Gotham Gazette

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Assignments for the New Chancellor

Cathie Black meets the press after being appointed schools chancellor last week.

Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg shocked most of the city last week by appointing publishing executive Cathleen Black schools chancellor, there has been no shortage of reaction.

Critics have assailed Bloomberg's secretive anointing of a woman with no education experience or firsthand knowledge of the city's public schools, but who travels in the same social circles as him and his companion, Diana Taylor. In response Bloomberg has defended his choice -- calling Black a world class manager.

As the week wore on, critics stepped up their efforts to convince State Education Commissioner David Steiner to deny Black the waiver she needs (because she lacks experience in education) to head up the nation's largest schools system.

Regardless of who the next chancellor is, she or he will come to Tweed courthouse at a critical time for city schools. Budgets have been cut back -- and almost certainly will need to be chopped further. The contract between the city and the teacher's union has expired -- while an increasingly restive union leadership challenges some of the city's education policies in court. Up to 47 schools face closing -- a move sure to produce rancor and controversy. Tougher high school graduation requirements threaten to create a huge obstacle for many city students. At the same time, critics claim the city's test score surge has been increasingly indicative of dumber tests and lenient scoring than of better educated students.

As the new chancellor confronts these tasks, Bloomberg will undoubtedly continue to be the real educational power in the city. In light of that fact, few expect policies to change very much. "I doubt that she will take any initiative that will really revolutionize or change. She doesn't have the freedom to do that," said the Manhattan Institute's Sol Stern. "Bloomberg didn't put her in there to conclude that something that happened on his watch was wrong."

Nonetheless, the departure of Joel Klein after eight years -- the most served by a New York City schools chancellor in more than 50 years -- presents a good opportunity for New York's top education experts and advocates to propose what Cathleen Black should do.

What would you like the new chancellor to do in her first days on the job? Please send us your ideas to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or use the comment space below.

The "assignments" follow.

Diane Ravitch, New York University
Kim Sweet, Advocates for Children
David Bloomfield, Department of Education, College of Staten Island
Billie Easton, Alliance for Quality Education
Sol Stern, The Manhattan Institute
James Merriman, New York City Charter School Center
Leonie Haimson, Class Size Matters
Mona Davids, New York Charter Parents Association
Helen Doran, Campaign for Fiscal Equity
Javier H. Valdes, Make the Road New York
Jane Hirschmann, Time Out from Testing
Richard Kessler and Doug Israel, Center for Arts Education
Members of the Urban Youth Collaborative

Show Some Respect

I would love to see Cathie Black take on four assignments, all within the realm of the possible:

First, to reach out to parent groups and really listen to them, acknowledging that every parent or guardian cares more about their own child than any public official, and show them the respect they deserve.

Second, to give teachers the recognition they richly deserve for their daily work in our city's classrooms.

Third, to lead a campaign to expand the arts into every grade in every school in the city, so that every child has full opportunity to participate in music, arts, visual arts, and other art forms.

Fourth, to stop the school closings and to apply her best efforts to helping and supporting the schools that need help so as to better serve their students.

--Diane Ravitch, research professor of education, New York University and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System

Getting Up to Standards

I would like the new chancellor to explain to all the parents whose children are not yet meeting state standards what she will do to ensure that every child gets the extra help he or she needs.

--Kim Sweet, executive director, Advocates for Children

Closing the Achievement Chasm

Educational attainment of black and Latino males should be a priority for the new administration. The 2010 Schott Foundation 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males found that New York City is among the 10 worst large districts for black males when measured by graduation rates.

Some 28 percent of black males in New York graduate on time with Regents diplomas, compared to 50 percent for white males, resulting in a 22 percent achievement gap. The graduation rates are probably inflated since they are based on students starting ninth grade, when an untold number have already dropped out. The state Education Department reports that the Latino male graduation rate -- including students who receive either a Regents or less demanding Local diploma -- in New York City is 50 percent (including August grads). Even if not inflated, this is a devastating picture of educational inequity and systemic failure. It implicates not only graduation rates but over-referrals to special education, empty efforts at credit accumulation and other perversions of real educational attainment.

My fear is that the new chancellor will fit the problem into the former administration's formula of school closures, small schools, charters and extra points in progress reports. But eight years of such "solutions" have resulted in the data above. I am not against such strategies when rationally targeted but they are clearly not enough.

