A Second Look at the Clarkstown Special Needs Evaluation Proposal

I earlier described as “inexplicable” the arguments against a motion made at the Board of Education meeting on September 8th, for the approval of an outside evaluation of the Special Needs programs in the Clarkstown CSD.  I have since spoken with a number of parents of children with varied special needs.  The parents offered no criticisms of the teachers and few about administrators.  Universally, their view is that there are problems in the implementation, allocation and availability of the special needs services, not the quality of the programs.

Indeed, parents believe their child would benefit from programs already offered in the CCSD.  Some parents have had their children independently evaluated to confirm their need.  These parents see inequities in the availability of these programs and how they are offered.  

The purpose of the outside evaluation is to look at the way these services and programs are provided and suggest ways to improve the implementation and distribution of those services.  It may suggest reorganization with no additional spending.  It may suggest that $500,000 in additional spending would be better used to acquire additional licenses and hardware to expand the very well received Read 180 program than to, say, hire 10 more reading teachers.  The whole point of an outside evaluation is that we do not know specifically what that evaluation will recommend.

Mr. DeGaetano and Mrs. Ehrenberg asserted that an outside evaluation is not necessary because the talents and abilities of the CCSD teachers and administrators make them the best judges of their own programs.  A teacher or an administrator may see such statements as praise, but could just as easily see veiled threats implying that, if the programs do not improve, then the CCSD must have people to root out.  

Anybody want to guess where they would like to start?

This is not the purpose of the evaluation, and it is hardly the motivation the BoE should employ to improve any program.  Besides, the outside evaluation is not going to look at teacher performance at all. 

In the context of explaining his disapproval for an outside evaluation, Mr. DeGaetano chastised Dr. Keller-Cogan for, as he described it, rejecting his suggestion to add ten reading teachers (at a cost of $500,000).  He continued that Dr. Keller-Cogan, after consideration and (ironically) internal review, concluded that the district would be best served with only two more teachers.  The intent was to show that his willingness to spend $500,000 meant that he was not against the evaluation because of the $15,000 cost.  Even accepting that intent, it is an odd position for a Board member to express frustration that funds (that don’t exist) are not allocated to needs (that don’t exist), while the Superintendent wants to allocate funding where needs can be quantified. 

At any rate, none of that offers any insight as to why one would argue against the outside evaluation.  Granted that the RFP itself was not before the Board at the time, but surely with two years of self-evaluation, documentation and an RFP, one so opposed to the outside evaluation would recall at least one quantifiable reason for that opposition within the context of the documentation or the RFP.  Yet no such reason was provided.  Mrs. Ehrenberg couldn’t even recall seeing the documentation, yet still argued against the outside evaluation.  The reasons for such a denial should be something more than, “Because”.

“We will give you whatever you need, as long as it’s what we say you need…”    

Even if the Board’s confidence in the self-evaluative skills of the CCSD staff is genuine, it’s a weak argument.  There should be, and there is, continual self-evaluation performed throughout the district.  The CCSD staff has done very well under financial strains and considerable changes in program expectations and assessments.  If our goal is continued improvement and exceptional student achievement, it is unreasonable and unfair to have the staff perform their already challenging jobs while also serving as full-time, active researchers of their own skills, methodologies, and effectiveness.  Ironically (again), one of the expected benefits of the evaluation is to provide guidance in improving the district’s methods of self-evaluation!  It is unreasonable for professionals to simply “know” a completely different skill set from what they are trained to do.

“While you’re at it, write up an evaluation contrasting current practices with the state of juggling in the CCSD.”

Further, an outside evaluator brings an impartial view that cannot be expected of those actively working in an existing system.  It can confirm where our district has met or exceeded best practices, and offer ways to make them even better.  A district that prides itself as an educational leader should welcome such evaluations.

One could argue against the program evaluator, but where to do so is not apparent.  The program evaluator is Ann P. Monroe-Baillargeon, Ph.D., a professor at Alfred University and a member of Advisory Solutions.  This is the school district consultant service of the New York State School Boards Association.  She earned her doctorate in Teaching and Curriculum from Syracuse University, an internationally recognized leader in the field of special education for nearly 50 years.  Serious arguments against these qualifications seem unlikely.

This much must be said again: Mrs. Ehrenberg raised a valid point that the funds for the evaluation should be drawn from the general funds.  The methodology employed by the consultants will look at special needs within the context of the larger organization in which it operates, and within the context of applicable laws and regulations.  By this definition, the research is not limited to special needs, and the benefits to the district may likely extend beyond the special needs programs.  The costs, therefore, should be borne from the general funds.

The Board has assigned the task of finding a way to cover the $15,000 cost through the general funds to Dr. Keller-Cogan.  Since this seems agreed as the manner of funding, it is hard to believe that this cost could any longer be an actual factor in the decision.  After all, $40,000 in legal fees incurred by the Board earlier this year was found…somewhere.  The impending funding for a search firm for a superintendent surely will be found…somewhere.  Mr. DeGaetano offered to find $500,000 for 10 reading teachers…somewhere.

“X” marks the spot!
Obviously, it can be done.

The more this issue is examined, the more the arguments for continued self-evaluation move from “inexplicable” to “indefensible”. 

It must be emphasized that by all measures the problems seem few and the programs in the CCSD, whether in special needs or the larger organization, are a great success.  The outside evaluation is a tool to expand upon that success.  Once again, approve the RFP.

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