First Person

Big Schools Questions That Need Candidates’ Answers

As they make their way through dozens of debates and hundreds of interviews, the candidates for New York City Mayor have fallen into predictable mantras on charters, school closings, teacher evaluation, and parent involvement, usually citing cautious support for each, with “cautious” being the operative word for fear of alienating potential primary voters.

Trouble is, these high-profile issues, while important, have little to do with the ultimate success of city schools. The city’s schools face harrowing problems: inadequate school leadership, disgraceful student achievement, and crushing child poverty that undermines learning. Rather than attack these shortcomings, the Bloomberg administration created tiny, competitive oases as alternatives while most students and teachers are starved for academic resources required for widespread academic success.

The next mayor will face big, interconnected educational challenges. But politicians avoid nuanced positions in a hard-fought campaign. Voters must demand more than a contest of simplistic responses to rack up easy points. New York’s school system is too complex, our students too diverse, for yes/no answers to our most pressing problems. In electing someone to govern, rather than merely win, candidates should be made to answer these and other hard questions to earn their place in City Hall:

1. How would you meet or reduce the Department of Education’s stated annual need for 150 to 200 new principals and 350 to 400 assistant principals?

By tripling the number of schools, Bloomberg created a crippling shortage of school leadership, a crucial factor for school success. In its recent report , the Wallace Foundation quoted the DOE’s stated need for this unsustainable infusion of new talent. The problem is worse than the number suggests since, with so many new assistant principals serving under inexperienced principals, the profession has lost institutional memory and instructional acumen. A department insider told me that, in piloting the new state teacher evaluation system, few principals could suggest better instructional strategies when conducting observations. Whether to consolidate schools or make the job substantially more attractive, something must be done to stop the hemorrhaging of school leadership.

2. What actions would you take for improved instruction and graduation rates for English language learners (ELLs), especially those needing special education?

According to 2013 data, public school ELLs number 159,162 or 14.4 percent of the city’s entire student population. Yet the graduation rate for this large group is below 50 percent, well under the department’s official overall graduation rate of approximately 62  percent. Only 7 percent of ELLs from the 2006 cohort graduated on time college and career-ready, according to city data. Disproportionately identified as requiring special education services, over 20 percent of ELLs are classified for special education, with over 34 percent in Staten Island and 25 percent in the Bronx. Few of these children with special needs ever graduate. By targeting ELLs and especially those in special education for increased academic attention as required by state law, significant progress in overall system performance would result.

3. Which is the big-ticket funding priority: pre-kindergarten or class size reduction?

Mayoral candidate and current Public Advocate Bill de Blasio advocates full time pre-K for all children 4 years and up at a cost of almost half a billion dollars a year. But experts believe pre-K should start at 3 or before, as provided by most upper income parents. Programs like Educare, serving even infants from low-income families, cost approximately $20,000 per child per year. According to education reporter John Merrow and the 2012 NAACP report, “Finding Our Way Back to First,” Educare has produced huge payoffs in student achievement and social service savings. On the other hand, there has been proven success through class size reduction programs like Tennessee’s successful Project STAR . But this initiative, too, would be expensive, costing hundreds of millions of dollars for more teachers on top of increased capital costs for new classrooms. Though not mutually exclusive, these two broad reforms, while promising maximum positive impact, are likely too expensive for full implementation individually, let alone in tandem.

Instead of concentrating on school wars where battle lines have long been drawn with candidates burrowed deeply into their trenches, voters need to ask hard questions that go to the root of system success. If candidates would constructively address these issues, we would have keys to far-reaching reform and a strong basis for choosing a real education mayor.

David Bloomfield is Professor of Education Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center.

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.