Taking the lead from recommendations released last week by his education commission, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed competitive grants to encourage districts to extend the number of hours in their school year, and state funding for full-day pre-Kindergarten programs in low-income districts.
"We need more learning time, my friends, if we really are serious about improving education," Cuomo said to applause during his annual State of the State speech in Albany. He said the old agrarian calendar makes no sense in the 21st century, and noted that Korea, Canada and Massachusetts have improved student achievement with a longer school year.
The governor said districts could decide for themselves whether to increase the number of classroom hours through longer days, fewer vacation days or some combination of both. He said the state would provide grants to those districts that extended learning time by at least 25 percent and demonstrated that it would result in better outcomes for students.
The governor gave no cost estimates for the longer school year grants, or for his proposal to expand pre-K which included the state picking up the tab for low-income communities to offer full-day pre-K programs which are five hours long, instead of 2.5 hours long. Only 67 percent of districts offer pre-K at all, and most of their programs are just half a day, Cuomo said.
To pay for these programs, the governor proposed using 90 percent of the revenues raised by three gambling casinos still to be built upstate.
Just last week he expressed concern about the financial impact of his education commission's recommendations.
“Gov. Cuomo has shown educational leadership, and we feel many of his initiatives will have a real impact on students' lives," Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said in a statement to reporters.
"We also applaud Gov. Cuomo for proposing a way for school districts to increase learning time for students through a creative grant program, one that districts could use to restore their enrichment programs in music and the arts,” he added.
Children's advocates also praised the governor. Members of the Alliance for Quality Education issued a statement calling pre-K a great investment. "Investing in quality early learning for our kids is proven to be very smart both educationally and economically," said Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York. "When children are ready for kindergarten, their chances at success skyrocket, and our communities will see a significant return on the investment."
But experts say the research on a longer school day - for children of all ages - is actually mixed. Susan Neuman, a professor of education at New York University's Steinhardt School, said there's a lot of buzz right now around extending the school year based on the success of some charter networks.
"It really is a question of what you do with that extended day," she said. "If they extend learning and they provide academic support in terms of tutoring and other kinds of programs, it is likely to have an effect on achievement."
However, she cautioned that a full day of pre-K could also be padded with nap-time.
Rima Shore, chair of the education leadership department at Bankstreet College of Education, added another dose of skepticism. "Past studies of extended day and its impact on achievement are many in number, but don't give policymakers clear direction," she said, adding that there's an ongoing debate about whether to provide more time in existing classes or to add more classes.
"It's easier to count the number of hours students spend in a room than to measure engagement. So whenever such reforms are introduced, it is worth asking whether they benefit children as much as they benefit policymakers and researchers."
Raising Standards for Teachers
As expected, Cuomo also proposed a "bar exam" for future teachers. He said the state is already revising its teacher certification test, and that CUNY and SUNY should admit only the best students for their education programs.
He said high-performing "master teachers" should be rewarded with $15,000 in supplemental income annually for 4 years, so they could help train other teachers. He did not specify the criteria for defining a master teacher. But he gave full backing to New York's new teacher evaluation system, which has yet to actually go into effect, by saying school districts would not get next year's increase in state aid unless they continue their teacher evaluation systems.
Cuomo noted that 99 percent of the state's districts have submitted evaluation plans, but that the program is only for the current fiscal year. New York City is among a handful of districts, however, that have yet to reach agreements with their unions before the Jan. 17 deadline for approval.
Groups that have been critical of the teachers union supported the governor's proposals to raise standards.
"We hope that the district and union leaders across the state, and particularly in New York City who are negotiating these systems, heard the Governor loud and clear today and understand how important this issue is for the future success of our schools," said Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of Educators 4 Excellence, which includes many younger teachers.
The group StudentsFirstNY praised Cuomo's focus on improving teacher quality, but executive director Micah Lasher said, "we must be careful not to create obstacles to entry that do not correspond to effectiveness into the classroom." The group was started by former Washington, D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee.
Cuomo's other education proposals include expanding the number of community schools that are connected to social services, such as those in the Harlem Children's Zone. The organization's founder, Geoffrey Canada, was on the governor's education commission. These programs would also be funded with competitive grants, and school districts would have to show they're getting results. And Cuomo said his next budget will include funds to increase the number of early college high schools, and grants for innovation zones that make new use of technology in education.