.

Next, we would be required to get serious about how schools achieve safe and learning-conducive environments with shared ownership. We certainly have examples of schools that are safe and run well. Investing in the required intensity of support – through mentorship among school leaders, smaller schools, smaller class sizes, wrap around services that truly address the spectrum of student needs – is what is in question. If our district leaders are not investing effectively now, what specifically will we do differently for a different outcome? And when will we start? If we have answers to satisfy SED’s goal, it would be much better to implement right now rather than to write it down as a plan for next year! This is a continuing theme for me throughout the process – if our leaders know what the correct “answer” is, we should be implementing without delay.

Finally, it is not clear what the SED authors mean by “greater student outcomes” in this “statement of practice.” If they are talking about test scores and graduation rates, which they probably are, then I would argue that safe, shared learning environments are necessary but not sufficient for achieving those outcomes, nor for broader and more meaningful indicators of student learning.

In reality, the issues of “school climate” and how conducive each school’s community is for learning, did not need to be explained in this SED document. We know we are far from adequate in too many of our schools. Putting down on paper some statements in the abstract that “sound good,” does nothing to address overcrowding of students with complex needs; or the lack of resources for counseling support; or the unimaginative reliance on “zero tolerance” and formulaic “discipline” regimens; or the lack of attention to truly encouraging youth and family voices in establishing meaningful school communities.

Actionable Solution: Utilize examplar research on student-centered successes in building school communities. In Rochester, access the work of NEAD’s Freedom School and the Partners in Restorative Initiatives at Monroe HS. In general, review mbadams            Page 6            9/29/2015the work of Dr. Michelle Fine at CUNY. Ask students about their school climate or culture as a starting point for solutions.   (This is not, of course, intended to imply that students alone can fix problems of school “climate” – responsible adults who are widely respected are clearly essential.)


The NY State Department of Education has a legitimate role in regulating and supporting public education for all school aged children in the state. The methods and levels of support provided by New York State are inadequate and increasingly impede the ability of local school districts to implement high quality approaches to fundamentally improving education. Urban communities continue to suffer the consequences of inadequate educational opportunities. With support and meaningfully guidance, not the extortive imposition of corporate reform strategies, we would be better able to make urgently needed, real, reforms.