Imagine you are in grade school, taking a test, one that could determine whether your teacher keeps her job, the amount of funding your school receives or even if it will remain open. You’ve been preparing for this test for months and now there is a multiple-choice question on a computer screen in front of you, but every option — A, B, C — reads “system error.”
This actually happened on April 11 to students sitting for the New York State English exam. Other students in the 263 districts taking part in the digital-testing pilot program weren’t able to log in or their work was lost when the software crashed. The glitch was ultimately ironed out, but the “system error” message spoke volumes to critics of the state’s increased emphasis on standardized tests.
In the past two school years, approximately 20 percent of New York parents have refused to force their children to take the statewide exams in what’s become known as the opt-out movement. They say the tests are developmentally inappropriate, while teachers complain of being forced to devote excessive amounts of time preparing students for them.
Gov. Cuomo has pushed corporate friendly school policies whose impact has been far-reaching.
“As teachers, we’re trained to look at the entire child, but as soon as we enter the institution of the Department of Education, we’re suddenly compliance managers,” says Jia Lee. An opt-out parent and a teachers union activist, Lee has worked as a special education instructor at various New York City public schools for 17 years. She is running for lieutenant governor as a Green Party candidate. “The pressure is on the teacher and the administrators to make sure test scores are high,” she says.
Parents and educators alike have also raised concerns about students’ privacy. The test scores are part of the data used to track student performance over the course of their education. Personal information such as Social Security numbers are often batched in with academic information provided to third-party vendors contracted by the state Department of Education (DOE).
In January, Questar, which received a five-year, $44 million contract in 2015 to administer state exams for third through eighth graders, announced that a data breach had compromised the confidential information of 52 students at five schools in Great Neck, Menands, Oceanside, Queens and Buffalo. That’s only a minute fraction of the more than 2.6 million students enrolled in New York’s school system, but nonetheless the breach — which included student names, teachers, grades and identification numbers — highlighted the risks of collecting massive troves of student data and placing it in the hands of third parties.
Yet the tests and the data-driven assessments of both teachers and students that have accompanied them are just one facet of the education overhaul the state is undergoing at the direction of Gov. Andrew Cuomo — part of a national trend of education “reforms” pushed forward by Wall Street, technology companies and billionaires like the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune.
Gov. Cuomo, the most powerful politician in New York for the past seven and a half years, is seeking a third term but is facing a primary challenge from the left by Cynthia Nixon, a longtime education activist who has name recognition thanks to her role on the popular television program Sex and the City.
The governor, who hopes that winning a third term will vault him into consideration as a viable presidential candidate in 2020, touts himself as a “progressive” Democrat while raising vast sums of money from the 1 percent. Cuomo has increased the minimum wage and pushed same-sex marriage through the legislature, but he has a much spottier record on several other major issues. New York City’s subway system has fallen apart on his watch. He has done almost nothing to shore up state laws that protect the roughly 2 million city residents who live in rent-stabilized apartments, has chronically underfunded city and state university systems, and has pushed forward a series of corporate-friendly school policies whose impact on millions of New York school children, families and teachers has been far-reaching — if more opaque and obscure than a daily commute from hell on a broken subway system.
Often derided as the “school deform movement” by its detractors, the corporate push for education reform has led to the closure of hundreds of public schools, the proliferation of privately-operated, publicly-funded charter schools and attacks on teachers’ unions, one of the last bastions of organized labor. Norm Scott, a longtime public school teacher who now runs the Ed Notes Online blog, describes the surfeit of corporate think tanks, political action committees, charter school chains and data analysis firms that have sprung up under the “reform” umbrella in recent years as the “Education Industrial Complex.”
“It’s not going away any time soon,” says Scott. “There’s too much money in it.”
