First Person

SAT Angst

Do you know that feeling of excitement-turned-nervousness, that rumbling in your gut before you take your driver’s license test, that fluttering before your blind date shows up or the results of your pregnancy test appear?

As the novice director of a college prep program in a high school with paralyzingly low SAT scores historically — between 660-720 on math and critical reading combined — and as someone who threw the sink at trying to move those numbers skyward, that’s how I am feeling today, when we find out the results of our students’ Jan. 22 SAT exam.

The decision to go all-out on SAT prep was not easy — on average, our 11th-graders read two to three years below grade level, and I considered whether their time (and our program’s money) would be better spent focusing on remedial skills than learning test-taking strategies and far-flung vocabulary words.

Yet the series of events that unfolded once I committed to sustained SAT prep and the challenges we subsequently encountered encompass larger themes present in the current state of urban, public schools that serve low-income students. Issues of differentiation, competency, fairness, accountability and ownership all came up in our preparation, and they will be issues I return to in future months in “The College Conundrum,” a biweekly survey of the landscape from my perch as a college prep program director at a small, traditional public high school in the South Bronx.

The prep we eventually provided was dictated by — surprise! — money, as one quote we received was three times the price of the other. We went with the less expensive option, but even this option was only made possible by the largesse of a private donor.

In any case, twice a week, for the 12 weeks leading up to the Jan. 22 SAT administration, all but two 11th-graders received prep that alternately focused on critical reading and math practice problems. (The two students who did not participate were clear that they did not wish to attend college, and therefore did not want to or need to attend a SAT prep course.) At the beginning, middle, and end of the twelve weeks, we offered students optional, full-length practice tests on Saturday mornings. More than half of the 11th-grade class took at least one such test — and a third took two or more.

The practice tests and other actions were driven by an education version of realpolitik. Once I committed to prep, my locus of control did not include substantial skill remediation. Rather, I could make the most of what the students were working with, and I therefore focused on periphery factors such as students’ endurance and pacing — hence the full-length practice tests — and logistical issues.

We ordered “Good luck” banners and posted them in the hallway after teachers scribbled encouraging messages. We distributed individualized packets that included an admission ticket, handwritten “good luck” note, public transportation voucher, list of peers’ testing sites, calculator, two sharpened pencils, photo ID reminder, and public transit directions that would get a student from home to his/her testing site before 7:30 a.m. (thanks, Google Maps).

The morning of the exam, a coordinated effort among college prep staff and school teachers commenced at 5:30 a.m. to ensure all students were up and en route to their various testing sites. We followed an initial wake-up call or text message — the students listed their preference and contact information during a previous class — with a confirmation call.

Crazy? Perhaps. Did we help our students? In a short-term sense, absolutely. Last year, 40 of 59 students (67 percent) failed to show up for their first sitting of the SAT, thereby wasting one of two possible fee waivers. This year, 57 of 60 students — 95 percent — actually took the test.

Looking longer-term, I am less convinced that my decision to teach SAT prep instead of skills remediation was most beneficial for our students, or that my plan to contact each students’ home helped them become more self-reliant and mature. The arrival of scores today could sway my feelings, of course, though my frustration with the SAT and with the quality of the students’ previous education will endure.

But I digress. For now, cross your fingers, please. I’ll share my students’ scores and my own further thoughts soon.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.