How Organized Citizens Helped de Blasio Sieze Equity-Driven Public Education as Core Issue

In the spring 2014 issue of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform’s VUE (Voices in Urban Education Reform), Oona Chaterjee, associate director for New York City organizing at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, introduces a set of articles about how it came to be that mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, “elevated a comprehensive vision for improving the city’s more than 1,800 public schools”… including “many of the signature reforms fought for by advocates throughout the twelve preceding years of the Bloomberg administration: the creation of 100 community schools in his first rerm; supports for struggling schools, rather than school closings; reduced reliance on disciplinary measures that remove students from classrooms; and an accountability system that relies on measures other than standardized tests.”

It is easy to imagine that de Blasio, who became mayor in January 2014 after a stunning victory last November, might have created his public education agenda as a response to his years as a parent in Brooklyn or to his experiences while serving as public advocate, but in fact Annenberg’s spring VUE is a collection of articles about strategic and extended community organizing that pressured New York City’s mayoral candidates to react to a community-driven platform and to embrace or reject it.  In the spring 2014 VUE, it is very much worth reading pieces by two of New York City’s best community organizers—Zakiyah Ansari of the Alliance for Quality Education and Ocynthia Williams of the Coalition for Educational Justice—and to read Oona Chateree’s interview with New York University sociologist Pedro Noguera.

But most fascinating is Billy Easton’s, Changing Course on School Reform: Strategic Organizing around the New York City Mayoral Election. Easton is the executive director of New York’s statewide Alliance for Quality Education, which, beginning in 2011, worked with the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice, Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change, and the Urban Youth Collaborative, to develop a strategy to create momentum for the overwhelming rejection of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s educational philosophy.  The two year campaign was designed to culminate in the 2013 mayoral race.

The goal, according to Easton, was to establish a positive agenda to counter the corporate school reform that had become Bloomberg’s signature issue: “Bloomberg used the bully pulpit of his office, his virtually unchecked authority over schools through perhaps the nation’s most absolute form of mayoral control, and his own personal wealth to aggressively promote his education agenda… Bloomberg wanted a skilled manager to run the schools like a corporation, not a professional educator—hence three non-educators as chancellors… Central management staff included many non-educators with backgrounds as investment bankers, management consultants, and corporate lawyers.  Management authority was devolved to building principals with a sink-or-swim philosophy similar to that of corporate restructurings.  The entire system was aligned to drive up the test score bottom line… As one principal described it, ‘The profit margin in this business is test scores.  That’s all they measure you by now.'”

Easton traces the agenda organizers framed as a rejection of Bloomberg’s philosophy that school districts are run for the adults they employ, not for the students.  A new, and contrasting, student-centered counter-narrative explained that those running the schools under Bloomberg had utterly failed to focus on the concerns of the students—quality curriculum, arts and music, guidance counseling, supporting teachers, programs for English language learners—and had instead emphasized adult issues—“who runs schools, who works in schools, and what the rules are for employment.”

Two large  coalitions were established with a shared purpose and different tactics—one campaign that engaged the community around policy development and a second campaign that engaged the candidates and mobilized the grassroots.  The goal of the two-pronged effort “was to see the next mayor, no matter who won, implement policies that replaced the market-reform agenda with a student-centered opportunity agenda.  A secondary goal was that the next mayor should help drive a new direction in school reform nationally by using New York city’s bully pulpit to articulate a successful vision for reform….”

Organizers posted twenty policy briefs authored by experts, took them on the road for discussion, and invited hundreds of parents and community members to “vote for the recommendations that most reflected their visions for the schools.”  At events across the city, parents and community participants then pressed the mayoral candidates to “commit to pieces of it, so that the candidates themselves would be the most effective public advocates of the agenda—thus capturing considerable media attention and framing the political debate… We identified a few key wedge issues where the candidates had to take a yes or no stand, making it difficult for them to equivocate.  In January 2013, we called for a moratorium on school closings and co-locations… The wedge issue strategy was working by creating divide lines among the candidates and between the candidates and the Bloomberg administration.  Our issues, and thus the direction of school reform were emerging as central issues in the mayoral campaign.”

The coalitions that framed an agenda to expand opportunity in the public schools have pledged to continue using their platform to press the new mayor to continue focusing on public education:  “The real challenge is to continue supporting and pressuring Mayor de Basio to provide leadership on education reform that is as assertive as Bloomberg’s but with a wholly different agenda and one that is much more successful for New York city students.”


New York City’s New Teachers’ Contract Matters—To All of Us

The Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, where he writes a blog.  Last Thursday, the 1st of May, the Rev. Thomas posted the following:  “May Day commemorates the Haymarket uprising in Chicago in 1886 that began as a march by workers in support of the eight hour workday.  It continues to be celebrated in many places as a day to honor workers and to rally workers to the labor movement.  But these days May Day is perhaps more aptly described as a collective “Mayday!” on behalf of workers who have been under assault for decades—lost jobs, suppressed wages, broken unions, attacks on collective bargaining, reduced benefits, and on and on it goes.”

It is therefore particularly fitting that last week on Thursday, May 1, 2014, New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio and the United Federation of Teachers agreed on a contract that will end a bitter, long running dispute.  The NY Times covered the agreement, noting that “The teachers’ union has been without a contract for four and a half years…. The retroactive pay granted in the deal is the same pair of 4 percent raises that most other municipal unions received in 2009 and 2010.” In an earlier article, the NY Times reported that New York City’s 100,000 school teachers and other school employees represented by the United Federation of Teachers had been without a contract since 2009.  (Members of the United Federation of Teachers will be taking a vote soon on the agreement.)

Many of you who read this blog may live far from New York City and may wonder if New York City’s new labor agreement with its teachers is relevant to you.  Consider that New York’s previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was a leader in the national wave of hostility toward teachers and their unions. The NY Times editorial board, which has not always been complimentary to the new Mayor de Blasio, praised him this past Saturday in an editorial: “Dispensing with the unproductive tension that tarnished the Bloomberg administration, the two sides showed that real progress can be made—on both the fiscal and the educational sides of the contract—when there is good will instead of disdain.”  Bloomberg’s active disdain for New York’s  teachers’ union provided cover for too many leaders across the country to attack teachers and their unions. It is to be hoped that  New York’s new contract with its teachers will become a symbol of the beginning of a national change of heart about school teachers.

Four years ago, the Rev. Thomas posted another blog that seemed so significant to me that I have kept it right in the front of my clipping file of articles about school teachers.  Rev. Thomas titled his piece, It’s Not OK to Hate Teachers.  Here is what Rev. Thomas wrote on June 3, 2010: “Earlier this year Arne Duncan and Barack Obama publicly affirmed the decision of a Rhode Island school district to fire every teacher at a failing public high school.  Do we really think every teacher at that high school deserved to be fired?… This spring the governor of New Jersey, angry at the pace of negotiations with teachers’ unions, publicly urged citizens to vote down their school levies knowing full well what kind of devastating impact that would have on public school classrooms in his state.  This Sunday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a front page report on the teachers in the Cleveland Public Schools that, at least to me, seemed designed to paint teachers in the worst possible light as overpaid, underworked, intransigent about reform, and not overly competent.”

And since 2010, the attacks on teachers have only worsened.  Although the majority of  teachers’ contributions to the lives of their students can be named only with words grammarians would call abstract, non-count nouns—learning, reason, discernment, creativity, character, encouragement, support, perseverance, discipline—school teachers have now seen their work quantified with value-added-measures—econometric formulas based on students’ scores on standardized tests.  In fact to qualify for No Child Left Behind Waivers from the U.S. Department of Education, states had to promise to incorporate students’ scores on the statewide test into their teacher evaluation systems.  Teachers are being blamed for shortfalls (due to the recession and in some places mismanagement) in the public pension systems they pay into throughout their careers, even as many states do not have public employees pay into Social Security.  Now Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says he plans to institute new ratings for the Colleges of Education where teachers are trained.  We have come to accept the language of economics to discuss the “inputs” teachers contribute and the  “outcomes” teachers are thought to “produce,” and we’ve learned that the inputs don’t really matter.  What’s measurable in the outcomes is all that counts.

I frequently find myself thinking about the observation of Parker Palmer, the writer who devoted his career to helping people consider their vocation.  Palmer wrote The Courage to Teach to help exhausted teachers recover their connection to their sense of calling.  In his introduction to a companion volume, Stories of The Courage to Teach, Palmer asks us to appreciate teachers in ways that can neither be counted nor computed, nor measured, nor monetized:

“America’s teachers are the culture heroes of our time.  Daily they are asked to solve problems that baffle the rest of us.  Daily they are asked to work with resources nowhere near commensurate with the task.  And daily they are berated by politicians, the public, and the press for their alleged failures and inadequacies…  If you are not a teacher and are skeptical either about their plight or their dedication,… visit a public school near you and shadow a couple of teachers for a couple of days.  Almost certainly you will witness for yourself the challenges teachers face, their lack of resources, and the deep demoralization they feel about serving as scapegoats for our nation’s ills… Caught in an anguishing bind between the good work they do and public misperceptions that surround them, hundreds of thousands of teachers somehow keep the faith and keep going…. Every day in classrooms across the land, good people are working hard, with competency and compassion, at reweaving the tattered fabric of society on which we all depend.” (pp. xvii-xviii)

Thank you, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for recognizing the work of New York City’s teachers with a fair contract.



