Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/232 Sun, 23 Sep 2018 09:11:52 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Fostering Feeder Schools Will Improve Diversity at the Specialized High Schools http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7841:fostering-feeder-schools-to-improve-diversity-at-the-specialized-high-schools http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7841:fostering-feeder-schools-to-improve-diversity-at-the-specialized-high-schools students

students (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


The public education system in New York City remains one of the most segregated and unequally resourced school systems in the country, reflective of segregation and inequality in other areas of our civic life.

That segregation is starkly obvious in our specialized high schools. In a city where two out of three public high school students are black or Latino, it is unacceptable that they comprise only 10% of the student body across all eight of our elite high schools.

Much has been made recently of Mayor de Blasio’s plan to eliminate the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, or SHSAT, from the admissions process. The plan is to replace it with a more holistic assessment of achievement based on students’ classroom grades, scores on state standardized English and math tests, and potentially other criteria yet to be determined. But the lack of diversity in our specialized high schools is not a function of the admissions process alone.

The city’s specialized high schools draw from just 21 of the nearly 600 public middle schools citywide. The two Brooklyn City Council districts that we represent factor into this discussion in important ways, and help us draw a path toward improvements to our school system and more diversity at our elite high schools.

Three of these 21 feeder schools are located in the city’s 43rd City Council District in south Brooklyn, with nearly a quarter of all students admitted to specialized high schools coming from School Districts 20, 21, and 22. The schools in these communities are exceptionally diverse, with a majority of students coming from first and second generation immigrant families -- white, black, Hispanic, and Asian alike.

District 16 in central Brooklyn, where schools are 77 percent black and 18.5 percent Hispanic, is a different story. There is not one feeder middle school in District 16, which decades ago had enhanced academics that sent hundreds of students of color to the specialized schools. In fact, until 2015, District 16 schools did not offer the advanced level courses and programming known as “gifted and talented.”

It took pressure from local elected officials forced the Department of Education to provide many majority-minority school districts access to the kind of enhanced academics that provide a pathway to the specialized schools. Despite representing over two-thirds of our public school population, black and Latino students make up only 27% of those enrolled in gifted and talented programs. But even now, the enhanced academics are poorly resourced.

To be sure, improving the admissions process to ensure greater diversity in our specialized high schools is critically important. Expanding access to a great education for minority communities already facing obstacles to their achievement is necessary if we are going to provide equality of opportunity for all New Yorkers.

High-stakes, standardized tests like the SHSAT are poor indicators of students’ potential for success. However, the test is not in itself the problem, and need not be eliminated in order to increase opportunity and diversity. But even with additional methods of assessment, the reality of unequal resources and underinvestment in certain schools would mean improving diversity at our elite high schools will still be a significant challenge.

When you consider that nearly 60% of the middle schools that sent students to specialized high schools were in districts that had gifted and talented schools that required a test for admission, it is evident how decades of unequal investment in enrichment for students of color might be the most significant contributing factor to the city’s problem of diversity in specialized high schools.

Barring state intervention, the students who receive a qualifying score on the SHSAT will continue to be those who have access to test prep and other educational enrichment that most black and Latino students do not.

Today, the National Society of Black Engineers offers test prep to youngsters in District 16 schools to prepare them for tests like the SHSAT. This programming should be expanded, not just to succeed on a test, but to teach how to succeed in life. We must give students enriching experiences that make them connect with learning and foster critical thought and engagement. And we have to do more to create parent awareness and interest in gifted and talented programming.

But it is not enough simply to offer gifted and talented programs and call it a day. The programming provided must be adequately resourced and targeted at the students who are currently underrepresented.

Our colleagues in the City Council agree that the city must restore the funding for enhanced academics in black and Latino communities. As recently as 1989, Brooklyn Tech, for example, was 51 percent black and Latino. As enhanced academics for high-potential students was eliminated in those communities, the percentages of students of color decreased to the point we are at today. We know students, whether in southern or central Brooklyn, can compete successfully if given the resources. They have done it before. They can do it again.

Ending the SHSAT without providing adequate funding and a commitment to educating all students equitably will do nothing to adequately resolve the lack of diversity in our schools, specialized or otherwise.

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Robert E. Cornegy, Jr. represents the Brooklyn communities of Bedford Stuyvesant and Northern Crown Heights in the New York City Council. Justin Brannan represents Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach and Bensonhurst in the City Council. On Twitter @RobertCornegyJr & @JustinBrannan.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

Note: this column has been corrected to reflect that in 1989, Brooklyn Tech was 51 percent black and Latino, not 67 percent as originally stated.

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Fostering Feeder Schools Will Improve Diversity at the Specialized High Schools Thu, 02 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
I’m with Cynthia Because She Stands for Schools, Not Jails http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7800:i-m-with-cynthia-because-she-stands-for-schools-not-jails http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7800:i-m-with-cynthia-because-she-stands-for-schools-not-jails cmreynoso34 cynthia 2

Antonio Reynoso, the author, endorses Cynthia Nixon (photo: @CMReynoso34)


Last week, I endorsed Cynthia Nixon for Governor because her campaign is focused on making sure young people of color across New York thrive in school, rather than wither away in jail. As a City Council member from a predominantly black and brown community in Brooklyn, I constantly hear from young people who know what they need to succeed in school and what stands in their way.

Right now, there are more police in New York City schools than there are guidance counselors and social workers combined. What message does that send our children?

It is time to drastically change course in how we invest in the lives of black and brown young people. Talking to friends and allies across the state, the stories and experiences of the young people in my district are strikingly similar to those of young people across New York, from the Hudson Valley to Syracuse and beyond—because, while we can draw geographical lines to separate their school districts, it’s the color line that ensures they will all still be impacted by racially discriminatory school discipline policies and practices.

These policies have created a school-to-prison pipeline that afflicts young people of color across the State of New York. As Governor, Cynthia Nixon is committed to transformative policy changes to dismantle this system. That’s why a central part of her #SchoolsNotJails platform is school climate reform. Cynthia’s plan will push New York to lead the way by creating a Restorative Practices Training department within the State Department of Education to support schools in implementing restorative practices, introduce legislation to end school-based arrests for misdemeanors and violations, support schools to remove ineffective security measures, such as law enforcement and metal detectors, and only use suspensions as a last resort.

In New York State, there are over 500 suspensions per day and a disproportionate number of our young people being suspended are students of color. Statewide, one in five black boys are suspended from school each year; for black girls, it is one in seven. In New York City, black students are 27% of the population but nearly half of all students suspended; in Kingston they are 14% of the student body but 36% of all suspensions; and in Troy, they are 31% of the population but 61% of all students who are expelled.

The racial disparities in the statistics on referrals to law enforcement are just as alarming. In New York City, black and Latino students are 92% of all students who receive a summons; in Schenectady, black and Latino students are 75% of all students referred to law enforcement; and in Buffalo, black and Latino students are 85% of all students referred to law enforcement.

These disparities begin in pre-kindergarten, where black students are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended from school. And they continue through high school and beyond—one suspension in high school doubles the likelihood that a student will drop out before graduation and it denies students from critical instructional time. Last year, students in New York lost 686,000 days of instruction because of suspension. If the school discipline gap continues, it’s no wonder that our state is struggling to close the graduation gap.

Those numbers alone should be enough evidence to convince Governor Cuomo to take steps to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. But instead of confronting this reality, under his leadership, New York has done nothing to curtail the school-to-prison pipeline.

The young people I meet with are clear that the way forward is not to continue to “harden” their schools and rely on ineffective and harsh school discipline and policing, but to ensure equity in school discipline policies and practices and reimagine our approach to safety. There is no evidence that police officers and metal detectors make schools any safer, but there is ample research that shows they makes students feel less safe and result in more young people being pushed in front of police officers, prosecutors, and judges instead of guidance counselors, social workers, and school administrators.

Students feel safest in their schools not when they know technology exists that track their every move, or police officers do random checks and sweeps, but when they have staff trained in trauma-informed care, restorative practices, and youth development that are there to attend to their needs and create an inclusive environment.

