Category Archives: Commentary

Guest Blog – Is the Impact of Education Reformers on the Wane?

Is the Impact of Education Reformers on the Wane?

Lee H. Adler, J.D. 
School of Industrial and Labor Relations
Cornell University

It’s been a curious few months on the policy and politics side of Public Education and its “reformers”. The variegated critics, ranging from thoughtful policy intelligentsia to opportunistic politicians and venture philanthropists like the Walton and Gates foundations, seem to be having a tougher time. It is unclear whether events of this recent period and the past year signal a shift in the power equation of the public education battleground from the private back to the public interests. Regardless, this brief note will look at some national and local occurrences and attempt to make some sense of them.

The backdrop is well known by readers of this Blog- the loss of our country’s wealth has been skillfully used by all sorts of actors to point to fire fighters, police officers, school teachers, and our communities’ public education efforts as taking and having more than our fair share. Carefully targeted political attacks by Rightist forces have succeeded in having police and fire pensions curtailed in San Jose and San Diego, California.  New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo even managed to pile on this year by attacking and then restricting police and firefighters’ ability to resolve contract disputes everywhere but in his political stronghold in New York City.

Meanwhile, our school teachers, administrators, and local school boards have been reeling from severe cuts in funding, although this past year saw a modest increase. When one adds Governor Cuomo’s misnamed 2% property tax cap, which again excludes his New York City base, Upstate administrators and their unions have an extraordinary burden keeping our schools running.

These economic difficulties matter little to the education reformers who have offered vast economic incentives and “philanthropic gifts” to those states or school districts who commit to untested “teacher accountability” and introduction of privatized initiatives into their class rooms.

Instead of spending their billions to remediate aspects of our poverty and convince law makers to more fairly tax the well-to-do and their astounding levels of accumulated wealth, the Gates, Bloomberg, Waltons’, and others have used their money and influence to install mayoral control of public schools in New York, Chicago, and to a lesser degree in Los Angeles.  These billionaires’ and their corporate allies’ educational reform efforts have accomplished very little, but they have created havoc for administrators, uncertainty and fear in teachers, and frightening confusion for parents of school age children.[i]

All of what I describe is both then and now. In the past year, there have been noticeable pushback and stirrings. The first of these was the Chicago Teachers Strike wherein the union’s remarkable community organizing strategy thwarted some of the corporate school power wielded by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

We next saw Bill DeBlasio, in winning the election for NYC’s next mayor, directly confront and attack the Bloomberg- Klein corporate/charter school strategy, arguing that parents and their kids’ teachers know better what needs to be done. Despite the nation-wide ballyhooing of Bloomberg’s remarkable success in “turning around” NYC’s schools, a public relations ploy that only the corporate-minded amongst the education reformers believed, the voters in New York knew much better. A similarly constructed progressive coalition to DiBlasio’s seized the educational reins in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on the same day, heralding dramatic changes in public education in Bridgeport and other Connecticut cities who are pushing back against the so-called reformers.

And presently we have the Common Core debacle in New York, where the fear and misery suffered by parents and their children by the state’s hurried up implementation has caused near political disaster for Commissioner John King. Parents across New York are up in arms by the State’s botched and thoughtless approach, and they join the impoverished parents in Chicago and the hard hit New York City and anti-testing Long Island families who are letting their angry voices known- “Enough is enough”!

Just as telling is the hope that our teacher unions have found their voice in this educational debate. In early November, Education Commissioner King accepted NYSUT’s demand to halt all testing of our youngest children, and a few weeks ago Mr. King concurred with NYSUT that maybe the state and local school districts are “testing too much”.

If the state will listen to parents and their teacher union allies, we may well be looking at a turn in these education wars where common sense, regular folks, unions and local administrators, and parents will drive the necessary changes needed in our schools. It’s well-nigh time to wrest control of public education back from those who see our valuable treasure, our public schools, as a free economic market to use for profit.

Lee H. Adler, J.D. 
Teacher of public sector labor law and a course on the clash between public education unions and educational reformers. 
School of Industrial and Labor Relations
Cornell University

[i] A recent study does conclude that in Washington DC certain reforms instituted by former Superintendent Michelle Rhee had created a positive increase in students’ test scores.

A Reform Agenda to promote the Vitality of Rural Schools

Yesterday we all listened to Governor Andrew Cuomo describe the progress made in New York State over the past four years and lay out a set of initiatives aimed to promote the New York’s economy, welcome new citizens, and improve its schools. While people can disagree on the highlights and disappointments, it is clear he is promoting full-day Universal PreK, master teacher teacher incentives, infusion of technology into classrooms, and the return of manufacturing to NYS.  What was amazingly missing was any discussion of the details of a host of issues that area swirling around the area of school finance and the controversy around the rollout of the Common Core, APPR, and the new assessments. 

Many interesting summaries and commentaries have been posted, but I want to highlight a recently released Position Paper by Bruce Fraser and the Rural Schools Association of NYS that highlights issues not addressed by the Governor. This brief develops a coherent agenda and argues for changes to the financing of schools based on evidence. Note the links at the bottom of the paper that offer supporting evidence that all should see.  

The RSA Position Paper (2 pages) can be found here (website, .pdf). Among the highlights are…

  • PK-12 education has become a lower priority in the state budget. The state share of local budgets has dropped from 48.8% in 2000/1 to near 39% today.
  • Cumulative impact of the GEA on rural schools budgets have totaled $1.174 Billion.
  • RSA’s member school districts are being provided 7.1% less state aid for 2013-14 than they received in 2008-09.
  • Advocates for a more stable, long-term approach to state aid with a Berger-Type commission to address equity in school finance.  
  • Argues for a capping of STAR with additional monies allocated to STAR to be used to reduce GEA. 

