In a recent editorial the New York Daily News lauded the comments of the new Commissioner of Education and encouraged the New York City Chancellor Farina to aggressively force teachers in “struggling” schools, the Renewal and Receivership schools to reapply for their jobs.
Like a no-nonsense principal, the state’s new education commissioner is setting refreshingly clear expectations for New York’s struggling schools:
Shape up or face serious consequences.
Consistent with important new state powers granted under Gov. Cuomo’s budget agreement this year, Elia announced that 144 underperforming schools across New York, including 62 in the city, will enter receivership.
Fariña now has wider authority to make staff reapply for jobs en masse — as she and the principals at two of the worst high schools, Automotive and Boys & Girls, have already done. Those housecleanings will send more than half the staff at each school packing, giving the campuses crucial opportunities to build healthier, more academically challenging cultures.
If 12 or 24 months pass and kids are still being left behind, the state can get even more aggressive — forcing the handover of schools to independent non-profit groups or other school districts, who will have still broader overhaul power.
The editorial writers assume there is a long line of highly effective teachers just waiting to enter the “struggling” schools and that the “restaffing” means ridding the school of “bad” teachers; in reality “good” teachers also decide to flee “struggling” schools.
Under the staffing rules in New York City, called “open market,” any teacher can transfer to any school as often as they can find a job. There is a steady flow of teachers away from lower achieving, “struggling” schools to higher achieving schools. “Housecleaning” is often perceived as driving away the more senior teachers instead of retaining effective teachers. Research confirms what we already know,
We find that teachers’ perceptions of the school administration has by far the greatest influence on teacher retention decisions.
Sadly school districts continue to operate under the old paradigm, paramilitary organizations, orders come down from on high and everyone is expected to salute and carry out the order. We know, of course, that each step down the ladder the salute is with less enthusiasm and the new initiative or new idea fizzles. The new paradigm, the Goggle or Zappos management styles; the best decisions are made by the teams with significant authority working independently. In the eighties/nineties one school district in Brooklyn fully engaged in school management/decision-making and school-based budgeting. High functioning school leadership teams supported by a district leadership team; parents, district office staff, school leaders, the union and teachers working together: what a concept! The district decided not to bus special education students, they had to attend their local school that had to provide appropriate instruction, all middle schools became magnet schools, school budgets were fully transparent, and local school leadership teams were supported by extensive training.
Rather than a model for the city the “powers” at Central reined in the district, compliance trumped innovation.
The Bloomberg/Klein era created networks, clusters of 25 or so schools, principals chose which network to join – an affinity grouping of schools. A few of the networks actually functioned as quasi-independent clusters of schools. The network leaders regularly led school faculty conferences, taught summer workshops for school leaders and teachers, encouraged schools to dive deeply into discussions of teaching and learning. Again, reined in by central, the networks weren’t “aligned” with the messages from central.
The return to geographic school districts led by a superintendent has had a stumbling start. How many of the 42 new superintendents have met with school staffs during monthly faculty conference? How many taught workshops over the summer? How many meet with teacher leaders?
What is the message from the top?
In my union rep role I always told principals that their meetings with staff should mirror the instruction they want to see in classrooms. I was sitting in the auditorium; the principal handed out a dense packet of papers and proceeded to read the written material to the staff. Respectfully, I interrupted and suggested that perhaps we could do what we do in church, the principal can read one line and we can read the next line aloud. The appointment of a school leader is not accompanied by a scepter and orb, only a larger salary and a title – respect is earned by performance.
While the messenger, the chancellor is popular with teachers, I am confused by the message: abuse the rules, just don’t get caught, press releases trump real change, we know what’s best, jump on board and don’t make waves.
Recent actions continue not to be encouraging.
For decades during the testing days “monitors” were sent into schools on testing days. The ‘monitors” were district office and central staff. During the testing days they “assured” that proper practices were followed in schools; from the opening of the test packages at the beginning of the day to the sending of the completed exam papers to the scoring centers. And, then, during the mid-Klein years the practice ended, no reason, it just ended. How many principals filled in answers for kids who couldn’t finish exams? How many teachers “coached” during exams? We’ll never know; we do know that the powers at central didn’t seem to care: were they sending a very discrete message? I would have hoped the current administration would have revived monitors.
In spite of regulations limiting the use of credit recovery abuse is endemic. Chancellor Merry Tisch had forced the city to issue regulations as well as regulations to eliminate “re-scoring” (aka “scrubbing”) of Regents exams. The recent events at John Dewey High School are especially distressing. The principal blatantly ignored the regulations, the network leader and superintendent chose to turn their backs, critical teachers were punished with adverse ratings, and, until the NY Post exposed the scandal the Chancellor and the administration defended the principal. Dewey is not unique: similar practices were taking place in a host of schools.
Whether totally unaware of cheating or skirting the rules, whether just deaf and blind or just giving a “wink and nod” to the evil-doers the administration spins out partnership schools and showcase schools, somehow they think that “good practices” can be absorbed from school to school. One principal who was taken on a walk-through of a “highly effective” school told me she wanted to ask, “Can we exchange student bodies?” Another told me, “I said hello to two of my best teachers who had transferred.”
If receivership, re-staffing, partner schools, showcase schools, etc., are not an “answer;” on what should central be concentrating?
I sought out highly successful school district leaders and posed the question: A few of the responses:
* Student discipline and school safety – without clear behavioral expectations and the enforcement of those expectations, most schools will be unable create a learning environment that is conducive to learning. And while many schools need assistance in strengthening disciplinary approaches as a means to diminish constant student interruptions, disruptions, bullying, harassment, intimidation, violence; we must also prepare children for successful interactions with peers and authority figures in the world beyond school.
* School feeder patterns that ensure in a school more than a critical mass of children who are struggling learners, promote, no, ensure school failure. For those on high who lecture on an equal playing field, isn’t time they became part of the solution rather than merely finger pointers? It’s time to develop policies and placement procedures that promote equity for all rather than favoritism for a chosen few.
* All schools need content specialists … experts in content to guide teachers in their planning, their selection of text, their curricula development and in their lesson planning. We now have generations of teachers and supervisors who have to survive on their own with limited or bizarre support and guidance. With the introduction of common core standards there was anticipation that close attention to content on all levels would be a necessity to support teachers and to ensure higher standards and challenging and engaging learning opportunities. Instead, the very practices that have proven ineffective and blatantly lacking in grade level content remain, without regard to evidence of decades of failure while school quality criteria demand close attention to questionable practices with little research to back them up (i.e.., differentiation, and obsessive group work). Course content, knowledge and curricula, among the most essential elements of an effective education, remain underfunded and under the radar.
I fear educational leadership skips from idea to idea, more concerned with the spin than the value of the idea. We don’t have hundreds of freeze-dried great teachers to plop into receivership schools, compliant school leaders skilled at skirting the rules will not “turnaround” stumbling schools, teacher centers provide the synergy to improve instruction: how many struggling school include teacher centers? And on and on.