Expanding the amount of learning time for students and creating a new class of higher-paid "master teachers" are among the major changes New York state needs to improve its K-12 system, says Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is also championing the idea of opening more community schools that would provide health care and family-counseling services.
Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, is basing much of the education agenda unveiled in his State of the State speech last week on a report released at the start of the month by the New York Education Reform Commission, established by the governor last April to propose changes to public schools and the teaching profession. (Mr. Cuomo's speech marked the official start of the 2013 legislative session in New York.)
Several of the initiatives he proposed, including extended learning time and the "community schools" concept, would be funded by a competitive grant system.
Longer Day, Longer Year
Prefacing his education remarks by asserting that, "Our children are not being educated to the fullest," the governor said that time was a crucial element. Countries that outperformed the United States on international assessments, as did Canada and South Korea on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, have 10 or 20 more school days per year on average than the United States, Mr. Cuomo noted.
Under his proposal, New York districts could choose to add school days, lengthen existing days, or combine those two ideas in some way to increase annual learning time by at least 25 percent, instead of continuing the status quo of providing education "as if we were an agrarian economy and an agrarian society," he said.
Also on the subject of school time, he devoted remarks to expanding prekindergarten, saying the state should begin the expansion of prekindergarten programs from 2 1/2 hours to five hours per day, starting with high-needs students.
For the teaching profession, Mr. Cuomo proposed a master-teacher system in which, based on student performance, teachers could earn that distinction and $15,000 in additional annual pay on top of their regular salaries for four years and serve as mentors for other teachers.
"We must pay for performance and incentivize high-performing teachers," he said.
The education reform commission also served as the basis for Mr. Cuomo's proposal that teachers pass a test similar to a lawyer's "bar exam" before being allowed to teach in classrooms, an idea the report credited to the American Federation of Teachers.
Teachers' unions around the state said the ideas Mr. Cuomo took from the report represented a "really solid" effort by commission members. For example, the community school proposal indicates that members rightly recognized that schools are not solely an academic setting, said Richard Iannuzzi, the president of New York State United Teachers. It represents more than 600,000 teachers and other education employees and is affiliated with both the National Education Association and the AFT.
"The bullet we dodged was the commission jumping on the bandwagon of alleged reformers who are taking us down misguided directions," said Mr. Iannuzzi, citing a school voucher program passed in Louisiana and a tax-credit scholarship program in Florida as two examples of such "gimmicks" in policy.
Still, NYSUT's "glass half empty" members, Mr. Iannuzzi added, were concerned that the proposed changes in policy would either not be funded adequately or would siphon off enough K-12 state aid that they would damage other classroom work.
"More needs to be said about the equitable funding of education in New York," he said.
Although documents related to the extended learning time proposal say such initiatives would be funded by a competitive grant program, in his speech, Mr. Cuomo said if school districts choose to expand their learning time, the state would pick up the entire cost for the district as an incentive. He was not as explicit, however, as to whether the state would pay for the salary increases in the master-teacher program.
Other practical complexities of implementing changes like extending the school day should not be overlooked, noted David Albert, a spokesman for the Latham, N.Y.-based New York State School Boards Association.
"There's also a community component. Will parents support that move?" he said.
But harsher critics of the commission's recommendations say that given a chance to propose more fundamental K-12 changes to Mr. Cuomo, its members ducked.
"Instead, what he got was a pack of watered-down reforms, all good ideas, mind you, but nothing dramatic that's going to increase student achievement and dramatically reform the state's educational system, which is needed," said B. Jason Brooks, a spokesman for the Clifton Park, N.Y.-based Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability, which supports "parent trigger" legislation, more charter school options, and tax credits for private school tuition.
Mr. Brooks took some solace in the fact that the commission is set to release final recommendations in the fall. But he said Mr. Cuomo--widely eyed as a 2016 presidential candidate--may have missed a chance to become the Democratic version of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a prominent Republican in education policy circles.
Separately, the state has made progress on a significant, if controversial policy initiative from last year involving teacher evaluations. As of Jan. 2, and with a Jan. 17 deadline looming, 533 of 682 districts had their evaluation plans approved by the state education department, and only nine had not submitted plans at all. Districts that miss the deadline could lose state aid increases. Approval of the evaluation plans is necessary to satisfy conditions attached to the $700 million federal Race to the Top grant the state received in 2010.
Although Mr. Cuomo said the state's approach to teacher evaluations had proved successful, as of Jan. 10, New York City teachers had still not reached a deal with city education department officials on an evaluation plan.
Mr. Cuomo also connected schools to tougher gun-control policies he plans to pursue this year. Specifically, he said that he wants stiffer penalties in state law for those who bring guns on school grounds. ___