An unfulfilled promise of mayoral control of schools, hardly mentioned anymore, was that we could undertake a concerted citywide effort to deal with educational problems beyond the scope of the Department of Education. Early intervention; provision of a range of social services including housing, health and employment assistance; diversions from punitive criminal justice strategies; after-school, GED and adult education programs; and other inter-agency contributions to student and family well-being are necessary ingredients to combating this scourge. If the new chancellor is serious about eliminating the achievement gap, she will undertake creative, constructive, comprehensive efforts to address this issue rather than revert to current nostrums.

--David Bloomfield, chair, Education Department, College of Staten Island, CUNY

Reaching Out in a Crisis

1. In order to build public trust, explain to the public how it is that you are prepared to lead the nation's largest school district despite having no professional background in education.

2. Conduct meetings across the city with parents, and youth and community organizations. As a result of these meetings identify four priorities to make the Department of Education more responsive to parents, students and communities.

3. Acknowledge that the racial achievement gap in New York City schools remains a chasm.

4. Declare a state of emergency due to the fact that new state standards revealed that in one out of every four schools two thirds of students are reading below grade level. Form an Emergency Task Force chaired by yourself and comprised of parents, teachers, school leaders, academics and business leaders to come up with a comprehensive plan to address this educational crisis.

--Billy Easton, executive director, Alliance for Quality Education

Talking to Teachers

If there is a suspicion she was brought in because she will present a more human face [than Joel Klein did] … she should go out and talk with rank and file teachers to ask them, "what are your complaints?" She could go and sit in classrooms -- talk to the veteran teachers, those 25-year teachers, some of who are great teachers. She would have to find teachers who are really independent and in a position to speak honestly." Ask them, 'What do you need? What do you think?"

--Sol Stern,senior fellow, The Manhattan Institute

Making Accountability Make Sense

If there is one thing thicker than the September issue, it is the portfolio of advice that Cathie Black will get. Here’s my addition to the pile.

In terms of charter schools, Chancellor Joel Klein recognized their potential and championed charters both inside and outside the system. I expect that Black will advocate just as vigorously for high-quality charter schools. That means giving the great ones space to open and grow and showing a willingness to fight locally and in Albany for equitable funding. You can't support charters on the one hand and starve them on the other. At the same time, she has to adopt a zero tolerance policy for those charters that are under performing. If charters are to be a model for accountability-based results, then Tweed has to be tougher about closing charters that aren’t raising achievement. These aren't easy decisions, but they are necessary.

On a larger scale, I'd like to see a continued commitment to results-based accountability across the system. But Black should explore refining the measures. For instance, instead of issuing single letter grades to schools, she should look at the Colorado model, which separately measures absolute performance and progress (without trying to meld them together). This system, while not perfect, is one that parents understand and that corresponds to the day-to-day reality of the schools their children attend. At the same time it preserves an important aspect of the present system, namely demonstrating to all that even good schools can get much better.

By making accountability more intuitive, more parents will embrace it as a valuable tool. This in turn will strengthen the ability of the Department of Education to make high-stakes decisions around school closure and turnaround -- and draw support for those decisions.

Finally, Black should work hard to articulate where the reforms are taking us and why -- and listen carefully to those who are affected by those reforms. For parents, some account of history must be taken; the simple fact is that parents in poor parts of this city have seen reforms come and go along with the people who instituted them. They have good reason to be profoundly suspicious. The department owes it to them to spend time quietly talking with (and listening to) them to win their trust and faith -- and equally, to be brutally candid with parents when things the department tries don't work. And of course she should spend time speaking and listening to teachers and leaders who must excel if we are to see improved results for students.

Being chancellor of the school system, former Chancellor Frank Macchiarola once said, was like listening to Frank Sinatra: incredibly enjoyable, the best. The catch was, however, you had to listen to him 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The fact is that the job is an excruciatingly tough one. I wish her the very best.

--James Merriman, chief executive officer, New York City Charter School Center

Take 16 Steps, then Relax

What the next chancellor should do:

1. Obey the law, follow the research, listen to parents, and start reducing class size immediately. It is a scandal and a crime that city students are still suffering with the largest classes in the state, and with class sizes still increasing, despite the state law passed in 2007 and a written agreement of the chancellor to reduce them in exchange for more than $2 billion in additional state funds.

Start by assigning the thousand or more teachers on Absent Teacher Reserve to regular classes, especially in the highest-need schools. For example, start with the schools that the education department says it wants to close. At Jamaica High School, whose budget has been slashed to the bone, there were over 80 classes this fall that exceeded the contractual limits of 34 students per class, and yet the department "quality reviewers" had the nerve to blame this on the school!

As a second step, start redeploying some of the 10,000 out-of-classroom positions that have been created since 2002 -- while the system has lost more than 1, 600 classroom teachers.

