First Person

What Mayor de Blasio’s school-improvement plan is missing: a goal

After Mayor Bill de Blasio rolled out a proposal to convert more than 90 struggling schools to community schools, fans of community schools — and they are legion — were ecstatic. Community schools speak to a broad array of progressive values, from the development of the whole child to the reclaiming of schools as centerpieces of neighborhoods.

But not all progressives were wowed, and the reaction to the proposal has been muted. The reason, in my view, is that the mayor failed to deliver a clear message about his goals for the school system — and that ambiguity may leave us with the same, traditional ways of measuring success by test scores and graduation rates.

Our politicians must walk a fine line in articulating what the purpose of a public K-12 education is and what outcomes we seek to achieve. As David Labaree has argued, three goals have long been in tension: preparing young people to be actively engaged citizens; sorting them into the varied positions necessary for our economy to be competitive; and enabling young people to advance beyond the achievements of previous generations.

Remarkably, the mayor’s address sidestepped any articulation of what the goals of his administration are for our schools. We can glean a bit from the text of his speech about what he and First Lady Chirlane McCray sought for Chiara and Dante, their two children educated in New York City public schools, but the goals are impossibly vague. The Mayor and his wife worried about how they would educate their children “for adulthood,” and he wishes to ensure that every child receives “the education he or she needs to succeed in life.” Students must be prepared “for the jobs of today—which increasingly require skills previous generations could not have dreamt of,” and our renewed schools should “make a real difference in student achievement.”

None of this provides real guidance on how we would know if the system is working as intended. In the absence of a clear statement of what students should know or be able to do, how are we to judge if any one school is struggling — and therefore a candidate for special help — or if a struggling school is on the road to recovery? Minus an alternative framework for what counts as success, stakeholders are likely to rely on the same things we’ve been using, and complaining about, for years: standardized test scores and graduation rates.

To be sure, the mayor’s intent to dial down the use of these measures is commendable. High-stakes accountability systems can distort the meaning of test scores and graduation statistics, as we’ve seen across the state and in New York City over the past decade. But those statistics are likely to remain the default measures of school success, crowding out the many other goals and outcomes that we can collectively imagine, if we don’t offer clear ideas about how else schools should be judged.

The mayor’s ambiguity about the goals of the system extends to his proposed solutions.

The hallmark of community schools is their effort to dismantle boundaries between the school and the community, locating a variety of social services designed to promote the healthy development of children — health care, counseling and mental health, and nutrition, to name a few — within the school. The problem that community schools address is children’s physical and psychological well-being, both of which are prerequisites to readiness to learn.

But schools can struggle for other reasons as well. They may have a dysfunctional culture in which the principal and teachers don’t rally around a core mission and are unable to work together productively on curriculum development and instructional practices. If this is the problem, community schools aren’t the appropriate solution. And if a school is already struggling to organize effectively to manage basic instruction, it may be unwise to saddle it with the additional responsibilities associated with a well-run community school.

A better way to assess a school’s functioning would be by using the capacity framework released by the Department of Education last month: measuring for rigorous instruction, collaborative teachers, a supportive environment, strong family-community ties, effective school leadership, and trust. These concepts have been successful in predicting which schools make progress in student test scores and attendance. As the city develops indicators for those concepts, a struggling school’s profile may result in targeted support in the areas where the school has fallen behind.

But a school’s capacity is still just a means to an end, and doesn’t help identify what we want students to learn. That remains a matter of values — values that the mayor has yet to communicate clearly.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk