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Former lawmaker gets it right

Have you seen former state Assemblyman and Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy’s OpEd in today’s Times Union?

It should be required reading for all state lawmakers. In the piece Mr. Levy lays out a list of policy initiatives that, if enacted, would reduce state and local government costs; provide the local government mandate relief promised, but never delivered, as part of the real property tax cap; and provide tax relief for employers and residents alike. Taken together, they would greatly improve the business climate of New York State. If many of these look familiar, it’s because we have been talking about them for years.

You can read the full OpEd here, but we’ve included a portion of it below.

  1. Enact pension reform by installing a 401(k) –type defined contribution pension for new public sector employees, as opposed to the present defined benefit pension, which keeps taxpayers on the hook for a guaranteed rate of return.
  2. Cap mandatory arbitration awards that have propelled law enforcement salaries over the $200,000 mark.
  3. Eliminate overtime from being factored into the base of a pension for all employee tiers. This practice has allowed for pensions to be dramatically inflated. Six-figure pensions are now quite common.
  4. End the Triborough Amendment that provides for automatic step salary increases in the public sector, even after a contract has expired.
  5. Control Medicaid benefits in New York to levels no greater than required by the federal government. New York taxpayers expend more than a billion dollars above the standards established by the Feds. For instance, while the Feds allow Medicaid to be made available to legal immigrants here more than five years, New York voluntarily waived the five-year threshold.
  6. End the Wicks Law. This relic from the early 1900s was originally enacted as a way to supposedly counter fraud in the letting of contracts. Instead of allowing the general contractor on public works projects to choose certain sub-contractors, the Wicks Law mandates that the subs be hired through a bidding process outside the control of the general contractor. It has been estimated by numerous budget experts that the law increases by up to 30 percent the cost of constructing public buildings in the state.
  7. End the Scaffold Law that holds building owners liable for accidents occurring at their construction sites even though they might not have been negligent in any way. Any employee contributory negligence is discounted. New York is the only state that has such absolute liability.
  8. End disability abuse that allows for some workers to get 3/4 of their pay tax-free if injured on the job. This has resulted in some employees (mostly in law enforcement) getting more staying home than if they are actually working, thereby eroding incentive to get back to work. Also end the “presumption” that heart and lung ailments are necessarily job related.
  9. End sick day abuse. Some local governments allow for employees to cash out huge amounts of unused sick days upon retirement. Some Long Island police, for example, get 26 sick days a year, and many of those not used can be banked for payment upon retirement. The employee is paid for the day at the salary rate he or she has in the last year of service. This has led to some employees getting severance packages of almost a half-million dollars. The New York City policy for sick days of “use it or lose it” should apply.
  10. End 20-year retirements. While the idea of allowing “20 years and out” policies in New York may have in the past been palatable, it is hard to justify such a policy with folks living so much longer today. By the time an officer age 23 reaches 83, the taxpayer could be funding one active and three retired officers (through their pensions) for that one position. It is simply unsustainable.

PPI Series: The Most Important Reason that Higher Standards Are Here to Stay … is YOU! You Can Join in Supporting College and Career Readiness in Your Community

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

New York’s business community is making strategic investments in education.  Businesses can send an important signal about their priorities by supporting the Common Core standards.  Employers in every industry sector and every region across the state are showing their support for college and career readiness.  In the coming weeks, the Business Council of New York State and the Public Policy Institute of New York State will launch an occasional blog series, “Spotlight on Employer Support for College and Career Readiness,” showcasing our members’ work in their own communities.  Are businesses and employers in your region working with educational institutions to increase student achievement and preparedness?

We’d love to hear about it. Please contact our director of communications at zack.hutchins@bcnys.org.

Please click here to read part fourteen.

Hard to find logic in DFS move

Much has been made recently about Howard Zemsky, the chief executive of Empire State Development, and his recent defense of Start-Up New York’s advertising campaign, which he said was “…paying dividends to New Yorkers in more intangible ways, including reversing…the state’s decades-old reputation as a place unfriendly to businesses.” Millions of dollars in advertising notwithstanding, we are very concerned with communications from other members of the administration, whose recent activities send a very chilling message to employers in New York.

In a recent letter regarding Anthem’s proposed acquisition of Cigna, Superintendent of Financial Services (DFS), Maria T. Vullo, took some unprecedented steps that highlighted the department’s inconsistent philosophies regarding the cost of healthcare in New York. Moreover, the letter sends a very strong and negative message to employers desiring to expand operations in New York, which is especially disconcerting given the significant longstanding economic presence these businesses already have in the state. Such actions should concern any of us trying to do business in New York.

