Sunday, December 4, 2022

Interview with Sue Edelman, intrepid reporter; and her so-far unsuccessful effort to get DOE to respond to FOILs, despite a 2018 win in court

In the latest Talk out of School podcast, Daniel Alicea interviews investigative reporter Susan Edelman about some of the many scandals she's covered and uncovered for the NY Post over more than twenty years concerning the NYC Board of Education/Department of Education, from the days of Mayor Giuliani till the present day.  It is well worth a listen.  She explains how the Special Commissioner of Investigation for Schools no longer does the sort of sweeping investigations that the former SCI Ed Stancik did prior to mayoral control.  This not altogether surprising since the SCI is also appointed by the Mayor.  They're far more quiet too; in fact, the SCI only put out two press releases in 2021, and none so far in 2022.)

Sue calls herself "semi-retired" and is a freelancer, though she is still making headlines for the NY Post on a regular basis.  The latest include her series of articles about how ADASA- NY, the Association of Dominican -American Supervisors and Administrators,  recruited teachers from the Dominican Republic on temporary visas, and then forced them to rent overpriced rooms in apartments owned by ADASA officials, including Emmanuel Polanco, the principal of the school where many of them were assigned to teach. 

One of the other issues Sue discusses on the podcast is the NY Post 2016 lawsuit against the DOE for failing to comply with their Freedom of Information Law requests in a timely fashion.  I wrote about this lawsuit at the time, along with my own terrible experiences of DOE stonewalling for months and sometimes years despite ordinary FOIL requests.  In 2017,  the Village Voice reported that it took the DOE an average of 103 days to respond to FOIL requests, a longer time than any of other city agency.

In 2018, the NY Post won its lawsuit, as reported by Sue at the time:

DOE not only turned over public records it had withheld for up to 20 months, but agreed to reform what The Post called a “pattern and practice” of endless delays and stonewalling.  After lengthy negotiations with Post lawyers, the DOE agreed to revise its FOIL rules to halt the indefinite postponements — and stick to reasonable deadlines. New guidelines were approved in November.

Here is the official stipulation by the Court, which also subsequently required the DOE to pay the Post's attorney fees. As I was quoted in the article, however,  “I’ll believe it when I see it.  I’m still waiting for documents that I requested two years ago.”

Sure enough, the DOE has continued its stonewalling, and in fact it has gotten worse.  As Sue revealed, ever since she reported on the fact that the Chancellor had promoted Mayor Adams' romantic partner to a higher position with a 23% salary boost to $221,597 a year,  the DOE has refused to answer any of her questions at all, including routine queries.  

The only change to the DOE's FOIL practices  since the court decision is that the boilerplate letter they send to those FOILing information is longer, and cites a number of reasons that the response has been and will be further delayed.  Here is their standard response:

This letter concerns the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request referenced above. Pursuant to Section VI.C of DOE Chancellor’s Regulation D-110 (CR D-110), please be advised that additional time is needed to respond to the remainder of your request.

Factors to be considered ...in determining whether there exist circumstances necessitating more time to respond to a request may include, but are not limited to, “[1] the volume of a request, [2] the ease or difficulty in locating, retrieving or generating records, [3] the complexity of the request, [4] the need to review records to determine the extent to which they must be disclosed, and [5] the number of requests received by the agency.

And then they add which factors are involved, usually a combination of 1, 2, 4 and 5.  The only other change from their previous behavior is that rather sending a letter each  month, now the DOE waits between three to six months to send these letters, and sometimes forgets to send any at all. 

An example:  In October 2020, I FOILed for DOE contracts with tech companies that had access to personal student data.  They responded a year later that if I narrowed my request to the privacy portions of those contracts, I could get the information sooner.  (According to state law, the privacy sections of contracts, called the Parent Bill of Rights,  are supposed to posted on the DOE website, yet only a partial list is included here, under the ambiguous title, "Supplemental Information for Parents About DOE Agreements With Outside Entities.")

In Oct. 2021, I agreed to limit my request to the privacy portions of those contracts, over a year ago, but am still waiting. 

This morning, I posted a twitter poll, asking if  people think the NY Post should reopen its lawsuit vs the DOE.   Please respond to the poll here.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

The Regents Exam and High School Diploma: It’s Time to Evolve into the 21st Century by Superintendent Michael J. Hynes

 


This post is by Mike Hynes, Superintendent of  Port Washington School District on Long Island. His previous post on this site, After the Pandemic: Our Children Deserve an Education Revolution, garnered 199,000 page views -- a record for this blog. 

