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

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.