At the recommendation of its superintendent, Dr. William M. Donohue, the board of education of the Byram Hills School District in New York unanimously passed a resolution to withdraw from the state’s Race to the Top. Dr. Donohue demonstrated his willingness to think independently, to express his candid views without fear, and to act in the best interest of the students who are in his care. He deserves to be recognized for his integrity and clear thinking. I am happy to add Dr. William M. Donohue to our list of champions of public education.
Here is Dr. Donohue’s recommendation to his board:
Superintendent’s Recommendation Re: Race To The Top (RTTT)
Board of Education Meeting of November 5, 2013
Race To The Top has been much in the news lately, and the frustrations with how it is being implemented by the Commissioner, Chancellor, and State Education Department are surfacing from the public, much as they already have with school boards and superintendents. The Commissioner’s last two public meetings reflected general dissatisfaction with his initiatives, as was widely reported in the press.
At the current time, districts in RTTT are required to select a Data Dashboard, which has brought to light concerns about security, especially with regard to what kind of student information is being stored, by whom, and how it is to be used and released to third parties. I attended a meeting on October 24 with the state’s data experts and RTTT administrators that was demanded by 36 of our region’s superintendents. The state officials could not, or would not, answer most of our questions; asking to get back to us. I found they were surprised by the strong stance of superintendents, who view protecting student data as a primary responsibility, and they were somewhat incredulous that security of data is a concern. When they got back to us, the answers were direct and provided helpful information. They also acknowledged that their answers were edited by SED counsel. The bottom line seems to be that student data will go to InBloom, a private data storage company, regardless of participation in RTTT. However, the next phase of RTTT data collection involves providing even more sensitive information, including student discipline records. This is a major concern, and it is not clear if all districts will be required to participate in that phase. It is clear that either the district or the state can unilaterally authorize the data to be released to third parties for various reasons. State officials have privately acknowledged that contracts already exist with commercial enterprises, including Amazon.com.
There are other outstanding issues of concern with RTTT, of course, including: excessive testing of students; the rush to implement Common Core and high stakes Common Core based Regents Exams for high school students; the validity of using test scores for teacher evaluations; the micro-management of districts’ teacher and principal evaluation systems; the exclusion of school boards and superintendents from any planning or input; the apparent commercialization of public education at taxpayer’s expense; and the ever-increasing costs of implementation, including computer based testing for every student. It really should be no surprise that by reducing local control, RTTT threatens to make Byram Hills less able to achieve academic excellence, less able to meet our students’ individual needs, less able to select appropriate programs for our students and community, more costly to operate, and ultimately less attractive to home buyers.
Given all of the above, I recommend that the Board vote to “opt-out” of our RTTT agreement with the State. I base my recommendation on my immediate practical concern about the upcoming demands for more sensitive information about student data, and the fact that we will have, at best, limited control over how the data is released, mined, and used by others who have no relationship to our students or the school district. Although it is not clear that opting out of RTTT will actually affect our participation, it will send notice to the state that we, like many others, are not satisfied with their security plan. Beyond practical matters, I think it is appropriate that we opt-out of RTTT because we can no longer, in good conscience, be part of such a misguided and poorly executed plan. The recommendation is not without costs, as we will not be eligible for our final payment of about $3,500 from New York’s share of the Race To The Top federal grant. About half of that amount will be made up by expenses we will forgo by not having to implement the data dashboard. Nevertheless, I think it behooves us to assert that we have no confidence in the way the state is implementing Race To The Top, that we view it as counterproductive to our goal of achieving excellence, and that we can no longer be party to it. Let me add that since the superintendents meeting with the state officials, more than twenty districts in our region have reported that they intend to pull out. At least eight others have already pulled out, or never joined. It seems likely that districts on Long Island will soon follow suit. And so, I think our message will be heard, if only for the strength of numbers and for the threat it poses to the state’s plan to apply for a follow-up grant extending its commitment to RTTT.