2. Call an immediate moratorium to any more school closings or co-locations, which merely make the overcrowding problem worse, lead to higher class sizes and concentrate high needs students elsewhere. Put together a taskforce of parents, teachers, administrators and educational experts to come with a real plan to improve the schools that are currently threatened with closure. Enough of the top-down and useless education department proposals of more "merit pay," more testing, more "coaches" and more "data analysis."

3. Assemble another taskforce of stakeholders to redesign the school utilization formula and the "instructional footprint," which seems to see space in schools where there is none, forces students into rooms that violate the building code, and leads to special education students receiving their services in hallways and closets.

4. Put a halt to the creation of more new, small schools, which have multiplied throughout the system like rabbits, with little or no quality control, and which are very space-intensive and expensive to fund. Instead invest maximum resources and energy in improving the 1,500 schools that we already have.

5. Restore the district structure, offices and supervisory functions, which allow parents to have a place to go with their concerns by eliminating the sprawling "Children First" networks that have mushroomed to almost a thousand people, without any geographical base or reason, and whose members waste much of their time traveling from one end of the city to another.

6.Put a stop to all no-bid contracts and expensive consultants; and cancel the hugely expensive contract for "interim assessments," which most teachers find useless and a waste of time.

7. Revamp the school progress reports, which are unreliable and confusing to parents; and instead, in consultation with parents and other stakeholders, devise a new system that provides several grades for every school based on various attributes and more holistic factors. Put more attention into the results of the parent, student and teacher surveys, so that any school that receives poor survey results for more than one year would receive immediate intervention from the district to see if the principal needs to be removed or given more training or help.

8. Deep-six the unreliable and unfair teacher data reports, and convene a working group composed of parents and other stakeholders, which will design a more accurate evaluation system, in which peer, student and parent views are taken into account with test scores only one factor.

9. Tell charter schools in Department of Education buildings that are run by the scions of billionaires or who have deep-pocketed hedge-fund supporters to find leased space elsewhere -- as soon as possible -- because district students should not be squeezed out of their own school buildings.

10. Ask for the city comptroller to perform a top to bottom performance audit of every discretionary expense, consultant, contract and spending item, and release the results to the public.

11. Inform high schools that they must end the scandalous practice of substandard, online credit recovery programs immediately, and put in place strong oversight mechanisms to make sure that these abuses end.

12.Restore Project Arts, which existed for years before Joel Klein canceled it, and provided dedicated funding for arts programs in our schools, to better ensure that our children receive a well-rounded education.

13.Commission an independent assessment of Collaborative Team Teaching classes (special education inclusion classes) and online learning programs, which have expanded rapidly over the last few years, to see if they are working and whether they need to be rethought or reformed, before expanding these programs any more.

14.Re-establish a true Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, in which parent leaders from throughout the city actually advise the chancellor, without just having to listen to the chancellor or one of his minions tell them what they intend to do. Involve the members of Community Education Councils as well, and embark on a new era of mutual respect and collaboration with parents, sadly missing over the last nine years of this administration.

15. Release transparent enrollment projections based on numerous sources of data, including birth rates, census data regarding family in-migration and out-migration rates, day care and pre-k enrollments, building starts, and analyze and report on this data on the school zone, district, and citywide levels. In short, start being honest with parents and other New Yorkers about the real need for more seats throughout the city to relieve the overcrowding crisis, before it gets even worse.

16. Build more schools, and take advantage of the many parochial schools that are closing throughout the city by leasing them. Re-allocate nearly $1 billion toward this critical goal, by canceling the expansion and construction of new jails in Brooklyn and the Bronx that community members don’t want and the city doesn’t need. While our jail population has been falling, our student population is rapidly expanding; and if these funds were invested in schools, they would yield $2 billion , because the state puts up matching funds for school construction.

And then, take a day off!

--Leonie Haimson, executive director, Class Size Matters

Tough Support for Charters

The new chancellor needs to show some tough love to charter schools authorized by the Department of Education. When they receive complaints from parents, they need to step in. They should not wait five years for a charter school to fail [before revoking the authorization]. I think they know that after two years. The charter school office needs to be more receptive to the concerns of parents and to communicate with parents. She needs to do a complete overhaul of the charter school office. I hope she won't wait like she did with shutting down Talk magazine.

--Mona Davids, president, New York Charter Parents Association

Figuring Out What Works

Campaign for Fiscal Equity recently published a study on Regents diplomas. In grouping schools together, we tried to find out whether there schools who have students who are highly challenged and are helping them to get Regents diplomas. It should be a priority to find out why this list of schools is succeeding -- why this list of schools is getting it done.