Both Republicans and many Democrats have promoted these policies, through their preferred ideological lenses. For the GOP, it’s about school choice, “innovation” and often breaking the “obstructionism” of teachers’ unions. Meanwhile, Democrats like Cuomo have couched their calls for stiffer teacher evaluations tied to standardized tests and for replacing public schools with charters in the language of progressivism, arguing their agenda will grant every student an equal opportunity to succeed.
When Students Are Cattle, Teachers Are Ranchers
Gov. Cuomo has championed a series of policies that, taken together, form a kind of feedback loop (See sidebar) threatening the foundation of public education in the state. Test scores are used to fire teachers and to label schools failures and close them down. In turn, those schools are replaced by nonunion charters, thereby weakening the membership base of the New York State United Teachers, the statewide teachers union, and its New York City local, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT).
“I’ll never forgive Gov. Cuomo,” says Carol Burris, a former principal of the year at South Side High School in Rockville Centre on Long Island, now executive director of the Network for Public Education Foundation. She describes the climate in which the “reform” movement first began to pick up steam. The Obama administration’s 2009 “Race to the Top” initiative gave states an incentive to focus on test scores as a way of securing federal grants at a time when the housing crisis had left schools strapped for revenue.
“Cuomo, he just took advantage of it politically,” Burris explains. “All of a sudden, teachers and principals were seen as villains. We were not doing our job. We had to perform. And if only we were better, poverty would disappear because all of the kids at school, no matter how difficult their circumstances, they would go off to college and poverty would disappear.”
To gauge teacher performance, New York State uses a metric known as student-growth percentile (SGP). In theory, it is supposed to factor in economic data and other elements that contribute to test results, and then determine a teacher’s impact on learning by how much the percentile rankings of students under their charge have changed each year. The state DOE takes test data and compares that to statistical models for how much growth each student in a class should experience and assigns teachers ratings of “highly effective,” “effective,” “developing” or “ineffective.” Those who receive two consecutive “ineffective” ratings could face dismissal. As critics point out, if a teacher manages to inflate her students’ scores one year and preserve her job, then the next year’s teacher will be expected to surpass that.
“Really, the test scores are indicating where there are high pockets of poverty and inequity,” says Lee, rather than how well students are being instructed. She notes that there are no state standards for how charter schools evaluate their instructors. They are not compelled to use SGP.
And yet students at charter schools tend to outperform their public school peers. The reason for this, Lee argues, is because tests are often charter schools’ primary focus of instruction and because charters, which typically enroll students through a lottery system, use disciplinary measures to weed out problematic pupils. Forty-two percent of all student suspensions in New York City occurred at charter schools, although they contain only 7 percent of the city’s overall student population, according to an analysis conducted by the Atlantic based on 2014 data. One mother, whose son attended a Success Academy charter in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, told the magazine that he was suspended 30 times in one year in an effort to force her to withdraw him. Success Academy, the state’s largest charter-school network, runs 46 schools in the five boroughs and its operators are among Gov. Cuomo’s largest donors.
A 2017 study by the Network for Public Education found that charter schools in New York City have a lower population of students with special needs or who come from economically disadvantaged homes. At Success Academy Charter – Harlem 1, 76 percent of students come from low-income homes and 16 percent have learning disabilities. That might seem high, but not when compared to the surrounding public schools. At nearby PS 149 Sojourner Truth, 93 percent of students are low-income, 36 percent have special learning needs.
Public schools, Lee says, “are not in the business of pushing students out. We work really hard to educate all of our students, no matter what.”
Oddly enough, the SGP assessment tool the DOE uses to measure teacher performance derives from an equation deployed in a number of states called value-added modeling that was developed by statistician William Sanders of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, who first used it to calculate the impact of nuclear weapons tests on radiation levels in livestock.
In 2015, Cuomo dropped his own bombshell on teachers when he signed a law that tied 50 percent of their evaluations to test scores. The fallout was intense. One out of five New York school families opted out of having their kids take the tests and the DOE announced a moratorium on implementing the teacher evaluation system until the 2019-2020 school year — well after this year’s election.
Charter School Airbnb
But test scores are still being used to shut schools down.
