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More Than a Test: NY State Regent Johnson envisions ‘a more just, engaging and child-centered’ state ed policy

johnson"Our schools have never been about passing standardized tests," said NY State Regent Judith Johnson this past Thursday, June 2nd at the Scarsdale Public Library. Calling that goal "too narrow," Johnson asserted, "The goal of schools is to prepare students to be effective citizens and caring adults."

Regent Johnson was the guest speaker at the Scarsdale Forum's annual meeting. The State Legislature elected her on April 1, 2015 to a five-year term representing Scarsdale and other Lower Hudson Valley school districts on the Board of Regents, the state's educational policy-making body. Johnson's prepared remarks, titled "More Than a Test," were her personal reflections on her first year in Albany.

In his introductory remarks, outgoing Forum president Howard Nadel refrained from reciting Johnson's complete resume of past positions and accomplishments, explaining that to do so would "take up the entire evening." He did note that Johnson had served as Peekskill school superintendent and as President Bill Clinton's Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education. Nadel added that Judith Johnson was known for "bringing diverse groups together" and for being someone who "gets things done." Regent Johnson's full bio can be read here. 

This was Regent Johnson's second time in town at the invitation of the Scarsdale Forum. Last year, just 30 days after assuming her new post, Johnson appeared at Scarsdale High School on a Forum panel to discuss the state's widely opposed education mandates, hastily implemented starting in 2010 in order to win federal Race to the Top funds. That evening, Johnson's candid critique of these policies and call for a pause in their implementation earned her a standing ovation from the entire audience of local and area residents. (Scarsdale10583 coverage of that event can be read here.) 

Johnson's address to members of the Forum and the Public this past week at the library began by focusing on what she called "quite a year" of changes at the state level. While she stated that "it's too early to take victory laps," she said that the "voices of communities have actually been heard" and that the "rising resistance" to New York's controversial student testing and teacher evaluation policies has resulted in "a new vision of education" at the state level.

Johnson said the voices of parents and educators had an effect, and that area politicians – including Amy Paulin, Steven Otis and Andrea Stewart-Cousins – helped because "they listened." New Regents were elected, nine out of the 17 Regents are now women, and they include five former superintendents – that is, "policy practitioners are now sitting at the table." As a result, the Board of Regents "has changed dramatically."

By way of example, Johnson noted that when she first joined the Board no one was asking questions, such as "what might be the unintended consequences of a policy decision?" She said that she and three other Regents came to be called a "gang" or "the dissidents." Now, however, with new leadership, "it is natural for people to raise questions as part of the conversation."

While saying that she "won't call them accomplishments, yet," Regent Johnson referred to "trends," as well as continued "serious challenges," in the following policy areas:

Student Testing – Johnson stated that this year's state-mandated tests were still those designed by Pearson, whose test questions have been the subject of critique and controversy; however, while the previous state policy was to release only a small fraction of sample test questions, prompting widespread parent and educator complaint, the Department of Education has now just released 75% of the questions and scoring rubrics from this spring's round of tests. Johnson proceeded to make clear her views on standardized tests in general. While a long-time supporter of common standards, she criticized New York's rushed implementation of the Common Core standards, saying that not enough was done to explain and to advocate for the standards. Johnson was also critical of the state's current tests: "What we know how to measure is not the same as what we need to improve teaching and learning." She noted that in the U.S. we have come to "equate standardized tests with achievement;" yet, "no other country tests students as frequently as we do." Johnson emphasized the need for "critical thinking" and "well-rounded learners," adding, "Learning is complex, and assessment should be as well." Finally, while asserting the need for students to demonstrate academic achievement, Johnson then asked: "What else needs to happen" in schools? Johnson stressed the need to create lifelong learners and "effective citizens" who are also "kind, caring and tolerant people."

Student Graduation Standards – In order to graduate with a high school diploma, New York students, including those with special needs, must now pass each of five Regents exams aligned with the Common Core. Johnson stated that as a result many students who have never missed a day of school have been denied a high school diploma. She said that the Regents are now focused on redressing this situation. In March they enacted an emergency regulation allowing students who struggle passing their fifth Regents exam the ability to finish their diploma by gaining certain work-based experience credits. Johnson further stated that the Regents are also creating alternative pathways to graduation. For example, a new "arts pathway" requires that students only pass four of the five Regents exams. In addition, Johnson was emphatic about the need to change the current high school diploma to include a bilingual seal. "We should be teaching two languages from the start," asserted Johnson. Referring to how students abroad graduate knowing two and sometimes three languages, Johnson said, "It's really embarrassing that American kids can't do this." She said the Regents are now working toward introducing two languages to all children.

