Gotham Gazette Fri, 13 Dec 2019 21:15:58 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Letter to the Editor: Next Step for New York College-in-Prison Program That Turned My Life Around college prison lte

Stacy Burnett, the author (photo: College & Community Fellowship)

To the Editor:

Regarding "New York College-in-Prisons Program is Flourishing" (Dec. 3): I am proof there can be no rehabilitation in prison without education, and that restoring Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) funding for college-in-prison participants must be a top priority if New York is serious about building safer communities.

In 2013, I was released from Albion Correctional Facility with $40 and a bus ticket to a county that did not want me. After serving five years, I had spent 1,428 hours in solitary confinement, compared to just 30 hours in a college classroom – there was no funding for college at Albion for people over age 25. In 2017, I was returned to prison, and shipped to a facility that offered the Bard Prison Initiative.

This time, I spent those thousand-plus hours in classrooms with professors who demanded more of me than I thought I had to give. I was challenged, and despite my physical confinement to a few dusty acres, my world expanded. And it continues to expand. Parsing Shakespeare and Anna Karenina provided me with critical thinking and analytical skills that I apply to everyday life. Education – not prison – enables me to be productive today. I am part of a new community of achievers.

New York taxpayers have spent over a quarter million dollars to confine me – funding TAP is so small in comparison. Studies prove my education is the best insurance against another term of incarceration.

The Bard Prison Initiative turned my life around in less than a year – something that the New York State penal system could not accomplish on its own in five. It’s time the New York State Legislature continue to lead in criminal justice reform and turn on the TAP for people in prison.

Stacy Burnett, a writer, formerly incarcerated Bard Prison Initiative student and current College & Community Fellowship (CCF) fellow who lives in Queens and is working alongside CCF to restore TAP funding for incarcerated students through the Turn On The Tap campaign.

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Letter to the Editor: Next Step for New York College-in-Prison Program That Turned My Life Around Sun, 08 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
With Push from Cuomo and Funding from Vance, New York College-in-Prisons Program is Flourishing bpi photo 3

(photo: Bard Prison Initiative)

In February 2014, early in his first reelection year, Governor Andrew Cuomo made what proved to be a bold proposal to reduce recidivism by creating opportunities for higher education in state prisons, seizing on an enduring problem at the intersection of social and criminal justice reform efforts. But he had misjudged the political landscape and the announcement was met with significant backlash followed by an uncharacteristic reversal for the seasoned New York powerbroker.

It took nearly four more years, and litigation with the world’s largest banking institutions, before a similar plan was recrafted and set in motion again. Two years into the rebooted plan, the state’s College-in-Prison Reentry Program has served 506 incarcerated students. Sixty-two of those students completed a degree behind bars before being released.

It was a cold Sunday morning in 2014 when Cuomo, then a first-term Democrat, was flanked by clergy and a smattering of elected officials as he announced a plan to provide state funding to college programs in 10 New York State prisons, an approach he said would cut recidivism and save taxpayer money. He was speaking at an event hosted by the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus of the State Legislature at Wilborn Temple, a black Pentecostal church near the State Capitol in Albany.

“In this great state of New York, this laboratory of democracy, this progressive capital of the country, there is nothing that we can’t do when we’re willing to work together,” he said to fanfare at the end of a speech that tied together employment, education, and incarceration while invoking familiar themes from the Civil Rights Movement and the New Testament.

But by the time the state budget was passed six weeks later, Cuomo had pulled the idea in the face of intense criticism from conservatives, including his Republican challenger Rob Astorino, who said the state should not be funding college for convicted criminals while law-abiding students struggle with the rising costs of higher education.

It wasn’t until August 2017 that the governor launched a second attempt, this time in partnership with Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, announcing a five-year $7.3 million initiative to fund higher education programs in prisons using money raised not through taxes, but through criminal asset forfeitures. The money was handed over by banks as part of settlements in the wake of the financial crisis late last decade, and is controlled by Vance’s office, which now oversees the college-in-prison program, run by the CUNY Institute of State and Local Governance.

The largest of the state’s prison-based college programs, the Bard Prison Initiative, is now the subject of a heralded four-part documentary series, “College Behind Bars,” which first aired Monday, November 25, to praise from many advocates and elected officials across the country.

First announced as part of Cuomo’s State of the State agenda in 2016, the College-in-Prison Reentry Program is intended to help standardize and provide consistent funding for college programs operating in state prisons, which lost their main sources of public financing when state and federal grant programs were peeled back in the mid-nineties. To date, no state budget funds have been allocated to the program, a spokesperson for the state Division of the Budget told Gotham Gazette.

Despite the controversy around the program’s inception, prison reformers, elected officials, graduates of the offerings, and the new PBS series are attempting to show the value of higher education in prisons -- both for incarcerated people on the threshold of reentry to the larger society, and for state coffers.

“Going to the college courses, interacting with the professors, engaging theories and texts that I would have never come across in the life I was living beforehand made me want to be a better person and made me want to go back to my community and become an asset and not a liability,” said George Chochos, a BA-recipient through the Bard Prison Initiative, which offers courses in six state correctional facilities and is now partially funded through asset forfeitures.

“It provided hope in a hopeless situation,” he told Gotham Gazette by phone after work Wednesday evening. Chochos is the assistant director of program management at the Georgetown University Pivot Program, a business certificate program for formerly incarcerated individuals. “It’s one of the few things inside of a prison that allows you to break away from the monotony of the prison system, to where your identity is a student not a number,” he said.

The College-in-Prison Reentry Program is available to students regardless of the crime they were convicted of, requiring only that they have fewer than five years remaining in their sentences, according to Danny Frost, Vance’s director of communications. Seven colleges and universities were selected to receive funding through the program to deliver courses and reentry services at 17 New York State correctional facilities.

It is intended to create 2,500 seats in prison-based college over five years. Two years into the project, nearly $2.8 million has been paid out to the schools and the CUNY Institute of State and Local Governance for program evaluation and support.

In a speech last fall, Vance said “the program is tailored by design to cover New Yorkers who are on that reentry journey -- who in just a few years will be expected to compete in a labor market with community members who were not incarcerated.”

Studies have shown that higher education in prison can significantly reduce recidivism rates and leads to better outcomes for people exiting prison, including in terms of employment. But it has faced a rocky history in New York State and nationally, where critics say it rewards criminal behavior in a system created to penalize it.

“I’ve been incarcerated for 13 years, and from my experience I can tell you prison is here to punish us, it’s here to warehouse us. But it’s not about rehabilitating, it’s not about creating productive beings, it just isn’t,” said Rodney Spivey-Jones, a BA student in the Bard Prison Initiative, in the first episode of College Behind Bars, which is directed by Lynn Novick.

The Bard Prison Initiative, launched in 2001 by Bard College, is the largest recipient of College-in-Prison Reentry funding at $1.3 million over the five year period (2017-2022). It became internationally famous in 2015, when the BPI debate team at Eastern New York Correctional Facility beat Harvard’s.

The six other schools receiving grants through the program are Jefferson Community College, Medaille College, Mercy College, Mohawk Valley Community College, New York University, and Cornell University in partnership with Cayuga Community College. To receive the money, the schools must be able to match the grants with other funding sources like charitable foundations or federal grants.

Each school offers different courses and degrees in line with the curriculum standards offered on their main campuses. Five offer associate’s degree programs and two offer bachelor’s degrees. They provide between 1 and 10 courses per semester, with most offering more than six.

College programs have been operating in New York State prisons since 1876, but they received a boon in the mid-twentieth century through post-World War II charitable initiatives and federal funding like the GI Bill, according to a report from John Jay College’s Prisoner Reentry Institute. In the mid-1970s, the establishment of federal Pell grants and the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) for low-income students allowed prison-based college programs to significantly expand. Nationwide, the number of programs exploded from from 12 in 1965 to nearly 350 in 1994, the report says.

But in 1994, the funding rapidly dried up. That year Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (often referred to as the 1994 crime bill), which barred Pell grants from going to incarcerated students. The following year the New York State Legislature rescinded TAP for students in state prisons. The results were dramatic: in the spring of 1995, 25 college-in-prison programs served 3,445 students in New York; a year later, only 256 students were being served in four prison-based programs across the state, according to the John Jay report.

