State and school district leaders along with industry experts gathered at City & State’s Education in New York Summit on Thursday to address issues concerning equitable access to education and student welfare since the coronavirus pandemic.
State Department of Education Commissioner Betty Rosa, also president of the University of the State of New York, brought light in her keynote speech at the event to the State’s Blue Ribbon Committee and the implementation of a P-20 approach to holistically address key education issues, while maintaining enough flexibility to serve diverse student needs.
Regarding standardization, Rosa noted, “We all know that not one size fits all. Although a lot of times there’s a push for standardizing issues, and there's a push to mandate. Unfortunately, just like different fingerprints, there are different ways of taking in information and learning that our school system has to prepare our students with various strategies and techniques and we must remember that these strategies and techniques must be evidence-based.”
Rosa also stressed the importance of prioritizing student safety, by creating supportive school environments that actively address bullying, and the social, emotional needs of children. As students experience a ‘re-entry’ into academic life, many still struggle with issues exacerbated by the pandemic, namely trauma and resource disparities. In addition to equipping districts with resources and evidence-based information, the commissioner urged experts to develop solutions that play to the various strengths of the student population:
“I think the key thing is to do it respectfully,” she told the crowd at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan. “And then to do it is really listening to each other, but relying on the research. We live on the evidence and having multiple ways of measuring the performance of our students. Let’s honor their talents and honor the possibilities. But more importantly, let's create investments.”
Panelists brought light to issues of reduced attendance, resource inequity and college and career readiness while emphasizing the importance of class size reduction in regards to higher quality education. State Sen. John Liu, chair of the committee on New York City education stressed, “Mental health in schools, counselors, school psychologists, after school programs, enrichment programs of all varieties – none of them should be pitted against another program. And the city of New York, through its public schools should continue to provide as much of that as possible even when the federal COVID relief funds dry up. But class size reduction is not a program. Class size reduction is the constitutional mandate.”
On serving the needs of students across diverse social strata, panelists pointed to disparities in equity and urged school districts to lead the way by initiating desegregation efforts and providing opportunities to students in need: from trade apprenticeships and internship opportunities to better equip students beyond high school.
During a Q&A with City & State Editor-in-Chief Ralph R. Ortega, Commissioner Rosa addressed the state's approach in assessing and addressing COVID-19 learning loss and defining student achievement since 2020.
“The good news was that we did have tremendous investments from the Feds this year. And many, many school districts and many superintendents, principals, teachers, communities, took it upon themselves to create opportunities,” Rosa said. “They did a lot of work around diagnostic and because we had a gap with the assessment as well, they were able to use other tools to figure out what happened during that period of time when the children were in remote, and even for those who were in the hybrid space, trying to really support them in terms of their own needs. And it wasn't just intuitively academic, but a lot of work has gone into the social emotional as far as getting kids back into school.”
In response to declines in New York students’ average reading levels, the commissioner pointed to the state’s diverse populations, notably its English Language learners to explain the recent drop in academic levels:
“You have to look at this data, and look at it beyond just a general comment. So you think about almost 3 million students across the board, and look at what that means in terms of our English language learners in this state, versus another place, our special education, students with special needs, it is massive to try to respond to many, many of the needs of socio-economics,” she said. “So part of what we're looking at is, again, with this equity issue, the resources: how do we localize those and how do we intentionally use those resources to support those communities and those students and those districts.”
Rosa also recognized the exacerbation of existing socio-economic disparities due to the pandemic, and the multi-faceted role of education leaders in attending to students' issues beyond academics. “It's a matter of how do we create opportunities to address, the health, the safety, the nutritional issues, but at the same time, also make sure that the quality of instruction, that the evidence of research that is needed for those teachers to have, along with the school leadership, present to support the growth of the students,” said Rosa.
Regarding the efforts of school districts and superintendents in receiving asylum-seekers, the commissioner followed with best ways to incorporate migrant students into schools.
“I first have to thank the fact that our state districts and many of the superintendents have been embracing and getting ready,” she said. “The interesting thing with this was just trying to get numbers, trying to really create coherence around a conversation on students arriving and getting that information and working on a day-to-day basis with the governor's office, the city. We have put together a plan so that […] we can prepare our school districts and try to make sure whatever resources we need to get there,” said Rosa, “because, understand, all of our children will be educated that arrive in our state.”