In NYC, Farina Replaces “Test-and-Punish” with “Support-and-Improve.” Wow!

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign slogan last fall described New York as a tale of two cities.  He was referring to alarming income inequality exacerbated by the policies of former mayor Michael Bloomberg.  The metaphor of two cities also captures the contrast in philosophy between the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations, a contrast that has never been exposed more plainly than it was this week.

On Wednesday, New York City schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, went to  P.S. 503/P.S. 506 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn to deliver her second major policy address.  She announced a new philosophy of school improvement and the abandonment of letter grade ratings for public schools.

Then on Thursday, charter school diva Eva Moskowitz closed her Success Academy charter schools and led students, parents, and teachers at a rally in support of charter schools, a rally that was coordinated with a huge TV ad buy that cost nearly half a million dollars.  The ads—that ran most of the week—malign the public schools and promote school choice.

Farina’s policy address, filled with the kind of intangibles that must be the heart of any real school improvement, was described by the press primarily for its promise that the New York Public Schools will abandon a rating system that assigns public schools grades of A-F and instead publish School Quality Snapshots.  The Chancellor says the new Snapshots will, “provide the first balanced picture of a school’s quality—and reflect our promise to stop judging students and schools based on a single, summative grade…  The Snapshot will provide rich details about the life of the school by capturing successes, challenges, and strategies for improvement.  This is a totally new approach.  We are no longer penalizing a school for its weaknesses.”

It is important to stop for a second and think about what we are really reading here.  The New York City School District is abandoning a philosophy of test-and-punish and adopting a philosophy of support-and-improve.

Anyone who has been reading the literature about turning around the schools maligned by the federal testing law No Child Left Behind as “failing” or “in need of improvement” knows that New York City under Mayor Bloomberg was a leader in experiments that closed so-called “failing” schools and emphasized school choice by expanding privatized charters.  And anyone who has been following this conversation over the past dozen years knows that one of the best alternatives to the wave of punitive school reform is described in a book from the University of Chicago: Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, by Anthony Bryk and his colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Sadly Rahm Emanuel has not followed the advice of the Consortium on Chicago School Research.  Carmen Farina just announced that New York City will adopt this plan.

Bryk is a sociologist, and Organizing Schools for Improvement is about shaping the cultural dynamics of a public school to support professional educators—thus enabling them to nurture children.  Farina describes what she calls “six essential elements that have driven continual school improvement and moved students to the next level… rigorous instruction, a supportive environment, collaborative teachers, effective leadership, strong family-community ties, and a culture of continuous learning and trust.”  She explains, “We are looking beyond test scores and focusing on making sure that each school has what it needs for sustained and continuous growth.  And we have developed a framework that mirrors the essential elements we see in schools that continually improve… We built our framework around an established body of research conducted by Anthony Bryk and his colleagues from the University of Chicago.”

According to Bryk and his colleagues—and to Farina—the building of relational trust among the professionals in a public school is key.  Bryk and his colleagues describe school improvement as akin to baking a cake:  “Taking this analogy further, four of the organizational supports—parent-community ties, professional capacity, student-centered learning climate, and the instructional guidance system—can be conceived as a list of essential ingredients. Should a core ingredient be absent, it is just not a cake….   We can think of relational trust as the oven heat that transforms the blended ingredients into a full, rich cake. Finally, standing behind all of this is the head chef, in our case, this is the school principal, who orchestrates the collaborative processes of school transformation.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, p. 203)

In her address, Farina lists major changes instituted or launched since she took over the schools last winter:  pre-kindergarten for more than 50,000 students, major expansion of after school programming for students in middle school, the addition of 40 minutes each week (right in the union contract) for teachers to involve families in creative ways, the development of more than 40 new full-service community schools with wrap-around services that may include health clinics and parent support services, new staff development for counselors and school social workers, enhanced programs and support for English language learners, expansion of arts education, enhancement of career and technical education, enhanced professional learning opportunities for teachers and time (again set aside in the contract) for such activities, and collaboration among public schools for support and improvement.  Farina succinctly summarizes what’s changing in New York’s public schools: “We are no longer forcing change on people, we’re creating change with people.”

Of course, there has already been complaining that this is all intangible.  How can anyone measure it?  How can parents digest the information that will be released, when the letter grades were so simple and clear?  And of course the first person to leap in with criticism is Eva Moskowitz, the $500,000-per-year CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools whose supporters raised what Capital New York reports is $479,200 for a TV ad buy.  Many board members of Moskowitz’s  Success Academy charter schools also serve as the leaders of the ads’ sponsor, Families for Excellent Schools.  The spots, Don’t Steal Possible, malign the public schools, which are depicted as stealing opportunity from children.  According to Capital New York, Eva Moskowitz declared, “Our school system is stealing possibilities from New York’s children.”  We are reminded that Families for Excellent Schools also “sponsored a multimillion dollar ad buy earlier this year attacking de Blasio after he initially blocked three of Moskowitz’s charters from moving into existing public schools and sharing the space. He lost that political battle, in part because of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s strong and public support of Moskowitz… Cuomo also denied de Blasio his plan to charge wealthier charters rent.”

If they are given time, Farina’s policies to strengthen school organizations to support teachers and to connect schools with the children’s families are likely to expand what’s possible for children in New York City.  Farina explains: “One size does not fit all… Likewise, schools have unique qualities that cannot be captured in a letter grade.  They are not restaurants…  One way we will support schools is to evaluate their performance based on multiple measures….  This is no longer a competition.”

The question is whether New York’s citizens and the rest of our culture—that worships competition and invests hope in numerical ranking and rating—will risk trying something new.  Do we any longer even understand the importance of supporting human relationship and building community? Will we give New York City’s new learning philosophy a chance to improve the educational experience of over a million children in the public schools?