First Person

A letter to fellow teachers: As we denounce racist police, we must not hold our tongues about racist schools

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar

When I was about 16 years old, I worked in a pharmacy in a suburb of Milwaukee. I mopped floors and stole candy. Two people addicted to painkillers came in one night with a .44 Magnum revolver.

They wanted money and drugs, and though I was in charge of neither, I got to feel what it was to lay on the floor with a gun to the back of my head. Later, I got to know what it meant to see a middle-aged, balding cop and believe he was the most beautiful creature in the world. It’s easy to hate on cops, you know, until you really need one.

Of course, in many places and at many times, cops are doing the ugliest things we do. I don’t need to tell those stories, do I? I don’t need to repeat the hashtags, do I? We are, I am, drowning in the sorrow of right now. I need love. We need to embrace love in each other, but I also, right now, can’t stop being mad.

There should be no more hashtags, obviously. I agree, obviously, that we should stop needlessly killing people, stop fearing black skin as a marker of some imagined violence about to happen. But that won’t be enough.

Maybe we need more hashtags. Millions more. There are no small ways someone is treated as inhuman. There are no small injustices. There are only injustices that are drowned in the volume of their volume. There should be hashtags for the times someone didn’t die. For the comments, names, assumptions, accusals, abuse, on the car lot, in job interviews, from police, from the guy behind the counter, from the woman at the bank, from the doctor.

From teachers. We know it. From teachers. We need hashtags for every student of color and Native student suspended for insubordination, for being bored or disrespected and acting like people do when they are either or both of those things. Hashtags for students suspended for being smarter than their teachers or principal. Hashtags for students awarded for passing with skills that should have them leading. For every student made to feel like their teacher is scared of them.

We can decry racist cops and the racist criminal justice system, but we better not hold our tongues about racist teachers and the racist education system. We better not use their excuses about how the media is making it hard for us to do our jobs, about how the family and community of our students is to blame. We better not say “not all teachers,” and we better not say, “No one would chose teaching if they were racist.”

We sound ridiculous. Anyone sounds ridiculous when they say race isn’t an issue, most especially when they can point out at racism in others and somehow imagine it doesn’t touch their own work.

Teachers, this is us. We are them, without guns.

We take lives with subtlety, with patient violence.

Our black students under-perform, and we blame them. Our black students are singled out and we blame them. We track them low and punish them often, and we blame them. We prove to them they are less than, and we blame them for it. Get mad, but don’t come to me blaming poverty for our failures.

Get mad for black lives. Get mad at the murder and incarceration, but acknowledge that we are fueling the system from the bottom up with the black flesh it feeds on.

Get mad at me for saying it. I’m mad at every teacher who won’t.

Get mad, but not if you’re only looking for someone else to blame. Your righteousness is racism.

Us versus them is too easy. Black lives versus blue lives, allies versus attackers. The saintly liberal against the demon conservative. It’s too easy. It excuses too much. It hates too much.

I genuinely respect cops. I respect anyone whose job it is to run toward bad things happening to help people. I’m not sure I would be able to always do that. I wouldn’t. The stakes are high and impossible decisions need to be made instantly.

I wish them safety. I also wish them patience and empathy and humanity and respect and understanding. I want them to be better, and want us all to be better.

I know nothing about police training, but I know we all, most especially any white person in any position of power, any white person with any desire to consider themselves a functioning adult of a healthier society, needs to more work on our own work. We need to be honest. We are, every one of us, part of this problem.

We can shout that Black Lives Matter. Let’s make sure they do.

This piece was originally published on the author’s blog, Mr. Rad’s Neighborhood.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.