The Regents Exam and High School Diploma: It’s Time to Evolve into the 21st Century

 

By Michael J. Hynes, Ed.D.

 

 

After more than twelve years serving as a school superintendent and twenty-five as an educator, I’ve pushed back at the Editorial Board at Newsday when they conflate their love affair of rigorous testing to the magical potential of high educational outcomes. I’ve also seen when anyone opposes their viewpoint, it means they side with watering down the educational system with low expectations that would allow it live in a malaise of mediocrity.

 

In their most recent harangue, they share, “Seasons come and seasons go, but there is no off-season when it comes to caring about how we educate our children.” I’m the first to say; the Editorial Board cares about educating children, my concern is how they believe we need to do so. Let’s begin with their central argument over rigorous testing and its relation to academic progress and graduation rates. The Board warned, “That Regents tests, part of getting a diploma in New York State for more than a century, should not be abandoned or watered down just because students are having difficulty passing them. Improve what and how we teach.” The Editorial Board continues to argue, “Writing that Regents tests are not the problem with our high schools or our high schoolers. The exams are telling us there is a problem. That’s why they’re under attack.”

 

First, their opinion is far from accurate. They are under attack because we have been assessing our students in New York with the same type of exam since the end of the Civil War. We have assessed our students pretty much the same way for 150 years in New York State. I can’t think of anything else we do on the planet the same way for 150 years in medicine, transportation, technology or even how we entertain ourselves. Think about that for a moment. Everything else in the world has evolved around us except for the way we assess the learning of a student when they complete a course or grade level. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the Regents Exams are terrible. We must however understand they are not the only way to assess learning in the classroom.

 

On an aside, a major problem we have with many students isn’t measured by a single test in math, science, English or social studies. We have students who are more anxious, depressed or suicidal than any generation before and it’s getting worse each year. The fact that schools don’t pay enough attention to that should be under attack, not the fact that we want to explore and potentially change how students graduate high school, the number of Regents exams a student takes, or if we should administer them at all.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate columnist Lane Fuller at Newsday and would like to think I’ve matured in my old age respecting divergent viewpoints. Mr. Filler recently warned against easing standards which he believes are driven by the Board of Regents, the state Assembly, and teacher unions. Mr. Filler believes, “If that happens…the crowing over instantly increased graduation rates will drown out the warnings that the soft bigotry of low expectations is too often leaving children adorned in caps and gowns behind.” I understand most people fear change, but to equate much needed change to bigotry and leaving children behind seems extreme from my perspective. We can increase graduation rates and still embrace high expectations…just different ones.  

I agree when the Editorial Board identifies that, “Skills and competencies unheard of 50 years ago now are crucial, while some traditional requirements have lost relevance. Not every student must be pointed toward a four-year liberal arts education, if a direct job path suits them better. But they all must have basic skills to function in this more complex world.” I truly feel we must look to the alternative methods some public and non-traditional school systems evaluate both teaching and learning. There are many viable ways for students to express proficiency and mastery in an area of study. The shift happens when the conversation reduces the importance of one data point at the end of the year to embracing the purpose and meaning of a students’ growth over time.  

I ask adults, when was the last time you took a multiple choice test or were assessed at work by the administration of a multiple choice test? To think we have assessed the children in New York the same way since Lincoln was in the White House is heartbreaking. The fact the New York State Education Department brought together a Blue Ribbon Commission to make potential changes to graduation requirements gives me hope. Let’s become familiar with some of the innovative schools around the world who embrace authentic learning and assessment. Students showcase their deep understanding by project and problem based assessments and performance minded tasks.  

I think we can all agree, that is how we navigate in the real world. It’s time we move New York State away from the 19th century and into the 21st. We can do so by developing alternative assessments that don’t bring down standards, but make them higher than what we already have. Maybe…just maybe, this is something we can all agree on in a world that celebrates divisiveness and extremes.

 

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good $31 million DOE contract with McGraw Hill off the agenda for tonight's PEP meeting!

Update 12/1/22: Daily News has a good article today on how the McGraw Hill contract was pulled from the PEP agenda last night, because of the controversy over huge cost and lack of any discount; the article quotes from comments made at the meeting by teacher Gavin Healy, PEP member Tom Sheppard and me.  

Yet the question still remains whether the contract will be submitted unchanged at a later meeting.  The only comments by  DOE officials about the contract were confusing:  Liz Vladeck, General Counsel, said there would be no loss of "services" during this time, meaning (I suppose) that schools could still order McGraw textbooks at inflated prices.  As the DN quotes her, "We just want to ensure folks understand this means they will be working at risk of financial loss until the contract is resolved,” Vladeck said of the vendor.

