david and goliath

A 16-year-old Stuyvesant student is running for state Senate. Here’s how he wants to improve city schools

Courtesy of Tahseen Chowdhury (center)

Tahseen Chowdhury’s path to one of New York City’s top high schools began almost as soon as he started school. Growing up in Queens as the child of Bangladeshi immigrants, he remembers community newspapers celebrating students who had been accepted to the city’s specialized high schools, where admission is governed by a single test.

“You would see pages and pages of students who got accepted,” Chowdhury said. “I knew about Stuyvesant when I was in kindergarten.”

But Stuyvesant and schools like it enroll disproportionately few black and Hispanic students. That’s one of many reasons Chowdhury, age 16, is mounting a long-shot bid for state Senate. He hopes to unseat Jose Peralta, a Queens Senator who caucuses with Republicans as part of the Independent Democratic Conference — and to improve education in the process.

His odds of getting elected are slim at best, but his campaign has the trappings of a more serious run: a website with over a dozen policy positions, glossy photos of interactions with constituents, and a small army of campaign staffers with titles like “executive assistant and events coordinator” and “director of public relations.”

Chowdhury’s campaign is heavy on ideas for improving the city’s education system, so Chalkbeat caught up with him recently (after several emails with his executive assistant) about three of his education proposals.

1. Give students a stronger voice in the policymaking process

Ask Chowdhury when he decided to run for state senate, and he’ll rattle off a story about how he tried, unsuccessfully, to convince a state legislator to support giving students a vote on the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.

The PEP votes on everything from school closures to professional development contracts, and its two current student members are not allowed to vote — something Chowdhury wants to change.

Even if student members were allowed to vote, the PEP would still be controlled by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who appoints a majority of its members. But Chowdhury said the point of letting the students vote would be to force the city to take their voices seriously, rather than completely shifting the balance of power on the board.

The non-voting student representatives often aren’t involved in the panel’s public conversations, Chowdhury noted. Giving them a vote, he said, “would open up the amount of discourse that happens in those meetings.”

2. Launch a new school desegregation pilot

New York City schools are heavily segregated, and education officials have launched some small-scale efforts to encourage schools to enroll a wider mix of students. A “bigger vision” plan is on the way. Chowdhury has his own idea: He wants to start a pilot program that would enroll students at a school by lottery, essentially eliminating any screening method based on past academic performance.

But when it comes to specialized high schools like Stuyvesant, which admit students based on a single exam and enroll relatively few black and Hispanic students, Chowdhury said he would not advocate for a similar diversity plan.

“Lifting the screen destroys what the goal of Stuyvesant was: … to create a vibrant culture, a vibrant community of intelligent students,” he said. “I want to make sure that’s being protected.”

3. Diversify specialized high schools

Chowdhury said he is committed to diversifying specialized high schools, but the key to doing so, he said, involves raising awareness about the Specialized High School Admissions Test, the sole entrance requirement — not eliminating it.

Making the test more accessible is already part of the city’s approach to diversifying the schools, which has included offering the SHSAT in underrepresented communities during the school day, and boosting public test prep programs. Despite recent efforts, however, there has been virtually no change in the number of black or hispanic students offered admission to the city’s elite high schools.

Future of Schools

For Indianapolis principals hoping to improve, one program says practice makes perfect

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A kindergarten student reaches for crayons during a lesson at Global Prep Academy.

Mariama Carson has spent 20 years as an educator, first as a teacher and now as principal of Global Prep Academy. But in all that time, she never found training that prepared her as well as what she learned over two weeks last summer.

Carson, along with 23 other Indianapolis school leaders, was chosen to be a fellow in a principal training program through the Relay Graduate School of Education. Almost immediately, she noticed a big difference from previous coaching she’d had: They practiced everything.

How do you teach kids the right way to walk in the hallway? They practiced it. How do you let a teacher know she’s struggling? They practiced it. What are the precise words to use in an evaluation? More practice.

“The commitment to practice is what has been so different,” Carson said. “Whatever we learn in Relay … it’s not just something someone has told you about. You’ve practiced it. You’ve lived it.”

Relay, a six-year-old New York-based organization, was founded by a cadre of leaders from high-performing charter school networks. Practice, role-playing and applied learning are at the center of their work with educators, which for five years has included a year-long principal fellowship.

In the 2016-17 school year, Relay trained about 400 school leaders in the United States. Fellows from Indianapolis were chosen and sponsored by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit. Joe White, who directs The Mind Trust’s school support initiatives, said he was happy with the response during the last round of applications. The next cohort, whose members will be announced this month, will be larger and contain more Indianapolis Public School educators, as well as charter school principals, he said.

The Mind Trust wants to make the training “available to as many new operators as possible to continue expanding this work across the city,” White said. “We think that this is the way that we create sustainable schools that will provide high-quality results and outcomes for kids for a very long time.”

Two principals in the midst of the program told Chalkbeat that the fellowship is already changing the culture and efficiency of their schools. The principals spent the fellowship’s two-week summer training session in Denver learning how to best collect and analyze student data, give feedback to teachers and create a school building that runs smoothly.

“The practice and critical feedback we got was unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” said Mariama Carson, a principal at Global Prep Academy, which is housed in the IPS Riverside 44 building. “Usually as a principal, you don’t get that kind of feedback.”

