Will educators be heard as Regents consider new HS graduation requirements?

Gary Stern
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

The state Board of Regents is looking hard at what could be New York's most important educational overhaul in decades: The creation of new, possibly multiple ways to earn a high school diploma beyond passing their namesake Regents exams. 

The board, which makes statewide education policy, is hoping to wind up with several ways to measure a student's knowledge, skills and readiness to graduate. It has opened a two-year review of the possibilities. 

But concerns are surfacing among educational leaders that the Regents may undermine their prized project by rushing and outsourcing a key early undertaking — assessing what educators across the state would like to see happen.

The Regents unveiled "phase 1" of the project in November, bringing in Achieve Inc., a business-driven nonprofit, to review graduation standards in other states and collect feedback from educators and others across New York. Their work is being supported by a $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

Port Chester High School graduation June 26, 2019.

Achieve Inc. and the Gates Foundation are among the chief architects of the education "reform" movement that divided the educational establishment over the last decade.

They helped create the Common Core learning standards and have promoted standardized approaches to testing, data analysis, teacher evaluations and school accountability.  

[Editor's note: The state Education Department announced at 4:30 p.m. Jan. 8, 10 hours after this story was posted,  that it is ending its partnership with Achieve on this initiative "due to concerns raised by stakeholders." The department will instead work with WestEd, a San Francisco-based nonprofit agency, to review other states' requirements and gather feedback from across New York. WestEd contracts with Region 2 of the U.S. Department of Education, which includes New York, to provide a range of services.]

STATE OF EDUCATION 2020: Issues to watch (subscriber only)


CASH BAIL: Democrats, under pressure, consider changes

Some question why the Regents would partner with groups that have established agendas. 

"The work of Achieve and the Gates Foundation was founded upon standardized testing and compliance with corporate reforms," said Harry Leonardatos, principal of Clarkstown High School North, who fought a disputed teacher evaluation system pushed by reformers during the early 2010s.

"They have a track record of failure, pushing reforms that were a disaster for New York."

The growing role of private groups and foundations in influencing public education policy, often by trying to apply business strategies, has become one of the most contentious issues in education.

The influence of the Gates Foundation alone could be a field of study, as it has spent billions of dollars on everything from teacher preparation to data crunching to curriculum improvements. Achieve Inc. was created in 1996 by the nation's governors and business leaders to promote national reform efforts.

Leonardatos noted that the Regents are taking on a game-changing initiative without a permanent state education commissioner — their top appointee — and at a time when there has been great turnover in the state Education Department.

The Regents will soon search for a successor to former Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who left Aug. 31. 

"I think our high school graduation measures should change, but the question is to what?" Leonardatos said. "My concern is that the outcome is already written — what Achieve wants. With a vacuum of leadership in Albany, Achieve and Gates can step right in."

Emily DeSantis, spokesperson for the state Education Department, said in a statement: "To be clear: the Board of Regents members and Department are leading all the phases of the examination of New York’s Graduation Measures and will be instrumental in throughout the initiative. Further, our timeline remains a draft—it is flexible." 

'More than broad strokes'

A major concern is that the Regents' timeline for phase 1 is not realistic. 

Achieve Inc. plans to collect educator and community feedback at a series of regional meetings around New York between January and March. The organization also promises to use a survey to seek feedback, and to accept emails and letters.

"We need more than broad strokes, more than regional meetings," said Carol Conklin-Spillane, president of the Empire State Supervisors & Administrators Association and a former principal of Sleepy Hollow High School.

"There needs to be a deep investigation of possible graduation requirements by people in the field, principals, teachers, guidance counselors. But we have not seen evidence of this in the plan. Rushing this process is not a good idea."

More:Despite NYC investigation findings, state puts off rules for yeshiva instruction

Achieve Inc. is supposed to deliver a report to the Regents in February about other states' requirements and the latest research, and then a second report in March or April summarizing "stakeholder input."

The Regents are to name a "blue ribbon commission" in April to lead the rest of the project. The commission, in turn, is to present recommendations to the Regents in the fall of 2021.

The chief supporter and architect of the project, Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, told The Journal News/lohud that the Regents want to collect as much information as possible from educators and others across New York. She said that no predetermined conclusions or assumptions have been reached.

"If we need to readjust the timeline, we will take stock and do that," she said.

More:Back to the future: NY’s school-aid software is 30 years old

'A monumental task'

Betty Rosa, chancellor of the NYS Board of Regents.