Since then, higher education in New York State prisons has relied mostly on private funding. In 2015, the Obama administration launched the Second Chance Pell pilot program, which allow Pell grants to be distributed for prison-based programs to test their impact on post-release outcomes. A number of the schools participating in the College-in-Prison Reentry Program have used the pilot to match grants from the Manhattan District Attorney, according to Vance’s office. In May, the federal Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos announced the Second Chance Pell pilot would be expanded.

As of November 26, 44,710 individuals were incarcerated across the state’s 52 prisons, operated by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), according to a department spokesperson. At the beginning of the month, 1,580 of those individuals were enrolled in college programs in 29 facilities, DOCCS representatives said.

When the College-in-Prison Reentry Program was launched in 2017, there were just over 1,000 students already in prison-based college programs, according to a press release announcing the program.

Providing access to higher education in prisons has for decades been a contentious issue in the state, where it is often expressed in political discourse as a trade-off between support for “law-abiding” students struggling to go to college and “criminals” receiving taxpayer benefits.

In 2014, two days after Cuomo first announced a plan to fund prison-based programs with state funds, then-State Senator Mark Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican, released a petition opposing the plan.

"I support rehabilitation and reduced recidivism, but not on the taxpayer's dime when so many individuals and families in New York are struggling to meet the ever-rising costs of higher education," said Grisanti in a press release launching the petition. (Grisanti lost his reelection bid that year and was appointed by Cuomo to the New York State Court of Claims in 2015. He now serves as a state Supreme Court Justice in Erie County.)

Reducing recidivism has always been a focal point of college-in-prison programs, and fewer individuals living in state prisons means taxpayers are spending less on detention. Cuomo, in 2014, said the math favors more prison-based programs, which studies have shown significantly cut recidivism rates for participants. Despite that outlook, he did not put up an aggressive fight for the program when crafting the state budget with legislative leaders that year (at the time, the Assembly was controlled by Democrats, while Republicans controlled the Senate with help from a breakaway group of Democrats).

In 2014, it cost the state $60,000 annually to incarcerate one person and approximately $5,000 to educate them, Cuomo said when announcing the later-abandoned initiative. But supporters say higher education in prison has a good return on investment, both for the individuals served and in terms of recidivism. An oft-cited 2013 RAND Corporation study found that people participating in correctional education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison and 13 percent more likely to find employment upon release.

“Providing the opportunity of a college education to the men and women in New York State prisons is a no brainer – it saves the state money in the long run while benefiting our society and those looking to make a better life for themselves and their families,” wrote Caitlin Girouard, a spokesperson for the governor, in an email to Gotham Gazette. “College degrees for people exiting prison provide them with a real chance at getting a job and staying out of the cycle of crime, and we are proud that in New York we’re helping make that a reality.”

The governor’s office did not respond to questions about whether there are plans to expand the initiative, including through the state budget.

The Vera Institute for Justice is expected to release an evaluation of the College-in-Prison Reentry Program in mid-2023, which will analyze recidivism rates for participants, according to a spokesperson for Vance. According to the latest data available to DOCCS, people released from state prisons in 2012 had a 43 percent chance of returning to prison within three years, in most cases for violating parole conditions (since 1996 the recidivism rate has hovered around 40 percent).

A DOCCS representative wrote in an email that recidivism rates could fall to as low as 16 percent for people who have attended college in prison, citing “decades of data.”

“I remember when I first got in, calling my mother and hearing the joy in her voice. Neither of us knew where it would take us,” Chochos said. He was accepted into Bard’s program in 2004 at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison, four years into his term. He went on to receive an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s in social studies from Bard, and a masters from New York Theological Seminary before being released in 2011.

Since exiting the state prison system, Chochos has received two master’s degrees from Yale Divinity School, graduating with honors in one of them in 2016.

“It gave me a new language by which to contextualize my own life and the choices that I made,” Chochos said of the education he received behind bars. “It encouraged me to dream for the first time.”

Prison-based college programs serve a more diverse student population than traditional college programs. According to the 2019 John Jay College report, citing DOCCS data from 2016, the state prison population is “25 percent white, 48 percent black/African-American, and 23 percent Hispanic/Latino,” with a similar distribution among the subpopulation participating in college programs. By contrast, “[w]ithin the SUNY system, 57.3 percent of undergraduates are white, 12.3 percent Hispanic, and 10.8 percent are black/African American,” the report notes. (Three of the colleges involved in the College-in-Prison Reentry program are part of the SUNY system.)

Two bills in the State Legislature could impact the future of prison-based college in New York. One sponsored by Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry and Senator Velmanette Montgomery, two New York City Democrats, would restore eligibility for TAP, the state-funded tuition assistance program, to students in prison.

Another sponsored by Aubry and Senator Jamaal Bailey, a Bronx Democrat, would establish a commission on post-secondary education in prisons to evaluate and make recommendations on higher education in the state prison system. But they face an uphill battle: the commission bill stalled in committee last year, according to a spokesperson for Assembly Member David Weprin, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Correction.

Meanwhile, the New York City Council has committed city funding to education programs for people involved in the criminal legal system as part of a $13.5 million investment in alternatives to incarceration in the current fiscal year. This year, $850,000 was allocated to support education for formerly-incarcerated individuals after being released. Of that funding, $250,000 will go to the Bard Prison Initiative to support reentry and alumni career development activities in prisons for the 6-12 month period before release.

The remaining money will go to the College and Community Fellowship, which provides educational support for women upon reentry and serves approximately 120 women, according to a spokesperson for Speaker Corey Johnson.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

With Push from Cuomo and Funding from Vance, New York College-in-Prisons Program is Flourishing Mon, 02 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Assembly to Evaluate Mayoral Control of City Schools for First Time Under Recent Reforms bdb chancellor comm

Mayor and Chancellor testify in May (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photo Office)

Just six months after the state Legislature approved a three-year extension of mayoral control of the New York City school system, stretching well past the end of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s term, the state Assembly is holding a hearing later this month on whether the mayor’s stewardship has been effective.  

The hearing will be held in New York City on December 16 by the Assembly’s education committee and will be, according to a public notice, the “first in a series of hearings and other informational forums throughout the City of New York to assess the effectiveness of mayoral control of the New York City School District and hear from stakeholders on the ways to address the inequities in our schools and improve student performance.”

De Blasio had an easier time getting an extension, and a longer one at that, of mayoral control this year under a Legislature where both houses were under Democratic control for the first time in a decade, compared with past years when Republicans who held the Senate used it as leverage to extract concessions, chiefly related to charter-school friendly policies, and often agreed to only one additional year at a time. But the latest extension nonetheless came with some conditions.

Among the changes, which the de Blasio administration says it is fully implementing, were increasing the membership of the Panel for Educational Policy from 13 to 15, with one member appointed by Community Education Council presidents and the other by the mayor. The PEP approves certain major Department of Education contracts and policies, and the mayor will now appoint nine of its members, up from eight. The two new members have yet to be appointed. Under the changes agreed to this year, the mayor will have to give a ten-day notice and a written explanation before removing a PEP member.

The city must also appoint a task force to issue recommendations on elections to Education Councils, of which there is one for each of the 32 local school districts and four with citywide purview; allow CECs to issue non-binding votes on school building utilization changes; and make changes to the Chancellor’s Regulations to give parents a greater say in hiring principals and superintendents – for instance, CECs will be able to meet with candidates that the Chancellor is considering for superintendent and provide their feedback before the appointment is made.

“Mayoral accountability is working - graduation and college enrollment is up, dropout rates are down, and Pre-K for All is narrowing the achievement gap,” said Jane Meyer, a spokesperson for the mayor, in response to a request for comment about the upcoming hearing. “We’re fostering supportive learning environments that empower families, and delivering Equity and Excellence to every child, no matter their zip code.”

When asked, Meyer did not say whether Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza would testify on the administration’s behalf at the December 16 hearing, and while she did say the new changes were being implemented by the DOE, she did not respond to questions seeking clarification.

The Assembly education committee is chaired by Assemblymember Michael Benedetto, a Bronx Democrat. In a phone interview, Benedetto said the hearing is the beginning of a process of ongoing assessment of the current mayoral control system.

“Maybe there are changes we can make to the system that we have right now, to make it better,” he said Tuesday. “When we made some minor changes to the school governance law, we also made at that time a promise among ourselves that we would going forward take a look and see, are there better ways to govern the schools of the City of New York? So to that end, we made it a point of agreement that we will meet, that we will have hearings, that we will have roundtables, that we will actively seek out and look and investigate other models to see if what we’re doing is in the best interest of communities and most importantly children.”