NYC Scraps 3rd Grade Guarantee As Ohio Adopts It–Based on ALEC Model Law

In September of 2012, according to Ohio’s Plunderbund, Ohio’s then acting state superintendent of public instruction, Michael Sawyers claimed that Ohio’s new 3rd Grade Guarantee will help Ohio’s children.  After all, Governor John Kasich has consistently alleged that children behind in reading by third grade are more likely to drop out of school than stronger readers.

Sawyers extolled the 3rd Grade Guarantee as a dropout prevention program that will primarily support students who have fallen behind in Ohio’s poorest urban school districts.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that the percentage of children projected to be held back in third grade at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year across Ohio’s urban districts is:  Youngstown, 59.8 percent; Cleveland, 57.8 percent; East Cleveland, 57.2 percent; Warren, 55 percent; Warrensville Heights, 54.1 percent; Euclid, 52.1 percent; Lorain, 51.3 percent; Columbus, 49.3 percent; and Dayton, 47.7 percent.

Contrary to Kasich’s and Sawyers’ belief that the 3rd Grade Guarantee will lower the dropout rate, this blog has covered a mass of expert research demonstrating that repeating a grade is not only unlikely to improve reading but also very likely to result in students dropping out later as they become over-age in grade during adolescence.

Expert research, however,  hasn’t stopped the American Legislative Exchange Council from developing and distributing across the legislatures of the 50 states model legislation to require that children pass the standardized reading test before they can be promoted to fourth grade.  The Ohio law taking effect in 2014 is a replica of ALEC’s model legislation.  According to Chapter 7, Section 2 (C) of the ALEC model law, “Beginning with the 20XX-20XY school year, if the student’s reading deficiency, as identified in paragraph (a), is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring at Level 2 or higher on the state annual accountability assessment in reading for grade 3, the student must be retained.”

Norm Fruchter is a new member of New York City’s Panel for Educational Policy (New York City’s mayoral-appointed school board) and principal associate at  Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform (located in New York City).  Writing for Gotham Gazette, Fruchter reports that ten years ago, “Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced a new student promotion policy based on retention—holding students back in the 3rd grade based on their New York State test results.  Fruchter reports that Mayor Bloomberg “trumpeted this tough love approach” despite that it “generated a maelstrom of protest.”

According to Fruchter, two years ago, in June of 2012, Mayor Bloomberg and Dennis Walcott, then chancellor, quietly scrapped New York’s 3rd grade retention program by granting “principals discretion to promote 3rd through 7th graders who’d been held back multiple times or were significantly over-age for their grade—a covert admission that the get-tough policy wasn’t working.”

Fruchter celebrates the decision earlier this month by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new Chancellor, Carmen Farina, as this blog covered here, formally to rewrite grade promotion policy by considering “the integrated use of multiple criteria equivalent to an achievement portfolio,” with standardized test scores as only one factor in the decision.  “Thanks to this advance, the New York City school system now has the opportunity not only to restore sanity to promotion/retention decisions, but to tackle the core questions of how best to assess our students’ academic achievement and, most important, how to improve their outcomes.”

I wonder if it will take Ohio’s politicians ten years to recognize the error of the new 3rd Grade Guarantee now being implemented through the adoption of ALEC’s model legislation?



Zombie Ideas and Conventional Wisdom: Why NYC’s School “Reform” Matters to the Rest of Us

Paul Krugman, the Princeton University economist and NY Times columnist, wrote a column earlier this week about myths in economics.  He calls them “zombie ideas.”  Here is how Krugman defines a zombie idea: “one of those things that everyone important knows must be true, because everyone they know says it’s true.”   Back in 1958 in a famous book, The Affluent Society, another economist John Kenneth Galbraith called such ideas “the conventional wisdom” —“the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.”  Galbraith continued: “The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group…. the consensus is exceedingly broad.  Nothing much divides those who are liberals by common political designation from those who are conservatives.”

Zombie ideas.  The conventional wisdom.  Bipartisan consensus based on not much evidence and maybe even contrary to the evidence.  Sounds like today’s wave of so-called public education “reform.”

Gene V. Glass, one of the authors of a fine new book on the facts and the evidence about what’s needed to improve public schools, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, recently commented on the conventional wisdom–zombie ideas that dominate today’s theories of school “reform”:

“One narrative prominent these days — the Crisis Narrative — holds that our nation is at risk because our children are dumber than Finland, because our teachers are tools of greedy unions, because incompetent ‘ed-school’ trained administrators are incapable of delivering first-rate education.  And — this narrative goes on — what public education needs is total reform: higher standards, more tests, brighter teachers uncorrupted by the wishy washy ‘education school’ ideologies and above all, choice and competition.  This narrative serves a set of private interests that want to reform our schools.  About ten years ago, Rupert Murdoch — the billionaire owner of Fox News — called public education a ‘$600 billion sector in the U.S. that is waiting desperately to be transformed.’  He might have more honestly said, ‘Public education is a half trillion dollar plum waiting to be picked.’… The purveyors of the mythology have been created by corporations and ideological interests that stand to gain from the coming great reformation.  Enter the Koch brothers, Eli Broad, the Kaufmanns, Bill Gates, and their richly endowed ilk.”

