who should rule the schools

Diane Ravitch to Assembly: Mayor shouldn't select the chancellor

Norm Scott warned this morning that historian Diane Ravitch, who has emerged as one of the Department of Education’s most vocal critics, would be delivering blistering testimony at today’s Assembly hearing on mayoral control.

Indeed, that’s what Assembly members just heard. “Never before in the history of NYC have the mayor and the chancellor exercised total, unlimited, unrestricted power over the daily life of the schools,” Ravitch said in her testimony. “No other school district in the United States is operated in this authoritarian fashion.”

Ravitch recommended that legislators mandate an independent school board that would publicly review proposed policies and budgets. The board, and not the mayor, should appoint the chancellor, Ravitch said. “If the chancellor is appointed by the mayor, his first obligation is to the mayor, not the children,” she said.

Ravitch also joined a large contingent of people who are calling for an independent agency to monitor and evaluate Department of Education data. She offered evidence for why city students are doing no better than before the mayor took over the schools.

Assembly members said they appreciated Ravitch’s testimony, Elizabeth reports from the hearing. Said Assemblyman James Brennan to Ravitch: “I can see now see why you have a PhD.”

As always, you’ll find Ravitch’s complete testimony after the jump.

Testimony of Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education, New York University, Hearings of New York State Assembly Committee on Education, February 6, 2009

I am a historian of education on the faculty of New York University. My first book was a history of the New York City public schools, entitled The Great School Wars. It was published in 1974. It is generally acknowledged to be the definitive history of the school system. Since then, I have continued to study and write about the New York City school system.

When the Legislature changed the governance of the school system in 2002, I supported the change. I supported the idea of mayoral control. I looked forward to an era of accountability and transparency. From my historical studies, I knew that mayoral control was the customary form of governance in our city’s schools for many years. From 1873 to 1969, the mayor appointed every single member of the New York City Board of Education. The decentralization of control from 1969 to 2002 was an aberration.

Having observed the current system since it was created, however, I have become convinced that it needs major changes.

It needs change because it lacks accountability. It lacks transparency. It shuts the public out of public education. It has no checks or balances. It lacks the most fundamental element of a democratic system of government, which is public oversight.

Never before in the history of NYC have the mayor and the chancellor exercised total, unlimited, unrestricted power over the daily life of the schools. No other school district in the United States is operated in this authoritarian fashion.

We have often been told by city officials that the results justify continuation of this authoritarian control. They say that test scores have dramatically improved. But no independent source verifies these assertions.

The city’s claims are contradicted by the federal testing program, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The federal tests are the gold standard of educational testing.

New York City is one of 11 cities that participate in the federal testing program. On the NAEP tests, the city’s scores were flat from 2003-2007 in fourth-grade reading, in eighth-grade reading, and in eighth-grade math. Only in fourth-grade math did student performance improve, but those gains had washed out by eighth grade. The eighth-graders were the product of the Children First reforms, yet these students showed no achievement gains in either reading or math. The federal tests showed no significant gains for Hispanic students, African American students, white students, Asian students, or lower-income students. The federal data showed no narrowing of the achievement gap among children of different ethnic and racial groups.

The SAT is another independent measure. This past year, the city’s SAT scores fell, reaching their lowest point since 2003, at the same time that national SAT scores held steady. The students who take the SAT intend to go to college; they are presumably our better-performing students. Yet the SAT reading score for New York City was an appalling 438, which is the 28th percentile of all SAT test-takers. The state SAT reading score was 488, much closer to the national average than our city students.

Are graduation rates up? The city says they have climbed from 53% to 62% from 2003-2007. The state says they have climbed from 44% to 52% from 2004-2007. Either way, the city’s graduation rate is no better than the graduation rate for the state of Mississippi, which spends less than a third of what New York City spends per pupil.

We must wonder whether we can believe any numbers for the graduation rate, because the city has encouraged a dubious practice called “credit recovery,” which inflates the graduation rate. Under credit recovery, students who failed a course or never even showed up can still get credit for it by turning in an independent project or attending a few extra sessions. A principal told the New York Times that credit recovery is the “dirty little secret of high schools. There’s very little oversight and there are very few standards.” (NY Times, April 11, 2008).  Furthermore, the city doesn’t count students who have been discharged; these are students who have been removed from the rolls but are not counted as dropouts. Their number has increased every year. Leaving out these students also inflates the graduation rate.

We have all heard that social promotion was eliminated, that students can’t be promoted from grade 3 or 5 or 7 or 8 unless they have mastered the work of the grade. Nonetheless, a majority of eighth-graders do not meet state standards in reading or math. And two-thirds of the city’s graduates who enter CUNY’s community colleges must take remedial courses in reading, writing, or mathematics. These figures suggest that social promotion continues and that many students are graduating who are not prepared for postsecondary education.

The present leadership of the Department of Education has made testing in reading and mathematics the keynote of their program. Many schools have narrowed their curriculum in hopes of raising their test scores. The Department’s own survey of arts education showed that only 4% of children in elementary schools and less than a third of those in middle schools were receiving the arts education required by the state. When the federal government tested science in 2006, two-thirds of New York City’s eighth grade students were “below basic,” the lowest possible rating. These figures suggest that our students are not getting a good education, no matter what the state test scores in reading and math may be.

The Department of Education, lacking any public accountability, has heedlessly closed scores of schools without making any sustained effort to improve them. Had they dramatically reduced class sizes, mandated a research-based curriculum, provided intensive professional development, supplied prompt technical assistance, and taken other constructive steps, they might have been able to turn around schools that were the anchor of their community. When Rudy Crew was Chancellor, he rescued many low-performing schools by using these techniques in what was then called the Chancellor’s District. Unfortunately this district—whose sole purpose was to improve low-performing schools–was abandoned in 2003. There may be times when a school must be closed, but it should be a last resort, triggered only after all other measures have been exhausted, and only after extensive community consultation.

The Legislature owes it to the people of New York City to make significant changes in the governance of the New York City public schools.

First, the governance system needs checks and balances. Having the chance to vote for the mayor once in four years is no check or balance, nor does it provide adequate accountability. The school system needs an independent board, whose members serve for a fixed-term, to review and approve the policies and budget of the school system. This board would hold public hearings before decisions are made. It would review the budget in public and give the public full opportunity to express its concerns.

Second, the performance of the school system should be regularly monitored by an independent, professional auditing agency. This agency should report to the public on student performance and graduation rates. Those in charge of the school system should not be allowed to monitor the system’s performance and to give principals and teachers bonuses for higher performance. Such an approach does not produce accountability; instead, it only encourages principals and teachers to find creative ways to boost their test scores and graduation rates.

Third, the leader of the school system should be appointed by the independent board, not by the mayor.  The chancellor’s primary obligation is to protect the best interests of the students. If elected officials say that they must cut the schools’ budget, the chancellor should be the voice of the school system, fighting for the interests of the children and the schools. If the chancellor is appointed by the mayor, his first obligation is to the mayor, not the children.

There are many challenges facing the New York City school system. Many of the students that it serves are disadvantaged by poverty, are English language learners, or have special needs. Changing the governance of the school system will not solve all the problems of educating more than one million students.

Nonetheless, the Legislature must learn from experience. It should correct the flaws in the law passed in 2002. That law went too far in centralizing all authority in the Mayor’s office and in excluding the public from any voice in decisions affecting their communities and their children. It is time to change the law.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.