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Dozens of New York City public schools have submitted petitions to the New York City Department of Education asking to be exempted from the uniform curriculum soon to be required for most of the city's schools. By the beginning of April, these schools should learn whether or not they will be added to the list of 209 successful schools allowed to continue with their own reading and math curricula. Schools not on the list must adopt the new, system-wide comprehensive instructional approach mandated by the Department of Education to bring coherence to the schools and to ensure that all the city's schoolchildren progress in reading, writing, and math. (See my February column, "Shaking Up the School System," for a description of the proposed curriculum changes and other recent reforms.)
Exemptions for the 209 schools were based on academic achievement, including improvements in student performance, and student need. Chancellor Joel Klein and the Department of Education looked at school results on city and state tests, but they also took into account schools' percentages of special education students, English language learners, and students in poverty. Schools not making the list as well as specific programs within schools wishing to be considered for exemption were permitted to petition for a waiver of either the literacy portion or the math portion of the new core curriculum or both. Those petitions had to be filed by March 3.
Anticipating objections to the consequences of creating a "top-200" list based only on test scores, Klein and the Department of Education factored in student need so as to bring diversity to the list of exempted schools. In spite of this, they have been accused of relying too heavily on test scores and, therefore, of skewing the list toward largely white, middle-class schools and leaving out schools that serve a more academically diverse student population. Parents and staff from some of the middle-class schools who thought they had been bumped from the list by lower-scoring schools serving higher needs students have also registered frustration and disappointment. Many of these schools have reportedly taken action so that they will be added to the list.
Drawing a line between successful schools and others in New York City is a risky enterprise, despite the clear logic and political necessity of saying that schools already achieving need not be forced to change. Nevertheless, there had to be some worry about the reaction of stakeholders in schools not put on the list, no matter how constructive the consequences. And that reaction has been sharp. Parents, students, and school staff from schools not selected have expressed anger and anxiety about the consequences of not making the list. Without the endorsement, parents and students worry about the quality of their school; and administrators fear they will lose the confidence of middle-class parents who bring valuable resources to schools but can opt to send their children elsewhere.
Though the now-required math, reading, and writing programs are similar to those already in use in a number of the city's successful schools, many school communities are concerned about the changes they represent. The Department of Education has not been able to avert fears about "cookie-cutter" classrooms and overly scripted teaching.
The new curriculum mandate is especially worrisome to those schools that identify themselves as "progressive" or "alternative" and see the programs as a threat to a specific educational philosophy and practices they consider successful. They believe that the imposition of this new curriculum will prevent their schools from offering the type and quality of education their students need and their families expect.
On March 26, parents and other representatives of schools throughout the city that are members of the Progressive Education Network of New York (PENNY) demonstrated in front of Tweed Courthouse, the headquarters of the Department of Education. Objecting to the narrow use of standardized tests and other statistics to measure schools' success, they advocated for the development of a new definition of "successful" schools which recognizes their schools' work with diverse populations of students. They believe that any imposed curriculum deprives teachers of the independence they require in order to develop their own curricula in response to the needs, interests, and abilities of their students. "We want autonomy that allows us to continue with small class sizes, bridge classes, parental and child involvement in all aspects of the school. This can't be boiled down to a single curriculum," said Carol Barton, a Muscota New School and Computer School parent. Few of the schools represented by the Progressive Education Network of New York were included on "the list," but they are hoping to secure waivers so that their schools' work can continue unimpeded.
Similarly, in the face of a uniform curriculum and district restructuring, parents, school staff, and administrators are fighting to preserve the alternative high schools superintendent position. The district that runs a number of high schools designed to meet the special needs of target populations of students -- gifted and talented, at risk, and special education students; drop outs; newly arrived immigrants; incarcerated youth, and pregnant and parenting teens -- is scheduled to be eliminated and its schools absorbed into regional superintendent districts.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR ACTIVISM
Adequate Funding for New York's Schools: A Community Conversation on What Our Students Really Need to Succeed.
On April 3, from 6:30 to 9 pm, at Campus Magnet High School Auditorium, 207-01 116th Street, in Cambria Heights in Queens, and on April 30 from 6:30 to 9 pm in the IS 44 Auditorium, 100 W. 77th Street, in Manhattan, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (where I work) and the New York State School Boards Association will play host to public meetings as part of an independent costing-out study being undertaken to determine the actual costs of ensuring that all New York students can meet Regents Learning Standards. Come to learn more about the study and to provide input on the challenges of schools in your community and on the programs and services that children need to succeed.
Public Hearings of the Senate Task Force on School Governance
March for Public Education: Pre-K Through Post-Grad
Public education this year faces grave challenges to its ability to secure adequate funding so that the academic gains that have become evident in recent years can be sustained. If you're concerned about the future of public education, then mark your calendar for Saturday, May 3 for a march on Albany for public education. The event begins at 1 pm at the Empire State Plaza in Albany and is sponsored by the state Education Conference Board, the Higher Education Conference Board, and a host of others, including parents, teachers, school superintendents and administrators, school boards, college students, and community groups. The gathering is intended to be the largest event in support of public education Albany has ever witnessed. It comes two weeks before statewide school budget votes.
Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and Director of Policy Development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition working to reform New York State's education finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York City. The views expressed are her own.