The new NYC school system: A house of cards

New York City public education officials have been duking it out over whether the mayor should continue to run NYC public schools, or the “old” Board of Education should regain control.  Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have indeed “shaken up” the public schools in a few key ways which have both positive and negative ramifications for our students.  However, as I see it, no matter who’s running NYC Public Schools, the problems will be similar, until teachers and parents play more meaningful roles in decisions affecting their schools and districts.

After a long transition period, Bloomberg and Klein’s NYC school system now appears to be a hands-off “results-oriented” productivity model, transplanted from the business world.  No longer do districts tell teachers what materials to use, what they should be teaching each day or month, nor do they decide how principals should offer professional development for their staff.  Principals have a lot more freedom over budget, curriculum, and hiring. This has been positive in some schools, because progressive principals finally have some freedom to create structures that serve their students, such as teacher leadership roles and team teaching situations; teachers can build curriculum based on the specific needs the students.  Bloomberg and Klein have even supported an initiative to get teachers involved in action research at their own schools to figure out how to better meet the needs of struggling students. (CFI Inquiry team)

So why am I not a huge fan of Bloomberg & Klein running NYC public schools?

On the one hand, Bloomberg and Klein don’t seem to have much to say about what goes on in their city’s classrooms, what kinds of experiences students have in city schools, or what knowledge and ideas teachers may have beyond their own classrooms.  The attitude seems to be, “As long as students are making progress, we’ll stay out of it.”  Kind of like the business owner who says, “As long as business is good, I’m not concerned with what goes on at the ground level.”  Not necessarily a bad stance for a politicians with no experience as educators.

But, like George W. Bush and many other non-educators have done, Bloomberg and Klein have made one decision that has colored NYC public and charter schools more than any mandate that came down the line from the old Board of Education–the decision to control how progress is measured in public schools, and to hold that measure above all others.

Seemingly without question, they have predicated all action and all notions of accountability concerning our schools on the assumption that a child’s learning can be summed up in a single, standardized test, given each year in reading and math.

As a teacher I can say, with more certainty than I can say most things, that the standardized tests fail to accurately and reliably measure a student’s learning over the course of a year, and most people involved in education will admit this.

Furthermore, the system under Bloomberg and Klein penalizes schools, principals, and teachers for failing to raise test scores each year, more than the old Board of Education ever did. The result is that teachers and principals are making decisions on everything from curriculum to scheduling to professional development to pedagogy to budget with the sole goal of increasing students’ ability to perform on standardized tests.

As I have written about before, in my own practice, the pressure to teach to the test has amounted to an assault on the intellectual process I believe is truly important for young learners and their future lives, as well as the future of this country.

Adding a sinister twist, testing itself is a business, and so, in many respects, is politics.  Too many people’s careers are resting on the use of these test scores as evidence of progress in public schools. The people who really care about the education of our kids–teachers and parents–are shamefully left out of the game.  Frankly, I just don’t trust a system that hangs on a standardized test.  I’d even venture to call it un-American.

Bloomberg and Klein, I think you’re pretty smart guys and that you’d like to see a great public school system in NYC.  But you’re trying to take a shortcut by building a house of cards where testing = learning.  You need to let go of that folly, role your sleeves up, and get down with some expert teachers, parents, brain researchers, child development experts, principals, guidance counselors, community leaders, and technology specialists.  Together, you need to decide what we all really want for our city’s kids, and what our city needs of its future adult population.  Then make it happen.  Don’t say there’s no money for it (nobody says there’s no money for testing, now, do they…) because I can already think of a bunch of ways to do it.

And, by the way, if you decide you’re not up for the task of really educating children, no hard feelings. Just do the right thing and step out of the way for someone who is.

[image credits: house of cards– uzar.wordpress.com quiet testing sign– ctemploymentlawblog.com puzzle image–  ecologyofeducation.net ]