With the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, New York’s Education Department has a huge opportunity to reinvent itself. But is it capable of transformation? Can the NYSED overcome its decades-long and near obsessive focus on accountability, failure, punishment and prescriptive “father-knows-best” solutions?
Transforming a punitive system
At least since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001, the entire bureaucracy has been designed to manage a punitive accountability system. Looking for evidence to back up that claim? In the 2014 alone, New York school districts failed to meet an astonishing 24,463 accountability targets.
Much is at stake for our schools and their students. ESSA is intended to reinvigorate local control of education and spur innovation.
According to the bill’s co-sponsor, Lamar Alexander, “When we take the handcuffs off, we’ll unleash a whole flood of innovation and ingenuity classroom by classroom, state by state, that will benefit children.”
Commissioner of Education Mary Ellen Elia has an unprecedented opportunity to transform the NYSED. Even if she’s up to the task, however, the organization’s immune system may defeat her.
Battling the bureaucracy’s immune system
Transformation of an entrenched bureaucracy is not trivial. The natural human bias to the status quo is exacerbated when change threatens an organization, its turf and sacred cows. Titles maybecome obsolete. Status, influence, power — even jobs — are potentially at risk.
Facing such an assault, the natural instinct is to defend and protect. The old system tries to preserve itself and triggers its powerful immune system. New ideas and approaches are attacked as if viruses; new assumptions, killed off like bacterial infections. The goal is to eliminate the change — or leave it permanently debilitated.
Will the NYSED shed the cloak of paternalism that treats local school boards and superintendents as minions to an higher authority that always knows what is best for them? Will NYSED provide flexibility for districts to define excellence for their community? Will the demand for compliance be replaced by the freedom to innovate?
Unleashing local aspirations and innovation
Consider just one example. The ESSA requires “meaningful goals…to ensure that every student subgroup makes gains toward college and career-readiness.” Currently, NYSED’s college and career readiness measure is controversial:
The percent of a high school cohort that graduates and scores >75 on the English Regents exam and scores >80 on a Math Regents exam.
This idiosyncratic metric is unique to New York and is based on a study that has never been published. School leadership teams find it suspect and wanting. Instead, they define their own measures of high school rigor and college and career readiness. Here is an example of one such locally articulated measure:
- % of the cohort graduating and completing >1 Advanced Placement course
- % of the cohort graduating and earning >15 college credits
- % of the cohort’s career and technical education (CTE) students graduating and earning a technical endorsement
The logic is compelling. In combination, these multiple measures allow virtually every student in this rural school to reach for more rigorous outcomes. Together, they represent a far more robust measure of readiness for college and career than scores on two regents exams.
Father does not always know best
One of the great epiphanies of fatherhood is the realization that your kids are smarter, more creative and competent than you — indeed, that father does not always know best.
NYSED, transform yourself. Unlock the handcuffs and unleash the enormous potential of local school district aspiration, professionalism, innovation and passion for excellence.