Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Gossips Guest Essay

Here's a first on The Gossips of Rivertown: a guest essay. It started out as a comment but grew too long to be posted as such. The comment/essay was written by Peter Meyer, author, journalist, contributing editor at Education Next, who served on the Hudson City School District Board of Education, whose son was educated in Hudson schools, and who writes about education for the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

HCSD: Walmart or Little Red Schoolhouse? 

There is no doubt–at least, there should be no doubt–that the health of the Hudson City School District (HCSD) is a matter we should all take seriously, whether it’s building a new building or rolling out a new curriculum. And the recent discussion here is welcome. We need more of it.

Not only does HCSD pump $45 million into the local economy (through your tax dollars), it is supposed to educate our next generation of citizens. We don’t want to be throwing all that money away if all we are doing is creating future boobs. In fact, there are plenty of HCSD success stories to warrant confidence in HCSD as a district with a great deal of talent, in both the student and educator ranks.

This does not mean that “JoAnn Z,” John Friedman, and “Jay K” don’t have some justifiable complaints. Believe me, I sympathize. As a parent and taxpayer, I spent many years lobbying (and sometimes railing) for school improvement. I was a constant presence at PTA meetings, created a “listserve” to keep parents (and taxpayers) informed of the ins-and-outs of district issues, and spent five years on the school board working to improve our district’s education outcomes. We had some mighty loud arguments about how to do that, and my batting average was a baseball below-average (.210 maybe!) with only a couple of home runs and a modest number of RBIs. But we laid some good foundations during the superintendency of Jack Howe, and, I’m happy to report, we hired a worthy successor in Maria Suttmeier.

But here’s the problem: HCSD is more like a Walmart than a Little Red Schoolhouse. And that is a huge challenge for all of us.

There was a time when the Hudson School District was run by local citizens: a school board, elected by popular vote of registered voters, determined how much it would cost to educate our kids, then set a tax rate on local property owners to pay for it. Most of the city’s residents had kids, and most of those kids went to Hudson schools. It was a community enterprise. Greenport, Claverack, Livingston all had their own school districts. (It was the same everywhere. New York State had 10,000 autonomous school districts in 1900; today, just 730.) That locally owned and operated public school system worked for a hundred or so years. As a friend of mine who grew up in Hudson in the 1950s put it, “The shopkeepers of Hudson would not let the school fail.”

Unfortunately, such educational intimacy ended long ago. The current $45 million HCSD budget is funded by the federal government, the state government, and our local voters, each entity laying claim to a piece of the action. The district is also now composed of school children from five different towns--Hudson, Greenport, Livingston, Claverack, Stockport–each of which have their constituencies, further driving a wedge between local government and school government. All this means that our HCSD administrators have many masters, each spinning reams of regulations about how to use their money. The feds demand programs for poor kids; the state wants teacher evaluations based on standardized tests; the locals want excellence for their kids and low taxes; the unions want money and job security for their members. And we haven’t even talked about the “thought world” that drives the pedagogy: the schools of education training teachers about what should be taught and how to teach it. I think of the brouhaha over Common Core as a huge distraction.

Into this surreal world jump “JoAnn Z,” John Friedman, and “Jay K” with their opinions about how the school district runs–and should run. I wish there were more of them. But the fact is that these folks are mostly ignorant about the vast educational ice floes that now drive our nation’s school systems, not to mention the intricacies of how that plays out on the ground here in Hudson. The sale of John L. Edwards is nothing new; we were discussing it when I was on the BOE. And Mr. Friedman wrongly attributed the new sign in front of Questar to a decision by HCSD, apparently unaware of the BOCES system (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) which runs Questar and is a separate entity. (See the previous Gossips entry for other important but misinformed opinions.) Meghan Tice, the communications liaison for the district, has tried to sort some of this out with her comments, as indeed she should.

But this is but a whisper in the wind compared to the dialogue we need to have. And it is not a discussion for the faint of heart. There are no easy answers, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t answers. The one thing that should unite us is our communal ignorance–and the compelling need for more information. Unfortunately, at a time when we need more dialogue and more information about our schools, our local media seems to “cover” the territory as if schooling was an afterthought. As a school board member I attended many two- and three-hour board meetings, debating the pros and cons of multi-million-dollar budgets and expenditures, only to see silence from the local media. This sets up a “gotcha” dynamic, as the recent comments here attest, that is hard to change.

We can improve our local school system, but it will take a village. And the challenge is to find ways to create–re-create!–that village.