Young people in my district are leading the way in demonstrating what safe and supportive schools can look like. Many of these schools are implementing restorative practices with real results -- dramatically decreasing suspensions and building strong school communities. This year my district saw one of the largest decreases in suspensions across the city. We can replicate this and transform schools into the safe and supportive learning environments our students and families deserve.

New York needs a public school system that is completely disentangled from the criminal justice system and a commitment that we are creating a nurturing and supportive environment for all students. This is the commitment that Cynthia Nixon is making. We need to invest in schools, not repeat the same policy failures that have led to our children ending up in jails.

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Antonio Reynoso is the City Council member for New York’s 34th Council District in Brooklyn. On Twitter: @CMReynoso34.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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I’m with Cynthia Because She Stands for Schools, Not Jails Thu, 12 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Missing Pieces of the Discussion Around Specialized High Schools and City Education http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7760:missing-pieces-of-the-discussion-around-specialized-high-schools-and-city-education http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7760:missing-pieces-of-the-discussion-around-specialized-high-schools-and-city-education Mayor de Blasio education

Mayor de Blasio's announcement (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


On June 2, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in Chalkbeat that he was urging the State Legislature to change the admissions system at the city’s eight specialized high schools, which relies on a single high-stakes exam called the SHSAT. Only 10 percent of students admitted to these selective high schools are black and Hispanic, while these students make up 67 percent of the overall public school population. This year, only 10 black students were offered admission to the city’s most selective of these high schools, Stuyvesant, out of 902 students admitted.

The Mayor and the Chancellor have proposed that admissions instead depend on a combination of a student’s school ranking in terms of grades and state test scores. In the meantime, before the state law is changed, de Blasio plans to expand the “discovery program,” a special program for disadvantaged students near the cut-off score on the SHSAT, to admit them into these schools after extra academic preparation.

As City Council Education Chair Mark Treyger later pointed out on Twitter, the entire effort was announced with little preparation; and ”key stakeholders were also not consulted” on something “dropped 11 days before the end of the [Legislative] session.” The proposal has aroused much controversy, and will not come to a final vote this year, as neither the Assembly nor the Senate was prepared to pass it so late in the session that just ended. Yet the issue will be surely be reconsidered again when the Legislature reconvenes next year, and the debate continues, including over what the City can and should do on its own.

Despite the fact that much ink has been spilled and emotions aroused since de Blasio made his announcement, several aspects of this hot-button issue remain under-discussed:

1. This move is long overdue. New York City is the only school district in the entire nation where admissions to any high school depends solely on the results of a single high stakes test. This was confirmed by Chester Finn of the Hoover Institute, a conservative education advocate who co-authored a book,“Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools.” Advocates have made efforts for at least 50 years to open up the admission process to these schools and make it more fair.  The Hecht-Calandra Act of 1971 in New York, which specified that specialized high schools must rely solely on a single exam for entry, was passed in the first place in response to such a campaign. Bill de Blasio also promised to reform this admissions process  when he first ran for Mayor in 2013.

2. The reality is that relying solely on a single high-stakes test for admissions, grade retention, or any important decision in a student’s educational career is unfair, unreliable, and likely to have a racially disparate impact, as pointed out by the National Academy of Sciences nearly 20 years ago in its seminal report, High Stakes, Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation.

3. The SHSAT, produced by Pearson, is a highly peculiar exam that has never been independently assessed for racial bias. This was pointed out by Joshua Feinman in 2008, and confirmed more recently by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in its 2012 Civil Rights complaint about the use of this exam. The results of this test also appear to be gender biased, as girls tend to score significantly higher on state exams and receive better grades, but score lower than boys on the SHSAT. (Girls were only admitted to Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech in 1969-1970.) The test is quirky in other ways and is scored to give extra points to students who do exceptionally well on the ELA or the math section – rather than those students who score well on both subjects. It also has poorly worded questions – see, for example, the first question in this sample exam.

4. The mayor could alter the admissions tests at five of the eight specialized high schools immediately – without any act of the state Legislature. Only Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech are named in state law. The other five schools -- Staten Island Tech, the High School of American Studies, the High School for Math, Science, and Engineering at City College, Queens High School for the Sciences, and Brooklyn Latin School -- were designated as specialized high schools by Joel Klein when he was city schools chancellor, and could be undesignated as such by Chancellor Richard Carranza.  All it would take is a vote of the Panel on Educational Policy at one of its monthly meetings. It is a panel made up of a supermajority of mayoral appointees. (The best explanation of how only three schools are mandated to use this exam was published in Gotham Gazette. While many other news outlets have gotten this fact wrong in the past, they have recently improved their reporting on this issue.)

5. Despite the huge amount of time and money many students invest in test prep for the SHSAT exam,  there is research to show that attending a specialized high school has little or no impact on a students’ future SAT scores, chances of enrollment in selective colleges, or college graduation rates – which in turn casts real doubt about the value of attending one of these schools.

6. Whatever happens to the admissions system at the specialized high schools, there are myriad problems with how admissions to New York City schools have been designed. Many schools utilize a complex and competitive application system overly reliant on test scores. This makes the process of admissions stressful to kids and their parents, and leads to excessive test prep. In many cases, admissions to middle schools are based heavily upon students’ scores on the 4th grade state exams, and 7th grade exams for high school. The state tests and their scoring methods have their own problems in terms of accuracy and validity. In addition, some New York City middle and high schools have developed their own special tests that they rely upon for admissions.

7. The competitive nature of this process worsened under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein. The number of high schools that admitted students through academic screening increased from 29 in 1997 to 112 in 2017, while the proportion of “ed-opt” high schools, designed to accept students at all different levels of achievement, dropped sharply. Even so-called unscreened programs actually do screen students, in covert ways. Moreover, the Gates-funded small schools that proliferated after 2002 initially barred students with disabilities or English language learners from their schools, prompting a civil rights complaint in 2006.

Most of these small schools also required prospective students and their families to attend special “open houses” in the evening, which also tends to box out families with the fewest resources. While  Bloomberg and Klein often bragged about expanding school “choice,” too often this has meant that schools make the choice, not students or families. There is something to be said for comprehensive high schools as exist in most of the country, where students automatically have a right to attend when they enter 9th grade and don’t have to compete to get into.

8. The method de Blasio now proposes to use for admissions at the specialized high schools would be to give preference to students at the top of their class in terms of grades wherever they attend middle school, as long as their state test scores are also good enough. Yet this method, based upon the admissions process at the University of Texas system, will likely only work to effectively integrate the specialized high schools if city middle schools remain largely segregated.  

9. Even if all New York City high schools became less stratified according to race and class, one would still be left with the biggest problem of all: too many elementary and middle schools are simply not providing the quality of education necessary – especially for students of color. This was revealed by city students’ recent results on the NAEP exams, which showed scores have stagnated – with the only significant change since 2013 being a seven-point decrease in the proportion of fourth-graders proficient in math. The achievement gap among racial and ethnic groups is also larger than ever, in 4th and 8th grade reading.

10. Class size reduction is one of very few reforms proven to work to narrow the achievement gap, and yet New York City class sizes remain excessive. In fact, class sizes have increased substantially since 2007, and are up to 50 percent larger than class sizes in the rest of the state. More than 290,000 New York City students were crammed into classes of 30 or more this fall. In the early grades, the number of first-through-third-graders in classes of 30 or more has ballooned by an amazing 3800 percent. Yet despite promises to reduce class size when he first ran for office, de Blasio has done nothing to accomplish this.

In January, Class Size Matters, along with nine New York City parents and the Alliance for Quality Education, brought a lawsuit versus the City and the State to require the Department of Education to lower class sizes in our public schools, as the state’s highest court deemed was necessary for students to obtain their constitutional right to a sound basic education. Our lawsuit will be heard in State Supreme Court in July. Whether the city’s public school students will receive an equitable chance to learn may depend on the outcome of this lawsuit, as well as the education policies pursued by Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza going forward.

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Leonie Haimson is the Executive Director of Class Size Matters. On twitter @leoniehaimson.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

Note: this column has been corrected to accurately reflect when the schools admitted girls.