There is widespread support in New York for rethinking what a high school diploma should signify and how students should be able to earn one. But it won't be easy to create alternatives to the state's current requirements — pass courses in certain subjects and at least five Regents exams.

The Board of Regents, which is made up of 17 appointees by the state Legislature, discussed the issue for years before Rosa announced in early 2019 that the Regents would begin a major review.

Many believe that high school "exit exams" don't reflect the accomplishments or goals of many kinds of students: Those preparing for a career instead of college; students with special needs; high-achieving students who may want to focus on one subject like science; students with limited English proficiency; and others.

More:Will New York parents opposed to vaccinations send kids to school? They rallied in Albany amid uncertainty

Other states have changed their graduation requirements to recognize different course options, senior projects and presentations, community service, accomplishments in career and technical education, alternative exams and more.

Regent Judith Johnson, who represented the Lower Hudson Valley on the board until her death on Oct. 28, was an early proponent of developing new roads to graduation. 

"It's a monumental task," she told The Journal News/lohud in August. "But if we don't do it, we're still not identifying the talents and skills that kids have that are not picked up by these what-do-you-know exams."

Regent Judith Johnson, who died Oct. 28.

Early suggestions that the Regents would water down requirements to make it easier for students to graduate made Johnson fume. "Why would this board deceive 3 million children?" she said. "We're not charlatans."

Robert Monson of Manhattanville College was working with Johnson on her doctoral dissertation and said he talked to Johnson at length about her efforts to push a diploma-review project. He said they discussed the need for an extensive, 18-month study of possible graduation requirements, including visits to schools, classroom observations, interviews with educators and others, and curriculum reviews.

"I would not recommend the process the Regents are using; it is not sufficient," said Monson, a former school superintendent in five states who coordinates dissertations in Manhattanville's educational leadership program.

More:Special report: Schools ranked for safety

Monson said the Regents need to do the most substantive review possible and be ready to defend their work from attacks, given the charged political environment of the day. 

"The Regents should do this, but you don't wade into a conversation like this without all the data," he said. "There are equity issues here, the financial realities of the tax cap, the fact that if you do more of something in schools, you have to do less than something else. I don't know that methods used in the past, like regional meetings, will work."

Sure enough, at December's Regents meeting, board members offered a vast range of questions and concerns that need to be addressed, including: How new diploma requirements could affect elementary and middle school instruction; whether students would have equitable opportunities to meet different requirements, including supports like counseling and guidance; and how "career readiness" can be assessed.

"Whatever we do will change the shape of our whole pre-K to 12 system," said Regent Roger Tilles of Long Island.

More:Will New York parents opposed to vaccinations send kids to school? They rallied in Albany amid uncertainty

Ossining Schools Superintendent Ray Sanchez talked to Johnson often about the need to update graduation requirements in his role as president of the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents.

He said Johnson "envisioned a process that included multiple perspectives" and that New York must prioritize "the voice of students, teachers, guidance counselors, high school principals, superintendents, school board members." 

Asked about the involvement of Achieve Inc. and the Gates Foundation, Sanchez said: "It is a complex, but critically important project. But, we always need to be wary when we partner with third-party educational foundations. New York state has not always had a great experience with third-party vendors."

More:New York state exams: Here's what the latest results show for students

Role of reformers

The New York State Education Building in Albany

When Rosa announced at the November Regents meeting that the board would "partner" with Achieve Inc. to collect research and feedback, supported by a $100,000 grant from the Gates Foundation, a few board members had immediate concerns.

Regent Nan Mead of New York City said she thought the board would have "a lot more control" of regional meetings. Regent Susan Mittler of the Binghamton region said she was concerned that the Gates Foundation would try to influence the project.

"I’m concerned about the information being filtered by specialist groups," Mittler said.

Rosa responded that Achieve Inc. would provide the board with information that would be easier to work with. Beth Berlin, who was then interim education commissioner but would leave the position weeks later, assured the board that the Gates Foundation only wanted to "support the board in this exciting endeavor."

More:Educator salaries in New York: See how much they were paid last school year

Edwin Darden, a senior program officer at the Gates Foundation, said in a statement to The Journal News/lohud that the Gates Foundation is helping fund New York's work to make sure the Regents can do a "fair and equitable" study.

"We have long believed that it is important to have in place appropriate requirements for what a student should know to graduate from high school," he said.

"We also know that the best way to begin looking at the formulation of a new policy is to draw on the knowledge of those closest to the work being accomplished and to hear the opinions of educators, parents, scholars and other experts."