Benedetto said he had “no expectations” of the de Blasio administration’s testimony and that the hearing is more of a fact-finding exercise. “I think it’s quite possible that every issue under the sun is gonna come on up if it involves education,” he said. He does, however, hope to hear from parent and teacher groups, educators, and elected officials about the pros and cons of mayoral control, which, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, replaced the old Board of Education localized system and has been renewed several times since. “Come 2022, we can formulate a piece of legislation that we think will be best for the City of New York and maybe that is just what we have now and maybe it’s not. So we’re looking,” Benedetto said.

Gotham Gazette also reached out to other elected officials who would seem likely to attend or be particularly interested in the hearing. A spokesperson for State Senator John Liu, who chairs the Senate’s New York City education committee, acknowledged a request for comment but did not respond to follow-up inquiries.

New York City Council Member Mark Treyger, who chairs the Council’s education committee, said he plans to attend the hearing and push for greater accountability over the schools system. “The DOE is the largest city department, it takes up about a third of the entire city budget, and yet the City Council lacks a lot of critical authority over this department,” he said, noting that the Council cannot make appointments to the PEP, does not have advice and consent power over the chancellor’s appointment, and cannot pass laws affecting DOE functions except for requiring certain reports. The Council, he said, is relegated to exercising its power during annual budget negotiations to force the city to institute needed reforms. “It speaks to a real imbalance in terms of authority and proper oversight over a critical agency,” he said.

The mayor’s oft-examined six years at the helm of city schools have indeed seen the improved metrics mentioned by Meyer, and often touted by de Blasio and Carranza at legislative hearings and elsewhere (the two testified together at a March 15 hearing on mayoral control held by the Senate, a few months before the latest extension was granted).

But there have been stumbles along the way. The much-touted Renewal Schools program, which spent nearly $800 million over four years on struggling schools with limited results, was scrapped earlier this year for a new approach. The school system, which serves more than 1.1 million students, remains deeply segregated and the mayor has failed to articulate a comprehensive strategy to tackle the problem. A task force he created for that purpose released its final report in August, recommending, among many other things, that all Gifted and Talented programs, where white students are overwhelmingly admitted, be replaced for universal enrichment programming.

De Blasio has also unsuccessfully sought to get rid of the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), which requires state legislative action for the three largest of the eight schools that use it for admissions, in order to diversify the student population at the city’s specialized high schools where black and Latino students are severely disproportionately underrepresented. Chancellor Carranza has vowed to keep pushing that proposal, though de Blasio has said he is back to the drawing board and planning a new approach next year, while also pledging to hold a series of conversations based on his task force’s reports about how to integrate the broader school system.

Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, a Staten Island Republican who challenged de Blasio when he ran for reelection in 2017, welcomed the Assembly hearing as an opportunity to grill the mayor’s administration. She is new on the education committee and noted in a public statement that she has been pushing for a hearing since before the budget was decided earlier this year.

She said in part that “critical questions still remain about inappropriate spending of precious education dollars, as well as the dismantling of school discipline under de Blasio. I made a point to have hearings on mayoral control because under de Blasio it has been terrible. Now that we have these hearings, I urge my constituents to speak out and to ensure that their taxpayer money is being spent properly.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated to note that the New York City education committee is no longer a subcommittee. 

Assembly to Evaluate Mayoral Control of City Schools for First Time Under Recent Reforms Tue, 03 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
More Testing is Not the Answer for New York City Students, But Smaller Classes Could Be bdb schools

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

The Department of Education rolled out new standardized testing for thousands of students across New York City last month. For now, the new tests are supposedly targeted to low-performing (aka low-scoring) schools, but all signs point to the expansion of additional standardized testing citywide.

More standardized testing is the exact opposite of what New York City should be doing to help students and, if anything, these new tests could actually hurt our most vulnerable students. Piling on tests is not going to solve any of the problems our struggling students face -- problems like homelessness, learning disabilities, structural racism, and lack of resources. If anything, it will make school even more frustrating and unengaging for children than it already is.

Although it may come as a surprise to the Department of Education, children have social-emotional needs. They are not little robots whose brains we can endlessly reprogram. They need to have fun, they need to feel capable, and they need to feel like they belong. By forcing schools to administer even more tests and report scores multiple times a year, we risk making school even less welcoming for children, particularly for those who already struggle academically. A friend of mine who had to recently administer new tests to her fourth-graders told me that one of her students said “I feel like a dead fish” after completing his test.

No nine-year-old should use the word “dead” when describing their experience in school.

More standardized testing also runs counter to Chancellor Richard Carranza’s stated goal of bringing Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) into every classroom. First of all, standardized tests, by definition, are typically not culturally responsive; often test texts feature only typically white names or use touchpoints that most New York City children can’t relate to, like farms and forests.

There is also the issue of time: standardized testing and test prep eats up hours of the school day that could be used for culturally responsive activities like those in social studies, the arts, collaborative projects, or community building. With this new testing rollout, elementary school students will spend 12 days taking standardized tests over the school year. Middle and high school students will spend even more days on exams. Factor in weeks of test prep and that is well over a month of school lost to the least culturally responsive activity there is -- non-interactive, undifferentiated standardized testing.

Standardized tests are usually neither accessible nor helpful to immigrant students, who are required to take state English Language Arts exams after only one year in the United States. Some of these children may have not even been in school before immigrating to the United States, but after only one year living in New York City, they must endure hours of silently staring at multiple choice questions that will in no way help them learn a new language. Needless to say, this is culturally exclusive, not inclusive.

So what would actually help meet the academic and social-emotional needs of struggling students across the city and foster true culturally-responsive learning?

Smaller class sizes.

Unlike more standardized tests, reducing class sizes would actually make it easier for teachers to get to know their students, build community, and implement culturally-responsive practices in their classrooms. Smaller classes are also proven to help children grow academically. That’s why teachers across the country are striking for smaller classes and why if you were to ask any teacher whether the difference between 32 (the current cap for elementary school) and 25 or even 20 children impacts student achievement and classroom culture, you’d get a resounding “yes.”

Last year we had school on a snowy day right before a break. I had only 13 or 14 kids in a class. Everyone was happy. There were no fights; no other serious behavior problems. I had time to help every student one-on-one. The kids were calm and productive instead of overstimulated or understimulated. At one point, one of my third-grade students with learning disabilities said, “Ms. Olenick, this is the first time I’ve ever finished all of my work without needing extra time.” There is a reason why private school class sizes are almost universally kept to below 20 students, often with an assistant teacher: class size matters.

The DOE claims it doesn’t plan to spend additional money on this testing rollout. But there is no doubt that creating and evaluating tests taken by thousands -- if not ultimately hundreds of thousands -- of students will require staff time and resources. If the DOE has extra cash on hand and actually wants to help all children learn, it should use the resources not for more monotonous, culturally-unresponsive testing, but to shrink class sizes so that every child in New York City gets the support they need to grow academically, socially, and emotionally. 

Liat Olenick is a public school science teacher at an elementary school in Brooklyn. She is also the co-President of activist organization Indivisible Nation BK. On Twitter @Liat_RO.

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More Testing is Not the Answer for New York City Students, But Smaller Classes Could Be Thu, 07 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
An Excellence Escalator for State School Funding cuomo second round comm ini

(photo: the governor's office)

Our broken system of school finance is currently the subject of roundtables led by the State Senate's new Democratic majority. The hearings are focused on reforming the Foundation Aid formula that determines the bulk of state aid to local districts.

Broken? According to the Alliance for Quality Education, the gap between the average per pupil spending in the 100 wealthiest and 100 poorest school districts has grown to a record $10,218 per pupil. These stark differences are reflected in teacher salaries and class sizes, counselors and librarians, facilities, and technology, among other social and academic supports. Flowing from these inequities are pervasive proficiency challenges among students of color in our poorest districts, robbing them of their inherent rights to educational and economic justice.

The school finance system has long been a source of political in-fighting. The Foundation Aid "pie" is largely dictated by the Governor through the executive’s power over the state budget. The Legislature then slices the pie among the state's 750 school districts based on a combination of need and political muscle. In Albany, that's not a fair fight.

