Education Newsletter May 31, 2001

Slogans are not Thoughts
by Richard P. Mills, Commissioner of Education

“Remarks are not literature,” said Gertrude Stein to Ernest Hemingway. Neither are slogans substitutes for thinking about public policy. We are past the mid-point in our campaign to raise student achievement to a level demanded by the public and common sense, and we can all raise the tone of public discourse about education. Slogans are not thoughts. They can actually get in the way of thinking.

Consider some of the slogans currently used to criticize higher standards. “One size fits all” is a favorite. What does it mean? People who say this are trying to claim that the Regents standards force a single approach to teaching and learning. Sometimes they use this against the Regents exams. This is a distortion of the facts. The Board of Regents provided in policy for alternatives to the Regents exams. There is an Alternative Assessment Panel that has recommended a dozen alternative exams and I have approved them, including the International Baccalaureate, SAT-II, and the Cambridge Exams in particular subjects.

“Inflexibility” is another slogan that is used. Regents have certainly been resolute. But have they been inflexible? People asked for more time to get students ready, so the Board offered a temporary pass scoring of 55 at local option. People wanted flexibility in curriculum to allow a career and technical path to the diploma. So the Regents and the Department created the Career and Technical path with the help of thousands. Schools lacked the time to get ready for a fifth grade social studies test? The Regents put it off a year. The data showed that children with disabilities were improving fast but still needed time? The Regents extended the safety net for four more years. The new 8th grade exams were likely to add too much additional pressure to the system? We said go ahead with the tests but don’t report results in the first year except to parents, students and teachers. A group of school leaders told me the other week that we don’t listen to them. We do listen to them. But we also listen to others as well. Listening to a person doesn’t always mean doing all that is asked. Every leader, and especially every superintendent and board member knows what it’s like to listen to many voices and then try to build a path among competing views.

“Teaching to the test” is another slogan. No one needs to teach to the test - only to the learning standards. Teaching to the test is a bad strategy mainly because it doesn’t work and isn’t good for the students. One teacher noticed a question about fables in the first 4th grade English Language Arts assessment, so he drilled his students on fables last year. He was outraged to find no fables in the second year’s exam. A far more appropriate strategy is to expect the students to read and write a lot. Then they will be ready for anything. This involves aligning one’s teaching and curriculum to the standards. This “teaching to the test” slogan is no guide for teaching and is a false summary of what the Board of Regents has asked of schools.

Let’s stop using the slogans and let’s spend more time really listening to one another. We have come a long way and still have far to go. The children are getting a better education now and we can show it. But let’s think about the children not yet reaching the standards and what we can all do to help them. Let’s think about the problems with middle grades achievement. Youngsters are having real problems with mathematics in the middle grades. Those problems won’t go away if we just keep them home on testing days. Let’s think about the children who can meet enough of the standards to achieve a 55 on the Regents exam but not 65 or the 85 that signifies mastery. These are hard problems and we need to help one another solve them.

Most of all, let’s think about why we started this. It’s not about the exams. It’s about ensuring that all New York children gain the knowledge and skill needed for citizenship, work, and life in a complex world. In the recent past, many in the public said that too many weren’t learning enough. Because of your efforts, more children are learning. If we stay focused, all will.

Third Year Results on 4th Grade English Language Arts Test

The third year results for New York’s elementary school English test were recently released by the State Education Department. They showed continued gains overall and some progress in closing the achievement gap between minority and white students.

Overall sixty percent of public school fourth grade students met the State’s standards in English – up from forty-eight percent the first year the test was given.

Results for elementary school African-American students increased by 3 percent and results for Hispanic students increased by 2 .7 percent over the previous year. Results for white children increased by 1.1 percent. However, the gap between African-American and Hispanic students vs. white students remains large. Over 39 percent of African-American and Hispanic students reached the standards while 73 percent of white students did.

Results also increased for special education students by 7.3 percent over the previous year.

High need urban districts, especially small cities, improved. Over the past two years, 17.8 percent more students living in these areas, met the state standards by scoring in levels 3 and 4.

Public Private Partnerships for Student Achievement and Workforce Development

The New York State AFL-CIO and The Business Council have been working with the New York Citywide School-to-Work Alliance and local School-to-Work Partnerships on legislation to enable New York State to build on the partnerships established under the Federal School-to-Work Act. This legislation would also enable public private partnerships to support the whole school reform model called High Schools That Work which incorporates many principles developed through School-to-Work initiatives.

Online Education Opportunities at SUNY

The SUNY Learning Network (SLN), the online education arm of the State University of New York, has nearly doubled its enrollment over the past year, according to figures recently released by State University Officials.

The SLN recorded an enrollment of 25,814 students making SLN’s enrollment and the number of courses offered greater than those offered by the Western Governors University, University of Phoenix and nearly every other online higher education system in the world.

The SLN offers completely online, credit-based courses, taught by regular SUNY faculty. The total number of courses offered via the SLN is expected to exceed 2000 by this fall.

Satisfaction research studies of students and faculty consistently give SLN exceptional marks. In a survey conducted last fall, approximately 90 percent of students had reported that they learned a great deal in their online courses. Approximately 90 percent also said that they received high quality feedback in these courses, and 94 percent said they are very satisfied with SLN.

SLN especially benefits adults who are self-motivated and seeking to further their education and obtain a college degree, yet can’t attend traditional classes on a traditional schedule.

More information about the SUNY Learning Network is available at the SLN web site at http://SLN.suny.edu.