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Missing Pieces of the Discussion Around Specialized High Schools and City Education Thu, 21 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
What Stuyvesant High School Was For Me http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7727:what-stuyvesant-high-school-was-for-me http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7727:what-stuyvesant-high-school-was-for-me Stuyvesant HS

Stuyvesant High School (photo: Jim Henderson via Wikipedia)


When I graduated from Stuyvesant High School in June of 2001, I remember feeling sad to be moving on from my friends and excited to be moving on to college. But I also remember an overwhelming sense of relief that I would no longer have to deal with the tests that formed the backbone of the Stuyvesant High School experience.

The tests didn’t start at the end of the first semester or even during midterms freshman year. They did not even start on the day that I made the trip down to Battery Park to take the “Stuy test.” Rather, they started toward the end of middle school, spending Saturday mornings in a hotel conference room in midtown Manhattan, taking a prep course run by a Stuyvesant math teacher (who, when I was a sophomore, would give me the lowest grade of my high school career). I remember that many of us wore our soccer uniforms and cleats to class because we had to hurry off to games immediately afterwards.

By this time I had been subjected to plenty of high-stakes exams: pre-school interviews, citywide exams, a fifth grade full of tests and interviews to get into well-regarded public middle schools, and, even after I had started attending one such school, the Hunter test, on which I did not come remotely close to earning the admission score. I understood some of those tests to be more important than others, but none carried the weight of the ones related to Stuyvesant. The implication, starting with preparations for the SHSAT, and continuing at a pace of six or more exams per semester during my time at Stuyvesant and additionally highlighted by the SAT, was that how I performed on each exam was going to impact the rest of my life.

My parents did not pressure me to get into Stuyvesant or seem to care about where I went to college (though it was always understood I would go). They did pressure me to do the homework the prep course assigned, and I recall that I did it. I scored a 560 on the exam -- the cutoff was 559 -- and was excited to be accepted as, technically speaking, the dumbest kid in school. I called a close friend who told me he had missed getting in by one question. He would be going to Bronx Science. Even though we only lived a few blocks away from each other, we drifted apart after that.

The pressure was entirely driven by the culture surrounding Stuyvesant. Other than the occasional creative writing course or class led by an outside-the-box thinking history teacher, Stuyvesant was all about tests. The midterms and finals were inflexible and merciless. Scantrons were everywhere. “What did you get on the test?” was a frequent question, one that had to be asked with a level of tact that high school kids are seldom capable of.

Even though I was, relative to my classmates, an unmotivated, average student, content to get Bs and take “remedial” Spanish and math (which at Stuyvesant meant taking ninth-grade Spanish as a ninth-grader and not taking calculus), I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and scribble math equations on a piece of paper next to my bed. At my mom’s advice, I took to sleeping with textbooks underneath my pillow the night before tests, hoping to learn just a little more through osmosis.

At the end of one semester there was a rash of episodes involving fire alarms getting pulled and the school being unnecessarily evacuated. It was rumored that they caught the culprit by identifying a single student who had an exam scheduled on each of the days an evacuation occurred. Students whispered that we could not access the patio outside the fifth floor cafeteria because the administration was afraid if we were allowed on it there would be suicides. It was said we were not given class rankings for the same reason.

Cheating, which relied both on old-fashioned methods and newfangled technology like cell phones and digital cameras, was rampant. Some kids cheated to get the grades they felt they needed and some kids cheated just to get by. Some kids just disappeared, presumably moving on to schools where things were a little less intense. I remember crying in a taxi on the way home from college night as a sophomore because it was clear I could not even expect to get into “Wash U. in St. Louis.”

Exams aside, there was a lot of fun to be had at Stuy. I wrote for the sports section of the school newspaper. A review of the yearbook tells me there were more than 90 clubs, including something called “The Real,” devoted to “underground hip-hop music,” that I was the president of -- it is my recollection that we had no budget or formal meetings. I played backup tight end on the football team, which I am not sure I could have done at another school. Significantly, in my experience the football team was one of the few places at Stuyvesant where Asian, black, Hispanic, and white students really spent time together (the cheerleading team was a similarly integrated group).

I can still remember all the different parts of the school where students of particular races congregated almost exclusively and I suspect that my classmates can as well. On the second floor where the main entrance and exit was located, there was a “senior bar” -- basically a waist-high counter surrounded by lockers -- that at the time I would have said was the epicenter of the social life of the school but I now realize was overwhelmingly white. There was another “bar” that was widely referred to as the “Asian bar” on the sixth floor. I recall that there was an area behind the escalators on the fifth floor where African-American students hung out.

The exact demographic makeup of the school at the time is difficult to find online, but as I recall, Asian students made up about half the school, with white students making up most of the other half. As now, the percentage of black and Hispanic students was well below 10%. I am sure that Stuyvesant has changed in many ways since I left, but in some important ones, it has not.

Like most alums, it is through my perspective from and since my time at Stuyvesant that I view the ongoing debate about how -- and whether -- specialized high school admissions should be reformed. Stuyvesant needs to be more diverse and it is not entirely clear how best to make that happen.

What I find missing from the debate is a discussion about how the “Stuy test” and the Stuyvesant experience are linked. If students are not going to be admitted based on their ability to excel on a single, high-pressure exam, they should not be evaluated primarily based on high-pressure exams. It seems likely that a student body admitted to Stuyvesant based on criteria other than the SHSAT would benefit from a reduced emphasis on testing. It may even be that all students, including current Stuyvesant students, would benefit from a reduced emphasis on testing.

At the same time, the iteration of Stuyvesant I attended left me very well prepared for college and law school. I feel strongly that I was always going to be an average student in high school. At an underperforming school, that might mean barely graduating. At Stuyvesant, that meant a B average and a partial scholarship to Lehigh University. Many New York City students would benefit from the education I received, regardless of how they are admitted to the school or how painful it might be while they are there.

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Jonathan Fishner is a graduate of Stuyvesant High School, class of 2001, and an attorney. His opinions are his own.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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What Stuyvesant High School Was For Me Tue, 12 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Former Top DOE Official: Time to Move Beyond ‘Relic’ of Specialized High School Test http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7719:former-top-doe-official-time-to-move-beyond-relic-of-specialized-high-school-test http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7719:former-top-doe-official-time-to-move-beyond-relic-of-specialized-high-school-test Shael Suransky DOE

Shael Polakow-Suransky, right, with Carmen Farina (photo: Bank Street College)


Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan earlier this week to diversify the city’s elite specialized high schools through changes in admissions policies. The schools currently enroll very few black and Latino students, while, relative to their numbers in the larger school system, white and Asian students are highly over-represented.

De Blasio’s plan involves a first step of setting aside 20 percent of seats at these schools for low-income students whose scores fall just under the qualifying threshold, which the city can take on its own, as well as pushing for phasing out the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) and implementation of a new admissions system based on state test scores and middle school grades, which requires approval from the state Legislature.

The mayor’s initiative was quickly met with both widespread praise and consternation. Supporters, including some educators and elected officials, applauded the administration for taking the first step in desegregating the city’s top high schools while some parents, elected officials, and alumni groups cried foul that the changes would be unfair to students who work hard to do well on the test, that it is a piecemeal reform that will largely punish low-income Asian students, and that it will exacerbate inequities in educational achievement.

In Albany as well, the mayor’s proposal was met with resistance and the state Senate looks like it may reject his push to scrap the SHSAT even if it is successful in the Assembly in the final few weeks of this year’s legislative session. Governor Andrew Cuomo, while acknowledging the problem the mayor is targeting, did not take a set position and predicted the issue would be taken up next year alongside a variety of other education topics.

Among those who are more full-throated in calling for change is Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of Bank Street College of Education, who oversaw the city Department of Education’s SHSAT contract as the DOE’s chief academic officer and senior deputy chancellor. After the mayor’s announcement, Polakow-Suransky tweeted that the SHSAT is “not a particularly strong or predictive test.” He said “a multiple measures approach” to admissions with both qualitative and quantitative data “is long overdue.”

Gotham Gazette spoke with Polakow-Suransky about the mayor’s plan, the problems with the current system, and the administration’s overall approach, or lack thereof, to school desegregation.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Gotham Gazette (GG): What you think about the mayor’s plan? How is it going to work and what are the issues with the existing system?