As a representative of New York’s employers, I find it especially troubling that DFS dedicated much of their professed concern discussing the future market share of the commercial self-insured market. These are companies that opt to insure their employees out-of-pocket, rather than purchase insurance. Such insurance arrangements are typically entered into by sophisticated businesses in a very competitive and price sensitive market, and this is a market already regulated by the federal government through ERISA. While tensions between the state and the federal government over ERISA plans are not new, this letter signals a new attempt by a state agency to regulate employers in matters that fall far out of its jurisdiction.

Also deeply concerning is the DFS’ confusing logic on controlling the costs of healthcare for consumers in the state.  DFS simply assumes that a carrier’s increased market share will somehow have a negative impact on the value-based payment model being promoted by the state, leading to higher costs for consumers, despite the fact that there is no evidence to support such an assumption.

This logic is flawed in several ways. The letter says that competition in the health insurance industry is needed so that providers (doctors, hospitals, etc.) can negotiate with various insurers to maximize their income. Perversely, this will naturally lead to an increase in health care premiums, an issue to which the DFS should be particularly sensitive. The fact that increasing the income of healthcare providers is not part of the mission of the Department of Financial Services aside, this statement simply misses the point. While the verdict on the cost-savings of the value-based payment model is not yet in, such a model never envisioned a marketplace where healthcare providers are given endless leverage to negotiate universally higher fees.

Further, the letter fully ignores the reality of healthcare provider mergers and acquisitions in the state. Last year alone there were 940 healthcare service transactions in New York, up from about 480 in 2010. This increase is at an unprecedented pace in New York; one which is likely to only accelerate. Numerous recent studies show that such mergers create upward pressure on healthcare costs. If the Department of Financial Services is concerned with the cost implications of diminished competition, why isn’t this side of the equation being considered?

Employers in New York are saddled with some of the very highest costs of doing business in the nation. Everything from property taxes to workers’ compensation costs to the price of health coverage. In order to change New York’s poor business reputation, we need more than advertisements; we need policies that work to lower these costs for employers. We need consistency in policy across the state’s many regulatory agencies and we need regulators that stay within the jurisdictional limits set by law. It’s time that all of New York’s regulating agencies get on board to building a better economy for all of us.

PPI Series: The Common Core Standards Have Created Powerful Efficiencies in the Market for Educational Materials

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part fourteen of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State.

Common Core critics sometimes argue that common standards are “one-size-fits-all,” to the detriment of our children, who are each unique and learn differently.  In the case of the Common Core, however, standardization is leading to greater variety in the educational materials available to teachers and students.

Before the Common Core standards, each state had its own set of learning standards and its own definitions of “proficiency” at each grade level.  These variations posed challenges for teachers, schools of education, test developers, and textbook companies when they were deciding what material to cover, and for students when they moved from one state to another.  Rather than custom-develop materials for each state, publishers of tests and textbooks sought to save on development costs and increase profits by developing generic materials that covered the common elements of multiple states’ standards.   In an attempt to cover multiple states’ standards in a single volume, textbooks often contained more material than could be taught in a single year.  Through a series of mergers, the educational publishing industry became increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small number of companies.

The Common Core standards have transformed the market for educational materials.  With the adoption of common ELA and math standards in more than 40 states, all the major publishers are competing to create Common-Core-aligned textbooks and tests, and newer/smaller developers are entering the marketplace as well.  Groups of states have formed consortia to share the costs of developing standardized tests aligned to the Common Core.  During the initial years of implementation, most teachers and districts have struggled to find good materials aligned to the standards, but over time, the Common Core standards are leading to a greater variety of innovative, high-quality materials at lower prices.  Entities such as the New York State Education Department and the non-profit Khan Academy are developing and disseminating free Common Core curriculum materials online, and individual teachers can develop and share their own Common Core-aligned resources with one another via the American Federation of Teachers’ Share My Lesson portal.  To aid districts and teachers in choosing among the many options, there are a variety of tools to vet Common Core-aligned curriculum materials, including an organization that provides online Consumer Reports-style reviews.

Thus, with publishers now benefiting from a larger market for each product they develop, and consumers benefiting from a larger selection of better-aligned materials at lower prices, there is tremendous economic momentum behind the Common Core standards.

Please click here to read part thirteen in this ongoing series.

