Progress Is Name Of Game For Education Issues

Progress Is Name Of Game For Education Issues

Progress Is Name Of Game For Education Issues
June 2, 2014

As the school year winds down and concerns about the Common Core persist, there are other issues bubbling in the state Legislature that lawmakers are hoping to address. 

With the 2014 legislative session coming to a close this month, lawmakers are zeroing in on school funding, teacher certification and teacher evaluations. 

State Sen. John Flanagan, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said that lawmakers are still trying to fix the state’s controversial teacher evaluations. While Gov. Andrew Cuomo had fastidiously stood behind the evaluations, which are linked to students’ Common Core performance, in early April he said the state needed to improve the evaluations and that he would discuss them with lawmakers this session. Flanagan said Cuomo’s comments opened the door for serious negotiations, although there may not be any new legislation in the short-term. 

“This is a critical issue to so many different people,” Flanagan said. “The reason to me that it’s so important—and I’m not different than a lot of people— is, ultimately, what are we doing for students? I don’t care about the college-and career-ready language, but how are we making outcomes better for students? In order to do that, we need great teachers. We should be looking at this [as] how do we create, how do we mold, how do we retain experts?” 

The tests aspiring teachers have to pass in order to become certified are also a focus. 

In the final days of the season, edTPAs—the standardized assessment exams used to certify new teachers— have fallen under the microscope. At an Assembly Higher Education Committee hearing earlier this year, concerns were raised about the cost, validity and reliability of the assessments, and their potential high failure rate. 

A pair of bills to address these issues has been introduced in the Assembly, though Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, chair of the Higher Education Committee, said she is not sure if a bill will be advanced based upon the outcome of the hearing. The state Board of Regents responded by agreeing to allow students who fail that piece of the new certification requirements to take the existing certification exam. 

“I think there is some sense that the air has been taken out of the balloon because the Regents acted,” Glick said. “And I thought they took a good step, but it wasn’t a full step.” 

What might additional improvement entail, according to Glick? For one, not forcing students to pay to take an exam they have a higher chance of failing. 

“It is our humble opinion that the rollout of the edTPA was flawed,” Glick said, “and students this year should not be required to pay $300 for a test that they could not be adequately prepared for.” 

She added that many students have passed the newer assessments, but there are concerns about the way the company who developed the exams briefed professors and allowed them to assist students with addressing the new certification. Those misgivings are not dissimilar from some of the criticism leveled against the education giant Pearson for the way the company rolled out the Common Core. 

On the K–12 level, the implementation of the Common Core has continued to dominate the discussion, though there has been some forward movement. In the state budget, lawmakers approved provisions that will ban standardized tests in early grades, starting with prekindergarten. While the tests will continue to be administered in other grades, students will not be held back if they fail the Common Core exams, owing to a two-year moratorium by the Legislature on the high-stakes consequences of the tests, a measure advocates have been pushing for since the rollout of the standards. 

The budget deal did keep in place the use of the test scores as a metric for evaluating teachers, however. 

The compromises over the Common Core have allowed elected officials and advocates to focus some of their attention elsewhere. Among Flanagan’s priorities are so-called 853 and Special Act schools, which he said are sorely in need of additional funding. 

Private 853 schools provide day and/or residential programs for students with disabilities; Special Act schools are for students who reside in child-care institutions, and in some cases for students with disabilities if local public school districts recommend those students be placed in such institutions, according to the state Education Department. 

“These are schools that definitely need help, as do our 4410 schools, which are our preschools,” Flanagan said. “That’s going to be a critical issue. And that’s something that the average person doesn’t particularly know that well or understand, but these are kids who have unique challenges. These are kids who are sometimes one step between incarceration and being out in a school setting. It’s very important that we do what we can to help them.” 

With larger education debates like those over the Common Core, teacher evaluations and edTPAs, there has yet to be a quick, easy resolution. Even with roughly a month left, it is unlikely lawmakers will pass landmark legislation that will appease all parties. That does not mean legislators do not have benchmarks for where they would like to stand on the tangled issues by the end of June, however. 

“No matter what we do, something is going to shift, and we’ll have to adapt,” Flanagan said. “I want people—students, parents, educators, administrators and our taxpayers—to feel like we may not be there, but we’re getting there a lot better than we were before, and in a lot more efficient capacity.” 

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Matthew Hamilton