Shael Polakow-Suransky (SPS): I think the biggest challenge here from my perspective is that the current system is missing a lot of talented children who have the right skills to be in these schools, but because we’re looking through a very narrow and pretty blunt instrument at who has those skills, we’re missing a lot of talent that could really strengthen these schools. So that’s a real shame and if the ideas of these schools is to take the most talented young people in the city and accelerate learning for them so they can be leaders, then we need to be looking for the best talent in the city and in order to find that, we can’t use an instrument that you need to game and we can’t use an instrument that only focuses on some narrow set of math and reading skills.

As someone who used to oversee the accountability office, one of my responsibilities was managing the contract with Pearson [the testing company] around this test and…we didn’t have as much money as we would have liked, and I think that’s still true, to spend on this and you kind of get what you pay for.

GG: To spend on the test?

SPS: Yeah. Tests are expensive and the quality of the instrument depends on how much you’re going to spend on it. And so this is a really basic one, like as far as tests go, it’s about as simple an instrument as you can create.

GG: So, what are the problems with it exactly? You’re saying it’s too simple?

SPS: I’m saying that the kinds of skills it’s measuring are the kinds of skills that you can measure through multiple-choice questions, and the content area it’s focused on are English and math. So it’s multiple-choice questions, there’s no writing. If you look at good exams out there today, there’s a combination of multiple-choice and writing and we aren’t looking at any writing. We’re not looking at kids’ problem-solving skills. We’re not looking at their ability to work with others. We’re not looking at their presentation skills. You know, those are the kinds of things you would see if you took into account the grades that they’re getting in middle school, references from teachers, they’re asked for writing submissions.

Any high-performing university, any high-performing private school, and most of the other high-performing screen schools in the city all look at a range of measures in order to find the best talent and we don’t for the specialized schools. We just look at this very narrow set of English and math skills that you can measure with multiple choice questions. And it leads to an inequitable outcome because we’re relying on the students who are participating in this test to kind of focus on how do they do well on this set of questions that this test is measuring, which is not really the right set of things that we should be looking for to find the best talent. And then people spend lots of money and lots of time doing test prep to get good at taking this test which doesn’t necessarily indicate that they’re great writers or great thinkers or great leaders.

GG: Have there been efforts to change it over the last couple of years?

SPS: There haven’t been meaningful changes. I think there have been small changes around the edges. But, nothing meaningful.

GG: Did you try to implement changes when you were there?

SPS: I didn’t because it wasn’t something that I could convince others was an important area of focus.

GG: Where was the pushback coming from?

I think the folks at the leadership level felt that this was something that had been in place for a long time and they didn’t really want to open this issue up. They were more interested in investing in trying to provide more supports for kids in middle school, which is also really important. I think there wasn’t major focus at that point.

GG: And by leadership level, you mean just the DOE or just in terms of the City Council, the administration? No one was pushing for it?

SPS: I mean I was working in the DOE, I can’t really speak to things beyond that, but this has been in place for a long time, and it’s a fairly new thing that people are seriously considering changing the state law.

GG: Mayor de Blasio’s plan, what do you think about it? Could it have been better? Is it a good first step?

SPS: I’m not sure what the right solution is. I applaud him for taking the issue on. I think trying to think about how should the state law change so that we can use multiple measures to find the most talented young people in the city for these schools is important. It’s important in order to have more diversity, but it’s also important to make sure that we’re really rewarding talent and not a narrow set of test-taking skills.

GG: Do you think in terms of the larger efforts to desegregate the city’s schools, is this a good first step, and what needs to happen next, in your opinion?

SPS: Well, I think the larger question on segregation is much more complicated than this small group of schools. I think that, if you look at the school districts in the city at the elementary and middle school level where there really is a lot of diversity in terms of different races, those school districts could pursue policies that allow for more choice at the elementary and middle school level that would increase diversity.

But, that is a process that needs to be negotiated in partnership with the local Community Education Council. It’s not completely up to the Department of Education and the mayor to change those zones that currently exist. It’s to include a process with the community and I think that’s happening in District 3 now. It’s happened in District 1. There’s efforts in District 15. But I think it’s that type of work that is needed in order to sort of move away from zones that completely track to where people live.

GG: What do you think of the resistance to the mayor’s plan?

SPS: I think that there are people who are afraid that they’re going to be winners and losers with this shift and they’re trying to protect their current status, which positions them with an advantage in the system. So any change is hard. The truth is that there are many, many other good high schools in the city that are not specialized high schools…so, the notion that these are the only places where you can get a good education is just ridiculous.

I think it’s sort of become a symbolic issue and symbolism is important and we’re a city that has a public school system and 70 percent of the kids in that school system are African-American and Latino. And it’s not right that we aren’t identifying this talent among the African-American and Latino students when we have schools like this that are meant to serve the most talented young people in the city. So, we need to figure out a better way to do it. And, I think with any change, there’s going to be a process where folks push in different directions and that’s part of the nature of making change in a large school system.

GG: Are there comparisons with other cities - is there a path that New York City could follow that some other cities have already done or are there similar issues?

SPS: Most cities have magnet schools like this. So, it’s an interesting question. I don’t know a lot about their admissions processes in other cities, but I do know in the private school world and I know in the university world, it’s very rare that you rely on a single test as a way to do admission for the elite programs in this country. There’s almost nothing left in the world that relies on a single test as the way the admission is granted. So this is really a relic. And, it’s a really blunt instrument to do it because it’s only measuring a really narrow set of skills. And so we’re missing tons of talented kids that could be great in these schools.

GG: What do you think of the mayor’s leadership in general on schools, on school segregation?

SPS: I think he’s moving in the right direction. I think it’s good that - I think it’s impressive that the new chancellor has decided to take this on and that he’s supporting him.

GG: People have been critical that the mayor didn’t take this up until his second term when it’s sort of politically safer for him to do it. And of course the new chancellor seems a bit more willing to take a line that’s not the same as the mayor’s. So, you think that’s promising?

SPS: I think they’re on the same page, actually. I think it is politically complex to do this well because if you force changes through the system that generates conflict in communities between parents or within schools, between teachers, that can distract from the education. And, so, you have to be really strategic and deliberate about the changes you make and to the extent that you can build support within communities and make the changes in ways that bring all stakeholders along, that’s the ideal. So, you know, I don’t have an opinion on the pace of this or when it’s happening, but I do think it’s great that we have a chancellor that wants to take on this issue and it’s great that the mayor is supporting him.

The only other thing I would say is that one of the things that a lot of folks who are lay-people, who don’t know the school system that well, think when they think about specialized schools is that these are the only good schools and the truth is that that’s not the case. I currently run a graduate school of education and as part of that we also have a lab school that is a K-through-8 independent school. And so our eighth-graders apply all over the city to the top schools, some of them private, some of them public. And for many really talented kids at our school, the specialized schools are not the right set because they have a fairly traditional education model with lots of direct instruction by teachers, very large schools, large classes, not great at personalizing the education to the individual child and so I certainly want folks to understand that these are wonderful schools for young people who thrive in that larger environment, but they’re not actually the best schools in the city. There are better public schools that exist that are doing much more innovative work and I think that we need to be thinking about this less from this being the sort of pinnacle of the school system and more in terms of this is one option within the school system that is an important option, but there are many other really interesting options as well.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Former Top DOE Official: Time to Move Beyond ‘Relic’ of Specialized High School Test Wed, 06 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
A Chance for Chancellor Carranza to Restore Teacher Trust http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7703:a-chance-for-chancellor-carranza-to-restore-teacher-trust http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7703:a-chance-for-chancellor-carranza-to-restore-teacher-trust city council brooklyn studio school

Schools Chancellor Carranza (photo: New York City Council)


I read a lot of stories about the perfidy of teachers. We aren’t perfect. Like in every line of work, some among us do bad things. Often we’re stereotyped for the actions of a few. Despite the frequent and excellent reporting of Sue Edelman in The New York Post, most people don’t know much about administrative malfeasance, however, which exists from school level right up to Tweed Courthouse, home of the Department of Education’s top staff.