PPI Series: Common Core Opposition Is Largely Based on Misconceptions and Testing Worries; Public Support for High Standards Is Strong

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part thirteen of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State

Common Core polls are in and out of the news, and some reporters say that a majority of the public opposes the Common Core.  But a closer look at the polls tells a different story.  Whether Americans say they oppose the Common Core depends not only on how the questions are worded, but also on how well respondents understand what the standards are and what they are used for.  Polls that describe various attributes of the standards without using the name “Common Core” find high levels of support:

  • Seventy-nine percent of voters believe we should create high-quality academic standards or goals in English and math, and allow community to develop their own curricula. (Center for American Progress)
  • Ninety percent agree that the nation should raise academic standards to compete with other countries. (Center for American Progress)
  • The majority of Americans support adoption of “a set of education standards for English and math that have been set to internationally competitive levels and would be used in every state for students in grades K through 12.” (Wall Street Journal)
  • Only 16 percent oppose the following statement: “States have been deciding whether or not to use standards … that are the same across states” and that “will be used to hold public schools accountable for their performance.” (Education Next)

Nationally, most of those who say they are opposed turn out to have misconceptions about the Common Core.  According to multiple polls, large percentages of the public mistakenly believe:

  • that the Common Core standards were federally mandated;
  • that they were developed by the U.S. Department of Education; and
  • that they prescribe a national curriculum or limit what local teachers are allowed to teach.

At the state level, the New York Common Core Task Force found that “even vocal opponents of the Common Core have noted that although they may not support the implementation of and assessments related to the Common Core, they are in favor of high standards for students and accountability for schools and districts.”  So next time someone tells you he or she is against the Common Core, it might be worth asking a slightly different question.

Please click here to read part eleven in this ongoing series.

PPI Series: Are you Smarter Than A 5th Grader? Sample Question from the New York State Grade 5 English Language Arts Assessment

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part twelve of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State

To help educators and the public understand how the annual English language arts tests have changed in accordance with what the state’s new, higher standards demand, the Education Department has released a sample of test questions on EngageNY.org.  The example in today’s post is an article taken directly from NASA’s website, written by an expert in the history of spaceflight.  On the 5th grade English language arts assessment, six multiple choice questions were based on this passage, to measure various skills including students’ ability to find the main idea, explain how an author uses reasoning and evidence to support particular points, and draw inferences based on specific information in the text.

Figure 6: Sample question from New York State Grade 5 English Language Arts Assessment
PPI-sample-question-english-language2

Please click here to read part eleven in this ongoing series.

PPI Series: Are you Smarter Than An 8th Grader? Sample Question from the New York State Grade 8 Math Assessment

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part eleven of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State

To help educators and the public understand how the annual math tests have changed in accordance with what the state’s new, higher standards demand, the New York State Education Department has released a sample of test questions on EngageNY.org.  To solve the problem shown below, for example, students must recall the formula for the volume of a cylinder and apply it to solve a real-world problem.  The annotated answer key models how teachers should analyze their students’ work on classroom assignments throughout the year, looking at why students got the wrong answer and determining whether there is any pattern in students’ mistakes that would indicate the need to re-teach part of the unit.

Sample question from New York State Grade 8 Math Assessment

A water tank is in the shape of a right circular cylinder with a height of 20 feet and a volume of 320π cubic feet. What is the diameter, in feet, of the water tank?

A 16
B 10
C 8
D 4

Correct Answer: C
Measured CCLS: 8.G.9

Commentary: The item measures 8.G.9 because it measures using the formula for the volume of a cylinder (V = πr2h) to solve real-world problems; it has students solve for the diameter of a cylinder given the volume and height.

Answer Choice A: 16. This response reflects the radius squared of the cylinder. The student likely divided the volume by the height times π, but did not take the square root of the result to determine the radius. A student who selects this response may have limited understanding of how to solve for a variable in a formula.
320π ÷ 20π = 16

Answer Choice B: 10. This response reflects half of the height of the cylinder. A student who selects this response may not understand how to use the formula for the volume of a cylinder or the relationship between the dimensions of the cylinder.
20 ÷ 2 = 10

Answer Choice C: 8. The student correctly determined the diameter of the cylinder. The student who selects this response used the formula for the volume of a cylinder to solve for the radius of the cylinder, and then used the radius to find the diameter.
V = πr2h
320π = πr2(20) 2r = d
16 = r2 2 × 4 = 8
4 = r

Answer Choice D: 4. This response reflects the radius of the cylinder. A student who selects this response may understand how to use the formula for the volume of a cylinder, but may not understand the relationship between the radius and diameter of the cylinder or attend to precision when answering the question posed in the problem.

V = πr2h
320π = πr2(20)
16 = r2
4 = r

Answer options A, B, and D are plausible but incorrect. They represent common student errors made when using the formula of a cylinder to solve real-world and mathematical problems. Answer option C represents the correct process used to solve for the diameter of a cylinder given the volume and height.