The only other DOE official to speak to the issue was Elisheba Lewi, head of DOE procurement, who on Monday had said at the PEP contract committee meeting that the contract "didn't make any sense" to her. Last night she said they "pulled that item from agenda so that we could just ...address concerns that have been raised & we're working very closely with the vendor to get to gain clearer understanding of what the current status is.” Huh?

The Great Minds Foundation textbook contract that also lacked any discount and charged an even higher shipping fee, but at a far lower total amount, was approved.

 

On Sunday night, I perused this month's contract list [ proposals here] and noticed a contract to be voted on during tonight's PEP meeting that was even more ridiculous than usual:  It was a non-competitive contract with McGraw Hill that would authorize DOE to spend $31 million for textbooks at their full list price, plus 7% shipping. 


I tweeted in protest against this ridiculous bid, as surely the DOE, the largest school district in the country could have negotiated a better deal. See, for example, how McGraw Hill textbooks are sold online at this website, with a 30% off for any orders of 25 or more, increasing to a 40% discount for any orders of 1000 or more, with free shipping.  With a discount like this, they could have saved our schools nearly $15 million. 

I also noted a similar, if smaller non-competitive proposal to purchase books by Great Books Foundation,  for  $454,000, with no discount and an even higher cost for shipping: 11

My tweets were quickly retweeted, with many parents and teachers expressing their outrage, and others surprised, given the fact that their schools had never provided textbooks to their students.  Possibly this is because they are too expensive, even as schools are only provided  $58 per student to purchase textbooks. 

On Tuesday morning, the issue was discussed during the PEP contract committee meeting.  See the transcript of the meeting here.  

PEP members Sheree Gibson and Tom Sheppard both spoke out against the contract.

PEP parent member Tom Sheppard said: "$31.6 million over seven years is a lot of money. Right? And I'm wondering, is this mostly online materials is a print material as well. And I guess the reason why I'm asking that question because, you know, my kids are seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th grade, and I think I've never seen them carry a textbook home. So if they've never had a textbook, and we're spending $31.6 million over seven years for a contract with McGraw Hill, I want to know what we're getting for that."

 Sheree Gibson, Queens borough appointee asked, "Is there a discount in there because we did some looking, online advocates reached out to us...what negotiation what percentages are we getting for booking and dealing with McGraw Hill? I am taking into consideration that McGraw Hill is the big behemoth and has taken over a lot of other companies but still if we're doing this type of amount of business with them. I want a deal, I want a break, a discount."

Tom also raised the larger point, that these huge contracts month after month are proposed with little justification or even explanation from administrators, and for this school year already amount  to more than $3.5 billion:

I look at our schools, for example, that have had their budgets cut. And I look at environments where, you know, schools have to make choices about programming right, and what we can keep and what we can get rid of, but, you know, here we are kind of business as usual, over the course of a year voting to approve almost $4 billion in contracts, right? Like there's nowhere in all of this where we can figure out how to save some money so that we don't have to let go over 1000 teachers and get rid of like arts programs and after school programs like I think about that every month. And you know, I would love to know how or what the DOE is doing on an ongoing basis. To evaluate these contracts, the necessity of them, and how we can use cost savings from these contracts to actually keep teachers in classrooms and pay for librarians and those kinds of things.  

Even Elisheba Lewi, chief procurement officer,  admitted that the lack of any discount “doesn’t make sense.You guys have a very, very strong point.”

Yesterday, the Daily News ran a story about the no-discount,  no-good McGraw Hill contract. Reporter Cayla Bamberger quoted math teacher Bobson Wong: ""Someone needs to look into the terrible deals that NYC DOE makes for schools."  Deborah Kross of the CCHS said, "So much money is getting wasted because there are no competitive processes,” and “yet cuts in the classroom hurt our kids and teachers.”

According to yesterday's article,  the DOE said that they planned to ahead anyway with the vote tonight. Then this afternoon, they emailed PEP members that the vote will be postponed, though the other no-discount $453, 966.11 no-discount contract with Great Minds Foundation is still on there.    Here they both are on the latest RA list:


In 2012, McGraw-Hill was acquired by private equity firm Apollo Global Management, for $2.5 billion in cash and debt.  In 2021, it was purchased from Apollo by Platinum Equity for $4.5 billion. Clearly there are gold in them thar hills. 

I urge people to provide comments anyway, urging the DOE to do a far better job in negotiating these contracts, now and in the future. The meeting begins at 6:00 p.m. via zoom. You can log-on and sign up to speak from 5:30 PM to 6:15 PM at: https://www.learndoe.org/pep/nov30/.