Let’s say my principal wakes up one morning and decides I’m an awful pain in the neck. In fact, he wouldn’t be wrong. (If he were, I probably wouldn’t be doing my job as a teachers union chapter leader.) While we can get along well under many circumstances, when teachers are in trouble, our relationship turns adversarial. It’s my job to defend our contract, and thereby our members. But it’s not always an easy task.

Let’s say my principal claims I threw a cheeseburger at a student. We could meet, and I would tell him I did not, in fact, throw the cheeseburger. There was no cheeseburger and there is no evidence there ever was a cheeseburger. This notwithstanding, the principal could place a letter in my file stating I threw a cheeseburger. He could also state that if there were any more flying cheeseburgers, I’d face further disciplinary action, up to and possibly including termination.

Let’s say the principal focuses on something that actually did happen, but has a lot of room for interpretation, like many actions. Perhaps I said good morning to a security guard and the guard did not like the way I looked at him when I did it. The principal could do an investigation (or not) and conclude that I did, in fact, say good morning. The principal could conclude that I looked at the security guard with some negative aspect, or at least the security guard believes I looked at him with a negative aspect.

That’s another letter in my file. That’s another threat to my livelihood. Aside from writing a response and attaching it to the letter, there would be nothing I could do about it. You won’t read this in the tabloids, but under our contract, members of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) are not permitted to grieve, or appeal, letters in their files. It doesn’t matter if they are false, and it doesn’t matter if they are ridiculous beyond belief. The principal decides you are guilty, and that’s pretty much it.

If I continue to say “good morning” with that perceived awful look in my eye, it’s entirely possible I could face dismissal. When a principal moves to dismiss a teacher, we go before an arbitrator for a hearing. Granted, it’s unlikely an arbitrator would have me fired for saying “good morning” with a look, whether or not there actually is one. But it’s likely a principal who wrote accusations like that would scrounge for every negative piece of information available. Were the arbitrator to leave me with a job, I’d likely get a fine and be found guilty of something less consequential. In that case, I’d likely be removed from my school and made a part of the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR). ATR teachers generally rotate between schools covering for absent teachers.

Sometimes principals grow very weary of UFT activists. The chapter leader of Central Park East 1, along with a UFT delegate, was removed last year. Both faced charges that were ultimately deemed frivolous. Still, it was only when the entire community rose up, particularly a strong core of parents, that the charges were dismissed. I’m sad to say that activist school community is the exception rather than the rule. I’m sadder to say I know of many other principals who do similar things. Sometimes they are removed and sent off to do who knows what, as was the principal of CPE 1. Just as frequently, they keep their jobs, continue to harrass UFT members and drive morale straight into the toilet.

UFT members are permitted to grieve principal letters under certain very specific circumstances. If the occurrence is not reduced to writing within three months, that’s a grievance. This means if it’s June, and I supposedly threw the cheeseburger in September, I can’t get a letter to file about it now. If the school administration fails to meet with the subject of the letter and discuss it before issuing the letter, they aren’t permitted to place said letter in the teacher’s file. Also, if disciplinary charges do not follow, letters are removed after three years. If not, that’s a contractual violation.

In our building at Francis Lewis High School, we have outstanding grievances for all of the above. That’s because the Department of Education “legal” division, which I imagine as a bunch of children riding stick horses and shooting cap guns, routinely advises principals to ignore very plain contractual language.

At step one in the grievance process, we meet the principal, who informs us legal says whatever he or she is doing, whether or not it violates the contract, is OK. Then, at step two, we go to offices on Gold Street, where a chancellor’s representative presides over a hearing. They have 48 school days to write a decision, which amounts to two or three months, and often they can’t even make that deadline.

When chancellor’s representatives meet deadlines, we receive emails. Why wasn’t an incident reduced to writing within 90 days of occurrence, as required by the contract? Chancellor’s reps say things like, ‘this incident is not an occurrence, and therefore did not happen when you say it did.’ They may say an incident did not become an occurrence until the principal found out about it. Time stands still, evidently, before things reach the ears of a principal. I read this stuff and I feel like I’m through the looking glass.

Teachers are pretty stressed out under the best of circumstances. Faced with taking a day and going to a Manhattan hearing, some tell me they’re terrified and refuse to go. Others are nervous, but go anyway. I go along to try and reassure them. It’s hard, though, because I now know step two hearings are pretty much rigged and members will have to wait months for a decision, assuming there is one. I have to tell them this is just an exercise, and that we’ll have to wait for step three, arbitration, to get a fair hearing. This process can take over a year.

At least five grievances I’ve helped my colleagues write are heading to arbitration. Because these are blatant violations of contract, I expect we will win them all. But here’s the thing—arbitrators work for both the city and the union. They can’t rule one way all the time, or even nearly all the time. Assuming the arbitrators do the right thing and rule in our favor in these cases, what will happen in less obvious ones? If arbitrators try to be balanced, the city will have an edge in many cases.

I believe that’s exactly the game the city is playing. It’s a remnant of the teacher-hostile Bloomberg administration, and it’s there because Mayor de Blasio failed to clean house when he came into office. If new schools chancellor Richard Carranza wishes to turn around 16 years of bad faith, 16 years of bad morale, productive for neither teachers nor students, he’ll move quickly to turn this around. He’ll clean house at legal, and demand that all new hires actually read and respect the UFT contract.

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Arthur Goldstein is an ESL teacher and UFT chapter leader for Francis Lewis High School. On Twitter @TeacherArthurG.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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A Chance for Chancellor Carranza to Restore Teacher Trust Thu, 31 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
The Mayor’s Much-Needed Investment in Culturally Responsive Education http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7653:the-mayor-s-much-needed-investment-in-culturally-responsive-education http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7653:the-mayor-s-much-needed-investment-in-culturally-responsive-education de Blasio Carranza

Mayor de Blasio & Chancellor Carranza visit a school (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement last week that the City is investing $23 million in culturally responsive education and anti-bias training in schools -- likely the largest investment of its type nationally -- is welcome news for New York City parents, educators, and researchers.

Education researchers have long-known that culturally responsive education (CRE) -- the practice of aligning curriculum and instruction with students’ backgrounds, life experiences, and cultures -- has a positive impact on improving student outcomes, especially for students of color. Just in the past two years, research has shown growth in student outcomes from having Black teachers, fostering positive racial identity, and taking Ethnic Studies courses.

Results from a new survey concur. They show that New York City teachers are eager to use CRE as a strategy to improve educational outcomes. According to the survey of nearly 400 city public school teachers conducted by the NYU Metro Center, a majority of teachers believe that CRE would improve their practice. However, a lack of preparation and expertise has limited the extent to which teachers can put CRE to practice.

The vast majority of respondents (87%) felt that teachers are responsible for helping students acquire the skills to critically understand, analyze, and respond to issues related to race and ethnicity. An even greater majority (93%) said they would be willing to modify their lessons to connect with students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Until now, support for teachers to do this has been scarce, both in teacher preparation programs and in professional development offerings. Fewer than one in three (29%) of the teachers surveyed reported that they receive ongoing professional development on issues of race and ethnicity in the classroom, and only 10% indicated that they rely on the city Department of Education for this support. When tensions related to racial, ethnic, sexuality, or other identities arise between students inside schools, over half (55%) of respondents said they felt unprepared to intervene, and 93% said their colleagues would be unprepared to intervene.

The mayor’s announcement can begin to change that.

However, the city’s program must become bolder. In order for them to actually shift their practices to teach more effectively across differences, teachers will need a program of deep, ongoing training – not just a one-day workshop. Unlearning biases, being reflective about one’s identities, reconstructing curricula that are sustaining and relevant to students, and bridging the distance between student and teacher does not happen overnight.

Survey respondents call for more training on integrating race and ethnicity into their lessons, more resource materials, and more opportunities for relevant discussions with colleagues. They will need ongoing support to work effectively across lines of race and ethnicity, to ensure that teaching and learning is culturally responsive for all our children, and that teachers are culturally competent to teach them.