Please click here to read part ten in this ongoing series.

PPI Series: The Common Core is Not About Zany Math or Indoctrinating Children. It’s About Conceptual Understanding and Critical Thinking in Real-World Contexts (Just Like the New SAT)

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part ten of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State

You have probably seen the social media posts showing math homework that makes no sense or requires children to do multiple confusing steps to solve a simple addition problem. Should we blame the Common Core standards for confusing assignments?  The standards rightly specify that students need to be “fluent” in solving arithmetic problems—in other words, they need to be able to perform arithmetic calculations quickly and without stopping to think.  But the standards go further by demanding that students understand the concepts behind arithmetic and be able to demonstrate that understanding in more than one way. For example, students may use drawings or work with manipulatives to illustrate how arithmetic works. This enables children with different learning styles to experiment until they discover a model that makes sense to them.

At higher levels, students are expected to “solve math problems rooted in the real world, deciding for themselves which formulas and tools (such as protractors and rulers) to use.” Assignments and test questions often require students to complete several steps and draw on the application of multiple skills and concepts.  The rapid transition to the Common Core has afforded teachers and curriculum publishers less lead time than they are accustomed to, to develop materials to guide students through these conceptual processes and applications, and so the quality of lessons and assignments has been uneven. These growing pains are dissipating as teachers become more comfortable with the standards, and materials are revised and refined. Moreover, the availability of free video lessons on Khan Academy and elsewhere means that even the most math-phobic parent can find help with Common Core homework.

What about the Common Core standards in English language arts and literacy?  Some critics have gone so far as to liken the Common Core initiative to Communism or Nazism, or have said that that it is anti-freedom, or even that it will turn children into homosexuals.  If you read the Common Core standards closely, you will discover a certain irony to such baseless claims. At their heart, the standards ask students to become comfortable reading and analyzing texts drawn from real-world sources, especially non-fiction texts in science and social studies.

Under the Common Core standards, students are asked to do “close reading” and to ground their analyses in information gathered from the assigned texts.  The irony, then, is that Common Core opponents will be hard-pressed to find any evidence of Communism, Nazism, or homosexual propaganda in the language of the standards themselves.  Because the standards aim to instill critical thinking skills, students will inevitably be asked to study texts with which they or their parents disagree, including texts that espouse a range of social and political viewpoints.  The selection of particular reading materials is a local curricular decision.  So anti-Common Core activists are probably right when they warn that “[y]our child or grandchild will not be able to escape Common Core materials that are anti-Christian, anti-capitalism, and anti-America, or that are pro-homosexuality, illegal immigration, unions, environmentalism, gun control, feminism, and social justice.”  The Common Core standards are not about “escaping” from texts; they are about grappling with them.

New York’s rigorous Common Core-aligned assessments, though unpopular in some circles, will prove to be excellent preparation for the SAT.  One of the lead authors of the Common Core standards, David Coleman, is now head of the College Board, and under his leadership, the SAT has been redesigned in line with the Common Core.  The new exam engages students in evidence-based reading and writing, drawing on more non-fiction texts from science and social studies sources.  The math portion focuses on the areas of math that are most important for college and career, and asks students “to solve problems in science, social science, and career contexts.”  The College Board began administering the new SAT in spring 2016.  The smart money says that New York policymakers will maintain the state’s momentum in implementing the Common Core, to give our students the best possible preparation for the redesigned SAT.

Please click here to read part nine in this ongoing series.

PPI Series: Making Sense of the Controversy Over Raising New York’s Education Standards: Let’s Review

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part nine of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State

In the wake of the 2015 opt-out testing boycott, Governor Cuomo convened a Common Core Task Force to study the standards and tests, and the New York State Education Department launched a survey to solicit input on the standards, particularly from parents and teachers. One benefit of such reviews is that they force would-be critics to actually read and become familiar with the standards.  According to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank that specializes in analyzing education standards, most states that have conducted reviews have found that the Common Core standards are consistent with the research on what skills and knowledge students need to be college- and career-ready, and have therefore ended up making only relatively minor changes to the standards.

The Task Force’s report devotes much attention to describing stakeholders’ frustration surrounding the swift adoption and implementation of the standards, confusion over whether the EngageNY curriculum resources were mandatory (they were not), and complaints about the grades 3-8 ELA and math tests.  Congress’s December 2015 reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act retains the requirement for states to test students annually in ELA and math in grades 3-8, so the tests themselves will remain in place.  But in a significant move, the Board of Regents has adopted the Task Force’s recommendation to remove any consequences for teachers’ and principals’ evaluations related to the grades 3-8 ELA and math tests until the 2019-2020 school year.