One group that gets funding from the Gates Foundation is Achieve Inc., founded by governors and business leaders. The group has a clear business orientation — its chairman is the vice chair of Prudential Financial. 

Achieve Inc.'s president, Michael Cohen, helped write the Common Core standards. Upon their release in 2010, Cohen called on all states to adopt the standards as part of a "college- and career-ready" agenda.

"That means aligning graduation requirements, curriculum materials and instructional tools, educator preparation and professional development, assessments, accountability indicators and data systems with the Common Core State Standards so that the whole system — down to every classroom — is geared toward the same end goal: All students graduating, ready for college, careers and life," Cohen said then. 

More:Why NY’s school-aid formula is flunking

New York state quickly adopted the Common Core and developed new tests aligned with the standards. In 2017, the Regents revised and renamed the standards.

Marie O’Hara, director of research for Achieve Inc., addressed the Regents in December, explaining how Achieve will review graduation requirements in other states and conduct regional meetings. 

In a statement to The Journal News/lohud, O'Hara said she's been monitoring states' graduation requirements for close to 10 years and that Achieve Inc.'s review would include "exploring innovative approaches."

She said Achieve Inc.'s reports to the Regents "are not intended to be recommendations on specific graduation pathways over others."

Suffern High School graduation ceremony at Rockland Community College June 26, 2019.

Rosa said that Achieve Inc. and the Gates Foundation have done good work in New York before.

"I am not the kind of a person that makes a blanket statement about any organization, all good or all bad," she said.

"Achieve has a reputation that is very recognized. They clearly have done research, have done good work. The Bill and Linda Gates Foundation, the same. I know to some people, it’s all of a concern."

Some doubt the effectiveness of Achieve and the Gates Foundation after a decade of top-down reforms have had questionable results. Christine Clayton, associate professor of education at Pace University, said that the Regents decision to "farm out" phase 1 is puzzling and troubling.

"The research should be unbiased, but everything will be filtered through Achieve and Gates, for no apparent reason given their track record," she said.

"It's like groundhog day again. New York will use these outside groups to spearhead reform initiatives and then bring in stakeholders after the fact. There are so many other research-based institutes in New York and across the country that could play a role here." 

Clayton said that Achieve's reports should be vetted by independent parties.

Christine Clayton of Pace University

Manhattanville's Monson said that the Regents should understand that their choice of partners will affect public perceptions of what happens. 

"Having worked in a lot of places, I’m acutely aware that the Gates Foundation has a mixed empirical record of accomplishment, which lends to the skepticism out there," he said.

More:In era of school shootings, false alarms create real fear

Too big to fail?

Some key observers feel that the Regents' effort to review graduation requirements is so sweeping and important that the board is almost certain to adjust if more time or work is needed.

David Albert, spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association, said the group hopes the Regents would extend phase 1 if educators believe they have not been heard. He said the association's understanding is that the Regents turned to Achieve Inc. and the Gates Foundation because the state Education Department lacks staff.

Albert said it is the association's expectation that the Regents will not be unduly influenced by the agenda of any group.

Stakeholders, he said in a statement, "will certainly take note if the final proposal differs dramatically from the consensus that emerges during the information gathering sessions, or if it is contrary to research findings related to graduation requirements in other states."

The 2019 White Plains High School graduation was held at the Westchester County Center in White Plains June 26, 2019.

Robert Lowry, spokesman for the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said it's significant that the Regents have chosen to take on this project. They were not pushed by the federal government, like with past projects, he said.

"I'm confident that, even thought the first phase feels compressed, the Regents will keep things on the track they intended," Lowry said. "The blue ribbon commission, once it is formed, could do regional meetings themselves or seek input from across the state."

NYSUT, the statewide teachers union that can make or break any proposed change to education policy, is focused on working with the Regents "to ensure that the voices of our members, the experts in the field who work directly with students on a daily basis, are heard loud and clear," spokesperson Matt Hamilton said.

Karen Belanger, executive director of the Westchester Putnam School Boards Association, said the diploma project is too large, public and potentially contentious for the Regents to head far in a direction that school leaders dislike.

"I just hope they are smart enough to stick with Judith [Johnson]'s vision of making sure educators are involved at every step," she said. 

Twitter: @garysternNY

More:With swastika vandalism on rise, teachers urged to combat racism, anti-Semitism, white nationalism

More:Why school funding in New York is still a major fight