In 2014, new Mayor Bill de Blasio attempted to fulfill a campaign promise. His predecessor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, had shuttered 164 public schools from 2002 to 2013. Roughly four times as many smaller charter schools replaced them, many opening in spaces that had previously been inhabited by public schools, a process known as “co-locating.” De Blasio called for a moratorium on co-locations, but Cuomo stepped up to defend the school closures, arguing that schools where students didn’t meet the state’s stringent math and English testing standards deserve the “death penalty.”
“We will save charter schools,” the governor pledged. Later that year, he signed a bill requiring the city to provide charter schools space in its public schools or cover the rent they incur elsewhere.
The growth of charter schools has slowed under de Blasio, with 12 a year moving into public school buildings, compared with 30 a year during the last five years of Bloomberg’s tenure. Nevertheless, the city paid $52 million this year alone in charter-school rent, a figure that is expected to rise by $10 million next year.
There are two ways for charter schools to obtain licenses in New York State. One is through the Board of Regents, whose members are chosen by the state Assembly. The other is through the State University of New York (SUNY) Charter School Institute, whose board is controlled by Cuomo appointees. In October, the institute voted to waive teacher certification requirements and allow uncertified teachers to work as instructors at the schools it licenses. The board’s chair, Joseph Belluck, an asbestos injury attorney and six-figure Cuomo donor who proposed the measure, justified the lowered standards by touting the exceptional test scores of students at those schools. The hiring of uncertified teachers would act as a stopgap measure, he argued, to fill hiring vacancies at schools under SUNY’s domain. Success Academy has received all of its licenses from SUNY.
But charter schools aren’t the only ones grappling with a teacher shortage. Is it any wonder that fewer people would want to enter a profession in which your livelihood is tenuously tied to the results of draconian exams taken by impoverished students?
For proponents of education reform in both major political parties, the financial rewards have been handsome. Corporate reformers have big money to throw around, which they have used to insert themselves in policy debates, often drowning out the voices of parents and teachers. In a recent special election in Westchester County to fill a vacant state Senate seat, a political action committee linked to the charter advocacy group StudentsFirstNY poured $800,000 into ads opposing Democratic candidate Shelley Mayer. The bulk of StudentsFirstNY’s funding comes from members of the Walton family. On April 13, 11 days before the special election, Arkansas-natives Alice and Jim Walton wired a half a million dollars each to StudentsFirstNY’s PAC, a review of campaign finance filings shows. Mayer ultimately won despite that torrent of cash.
‘You can’t say you believe in public schools when you aren’t funding them equitably.’
The misleadingly named Great Public Schools PAC run by Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, has donated $303,500 to politicians of all stripes in New York, including $105,000 to Gov. Cuomo since 2011. Moskowitz, a former City Councilmember from the Upper East Side, makes $600,000 a year as CEO. Billionaire asset manager Daniel Loeb, who served as Success Academy’s chair until he announced on May 1 that he was stepping down, contributed $400,000 to Cuomo and PACs that support him — that’s excluding the $300,000 he’s poured into Moskowitz’s Great Public Schools.
Success Academy gave no reason for Loeb’s resignation, though it appears unrelated to remarks he made on Facebook last August. In them, he praised state Senator Jeff Klein, the leader of the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference that allied with the Republicans to give them control of the Senate, for standing up for “poor knack [sic] kids.” After his glowing endorsement of Klein, who is white, Loeb went on compare charter school opponents to the Ku Klux Klan, specifically citing the Senate’s African-American Democratic leader: “hypocrites like [Andrea] Stewart-Cousins who pay fealty to powerful union thugs and bosses do more damage to people of color than anyone who has ever donned a hood.” He will be succeeded by another Wall Street kingpin, Steven Galbraith of Kindred Capital.
Why have elites thrown their chips into the education game?
