Education reform backed by the wealthy
Subhead: Some educators fear Regents Research Fund has its own agenda, is unaccountable to public.
Ohanian Comment: Here's the press release of the Regents Research Fellows.
In 2011, Michael Winerip warned about these 'free' advisers-- Regents Pay a Political Price for Their Free Advisers, Dissenters Warn, and I added a few notes, including some info on the first advisers hired.
Winerip, ever able to get the telling quote, summed up the situation with this one from Merryl Tisch:
As Dr. Tisch put it, what's not to like about free fellows?
Follow some of the hot links I provide below, and you'll see what's not to like.
Here are the rules they set in 2010 on Race to the Top professional development money
In 2011. I reported on the New York State Regents Research Fellows:
In announcing a $892,500 grant for Common Core planning from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the press release the New York State Education Department mentioned that the the Regents Research Fellows will provide the Department with supplemental expertise and research--and they are funded by the Wallace Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation.
One reason I keep this site viewed by many as old-fashioned--with the added disadvantage of not being free, is because of its search capabilities.
Here's Henry Giroux on David Steiner.
On LinkedIn, Matthew Gross lists his expertise as Ed Tech/Literacy Entrepreneur. On we read this:
While at the (Regents Research)Fund, Matthew led the development of EngageNY.org, a web application providing teachers and administrators with resources for implementation of Common Core state standards and teacher and principal evaluations. . . . Matthew began his career as a Teach for America corps member, teaching music at C.S. 50 in the South Bronx. . . .
Of course there is a College Board Connection: Kristen Huff, Senior Fellow for Assessment, spent seven years directing assessment design, research, and development programs at the College Board. Huff played a senior leadership role in the redesign of Advanced Placement courses and exams and the design of new SkillInsight reports for SAT.
By James M. Odato
A team of two dozen well-paid analysts embedded in the State Education Department is having a dramatic impact on a reform agenda that's causing controversy throughout New York.
None are public servants.
Supported with $19 million in donations from some of the nation's wealthiest philanthropists, the Regents Research Fund team makes up a little-known think tank within the education agency. It is helping drive reforms that affect the state's 3.1 million public school students and employees of almost 700 school districts.
The three-year-old operation, which now comprises 27 full-time staffers and a half-time intern, is unique in public education systems nationwide.
The group is an institute charged with helping the state Board of Regents and Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. find ways to improve student performance and ensure graduates are ready for college or careers.
Barely heard of outside education circles and a mystery even within them, the "Regent fellows" are paid from entities such as the Gates Foundation and some salaries approach $200,000 a year. The arrangement is stirring concern in some quarters that deep-pocketed pedagogues are forcing their reform philosophies on an unwitting populace, and making an end run around government officers.
"We're a public education system," said Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in Long Island's Rockville Centre. "Having the wealthy pay for it, you're seeing an agenda that is being pushed ... at a rapid pace, and outside the system of public accountability."
The fellows program grew out of former Education Commissioner David Steiner's 2010 decision to use an existing charitable group to give birth to a research arm of his bureaucracy. At the time, the department was being challenged by Washington to improve school results and by Albany to do more with less. Confronted by the department's loss of staff through cuts and early-retirement incentives and federal pressure to adopt reforms under the Race to the Top initiative, Steiner, his then-deputy King and Chancellor Merryl Tisch tried something different: They leveraged private donations, starting with $1 million from the private foundation established by Tisch and her husband, Loews Corp. CEO James Tisch, to infuse the Regents Research Fund with dollars to hire education consultants.
What was envisioned as a short-term, relatively small augmentation to SED staff has grown exponentially. Fellows operate independently and communicate regularly with King and many interact regularly with state workers, but are not bound by Public Officer's Law or ethics rules imposed on government officials.
The Regents appear serious about expanding the group. Fellows who signed on for two-year stints have been extended, new research and policy analysts have been hired, and state officials cannot say if or when the experiment will end. Fellows say they don't know when they'll be done, but expect their assignments will run their course.
Earlier this year, Tisch and King tried to recruit James Malatras, a top policy adviser to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to become the RRF's executive director and senior communications fellow. Malatras chose to remain on Cuomo's team, but this summer joined the State University of New York as chief of staff to the chancellor.
The RRF is currently managed by its full-time fundraiser with oversight by SED officials, who also clear its expenditures and procurements.
"We created the fellowship program to reinvigorate the research arm of the department," Tisch said in an interview, adding that she stays at arm's-length from the researchers. "All I did was provide that first gift."
Since that $1 million commitment, other philanthropists have opened their wallets. The Hewlett Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, Tiger Foundation, Robin Hood Foundation, the Helmsley Trust and General Electric are among 19 donors that have underwritten the program.
The fellows have been involved in mapping teacher and principal evaluations, redoing student exams and working through the state's implementation of the Common Core standards-- reforms that have moved with a speed that many parents and teachers across the state have protested as hasty and harsh.
Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, D-Queens, chairwoman of the chamber's Education Committee (which appoints the Regents), said she can't explain what the RRF does. "I don't know anything about it," Nolan said.