The winners tend to be wealthier suburban swing districts where voters keep close tabs on their elected representatives to bring home maximum funding. Every dollar in state aid is a dollar less in local property taxes, the driver of the inequitable system of American school finance where school quality it directly related to the property wealth of its citizens. 

Individual legislators’ accountability to rural and urban school districts is less direct and party control of these seats more assured. As a result, school aid is not the make-or-break electoral issue it is in the suburbs. The profound effect of this political mismatch is that the needier districts are disproportionately dealt out of Foundation Aid, which was originally meant to close the gap.

So merely reforming Foundation Aid will not solve the problem of inequitable and inadequate state aid. The formula is broken because, at bottom, it is based on political rather than educational considerations. The solution is to rearrange the legal equation to reflect educational finance as a right, not subject to the exigencies of political might. We need to see the issue as one of promoting the civil rights of all students.

Solving such a big problem requires a big idea: a constitutionally required escalator that automatically raises the level of each district’s state funding to match per pupil spending by our wealthiest districts. This new funding structure based on a standard of educational excellence would permanently correct the otherwise intractable power imbalance favoring wealthy districts, bringing a new level of educational quality to all the states’ children and an ensuing level of prosperity for all New Yorkers.

The Excellence Escalator: How It Works
Today, our state constitution provides a lowest common denominator right to a “sound basic education” pegged at the level of a “meaningful high school education” by the New York State Court of Appeals in its 2003 opinion in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York (“CFE II”). The Foundation Aid formula was developed in response to CFE II but has never realized its promise of meeting the fiscal equity demanded by the Court of Appeals decree. Stifled by the iron rule of political power, the CFE II and its predecessor and successor decisions have proven of little use in Albany’s hotbed of competing school district interests vying for self-limited state funds.

Moving beyond the false promise of judicial rescue through Foundation Aid will require a constitutional amendment to replace the Court of Appeals’ “sound basic education” adequacy standard with a standard of “educational excellence” tied to funding levels our wealthiest residents deem appropriate for their own children.

The excellence escalator will assure that state aid meets or exceeds the per pupil spending in our wealthiest districts. While expensive, the sticker shock of the state providing highest-level funding can be mitigated by adjustment of aid for individual district measures of student need and local capacity, formulaic data already available and largely immune to political manipulation.

In practice, our wealthiest districts would receive zero state dollars but no ceiling on local spending. Districts of similar wealth that chose not to tax at that level would also receive zero by failing to meet local capacity. But districts that taxed to the max would be rewarded by state assistance to meet the highest levels of per pupil district spending.

As a result, the excellence escalator is less radical that it seems. It does not discourage local spending and maintains local school taxes as the bulwark of our system of school finance. But, as a constitutional guarantee, the provision assures that the state will match funding to levels of real world spending that currently benefits only our most well-off students.

Besides providing a greater degree of educational equity, the escalator would dramatically encourage desegregation by removing a major obstacle to families’ movement between districts: the quality of schools. By diminishing the gap in per pupil spending between districts, a major reason for our entrenched enclavism, a growing hole in our social fabric could be mended.

The path forward for the excellence escalator is not free of the same politics that currently traps us in the broken system of Foundation Aid. But it is a one-time fix, requiring approval by two successive legislative sessions and a voter referendum. Today’s problem is a constant battle, fought every year against impossible odds. A constitutionally mandated school funding excellence escalator would turn the tide toward educational equity and quality, a big idea whose time has come.

David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Educational Leadership, Law and Policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center. This essay is adapted from testimony presented to the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. On Twitter @BloomfieldDavid.

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An Excellence Escalator for State School Funding Tue, 05 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
As New York Rethinks High School Graduation Requirements, Under-the-Radar School Group May Offer a Model voter student reg

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

In a process likely to last years, the New York Board of Regents is considering changing high school graduation requirements, which may include revising or creating a substitute for the Regents exams. To graduate, most students must currently pass five Regents exams. But while the education policy-setting board recently announced its exploratory plans, another path to a New York high school diploma already exists: a set of performance-based tasks that test students on an array of skills meant to be more in line with college- and career-readiness than what typical standardized exams measure.

Roughly 38 schools with about 30,000 students in the New York Performance Standards Consortium abide by the Performance-Based Assessment Tasks as their graduation requirements, along with the English Regents exam.

The beginnings of the Consortium were formed in the early 1990s when the state education commissioner at the time agreed to grant a waiver to a group of schools that had been using performance assessments instead of the state’s standardized exams, according to the Consortium’s website. The official organization formed in 1998, and now about 30,000 students attend the 38 Consortium schools in New York City, Rochester, and Ithaca.

Rather than earning a score of 65 percent or better on the five Regents exams in order to graduate high school, students at Consortium schools complete written tasks and oral presentations called Performance-Based Assessment Tasks (PBAT) against a set of rubrics, and must also pass the English Regents exam.

The PBATs include an analytical essay on literature, a social studies research paper, an extended or original science experiment, and problem-solving at higher levels of math. Instead of learning a vast amount of material for the Regents exams, students at Consortium schools may choose to take a deep dive into one topic for their PBAT, such as writing a paper on “Why did the Civil Rights Movement happen when it did?” or conducting an experiment on “The Effect of Tank Volume on Goldfish Growth.” Students work on their projects for months, compared to a Regents exam that may be conducted over a day or two.

Students give a presentation on their work to a panel of three external evaluators, and teachers use a standardized rubric for grading. The rubric is aligned to state educational standards, and each year the Consortium conducts studies where teachers from every Consortium school compare their students’ work to align weak, medium, and high performances to ensure standardization.

Gareth Robinson, the principal of a Consortium school in Queens, said when he taught at a Regents-based school, he had to make sure to teach the facts that were going to be on the exam, which did not necessarily prepare students for the writing and critical thinking skills they need in college.

“When I taught U.S. history last, [my students] were really interested in slavery and how the Constitution was interpreted today,” Robinson said. “But we didn’t really have time to get into that because it was, ‘I need you guys to memorize these dates, these four facts, because you need to recognize them on the test.’”

Regents Rethinking Process Underway
The Board of Regents announced a plan in July to form a commission that will make recommendations about potential changes to the state’s graduation requirements. Earlier this month, that mission was fleshed out slightly more, giving the commission a two-year timeline. The commission is expected to be formed in February and have representatives from New York City, the state PTA, and teachers unions, among others.

As states like California, Arizona, and South Carolina have eliminated their high school exit exams, New York has made room for some alternative pathways to graduation, such as the PBAT, while also significantly tinkering with the Regents exams and passing requirements themselves. The majority of states do not require a state exam for students to earn a high school diploma. While some raise doubts about moving away from the standardized tests as what they call an “objective measure,” the PBAT Consortium has been slowly growing and may offer a model for the larger shift that could be afoot.

The state allows students to substitute the social studies exam for other tests in career and technical education, art, or math, also known as the “four plus one” option. Additionally, there is an appeals process that may allow a student to earn a Regents diploma with a score lower than the passing 65%.

At the July Board of Regents meeting, several of the regents expressed the need for the commission to examine the emphasis of state tests as the only measure of achievement, what learning looks like in the 21st Century, and how some students, including some who pass the tests, do not have the reading and writing skills necessary to succeed in higher education.

New York State Education Department officials told Gotham Gazette that the Board of Regents has only discussed the process to review diploma options in New York, and there has been no discussion on specific alternative diploma options at this point. Spokesperson Emily DeSantis said the Board of Regents wants to ensure “ample time is provided” for the commission to carry out its work, and “no decisions have been made at this point.”

“The Board of Regents and the State Education Department have made it a priority to allow students to demonstrate their proficiency to graduate in many ways,” DeSantis said. “As we have said, this is not about changing our graduation standards. It’s about providing different avenues — equally rigorous — for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma.”

Michael Benedetto of the Bronx, who represents District 82 in the New York State Assembly and is the chair of the Assembly education committee, said he is “not afraid” of a step like changing or getting rid of the Regents exams, adding that other methods of evaluating students like testing language proficiency by having a discussion with a student, may be more accurate.

“I’m not afraid of exploring those options and looking at them,” Benedetto said.

State Senator John Liu of Queens, also a Democrat and the chair of the Senate’s New York City schools subcommittee, said he hopes the commission does a “thorough and exhaustive” job.

He said there is a perception that New York has a “gold standard” in terms of high school graduation requirements and the state should be regularly assessing and “revising if necessary” what it means to be the gold standard.

