Tuesday, February 2, 2016

What Happens when a Long Island District Liquidates Standards and Accountability?

In a school district in Suffolk County, N.Y., a  revolution against standards and assessments is underway. However, this is not your typical vignette of white suburban helicopter parents who rebel against perceived student stress, or teachers union leaders who lobby against tying student outcome data to evaluations and job security. Instead, this is a revolution led by the chief administrator.

Patchogue-Medford School District is a diverse community on Long Island with an enrollment of about 30% minority students and 34% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch. Student outcomes are mediocre and achievement gaps are high. Yet, enabled by  a new national education law environment that privileges local control over a heavy federal hand, Superintendent Michael Hynes is explicitly urging parents and teachers to, as he puts it,  “subvert the test” through his new strategic plan for district improvement.

Dr. Hynes, certainly in this Prezi presentation, appears to be a compassionate and zealous advocate for the children. He says he has the full support of the Board of Education as he crafts "Patchogue-Medford 2.0,"  and some of his goals -- most of them, in fact -- are commendable. (One nitpick: if I were a parent in Patchogue I’d be concerned about a proposed  emphasis to push low-performing 8th graders towards vocational training instead of college-prep.)

But the centerpiece of his reinvention of this struggling school district is an utter dismissal of the value of raising standards in order to effectively prepare students for college and career, as well as a disparagement of measuring student proficiency of those standards.

Indeed, Dr. Hynes is an outspoken opponent to the Common Core.  Here he is on YouTube at a "Stop Common Core on Long Island" rally telling his audience that  higher standards are “abusive” and “criminal.”  Here he is featured on a Facebook page of an anti-vaccine nut named Dr. TenPenny, who gushes over Hynes' opt-out campaign and its parallel to her conspiratorial theories about immunizations.

Hynes is equally adamant about the abusiveness of assessments tied to college and career-ready standards, now under review in New York State. From his blog, which was reposted yesterday by Diane Ravitch:
The assessments are still fundamentally age inappropriate and aligned with the Common Core standards. The Common Core Standards will no longer be in New York State. I repeat, they will no longer be in New York State. [Note from NJLB: they’re actually under review and, if other states are any guide, standards will stay largely the same. Also see today's Daily News  which features an editorial by a N.Y.S. English teacher who remarks that there is "no magic set of standards that prepare kids for college and careers that is significantly different from Common Core. Parents shouldn’t be misled into believing there is." In other words, Common Core will be in New York State.] 
There is absolutely no reason for any student to take the assessments until we have some true fundamental changes. I don't believe making the tests a few questions shorter or allowing students to have an unlimited amount of time is the answer. This is not in the best interest of our students, especially our special education and ELL students.
Hynes also wrote a letter to district principals and teachers that, according to Newsday, “slams the state’s controversial performance-evaluation methodology that links ratings to students’ test performance as meaningless, invalid, and inhumane.”

In other words, Dr. Hynes is betting that his new strategic plan will pave the way for Patchogue-Medford to bypass state and federal accountability regulations. A local paper called Greater Patchogue confirms this:
Asked how the plan could operate within the state’s mandates, including its across-the-board educational standards, Hynes — an outspoken critic of recent education reform efforts in Albany — said he must do now whatever he believes is in the long-term interests of Patchogue-Medford students — not wait for Albany to figure its own policies out. 
“If this plan comes to the place where I think it can, I would like the state to exempt us from 3 through 8 testing, and allow us to evaluate teachers on our own accord, based on our professional judgements, and assess students in a much better way,” Hynes said.
“Then we can possibly use this as a case study for other districts in New York State, to see if this is a possibility for them to — I don’t want to say emulate, but to look into and make it their own. 
“Nothing like this has ever been done before.”
Actually, this has happened many times before. It's called unaccountability.

Dr. Hynes often uses the word "progressive" in his presentations and remarks to media. But his strategic plan is, at its heart, reactionary, harkening back to pre-Civil Rights education law, to pre-disability education rights law, to a time when local schools were exempt from equity standards.

And this anti-accountability quest is working.  Last Spring the Daily News reported that 65% of 3,400 Patchogue-Medford students in grades three to eight refused to take Common Core-aligned assessments.

Patchogue-Medford parents are told to  trust their superintendent's  integrity, which no doubt is in large supply. But the average superintendency tenure is three to four years. What happens when Dr. Hynes moves to greener pastures and new leadership arrives? How will parents or others outside of the district central office determine if children are well-served?

Patchogue-Medford children already struggle academically and this proposed silver bullet of local control and unaccountability is as mythical as the link of vaccines to autism. Superintendent Hynes and his followers may reap publicity and pageviews from the fierce anti-testing cadre on Long Island. But their disregard for what kids need to succeed in colleges and careers isn't educational leadership.

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