But Relay, which also has teacher training programs, has its share of critics. Kenneth Zeichner, a researcher and professor at the University of Washington, analyzed non-university-affiliated teacher training programs, including Relay’s. Although he hasn’t looked into the principal program specifically, he said he is troubled that the teacher training curriculum emphasizes using test scores to gauge results at the expense of a more well-rounded assessment of students, who many times are coming from families living in poverty.

He also worries Relay as a whole is too focused on fast growth, rather than on proving its methods work. There have been no independent studies done on whether Relay produces better teachers than other alternative or university programs, Zeichner said, although one is underway.

“My concern about Relay is not that they exist,” Zeichner said. “If you’re going to measure the quality of a teacher education program — of any program — the independent vetting, or review, of claims about evidence (is) a baseline minimum condition.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Carson and Bakari Posey, principal at IPS School 43. The two just completed their second of several training sessions, which will continue through the rest of the school year.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What made you want to be part of the fellowship?

Carson: The job of a principal is so lonely. To have the opportunity to work with high-quality, hard-working principals across the country is always inviting.

Posey: I wanted to make sure that I was able to appropriately and efficiently and effectively develop the people on our team. That’s what really drew me in. It’s shaped my thinking and sharpened my lens as a leader and what I’m looking for in classrooms.

What have you learned so far that you’re implementing in your school?

Carson: It’s been transformative in how our building is run just on the cultural side. Relay has really helped us understand that especially with adult learners, you have to start with the “why.” And then we model, and the teachers (in my school) play the position as students. We go into full acting mode, and then the teachers execute that practice. For two weeks before the kids even showed up, that’s what our teachers were doing. Normally, I’d hand my teachers a packet of procedures and expectations, but we never practiced.

Posey: We’ve started to implement already … around coaching teachers — how we give that feedback and give teachers bite-sized action steps to work on instead of making a list of 12 things to do at once. If you do one thing better every single day, then you get better overall. Something else that’s big for me is student work exemplars — actually having an example of excellence for student work that the teacher creates and uses to guide feedback. Overall it’s just kind of helped to organize my thinking as a school leader and really kind of give you a little bit of a road map towards student growth and overall school success. It’s the best professional development I’ve ever been a part of.

How have teachers back in your schools responded to the changes you have introduced, including suggestions on improving instruction, evaluations, etc.?

Carson: Teachers have been responding well, and they’re getting used to this culture, a culture of practice. Even in our feedback sessions where we’re coaching teachers, it’s “OK, execute the lesson — I’ll be the student, you be the teacher.”

Posey: They’ve been receptive. It’s not coming from a place of “gotcha” or I’m trying to make you look really bad. It’s really coming from a place of really getting better for our students to really give them the best, which is what they deserve.

gates keeper

Gates Foundation to move away from teacher evals, shifting attention to ‘networks’ of public schools

PHOTO: Department for International Development/Russell Watkins

Its massive education funding efforts have helped spread small high schools, charter schools, and efforts to overhaul teacher evaluations. Now, the Gates Foundation is going in a new direction.

In a speech Thursday, Bill Gates said the foundation is about to launch a new, locally driven effort to help existing public schools improve.

The idea is to fund “networks” that help public schools improve by scrutinizing student achievement data and getting schools to share their best ideas, he said. Of the $1.7 billion the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will spend on U.S. education over the next five years, more than 60 percent will go to these networks — dwarfing the amount to be spent on charter schools, about 15 percent.

Gates said that’s both because he wants to go where other philanthropy isn’t and because the foundation’s strategy is to affect as many students as possible. (Only 5 percent of U.S. public-school students attended a charter school in 2014.)

“In general, philanthropic dollars there … on charters is fairly high. We will be a bit different. Because of our scale, we feel that we need to put the vast majority of our money into these networks of public schools,” Gates said. (“We love charters,” he quickly added.)

The Gates Foundation is a supporter of Chalkbeat.

The strategy appears to be a nationwide expansion of the work Bob Hughes, the Gates Foundation’s K-12 education chief, did in New York City as the longtime head of an organization called New Visions for Public Schools. New Visions started several dozen district and charter schools but also created tools for schools to check on student progress that were later adopted by New York City itself.

Gates offered other examples: Chicago’s Network for College Success, which works with about 15 high schools; the LIFT Network in Tennessee, which includes 12 school districts; and the CORE Districts in California. The foundation plans to fund 20 to 30 such networks, Gates said.

Also notable is where Gates said the philanthropy will no longer be sending money: toward efforts to encourage new teacher evaluation systems, which in some states have faced fierce political resistance in recent years.

The foundation’s new work to support school networks will be driven by local ideas about how to create the best schools, Gates said.

“The challenge is that, even that piece when it’s done very well, the teacher in the classroom — that is not enough to get the full result we want,” Gates said. “And this is something that I’m sure has been obvious to all of you. But it’s really the entire school, where the leadership, the development, the overall culture, the analysis of what’s going on with the kids — it’s that school level where you have to get everything coming together.”

The final quarter of that $1.7 billion will go toward research into how kinds of technology could improve student learning and ways to improve math instruction and career preparation.