Each year for the past 20 years, I've had the pleasure of writing in anticipation of a new school year. Each year for the past 20 years, I've often been surprised by what has actually happened. Last year's tragedy was so profound that its effects have yet to be fully understood. In other years, our schools have had to react to external events such as the stock market crash in October 1987; the state's mid-year deficit reduction plan in 1991-92 during which the district lost half of its budgeted state aid; asbestos, asbestos, asbestos in the '80s and '90s; heightened environmental awareness leading to oil tank removal, integrated pest management, and lead abatement in the '90s; the issue of a Charter School in 1998; the West Nile Virus scare in 1999; Columbine in 1999, leading to increased school security concerns; and a series of "Regents Action Plans." Each year, the political response to these events has meant ever-increasing centralized control at both the state and federal levels.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. William A. Shine with Board of Education President Judi Bosworth.
At the Federal level, starting with the publication of "A Nation At Risk" in 1982 until the "No Child Left Behind Act" of 2002 (detailed below) and, at the state level, from the "Compact for Learning" in 1984 to the elimination of the local high school diploma in 2005, the theme has been tighter direction of local schools by state and federal governmental authorities. Our schools and children are increasingly viewed as economic resources that are essential to the maintenance of a strong nation. Consideration of individual differences between and among children is viewed with suspicion. This movement toward centralized control has an announced goal of equity. There has, however, been some confusion as to the meaning of equity. For some, it means equal results; for others, it means equal opportunity.
The principal vehicle chosen to achieve equity has been educational assessment (testing) at the state and national levels. State departments of education at one time were primarily service-oriented. They are now almost totally regulatory and could even, at times, be construed as adversarial toward the local school district. In their regulatory role, the State Board of Regents and the State Education Department issue a plethora of regulations that become expensive mandates for the local school district to follow. Districts such as Great Neck, which receive only a small fraction of their budgets from State aid, must be in full compliance with all state mandates for which other districts receive a greater measure of state aid. State mandates not only include rigidly-controlled personnel practices of all the district's employees, but each function of the school district - from food service to purchasing - is heavily regulated.
It is a responsibility of the local board of education to implement all of these mandates and directions. Within this responsibility lies the major task of presenting a school budget that addresses state mandates while still providing for a wide range of educational opportunities for the community's children. The Great Neck Board of Education's vision, with the community's support, has resulted in schools that meet State basic requirements for all children and, in addition, provide a myriad of academic, cultural, and social experiences that meet the individual goals of students and their parents. If state regulations alone were adequate to the task, then local boards of education would become obsolete. In the case of New York City, this is apparently what has happened. For it to happen in Nassau County, the Great Neck schools would be tragically harmed. In my opinion, the creativity, energy, and moral guidance provided by the Great Neck Board of Education are essential to the conduct of our schools. For example, this summer the board had oversight of the following projects and activities that will impact on the 2002-03 school year:
Each year the school district is required to conduct a building conditions survey review that identifies any potential problems that may impact on the quality of life in our schools. During the summer months construction and maintenance projects are implemented to address those concerns. During this summer such work was conducted in all of our school buildings. The major projects were as follows:
At South High School the roof was removed and replaced over the entire building. Last year, at South Middle School, the roofing was replaced. This year we replaced all damaged spline ceilings with dropped ceilings.
At North High School aging carpets were replaced with Marmoleum in 22 rooms. A major addition to the North Middle School resulted from the removal of an unused 1950 bowling alley rehabilitated for classroom use.
In addition to all of these projects, the South High School's 1956 running track was converted to an all-weather 400-meter competition level track.
All of these projects were accomplished while extensive summer school and recreation programs were in place and unencumbered.
Pursuant to State law enacted in May 2002, by December 1, 2002, the school district will have trained 70 staff members in the use of Automated External Defibrillators. There will be two defibrillators in each school, and a staff member will be present any time the school is in use by students.