“There’s no perfect assessment system,” Liu said, “whether that be standardized written exams or subjective evaluations on a host of criteria. Every system has its weakness. It’s the right thing to do for the commission to be reviewing this.”

Ray Domanico, the director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank, said after 20 years of the current Regents exam requirements, it’s time for the Regents to look into the policy. He said there needs to be a “more aggressive push” to certify and make paths for careers and technical jobs for students who do not go to college but need to earn a living wage.

Domanico said nationally less than 40% of students complete a bachelor’s degree by their late 20s and that the number is lower for those in New York City.

“We’ve had this policy in place for close to 20 years, now it took awhile for it to phase in, but it’s based on the notion that all students who graduate high school must be prepared for college readiness,” Domanico said. “Although we certainly want more students to be prepared for success in college, that remains a heavy lift.”

Performance-Based Assessment - A Model?
Meanwhile, according to a 2017 PBAT Consortium report, the Consortium schools have shown strong results: they had about a 20% higher percentage of students enrolling in college and higher college-readiness numbers than students from other New York City public schools. The report said Consortium schools have a higher percentage of Hispanic students, students living at the poverty level, and English Language Learners. The most recent data set available for Consortium schools was based on information from the 2014-2015 school year.

Regent Judith Johnson, who emphasized that her comments are her own and not the Board’s official policy, said performance-based assessments allow students to answer the question “what do you know?” as opposed to “do you know this?”

She said the “what do you know?” question needs to be factored into assessing student learning because it is more related to the skills students need to succeed in post-secondary education and in work settings.

“All students know something, and there needs to be a mechanism for students to demonstrate what they know,” Johnson said in an email to Gotham Gazette. “They may not know ‘this’ but many know a lot that is not included on their Regents exams, and gauging their learning by a single exam disadvantages students who are not skilled test-takers and/or whose knowledge doesn’t comport with the test-makers’ vision of what students ought to know. These are often smart, creative students who think in ways not valued by Regents exams.”

Ben Wides, a teacher at East Side Community High School, which is part of the Consortium, said the PBATs closely resemble papers and projects students will complete in college, which may lead to the better numbers. He said the process of revising and meeting with teachers creates a model for students to approach assignments in college.

“Students will have to take tests in college, they may have to take multiple choice history tests, etc., but to be a strong student in college, you need to be able to write a paper along the lines of what a PBAT is asking students to do,” Wides said. “The PBAT is a more authentic assessment of a student’s readiness to be successful in college than the Regents exam is.”

The report also showed that teacher retention rates were higher for Consortium schools, by 8 percent, and the Consortium’s four-year graduation rate was 80% compared to the larger Department of Education’s 71%. In 2018 the New York City graduation rate rose to 76 percent while the number of students the City University of New York deemed ready for college was 66%, according to state data.

Domanico said that though he has not looked recently, Consortium schools have generally produced good results. He said while there is a place for alternative assessment systems in a school system as large as New York City, the difficult questions are of scale: will the approach work for all students and are all teachers prepared to be successful in the “nontraditional” environment.

“At a minimum I would like to see those schools continue doing what they’re doing,” Domanico said. “If the evidence is still very positive for them as it has been in the past, one might think of expanding those schools, but I don’t know I’d be ready to quickly jump to that as the model for the entire city or state.”

Ann Cook, the executive director and co-founder of the Consortium, told Chalkbeat in 2018 that the Consortium’s assessment system would be difficult to spread across the state. There is also a limited number of waivers the state will grant.

“Could every kid in the state be doing this? I’d probably say no,” Cook said to Chalkbeat. “And the reason is you have to have a faculty that is interested and wants to do it. They should want to opt into this because it takes a lot of work in the school.”

Wides said that he does think the Consortium could be a model for other schools, though it is not something that could be implemented for all schools in the state because of the professional development required for teachers and the “reorientation of the school culture.”

Most Consortium schools are in New York City, and the Board of Regents and the State Education Department has extended the waiver allowing Consortium school graduates to earn a Regents diploma five times since the 1990s. There are 16 Consortium schools in Manhattan, 9 in Brooklyn and 4 in Queens. Some member schools include Beacon High School in Manhattan and Bronx Lab School.

“People have to ask what it is we want kids to be able to do when they leave high school,” Cook told Straus Media in 2015. “We’re preparing kids to survive and get the most out of the college experience.”

Robinson said when the Institute for Health Professions at Cambria Heights, the high school he co-founded and serves as principal, was forming, an adviser suggested that the school was functioning more as a Consortium school rather than a traditional school.

Robinson said he had not heard of the Consortium before, but contacted Cook about becoming a member school. At the start of the process, the Institute first became a pilot Consortium school, where students still needed to pass all the Regents exams to graduate but teachers and administrators started to prepare the work for the PBATs. Robinson said there first had to be a referendum where 90% of the teachers and the principal agreed to become a pilot school.

Later, the Consortium received from the Board of Regents and State Education Department an expansion on the number of waivers it was allowed to grant to schools looking to become full members. Robinson said two schools that were supposed to receive the waivers dropped out because their referenda failed, and the Institute was able to secure a waiver to administer the PBATs.

“So starting our second year we became a new member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, and that was a big learning process, or I should say it was a big unlearning process,” Robinson said, “because all of the teachers, everyone, had all been trained to teach in Regents schools, had taught in Regents schools, had students taught in Regents schools.”

Robinson said teaching PBAT is a lot of work for teachers who have to design their curricula “from the ground-up” and have to know their content “really well.” He said while curricula is still aligned to state standards, it can be more individually designed to fit students’ struggles and strengths. Because students spend months working on their assessments, they have more opportunities to check in with teachers and get help if needed.

He added that the process of scheduling outside evaluators to conduct the panel portion of the assessments is a lot of added work on schools.

“A lot of schools aren’t necessarily going to want to do the work because it sounds kind of simple you know the kids do this project and write this paper and do this presentation, but it’s really hard to schedule,” Robinson said. “My school this year we had about 120 juniors and so when all of them have to present one PBAT, we have to get 120 kids scheduled at the same time of Regents week to do these presentations.”

Wides said, though, that teaching PBAT makes students more excited about education as they are learning to develop questions and then answer them using evidence and analysis rather than answering multiple choice questions or writing short essays on the Regents exams.

“If you go to a Regents school, and I don’t want to pigeon hole all Regents schools, but the academic goal is 80% of students score X on the Regents. That is not a learning goal,” Wides said. “The learning goal is I want students to be intellectually curious.”

Wides added that one challenge with teaching PBAT is choosing “depth over breadth.” He said Consortium schools may cover less content than Regents-based schools in order to devote time for students to develop the reading and writing skills for the PBAT, aiming to serve them better in the long-run.

Domanico also said that for some parents it’s difficult to make the change to a Consortium school because they “might not look like the schools they have come up through themselves.”

Parents who are familiar with progressive education, Robinson said, have no questions about the work done in Consortium schools. He said once they explain how the school works to other parents, “they get it.” Robinson added that when the school announced it was becoming a Consortium school, some students did transfer because their parents felt being at a Regents school would look better to colleges.

“Now we have our third graduating class and I can safely say in three years, 100% of our kids have been accepted to at least one school,” Robinson said. “I have for the first time in my teaching career, one of my students is getting into my alma mater, Tufts [University].”

The New York City Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment on how many schools can receive a waiver for Regents exams. Cook also did not respond to interview requests.

On Tuesday, September 24, the New York City Council education committee will hold an oversight hearing entitled "Breaking Testing Culture: Evaluating multiple pathways to determine student mastery." It's unclear how the PBAT schools will be featured, but the hearing promises to be fairly exhaustive, with, as the title suggests, heavy skepticism toward standardized testing. It comes, in the state's largest city and school district, as the statewide Regents exam review is not yet officially started. Council Member Mark Treyger of Brooklyn, a former teacher, chairs the education committee and will lead the hearing. Mentioning the hearing and inviting interested parties to testify, Treyger tweeted on Saturday that "We must explore & hear about alternative, research-based measures to gauge student proficiency & mastery of content. Relying solely on standardized exams shortchanges students & learning."

Assembly Member Benedetto said that while there aren’t that many Consortium schools in New York, there are enough to get a sense of how they are performing.

