Niagara Gazette

January 2, 2013

Local school officials sound off on Cuomo's reform report

by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Could changes be coming to New York state’s public education system?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission released a 92-page report Wednesday, highlighting eight changes the state could investigate to change the way education is provided state-wide.

The report, which Cuomo said will be used to inform his State of the State address scheduled for Jan. 9, calls for the expansion of pre-kindergarten, especially for high-needs students; improving technology; streamlining district consolidation efforts; increasing accountability and transparency; preparing teachers and rewarding superior performance and increase college and career readiness training.

“I think the management of the system can be improved. I don’t think we’re getting our money’s worth from the current system,” Cuomo said Wednesday. “I don’t think we measure it. I don’t think we’ve held people accountable.”

Wednesday’s proposal also included increasing both the length of the school day and year for more teacher-student classroom time and a call for districts to focus on turning their buildings into “community schools,” with a focus on providing students with more than just typical education.

But locally, administrators and teachers are unsure what changes could make education more effective.

Falls Superintendent Cynthia Bianco said she briefly reviewed the recommendations Wednesday afternoon and found very few new ideas the small city district hasn’t already either implemented or tried previously.

“It’s nice to see a report from a commission detailing things we already do,” she said. “I’m not being glib, we do a lot of this already. The issue we have is the inequity of state funding to poor districts. When we can’t go to our tax base to fund a program we want, yet a district on Long Island receives state aid when they can afford to raise taxes to offer Chinese, it just isn’t fair.

“I’m glad the report addressed some of the issues we have.”

Bianco said in addition to consistently looking to consolidate services to cut costs – like closing underused buildings and overhauling the district’s maintenance department – increasing effectiveness of teachers is a top priority of her administration. She said doesn’t believe simply getting more money would fix the district’s problems, but would allow for more opportunities for teachers to succeed in educating students.

She said continuing education for professionals is just as important to success in the classroom as pressure to succeed from outside forces like professional assessments and state standardized testing.

“Not everyone’s a born teacher,” she said. “I believe in continuing and ongoing staff development and improvement. You don’t just go to college and then you’re all set. It’s a process.”

Even suggesting an increase in the school day brought strong words from Lewiston-Porter United Teachers President Kevin Jaruszewski, already a vocal critic of Cuomo’s annual Professional Performance Review requirement.

He said drastically increasing the school day or year could have different results than what’s expected.

“Off the top of my head, it doesn’t make sense,” he said. “I would have to question the data they’re using. A longer school day doesn’t equate to better test scores or whatever they’re looking for. In fact, it could have the opposite effect, it could be more draining on (students).”

Jaruszewski said an increase would also create a nightmare for negotiating units like teachers unions, with each unit negotiating its own collective bargaining agreement with a school board. Increasing the length of the school year would force every district back to the table, and with more than just the teachers.

But his unit also doesn’t feel the need to increase the time teachers are in the classroom because, as part of its last bargaining agreement, they did just that.

“Extending the school day has been done at the local level already,” he said. “We agreed to extend it by a half hour in the last contract we approved. We wanted to do it in contact time (with students).”

From a district school board perspective, Niagara-Wheatfield board President Steven Sabo said the state mandating pre-kindergarten – and, by association, kindergarten as well – would help districts prepare students to succeed at a time in their lives when they’re most impressionable.

He said he witnessed it with his own children when they attended Niagara-Wheatfield’s pre-k program.

However, accomplishing the goal of providing the early opportunities comes at a price, one which districts couldn’t guarantee unless it’s paid for by the state.

“Hopefully if they’re going to mandate pre-k and kindergarten, they’re going to fund them, too,” Sabo said. “Right now, there are districts which don’t have the money laying around to fund it. They’d have to override the tax cap, and we saw how well that worked out for us.”

Sabo, a teacher in the North Tonawanda City School District as well, said the state promoting competition between teachers as part of trying to receive better performances from students – another part of Wednesday’s proposals – would also be detrimental and could have the same effect as increasing the school year.

“Competition like this could cause rifts in your teaching staff,” he said. “If the state is going to reward me for a job well done, I’m not going to share what I did. If i do, and someone takes it and uses it, I could potentially be transfered or lose my job. So it’s going to create animosity within the teaching staff.

“The competition is good for filling a job initially, but afterward, the staff needs to work as a team.”

Wednesday’s report is expected to be followed up with a full document detailing the commission’s findings sometime this fall.