Peter Meyer
November 29, 2015


  1. The following came through anonymously as a comment on the post about Alan Chartock's conversation with Roberta Gratz. The content, however, makes it clear that it was meant to be a comment about the guest essay and also persuaded me to relax the rules about having to sign comments if you choose "Anonymous" as your profile.

    Danny and Carolyn O'Neil of O'Neil's Florist (Hudson and Chatham) were among those shop keepers who employed several HHS students, year round. They were as interested in our academic pursuits, our participation in sports, our involvement with Yearbook and The Owl, as our parents. They expected us to succeed, to excel, not just to pass. They celebrated with cake or fondue, our successes, and chided us when we didn't live up to our God given potential. There were no "participation" trophies then.

    Mrs. O'Neil had been a HHS Valedictorian, and reminded all of us there was an entire world out there, that was just waiting for us.

    In the meantime, however, we were all expected to be able to read and write, add and subtract, make change accurately every single time (using pen and paper) take down directions correctly, pre-GPSes, be attentive and polite to customers, be on time and stay until the last order was filled, school night or not.

    It mattered to Danny and Carolyn, just like it mattered to our parents.

    Peter, I would add one name to the list of Administrators who cared deeply about the success of the HCSD: David Paciencia. He cared not a wit about the politics of it, or the personalities; he wanted results. He initiated the Dollars for Scholars program; sent out timely and informative newsletters; and as a result of his thoughtful and tenacious determination, Crosswinds served as a temporary home to the Alternative School Program.

    Your piece here Peter is mandatory reading - perhaps out loud, as a group - for the currently seated School Board.

    You keep us all honest.

  2. memo to peter meyer,

    without really knowing it, peter, you pretty much stated the problem with the BOE and the managers of the failed school system in hudson.

    it is not supposed to be an economic engine putting money into everyones pockets, to the tune of 45 million dollars. as you stated.

    It is NOT a good thing to spend that much. You didnt say that the people paid to teach, whose duty it is to provide good education, have not delivered in any way.

    perhaps the intentions to do a good job are there with some people, but the reality is in the performance numbers. hudson is at the bottom of the pile.

    45 million spent has not delivered to the students -- and it is a disservice to the community.

    sometimes much less spent with a conscience goes much further. lets reduce the spending to 30 million.
    maybe that would be better.

  3. Peter's description of the forces at work nationally, and with a certainty, locally is really valuable and welcome. What I wish were incorporated are some recommendation on what could usefully be done to change the situation in the HCSD for the better.

    Peter offers dialogue as the beginning point on the path to improvement. Very well. But something is missing, for me, in Peter's analysis. It may be this. Does the answer lie in analyzing how the forces Peter describes effect the array of social, cultural, economic and financial dynamics end up as disincentives for children in our school system. examining and understanding our peculiar array of forces is where we should start with our dialogue.

    1. Don Moore submitted this addendum to his comment:

      .to continue: I would like a dialogue about the species our our school board. Who runs what? Where are the power centers? Can arguments be successfully employed that describe the purposes of the schools sufficient to overcome self-Interest.

  4. The HCSD injects $45m into the local economy?! I think not: it takes $45m out of the local economy -- the bulk of its spending is on compensation for the faculty and staff, many of whom don't live in Hudson; it spends for retirement outlays (current payments to retirees who are often likely living somewhere else) and and for contributions towards future retirement obligations (by investing on markets that are not located in Hudson where there are a mere handful of local companies none of which have a significant share float or trading volume); it buys food from somewhere (does any come from Col. Co. farms?); it buys books and supplies from companies that aren't located here. So how much of that $45m is spent locally? Not a lot.

  5. Peter you make the point that BOCES is a separate legal entity from the HCSD and I believe this is correct. But isn't it a distinction without a difference viz. funding? BOCES itself doesn't levy a tax. Isn't it funded from contributions from the districts that are "cooperating" in BOCES' existence? And isn't the HCSD's portion of the BOCES budget paid out of the funds it receives from its levy? And doesn't the HCSD have reps on the "board" part of BOCES?

    The problem isn't a sign, per se, of course. Rather, it's what the sign, er, signifies: a disconnect between the educational institutions in the community and the community itself. While failing to graduate a huge percentage of its charges, the local educational institutions feel justified in spending time and money on window dressing. This is not acceptable to many here in the community. We may not be educational experts, but we are imbued with both common sense and some wisdom. Not to mention with a bill for $45m a year that we manage to pay. How does a failing system justify spending its professionals' time and our money on that sign, or a new gym, when it is not even close to performing basic services we pay it to perform?

