New York's education chiefs see 'moral moment,' pursue equity, new diploma goals and more

In a wide-ranging interview with The Journal News, Regents Chancellor Lester Young and Education Commissioner Betty Rosa discuss the opportunity they see in the coming year to improve education on a variety of levels.

Gary Stern
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Lester Young Jr. says he understands why some parents may be fearful of efforts in schools to address matters of race and racism. 

Many parents are hearing false or incomplete tales intended to undermine the true intent of New York's schools to give kids of all backgrounds a shot at success, says the chancellor of the state Board of Regents.

Social media has been teeming with warnings of schools' indoctrination of students with left-wing ideologies, and at least nine states have passed laws this year limiting what schools can teach about race.

"When parents hear their children's safety is at risk, that gets their attention," Young said. "People are being sold a single narrative: the system is doing something to your child, the system is asking your child to feel bad.

"That is not what is happening and not what we are doing," he added.

New York State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa and New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Lester Young.

Young and state Education Commissioner Betty Rosa talked about the state's efforts to advance diversity, equity and inclusion during a wide-ranging Zoom interview with the USA TODAY Network in early December. They also discussed the state's big plans to revamp New York's graduation requirements, the path to develop new ways to assess students, lessons learned from the pandemic thus far, and even whether it's time to replace the September-June "agrarian" school calendar.

New York's top education chiefs — think of Young as president of the state school board and Rosa as its superintendent — insist that the time is right to rethink key components of how schools operate.

They say the pandemic has exposed the inequities that separate students in different communities, plus other challenges, creating what Young calls a "moral moment" for action.

"For the first time, in my recollection, in public school history, there is a recognition that we haven't created a system that provided equitable opportunities for all young people," Young said. 

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From Brooklyn and the Bronx

Young and Rosa took their seats early this year after serving as colleagues on the Board of Regents. Both are from New York City boroughs and had long careers in the big city's schools.

Betty Rosa at a Board of Regents meeting in 2015.

Young, 74, was elected New York's first Black chancellor in January, having served as a Regent since 2008. A Brooklyn native, he worked in the New York City schools for 35 years, retiring in 2004 as a senior central office administrator. He is the son of the late jazz legend Lester Young.

Rosa, 70, became New York's first Latina education commissioner in February after serving as interim commissioner for six months. She previously served as Regents chancellor for over four years, having been a member herself of the Board of Regents since 2008. A Bronx native, she worked in the New York City schools for more than 30 years, becoming senior superintendent of the Bronx.

Here's what they focused on during the interview:

DEI plans and concerns

Young and Rosa know well that some school districts are worried about backlash from parents and others as they pursue diversity, equity and inclusion, or what's become known simply as DEI. They've heard concerns about anti-DEI activists running for school boards in the spring.

"There is a context in which this is happening," Rosa said. "This is not happening in a vacuum. It's a very political context."

In May, the Board of Regents called on all New York school districts to adopt DEI policies that would cover hiring practices and staff training, curricula and reading lists, community engagement, and more. That was right as conservative groups started calling out schools around the country for teaching "critical race theory," an arcane academic concept that holds that racism is embedded in legal and social systems.

Young said that what New York's schools want to do is straightforward: create full educational opportunities for kids who have been traditionally overlooked or undervalued, like students of color and those in need.

English teacher Jay Frechette works with his class on racial equity and cultural awareness at Nyack Middle School this past June.

He said the state's push is for schools to live up to American ideals, noting Thomas Jefferson's admonition about education: "If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was & never will be."

"If (you) believe that every young person should have access to opportunity, as well as resources, to be successful," Young said, "and if you believe that school should foster a culture of open-mindedness, and compassionate inclusiveness, then you believe in diversity, equity and inclusion." 

He said that all students, including white students, should learn from diverse teaching staffs and get to develop an appreciation of other cultures. And classroom instruction should include voices and perspectives that have been left out.

Young said that most students in schools he visits still don't know what Juneteenth is.

"We're not talking about indoctrinating children," Young said. "We're not talking about altering history. What we're suggesting is that, you know, how did we get to the point where we are?"

The state is not requiring districts to create DEI plans, leaving time and room for communities to address these issues in their own ways. But Young said a majority appear on their way to adopting DEI policies.

New diploma requirements?

Before the pandemic, the Regents had taken on a potentially game-changing project: reviewing, and likely revising, what it takes to earn a high school diploma in New York.

They held large meetings around the state with educators, parents and others. The meetings began again this month, with the Regents and Rosa committed to seeing through a process with vast implications.

"For us, it's looking at the whole educational journey starting from early childhood," Rosa said.

The goal is to develop new, and possibly multiple, ways to measure what students know, what they can do and whether they are prepared to graduate and succeed in college, careers and life. New graduation requirements, and new ways to meet them, could affect the structure and content of K-12 education.

Ramapo High School held its 2019 graduation at Rockland Community College.

The expectation is that New York's deep-rooted Regents exams will play a smaller role. 

A dozen states have phased out high school "exit exams" as requirements for graduation in recent years. New York is one of 11 states that still have them.

The Board of Regents' timeline calls for the appointment of a commission this fall that will review statewide feedback and begin the process of creating recommendations, due to the Regents in 2024.

A key objective is to find ways to recognize the abilities of all students, while maintaining high expectations. Rosa said the ultimate goal is to determine not only "what a New York diploma signifies," but what teaching and learning should like like to help students get their cap and gown.

Seeking new ways to assess

One of the thorniest issues in education remains how to assess, or test, students.

While certain standardized tests are required by federal law, New York wants to rethink how it measures what students know and can do.

"The end-of-year assessment, one-test, summative strategy is not designed to measure deeper and more meaningful learning," Young said. "And so we need a statewide assessment strategy that doesn't rely on a score on a day as a predictor of future success."

In October, the Carnegie Corporation of New York gave the state a $500,000 grant to study new types of assessments, like performance-based assessments and those that measure a student's individual performance against specific objectives.

The New York State Education Department Building.

The state expects to select schools in different regions to pilot different testing models. This work could also impact the review of high school diploma requirements.

Young hopes to have a new assessment strategy in place in about five years "that will yield better information about our young people than what we have now."

This spring the state plans to offer its annual tests for grades 3-8. January's Regents exams have been canceled, but a decision has not yet been made about June's Regents exams.

The 3-8 exams and Regents exams were canceled in 2020, shortly after students were sent home for remote learning. The state wanted to do the same thing in 2021, but the federal government required some tests to go on.

Participation, though, was low, and Regents exams were not needed to graduate, raising questions about whether New York should do away with the Regents exams even before arriving at new graduation standards.

Flip the calendar

Start in September and end in June? Young says it's time to review and change the age-old agrarian school calendar, but he knows it won't be easy.

"It will take a while because it has to go through a political process," he said. "But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss it."

Young said the inflexible school schedule did not serve students well when they had to return to school from months of remote or hybrid learning.

"We've taken youngsters who've been out of school almost two years, many of them adolescents ... and we've said, 'Okay, last week you were at home. Now, today, you're in algebra class.' I mean, without any meaningful transition. And it's not because we didn't understand the importance of the transition. It was because we have a calendar that says that school is from September to June. And there's certain things that we have to do, regardless of the developmental needs of children. You know, quite frankly, I think that's wrong."

Young noted that many districts have adopted extended day programs and other nontraditional approaches to help students catch up academically.

He had no timetable in mind for changing the calendar.

Gary Stern is an editor/writer covering K-12 education in the Hudson Valley. Reach him at Twitter: @garysternNY. Click here for his latest.