This is going to be one of the most wretched budget years for schools in 20 years. We always care about the students who are not receiving their constitutionally required sound basic education, and we would want to make sure that those students are a priority.

For schools, there's no accountability other than the letter grade to help them get better. Schools need to have strong support and accountability -- not just a letter grade but someone who has resources to help them change.

We lure good teachers with higher salaries, but we continue to lose them. Why are we not retaining these people so we can get the kind of quality schools we want?

--Helaine Doran, deputy director, Campaign for Fiscal Equity

Working Together to Help Students

Chancellor Joel Klein had some accomplishments running our schools but he is also leaving behind 239,000 students who are not reading or doing math on grade level. After the recent test score debacle, 27 percent more of the city's students were not reading on grade level than they were in 2008, and 28 percent more of our students weren’t doing math on grade level. For immigrant students, the trauma of the department's failure is devastating: 14 percent of English Language Learners are on grade level for English language arts, compared to 35 percent in 2008.

Cathie Black is stepping into an incredibly hard role. Parents and students with our organization and others throughout the city have been working for years to secure the resources and support that our schools need. We look forward to building a strong relationship with the new chancellor, but one that is based on mutual respect. It is essential that Black immediately begin meeting with organizations like ours in order to establish a respectful and productive working relationship. She will not be able to do a good job without parents and students at her side.

For those students who did not fare well on their recent tests, Black needs to provide Academic Intervention Services. We need all of our students reading on grade levels.

She needs to work with communities to ensure that any reforms that the department puts into place, such as restructuring or closing schools, will be likely to work. Our communities are tired of seeing schools closed and re-opened, our students shuffled around, or shoved out of school into the streets, with no clear accountability for making sure these reforms really work. We need schools that provide all of our students a path to college and careers. We also need to make sure that students with limited proficiency in English are not forgotten off but real support is provided to them and their families for them to strive.

-- Javier H. Valdes, deputy director, Make the Road New York

What Your Children Learned

I would like to see the new chancellor put an end to excessive and high stakes tests. In other words, I think that she should think about enriching the curriculum with the kinds of subjects her children had in private boarding school. Replacing test prep with real learning and allowing teachers to teach would be a welcome beginning, as would putting the word public back into public education. This means giving parents a major voice in their child's education and investing in the existing public schools rather than putting our much-needed resources into charter schools.

--Jane Hirschmann, Time Out From Testing

Preparing Students for Life

For school districts across the nation, including New York City's, there is a watershed moment rapidly emerging as federal funding that has kept education jobs afloat will be coming to an end next year. This is further compounded by cuts in state funding for education, and a growing appetite to cut government spending.

Cathie Black will be at the helm of a system that will face this profound financial reality. Should this reset moment combine with what has been an over-reliance on test scores in English language arts and math, we will witness a reshaping of public K-12 education in the narrowest form imaginable, one that establishes a meager education devoid of the rich and well-rounded instruction and experiences our students ultimately need to be college and career ready, and perhaps most important, to be prepared to be active members of our democratic society.

Black can choose the road of more of the same, one that narrows the curriculum even further, or another path, that will seek a balance even during severe financial constraints. We hope that she will seek real solutions for how a well-rounded education can be ensured, so that all of our students will be prepared to be successful in life and work.

--Richard Kessler. executive director, and Doug Israel, director of research and policy, Center for Arts Education

Listen to Students

As chancellors and mayors come and go, it is students and parents -- the communities of people who live in New York City and attend its public schools -- who remain. That is why all stakeholders -- students especially -- need to be consulted on education policy and involved in decisions about how to improve schools.

The Urban Youth Collaborative, a coalition of high school students of color from some of New York's poorest neighborhoods, has a broad vision for fixing our city's schools: engaging, rigorous and well-rounded curriculum; a respectful and supportive school culture that treats us like the students we are, instead of criminals; counseling and academic support that puts us on the path to college; real student and parent voice and role in decision-making; and equitable funding.

The collaborative hopes to work with the new chancellor on implementing some of our ideas to fix schools, like offering more AP classes at low-income schools; giving more high school students the opportunity to take college classes while in high school; and implementing creative and positive approaches to school safety instead of continuing the de facto zero tolerance safety policies that exist now.

We hope that instead of closing schools without first trying to fix them, or without a clear plan about how what comes next will offer students a different and better education, Chancellor Cathleen Black will take the important step of meeting with students and parents to listen to our experiences, the challenges we face and our ideas for improving -- not abandoning -- public schools.

Chancellor Black, will you meet with the Urban Youth Collaborative?

--Members of the Urban Youth Collaborative

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