First Person

I taught at a nonselective New York City school. Your assumptions about low-scoring students are wrong.

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post

It’s a modest proposal: Each middle school in New York City’s District 3 would offer a quarter of its seats to students who haven’t passed state exams. The plan, currently being debated, is supported by many district principals and parents. But not all. One mother said, with great emotion:

“You’re talking about an 11-year-old who worked her butt off and … didn’t get what you needed or wanted. You’re telling them you’re going to go to a school that’s not going to educate you in the same way you’ve been educated. Life sucks! Is that what the DOE wants to say?”

I’m now an instructional coach for the education department, but I spent nearly 30 years teaching in private and public schools in New York City and raised two children here. So I’ve heard similar talk before. And in my experience, statements like that are based on unexamined and frankly wrong assumptions about children, merit, and schools.

The worried mother assumes that higher test scores prove her daughter worked harder, and is thus more deserving, than children with slightly lower scores. In fact, thousands of New York City’s children experience the disappointment of not getting into top schools, even though they’ve worked hard and are smart and talented. But their parents don’t have money for tutoring, time to go on school tours during the work day, or the connections or ZIP code to successfully target selective middle schools which feed into selective high schools.

The fact that parents at that meeting mentioned spending $5,000 on tutoring so that their children can “earn” a seat in a highly screened school underscores that point. What is it that children of wealthy parents have earned that kids who score a level 2 on the state exam with no extra help have not?

Another assumption is about schools. We give enormous credit to schools whose students arrived there already reading at grade level. But that doesn’t say anything about the quality of teaching or outcomes. The mother’s certainty that any school but their top choice “won’t educate you in the way you’ve been educated” raises many questions.

I taught for years in an unscreened middle and high school, which means most of my students had scored 1 or 2 on the state exams. In spite of this apparently dire situation, we had graduation and college acceptance rates over 90 percent. Students went to Barnard, Cornell, Colby, Bates, and many other schools that were good fits for them, because we prioritized college counseling and strong advisory relationships.

I took seniors to Washington, D.C., to lobby their Congress members about the Patriot Act. (The students led the meetings, and one senator’s staffer confessed to knowing less about the Bill of Rights than my students.) All of this was invisible to many parents who reduced the entire human enterprise to a judgment based on how many students scored above a 2 on the state exams.

The author with students in the Senate building several years ago.

Another parent asked whether his son’s teachers will get extra help if students with lower scores are admitted. I am always in favor of resources and support for teachers! But the implication that kids who aren’t passing exams will be disruptive elements or fundamentally different than his son is also misguided. I can tell you absolutely that students who score highly on state exams can be just as challenging and difficult in the classroom as those who score below grade level.

It is true that when schools are filled entirely with children who are very poor, the school will likely need additional resources and strong leadership to be effective. Adversity, poverty, and unstable housing all create conditions that can get in the way of optimal learning. But 25 percent of children scoring below a 3 on state exams is not that.

I understand how emotional this process can be. I’ve gone through the process with my children, and even broke out in shingles the first time we went through the high school admissions process.

When my oldest son turned five in 1997, we were zoned for P.S. 321 in Park Slope — then, as now, a school people forge address paperwork to get into. Instead I sent him to Brooklyn New School because it had then a structural guarantee of integration: an admissions lottery to result in one-third Latinx, one-third black, and one-third white and other students. I’d taught in schools with few students of color and seen the heavy burden of representation they had to carry. The world, and New York City, is not majority white, and I wanted them to live in reality, not in an constructed enclave.

I then began teaching at Brooklyn New School and at the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, the 6-12 school in the same building. My son moved up to BCS; like most unscreened secondary schools, it was poorer and had more black and brown students than his elementary school had. My son loved his years at BCS, and I loved teaching there.

Wrapped up in the talk of scores and hard work and other kids taking “our” kids’ seats is the unspoken content of those parents’ objections: race. Many white parents are uncomfortable being in the minority, even though they absolutely are a minority in New York City’s public schools. If we can’t talk about that, we can’t ever talk about diversity honestly. And that means we can’t really talk about admissions policies and test scores, either, because they serve as proxies for racial inequities.

Let’s be clear: state exams don’t assess character or intellectual potential. One of my sons can get a top score with little effort. The other gets no love from standardized tests. They both, just like all New York City children, deserve access to the opportunities a real city offers, vibrant and mixed and full of all kinds of interconnected, talented human beings.

Public schools are a collective good; we must ensure that the benefits are shared equitably.

Vicki Madden is an instructional coach for New York City schools and a committed New Yorker who has taught English and history since 1985.

Find all of Chalkbeat’s coverage of the District 3 desegregation debate here. Stay up to date by signing up for our daily newsletter

Compare and Contrast

Comparing the Upper West Side and Harlem integration plans: Here’s how schools, admissions offers could change

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents gathered at a recent Community Education Council meeting in District 3 to learn about the city's plan to integrate Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools.

Following an uproar over a plan to integrate Manhattan’s District 3, the Department of Education introduced three more proposals to change the makeup of middle schools on the Upper West Side and in Harlem.

