First Person

Retaining Our Collective Memory

What knowledge and skills do we want brand-new teachers in New York City to have before they enter a classroom? Besides the obvious — how to plan engaging lessons, how to support students with learning, and how to manage a classroom — what else is critical for the first-time teacher to know? What kind of conversations should an individual have engaged in before New York State grants that person the right to be the lone adult in a classroom full of impressionable minds?

These are some of the questions that a small group of individuals and I have been grappling with during member meetings of the New York Collective of Radical Educators. On the first Friday of every month we sit together to strengthen our analysis of these issues devise strategies to address them.

One of the very first actions that came out of this working group was the creation of an open letter from newer teachers in support of seniority rights. We feel that so-called “great new teachers” are being used as an argument to end the seniority rule for layoffs, even though we as newer teachers recognize the rule’s critical importance to keeping the most experienced teachers in our schools and protecting them from discriminatory dismissal as their compensation increases. I have had many conversations with newer teachers who initially expressed support for Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to end seniority-based layoffs, but then changed their tune as they heard more about the history of the struggle to win and maintain seniority-based layoffs and why its change would negatively affect our students and the cultures of our schools. Our arguments as newer teachers against “merit-based” layoffs are more fully outlined in our letter.

Over the last 10 years under mayoral control, New York City’s teaching force has become significantly less experienced. This change can be attributed, at least in part, to the DOE’s heavy reliance on programs like New York City Teaching Fellows and Teach for America to do teacher recruitment, which require only a two-year commitment from teachers they hire. Recruits to these programs are required to undergo almost no training or coursework in education before beginning teaching. Not only are they less prepared in basic teaching practices, they also have even less knowledge of education history than traditionally certified teacher who take courses in which they study historical movements within education. There are many important critiques of these alternative-certification programs that are worth developing further, but as I have a tendency to write rather long posts I am going to try to save my thoughts on these critiques for a future piece.

Instead I want to reflect on something I have been thinking about a lot lately: As the teaching force becomes less experienced, we are losing our collective memory. More teachers are walking into classrooms with very little knowledge of the history of struggles within the New York City public school system and with little understanding of the importance of having a strong union to protect students and educators.

I am lucky enough to be able to work closely with quite a few more experienced teachers, and I cherish these relationships. The teachers in my school who have been teaching for a long time have an understanding of the system that I can only dream of having, and I find them to be an invaluable resource when I have a question or want to discuss an idea. After every meeting of the Grassroots Education Movement, which is made up predominantly of teachers with significant experience in the classroom, I leave feeling invigorated by what I have just learned from my more experienced colleagues. Each meeting is like an intense monthly history lesson on anything from the fight for community control and its impact on teacher-community relations to the unrelenting push for privatization that has changed forms over the years but that we are now losing in its current incarnation.

Can we find ways to fill in the gaps in knowledge between experienced educators and those who are less experienced or even alternatively certified? It would be nice if the Department of Education offered these kinds of history lessons, but with its intense focus on new ways to test and hold students and teachers accountable, the DOE seems unlikely to consider the lessons of the past to be important knowledge for its teachers to possess. The UFT could certainly take on that role, and the union does make an impressive catalog of historical articles from the union newspaper available online. But it doesn’t seem to recognize the extent to which the DOE’s new recruitment and retention policies have created a profound divide in beliefs about teacher protections, DOE practices like school closings, and even what constitutes good teaching. The UFT could be countering this divide by offering history lessons in their office or encouraging school-based discussion groups among chapters. Unfortunately this is not happening.

One of the projects our NYCORE working group has decided to tackle is to develop a summer speaker series that would address these knowledge gaps. We are hoping to hold talks this summer on such topics as anti-racist education practice, the benefits and drawbacks of alternative certification programs, the impact of mayoral control, a history of the city’s school system, a history of the UFT, the impact of high-stakes testing, etc. If you’re interested in helping us organize for this series you can join us at the next member meeting.

Of course no speaker series can provide a full opportunity for individuals to develop the understanding that comes with years of teaching experience, but as most of the organizers came through alternative certification programs ourselves, we can at least create a forum that provides access to the concepts and ideas we wish we had been exposed to before our first day in the classroom.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.