Please contact me or Bruce Fraser with any questions.

Sincerely, John Sipple, Director, NYS Center for Rural Schools

November Guest Blog: College and Career Readiness

College and Career Readiness: Clarifying the Connection

Stephen F. Hamilton#
Department of Human Development
Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research
Cornell University
#This essay is based on a paper written by the author for the New York State Department of Education with William Symonds and Pradeep Kotamraju.

New York State’s Board of Regents has adopted the goal of making all high school graduates college and career ready. The combination connotes opportunity and capacity without implying destiny. When we aim to make young people ready, we allow for their personal preferences and the twists and turns they may take along their paths to adulthood. Putting the college and career readiness together is important because some young people go directly from secondary school into the workforce without college and others who enroll in college will almost all go on to careers.

Is preparing students for college and career readiness one goal, or two? Some advocates assert that students who are ready for college are, as a result, also ready for careers. They correctly point out that nearly all jobs that pay enough to support a family and offer prospects for continued learning and advancement require some form of post-secondary education.

If we assume that career readiness is closely related to college readiness, we have a long way to go. By definition, high school graduates are college ready if they can pass credit-bearing college courses without having to enroll first in non-credit developmental or remedial courses. ACT (2011) found that only 25 percent of high school graduates were prepared to take college-level courses in English, reading, math, and science. The gap between college enrollment and college readiness is demonstrated by the proportion of college students who never earn a degree or credential: 56 percent of those enrolled in four-year colleges, 30 percent in two-year colleges (Symonds et al., p. 6, & Figure 1, p. 3).

Does college readiness really equal career readiness? The Career Readiness Partner Council concluded that in addition to academic proficiency, a career-ready person must achieve a “level of technical-skill proficiency aligned to (their) chosen career field and pathway.” They must also master what are sometimes called “21st century skills,” such as clear and effective communications; critical thinking; effective use of technology; and the ability work productively in teams. This same combination of academic with technical, personal and social competencies has been identified with career readiness by several other reports (Lippman, Atienza, Rivers, & Keith, 2008; ConnectEd, 2012; Stone & Lewis, 2012; Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, 1991).

After reviewing many different versions of college and career readiness and a wide range of research on the topic, a panel of the National Research Council (NRC, 2012) labeled these three categories of competencies cognitive, intra-personal, and inter-personal. Cognitive competencies include: cognitive processes and strategies (e.g., critical thinking, problem solving); knowledge; and creativity. Intra-personal competencies include: intellectual openness (e.g., flexibility, continuous learning); work ethic/conscientiousness (e.g., initiative, grit, productivity); and positive core self-evaluation (e.g., physical and psychological health). Inter-personal competencies include teamwork and collaboration (e.g., communication, cooperation, and empathy); and leadership. They noted that these are not really new competencies; they have been valuable for centuries. However, these competencies are now needed in a wider range of occupations as relatively low-skill farm and factory jobs have receded.

For all their limitations, schools are better at teaching cognitive knowledge than at teaching character. Much more research has been done on both promoting and measuring cognitive knowledge. But research confirms that character can be taught (Tough, 2010). The research on this topic converges on the value of experiential and project-based learning, especially for intra-personal and inter-personal competencies, but for cognitive competencies as well (Bransford, Brown, Cocking, Donovan, & Pellegrino, 2000; Hoffman, 2011; NRC, 2004 & 2012).

College readiness can be defined as mastery of cognitive competencies that are measured by standardized tests, notably knowledge, but also some that are not measured easily, including problem solving and creativity. Moreover, there is growing recognition that being academically prepared is only part of college success. Persistence, time management, goal-directedness, and other intra-personal competencies are at least as important. However it is defined, college readiness is necessary to career readiness, but not sufficient. Contrary to conventional perceptions, career readiness is a higher standard than college readiness. It includes mastery of some specific workplace skills and of generic workplace competencies that the best schools, the strongest families, and the most supportive communities teach. Helping all youth become college and career ready means committing to teaching the whole range of competencies they need to become productive workers, active citizens, and nurturing family members.

ACT (2011). The condition of college and career readiness. Accessed at:

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., Cocking, R. R., Donovan, M. S., & Pellegrino, J. W. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Career Readiness Partner Council (no date). Building blocks for change: What it means to be career ready. Accessed at:

ConnectEd (2012). College and career readiness: What do we Mean? A proposed framework. Revised draft version 1.2: April 12, 2012. Accessed at:

Hoffman, N. (2011). Schooling in the workplace: How six of the world’s best vocational education systems prepare young people for jobs and life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University press.

Lippman, L., Atienza, A., Rivers, A., & Keith, J. (2008). College and workplace readiness: A developmental perspective. Washington, DC: ChildTrends. Accessed at:

National Research Council (2004). Engaging schools: Fostering high school students’ motivation to learn. Committee on Increasing High School Students’ Engagement and Motivation to Learn. Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Division on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills; Center for Education, Division on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Stone, J. R., III, & Lewis, M. V. (2012). College and career ready in the 21st century: Making high school matter. New York: Teachers College Press.

Symonds, W. C., Schwartz, R. B., & Ferguson, R. (2011). Pathways to prosperity: Meeting the challenge of preparing young Americans for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education. Accessed at:

Tough, P. (2012). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.