The initial plan for integrating the 16 middle schools — which drew the ire of some parents concerned their children would be elbowed out of sought-after schools — was pulled by the education department. While the new plans also set aside 25 percent for low-performing students, they differ from the original option in an important way: they don’t rely solely on student test scores to guide admissions decisions.

We’ve placed each plan side-by-side to help you get up to speed. The district hopes to put its new admissions system into place in early June, in time for the middle school admissions process.

What would the plans do?

Each plan would give needy students priority for a quarter of admissions offers at 16 middle schools. Within those seats, 10 percent of offers would go to students who struggle the most, and 15 percent would go to students with the next-highest level of need.

However, the plans look at different factors to determine who gets priority:

Plan A would consider test scores and whether a student attended an elementary school where many students are economically needy.

Plan B would take test scores and report cards into account.

Plan C, presented by city officials Tuesday, would weigh test scores, report card grades, and whether a student qualifies for free- or reduced-price lunch — a commonly used measure of poverty. The plan considers whether an individual student is considered poor — rather than the demographics of his or her entire elementary school, which would be the case with Plan A.

How would the schools change?

Supporters of the plans hope they will extend academic opportunity to more students in District 3. And since race and class are often linked to academic performance, the proposal could integrate schools in numerous ways. But despite the controversy, the city’s projections actually show the impact of the changes are likely to be small because of how families are ranking schools. Some struggling students are already applying to the district’s more sought-after schools. But higher-performing students — who tend to be middle class — are not ranking schools where many students are poor or struggling.

These projections are based on how families applied to schools last year.

Under Plan A, the schools that would change the most are:

  • West End Secondary School would offer 21 percent of seats to students who have low test scores and come from high-needs elementary schools. That’s an increase of 19 percentage points.
  • The Computer School would offer 26 percent of seats to students in the priority group, up 15 percentage points.
  • West Side Collaborative Middle School would offer 49 percent of seats to students in the priority group — a decrease of 14 percentage points.

Under Plan B, the schools that would change the most are:

  • West End Secondary School would offer 25 percent of seats to students with low report card grades and test scores, an increase of 13 percentage points.
  • Dual Language Middle School would offer 64 percent of seats to the priority group. That is a 12-point decrease.
  • Both the Computer School and Booker T. Washington would see an 11 point increase in offers to the priority group. At the Computer School, 32 percent of offers would go to those students. At Booker T. Washington, the priority group would comprise 19 percent of offers.

Under Plan C, the schools that would change the most are:

  • West Side Collaborative would offer 47 percent of seats to students who have low test scores and report card grades, and qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. That is a decrease of 16 percentage points.
  • The Computer School would offer 28 percent of seats to students in the priority group, an increase of 16 percentage points.
  • West End Secondary School would offer 17 percent of seats to the priority group — up 13 percentage points.

But under each plan, schools would still be largely divided between those that serve mostly top-performers and those who serve students who struggle.

How many families would be impacted?

Contrary to what the backlash to the plan suggests, they would actually only impact a small number of the almost 2,000 families applying to the district’s middle schools.

The city’s projections show more students benefiting from the changes because they would be offered a spot in a higher-ranked school, or get a match rather than be shut out. That is likely to be an important factor in the district’s decision making, since the city has proven uneasy about the impression that student would be forced into schools they don’t want to go to.

Under Plan A, 109 families would get a seat in a school that they ranked lower on their application. The city estimates that 96 families would not receive an offer to a school on their list — 18 more families than without the plan. But 169 students would be offered a seat at a school they ranked higher.

Under Plan B, 135 students would get a seat in a school that was lower on their application. It’s estimated that 100 families would not get accepted to any school on their list, 22 more than without the plan. On the other hand, 194 students would benefit. 

Under Plan C, 137 families would get a seat in a school that they ranked lower. The city’s projections show that 113 families wouldn’t be matched to a school they picked — 35 more families than before. That’s compared to 185 students who would be offered a seat at a school they ranked higher.

First Person

As historians and New York City educators, here’s what we hope teachers hear in the city’s new anti-bias training

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio just committed $23 million over the next four years to support anti-bias education for the city’s teachers. After a year in which a white teacher stepped on a student during a lesson on slavery and white parents used blackface images in their PTA publicity, it’s a necessary first step.

But what exactly will the $23 million pay for? The devil is in the details.

As current and former New York City teachers, and as historians and educators working in the city today, we call for the education department to base its anti-bias program in an understanding of the history of racism in the nation and in this city. We also hope that the program recognizes and builds upon the work of the city’s anti-racist teachers.

Chancellor Carranza has promised that the program will emphasize training on “implicit bias” and “culturally responsive pedagogy.” These are valuable, but insufficient. Workshops on implicit bias may help educators evaluate and change split-second, yet consequential, decisions they make every day. They may help teachers interrogate, for example, what decisions lead to disproportionately high rates of suspension for black children as early as pre-K, or lower rates of referrals to gifted programs for black students by white teachers.

But U.S. racism is not only split-second and individual. It is centuries deep, collective, and institutional. Done poorly, implicit bias training might shift disproportionate blame for unequal educational resources and outcomes onto the shoulders of classroom teachers.

