By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND — The school district here has already spent about 10 times as much on meeting Race to the Top requirements as it will receive over four years in federal funds.
Guilderland will get $30,771 from the $4 billion federal program meant to spur innovation and reform. Half of the nearly $700 million New York received went to the State Education Department and the other half was distributed to school districts statewide based on the Title I formula, meaning poor districts received the most money.
Demian Singleton, the assistant superintendent for curriculum at Guilderland who says he has “easily” spent 200 of his last 240 work days on meeting Race to the Top requirements, estimated that Guilderland so far has spent “well over $300,000 and it’s not done.”
“You really can’t argue with the need to focus on data…but it comes at what cost when it happens at this speed,” Superintendent Marie Wiles told the school board at the close of a Nov. 20 presentation on Race to the Top and the New York State Regents reform agenda. “We’ve made a lot of sacrifices…They come on the heels of very, very challenging economic times.”
Guilderland has eliminated more than 120 jobs in the past few years as it deals with stagnant aid, increasing health-care and pension costs, and a state-set cap on the tax levy.
“We want our teachers to do more with larger class sizes,” Wiles said. “We had to postpone some needs we believe are more important.”
New York’s first attempt to win the federal funds was unsuccessful. After the teachers’ unions agreed to have student performance figure in teacher evaluation, the state was successful in securing its Race to the Top grant.
At the same time, New York is one of 45 states to agree to follow Common Core Learning Standards. “There is no doubt the Common Core narrows the curriculum,” Wiles told the board, noting teachers feel pressure to teach what will be assessed.
“This is a very sad thing,” said Wiles. “What is worse is how we lose instructional time…It raises the question: Is the information we get…going to be valuable enough?”
She concluded, “We don’t know the answer yet.”
This is the first year districts have had to develop plans to evaluate their teachers and principals based on state requirements. Guilderland this fall administered online multiple-choice tests to serve as a baseline for student performance. Students will be tested again at the end of the school year to measure their progress.
Wiles also noted that there is not much research to show that the Common Core curriculum increases graduation rates or global competitiveness.
Referring to a recent trip she made to a sister school in China, Wiles said the Chinese function under a similar system but want to be rid of it, to be more creative like schools in the United States used to be.
The current movement in the United States, she said, is based not on educational research but on politics and economics. “It’s our duty as educators,” said Wiles, “to find the good parts of these and cling to them for dear life.” One of those good parts, she said, is the rubric Guilderland will be using to evaluate teachers.
School board members were also critical of the new requirements.
“There’s such a big unknown of what the payback is going to be,” said Gloria Towle-Hilt, the board’s vice president, who has retired from teaching social studies at Farnsworth Middle School. She said students used to write arguments based on historical documents but are now being assessed by answering multiple-choice questions.
“It bothers me, it looks like we’re going backwards,” she said.
Board member Catherine Barber, referring to the federal movement away from literary works to informational texts, asked, “So reading for fun is not considered educational?”
“Why are we doing this?” asked board member Rose Levy, noting some states aren’t.
“We don’t have local options,” responded Singleton.
Wiles answered, “The level of funding for the State Education Department has been on a precipitous decline for many years.” In addition to the department’s desire for federal funds, she noted that the state needed resources for reform, especially for New York’s five large-city school districts. Buffalo, New York, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers together enroll over 40 percent of public-school students statewide.
“The problem is, it’s one size fits all,” said Wiles of the new state requirements, noting there are no waivers for high performing districts like Guilderland.
State follows feds
The state’s Regents reform agenda mirrors the assurances set forth for the Race to the Top funding. The Board of Regents, which governs public education across the state, “envisions a New York where all students are prepared for college, the global economy, 21st-Century citizenship, and continued learning throughout their lives,” states the agenda, “where gaps in achievement have closed; and the overall level of knowledge and skill among the people matches or exceeds the best in the world.”
Wiles termed this “a lofty vision” and “one we’d want to accomplish ourselves.”
She also described the reform agenda as “a massive undertaking” with nine “strategic goals.”
These are: teacher preparation and effectiveness; curriculum and professional development; assessment; transforming the field of school leader preparation; early childhood education, raising graduation rates for at-risk students; replacing failing schools; building a data system that will start with preschool and last 20 years through college and graduate programs; and transforming the State Education Department.