In this time of heightened visibility and awareness of racial bias in education, teachers are eager for ways to reach beyond differences to close gaps not only in student achievement but also between student and teacher. Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, with his extensive history and track record with bridging cultural divides, is the right leader to make New York City a national model in the area of culturally responsive education.

We hope that New York City can now finally and truly make culturally responsive education the core of its strategy for educating all students, particularly those most implicated by cultural bias.

[Access the full survey findings here.]

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David Kirkland is the Executive Director and Jahque Bryan-Gooden is a Research Analyst at the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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The Mayor’s Much-Needed Investment in Culturally Responsive Education Wed, 02 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
A Closer Look at This Year’s Specialized High School Admissions http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7619:a-closer-look-at-this-year-s-specialized-high-school-admissions http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7619:a-closer-look-at-this-year-s-specialized-high-school-admissions mayorsoffice brewer

(Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office)


Critics of the test used for admitting students to New York City’s specialized high schools -- Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and five others -- failed to properly assess this year’s test and admission results because they yearned for a more robust increase in offers to black and Latino students, when compared to the year before. The city had improved the test and increased outreach and free test prep, all efforts intended to redress their underrepresentation, but in a school system where more than 70 percent of students are from black and Latino families, just 10 percent of the seats in the specialized high schools were offered to students from those communities.

This disparity is unacceptable. But so too is a failure to properly analyze the test and admission results, and thereby call the city’s efforts a total failure and demand simply that the test be eliminated in one way or the other. Such an approach overlooks what is and can be done to help remedy the city’s decades of neglect in many of the schools serving black and Latino communities.

While a sudden turnaround was not to be expected, this year’s test results did show that as a percentage of all offers, there was a small increase in offers made to black students. In absolute terms, 207 black students received offers compared to 194 the year before. On the other hand, Latino admissions declined by 10, to 320 from the latest test. Because both white and Asian offers of enrollment declined this year, both absolutely and as a percentage of total offers made, it could be argued that these results potentially show an inflection point for black admissions. However, since the students self-identifying as “multi-racial” nearly doubled, to 128, and because the race of 419 others is unknown, it would be premature to make such a claim.

Also ignored by critics of the test, was any appreciation of the city’s contradictory efforts.

On the one hand, it increased free test prep. On the other, it changed the test, making it harder to prepare. While the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, which I head, supported changing the test to make it better aligned with what is supposed to be taught in our schools, and thereby mitigate against a test prep advantage, we shouldn’t entirely ignore this issue in our discussion of the latest test’s results.

Notably, while 450 more Asian students took the test this year, fewer were admitted this year than last in both absolute and percentage terms. Because the accusation has frequently been made that the test’s results are skewed because so many Asian students do test prep, the city’s effort to mitigate test prep advantages may well have worked. Since the city is again changing the test to be administered later this year, by, for example, including poetry, a fair and proper assessment of the city’s efforts may take a few more years.

Other efforts can and should be made. One step the city could take is to revamp the Discovery Program – a long-standing, if unused, program which lets “disadvantaged” students who fall just short of the test’s cut-off score get a second chance for admission. By a targeted redefinition of what “disadvantaged” means, focusing on the underrepresented schools and communities, more high-performing black and Latino students will have increased chances for success.

Another effort that should be adopted is the bill in Albany sponsored by Bronx State Senator Jamaal Bailey, a Bronx Science graduate, that mandates administration of a free and voluntary practice SHSAT, the specialized high school test, to be offered in sixth grade, with students receiving an analysis of test results to identify areas in need of improvement before the test is given in eighth grade. We give a PSAT for obvious reasons, why not a PSHSAT?

Alumni from all eight test-in schools believe deeply in increasing diversity at their schools, but believe just as deeply in keeping the test as the single criterion for admissions as an objective measure immune to the kinds of influence many more affluent white families use to gain entry for their children to better schools that use the kind of subjective criteria that Mayor de Blasio and others have said should replace the test. For example, the student body of Brooklyn Tech, which sits in the middle of Brownstone Brooklyn, is 80 percent students of color.

The decades of declining enrollment in specialized high schools experienced by the black and Latino communities correlates with the elimination of enriched educational programs at many of the elementary and middle schools in these communities. Today only 15 middle schools account for over half of the students in the specialized high schools; none are in black or Latino communities. A fair assessment of the city’s efforts simply cannot ignore the impact of decades of neglect by the Board of Education and its successor, the Department of Education.

Ultimately, the city needs a plan to promote the creation of pipeline middle schools located within the black and Latino communities of our city. This requires the creation of vibrant gifted and talented programs in the elementary schools and enriched coursework in the middle schools. The new chancellor would be well-advised to create such a plan.

At the same time, efforts to increase outreach, free test prep, reconfiguring the Discovery Program to enroll more disadvantaged students from black and Latino communities, among other measures, can help to promote more diversity at Brooklyn Tech and the other test-in high schools. Such efforts should be fairly and accurately evaluated, not skipped over in a rush to demand elimination of the test.

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Larry Cary is a Manhattan lawyer and president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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A Closer Look at This Year’s Specialized High School Admissions Tue, 17 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Assignment for the New Schools Chancellor: Address Race Head-On http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7616:assignment-for-the-new-schools-chancellor-address-race-head-on http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7616:assignment-for-the-new-schools-chancellor-address-race-head-on mayorbdbschool

(Credit: Photographer/Mayoral Photography Office)


When I was in 5th grade at a public elementary school in Manhattan, my teacher was Mrs. Camiji, and I loved her. She taught us about diverse cultures all over the world, and pushed us to think about what roles we could serve in our community. It was empowering to see her in front of the classroom. She was the first African-American classroom teacher I ever had, and the last African-American classroom teacher I had until college.

Ms. Camiji was part of the reason I have been so committed to education as an adult. Over the past four years, I dedicated hundreds of hours serving on the city’s Panel for Educational Policy and voting on hundreds of policies affecting the students of color who make up the vast majority of the city’s public school students. But extremely few of those policies have directly addressed the racism and bias in our schools that are obstacles to academic achievement.

In his State of the City speech a few months ago, Mayor de Blasio said, “We face an achievement gap today that is rooted in the enslavement of Americans and the pervasive discrimination against people of color over centuries. We know exactly where the problem comes from, but to defeat structural racism and to overcome this achievement gap, we have to flip the script. We have to do something different when it comes to education….”

The mayor is right, and he is in a position to change this. Former schools Chancellor Carmen Farina made many positive changes in New York City public schools - elevating the role of educators, diminishing the role of standardized tests, expanding community schools, and other great initiatives. But over the past four years, this administration has danced around issues of systemic racism in schools, unwilling to confront it directly.

Despite a deep body of research showing that students are more likely to succeed academically when they see themselves reflected in the books and curriculum they read, in the courses they take, in the issues discussed in class, I have seen very few system-wide policies that reflect this approach to advancing the success of students of color, beyond small and excellent initiatives like NYCMenTeach and Expanded Success Initiative.

I hope that the new leader of the school system, Chancellor Richard Carranza, will take up this issue and do more than the administration has so far.

Chancellor Carranza has seen first-hand, as a principal and a superintendent, the incredible impact on students of color when they learn about their own history and culture, and from educators who understand and connect with their history and culture. He has a reputation for engaging families in genuine and culturally appropriate ways, and knows the investment in schools that approach builds.

My daughter graduated from high school last year, and she never had an African-American classroom teacher in New York City public schools. In elementary school there was one African-American music teacher; in high school there was an African-American substitute science teacher. The students loved that science teacher, and my daughter confided in him and relied on his input to shape her decisions and keep her focused. But it’s a disgrace that my daughter’s teachers were no more diverse than my own, 25 years earlier.

Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza, let’s make this the last generation of New York City public school students who have to experience what my daughter and I have. Let’s grow the number of teachers and administrators of color, increase cultural competency among all teachers, and diversify curriculum and course offerings. This is the path to expanding academic success among our students of color, and for all students.