Our Transportation Department is ready to transport 5,630 students to 128 locations throughout Nassau, Suffolk, Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. The District will transport to 36 locations with only one student in attendance at each location. Great Neck registered students will be transported approximately one million miles during the school year.
We have asked bus drivers to give the children extra time in the mornings and afternoons for the first week so that students can acclimate themselves to school bus travel for the new school year. We also ask parents to understand that safety is our main concern and time schedules may not be met until the second full week of school.
The technology program in Great Neck has experienced tremendous growth over the past few years and that expansion continues in 2002-03. The district has adopted a total cost of ownership approach that goes beyond hardware acquisition to include infrastructure, telecommunications, staffing, technical support, curriculum, and staff development. This comprehensive approach enables us to focus on achieving our primary goal, which is to seamlessly integrate technology into the teaching and learning process in each school.
Fifty teachers new to the district will begin their Great Neck teaching careers in September 2002. Recruiting teachers has become more competitive. When the board of education, pursuant to the May 2002 authorization by the State Legislature, offered an early retirement incentive, only 32 of the 352 eligible teachers chose this option. The replacement teachers were carefully selected and are highly qualified, demonstrating the desirability of Great Neck as a place to teach.
The Great Neck Board of Education establishes policies dealing with staff employment that guarantee each position will be filled by the most qualified person. One of its most important functions is to appoint a superintendent of schools whose contract is with the board alone. This non-tenured position is critical to the successful implementation of the community's wishes as understood by the board of education. One of the great sources of strength in Great Neck education has been the stability in this position. Our district has had but three superintendents since 1940. During this school year, a new superintendent will be chosen by the board to serve the community in the 2003-04 school year and thereafter, for what is hoped to be at least the next 10 years. Great Neck students have benefited from the highly competent and moral direction of the elected school trustees. The board of education will conduct the search for a new superintendent with the same openness and in the interests of all stakeholders - community members, parents, staff, and students - as it has shown in conducting all of its governance activities.
Our test results continue to meet and exceed state standards. Eighty percent of our graduates receive Regents diplomas. AP results have continuously improved both in the number of exams written and scores received. Our fourth grade ELA scores placed Great Neck third in the state in the percentage of students being considered proficient. Our eighth grade ELA mean scores, along with those of Garden City, ranked first in Nassau County. While the differences among the top-scoring school districts are not statistically significant, it is important to note that our school district, which has a more diverse population than many of those in the top-ranked school districts of the state, continues to meet the challenge of state assessment. Some cautionary comments regarding the process of testing follow.
State assessment policy requires careful review because it has become the focus of state control under the guise of "standards-based education," which leads inexorably to assessment-driven instruction. What is tested is what is taught, and the inverse is also true. For over a century, the Regents examination program represented the gold standard in New York State. Achievement of a Regents diploma signified that a student had successfully completed a rigorous college preparatory curriculum in English, mathematics, science, social studies, and foreign language. Throughout the history of New York State a minority of high school graduates were awarded Regents diplomas; most students received local diplomas based on locally-approved curricula which, recently, also requires passing state competency exams in English, history, mathematics, and science.
In 2005 local diplomas will be eliminated and all graduating students will receive Regents diplomas. These Regents diplomas will be substantially different from previous Regents diplomas as the new diplomas will require passing exams in only five subjects as opposed to the current requirement of passing additional exams in students' majors. Not only will fewer exams be required, but the five new exams required for graduation that are currently being phased in have, through scoring gimmickry and, in some cases content, been unmistakably downgraded. In addition, there will be an Advanced Regents diploma that will be more rigorous in requiring students to pass the same five exams as well as Regents exams in additional subjects such as Math B, chemistry and physics. While the Living Environments Regents, for example, is not nearly as challenging as the Biology Regents it replaced, those Regents that are optional and that count only toward an Advanced Regents diploma have been ratcheted up to such a degree that students may be discouraged from attempting them.