Anti-bias education should lead teachers not only to address racism as an individual matter, but to perceive and struggle against its institutional and structural forms. Structural racism shapes the lives of students, families, and communities, and the classrooms in which teachers work: whether teachers find sufficient resources in their classrooms, how segregated their schools are, how often their students are stopped by police, and how much wealth the families they serve hold. Without attending to the history that has created these inequities, anti-bias education might continue the long American tradition of pretending that racism rooted in capitalism and institutional power can be solved by adjusting individual attitudes and behaviors.

We have experienced teacher professional development that takes this approach. Before moving to New York, Adam taught in Portland, Oregon and participated in several anti-bias trainings that presented racism as a problem to be solved through individual reflection and behaviors within the classroom. While many anti-racist teachers initially approached these meetings excited to discuss the larger forces that shape teaching students of color in the whitest city in America, they grew increasingly frustrated as they were encouraged to focus only on “what they could control.”

Similarly, at his very first professional development meeting as a first-year teacher of sixth grade in Harlem, Brian remembers being told by his principal that neither the conditions of students’ home lives nor conditions of the school in which he worked were within teachers’ power to change, and were therefore off-limits for discussion. The only thing he could control, the principal said, was his attitude towards his students.

But his students were extremely eager to talk about those conditions. For example, the process of gentrification in Harlem emerged repeatedly in classroom conversations. Even if teachers can’t immediately stop a process like gentrification, surely it is essential for both teachers and their students to learn to think about conditions they see around them as products of history — and therefore as something that can change.

While conversations about individual attitudes and classroom practices are important, they are insufficient to tackle racism. Particularly in one of the most segregated school districts in America, taking a historical perspective matters.

How do public school teachers understand the growth of racial and financial inequality in New York City? Consciously or otherwise, do they lean on tired but still powerful ideas that poverty reflects a failure of individual will, or a cultural deficit? Encountering the history of state-sponsored racism and inequality makes those ideas untenable.

Every New York City teacher should understand what a redlining map is. These maps helped the federal government subsidize mid-twentieth century white suburbanization while barring African American families from the suburbs and the wealth they helped generate. These maps helped shape the city, the metropolitan region, and its schools – including the wealth or poverty of students that teachers see in their classrooms. This is but one example of how history can help educators ground their understanding of their schools and students in fact rather than (often racist) mythology.

And how well do New York City educators know and teach the histories of the communities they serve? Those histories are rich sources of narratives about how New Yorkers have imagined their freedom and struggled for it, often by advocating for education. Every New York City teacher should know that the largest protest of the Civil Rights Movement took place not in Washington D.C., not in the deep South, but right here. On February 3, 1964, nearly half a million students stayed out of school and marched through the city’s streets, demanding desegregation and fully funded public schools. Every New York City teacher should know about Evelina Antonetty, a Puerto Rico-born, East Harlem-raised advocate who organized her fellow Bronx parents to press for some of the city’s first attempts at bilingual education and just treatment for language minority students in school.

Even if they don’t teach history or social studies, educators can see in the 1964 boycott and in Antonetty’s story prompts to approach parents as allies, to see communities as funds of knowledge and energy to connect to and build from. The chancellor’s initiative can be an opportunity to help teachers uncover and reflect on these histories.

Ansley first taught at a small high school in central Harlem, in a building that earlier housed Junior High School 136. J.H.S. 136 was one of three Harlem schools where in 1958 black parents protested segregation and inequality by withdrawing their children from school – risking imprisonment for violating truancy laws. The protest helped build momentum for later educational activism – and demonstrated black Harlem mothers’ deep commitment to securing powerful education for their children.

Although she taught in the same school – perhaps even the same classroom – where boycotting students had studied, Ansley didn’t know about this history until a few years after she left the school. Since learning about it, she has often reflected on the missed opportunities. How could the story of this “Harlem Nine” boycott have helped her students learn about their community’s history and interrogate the inequalities that still shaped their school? What could this story of parent activism have meant for how Ansley thought about and worked with her students’ parents?

Today, teaching future teachers, Ansley strives to convey the value of local and community history in her classes. One new teacher, now working in the Bronx, commented that her own learning about local history “taught me that we should not only think of schools as places of learning. They also are important places of community.”

The history of racism and of freedom struggles needs to be part of any New York City students’ learning as well as that of their teachers. Some of the $23 million should support the work of local anti-racist educators, such as those who spearheaded the Black Lives Matter Week of Action last February, in developing materials that help teach about this history. These efforts align with the chancellor’s pledge for culturally responsive education. And they offer ways to recognize and build on the knowledge of New York City’s community organizations and anti-racist education networks.

Attitudes matter, and educators – like everyone – can learn from the psychology of bias and stereotype. But historical ignorance or misrepresentation has fed racism, and history can be a tool in its undoing.

That would be a good $23 million investment for New York and all of its children.

Ansley Erickson is an associate professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University and a former New York City high school teacher.

Brian Jones is the associate director of education at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library and a former New York City elementary school teacher.

Adam Sanchez is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City and an organizer and curriculum writer with the Zinn Education Project.