Remembering Malatras

After reading last week of Jim Malatras’s pending departure from the Cuomo administration, I remembered a long ago long-winded missive from him to education officials in N.Y., and a response I had written. Almost two years ago now, but a reminder of how the politics and privilege employment carousel spins round and round, the faces and names change, but the B.S. and the fallout victims remain the same. Originally it appeared here, on my old blogspot blog where I occasionally reach back in time for some of my old stuff.

This is my response to the letter written by Jim Malatras, Director of State Operations for Governor Cuomo. His letter to the NYSED chancellor and commissioner goes to great length to focus blame on teachers for supposed failings of public education, and highlights popular teacher-bashing statistics, while also asking that in response to his loaded questions: politicizing is avoided. My tone is a tad snarky because I mirror his tone and structure, but I hope to provide a counterpoint and provoke some thought.

Dear Mr. Jim Malatras, Governor Cuomo, Chancellor Tisch, and Commissioner King,

As you know, citizens of the state of New York have an obligation to hold their elected officials responsible for the policies they promote, the people they appoint, and the words they either write or speak-whether it’s campaign season or not. It is one of the most important things we can do: model for our children and young learners (future citizens) the civic duties to promote honest, productive leadership for the good of all, and eliminate the destructive policy-making that promotes narrow interests and inequities in opportunity. Although those in education policy and in other leadership positions have spoken strongly about the need for improvement in educational outcomes for public school students, they have chosen to pursue this goal with an attack on public education while largely ignoring the greater burdens facing students, families, and schools. Despite the ongoing damage of market-based policies and data-driven, investment style formulas- this is the precise type of approach to education that is currently being called “reform”.

We all can agree that this is simply unacceptable.

The citizens of New York believe in leadership with a foundation in good character, informed and guided by the people of the state over the narrow interests that have already divided wealth with growing disparity and reduced opportunity for the majority of people. Character-based leadership would be evident when citizens do not have their value, or the value of their children, defined by a market-driven approach where people are turned into data and that data gets churned in a so-called “value-added” system. A market based approach such as this prioritizes the goals of the market and squanders the public-the true value in public education. While citizens understand that it is difficult for politicians to free themselves from their intimate relationships with big-money donors, advisors driving policy while avoiding accountability, and the desire to remain politically positioned for future campaigns and opportunities, it is more important to promote the needs of the many over the greed of the few. So let’s reframe the narrative regarding education reform. Instead of blatant attack on those coming to schools burdened by the failures in our leadership, and those serving the public in order to address those failures, let’s focus on systemic reform. It is time for leaders to own up to their responsibilities and submit themselves to evaluation and accountability with the same fervor with which they demand those from the public.

As you know, the public has had little influence over the roll-out and roll-ahead of destructive forces behind misguided reforms in our state.  The most that concerned citizens have been able to get is a short-lived “listening tour” from Commissioner King, a campaign-season admission from the governor that common core standards were rolled out ineffectively and a television ad regarding the importance of kitchen tables and parents. For the most part, though, officials at the state level have essentially gave up listening long ago and continue repeating talking points and party lines. But parents, students and educators have had, from the beginning, many questions about how leadership in our state and in education policy could have degraded to this extent. What can be done to answer these questions?

In essence, how can we address what is really wrong with how education is currently funded, organized, and evaluated in New York, where the root causes of student-struggles are ignored and the one group continually burdened with undoing the damage done by lack of character in leadership and failed economic and social policies gets blamed?

Please give your opinion on these questions without the typical parsing of words that is the hallmark of those wishing to sound willing and interested while at the same time avoiding responsibility. Truly enlightened policy comes when citizens know what policy makers think.

  1. How is the current lack of equity in funding and opportunity for students in public schools a defensible condition if the future of public school systems and teaching  careers hang in the balance based  on results impacted by funding inequities? Data shows that the best funded schools spend in the neighborhood of 80% more per-pupil and enjoy about double the proficiency rates on state tests. State test results being the governor’s go-to criticism of public education should ride tandem with his admission that funding inequities need to be addressed. How does the governor plan on addressing funding inequities?
  1. Should students, families, schools and educators be reaped for private and personal data to serve commercial interests? In addition, should testing companies enjoy privacy and protection in the process of test design and scoring when the tests themselves are intended to be used on public school students with results to be shared publicly? The governor’s own reform commission cited the importance of collaboration in moving forward with reform and this approach to assessment is in opposition to that goal. How will the governor increase collaboration with the professionals who understand teaching, learning and the best use for assessments?
  1. Along with number 2, should testing companies and third-party vendors enjoy profitable state contracts for creating high stakes tests when actual educators could design and use tests as intended-not as high stakes end-product but to inform instruction and intervention going into the future?
  1. Should educators be elevated to enemy number one in the battle for student outcomes when it is the investment/banking/finance industry that has done the most damage to parents and kitchen tables (the most important tools a student can have)and has still enjoyed the greatest protection from policy makers?
  1. Should charter schools enjoy  promotion and praise without operating under the same level of scrutiny and mandates? Often, charter schools  are run by those with few (if any) credentials, have enrollment that can be shaped and filtered, and students that prove difficult or may threaten high proficiency rates are counseled out. How will the practice of creating charters ensure that it is about all students, not just a few, and prevents public dollars from going into the pockets of undeserving private charter-school operators?
  1. While promotion to the national level seems to be the reward for an education commissioner that appeared disconnected from the citizens and students of New York, the opportunity for new leadership and a new direction holds promise. What new approach is planned for the next commissioner?
  1. Can the many hundreds of thousands of teachers in New York, being paid quite poorly compared to other professionals with graduate degrees, serving in some cases difficult and dangerous student populations in under-funded and over-mandated schools really be called a “special interest”? Can the small group of very wealthy individuals and the corporations looking to cash in on the standards-curriculum-testing-“school choice” agendas be less of a “special interest”? Teachers’ special interest is being allowed and empowered to do what is best for students and to not be made to suffer for doing it. How will education policy moving forward make this possible?
  1. While the state regulations describe pathways and opportunities available to all students, the reality is that funding does not support availability of these opportunities to all students in all schools. Can teachers be blamed for this? How will the governor address this?
  1. Can the governor, the commissioner, or most of the regents look into the eyes of a student who comes from a violent and broken home and know instinctively how to approach that student first thing in the morning to make the rest of the day go as well as possible? Who among you is willing to admit that the ability to teach, to an extent, is a gift that often can’t be reduced to data on a spreadsheet and the positive gains realized with this type of student are outside of what any standardized test can show. How does the governor plan to honor that gift and reverse the tide of turning education into sterilized training?

It is clear that powerful people are driving the agenda to turn public education into a game of numbers that absolves leaders from the moral obligation to target the true areas of need for reform.  The bureaucracy of the wealthy minority (silent advisors, campaign donors and private interests) that enjoys influence over policy that restricts opportunity for the majority of citizens presents a challenge we must face cooperatively. As the commissioner prepares to take his reform agenda to the national level, it will be good to hear his thoughts on how to break free of the status quo of wealth-driven inequity for public school students.

Sincerely,

Dan McConnell

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