“It’s all speculation, but I would speculate that the future might look bright for these schools,” Benedetto said. “As far as I can determine they seem to be performing quite adequately. If that’s the case it can only bode well for other schools in the state to possibly follow their model and the way they go about things.”

by Samantha Handler, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

As New York Rethinks High School Graduation Requirements, Under-the-Radar School Group May Offer a Model Sun, 22 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
What's The [DATA] Point? 16,000 - The Future of Gifted & Talented Schooling in New York City whats the data point

What's The [Data] Point? Episode 79 -- 16,000, with David Tipson of Appleseed & City Council Member Robert Cornegy [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

cornergy tippson wtdpMayor de Blasio's School Diversity Advisory Group recently released its second and final set of recommendations to integrate the city's schools and improve the overall education system for 1.1 million studens. One particular recommendation -- to replace current gifted and talented programming -- caught a lot of attention, including from City Council Member Robert Cornegy of Brooklyn, who has worked to expand G&T in his district and across the city. Cornegy and David Tipson of Appleseed, a nonprofit dedicated to school integration and improvement, joined the podcast to discuss the work of the SDAG, the future of gifted and talented programming in the city, and how G&T fits into the larger school system.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

What's The [DATA] Point? 16,000 - The Future of Gifted & Talented Schooling in New York City Thu, 05 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Recommendations from the Mayor's School Diversity Task Force & What Comes Next may bdb ps 600 wbai 
(photo: Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office)

Setember 4, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Recommendations from the Mayor's School Diversity Task Force & What Comes Next

gonzales treyger wbaiMayor de Blasio's School Diversity Advisory Group recently released its second and final set of recommendations for how to desegregate and improve the city's schools. The panel made major waves by recommending to eliminate and replace the current gifted and talented programs in city schools, as well as removing other admissions screens and redrawing all school district lines, among many other ideas and goals. DSAG member Matt Gonzales and City Council Member Mark Treyger, who chairs the Council education committee and is a former teacher, both joined the show to discuss the recommendations and what comes next.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: Recommendations from the Mayor's School Diversity Task Force & What Comes Next Wed, 04 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Why It’s Time to Re-think Bloomberg Era Gifted & Talented Programming in New York City maybdb dance movement

(photo: Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office)

Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG), on which we served, released its second report calling for all students to have access to enrichment opportunities as a forward-looking replacement for the city’s antiquated system of “gifted and talented” education programs. This provoked a significant volume of responses from a variety of stakeholders who have come to see G&T programs as legitimate and needed. But it is essential that anyone considering what the SDAG is recommending have the full picture -- of both the group’s recommendations and the research they are based upon -- before judging the conclusion.

As SDAG and other critics have noted, the separate and unequal G&T programs are problematic on several levels, in large part because most of them admit students based on an arbitrary cut-off score on one standardized test. In addition, they are disproportionately located in affluent areas of the city and relatedly, serve a disproportionate number of white and Asian students.

This racially and ethnically segregated G&T system reflects the biases that work against the broader understandings of intelligence, ability, and giftedness that sustain our culturally diverse city and our creative and entrepreneurial economy. Research on child development, learning, and culture tell us this is the wrong way to organize schools and label children.

As members of SDAG, New York City public school parents, a researcher (Amy), and a Community Education Council President for District 16 (NeQuan), we argue that New York should lead the national movement to shun so-called gifted education programs in favor of universal enrichment programs that allow all our children to reach their highest potential.

It is important to note that SDAG’s recommendation is holistic -- not simply to throw away G&T and leave everything else as-is -- and grounded in a vast body of evidence about the appropriate uses of standardized tests and programs that separate those labeled “gifted” based on test scores alone.

For instance, the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education released a joint statement on the uses of standardized testing in education, proclaiming that, “Decisions that affect individual students' life chances or educational opportunities should not be made on the basis of test scores alone.”

This joint statement issued by three of the most prominent research associations in the field of education sums up the research evidence on standardized tests and their appropriate uses. It echoes the frustration of millions of parents in New York City and elsewhere who know that their children’s intelligence and ability, their gifts and their promises, cannot be measured by one test taken at the age of four.

The inaccuracy of one standardized test to measure individual “giftedness“ is reflected in the stark racial disparities in enrollment in New York City’s G&T programs, which are less than 25 percent black and Latinx in a school system that is 75 percent black and Latinx. These demographics are testimony to not only the racial disparities in income, parental education levels, and access to educational resources. They also reflect the cultural biases inherent in standardized tests that only accept one right answer to questions that could be open to different interpretations when examined through different cultural lenses.

We know, for instance, that the research on how people learn concludes that intelligence is shaped by culture and experience, and that the best test-takers have had life experiences most culturally aligned with the test-makers. A cultural lens through which tests are written and perceived suggests that rather than measure a pure or objective form of “intelligence,” they measure a culturally-shaped understanding of who has knowledge that is aligned with those who wrote the exams.

A 2018 report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine concluded that the cultural contexts in which students grow up affect their ability to answer test questions.  When these tests have dire consequences for students’ access to educational programs, they can also have a deep and negative psychological impact on students’ sense of themselves.

Even researchers and educators who once advocated for separate G&T programs for those students with good test scores have changed their minds, calling on more parents to “rethink” gifted education and consider whether these narrowly defined programs even make sense. In research that The Public Good Project has conducted in New York City on racially diverse schools, we have studied schools that have eliminated their G&T programs, and they are thrilled.

As one teacher noted, echoing all of her colleagues: since the school eliminated the G&T program, there is much more diversity at the classroom level and the parents who choose the school now really value that diversity over a label. She said that when the school had the G&T program, the students were more segregated and isolated. Now, she said, “I have a few students who I think would probably test into talented and gifted but their families don’t even bother, and I think it’s because they know that’s it’s great instruction and it’s a nurturing environment…and it’s a truly diverse school and I know that’s rare in the city.”

But why is it so rare in a city like New York, when these research findings are but one reason why a growing number of educators and parents are rejecting the “gifted” labels for programs and students? Through experiences as parents in New York City public schools we know that G&T programs within a racially and ethnically diverse district like District 3 in Manhattan lead to unacceptable levels of racial and ethnic segregation between and within schools. They also lead to skewed understandings of which schools are “good” even when schools that enroll students with lower test scores have stronger curricula and better teachers.

In the predominantly black and Latinx District 16 in Brooklyn, parents fought to bring G&T programs into their schools. Nevertheless, when a new program was added, it was underfunded and low quality in part because the teachers were not well prepared. Thus, the addition of this G&T program led to more divisiveness within the district as only a small number of students gained the “gifted and talented” label.

This divisiveness occurred even when the program used broader criteria and admitted students for third grade instead of kindergarten, making it less problematic than the majority of G&T programs in the city. While the D16 parents thought they were achieving more equity by gaining a G&T program, they soon realized that adding G&T created a bigger set of equity issues, making many of the district’s constituents eager to pilot the new, SDAG-recommended Enrichment for All program.

For the sake of our children, our city and our racially and culturally diverse nation, we hope that District 16 can provide the model we need for an enrichment program that will lead the way to a more humane system that identifies the multiple gifts and talents of 1.1 million students. It’s time to let go of our 20th century model of educating a small number of students with poorly-defined academic "gifts" and adopt a 21st century model of appreciating the many different gifts within students and the family and community cultures that foster them. 

Amy Stuart Wells is a Professor of Sociology and Education and the Director of Reimagining Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. NeQuan C. McLean is the President of the District 16 Community Education Council in Brooklyn. They are both members of the Mayor’s School Diversity Advisory Group.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Why It’s Time to Re-think Bloomberg Era Gifted & Talented Programming in New York City Tue, 03 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New York City is Waist-Deep in a School Desegregation Conversation - How Did We Get Here? maydbd district15

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Earlier this week, the School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG) released its second and final set of recommendations to integrate city schools, a significant development in the current chapter of the city’s response to deep racial and economic segregation in its school system, which is the largest in the country and home to 1.1 million students.

This chapter began in 2014, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education and Bill de Blasio’s first year as Mayor, when a report published by the UCLA Civil Rights Project showed that New York’s was one of the least integrated school systems in the country -- the worst state in terms of white-black segregation and among the bottom three for Latino-white segregation. Much of that segregation was due to the facts on the ground in the country’s largest city.

