Michael Hynes is Superintendent of the Patochogue-Medford public schools on Long Island in New York state.
As an educator, I have no use for the U.S. Department of Education.
The fact is, as parents and educators begin to understand the infinite failures of federal initiatives such as No Child Left Behind, the carrot-on-a-stick incentive on steroids called Race to the Top and the soon-to-be-passed version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act — this bloated department of non-educators has wasted tax dollars and ruined millions of children’s lives over the past four decades.
It is an experiment gone awry and it’s time for the U.S. Department of Education to go.
It’s as simple as that.
Now that our new acting secretary of education will be John King — the man who oversaw New York State’s disastrous rollout of the Common Core State Standards…
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Out of the Crisis: Where’s the New Commissioner of Education in New York?
by Michael Hynes, Ed.D.
Public education in New York State has a serious crisis on its hands. Has there ever been a time when the schools in our great state have been devoid of leadership at the three highest levels: Governor, Chancellor and Commissioner? To this date we do not have a Commissioner of Education. The Governor and the Chancellor (neither of them are educators) are making significant decisions without a sitting Commissioner of Education present. How is this possible? How come nobody else is shouting from the rooftops that this is not in the best interest of our children? Does anyone else wonder who the next Commissioner will be? What does the candidate pool look like?
The truth is, I’m still trying to come to grips with Governor Cuomo stating we shouldn’t be worried about the Common Core assessments in ELA and Math, “Because the tests are meaningless and won’t count against your children.” That statement alone should make people scratch their head and wonder what Mr. Cuomo is thinking. This is a slap in the face to our students, our parents and our educators. According to our Governor, our students shouldn’t waste time taking the tests and teachers shouldn’t waste their time teaching the material. I find it amazing that our parents already knew what the Governor meant, that’s why so many parents opted their children out of the state assessments.
Merryl Tisch, the Chancellor for the New York State Education Department offered a delay for teacher evaluations for a year in some districts, on a case-by-case basis, or to exempt high-performing districts. This is what the State Education Department calls leadership? What would the new Commissioner say? What do the other Regents think? We have little to no communication, and when school districts do receive any information…it’s in a memorandum full of directives that offer very few answers. For the Chancellor to not offer solutions regarding how poorly the tests are constructed, how assessments are used against teachers and most important; how often our students are tested is where I have lost faith in this leadership black hole, or as I see it, The New York State Bermuda Triangle.
As Diane Ravitch stated, “I think it is accurate to say that the leaders and decision-makers in Albany, including the Governor, his staff, most of the Regents, and those at the top of the State Education Department are wedded to an agenda that confuses test scores with education. There is also, at the highest level, an inexplicable contempt for the work of teachers and principals. And your children suffer for their ill-conceived policies.” That says it all. As Winston Churchill said many years ago, “Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it.” It is time someone in SED stepped forward and rise against this gale force sweeping across New York. The optimist in me hopes our new Commissioner will rise against the wind, but I won’t hold my breath. As W. Edwards Deming stated in his book Out of the Crisis, “Measures of productivity do not lead to improvement in productivity”. I pray that our new Commissioner believes this as well. The realist in me will just have to hope for a new Chancellor in the very near future.
Everyone in American education hears the relentless and consistent criticism of our schools: Compared to schools in other nations, we come up short. But the evidence on which that judgment rests is narrow and very thin.
A January study released by the Horace Mann League and the National Superintendents Roundtable, School Performance in Context: The Iceberg Effect, challenges the practice of ranking nations by educational test scores and questions conventional wisdom that the U.S.educational system has fallen badly behind school systems abroad.
The study compared six dimensions related to student performance—equity, social stress, support for families, support for schools, student outcomes, and system outcomes—in the G-7 nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States) plus Finland and China. They then examined 24 “indicators” within those dimensions.
Of the nine nations, the United States remains the wealthiest with the most highly educated workforce, based on the number of years of school completed, and the proportion of adults with high school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees.
