First Person

Once Central, City’s Progressive Educators Now Outnumbered But Still Fighting

Appearing before about 600 educators at a recent conference on progressive education, Deborah Meier threw away her prepared speech. In an inspired request, the MacArthur Genius Award winner and prominent advocate for progressive education asked attendees who started teaching in the 1960s to stand up. Then she called on educators who began their careers in the 1970s. She continued decade by decade to the present until a good part of the audience was standing.

Meier’s gesture made visible the long history — into the present — of progressive education in New York City’s schools. But it also raised the question: Where — in an era of high-stakes tests and number crunching — is progressive education?

Most progressive educators trace their roots to John Dewey, the early-twentieth-century philosopher who wrote extensively about the connection between education and democracy and proposed an educational model that was intellectual, pragmatic and applied. Over the past 25 years, the term has come to describe interdisciplinary instruction; alternative ways of gauging student learning, like performance-based assessment; project-based learning; advisory or guidance groups as part of the school day; small classes sizes; a full measure of art and music classes; and time set aside for teachers to plan and work together. For progressive educators, a shared vision of the purpose of education and how students should be taught unites all of these features.

At one point in the not-too-distant past, New York City was a center of progressive education. And it wasn’t just in the two schools that Meier founded and ran, the Central Park East elementary and secondary schools. From 1983 to 1997, Stephen Phillips served as the superintendent of alternative schools. Largely unknown outside of New York City education circles, Phillips oversaw 62 schools and programs that enrolled more than 120,000 students when he retired. He received a lifetime achievement award from Meier at the progressive education conference, along with the late Theodore Sizer, one of her intellectual mentors and later a colleague in the Coalition for Essential Schools, the umbrella organization for progressive schools.

Yet in the current era of standardized test-based accountability, progressive education has fallen off the radar in New York and nationally. High-stakes tests are being used to evaluate students, teachers, and schools, and charter schools — a lightly regulated alternative to traditional public schools — are seen as a panacea. Through its Race to the Top competition, the federal government is rewarding states that promote these policies with large gobs of money.

Ann Cook is the founding principal of the progressive Urban Academy High School and the head of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of 28 schools whose students do not have to take Regents exams but instead demonstrate proficiency through portfolios and presentations. Cook takes no prisoners when describing the current moment in education policy.

“A lot of people who make policy provide a certain education for their children but don’t think other people’s children can benefit from it,” she said, pointing to wealthy suburban school districts and private schools such as Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., which President Obama’s daughters attend.

“They all have small classes, electives, take trips, do project-based work, try to get kids involved in a discussion, present the students with multiple perspectives — those are all hallmarks of progressive education,” Cook said. “There’s no time for these things in regular public schools. It’s all about how they do on the test.”

And yet a small contingent of educators, many who attended the conference, continues to try to apply progressive education principles in the face of mandates and constraints from the city and federal education departments.

Brady Smith is the founding principal of Validus Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, which incorporates expeditionary learning, where students are given experiences out of the classroom to help them learn and develop personally. Ninth-graders travel to Harriman State Park to explore and learn from the environment, and tenth-graders work closer to home on a long-term project planning how to use a vacant lot next to the school. They have to come up with their own vision for the use of the land, do the calculations and schematics, and make a proposal to the Port Authority, which owns the land.

“We use data quite a bit,” Smith told me. “But we have a broad definition of data. We look at student work quite a lot. My stance is — what does student performance look like? There are ways to measure it authentically … more than any one test.”

Smith says he hopes eventually to have his school accepted into the New York Performance Standards Consortium, the group Cook runs. The purpose of joining would not be just to get his students out of having to take Regents exams, Smith told me, but because the consortium offers extensive professional development to its member schools and provides a rigorous peer review process to make sure students get challenging alternate assessments.

Smith said he developed his educational philosophy while teaching in both traditional and progressive schools in Portland, Ore., and Seattle before moving to New York. For the younger teachers in his school, without the range of experiences, developing their own perspective on education can be harder, which is why Smith said he brought them to the conference.

“Many of my staff members don’t have a sense of history,” he said. “It was valuable for them to see they are part of a larger movement.”

One young teacher who attended the conference graduated from both of Meier’s Central Park East schools before beginning her teaching career. Alexis Carrero came to Lyons Community School in Brooklyn after teaching for five years at MS 37 in the Bronx, where she experienced a shift in what administrators valued.

“It all became focused on testing,” she said. “It was all about the numbers and they didn’t pay attention to the social and emotional needs of the students.”

At Lyons, Carrero and her colleagues create thematic units and focus on field studies, taking students out of the classroom, for example, to museums to learn. But they also have worked together and made changes in the school based on what they see as student needs. After some problems of aggression between boys, they rearranged the schedule and established a boys’ group and a girls’ group to talk about their own issues. (Carrero runs the girls’ group and a dean runs the boys’ group.)

“I think we’re doing great things at our school but still our test scores aren’t great,” she said. “We have to find a middle ground. We’re not teaching to the test. We’re trying to teach them skills on how to take tests. We’re still working on it. We’re a work in progress.”

Whether Carrero and her colleagues at Lyons will have a chance to figure things out remains to be seen. Although the city is encouraging principals and schools to innovate, it eschews practices that don’t center solely on improving standardized test scores.

“Good gardeners know they have to set up borders around flowerbeds in order to help them grow,” Phillips said at the conference. “If progressive education is going to be a factor in education, it has to be protected in a zone where it is safe to try things.”

Jessica Siegel, assistant professor of journalism and education at Brooklyn College, taught in the city’s public schools for 12 years. She is the subject of Small Victories by Samuel Freedman (HarperCollins, 1990).

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.