“They really believe in competition, that it is okay if something closes down if something better takes its place,” Burris suggests. “Of course, they never think about the lives of the children that are disrupted when a school closes.” Another motivation, says Burris, is to maintain the status quo: “They would rather believe that poor children have such difficult life circumstances and limited future prospects because a public school did not prepare them, than to look in the mirror and see that their own system of beliefs in unrestrained capitalism and wealth are contributing to the dire poverty in this nation.”
It also helps that their agenda strikes at the heart of unions. If you are going to go after the labor movement, the public sector, with its unionization rate of 35 percent, is a great place to start. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are two of the most sizable unions in the country.
In fact, the reason Loeb and other rich dipshits have any sway in education debates, or within the Democratic Party for that matter, is precisely because of the decline of unions as a political force. Politicians like Cuomo have to fill their campaign coffers, and less and less of that money is coming from labor. In New York, appeasing charter school advocates provides a geyser of cash that rivals what the real-estate industry is willing to fork up.
Despite his attacks on their members, UFT leadership continues to stick by Cuomo, backing him over Cynthia Nixon in the upcoming Democratic primary this September. Part of the reason why: they are depending on the governor to help shield them from the likely ruling in the Janus v. AFSCME case, in which U.S. Supreme Court justices are expected to strike down requirements that workers pay fees to unions even if they don’t join them.
The Report Card
Nearly a decade into the educational reform push, one might begin to wonder what the results have been. Burris suggests we take a look at the biannual National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly described as ‘the nation’s report card.’ “In 2015, NAEP scores fell,” she points out. “In 2017, NAEP scores stayed the same. They never recovered. They didn’t budge. I think we can logically say that none of these policies made NAEP scores better.”
What does work? Burris points to a number of steps that could improve the quality of education in New York State and nationally. One is racial integration. Schools in New York City are some of the most segregated in the country.
“Children of color do substantially better when they are in integrated schools and the academic performance of kids who are not of color is not adversely affected,” she says. Other real reforms: increased support services and smaller class sizes. “It’s ironic that in wealthy white communities in Westchester and Long Island, you see far smaller class sizes than we have in the city, where there are far more serious needs — kids that are poor, kids that have learning disabilities.” Those wealthy suburbs also have elected school boards. New York City does not. Giving communities more power over their school districts could also lead to more culturally relevant curriculum whereas the standardized testing model of education has left many students feeling alienated.
And one thing every educator who spoke with The Indypendent for this article called for: money.
“You can’t say you believe in public schools when you aren’t funding them equitably,” Lee said.
New York maintains a nearly $10,000 education spending gap per pupil between rich and poor — second only to Pennsylvania.
“[Lawmakers] like to say there is an achievement gap,” said Maria Bautista, campaigns director for the Alliance for Quality Education New York. “But really there’s a resource gap.”
In New York, as in much of the country, property taxes fund the state’s public schools. This has historically meant that whiter, more affluent areas can raise more money than poorer regions. In 2007, responding to a lawsuit filed by advocates with the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, then-governor Eliot Spitzer agreed to establish a “foundation aid” formula to ensure the fair allocation of money to schools and meet the state constitution’s mandate to provide “sound basic education” to all students.
Under the terms of the settlement, Spitzer pledged to allocate $5.5 billion over four years utilizing that formula, which distributes money to schools based on factors like student poverty, the number of English learners and students with disabilities. However, the Board of Regents calculates that public schools are still owed $4.2 billion statewide — money that has been conspicuously left out of the budgets Gov. Cuomo has signed into law year after year.
Meanwhile, under heavy fire from parents and facing a primary challenge from the left, Cuomo has edged away from (but not abandoned) many of his signature education policies in recent years. But were he to be re-elected, what could we expect to see in a third term? Would he be chastened or empowered to continue the demolition of public education?
John Tarleton and Jesse Rubin contributed reporting to this article.
Photo: WATCH OUT KID: Gov. Andrew Cuomo greets one of his younger constituents. Credit: governorandrewcuomo/Flickr.