“Many policymakers and business leaders fret that America has fallen behind Europe and China, but our research does not bear that out,” said James Harvey, executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable.
Despite high educational levels, the United States also reflects high levels of economic inequity and social stress compared to the other nations. All are related to student performance. For example, in American public schools today, the rate of childhood poverty is five times greater than it is in Finland. Rates of violent death are 13 times greater than the average for the other nations, with children in some communities reporting they have witnessed shootings, knifings, and beatings as “ordinary, everyday events.”
Some key findings:
- Economic Equity: The United States and China demonstrate the greatest gaps between rich and poor. The U.S. also contends with remarkably high rates of income inequality and childhood poverty.
- Social Stress: The U.S. reported the highest rates of violent death and teen pregnancy, and came in second for death rates from drug abuse. The U.S.is also one of the most diverse nations with many immigrant students, suggesting English may not be their first language.
- Support for Families: The U.S. performed in the lowest third on public spending for services that benefit children and families, including preschool.
- Support for Schools: Americans seem willing to invest in education: The U.S. leads the nine-nation group in spending per student, but the national estimates may not be truly comparable. U.S. teachers spend about 40 percent more time in the classroom than their peers in the comparison countries.
- Student Outcomes: Performance in American elementary schools is promising, while middle school performance can be improved. U.S. students excel in 4th grade reading and high school graduation rates, but perform less well in reading at age 15. There are no current studies comparing the performance of high school graduates across countries. All nations demonstrate an achievement gap based on students’ family income and socio-economic status.
- System Outcomes: The U.S. leads these nations in educational levels of its adult workforce. Measures included years of schooling completed and the proportion of adults with high-school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees. American students also make up 25 percent of the world’s top students in science at age 15, followed by Japan at 13 percent.
“Too often, we narrow our focus to a few things that can be easily tested. Treating education as a horse race doesn’t work,” said HML President Gary Marx.
American policymakers from both political parties have a history of relying on large, international assessments to judge United States’ school performance. In 2013, the press reported that American students were falling behind when compared to 61 other countries and a few cities including Shanghai. In that comparative assessment—called the Program for International Student Assessment—PISA controversially reported superior scores for Shanghai.
The study doesn’t oppose international assessments as one measure of performance. But it argues for the need to compare American schools with similar nations and on more than a single number from an international test. In a striking metaphor, the study defines test scores as just “tip of the school iceberg.”
A fair conclusion to reach from the study is that while all is not well in the American classroom, our schools are far from being the failure they are painted to be. Addressing serious school problems will require policymakers to do something about the huge part of the iceberg that lies below the waterline in terms of poverty and economic inequity, community stress, and support for families and schools.
We must stop blaming public schools and demonizing educators. The problem is not at the tip of the iceberg, it is well below the surface.
Michael Hynes is the superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford School District and member of the National Superintendent’s Roundtable
Michael Hynes, Ed.D is the superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford School District and member of the National Superintendent’s Roundtable
A Nation STILL at Risk: The Imperative for STOPPING THIS KIND OF Educational Reform
An Opinion Piece
By Michael Hynes, Ed.D.
I love public education. As a school superintendent in New York, I am fortunate to work with children, parents, teachers, administrators, staff and community members. I believe in our public school system and have seen it work very well for thousands of students. Like all systems, it can and should be improved. The best organizations seek to do this. They look to continuously improve their system and those who work within it. As a school system seeks to progress one should often ask, “Is this best for kids?” I believe this question has never been asked by the U.S. Department of Education or the New York State Education Department. As I write this opinion piece, they are paving a road as “we” drive on it. As this road is paved, we have little to no say as to the road conditions that we see ahead of us, how fast we are going and where our destination is. I believe this is true at both the state and national level in relation to public education. Again, this is my opinion.
Over the years I have seen many things come and go. It’s the perpetual pendulum of mandates, ideas, movements, etc. There are some things that are still around that I wish were gone, and some things that are gone but I wish were still here. I won’t mention which things because it really is a matter of perspective. My perspective, my opinion. However; I believe it is a fact that public education is under assault and “we” are driving on a road that will lead to it crashing and crashing hard. When it does, what will happen to our children?
