A Brave Stand By NYC School Administrators Could Lead to a Safer COVID-19 School Opening/Year, And Better Future Educational Opportunities For All NYC Children.

I know from experience that scheduling teachers and designing student course programs in a high school under ‘normal’ conditions is like solving a very complex people-puzzle. I can’t imagine what NYC principals are going through for this COVID-19 SY, with all of the constant goal-post moving, undermining ‘side-deals’ and policy shifting roadblocks that are thrown at them daily.

To their credit, the Council of Supervisors and administrators (CSA) have exposed the poorly planned and dangerous NYCDOE school-opening procedures, and they have also revealed the unholy NYCDOE political alliances that, for years, always placed the interest of children last.

Many of my former principal/superintendent colleagues and I have looked on in shocked horror as the mayor and chancellor have focused all of their planning energy, public relations, and political capital in pleasing the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) while totally ignoring the safety and learning needs of children and disregarding the critical advice and concerns of the key individual in any school crisis— the school building administrators.

Principals are in a tough and almost impossible situation where they are being held accountable for creating a safe and successful COVID-19 school opening and year, while also fighting against constantly changing politically driven directives, the focus of which is not a safe and productive school year opening, but rather to make the UFT happy.

Further, getting rid of (“furloughing”) superintendents in the middle of a medical crisis also sounded quite bizarre; because if superintendents are not needed under extreme emergency conditions, then why and when would you ever need them? And with many key senior NYCDOE officials exiting during a major school year emergency, it means that this should be an “all hands on deck” moment. Ok, so it sounds like principals are on their own!

For years there has been a quiet battle in the NYC Public Education system. It reached a critical flash-point in the 1990s when NYC high school principals held several meetings, set up an action-task force, hired a lawyer with the intent of leaving our union, the CSA (we ultimately decided to remain in CSA). One of the main issues for this drastic action was our concern for the fake ‘union solidarity’ relationship with the UFT; clearly, CSA and UFT had (and still have) radically different interests. Every newly appointed principal quickly learned that one of the major barriers to creating a school that would effectively educate all children was the UFT contract, along with their ‘unprincipled political power’ (I’ll come back to that). And if your school was Title-1 and served Black and Latino students, your battle was more brutal and dangerous (and any of those principals will have the UFT scars to prove it).

All NYC principals and superintendents knew and still know that most of the ‘bad’ news stories appearing in the local new media about principals were and are directly generated by a school’s UFT chapter leader or someone in the UFT organization (so much for union solidarity). The majority of these stories are strategically timed and organized to either stop or discourage principals from “U-Rating” (unsatisfactory rating) teachers or from placing dangerous, in some cases, mentally unstable and incompetent teachers into the “Rubber-Room” (which de facto still exist). A place where teachers, some who have committed terrible acts against children or other staff members, sit perhaps for years’ fighting’ their cases while receiving their full salary, benefits, and step increases. The UFT uses the news media ‘bash-a-principal’ route; so I learned as a principal and superintendent and confirmed over the years with reporters and editors; when there is no legitimate official grievance to file against a principal; after all, how do you file a grievance for: “The principal has high standards and expectations.”

For many years principals have been unfairly accused of being the cause of the infamous unofficial policy of: “The Dance of the Lemons.” This is the ‘policy’ where compassionate and smart principals use ‘budgetary-tricks,’ ‘the camouflaging of vacancies’ and other techniques (protecting principals, I won’t elaborate on how these things work) to get rid of incompetent teachers and to stop other ineffective teachers from transferring into their schools. The unfortunate resulting collateral damage is that these less-than-proficient teachers move to another school or onto the list of tenured unassigned teachers. At the same time, principals use these student ‘serve and defend’ tactics to hire, protect, and keep untenured effective teachers in their schools. Like the partially correct news reports (e.g., “students underperform and fail, but all their teachers are satisfactory!”), the ‘Dance of the Lemons’ does not occur because principals are lazy or don’t care about their colleagues. It’s an impossible situation they find themselves in because everyone knows that the “U-Rating” policy generally is heavily weighed against the principal, and the “arbitration” (the UFT exercise significant control over it) phase of the process favors the incompetent teacher and not children. Getting a “U” rating to stick is not impossible, but it takes a lot of time, a large amount of unnecessary work, and at best, it’s a ‘crapshoot.’ A teacher “winning” in arbitration means that the incompetent, unfit or unprofessional teacher is not fired and could only be subject to a small loss of (a week?) pay.

Unfortunately, the schools serving our Black and Latino students bear the brunt of those incompetent teachers job landings. First, many of these schools will most likely have a few vacancies every year (for reasons too complicated to go into here). Secondly, and quite frankly, some entitled school districts and schools clandestinely ignore the staffing (hiring) sections of the UFT contract. As with the case of any successful school, the administrators and staff will also quietly ignore (or will vote out specific areas) of the ‘operationally damaging’ sections of the UFT contract. I could name names, but I won’t; instead, I say bravo to those principals, schools, communities, and elected officials who refuse to risk the future hopes and dreams of their children.
But the sad another side of the story is that the systems weakest students, who are most in need of certified, experienced, and highly effective teachers, are often subjected to receiving an unfair number of rejected-incompetent teachers. A deadly combination emerges if those less-than-proficient teachers also have low expectations for their own capabilities and their student’s abilities.

