State Education Commissioner David M. Steiner believes that New York State will serve as a national model for public education by examining its graduation requirements, curriculum and overall aim.
The commissioner heard suggestions Thursday in Erie 1 BOCES in West Seneca from 350 teachers and administrators from Western New York -- the largest attendance yet for his six statewide tours to determine the future of the state's education model.
"I think, three or four years from now, this will represent a sea change in our fundamental educational structure," Steiner said, "and we are determined to take a national leadership role in making this happen. It has to happen quickly."
That's because America has fallen to 15th globally in college graduation rates, and nearly a third of New York's students struggle at some point to pass high school exams, Steiner said.
The solution? An honest, frank discussion about the very role high schools play in preparation for college and careers.
Steiner asked teachers to consider and discuss the possibility of:
*Increased graduation requirements, including four years of math and science classes rather than the current three, and a second math regents exam.
*More flexibility in the ways students can meet those requirements, specifically in the final two years of high school.
*Alternative or supplemental credentials, including a "college and career ready" credit consisting of a technical education course or a college or Advanced Placement course.
*A reassessment of the "safety net" for students with disabilities, specifically more reasonable testing requirements for special-education students.
Steiner said the need is great. He noted 75 percent of students at the City University of New York recently needed remedial courses upon entering the college.
"The courses that you take in remediation get you no closer to graduation, they cost real money, you're using up your student loans, and that moment to graduation is like a mirage receding into the distance," Steiner said.
He said the extra year of math and science courses would ensure many students don't have a year or two off from the subject before entering college.
"They're human," he said of the state's students. "They can't remember the math they did three years ago. Then when they get to [college], they flunk the exam."
Steiner said the raising of standards isn't an attempt to be unrealistic or prideful.
"There isn't a fetish about raising standards," he said. "We raise standards because we want our children to do better than we did."
Steiner said the raising of standards must be accompanied by a new flexibility. That could include exams that will allow students to advance in certain subjects on a proficiency basis, without taking the course.
"We give special-education students a [proficiency exam], but we seem to assume that all other students are interchangeable," he said, "like robots advancing exactly parallel with each other."
Steiner said certain special-education students are required to take exams not tailored to their needs. He spoke of a teacher he visited who spent "hours and hours and passion" helping an autistic student make a physical achievement.
"To say to that student has to pass a test like you and me, that is cruel," he said. "We should meet these students where they are and create an [appropriate] assessment."
Steiner, who was accompanied by state Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Chancellor Emeritus Robert Bennett, said unlike in past generations, college readiness equals career readiness. He said though all students may not attend college, similar skills are needed to obtain a job that pays enough to support a family.
"At graduation, we owe these students a choice," Tisch said.
Steiner said states like New York will use the $180 million given by the federal government's Race to the Top program. Bennett said federal funding for mandated programs is "critical," particularly in special education.
Buffalo Board of Education President Ralph R. Hernandez said he was pleased with the forum but stressed the need for students learning English as a second language to be included in any reform efforts.
"The commissioner has assured me that there will be provisions made, and I hold him to his word on that," Hernandez said.