The June Physics Regents is a good case in point. Changes in both the format of the test and the scale score conversion method produced an unusual and disturbing drop in scores statewide. James Kadamus, deputy commissioner for education, responding to an outcry by the state's physics teachers and administrators over the poor results and numerous requests to adjust the scoring, wrote, "The review of the scale scoring showed that the passing scores on the examination represented the appropriate level of achievement of the [new] standards in physics." He stated further that the students [taking physics] "should be able to do higher level work" (School Executive's Bulletin, Summer 2002). It is clear that the state's paramount objective is to bestow the new devalued Regents diploma on as many students as possible, thus creating the impression that it has "raised the standards" for graduation. This, coupled with the addition of an Advanced Regents diploma, does address the need to provide academically weaker students with a serious goal and will no doubt make their high school years more productive. It may also, however, further divide the student body between those pursuing the new Regents diploma and those pursuing the Advanced Regents diploma. One can easily foresee Newsday in August 2005 listing the Advanced Regents diplomas and continuing to make invidious comparisons among districts simply using new categories. All teachers know that changing the name of the reading group from the Robins to the Bluebirds doesn't fool the children.
Another example of unintended consequences of State micromanagement is the advent of the Academic Intervention Services (AIS) model. This is particularly onerous at the middle school level. Schools must provide AIS to students who perform below the designated standard on any state test (there are five at grade eight), with such services to be supplementary to their regular academic program. The proliferation of state assessments has not only robbed middle school students of irreplaceable instructional time, but limits opportunities to explore alternate learning modes and programs outside the state-defined core curriculum. There is no time available for these children to participate in learning activities more likely to have longterm benefits. For these 13- and 14-year-old early adolescents, time spent in positive social interaction, music and art experiences, and athletics is far more valuable than participating in a tutorial in social studies. I am hopeful that the state will recognize that literacy and numeracy profit from a combination of tutorial and life experience.
While schools are still learning to cope with the heavy hand of state controls, the Federal government has entered the arena, with the passage of the "No Child Left Behind Act," ensuring that every state will soon be awash in mass testing. The 2002-03 school year will be impacted by the new Federal legislation colloquially entitled, "No Child Left Behind." Some of the key provisions of this act are:
* The state must assess annually all students in grades three through eight in reading and math, beginning in 2005-06, with the addition of science in 2007.
* Reading assessments must be administered in English to any student who has attended school in the US for three years.
* States are required to participate biennially in the National Assessment of Educational Programs (NAEP) reading and math assessments, in grades four and eight, beginning in 2002-03.
* Districts are required to report publicly each year all assessment results, disaggregated by poverty, race, ethnicity, disability, and limited English proficiency.
* All programs funded by Title 1 must use effective methods and instructional strategies based on "scientifically based research."
* Parents must be notified annually of their right to request information regarding the professional qualifications of their child's teachers.
* Principals must "attest annually in writing" that their schools are in compliance with the qualification requirements for teachers and paraprofessionals.
* Districts are obliged to provide military recruiters with the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of secondary students unless the student or parent requests that such information not be provided without the parent's prior written consent.
All students in grades three through eight must pass reading and math assessments established by each state. Schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress in meeting their state's standards are identified as "schools in need of improvement." At the other end of the spectrum, the US Education Department recognizes excellence through its Blue Ribbon Schools Program, which honors schools that meet a set of strict criteria that include challenging curriculum and academic success. Ironically, USA Today, with data from only 10 states, discovered that at least 19 schools that have been awarded the coveted Blue Ribbon in the last few years have also been identified as schools in need of improvement (schools from which parents have a license to flee) - some in the very same school year. Such paradoxes further erode public confidence at a time when traditional public schools are under continuous attack.
While our schools will not face the dire consequences of failing state and federal requirements, our children, teachers, and parents are affected by the amplification of statistically insignificant differences between and among schools. Public scrutiny of the test scores so reported have added tension to our fourth and eighth graders, and now that tension will be part of the third grade experience as well. It is up to us, parents, teachers, and administrators, to ensure that this tension is creative, not stressful - a difficult task but one that is essential to the proper education of our children.