The prevalence of the “zombie conventional wisdom” (ideas that should have been killed by evidence, but refuse to die) about school choice and the superiority of privatizing education has been particularly evident this week in New York’s state budget agreement that will preserve such theories just as they were instituted in the city’s schools during the three terms of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  New York City’s new Mayor Bill de Blasio had intended to prioritize the needs of the 94 percent of NYC’s children in traditional public schools rather than the needs of the 6 percent of children attending charter schools, but the state legislature and New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo have clung to Bloomberg’s policies. (Cuomo and the Assembly lean Democratic and the Senate is Republican, but remember: the conventional wisdom is bipartisan.)  The legislature and the governor have agreed on a state budget law that will require the city to find space for charter schools inside public school buildings or pay the cost of leasing space for them in privately owned buildings.  The state budget agreement also prohibits the city from charging rent to charter schools when they are co-located in public school spaces.

New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo is a big supporter of the conventional wisdom about charters. The NY Times quotes Cuomo on the new budget agreement: “We want to protect and grow and support that charter school movement, and this budget does that.” (This blog has tracked the huge investment in Cuomo’s political campaigns by supporters of privatization, charter operators and wealthy members of their boards here and here.)

Mayor de Blasio had resisted New York City’s tradition of accommodating charter schools (funded with public money and in New York endowed additionally by wealthy financiers) with rent-free space in public buildings. While he approved the majority of requests for new space from charter schools in February (the charter school co-locations had been pre-approved by Mayor Bloomberg before he left office), Mayor de Blasio attempted to cancel plans for three schools affiliated with a network known as Success Academy Charter Schools.  Two of the schools would have moved very young children into high schools, a situation de Blasio believed created safety issues.  A third would have threatened space currently housing physical therapy and other special services for disabled students. (This blog covered the NY budget deal here.)

How dare Mayor de Blasio challenge the bipartisan conventional wisdom—the zombie idea—that charters are the answer to the biggest problems for the schools in New York City!  In recent weeks powerful forces have rallied behind celebrity Eva Moskowitz—the politically connected charter operator who runs Success Academy Charters , who is paid $475,000 in annual salary, and who closed 22 schools for the day and bused the children and their parents to a political rally in Albany.  Her friends, board members, and supporters funded a $3.5 million  television ad campaign portraying darling children who claimed they would have no place to go to school if Mayor de Blasio were permitted to deny space for the three schools in question.  These friends have also invested in perpetuating the conventional wisdom by donating over $800,000 in campaign contributions to Governor Cuomo.  Glitz—celebrity—a lot of money—all the “right” people, and voila: the conventional wisdom.

But what if we look at the facts and realities that the conventional wisdom doesn’t acknowledge?   Al Baker, writing for the NY Times on March 31, remembers a speech a couple of weeks ago on the floor of the New York state legislature in the midst of the political fight over charters, an address by Sheldon Silver, speaker of New York’s Assembly: “There are children that are learning in trailers today; nobody has taken up their cause, to get them a permanent seat and a permanent school.”  According to Baker, Silver was unsuccessful  in his effort to secure funds in the state budget deal to rid the city of temporary classrooms in aging trailers, many of them now located on playgrounds next to over-crowded traditional schools in Queens in neighborhoods where immigrants have settled.  According to Baker’s investigation, despite a promise by former Mayor Bloomberg that he would rid NYC of  portable classrooms by 2012, today such supposedly temporary trailers house 7,158 children every day. “Though the Bloomberg administration spent billions of dollars buying land and building new schools, it managed only a modest reduction in the number of school trailers: to 352 today from 371 when he took office.”

Baker points out the obvious: “And the state budget deal reached last week is quite likely to make the task even harder, since it compels the city to find room in public school buildings for new charter schools, or help pay for their space costs.”  One fact that the prevailing conventional wisdom about the rights of charter operators ignores is the scale of the issues in NYC’s schools, which serve 1.1 million children.  In NYC, while 66,000 children are enrolled in charter schools, 1,034,000 children attend NYC’s traditional public schools.   Despite that the the conventional wisdom among New York’s power brokers doesn’t accord traditional public schools nearly so much attention, Mayor de Blasio deserves support as he tries to address the needs of the schools that serve the majority—and the schools most likely to serve the vulnerable.