The Race to the Top assurances include adopting Common Core Learning Standards; building the 20-year data system to measure student growth and success; recruiting and retaining effective teachers and principals; and turning around the lowest achieving schools.
“Learning standards are not new in New York State,” said Singleton, explaining they are meant to serve as consistent expectations on what students should know. Previous standards, however, were meant to accomplish high-school graduation.
“The target has now shifted to college and career readiness,” he said.
The Common Core standards involve six shifts in teaching English and six shifts in teaching math. For English, knowledge is to be built in the disciplines, informational texts are to be balanced with literary texts, and students will climb a “staircase of complexity,” give text-based answers, write from sources, and develop an academic vocabulary.
“What does this mean in the classroom?...More non-fiction,” said Singleton, explaining half of elementary reading and three-quarters of high-school reading now needs to be from “informational texts.”
Shifts in math are on focus, coherence, fluency, deep understanding, applications, and on dual intensity.
There will be a focus on fewer topics in greater depth, said Singleton.
The timeline for implementing the new standards “has been extraordinarily quick,” said Singleton. “Districts had one year to get ready for the new standards,” he said. Next year, Regents exams, given to high school students, will be called Regents Exams for the Common Core, said Singleton.
By 2014-15, states like New York will administer new Common Core assessments through the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC).
The computer-based tests measure skills and knowledge application, said Singleton, noting, “The online nature is certainly a shift.”
It lets educators and parents get data quickly, and allows comparable expectations regardless of where students live, he said.
Data drives teaching
and rates educators
The second leg of the Race to the Top stool, Singleton said, is data-driven instruction. Districts must participate in a “network team”; Guilderland is working through the Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Districts pool funds and are given comparable amounts of training. Since Guilderland contributes just about $7,000 for each of four years, “We receive a very minimal amount,” Singleton said of the training.
Second, “inquiry teams,” led by building principals to study the outcome of instruction, are set up.
The third leg of the Race to the Top stool is the Annual Professional Performance Review, known as the APPR, arrived at through a collective bargaining process. Guilderland submitted its APPR plan to the state on Nov. 9, said Wiles. The evaluation plans must be implemented by Jan. 17, the governor has stated, or districts will not receive a state aid increase.
The new state law requires that teachers and principals be evaluated yearly, with 40 percent based on student achievement measures.
The educators are to be rated as being in one of five categories — highly effective, effective, developing, and ineffective. If an educator has two “ineffective” ratings two years in a row, he or she could be removed in an expedited hearing process.
Supervisors and principals must go through “a tremendous amount of training,” Wiles said, to perform the required classroom evaluations. Tenured teachers are observed twice a year and probationary teachers, three times a year.
Charlotte Danielson’s 2011 Framework for Effective Teaching was selected by Guilderland as the rubric to be used for 60 percent of the teachers’ evaluations; Wiles called this rubric “outstanding.”
“If we were only to use this rubric…we would help teachers who are good get even better and those who are struggling get better,” said Wiles.
The Multidimensional Principal Performance Rubric, which Wiles also likes, will be used for principals.
The district has always had improvement plans for principals or teachers who are struggling, said Wiles, but now those plans must be in place within 10 days of the start of the school year or the educator “can’t literally come to work,” she said.
Student Learning Objectives, known as SLOs, academic goals set for students at the start of a course, were developed in weeks at the beginning of this school year, said Wiles, calling it “a tremendous body of work.”
The district agreed with the Guilderland Teachers’ Association to use Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) tests for kindergarten through eighth-grade students in English and math.
The difficulty of the online tests are adjusted to each student’s performance, Singleton said. The tests are “norm referenced,” in which individual local students are compared with a national sample of 2.8 million students, and “criterion referenced,” giving levels of achievement — basic, proficient, advanced — based on skills a student has achieved.
The tests, Singleton said, are meant to help in classroom instruction as well as provide individual student growth data.
“I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge concerns,” he said, noting the new tests embody “a change in format and some would say a change in philosophy.”
With a short time to set up the tests, Singleton said, there was “a significant draw on resources.”
He is reserving judgment until the testing is “fully evaluated,” Singleton said.
“We have come to a resounding agreement,” said Wiles, “to re-focus and adjust as we see fit.”