Dennis Tompkins, King's communications director, said the fellows offer unique skills and expertise. "They're like rock stars," he said, adding that without their help "we would be struggling."
Burris, named the 2013 Principal of the year by the state School Administrators Association and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, calls the fellows agents of destructive policies. She and other question who they are serving -- the Board of Regents, or the wealthy patricians who pay the fellows' salaries.
Two powerful unions, New York State United Teachers and the Public Employees Federation, have complained to the State Education Department.
"You have some extremely bright people but with no education background at all presenting research and rationales for decisions to the State Education Department, who I guess make the final decisions," said Richard C. Iannuzzi, president of NYSUT. "The extent of their role certainly isn't clear enough for me to say where advice ends and real influence begins." He said if you follow the positions of foundations donating to the Regents Research Fund and the positions the Regents are taking, "There are similarities."
PEF Local 194 President Kevin Kroencke, who works at the Education Department, said the fellows seem to be bossing civil servants around. "They're supposed to be advisers," Kroencke said. "They're not supposed to be implementing public programs; they're private sector employees."
Many administrators say the fellows don't listen to comments from the field, and act as de facto representatives of the state agency. "It is unsettling to watch the dismantling of public education by inexperienced employees hired from a special fund," said Katie Zahedi, a middle school principal in Red Hook. "The fellows have taken the work out of the hands of appropriately hired, official NYSED employees and are acting as policy entrepreneurs."
SED officials say the fellows have no authority over state employees, and emphasize that the Regents set the policies that the fellows are there to support.
Tisch said these exchanges sound like healthy debate amid the tumult of reform. Such criticisms, she said, are "a sexy thing to say in this environment."
The key group of senior fellows was assembled in November 2010. Matthew Gross, the first executive director of the fund, who had previously worked for an organization that gets business leaders to partner with schools, joined Kristen Huff, a former College Board research director who has been developing the student learning assessment program. She was the highest-paid fellow last year with total compensation of $192,909, which would have been second only to King's salary of $212,500 if she was on SED's payroll.
Other senior fellows include Amy McIntosh ( also), a former New York City Department of Education administrator who works on teacher and principal effectiveness strategies, and Kate Gerson, a former New York City principal who is doing teacher training workshops.
Gross left about 18 months ago to form a new venture aimed at improving reading. In an interview, Gross said the fellows were "an outside-the-box solution to an outside-the-box problem."
Gross described the fellows as nationally recognized "thought leaders" to help lead the implementation of "next-generation" assessments and other education reforms surrounding Common Core. New York secured almost $700 million through the federal program to bring about changes.
Gross said he helped raise $9 million from foundations to build the RRF. He turned over development efforts to another recruit, Joshua Skolnick, who has tapped several charities to keep the money rolling in, approximately doubling the sum Gross secured. Skolnick did not return calls and emails. Other fellows, including former NewsChannel 13 reporter Beth Wurtmann, declined to discuss their work or referred questions to Tompkins' press office.
The office made two fellows available: Huff and Peter Swerdzewski, two members of a team of five psychometrics specialists who help figure out ways to assess teachers and students.
"There aren't a whole lot of us out there with this training and experience," said Huff. She said the fellows aren't given to a particular philosophy or bias as critics suspect. "It sounds inaccurate to me; it doesn't reflect the way we work."
Swerdzewski said he is trained as a scientist and applies those skills to accomplish the Regents' goals while working alongside state employees. "The working relationship is great," he said.
Representatives of the foundations that support the RRF say donations to the fund are made in the spirit of improving public education. Documents accompanying grants indicate support of the fellowship program, the reform agenda or, in the case of the Carnegie Foundation, to help the fellows design and implement virtual learning. "We are not prescriptive," said Deborah Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed $3.3 million to the fund.
Tiger Foundation and its primary backer, hedge fund investor Julian Robertson, are providing $560,000 because they support King and his goals, said spokesman Fraser Seitel. "One of (Robertson's) basic tenants is that teachers should be paid well for good performance," he added.
Donald Juron, chief financial officer for SED, said he assumes the fellows will be working at least through the fall of 2015 if the extensions on implementing New York's Race to the Top plan are approved by the federal government. Meanwhile, the fund is advertising to hire another fellow. Juron and other department officials say the fellows are not replacing state staff.
"Any state would be proud to have people of this capacity working as an arm of the state education department," said Tisch, emphasizing her regard for staff staffers. "They couldn't do it without the leadership, without the people who work for the department."
firstname.lastname@example.org -- 518-454-5083 -- @JamesMOdato
Regents Research Fund contributors
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation $3.3 million
James S. and Merryl H. Tisch Fund $400,000 (draw-down on $1 million commitment)
Leona and Harry Helmsley Charity $3.83 million
Amy and Larry Robbins Foundation $500,000
Tortora Silicox Family Foundation $975,000
GE Foundation $3.5 million
Ford Foundation $788,000
Carnegie Corp. $1.2 million
Tiger Foundation $560,000
Robin Hood Foundation $600,000
William and Flora Hewlett Foundation $900,000
Sources: Foundations, State Department of Education, Merryl H. Tisch
James M. Odato, with Ohanian notes
Albany Times Union