Saturday, July 18, 2015

Turning a Building Around

Thanks to Andrew Cuomo and his Heavy Hearts Assembly, a whole lot of schools in NY State are looking down the barrel of receivership, i.e. state takeover. In a year or two, if Chancellor Fariña and her counterparts can't make test scores and graduation rates go up, Governor Andy and his hedge fund BFFs can turn over school leadership to Eva Moskowitz, or whoever they feel like.

I live right next to Roosevelt, where state takeover has been failing pretty much forever.  But why bother with history when all your programs are based on ignoring not only that, but also research and practice? If poor test scores are invariably aligned with poverty and high needs, why not ignore that utterly and blame the teachers? That's what newly-minted Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has done, blathering some hogwash about how these schools have been failing children for decades.

Here's the thing--there are ways to improve test scores. Eva Moskowitz and her corporate charter counterparts have one. First, you don't take the same kids the public schools do. You make extra steps to gain entrance. You make school a living misery, focused almost solely on tests. Then you get rid of those who don't measure up, and don't bother replacing them. Then you make a lot of noise about "no excuses" and vehemently deny the playing field is rigged.

Another route to school improvement is GW Bush's preferred methodology--the "Texas Miracle." Basically you just cook the books and base a national education program on fraud.  Or you could always erase to the top. We collectively assume programs like GW's and Eva's are models, things to be  admired and replicated. That, in fact, is why my neighbors, schools like Van Buren, Grover Cleveland and John Adams, are facing a very uncertain future.

In the two city schools facing these draconian measures this year, more than half the staff won't be returning. In an agreement with the city, these educators will get jobs elsewhere. I think those who left did a smart thing. They've avoided the ATR, and they've also avoided sitting around in targeted schools with guns to their heads. In fact the principal of Boys and Girls has so little confidence in his own ability to accomplish the turnaround, he took a big old bonus regardless of consequence and made a deal to be able to return to his old school if things go south.

I've heard Mulgrew say at the DA several times that we need to succeed in this venture. I certainly hope we do, but there are issues here that bear our attention. The prime issue is that there is no basis whatsoever to assume we will succeed. We cannot cherry pick, we cannot counsel kids out, and we cannot leave slots open as kids leave. It's particularly absurd to assume we're gonna reverse the trajectory of kids who've been attending school for a decade or more. Moskowitz doesn't just take on high school kids. In fact, the history of "miracles" has to do almost entirely with either outright fraud or using selected kids and comparing them to the population at large.

Until and unless we address poverty, the underlying cause of a whole lot of our problems, that isn't going to change. In a few years, they can fire me as an ESL teacher, but that still won't mean newcomers will arrive speaking perfect English. They can close or take over my school, but that won't mean the severely disabled kids we enroll (unlike Moskowitz and even most public schools) are gonna ace the Physics Regents.

The underlying assumption, that state tests are the only measure of what kids achieve, is ridiculous. For one thing, I'm no genius, and my tests are a whole lot better than state tests. My tests are written by me, in response to the needs of my kids. Conversely, the NYSESLAT, on which I will be rated, is designed to test Common Core skills. My kids need to learn English before they can deal with this nonsense, and the geniuses who run the country have just denied them extra time to do that. Bear in mind that the extra time was still not nearly enough, but better than nothing.

I'm very sorry to say that our schools are being set up for failure. It is an egregious error on the part of the UFT to accept all the false assumptions about our kids and schools and say we're gonna prove them wrong. The way to prove them wrong, in fact, is not to step on their rigged playing field, accept their rules, and hope for the best. We prove them wrong by doing our job, by teaching America.

America needs to learn that we do a whole lot more than prepare kids for tests over which we have no control. America needs to learn that, while MaryEllen Elia may indeed believe life is a big test, she has failed it by making such idiotic pronouncements. America needs to learn that the highly regarded American Statistical Association says that not only do teachers affect test scores by a factor of 1-14%, but that undue focus on test scores actually impedes us from helping kids, the most important thing we do. American needs to learn that the best predictor of college readiness is not the arbitrary crap the geniuses in Albany dream up, but rather teacher-issued grades.

There are, in fact, kids who do poorly on tests who can succeed because they get along well with others. There are some who get excellent test scores but who aren't really very good students.  Life is not, in fact, a test, and we don't spend most of our time figuring out which dot to blacken. Life is messy, people have feelings, emotions, and desires, and teachers who ignore them are not likely to be successful.

It was an egregious error for the Heavy Hearts to agree to Cuomo's draconian plan to fail our public schools. Worse still was UFT President Michael Mulgrew's thank you note for having done so. Whoever wrote that for him should be fired. We're in a very rough place, and we have no one but ourselves to blame.

Staking our reputation on doing what has never been done anywhere is not the wisest thing to do. Enabling the government to shirk its responsibility to the neediest of students is irresponsible on our part. We need to do better, not only for our own sake, but also for the sake of the children we are charged to serve.

You can replace the teachers and principal, but they're not the ones who need help. The kids need help, and they're not, in fact, the ones who are failing. It is us, their caretakers, who are failing, by ignoring their problems, studiously pretending they don't exist, and blaming their teachers and schools. 
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