Field test

How New York City principals are thinking about the opt-out movement

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

For the past year, leaders of the opt-out movement have campaigned to chip away at the role state tests play in New York’s education system. And, to a large degree, it’s a fight they’re winning.

But for some city principals, the boycott poses a set of less ideological questions: Could it affect their ability to get a full view of students’ abilities? Could they be sanctioned if they are suspected of pressing their thumb to the scale in conversations with parents? Could students without test scores struggle to get into competitive high schools?

In interviews with a handful of school leaders, principals offered a range of answers. Principals at schools with high opt-out rates seem largely unconcerned about the consequences, with a couple of notable exceptions. And for many others, the debate is simply a non-issue in their school community.

Mark Federman, echoing several other principals, says he wasn’t worried about high opt-out rates resulting in the loss of valuable data on students’ math and reading skills over time.

“We just view [the state tests] as a small bit of information,” said Federman, principal at Manhattan’s East Side Community School, where roughly 20 percent of students opted out last year. “If you go to the doctor and say, ‘I’m having headaches,’ they’re going to take my blood pressure, they might give me an MRI. Every little bit of information you can get about a kid helps.”

The tests “work really well for people outside of schools,” he said, referring to politicians and policymakers who often think the tests give them useful information. “But for educators, they don’t really give us what we need.”

Arguments that there could be severe consequences for schools that look the other way, or actually encourage the boycotts, also seem thin to principals at schools with high opt-out rates last year. A few of those principals said they didn’t get pushback from the education department.

Part of the reason is likely that the policy winds are shifting: The state math and reading assessments have been detached from teacher evaluations, and despite threats from the federal government to withhold funding from districts with high opt-out rates, many educators see those as empty. The state’s top education official has even signaled her support for the boycotts.

Still, some educators worry that even if there are no external consequences, opting out could hurt students in the high school admissions process.

Stacy Goldstein, who runs the School of the Future in Manhattan, says she is sympathetic to parents who want to opt out, but has encouraged some parents to reconsider, as it can be difficult to understand exactly how selective schools weigh test scores in the admissions process.

“I tell them to feel it out [and] do their due diligence,” she said. “I tell them to be kind of cynical about it.”

“If you’re the parent of a seventh grader and you’re worried about what high school you’re going to, that’s a legitimate issue,” echoed Brooklyn New School’s Anna Allanbrook, a vocal test critic who said the drawbacks of opting out are outweighed by the benefits. Her school had a 95 percent opt-out rate last year.

Goldstein isn’t predicting anything that high at her school. Even though virtually no students opted out at her school last year, she anticipates a jump to a roughly 10 percent opt-out rate.

For principals like Goldstein, the prospect of a big jump in opt-outs also creates new logistical hurdles. How should teachers handle time allocated for test prep so that students who boycott the tests don’t simply check out without consequence?

“I get worried that it splits the class,” Goldstein said, “and then the teacher has to negotiate the kids who are and kids who aren’t [opting out].” She plans to assign reading about the testing debate for the students who opt out and require they write an essay during the exam time.

But others aren’t addressing the issue at all, either to avoid wading into potential controversy or because their families simply aren’t talking about it. Even though a record-breaking 20 percent of students statewide boycotted the exams last year, fewer than 2 percent of students citywide sat out.

“It’s not something we are actually talking about,” said Jazmin Rivera Polanco, principal of Entrada Academy, a Bronx school that is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Renewal” program. Last year, her school reported virtually no opt-outs.

Polanco said she doesn’t believe that many of her students, a third of whom are English language learners, should have to take the tests at all because of their limited exposure to the language. Polanco is reluctant to discuss that with parents, even though many of them incorrectly believe their children could be held back if they refuse the tests.

“We don’t want to say something that would be seen as jumping the gun, or saying information that those in the DOE might not find that it’s our place to [say],” Polanco added.

Multiple principals interviewed for this story expressed uneasiness talking about how their schools were handling students who boycott. And the education department has cautioned teachers against expressing their opinions about the tests.

“Schools have spent so many years answering to those test scores,” said Julia Zuckerman, principal of the Castle Bridge School, where not a single student sat for the state tests last year. “To think that there’s another way of doing it is a tricky position to take.”

Goldstein at School of the Future put it much more bluntly.

Since she became a principal, “I feel much more strongly that these tests are problematic,” she said. “But I want to make sure that [the opt-out movement] is not feeding into a sense of entitlement or laziness.”

“I still want rigor,” she said. “I still want assessment.”

History alive

Inspired by Hamilton, Colorado students perform their own raps and poems on the big stage

PHOTO: Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
From left, West Leadership Academy's Alexandra Andazola Chavez, Jose Torres Andazola, Rossy Martinez Sanchez, and Zehydi Chaparro Rojas perform "The Story of Peggy."

The plush red seats at the Wednesday matinee of Hamilton in Denver were filled with 2,700 teenagers who’d spent weeks studying a special curriculum about the hip-hop musical’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, and the other Founding Fathers. Even though the show’s four-week Denver run had been sold out for months, the teenagers were seeing it for free.

Some of them had dressed for the occasion in high-heeled boots and three-piece suits. Others wore jeans and Converse. They represented 38 Colorado high schools that serve high proportions of students from low-income families, and many of them were students of color.

That’s notable because most of the cast of Hamilton are actors of color. Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are played by black and Latino actors, a decision creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has said reflects America’s racial makeup and is meant to pull the audience into the story of an immigrant, Hamilton, who played an important role in the nation’s founding.

Before the show, 23 students took the stage to perform their own spoken word poems, raps, monologues, and scenes inspired by what they’d learned from the Hamilton Education Program curriculum, which was devised in part by Miranda and has its own hashtag: #EduHam.

“My body felt electrified,” said Josiah Blackbear, a 15-year-old sophomore at West Early College in Denver, who performed a rap he’d written about Alexander Hamilton. “The words I was speaking brought power and truth to the rest of the venue.”

Here is video of six of the student performances, including one entirely in Spanish.


During Memphis visit, former Newark schools chief touts ways to change student discipline

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Cami Anderson when she was superintendent of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

As the top schools chief in Newark, Cami Anderson was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, she has left the New Jersey district and taken her ideas on the road about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices.

This week, Anderson came to Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project at the invitation of Stand for Children Tennessee, The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, School Seed, and Shelby County Schools. The New Teacher Project is partnering with her on the national tour.

Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)

Related story: Tennessee students more likely to be suspended if they’re black boys — or live in Memphis

Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?

Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.

The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.

Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?

"You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something."Cami Anderson

A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.

Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.

I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.

Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?

"Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that."Cami Anderson

A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.

I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.

Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?

A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.

There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.

Study: When Chicago cut down on suspensions, students saw test scores and attendance rise

Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?

A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.

You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.