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Elzora Cleveland is a former mayoral appointee on the Panel for Educational Policy, and a parent leader with the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice. On Twitter @CEJNYC.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Assignment for the New Schools Chancellor: Address Race Head-On Mon, 16 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Nixon Candidacy Spotlights Education Advocacy Group http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7595:nixon-candidacy-spotlights-education-advocacy-group http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7595:nixon-candidacy-spotlights-education-advocacy-group Cynthia Nixon AQE

Cynthia Nixon, right, with Assemblymember Felix Ortiz in 2014 (photo: Ortiz's office)


When actor and activist Cynthia Nixon held her first news conference as a gubernatorial candidate, at a Pentecostal church in Brownsville, Brooklyn, she was introduced by Zakiyah Ansari, an education activist and longtime ally.

In New York’s advocacy ecosystem, Ansari and her organization, the Alliance for Quality Education, have long held prominence in outspoken fashion. The group, a nonprofit advocacy organization formed in 2001 and historically funded by teachers unions, has long offered itself as a voice for parents and communities of color and, as such, has also been a thorn in the side of successive state and city governments, consistently pushing for more funding in the state budget to meet the needs of underserved schools and fighting against school closures and charter schools.

At its founding, AQE provided Nixon a fitting pathway into activism on a cause close to home for the parent of two children currently attending New York City public schools (her eldest child is now out of city schools). For many years, Nixon participated in AQE advocacy, often as a spokesperson, an ideal role for someone skilled in articulation and experienced in performing in front of crowds, not to mention famous for her acting career. Nixon thus provided AQE her celebrity, emerging as a headlining surrogate for its efforts, cutting ads for the group, appearing at its annual fundraisers and regular rallies in Albany and elsewhere.

That activism has now formed part of the basis for Nixon’s primary challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo, a two-term Democrat running for reelection this year.

Cynthia Nixon AQE education awardsThe Nixon-AQE relationship not only served as her launching pad into education activism in New York, but also for her first run at elected office, with AQE’s main causes -- and the organization and its leaders -- front and center in Nixon’s nascent campaign. In the first week of her gubernatorial campaign, she appeared at two events with AQE.

Nixon’s association with AQE helps her burnish her credentials with voters of color, a constituency that is crucial for a victory in a Democratic gubernatorial primary and that Nixon, as a wealthy white woman, could struggle to attract. Her first official appearance in Brownsville is a testament to that dynamic. At the event, Ansari, who is black and lives in Brownsville herself, said of Nixon, “I’m standing here to say, as someone who is passionate about educational equity, that this woman has been standing side-by-side with us around that, has lent her voice and her celebrity to make sure that she elevates the voice of black and brown parents, because unfortunately often our voices are not enough to get this press out here…Everybody says, ‘I don’t know who she is.’ Well I do. On education, she has been there, a strong champion.”

In a recent interview, Ansari told Gotham Gazette, “I think it’s a statement...It’s a great start to center yourself in a space historically that has black and brown folks and still has black and brown folks.”

It is no coincidence that AQE is supportive of Nixon’s challenge to Cuomo. The organization and its leaders, especially Ansari, who is the advocacy director, and Executive Director Billy Easton, have been frequent and fervent Cuomo critics for many years.

AQE formed in 2001 with a singular purpose: to push the state to meet its obligation of funding a “sound basic education” for children in public schools, as per the New York State constitution. At the time, the state faced a lawsuit filed in 1993 by the nonprofit group Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which argued that the state’s education funding formula was unconstitutional. The case was eventually settled in 2006, resulting in the creation of “Foundation Aid,” a need-based formula for sending funding to school districts. To meet the standards of the settlement, AQE has argued, the state would have to increase school funding by billions.

“That is still our core mission,” said Easton, in a phone interview, “but over time, parents who...really provide the grassroots leadership for AQE have insisted that we broaden our agenda.”

The group is now a coalition pulling from several grassroots advocacy organizations, which together claim more than 150,000 members. They have offices in six cities across the state, and now regularly advocate for an agenda that includes ending the school-to-prison pipeline, increasing funding for community schools and pre-kindergarten programs, and railing against the expansion of privately-run charter school networks, what Easton calls the “privatization” of public education.

“And it includes the understanding that in order to invest in our children, the state needs to put students first, needs to protect kids not millionaires,” he said. “Because we have a governor who is in the pockets of millionaires and billionaires, or they’re in his campaign pocket, you know one way or the other you want to look at it. He has been carrying their water for many years.”

Indeed, Cuomo has regularly been criticized from the left for embracing the charter school and education reform movement, with its big-money donors often connected to Wall Street. It is a campaign Cuomo waged from the start of his tenure as governor in 2011, but eased off of in recent years due to significant backlash from teachers unions, suburban parents upset by high-stakes testing, and others, like AQE.

While Cuomo has somewhat made peace with the teachers unions he so often battled with, he has continued to back charter schools and has not met the school funding demands put forth by AQE, either in amount or district distribution. AQE therefore continues to take on the governor, and is unsurprisingly providing support to Nixon in her bid to unseat him.

While it's rhetoric is often particularly acerbic, AQE utilizes a typical array of tactics familiar in the advocacy world, including marches and rallies, op-eds, reports and press conferences, as well as political campaign efforts, both in mobilization of members and allies, and financial. The organization rousts its members to lobby state legislators, often at rallies held in the state Capitol and in New York City, at times on the steps of City Hall or Tweed Courthouse, home to the Department of Education, or in front of another government office or a school in the Success Academy charter network, a frequent target and foe. AQE educates parents about the state’s education system, launches social media campaigns, and hold news conferences to consistently push its message. It has found many allies in Democratic elected officials. But AQE doesn’t have especially deep pockets and expends relatively small resources on direct lobbying or in electoral campaigns, at least compared to the teachers unions themselves or the forces of the education reform movement.

Between 2011-2017, AQE spent $417,987 on lobbying efforts. It also directed funds to an independent expenditure committee called the People for Quality Education, which spent just under $86,000 in the 2014 election cycle (most of it on a political consulting firm) and then fizzled away. That same year, a pro-charter school group, Families for Excellent Schools, spent about $9.6 million on lobbying while the state and city teachers unions together spent $4.7 million.

AQE raises funds from members, nonprofit foundations, and prominent unions, particularly the New York City and statewide teachers unions, though that final funding stream has slowed to a trickle of late. Between 2010-2015, AQE raised about $3.7 million, of which $1.2 million was in 2010 alone, and has spent nearly all of it, according to tax records compiled by ProPublica. According to Easton, neither the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) or New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) has given AQE funding over the past two years.

It’s unclear why the teachers unions have pulled back support from AQE, but there are indications that daylight has emerged between the group’s priorities and those of the unions. In a New York Daily News op-ed in February, Ansari and Natasha Capers, coordinator of the Coalition for Educational Justice, an AQE-allied group, criticized the UFT for rejecting a resolution in support of Black Lives Matter in education. “The union's rejection of this resolution - which called for more black teachers in schools, an end to discriminatory discipline policies and more diversity in the curriculum — only impedes the school system's progress towards racial justice,” they wrote.

The teachers unions -- United Federation of Teachers, the New York State United Teacher and the American Federation of Teachers -- did not provide comment for this article despite requests.  

Past AQE fundraisers show the nexus of their ties with the teachers unions, other labor unions, and Democratic lawmakers.

In 2013, for instance, at their annual “Champions of Education” celebration, the group honored then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, UFT President Michael Mulgrew, and Ocynthia Williams, a parent, advocate and founding member of NYC Coalition for Educational Justice, another AQE-allied group. Co-chairs of the event included Cynthia Nixon and her wife, Christine Marinoni -- identified in an event invitation as AQE NYC Director Emeritus -- and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and former UFT president.

Other honorees from recent years include Capers; NYSUT Executive Vice President Andrew Pallotta; Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference; The Leeds Family; and others, including individuals in philanthropy and advocacy.

Silver, who was later convicted of corruption charges that were then overturned and will be retried this year, was supported by the group for his efforts at pursuing and achieving increased education funding. Silver was also instrumental in securing state funds for universal pre-kindergarten in 2014, celebrated by Mayor Bill de Blasio, among others.

Many prominent Democratic elected officials have appeared alongside AQE, including Public Advocate Letitia James. Both Nixon and Ansari were named to de Blasio's transition team after he won the mayoralty in 2013.