Months ago I wanted to gain a deeper understanding as to how we ended up on this terrifying road. When I say “road” I’m talking about the New York State Regents Reform Agenda which I believe is really the U.S. Department of Education Reform Agenda for public schools. As a superintendent it is imperative that I am accountable (for myself and others), as well as building up other people’s capacities to reach their potential. If an employee is not the right fit in my district, it is my job to find someone else who is. Every aspect of this Regents Reform Agenda has very little to do with child development and everything to do with the wrong drivers for improving schools. I’ll comment later on the right drivers. My question is, how are they accountable?
As I began my journey I decided to reread the original report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform which was crafted in 1983. I first read the document in the mid-1990’s but now read it with fresh eyes. As I read through this document, I thought, “If our nation was at risk [thirty plus] years ago, are we in a better place now? Did we use any of the recommendations and incorporate the suggestions from this report? Did Secretary of Education Duncan or our New York State ex-Commissioner of Education ever read this?” The original report was published in April 1983 by The National Commission on Excellence in Education. At the time it was released it sent shock waves across the nation. To my surprise, when I finished and compared the reports’ recommendations to our current reality in New York and in the United States…it actually seems like a much better road to drive on… or at least in my opinion it does.
This document made recommendations to focus on curricula and learning from other advanced countries. What I found most interesting was that the report doesn’t mention anything about how schools should run and rarely makes any remarks about testing. I was surprised and found that extremely refreshing.
I think you may find the National Commission’s charge thirty plus years ago very familiar to our current reality in education:
- Assessing the quality of teaching and learning in our nation’s public and private schools, colleges and universities;
- Comparing American schools and colleges with those of other advanced nations;
- Studying the relationship between college admissions requirements and student achievement in high school;
- Identifying educational programs which result in notable student success in college;
- Assessing the degree to which major social and educational change in the last quarter century have affected student achievement; and
- Defining problems which must be faced and overcome if we are successfully to pursue the course of excellence in education.
The Commission made the following recommendations to the nation in 1983:
- To review and synthesize the data and scholarly literature on the quality of learning and teaching in the nation’s schools, colleges, and universities, both public and private, with special concern for the educational experience of teenage youth;
- To examine and to compare and contrast curricula, standards, and expectations of the educational systems of several advanced countries with those of the United States;
- To study a representative sampling of university and college admission standards and lower division requirements with particular reference to the impact upon the enhancement of quality and the promotion of excellence such standards may have on high school curricula and on expected levels of high school achievement;
- To review and to describe educational programs that are recognized as preparing students who consistently attain higher average scores in college entrance examinations and who meet with uncommon success the demands placed on them by the nation’s colleges and universities;
- To review the major changes that have occurred in American education as well as events in society during the past quarter century that have significantly affected educational achievement;
- To hold hearings and to receive testimony and expert advice on efforts that could and should be taken to foster higher levels of quality and academic excellence in the nation’s schools, colleges, and universities;
- To do all other things needed to define the problems and the barriers to attaining greater levels of excellence in American education; and
- To report and to make practical recommendations for action to be taken by educators, public officials, governing boards, parents, and others having a vital interest in American education and a capacity to influence it for the better.
When I read the recommendations, I found the following items absent:
- Test children into oblivion;
- Use tests from our children to grade and assess teachers and principals;
- Develop new standards that have very little input from the educators who will teach the new standards to our children;
- Do not trust teachers, principals, superintendents and school boards to make informed decisions about what is best for their children in relation to assessments, curricula and best practices at the local level;
- Ensure that state and federal government (Governor and President) have significant influence over teacher accountability systems and assessments. They should decide what is best for children in public education (even if their children don’t attend public school);
- Guarantee corporations will make billions of dollars in the age of compliance and testing
The recommendations from the Commission were meant for us to consider, discuss and possibly act upon. I found the following extremely enlightening:
- Focus on scholarly literature on the quality of learning and teaching. In my opinion, best practices dictate that teachers need time to collaborate with each other and students need to be inspired by their teachers and encouraged to take risks. It is almost impossible in this climate.
