This is often true of the New York Post, which prides itself on humorous, tabloid-style headlines -- most famously, for example: "Headless Body Found in Topless Bar." It's also true of the New York Times, though for different reasons.
Both newspapers today appear to contradict each other, at least as far as the headlines:
"SAT Scores Hit Floor in Dramatic Plummet"
-- New York Post, August 26
"SAT Scores Hold Steady for '09, Panel Says"
-- New York Times, August 26
Can they both be true? Yes, as long as you are referring to different time periods. However, both headlines are still misleading in terms of the content of their respective accounts.
The Post makes the point that over a four-year period, from 2005 to 2009, SAT scores dropped by 13 points in reading, 18 points in math and 6 points in writing. On a percentage basis, these declines do not exceed 4 percent over the period. Not exactly "dramatic," though the trend is disturbingly increasing in the wrong direction.
The City Department of Education said this four-year negative trend is attributable to more students taking the exam, particularly lower-performing minority students, as larger numbers of such students are now on track to attend college. In 2009, 54 percent of minority students took the SATs, compared to 42 percent four years prior.
The problem with this contextual explanation is that as more minority students take the exam, the test results reveal that students in the City are not where they should be academically in terms of college readiness, as Jason Brooks of the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability points out. This trend in the SAT results also contradicts the outcomes on the state exams showing more City students meeting and exceeding state standards. This contradictory trend between results on state exams from the SATs is further evidence that state exams were too easy and the product of grade inflation -- coincidentally occurring in a mayoral election year and/or as a legacy-builder from recently departed state education commissioner, Rick Mills.
What of the Times' story? The "steady" descriptor was used to show virtually no change in average scores in the three subject areas between 2008 and 2009. No real news there. More importantly, the Times did point out the ongoing gap in scores on terms of race (white v. minority students), household income levels, and education of parents.
These achievement gaps to me are the alarming story, yet the headline of "steady" suggests no such thing. [Note: the on-line version's headline now says "slight decline", while I'm referring to the print version.]
The upshot of all this is that SAT scores are neither dramatically falling, nor steady as she goes. Instead, scores are headed in the wrong direction; minority and poor students continue to do poorly on a city-wide basis over time; and that the jump in state exams this year ring more dubious.
A new state education commissioner and a new term for the New York City mayor provides the opportunity to face these issues head on. For starters, let's be sure about what's real and what isn't.
for The Chalkboard
The new reality in the Senate is not what it may appear on paper, with a narrow 32-30 Democratic majority. In actuality, this has been, and remains, is a majority in name only.
Since last November's elections, when the Democratic members won their first majority in the state Senate after 43 years, the new majority has been fractured. The break in the majority became publicly visible by June when two of its members joined with Republicans to create a new, ephemeral coalition majority. Both members, of course, returned to the Democratic fold.
With the Democratic majority back in business, times nevertheless have changed. The Senate majority is led by three members: Senators Malcolm Smith, the Temporary President; John Sampson, as Conference Leader; and Pedro Espada, the Majority Leader. Also looming is Senator Jeff Klein, the Deputy Majority Leader who previously served skillfully as chairman of the Democrats' fund-raising committee.
Multiple leaders exist because there are multiple camps within the majority conference. This is far cry from the past when the Senate was ruled by a single leader with the central staff reporting to him. In fact, only three senators had served as majority leader in a 35-year span, from 1973 until last summer. Each of whom ruled, for better or for worse, with undisputed control. That allowed for decisions to be made centrally and more or less efficiently.
Similarly, the state Assembly, under Speaker Sheldon Silver, continues to operate this way, as he has been in this powerful position since 1994.
The New Senate Reality
Today's state Senate, with its divided majority, will move more slowly on deciding policy and passing bills, as it will be an ongoing challenge to come to a 32-member consensus on issues. Gone are the days when a leader can make a decision and make it stick in the conference even when several senators may not agree. The New York City school governance legislation is one glaring example. This important bill got done, eventually, but it wasn't pretty.
So, is this a bad thing?
One of the favorite soundbites of so-called good government groups has been to decry "three men in a room" (i.e., the Governor, Assembly Speaker, and Senate Majority Leader) deciding everything, with knee-jerk legislators dutifully going along. That charge was never quite true. In today's Senate, it's largely gone.
Senate action on issues will need to occur the old fashion, democratic way: getting a majority of its 62 members one at a time from both sides of the aisle since neither side, especially the majority, will necessarily be in lock-step with leadership on various issues. Additionally, the leadership itself inevitably will not agree on many issues. This makes the work of legislative staff and outside lobbyists more of a challenge, and will slow things down.
Democracy can be a slow and frustrating, but that can often be a good thing since more consideration can be given to do the right thing. That means the new Senate, and how it operates, can be an improvement as well.
Time will tell.
for The Chalkboard
Fresh from her superb leadership in appointing the state's new education commissioner, David Steiner, Tisch is now paradoxically picking a fight with the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan and his boss, President Obama. She told Ms. Green: "I am willing to debate the president and Arne Duncan in public space at any time of their choosing on the impact of this [tenure] law in New York State."
Them is fightin' words from New York State's education chancellor!
Some background. The Race to the Top program was included in the federal Stimulus Law and consists of grants from the U.S. Department of Education, totaling more than $4 billion, to be awarded among eligible states. To be eligible for this funding, which could amount in the hundred millions for a single award, states must have policies that encourage education reform and innovation, rather than stifle it. For states that do not, this funding program is designed to encourage them to change their laws.
Back in March, President Obama, in his marvelous speech on education, included three salient policy points, among several: 1) states should "reform their charter rules, and lift caps on the number of allowable charter schools;" 2) use data as "a resource that can help us improve student achievement, and tell us which students had which teachers so we can assess what's working and what's not;" and 3) "states and school districts taking steps to move bad teachers out of the classroom."
In June, Secretary Duncan openly questioned whether New York State would be considered for grants since it has a law that prohibits the use of student test scores to influence determinations for awarding teacher tenure. In addition, New York State has a cap on the number of charter schools, which is likely to be reached by 2011, if not sooner.
Which brings us back to Chancellor Tisch. Rather than take the lead of the president and the education secretary by advocating for reform and change in New York, Tisch instead has chosen this rhetorical Do-You-Know-Who-I-Am posture of challenging them to a public debate. No doubt she's trying to make a serious point, but it comes off as self-important and unproductive.
Leadership Opportunity for Change
Chancellor Tisch has the opportunity, with the backing of the Obama Administration, to call for reforming tenure and removing the charter cap, among other bold policies. Other states, including Tennessee and Illinois, already changed some of their laws to qualify for Race to the Top funds. New York has limited time to do the same, and it shouldn't be squandered in a defensive posture of nuancing retrograde policies.
Merryl Tisch should lead the way for change. She has the stature in New York to influence the debate, as lawmakers would take notice. Of course, some wouldn't like it, including Randi Weingarten, the national teacher union boss, who last year got the New York Legislature to scrap the tenure reform that is now harming the state's chances for more federal money. But, reform leadership means taking positions that others wedded to the status quo won't like.
Advocating Obama-like reforms for New York would be more productive and beneficial to the state's children than a make-believe challenge to the president to debate his own program.
for The Chalkboard
Disclaimer: The Chalkboard is hosted by the New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA) as a place where members, public education advocates and others can view and respond to informed commentary on timely public education and charter school issues. The views expressed here are not necessarily the official views of the NYCSA, its board, or of any of its individual charter school members. Anyone who claims otherwise is violating the spirit and purpose of this blog. To comment on anything you read here, or to offer tips, advice, comments, or complaints. please contact TheChalkboard.