Nixon joined AQE as a volunteer in its incipient years, as a public school parent concerned about the quality of her children’s education, she has said. (She has never been paid by AQE, Easton said, even as she became a prominent, headlining spokesperson for the organization.)

“She was coming with us to Albany when there were no cameras,” said Ansari, who runs the New York City office, “and using her celebrity to help elevate the voices and stories of parents and students that, like myself, have been coming up there for a number of years challenging New York State, to say, ‘When are black and brown kids gonna get their fair share of these dollars?’”

At the 2013 AQE awards, a video shows Nixon addressing the crowd, fired up about AQE’s mission at a time when the organization did not have a friend in the mayor’s office or the governor’s office. “The reason the AQE was founded was initially not to fight budget cutbacks right? It was founded to get CFE implemented,” Nixon said. “And so it is an exciting time to be in New York, to be in the public schools, to be with the AQE and it is a time for us to take our wish list out of the drawer and start going down that list and start going down the bullet points and saying, let’s focus on this one, let’s make this one happen, and then lets make this one happen, and then lets make this one, and this one and this one.”

In the lead up to the passage of the state budget last week, AQE organized a rally in Albany and Nixon, the newly-minted gubernatorial candidate, made an appearance, as she has for years. Showing up at the governor’s doorstep just days after her campaign launch meant the conference was packed with reporters perking up their ears for her next volley of criticism at Cuomo. Though many subsequent reports may have failed to mention AQE by name, and the headlines focused heavily on Nixon’s choice words for the governor, the message of education funding inequity was at part of the conversation and is a pillar of Nixon’s campaign.

“For those of you who don’t know, as Zakiyah said, I have been coming up to Albany for a long time,” Nixon said after being introduced. “I’ve come here with organizers and public school parents and students from across the state to demand public schools in every district get the resources they need regardless of the students’ zip code, regardless of the students’ skin color.”

In what seemed more of a campaign stump speech, Nixon went on to say she had come to Albany “mad as hell” at both Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature. She criticized everything and everyone from President Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos to Governor Cuomo’s ethical record, the state’s lax campaign finance laws, and the budget negotiation process. “[W]e have gross inequities across the system...Will Governor Cuomo continue to punt on fully funding all of New York’s public schools while children still don’t have adequate resources?,” she wondered.

“Governor Cuomo, when he’s speaking about education funding, he always talks about the average spending per pupil in New York State being the highest of anywhere in the country. But he ignores the reality that...the wealthy white schools spend $30,000 per pupil, or $40,000 or $50,000 or even more. Our hundred wealthiest school districts spend almost $10,000 per pupil and they drive up the average, but our hundred poorest school districts are running a deficit of $10,000 per pupil.”

Three days later, AQE sent out a fundraising email blast titled, “Join Cynthia Nixon and AQE: Fight for Our Schools Right Now!”

nixon ansari aqe“It’s hard for us to get the true message out about the children most impacted by the lack of urgency from the governor and others,” Ansari said, noting that Nixon has lent AQE her voice for well over a decade and that her newfound prominence was also bleeding through. “I would hope that people are paying attention and noticing the people that are telling their stories, that make up AQE, that are the parents and young people that we bring up to Albany all the time, that it’s been 12 years, almost a generation of children have not had access, and I won’t say a generation of children, it’s our most marginalized communities,” Ansari said.

She added, “The goal for us is, and I think has been for her too from the very beginning is, how do I use my celebrity to help elevate the fact that...children have not got access to these dollars in funding and I’m gonna use that to help AQE however I can, and that’s what she’s been doing for 15 years.”

Despite the added attention, the state budget did not meet AQE’s goal of a $4.2 billion increase in school aid, 74 percent of which they say is owed to schools with predominantly black and brown students. In the end, the $168.3 billion state budget included about $1 billion in increased school funding from last year, for a total education budget of $26.7 billion, which Cuomo called “a record” level of funding. AQE called it “entrenching educational racism.”

No changes were made in the budget to how education aid is divvied up to school districts, something even fiscal watchdogs like Citizens Budget Commission have called for, so that state money is going where it is needed most, not to wealthy districts as much as poorer districts. The governor did push through a requirement whereby the state’s biggest school systems will have to report how much funding it is providing to each individual school.

“Governor Cuomo’s policies have caused the spending gap between rich and poor school districts to grow 24 percent to a record setting $9,923 per pupil,” said Jasmine Gripper, AQE’s legislative director, in a statement after the budget passed. “His budget will leave Black, Brown and low-income students in high need school districts further behind.”

Assemblymember Catherine Nolan, a Queens Democrat and chair of the Assembly education committee, praised AQE for moving the needle on education funding. “I’m a big supporter, I think the world of them,” said Nolan, who was an AQE honoree in 2014, in a phone interview. “I think they bring people to Albany and involve people that would never have been involved. They do great grassroots organizing and really if it wasn’t for them I do not believe that even the minimal successes that we’ve had about Campaign for Fiscal Equity compliance and money would have happened.”

AQE’s critics have argued, however, that no matter the increase in funding, it will never be enough for the group. The funding levels they deem appropriate would put a strain on the state’s finances, they say, and they have not enumerated how that funding should be spent.

“Their premise is that there was a quote-unquote settlement in that [CFE] case that the state has not lived up to,” said E.J. McMahon, founder and research director of the Empire Center for Public Policy. “The problem for them is that that’s not true.”

Making a similar point that Cuomo has made, McMahon said AQE’s argument is largely flawed because it insists on the “Foundation Aid” formula -- which provides need-based supplemental funding for local school districts -- put in place in 2006 by then-Governor Eliot Spitzer to meet the state’s CFE funding obligations. McMahon said Spitzer used the CFE decision as a “pretext for proposing an enormous multi-year state school aid increase, which was unsustainable on its face and proved to be even more unsustainable than that once the economy collapsed in the financial crisis.”

School aid, in fact, increased through the recession, McMahon pointed out, because of federal stimulus aid, which ran out by the time Cuomo took office. “And so Cuomo, in his first year and his first year only, cut school aid and ever since then has been increasing it at two-plus times the rate of inflation,” he said.

“They [AQE] kind of exist in a bubble of their own making,” he added. “AQE’s solution is to constantly demand more money and completely ignore the issue that New York spends well beyond the national norm and doesn’t get commensurate results.”

Another top rival of AQE is the charter school sector, backed by wealthy private donors who have been regular contributors to the governor and to legislators friendly to charter schools in the state Senate. Charter school supporters have often targeted AQE as being beholden to its benefactors in the teachers unions, a line of attack that AQE has repeatedly pushed back against, while AQE has decried any shift towards charter funding as a betrayal of the public education system.   

James Merriman, the chief executive officer of the New York City Charter School Center, called AQE a “front group” for the teachers unions, despite conceding that his organization has one same general goal as AQE: more funding for schools. “I’m never sure why the union doesn’t just advocate on behalf of itself,” he said. “Why are they embarrassed for asking for more money? Why do they need a front group for asking for more money?”

Echoing McMahon’s argument, Merriman said the group needs to articulate how any increases in funding would be distributed and utilized, as he said charters are required to do when they seek state funding. “With charter schools, that’s the entire premise,” he said.

“People are not paying attention if they think it’s just about the money,” said Ansari, who is, as she regularly mentions, a public school parent, mother of eight, and grandmother of three. “Money matters. We know it matters. It matters in rich districts, that’s why they’re willing to pay such high taxes. But they also understand that what needs to happen in their schools for their kids, it’s not about testing…they make sure they have tons of sports programs, art and music, they’re experimenting, they go on trips, they have high-quality this, that, and the other, they have libraries with librarians in them. Is that so much to ask for? Why is it that too much to ask for when it comes to black and brown kids, and it’s always time for them to wait? It’s just never the right time.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Pictured above: 1) Cynthia Nixon at an AQE event in 2013 and 2) Nixon at an AQE press conference in Albany after announcing her gubernatorial campaign, with Ansari directly behind her

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Nixon Candidacy Spotlights Education Advocacy Group Sun, 08 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000