De Blasio and his administration have been forced to acknowledge that dismal reality in the years since, at first looking to largely sidestep the issue, then beginning with modest proposals to improve diversity in schools and ultimately creating the SDAG at the end of 2017. The administration’s focus on school segregation did not happen immediately following the March 2014 UCLA report, released just three months into de Blasio’s tenure as mayor, and not without pressure from grassroots advocates, students, families, and local elected officials at various stages during the last five years.

The SDAG’s two sets of recommendations, some of which are especially controversial, on top of de Blasio’s previous proposal to take aggressive measures to integrate the city’s eight prestigious specialized high schools, have set off something of a firestorm. They set the stage for challenging decisions that de Blasio will soon make about which recommendations to pursue, including, perhaps, a sweeping overhaul of the city’s “gifted and talented” programs and selective admissions to middle schools. Following will likely be years more of debate about how to desegregate city schools while also improving the quality of education hundreds of thousands of students receive.

Before the next chapter begins, how did we get here?

Some would say the recent history of New York City’s school desegregation debate begins, before the 2014 UCLA report, with a districting proposal that illustrated the complex factors the city would later need to address.

In the fall of 2012, the District 15 Community Education Council approved a school district rezoning proposed by the Department of Education (DOE) under Mayor Michael Bloomberg that would shrink the geographic districts of two popular but overcrowded schools in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and open a new school to serve some of the students who would be cut out. At the same time, the DOE was rebuilding a predominantly African-American 300-seat school in neighboring Community School District 13. For a period of time, both the District 13 and District 15 schools were housed in the same building.

“That sounded sensible, except what they were really saying was, ‘We’re gonna build a building with two doors; into one door will go 300 black kids, and to the other door will go 600 mostly white kids,” said Brad Lander, a City Council member representing parts of both school districts, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

“That was enough for people to wake up in this district and say, ‘That is insane. We will not allow that level of school segregation,’” recalled Lander, who succeeded then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio in the City Council.

After a prolonged battle with the Bloomberg administration, local elected officials, parents, and advocates, the DOE agreed to create a single 900-seat school -- P.S. 133 -- open to students from both districts with a model for inclusive admissions, becoming the first school with enrollment set-asides to increase diversity, according to Lander.

In 2014, six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in schools unconstitutional, the UCLA Civil Rights Project published its report, with research led by Dr. John Kucsera and Dr. Gary Orfield, which stated New York State had “the most segregated schools in the country,” largely due to inequality in the city’s school system.

The report found roughly 66 percent of black students and 57 percent of Latino students attended schools where less than 10 percent of students were white. Some of the worst segregation was in the Bronx, where not a single school’s student body was more than 10 percent white.

“For New York to have a favorable multiracial future both socially and economically, it is absolutely urgent that its leaders and citizens understand both the values of diversity and the harms of inequality,” the report reads.

When asked about the report and the city’s segregated schools, de Blasio initially and for years mostly had a three-pronged answer: one, that school segregation is the result of hundreds of years of history and broader “structural racism” in society; two, that his education programming was focused on improving all schools and thus helping foster integration and reduce the need for desegregation; and three, that if local communities wanted to pursue solutions to desegregate nearby schools, they had his blessing.

He also noted on multiple occasions that families make major decisions and investments based on schools, and indicated he needed to be cautious about more drastic measures that might alter school zoning, enrollment or admissions policies. And, the mayor repeatedly mentioned that in part because of housing segregation, there are many geographic areas of the city home to residents of limited diversity, making local school integration especially challenging without a choice he was not willing to pursue: the New York City equivalent of busing students to achieve integrated schools.  

“The reason we have segregation in our society is about structural racism, is about 400 years of American history and a lot of things that should have been done differently in American history,” de Blasio said later, in 2018. “It’s about economics first and foremost and the fact that economic opportunity is still not open and consistent across different racial groups and ethnic groups and that’s the first problem. That leads to housing segregation and that in turn leads to a situation where our classrooms are not diverse.”

In November 2014, prompted by the UCLA report and the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown decision, the City Council held its first public hearing on school segregation in decades, and led to the passage in 2015 of three pieces of legislation sponsored by Council Members Inez Barron, Brad Lander, and Ritchie Torres, known as the School Diversity Accountability Act.

The UCLA report and the anniversary year “presented an occasion to renew our city and our country’s commitment to desegregation,” Torres, who represents parts of the Bronx, said in an interview. “The fact is that we have the most segregated school system in the country. We have a school system more segregated than the vestiges of Jim Crow in the South.”

The package required the DOE to report annually on demographic data that could be used to evaluate segregation and diversity, and report on what steps the DOE is taking to address those issues. The City Council cannot mandate the DOE adopt specific policies, so Torres sponsored a resolution in the package calling on DOE to develop a plan to combat school segregation. 

“In some ways that call is what SDAG is now, many years later, answering,” said Lander.

“This is a step further in our efforts to ensure that our schools are as diverse as our city and people of all communities live, learn, work together,” de Blasio said in June 2015 when signing the legislative package.

In 2014 and 2015, grassroots advocates, parents, and educators in Community School Districts 1, 3, 13, and 15 became more active organizing around school-by-school, as well as district-level, integration plans. Some of the most vocal desegregation activists, like those in IntegrateNYC, a student-led advocacy group, formed during this period.

They “saw a historic opportunity to renew the campaign to desegregate our school system. It was driven not primarily by elected officials but by grassroots activists, especially students,” Torres recalled.

Activism, panel discussions, and other conversation around school desegregation continued.

In 2015, the DOE took its first steps toward establishing the Diversity in Admissions pilot program, a school-by-school approach modeled on the types of inclusive admissions policies P.S. 133 was employing. The city designated seven schools to participate in the program that year, according to Lander, “and since we have 1,700, that was pretty modest...It was the first official step of them doing anything [but] it was not yet a serious effort to confront segregation across the school system.”

“We were able to create admissions policies that promote diversity and respect the needs of the community. I’m hopeful that these changes will help serve as a model for schools across the City,” said then-Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña in a press release, without explicitly mentioning the issue of segregation.

When Gotham Gazette asked the mayor in November 2015 why he wasn’t taking more aggressive measures to integrate city schools, de Blasio’s response made waves. “You have to also respect families who have made a decision to live in a certain area oftentimes because of a specific school,” de Blasio said.

By this point, the advocacy around the issue was well underway and gaining steam, and the DOE was submitting its first reports required under the School Diversity Accountability Act.

In 2016, much of the public attention and advocacy was focused on district-level plans, where changes could be made on a small scale and tested, especially in areas that resemble a microcosm of the city’s school demographics.

Questions still hovered around whether de Blasio, who ran for mayor on a progressive platform focused on equity -- including bridging racial, educational, and socioeconomic gaps -- would make the issue a priority. (School segregation was not a high-profile issue during the 2013 election, and his campaign did not address it other than de Blasio calling for greater diversity at the city’s eight specialized high schools.)

A “controlled choice” admissions policy -- in which parent/student school choices are balanced with goals of socioeconomic integration -- was proposed in District 1 in the Lower East Side. (In October 2017, District 1 became the first district to push for and win a district-wide model for school integration.)

Asked about pursuing greater desegregation measures and specifically a broader controlled-choice admissions policy during a June 2016 appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio demurred.

“We believe there is a lot more to be done in terms of fully integrating our schools, but I do want to say, right now we are seeing some real success with models that are being used right now in our school system that are starting to be very, very effective in terms of bringing in a better mix of kids into some of our schools. I think the pre-K program has also been an example of an initiative that has had a really good impact in terms of diversity. So, we’re looking at a lot of options. I’m committed to it.”

Pushed a bit further, de Blasio said, “There’s different models that we have some real hope in. But let’s be clear...this is also the result of decades, in fact hundreds of years, of segregation in our nation. And a lot of that goes back to economics and housing. Our affordable housing plan, also, we believe, creates more diversity in neighborhoods, and that’s really, obviously, the root of the situation. If we can create more diversity through housing and development, that is another way to get at the schools issue.”

In September 2016, de Blasio was asked by a reporter about pushing more desegregation measures, and said, in part: “[W]e’ve already foreshadowed we’re going to have a bigger vision that we’ll put forward about how we can do diversification work for our schools – something we believe in. But we also want to be clear about the limits of it, and I’m going to be very explicit about this as we present that vision. The problem is not an education problem, the problem is an American history problem. It’s the problem of structural racism. It’s a problem of housing segregation.”

