First Person

Same New Boss

I was teaching my precalculus class when the news broke that Cathie Black was no longer our chancellor. Precalculus is one of the very few classes I have taught in my three years that is not tied to a Regents exam, and for this reason it is one of my absolute favorites. I use an inquiry-based curriculum taught in a Socratic method style, with students initiating ideas for solutions and communicating their ideas with one another. The idea is to teach critical thinking, and to change students’ conception of math from one of a large collection of “steps” or “right ways to solve problems” into the complex yet accessible system of logic that it is. I am there as a guide and as a facilitator, to provide access to the vocabulary and language of the math, and on rare occasions to provide students access to particular solution strategies used in mathematics that may not be obvious based on anything they have learned previously.

In classes that are Regents-based I am only able to do this type of teaching to a very small extent. Inquiry-based learning requires time, and it does not lend itself well to broad, shallow curriculums. Teaching with the test in mind starts in the early grades, and it is especially prevalent in schools where students struggle to pass the exams, which are also often schools dominated by low-income students and students of color. Most of the ninth-graders I am preparing for the Integrated Algebra Regents exam in June came in struggling with many basic pre-algebra topics, which means that to prepare them in one year to receive a passing grade on the exam I have to review a lot of middle-school skills and focus on particular, Regents-approved “methods” for solving particular types of problems. Almost all of my students can solve a multi-step algebraic equation by this time in the year, but few of them truly understand why the method that I imposed on them actually works. They will remember the method in June when they have to take the test, but I personally do not believe that their critical thinking skills or their understanding of the meaning or purpose of solving an equation will have improved greatly in their time with me this year. How my students perform in June does matter a great deal for their futures and for our school’s future. But what they understand 20 years from now, and how the seeds planted now have developed by that point, matters much more.

Students in my precalculus class were incredibly resistant to the inquiry-based methodology at the beginning of the year. Several of them would complain consistently that I wasn’t “telling them how to solve the problems” or “teaching them the steps.” I was feeling so much resistance that I turned to my assistant principal for advice. I am lucky to work with an educational leader who holds a social justice view of education, and she gave me a riveting speech about how I needed to be completely honest with my students about why they have that view of mathematics, that they are wrong about what mathematics is, and that it isn’t their fault. “Students who look like me and who look like them are given a different type of education than students who look like you,” my assistant principal, an African-American woman, told me. “You need to tell them that their minds have been enslaved; that they have been educated to believe that they are good students if they don’t think and just perform as they are told. That is not educating. You have a responsibility to un-teach that view of learning and support them in learning to think for themselves.”

I want to be able to teach all of my classes like that. I know that in algebra there is a place for learning skills and strategies, but I wish every day that there was a great deal more of a place for deep critical thinking, for reflection, for developing conceptual understandings that will last longer than June. As long as high-stakes testing remains as high-stakes as it is, however, it is simply a reality that the curriculum will narrow and many teachers will focus on the specific skills students need to be successful on the exams. And the stakes associated with scores on these exams, including having one’s school shut down and its space converted into a charter, will remain incredibly high as long as the reforms being pushed in New York City and nationally do not shift course.

And so, when I went on lunch and heard the news that Cathie Black was no longer our chancellor, there was a piece of me that felt so much hope about a possible shift in that course. Maybe this meant real change. We had won something — we, the teachers and parents who pushed and agitated against Black’s appointment; who turned people out to PEP meetings; who created a legal case to deny her a waiver; who kept the reality of her incompetence in the press; who held Fight Back Fridays to protest her offensive appointment. This is a pretty huge and validating reality, and one would have to be a complete cynic to not take a moment to smile about that fact. If we could build, together, enough public opposition to Cathie Black and force Bloomberg to admit he made a mistake and remove her from her post, perhaps we can win on the standardized testing front. If we can win that, perhaps we can win in the fights against school closings, charter conversions and colocations, and the fundamental issue of mayoral control.

But then reality set in: the truth is that Black was just a pawn, and with mayoral control in place it actually matters very little who the chancellor is. In fact, one could argue that the choice of Dennis Walcott actually makes it much easier for Bloomberg to push his misguided, destructive reforms on the children of New York. Walcott’s personal history makes him a much less offensive choice of chancellor, even for me. I remember feeling so deeply disgusted by the fact that Cathie Black had never once stepped foot in a public school (primary, secondary or higher-ed) in her entire life before becoming chancellor. She had no knowledge of the meaning of educational terminology or the history of education that all New York State teachers must study in masters programs. These statements are less true for Mr. Walcott because he grew up in our public schools, his children and grandchild attend public school, and he has been involved in education work through the mayor’s office and as a professional before that.

Yet Walcott has already said he will still push for school closings and more charter schools replacing public school space. Teachers and parents should still be offended by the choice of Walcott because their opinions were not a part of that choice, and because according to state law he, like Black, is unqualified for the position of chancellor. He will still push for the use of high-stakes standardized tests to justify closing schools and to hold students back, and as long as he is Bloomberg’s chancellor he will do it whether he himself believes in it or not. At the end of the day, Walcott will be accountable to one person and one person only, and that is Mayor Michael Bloomberg. While we have a system in place that has no checks and balances, where one person can make considerable changes to our educational structures with no accountability, then the purpose of a chancellor is to serve as nothing more than a salesman and a talking head for whatever changes the mayor would like to impose. And Walcott will actually serve as a much more effective salesman for Bloomberg’s policies than Black ever could have been. While the mayor seems to be immune to any accountability, in my classroom and in schools across the city, the word accountability and its twisted effect on teaching is a constant in my daily life.

Over the course of the year the students in the one course I teach that is not tied to a standardized test have transformed their relationship with mathematics. I never get requests to “explain the steps” anymore. Instead, students explore various ideas and methodologies that they come up with through the process of struggling with problems. Sometimes these methodologies lead to solutions and sometimes they do not, but it is through this process that they have developed a much deeper understanding of mathematics and problem-solving that will benefit them immensely both in college and in life. The growth of high-stakes standardized testing has endangered this type of learning, and as long as such a disproportionate amount of our budget is going into pushing discredited reforms instead of strengthening teaching and learning it may even become extinct.

This narrowing of the curriculum because of the overuse of tests to make high stakes decisions predates black and will exist after her. The short-lived joy I experienced after learning of Cathie Black’s removal only reaffirmed to me, once more, that mayoral control must end. The use of test scores as a justification for closing schools and replacing them with charter schools that then underserve students with the highest needs must be stopped or we are putting at risk the deeper type of learning that we all know is what good education should be.

Yes, Cathie Black’s removal was a win, but in some ways it was an easy win because her appointment aroused so much resentment. Reforms such as school closings and the proliferation of charter schools, the central reforms being pushed right now, are generally opposed in the communities who face them, but they don’t feel so deeply offensive for the  teachers, parents and students who escape facing their school being closed or pushed out by a charter school. They are of grave concern for all of us, however, and should be fought city-wide because they undermine and disempower communities, the same way standardized tests disempower our children. The truth is we will never ‘win’ as long as mayoral control is in place because without the input and empowerment of parents, children, educators and communities, there simply cannot be the kind of change needed to move our schools forward. Becoming a member of the Grassroots Education Movement is one way to join the fight.

Cathie Black was just a face from the corporate world, but what her face represented is actually much more damaging. She represented the belief that reforms borrowed from that same corporate world, such as accountability in the form of high-stakes testing and a consumer choice model of education, will change our schools for the better. They won’t, and attempting them might well irrevocably damage much of what we hold dear about public education.

First Person

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.