Unpublished piece on education reform

An example of a research/opinion piece I wrote up for the folks over at National School Choice Week. Unfortunately, it never did make it to the Washington Times, but I was proud of the effort I put into it anyway. This issue is important!

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NY school reform: at what cost? [suggested title]

By Christyn Enser

January 3, 2012

           

New York schools have little to celebrate this New Year.

 

After reading Deborah Simmons’ Christmas Day warning about the high cost of school reform in D.C., Texas and Colorado, I considered my own state’s issues with reforming its K-12 education system.

 

The battle between school districts and the State Education Department over new teacher evaluation mandates remains the top issue.

 

It began after the federal government awarded the state a $700 million Race to the Top (RTTT) grant in August 2010. A stipulation of the grant is for local school districts and unions to negotiate new contracts in order to implement the new teacher evaluations. This was included in the grant’s memoranda of understanding (MOU), signed by 91 percent of public school districts.

 

Now, more than 1,000 principals across New York have signed a letter protesting the increased role of students’ test scores on national assessments in teacher evaluations- from 20 to 40 percent, depending on the district. 

 

Eight of the ten districts receiving School Improvement Grants (SIG) didn’t provide evidence of modifications to teacher and principal evaluations by Dec. 31 and now face suspension of funds.

 

“When the ball drops at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the money drops off the table,” State Education Commissioner John B. King, Jr. warned in a statement on Dec. 27. “It will be difficult to get back.”

 

King also noted that districts could lose their federal Teaching Incentive Funds and RTTT funding as a result of failing to implement new teacher evaluations.

 

The commissioner’s promise hit close to home on Jan. 3 when the Buffalo City School District’s SIG funding was suspended.  The district plans to appeal within 30 days and has been cited as one of six districts whose plan for implementation “showed progress,” according to King.

 

If Buffalo’s federal funding is affected, nearly $19 million of total RTTT funding could be at stake as well.

 

My alma mater, West Valley Central School, is not part of the Buffalo City School District and was able to submit a plan by the end of the year.

 

WVCS is a K-12 public school located 50 miles south of Buffalo with an enrollment of about 350 students.  This rural school, in comparison to Buffalo City Schools, would receive almost $40,000 in RTTT funding.

Although it looks like West Valley will hold on to its state and federal funding, a crucial component of its budget due to a small property tax base, RTTT isn’t the answer to all of the school’s challenges.

 

My mother has worked at WVCS for nearly 30 years, the majority of it as a first grade teacher. She has been my own case study of how teachers are affected by New York’s school reform.

 

She takes issue with the same things the states’ principals did: the evaluation system had no pilot program; the test scores used in evaluations only cover fourth-through-eighth-grade English and math teachers; and the standards for state-wide assessments are inconsistent.

 

If WVCS adopts a system like that used in Tennessee, the school’s only principal would have to complete four observations a year for every teacher in the building. It also implies that those who teach subjects without test results would have to be partially evaluated based on the scores of teachers with test results. This is unfair to teachers like my mother who would be evaluated to the same degree as a new teacher, with results partially based on someone else’s work.

 

 

If we take a second look at where RTTT in New York began, when 91 percent of public school districts endorsed the state’s bid for a grant, only 70 percent of school district submissions included an MOU signed by the local teachers union. Clearly not everyone was on board in the beginning, and it’s beginning to show.

 

After spending the past 16 months in D.C. attending American University, my eyes have been opened to how complicated city school districts can be. I can understand how desperately my own state’s education department is trying to secure funding for the neediest school districts and provide the highest quality of education possible.

 

However, I’ve also grown up with two parents working at a rural public school. Implementing new teacher evaluation mandates that degrade teachers and don’t fit all districts’ needs will not encourage excellence from teachers or the students they teach.

 

It’s the ongoing challenge of balancing reform to the classroom with the reality of the classroom. Here’s to hoping that this year New York can find that balance.

 

 

Word Count: 749

 

 

[suggested bio]

 

Christyn Enser is a sophomore at American University in Washington, D.C. and a student blogger for National School Choice Week. She graduated from West Valley Central School in 2010. 

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