He continued: “Let’s not ask the schools to address all those problems simultaneously – that’s not viable. But there’s ways that we can do better through our schools. And, I certainly think if you talk to parents about pre-K and what it’s done for their kids, it’s been a success. So, we have to – the first mission is always to make the education system work for the kids to achieve onto itself equity and excellence. And it’s crucial distinction – if we want a more just city and a more just nation, then let’s get our school system to live up to a notion of equity and excellence. Separately, we have to do a lot in our society writ large to create more diversity and more opportunity across the board.”

One indication from de Blasio that he would pursue a broader integration plan came with the launch of Equity and Excellence for All in June 2017, which led to the School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG) that would explore solutions for city-wide desegregation, according to Council Member Lander.

The vision’s main focus, however, was expanding course options and resources in underserved (and heavily segregated) schools and districts. The program included initiatives like “Algebra for All” and “AP for All” and other planks of a platform de Blasio said would help improve learning opportunities for students wherever they may attend a city school.

The framework also provided for the DOE to support school districts in developing diversity plans to achieve greater integration, without ever making explicit mention of segregation, according to Lander. 

All the while, de Blasio maintained that through his universal pre-Kindergarten initiative, Renewal School turnaround program, and Equity and Excellence initiatives, he was ensuring there would be “no bad schools,” which would make racial segregation less of a concern and improve the chances of integrated schools.

During a June 2017 appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio defended himself against the notion that he was not being bold enough on school desegregation. He said, in part, “Here’s what troubles me when people put the question of diversification ahead of the question of immediate efforts, toward better schools and more equal schools. We’ve got kids right now -- a generation of children right now who need our help. By doing things like Pre-K for All, Advanced Placement courses in all high schools, including ones that never had any – getting kids on grade-level reading by third grade. These are things that got ignored for many, many years...And so, bluntly, inequality grew and grew and grew. I have the tools right now to start addressing this, with the geographical realities and demographic realities we face. That is how we address equity right now while building towards a more diverse and integrated society. But, we’ve got to help kids now.”

In Fall 2018, District 15 in Park Slope, where Lander, Council Member Carlos Menchaca, and Parents for Middle School Equity had been working to change screening policy in middle school admissions, became one of the first districts to be approved and receive funding for integration planning.

“We eliminated screening in the District 15 middle schools. In some ways that is the proposal SDAG is making, to take that to a broader level,” Lander told Gotham Gazette, referring to the recommendations released this week that call for sweeping changes to admissions processes and investments in new enrichment programming.

The SDAG, a group of civil rights activists, students, parents, educators, and other experts appointed by the mayor as he sought reelection, held its first meeting on December 11, 2017. The same month, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced she was stepping down from the post.

At the December 22, 2017 press conference announcing Fariña’s retirement, Gotham Gazette asked her if she regretted not taking on school desegregation more aggressively.

“No,” she said, “I think we’ve done some really good work. There’s always more than can be done on any initiative, but I’m going back to what I said before – you could mandate some things, but having a lot more conversations with people, which is what we’ve been doing...And I think convincing people to come to the table to want to do the right thing for the right reasons is a lot more important, and I think that’s what we’ve been doing.”

She continued; “I certainly feel that our new diversity committee that we just put in place – they just met, I think, last week – has gotten some great suggestions because this is not just us coming with ideas, but what does the community think?”

After a few other thoughts, she concluded: “So you can always do things better. I agree with the Mayor that in our Equity and Excellence the next chancellor should be thinking about going deeper and deeper, but I think we’re on the right path.”

In March 2018, Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho very publicly announced he would not become the new Schools Chancellor a day after accepting the job. That week Mayor de Blasio hired Richard Carranza, a superintendent in Houston and San Francisco schools, to be the next schools chancellor.

“The equity agenda championed by our mayor is my equity agenda,” Carranza said at the City Hall press conference announcing he would be taking the position. Within a month, Carranza was discussing school desegregation explicitly, breaking from de Blasio’s and Fariña’s practice of avoiding the term in favor of the far less defined and loaded concept of “diversity.”

“Without that [shift] we would not be anywhere close to where we are. He has been much more enthusiastic about this issue than the mayor,” Lander said, responding to a recent New York Times article that describes Carranza in his second year as trying to “reset expectations” about the prospect of integration.

In June 2018, two months after Carranza started, he and the mayor announced a proposal to improve diversity at the city’s selective specialized high schools, where enrollment of black and Hispanic students has declined precipitously in the last four decades. The plan included scrapping over three years the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), which is seen as a critical factor in the predominant enrollment of white and Asian students.

The fate of the SHSAT for the three most prestigious of the eight specialized schools is controlled by the state, not the city, and many saw it as a way for de Blasio to take up the issue of school segregation without implicating his administration’s own responsibility in addressing it. That plan faced severe backlash from many parents and students who were eager to keep the rules the same, and was criticized for not having enough community input. It did not advance in Albany in 2018.

A year later, the SHSAT is still the single admissions test for enrollment in eight of the city’s nine specialized high schools (the ninth is a performing arts school). In March, it was reported that only 7 out of 895 seats in Stuyvesant High School’s next freshman class would go to black students. Later that month, as he was considering a presidential run on a progressive platform, de Blasio used the word “segregation” to describe New York’s school system for the first time, according to Chalkbeat.

Discussing specialized high schools during an appearance on WNYC radio, de Blasio told host Brian Lehrer, “We’re saying we’re not going to live by this old system that has perpetuated massive segregation, not just segregation – massive segregation.”

Meanwhile, in February, the School Diversity Advisory Group released its first of two sets of recommendations for the city to improve school integration. The recommendations include adding metrics on diversity and integration to mandated reporting, creating a “General Assembly” of high school reps to assist in crafting a citywide agenda, and monitoring discrepancies in school discipline. Other suggestions dealt with improving culturally-relevant education and engaging communities through local partnerships.

“Although we applaud SDAG’s reference to more ambitious short, medium and long term integration goals by requiring district, borough and then city-wide integration plans, these will only be effective if the City develops powerful metrics for defining integration,” wrote the Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation, a coalition of recently-formed and longstanding civil rights groups, in a statement following the report.

Asked about taking on segregated schools during a February 26 press conference on the “record high” number of city students taking Advanced Placement course, de Blasio said, “[T]here is a much bigger discussion that we will have in this city and we’ve put forward some pieces of it, and there is a lot more to come, on how to make sure our children learn with each other and how to have the most diverse classrooms that we can have. But that should not be mistaken for the primary way or the only way to ensure that kids get a great education. We have kids in every kind of community who are ready to achieve their potential. They need investment. They need high quality teachers. They need the best possible principals. This is the path forward, first and foremost, that’s what Equity and Excellences is all about.”

In June, de Blasio announced the city would be adopting 62 of the initial 67 recommendations. At the time, the report was criticized for not dealing with gifted and talented programs for elementary school children and selective admissions screenings for higher grades, which are seen as among the greatest barriers to integration.

“I wish the focus could largely be kept on reforming admissions. For me enrollment policy is, beyond housing, the root cause of a heavily segregated school system,” Council Member Torres told Gotham Gazette, saying the administration’s preoccupation with specialized high schools diverts attention and political capital from more fundamental issues. 

On Tuesday, SDAG released its second and final report, which among other things recommended the city eliminate its gifted and talented elementary school programs and admissions screenings for middle schools, while adding new enrichment programs to all schools that need them to serve all learners. The new recommendations fell short of proposing admissions policy for high schools be changed, even as they called for other selective admissions practices to be reformed, instead suggesting study down the line after other changes are adopted.

Now it is up to Carranza, and ultimately the mayor, to act on the group’s recommendations. At a press conference Tuesday, Carranza indicated he was eager to review the report, and de Blasio also said he would review it but made no commitment to acting on the recommendations. 

SDAG has left the ball in the mayor’s court.

“We have decided not to be very prescriptive in terms of the recommendations, in part in recognition that New York City is so large, districts differ greatly in terms of their demographics and their needs,” said Amy Hsin, a sociologist at Queens College and a member of the SDAG executive committee, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. 

“So we feel that the DOE needs to work with communities to co-develop an integration plan where communities are stakeholders,” she added. “That’s what we are trying to push the city to do in our reports.”

How de Blasio responds will pose a major test in the final years of his mayoralty, and may significantly shape public discourse during the upcoming race to replace him.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

New York City is Waist-Deep in a School Desegregation Conversation - How Did We Get Here? Mon, 02 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000