    Anyone from the HCSD wish to chime in here or is the community, once again, whistling in the dark?

  6. Tom Gavin, Retired Principal HCSD

    You are correct Mr. Friedman. BOCES is funded by local school districts who use their services.
    The "window dressing" you mention is a vital aspect, according to central administration, for the district. The montra over the yeasr is that "perception is reality." I disagreed with this phiosophy for years because it's intent is to present a picture that is not reality to the community.

    A perfect example of this was the announcement made the Superintendents Conference day that 2 students graduated from the bridge program. That's all well and good but the 14 drop outs were never mentioned at all. It's also reflected in the Superintendes BOE meeting assignment of telling only of "what's right with the district."

    There are many more examples but the horse is already dead so why keep beating it?

  7. I have long been of the belief that the most critical factor in educational performance, particularly among children whose parents have relatively low social economic status, is the quality of the teachers. The rest is mostly noise. To do that, there needs to be a professional career track, where excellent teachers over time, are paid very well - in the six figures - and low quality teachers are removed. That means, having substantial pay differentials among teachers, something the teachers' unions vehemently oppose. Until that changes, I don't expect to see much improvement, which is a tragedy for this nation. It suggests that our future is one of increasing income inequality, with all of the attendant social stress that portends. The US does a great job teaching the elite, and has most of the best institutions of higher education in the world, while some of the worst secondary schools among the industrialized nations.

    I don't mind paying a lot of taxes to finance secondary schools that do a good job. I do mind paying such taxes for those that do not. Hudson unfortunately seems to be an exemplar of the latter category.

    Googling around, I found the link below to an article about the impact on teacher quality on educational performance. I cannot vouch for its credibility, but hey, it's a professor from Stanford University, one of those elite institutions to which I referred, for what it is worth.

  8. I'm afraid that the HCSD results speak for themselves. The rest are just excuses.

  9. I would like to tag along with Don Moore's question of how do we go about changing the situation. In addition, are there factors beyond the school walls that can be brought to bear on the school, its teachers and, I suspect most importantly, the students and their families?

    Mark Orton

  10. Having worked for theHCSD I can tell you there are many students 10th grade and up that can't tell time on an analog clock, have great difficulty reading and comprehending and can nearly spell and write but are pushed along

  11. Thank you all for your comments. Don Moore and Mark Orton wondered what we can do to improve schools and I would suggest: more of this dialogue.

    There are really two big questions facing educators and education policymakers (which is us): What works? and How do we implement what works?

    The first is fairly easy to answer. There are good schools all over the country and they are good because they do some basic things right. (I wrote about some of them in Ohio here: Steve Dunn has suggested one of the keys to such success—good teachers. Other key ingredients include a coherent, content-rich curriculum; a well-managed and safe environment; intense and constant collaboration; and a culture of excellence. Put those ingredients in a well-stirred pot and issues of poverty and parents all but disappear. Tom Gavin did this when he ran the alternative learning program out of the trailers behind the old Greenport School.

    But how you make this happen in this balkanized education world is tough. One thing that would help, in my opinion, is community commitment to education. We really need to get ourselves educated about our schools. Such knowledge should come before argument and it should include the kind of research Mr. Dunn alluded to. It includes, for instance, reading a book called The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them, by E.D. Hirsch, arguably the single-best book about education written in the last 50 years.

    The point is that the more knowledge the community has, the more invested it is in the outcomes and the better our education system. Here are some ideas:

    • We need a fulltime education reporter, either at one of our existing media outlets or some new outlet. The emphasis here is fulltime, someone who can cover education in depth and breadth, who will not only report on the Perfect 10 opening at the Opera House but also on the Curriculum Workshop sponsored by the HCSD BOE. By expanding the meaning of “education” to include the rich offerings from our gifted non-profit education and arts organizations as well as the day-to-day readin’-ritin’-rithmetic sloggings of our district teachers, we would begin to see the educational endeavor as a community responsibility.
    • Our local towns (and cities) need school liaisons, someone dedicated to staying informed about our schools and lobbying for their town’s children. Our town-and-gown problem was summed up beautifully by Hudson native and former Hudson City Youth Department Commissioner Danny Grandinetti who once said, “I can throw a baseball from Oakdale to the Middle School, but I have no communication with the school district.”
    • Our local business, fraternal, and church organizations should have school liaisons as well.

    The health of our community depends on our schools. And once we start understanding how they work and begin to act as if we own them, we’ll start to get the schools our children deserve.