Pssst, Bill, Listen to me, This is how to fix schools … Trying to Influence the New Mayor.

As the clock ticks down to organizational and personnel decisions for the de Blasio administration the philanthropy community, the think tanks, the teachers union, everyone, is trying to get the attention of the mayor-elect. The major public education philanthropies issued a report , the Roosevelt House sponsored a session featuring a report from the Chief Academic Officer, the teacher union will put forth recommendations at its December delegate meeting, the NY Urban League at a Transition Tent event hosted a panel, all putting forth “ideas” for the new administration.

Warren Simmons, from the Annenberg Institute, at the Roosevelt House event asked the most prescient question: before you recommend policies shouldn’t you establish core principles, a basic philosophy?

The current administration’s core principals are choice and accountability.

Choice: charter schools, hundreds of new small schools, the closing of primarily inner city schools and the creation of over 200 screened schools, schools at which the principal selects students. The scions of Tweed have created a “Tale of Two Cities,” higher achieving schools that are “whiter,” schools with kids from more middle class families, higher income homes, parents with “social capital,” and, schools populated by the poorest kids, schools with larger numbers of kids with disabilities and English language learners. Schools have become less diverse by student ability. Yes, larger numbers of inner city students with the most social capital have selected higher achieving schools leaving other students concentrated in the lowest achieving schools.

The choice principle appears to be the antithesis of the de Blasio core principles.

Accountability: creating a school system based on data, an accountability driven school system: from each classroom to each school, attaching a number to every kid, every teacher, every principal, and every school; using data to drive behaviors. At the Roosevelt House event Chief Academic Officer Shael Policoff-Suransky released and discussed a paper discussing the current accountability system and mused about the system going forward.

Shael asked, “Does the accountability system lead to the type of classroom instruction and the student outcomes we desire?”

He suggested measuring metrics other than tests, portfolios of student work and perhaps non-cognitive behaviors, see Paul Tough, How Children Succeed (2012) “… the character hypothesis: the notion that non-cognitive skills, like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, are more crucial than sheer brainpower to achieving success.”

The new requirements for classroom observations are so dense it is highly unlikely that the observations will improve instructional practice. The compliance requirements are endless, overbearing and rob principals of time they should spend as true educational leaders. Teachers worry whether they are teaching “the right lessons,” whether they are preparing kids for “the tests.” The accountability system is incredibly proscriptive, 85% of Progress Report grades in elementary and middle schools depend on standardized test scores, and a culture of test prep pervades classroom instructional practice. The lack of a clear and coherent curriculum creates uncertainty, are we teaching “the right things,” concepts and ideas and content that will end up on the state exams? High schools are measured primarily by credit accumulation and passing Regents exams. The percentage of kids passing high school courses has accelerated – better instruction or fear of low Progress grades driving grading?

The Urban League panel in the Transition Tent could have been held ten or twenty years ago, more mentoring, fewer student suspensions, and more community involvement. Actually student suspensions are substantially reduced, mentorships exist, and community involvement depends on the quality of the involvement. Too many community programs are poorly run and not aligned with the school instructional programs.

The most interesting was the teacher union monthly Delegate meeting. Over a thousand teachers fill the Shanker Hall with an overflow in another meeting room. The meeting was dominated by complaints, frustrations and just plain anger. You might say the delegates are the union activists, the complainers. Delegates are elected in each school and are pleasingly diverse, by age, by gender, by race, by ethnicity, by title, truly a rainbow that reflects the diversity of the city.

Tyack and Cuban in their seminal “Tinkering Toward Utopia,” a study of the school reform movement over many decades emphasizes that reforms are only embedded if they are bottom up, reforms must reflect the changes accepted by teachers and parents.

Tyack and Cuban argue that the ahistorical nature of most current reform proposals magnifies defects and understates the difficulty of changing the system. Policy talk has alternated between lamentation and overconfidence. The authors suggest that reformers today need to focus on ways to help teachers improve instruction from the inside out instead of decreeing change by remote control, and that reformers must also keep in mind the democratic purposes that guide public education.

The current reforms, regardless of their value, have been imposed from above. As teachers ask questions, push back, the administration shoves harder and harder, resulting in increasing frustration and hostility within schools.

The debate is currently over should we have districts or networks, the details of the teacher evaluation plan, letter grading of schools, closing of schools, etc., rather than the larger and more significant question: what are our core principles?

Do we want to continue a system based on choice and accountability, or, move to a system based on equity? Do we want a system driven by top-down proscriptive, requirements, a compliance-driven system, or, a bottom up system with key instructional decisions made at the district/school level?

Do we want a school system congruent with the goals of the United States Department of Education and the New York State Department of Education or goals established by the mayor and the Panel for Educational Priorities (PEP)?

Do we want a school system built around communities with a heavy dose of parent and community involvement or a school system driven by the goals of the mayor?

Do we want a school system in which parents, teachers and school leaders play a role in establishing policies at the school level, and if so, how do we monitor progress?

What are the “big ideas” that should drive teaching and learning in the 1800 plus schools?

To this point the discussion has been around “small ideas,” i. e., ATR pool, superintendents versus networks, school letter grades, etc.

The mayor must set out a path before we can build the roads.


3 responses to “Pssst, Bill, Listen to me, This is how to fix schools … Trying to Influence the New Mayor.

  1. It’s difficult to see why choice and accountability are necessarily antithetical to a sysytem where key decisions are made at the school level. For that matter, what’s inherently inequitous about choice and accountability.

    Seems to me that inequality results when some have choices, but not others on the basis of wealth and positio; and, when we don’t hold those entrusted with the lives of children to the highest standards of accountability.


  2. Choice and accountability are not educational principles. The current administration has no core educational principles and lacks ethics and most likely morality. It’s not really choice and accountability, though. It’s privatization and top-down management for the purpose of control and pensions cleansing.


  3. Eric

    Your choice and accountability resulted in an “education on the cheap policy where principals hire the “cheapest” and not the “best” teachers.

    The policies you claim that works has resulted in not being what’s best for the students but best for those pseudo education reformers who have no
    children in the system.

    It’s good to see that many of your destructive ideas will be gone with the Mayor.


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