Teacher Evaluation – Johnson called the evaluation of teachers based on growth in student test scores "scientifically flawed" and "neither a valid nor reliable measure of teacher effectiveness." According to Johnson, state teacher evaluation policy has now been "modified." In December 2015 the Board of Regents voted to suspend until 2019 the use of state reading and math tests as the measure for student achievement growth in teacher ratings, allowing for the use of local achievement measures and goals instead. Johnson asserted that this is "not a victory" because "the entire law was not overturned." While she declined to name Governor Cuomo directly, Johnson referenced the "Executive Office's punitive approach" to teacher evaluation, which, she said, was based on a "flawed theory of action" that "student achievement improves if you fire teachers." Johnson asserted that this approach has already "done damage to the [teaching] profession." She said there are "far fewer applicants" to teacher training programs in New York and warned: "Even in Scarsdale, you may see a shortage of teachers."

Teacher Testing - Johnson also blamed the growing teacher shortage on the state's "one size fits all" approach to certifying new teachers. She explained that applicants who have never been exposed to any of the new Common Core standards must now pass each of three tests that have been aligned with those standards. She further noted that a federal district court judge has already determined one of these tests to have a disparate impact on minorities. Johnson called the resulting drop in the number of graduates from New York teaching colleges "a little unnerving," especially given the fact that a large cohort of teachers is "ready and eligible for retirement."

According to Johnson, the Regents latest efforts are constrained by a continued lack of state funding. She described a State Department that has been "decimated" by budget cuts. When she first arrived in Albany and asked about the research in support of state policy decisions, Johnson said she got "blank stares." When she asked about the State Education Department's research staff, she was told, "there is no staff." Due to continued lack of state funding, Johnson said that the Board of Regents is now in the process of "building a research agenda," including the design of an evidence-based teacher evaluation system, with the help of experts from universities across the country and the financial support of "external partners," such as private foundations.

Johnson then focused on the persistent achievement gap between students of more affluent means and those raised in poverty. She called it "a massive waste of human potential and talent," and asserted, "Ability is not fixed at birth." Johnson noted that historically our public schools have been "a great equalizer;" however, today, "they isolate kids by family income" and "for every ten kids born into poverty, six go into adulthood still poor." She explained that at the federal level the No Child Behind Law (NCLB) of 2001 has been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), with considerable power over educational decisions being returned to the states. Johnson then expressed concern that states would continue to use federal Title I funds as intended – that is, to "supplement, not supplant" state and local funds in support of low-income students.

According to Regent Johnson, New York's Board of Regents is now focused on addressing the achievement gap through a "community schools" approach. Such schools remain open for a longer day to address the full range of nutritional, medical, dental and other needs of low-income children that can interfere with their ability to learn. Johnson mentioned examples of community schools already in existence in New York and says she expects that number to rise to "100 in the next few years." She added that volunteers are welcome and are needed to help "honor the goal" of public schools, which is to create "effective citizens and caring adults."

To emphasize the critical importance of the work that lies ahead if state policymakers are to create a "more just, engaging and child-friendly" K-12 education system in New York, Johnson observed, "The children born in 2016 will be 83-84 years old at the turn of the next century." Between now and the year 2100, "change will be immense" and "we're all going to play a role in that change." Thus, what happens to these children "depends on what we decide to do with what has been given to us as a challenge."

As they did when she first visited Scarsdale last year, Regent Johnson's words drew a standing ovation from those in attendance at the Forum event last week.

In response to a subsequent audience question about how New Yorkers might be of help to the Board of Regents, Johnson encouraged residents to continue asking questions of state education policy leaders. She also specifically urged that residents communicate to state politicians their support of a number of proposed bills that would address key problems with current laws, such as Assembly bill A09461, sponsored by Amy Paulin, which would require an expert committee to develop a research-based teacher evaluation plan. (Click here to access one area group's electronic advocacy campaign in support of such bills.)

A video of Regent Johnson's entire speech will be posted on the Scarsdale Public TV website.

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