- Examining, comparing, contrasting curricula, standards and expectations of several advanced countries. In my opinion, the New York and the US Departments of Education clearly did not listen to this recommendation. If you look at top performing countries such as Finland, Canada and Singapore…you won’t find an over reliance on standardizing and the over-testing of everything. They don’t use the wrong drivers of reducing people by ranking and sorting. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. These countries hold educators and children in very high regard.
- To review the major changes that have occurred in American education as well as events in society during the past quarter century that have significantly affected educational achievement. In my opinion, I think it is safe to say that the federal decrees of Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind and now the era of testing everything to death is not working. It never has and it never will. The fact is, if poverty was reduced it would solve many of society’s problems, including the achievement gap.
- To hold hearings and to receive testimony and expert advice on efforts that could and should be taken to foster higher levels of quality and academic excellence in the nation’s schools, colleges, and universities. If my memory is correct, I don’t recall hearing anything about testimonies from experts when the Common Core Standards or tests were developed. I think Bill Gates, the Koch brothers and Pearson were contacted, however. This is one of the biggest travesties. Big business prevailed.
I’ve only commented on a few of the recommendations but I think you get my point. Our current state of affairs in education is not only detrimental to our children, but I find our public school system under siege now more than when A Nation at Risk was released over three decades ago. To make matters worse, we are using the wrong drivers to change education and we are going at light speed down a road of ensuring our students only know how to bubble in test sheets, become proficient test takers and graduate into standardized widgets. We rarely note the actual improvements that have been made in the last thirty years–increased high school graduation rates, improvements in programs (IB, AP, arts, independent student projects, high level curriculum for all students instead of tracking) and special education programs; have come about precisely because of local control decision-making, not in spite of it.
We can learn from A Nation at Risk. As education historian Diane Ravitch stated in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, “Far from being a revolutionary document, the report was an impassioned plea to make our schools function better.” She also noted that, “It did not refer to market-based competition and choice among schools; it did not suggest restructuring schools or school systems. It said nothing about closing schools, privatization, state takeover of districts, or other heavy handed forms of accountability. It addressed problems that were intrinsic to schooling, such as curriculum, graduation requirements, teacher preparation, and the quality of textbooks”.
So what is the alternative? Some of us believe in trusting the local control of our school systems. I believe in the capacity building of our teachers and administrators both individually and collectively. It’s about climate control within our schools and trying to work with the command and control mentality outside of them. All state education departments should be working with school districts, not against them. This door is open to a better way of educating our children. The question is… will people go through it?
I believe the underpinnings of the New York Regents Reform Agenda have never been proven to work successfully AND longitudinally in any school district. If you did by chance find a school or district that you thought was successful, how would you define their success? State Test scores? Did you just use test scores as your measuring stick? As most educators know it is only one piece of a multi-dimensional pie. Unfortunately, that’s what many newspapers and politicians use. I prefer to appreciate how well rounded our students are (academics, the arts, social and emotional growth, sports, etc.). This will lead to their success at home, in school and after they graduate from high school.
If you look to where success leaves clues, you will find that we should be heading in the opposite direction at the state and national level. There are successful school systems in Canada, Finland, and New York State from which our nation should be looking to learn. As Alfie Kohn stated, “The goal beyond testing is about building a thriving democracy. It is about helping each child reach his/her potential as a human being and learner.” We must strip away the over-testing of students, tying student scores to teachers and principal evaluations, using the new poorly designed standards and the command and control mentality from our state and national education departments. Let’s focus on school districts collaborating together, teachers taking risks in the classroom, principals focusing on a more meaningful capacity building observation process and professional development plan for all teachers and staff members. Most important, we need to allow our children to thrive in a place where “one size fits all” does not exist….then I believe we will be on our way to being A Nation at Risk no more.