Nine ways to improve schools in the nation’s largest district

Bill de Blasio (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Bill de Blasio (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The election of  Bill de Blasio, a progressive Democrat, as the next mayor in New York City could mean big changes in the nation’s largest school district, which for 12 years has been the subject of corporate-influenced and standardized test-based school reform. A group of New Yorkers recently got together to start to set an agenda for real change in the city schools. Mark Naison, a professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University and director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program, writes about it here. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African American History, urban history and the history of sports. And he is a co-founder of the Badass Teachers Association.

 

By Mark Naison

Dozens of students, parents, teachers, principals and education researchers brought together recently by  BK Nation, a new national organization designed to promote grassroots activism through social media and technology, had a frank discussion of what can be done to improve the public schools of New York City. The goal of this gathering was to identify the most serious problems in the New York City school system and propose possible solutions. Most of those on the panel and in the audience  were people who had either worked at, taught at, or attended schools in high poverty neighborhoods, and the result was an incredibly frank discussion of issues that rarely see the light of day in mainstream media.

What follows is a summary of the main points of agreement of people at the BK Nation gathering. They represent a chilling commentary on everything that is wrong with dominant Education policies not only in New York City, but cities across the nation.

1. Students in the city’s poorest neighborhoods and lowest performing schools, especially those designated for closing or phasing out, feel that they have been abandoned, disrespected, and deprived of real opportunities to improve their situation. The pain they feel has no real outlet and never finds its way into the media or into the calculations of those shaping education policy. We have to find a way of inspiring them, caring for them, and giving them an outlet for their talents.

2. Teachers around the city, especially veteran teachers and teacher of color, feel almost as marginalized and disrespected as their students. The last administration has damaged the morale of the city’s teaching staff  and we need to celebrate our teachers, not constantly denounce them.

3. We have to get away from scripted curriculum and start creating culturally relevant pedagogy to inspire our youth. If that means ditching Common Core, it means ditching Common Core. We need to connect young people to their families, their neighborhood and school traditions, and to cultural traditions that empower them rather than marginalize them. And school cultures should be built around those traditions.

4. We need to recruit and retain teachers of color, and teachers of any background who grew up in high-needs communities and with whom students can relate. We should also encourage them live in the communities they teach in. This may mean radically revising patterns of teacher recruitment, as well as incentive systems to keep our best teachers.

5. We need to finds ways to assess student performance that are more flexible and holistic than the one’s currently used. That means moving away from bubble tests for rating students, and eliminating them entirely as way of rating teachers. We also need to expand the number of schools who use such alternative assessments and are exempt from state tests.

6. We need to do everything in our power to encourage student and parent activism and transform schools into community institutions where both of those groups feel they have a voice.

7. We need to nurture community building within schools, and relationship building as a central component of teaching. This involves respecting freedom of speech and freedom of expression among everyone in schools — teachers, students, parents — and encouraging cooperation, not competition, as the most important value in school communities.

8. We need to stop the destructive practice of closing allegedly “failing” schools, and find ways of helping them serve their students and families better. Closing schools sends a profoundly discouraging and destructive message to teachers and students.

9. We should look  at schools as places where activists and change makers are nurtured rather than as places where conformists are formed.

 

(Fixing: An earlier version had dropped periods and an incomplete sentence because of a systems glitch. )

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · November 19, 2013