This will be the last “From the Desk of the Associate Commissioner” column that I write, as personal circumstances compel me to retire this month.
When I started at the New York State Education Department (NYSED or “the Department”) more than 37 years ago, there was no Office of Accountability because schools, districts, and individuals were, by and large, not held accountable for their performance by the Department. In 1981, the Board of Regents had recently implemented the requirement that students show minimal competency in order to earn a high school diploma, with students initially being required to pass the Basic Competency Tests and then the Regents Competency Tests. A structure to hold schools and districts accountable for student results largely did not exist.
What gave much momentum to the accountability movement in New York and the rest of the nation was the report entitled “A Nation at Risk,” which was released in April 1993 and which stated that, “Our Nation is at risk… the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur--others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.”
This report gave significant impetus to an educational reform agenda that was focused upon:
- Raising educational standards, defined primarily in terms of language arts and mathematics
- Using standardized assessments to measure student achievement in relation to these standards
- Providing support to the lowest performing schools and districts to assist them to have their students meet these higher standards
- Publicly reporting the results achieved by schools and districts in having their students achieve these higher standards; and
- Holding schools and districts accountable for the results achieved by their students
By 1989, the Commissioner of Education had placed the first group of 43 public schools in New York under Registration Review, and by 1994 the Regents Advisory Committee on Low-Performing Schools had issued a report entitled “Perform or Perish,” which called for schools to either perform or perish and be replaced by institutions that will better serve students.
This structure of “standards, student assessment, reporting, technical assistance, accountability, and consequences” has been embedded in Federal educational policy since the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act and has driven much education policy for the past two decades.
In my personal experience the results of this paradigm have been mixed: it has driven additional attention and resources to the schools most in need of support; catalyzed school stakeholders to implement robust improvement efforts; shined a spotlight on underperforming schools and districts; and, in some cases, resulted in establishment of successor schools that are producing far better results than their predecessors. But these successes have not come without unintended consequences and diverted efforts. We have seen increased skepticism regarding the value of standardized assessments, a narrowing of curriculum, increased pressure on fragile educational institutions, improvement funds spent neither wisely nor well signifying very little, and the implementation of strategies that move the dial on accountability indicators without increasing actual student learning.
In the end, I believe there is value in having a system that seeks to support those schools in greatest need of improvement that is backstopped by a set of consequences when student achievement does not improve. At the same time, we should be humble and judicious in our use of such a system. As is Albert Einstein is attributed to have said, “Not Everything that can be Measured is Important, and Not Everything that is Important can be Measured.” The current state of accountability systems allows us only to make rough approximations about the degree to which schools are adding value to the education of students.
The work of the Office of Accountability this last decade has been to accurately identify those schools that can most benefit from additional support and engage their stakeholders in developing and implementing plans to improve student achievement. We have done this work to the very best of our ability within the confines of law and regulation. While my role in this work is ending, my colleagues shall continue to support you to achieve our common goal of ensuring that every child in New York State receives the best possible education.
Please click on the link to view the Board of Regents tribute to Associate Commissioner Ira Schwartz and
Ira’s Farewell Speech
to the Board of Regents.