First Person

Closing Schools: A Call for Independent Review

To write that I am a fan of closing failing schools is to fall into the same bombastic trap now enmeshing the Bloomberg administration. Before the Mayor took office, I wrote about the need to take forceful action against these educational mediocrities. But the wholesale closing and opening of schools that the Mayor has embarked upon is not the answer.

Replacing schools does not necessarily improve education. In the Mayor’s hands, it has become a shell game that defers instructional problems until they reappear elsewhere, to be met again with a similar reaction. Meanwhile, the often lengthy period of the schools’ decline — until so drastically and unconstructively arrested — has harmed thousands of students.

Until now, the Mayor’s strategy has been largely immune to public opposition. The Department of Education announced its hit list with little or no prior warning, the better to keep critics at bay. The new school governance statute, however, has created a process for notice and hearings that — while imperfect — will subject this year’s target list to formal scrutiny followed by likely approval by the mayor-controlled Panel for Educational Policy. Students, parents, teachers, and their supporters are organizing to reverse the DOE decree.

This is a public scenario that DOE operatives — probably with the best of technocratic intentions — wanted to avoid. School-based opposition was identified as the Achilles’ heel of reform after the failure of Mayor Giuliani’s initiative to have Edison Schools take over a number of failed schools. Families at the schools voted against the move.

But Bloomberg still seems committed to playing a power game despite the new legal landscape and a public increasingly fed-up with his paternalistic mien. His is likely to be a Pyrrhic victory, with his PEP majority ready to work his will but giving rise to increasingly mobilized school communities that will oppose even justified closings.

This warfare could be avoided if the Mayor took a different, more conciliatory tack. What is needed — both legally and instructionally — is to articulate a clear set of standards for determining school closures, with thorough review of actions taken to avoid the disruption attendant to this last resort and the possible impact of closure on other schools.

The Mayor has created a sense that these closures are less than inevitable but, rather, part of a considered strategy to free up space in certain schools for charters and preferred small schools. Rationales for school closure are a moving target. Some are cited for low graduation rates — though other schools, not slated for elimination, are worse. Or the emphasis shifts to enrollment, or application rates, or whatever other metric might appear deficient either currently or over time. The data seem a pretext for closure and, like so many dominoes, set up a new round of schools predetermined for failure.

These actions give the appearance of illegal caprice: the inconsistent application of otherwise rational criteria so that the action is ultimately unpredictable and subject to whim. If indeed there is a hidden, consistent rationale for these decisions, then it is the Mayor’s obligation to reveal it. Keeping the public off-balance through secrecy is deplorable. This is a typical private-sector strategy based on the competitive edge of proprietary trade secrets. The Mayor’s people still haven’t learned that such tactics are inappropriate in a democracy where an informed public is a paramount, legally-enforceable value.

The more objective, transparent, and deliberative process of school closure suggested here has been used successfully in State registration reviews and finds favor in State law. Education Law § 402-a recommends district creation of an Advisory Committee on School Building Utilization six months before a scheduled school closing, with a clear set of factors for committee review. This is a more independent process than the current New York City formula and could profitably supplement it without sacrificing urgency.

So far, though, Mayor Bloomberg has refused to see the writing on the wall. His unexpected announcement shortly before the holidays, of almost two dozen school closures with a quickly scheduled series of required hearings prior to the PEP determinations on January 26 manifests a continued disdain for the spirit of recent statutory changes.

As a result, the Legislature should publicly contemplate buttressing the new but demonstrably ineffective requirements of Education Law §§ 2590-e(21), 2590-f(1)(w), and 2590-h(2-A) with mandatory application of Education Law § 402-a unless the Mayor recognizes that his policy of intentional opacity will no longer be tolerated.

The days of Oz and the application of naked, self-justifying power are over. If the Mayor is right, then he should step from behind the curtain and allow independent review of his decision to close each school.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.