As for the standards themselves, the majority of responses to NYSED’s survey (more than 70 percent) were positive.  Moreover, the Task Force explicitly affirmed that New York must maintain high educational standards” and “build upon the foundation established by the Common Core standards.”  The aspects of the standards that received the most criticism from survey respondents had to do with the early grades.  The Task Force report recommended that NYSED seek input from child development experts to ensure that the standards for the early grades are developmentally appropriate.  NYSED is launching a process whereby committees of educators, parents, students, and–notably–business representatives will recommend revisions to the standards, to be implemented in 2017-18.  The Department has pledged to “use this feedback … to help us identify where and what changes are needed to make New York’s Common Core ELA and Math Learning Standards stronger.”  Indeed,  the best possible outcome of this scrutiny and fine-tuning at the state level would be if it were ultimately to strengthen the Common Core standards and improve their implementation.

Please click here to read part eight in this ongoing series.

PPI Series: Making Sense of the Controversy Over Raising New York’s Education Standards: What Is At Stake?

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part eight of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State

Now that the grades 3-8 ELA and math tests reflect higher standards, and far fewer students are labeled “proficient,” it is commonplace to hear complaints about overuse of “high-stakes tests” in our schools.  Typically, a test is defined as having “high stakes” if it is used to make important decisions such as whether a student will be promoted to the next grade or awarded a high school diploma.  It is worth reviewing exactly what stakes are attached to New York’s ELA and math tests.  For many years (predating the current controversies), New York has required that students pass the Comprehensive English Regents exam and at least one math Regents exam in order to obtain a Regents diploma, so those are indeed high-stakes exams.  The ELA and math tests that are administered to all students in grades 3-8 do not carry high stakes for students, however.  Per explicit state policy, districts and schools are not encouraged to use the grades 3-8 ELA and math test results as the basis for decisions about placing students in particular courses or promoting them to the next grade.  If they do take the test results into consideration, it should be in conjunction with other information, to ensure they are looking at a complete picture of student performance.  The primary way in which schools use individual students’ test results is to identify those who are may be struggling and could benefit from extra help (known as “academic intervention services”) in reading or math.  In other words, students are identified and offered remedial education early in their school careers, as soon as the need emerges.  Many parents and educators object that the state has set expectations above “grade level” and that too many students are therefore being identified as in need of support.  In response, the state gave districts some flexibility in deciding which students should receive academic support services.  But the state’s essential position is that the expectations have been set externally, by colleges, employers, and other nations—all of whom were demanding more of high school graduates than our education system had heretofore been delivering—and that New York’s education system must raise standards to keep pace with the changing global economy.

Schools and teachers have numerous methods of determining whether particular students might require academic support, and indeed that is not the primary purpose of the federally mandated annual testing program.   Rather, the tests were instituted to provide a uniform source of data by which schools, districts, and states can be measured and held accountable for their effectiveness in educating students of different demographic groups.  Civil rights groups and advocates for students with disabilities have hailed the importance of the annual ELA and math tests in shining a light on achievement gaps that have, for too many years, left certain student populations behind.

Since 2010, New York expanded use of the tests from school and district accountability to include teacher and principal accountability as well, and these are the “high stakes” that have generated the bulk of the controversy.  As part of its successful bid to win $700 million under the federal Race to the Top program, the State Education Department and the New York State United Teachers union negotiated a law that requires districts to conduct thorough annual evaluations of all teachers and principals, and student outcomes are one required component of those evaluations.  (The majority of the rating is based on classroom observations by the principal or another trained evaluator.)  Teachers are not rated based on the percentage of their students scoring “proficient,” as that would be patently unfair to teachers of needier students.  Instead, all teachers of grades 4-8 ELA and math receive a “value-added” score based on how much each student improved on the state test compared with that same student’s performance in previous years.  The mathematical model controls for poverty and other factors, and teachers are compared with others who taught similar populations.  New York’s new Commissioner of Education, Mary Ellen Elia, successfully oversaw a similar system in Hillsborough County, Florida.  Hillsborough’s system awarded bonuses to effective teachers and had the support of the local union.  But the union backlash in New York has been fierce.  All of the NYSUT officers who negotiated the initial law were voted out, and the new leadership organized a campaign urging parents to opt their children out of the grades 3-8 ELA and math tests.

A primary rationale behind the opt-out movement is that if too few students take the tests, the data will become useless for evaluation purposes.  Of course, the data also become less usable for all other legitimate purposes, including measuring achievement gaps, making policy decisions, and conducting research into educational effectiveness.

Please click here to read part seven in this ongoing series.