This tragic instructional quality gap between districts and schools in NYC is also sadly a result of the UFT’s political alliances with Black, Latino, and “Liberal/Progressive” White elected officials, civic, religious, and civil rights leaders, along with the firm ‘political-beachhead’ the UFT has established with the Democratic Party. Their ‘charm offensive’ with these leaders is a mix of the practical and effective public relations. Practical because of the UFT’s ability (waning in my view) to endorse (or not endorse) and support a particular politician is of primary concern to elected officials. However, I’ve seen that ‘poor education’ is an absolute red line electability issue for elected officials representing the city’s entitled political residents. Secondly, the UFT has mastered the art of ‘progressive-sounding-speech’ ( talking ‘left-wing’ while acting ‘right-wing’); they’ll chant: “Black Lives Matter,”; but block young Black Learning Minds From Mattering. The UFT does everything in its power to prioritize adult job satisfaction and deprioritize the effective learning of all poor and working-class students (so much for working-class/labor unity). These actions of the UFT specifically hurt Black and Latino students, thus cynically harming the young constituents that the aforementioned leaders are charged with protecting.

Are there principals who are probably not-up-to-the-job, and in need of some serious professional development or others who might need a ‘career reassessment-reassignment,’ absolutely. But my long experience with CSA as a former member and as a superintendent who supervised CSA members is that the institutional, cultural philosophy of CSA is to want to see schools be successful and for all children to learn successfully. I often wonder why Black and Latino leaders continually pay humbling-homage to the UFT while ignoring and not getting behind the CSA; this is something I guess future political historians will have to explore.

I knew the present chancellor’s political survival plan was not in the city’s most underserved students’ interest when the entire achievement raising strategic plan was ‘racial sensitivity’ and ‘integration.’ His approach sadly focused on racial symbolistic ‘trick acts’ while ignoring the more insidious systemic racism practiced by the system itself and fueled by things like the UFT contract. The chancellor put on an anti-bias and integration road-show to applauding black leaders, churches, and organizations while refusing to take serious and authentic steps to raise the city’s academic performance and achievement levels of Black students by improving the quality of the instruction they were receiving and expanding their opportunities to engage in intellectual growing STEAM* and Gifted & Talented activities. Having NYC Black and Latino residents singularly focused on three high schools (and in an unprincipled way also throwing innocent Asian students under the blame-bus); while the chancellor always had total control of the admissions policies at the vastly larger number of specialized and special admissions high schools. And so the: ‘integration as a tool to raise academic achievement” storyline was just a distractive ruse and a way to avoid the hard fact that thousands of Black and Latino students in the city never had a chance to compete for those three specialized high school seats because they were never prepared in their K-8 educational learning experience. And many of the highest performing Black and Latino students in the city, who could meet the rigors of the specialized high school exam (SHSAT) exam (despite the school system barriers), were hampered by living in the wrong zip code, which meant that they had no access to a K-8 gifted and talented program. This access could have given them that critical edge to be able to perform well on the SHSAT. The “Admission Test” was racist, we were told, not the system that did not adequately prepare Black and Latino students to perform well on the SHSAT or in any high school generally.

Presently the institutionally sanctioned racism and biased culture of the NYCDOE is the problem. The educational neglect and mistreatment of large numbers of the city’s disentitled children, and the preferential treatment given to other more fortunate children; has created a quality-education apartheid system; this separate and unequal school system will maintain itself in and outside of any national or local crisis. It’s a system that ensures large numbers of NYC children are being prepped for prison and poverty, not future professional, entrepreneurial, employment, and college experiences, and that’s what the communities where these children live should frame their resistance and struggle around.

I understand this and any chancellor and mayor’s dilemma; to make (if that’s what they really wanted to do) NYC schools work for all children, means they would need to take on the UFT and not make ‘side-deals’ with them undermining principals and the children they serve.

In a crisis that is severely affecting the ability of schools to operate, school governance matters…

(Trust me) NYC community school boards were not the answer, as their greatest dysfunctional harm was inflicted on the NYC children who least needed the ‘misplaced priorities’ many of these boards brought to the public education story. But we have seen before, and dramatically now with the arrival of the COVID-19 issue, that “mayoral control” is also not working. We correctly removed a school system from a toxic political structure; however, we exposed NYC children to a new and poorly improved operating, highly toxic, and hyper-political design. In a major health crisis that is significantly impacting our public schools; a time when professional educators and professional health officials should be collaborating and jointly leading the school reopening and school year operational, strategic conversation, instead the process is being led by a politician who is not a professional educator or a professional health scientist; what could possibly go wrong?

You brag about ‘beating Amazon,’ but you won’t save kids
because you’re afraid of the UFT…

The overwhelming political power present in the NYC Congressional Delegation, New York State Government, New York State Regents, The State’s Education Department, and New York City Governmental offices and Institutions are unquestionably in the hands of Black and Latino elected or appointed officials (and most if not all are Democrats!); they must join their power with compassionate and considerate White federal, state, and NYC leaders to make sure that first every NYC child and staff person is safe during this COVID-19 2020-2021 school year crises, but going further to make sure that every NYC child (including those who are traditionally disregarded) has the opportunity to receive a quality education.

*STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics

Michael A. Johnson has served as a public school teacher,
principal, and school district superintendent. His book on school leadership: Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership… http://reporttotheprincipalsoffice.net/

The Educational Problem With the Kente Cloth Performance.

As a former principal, I fully appreciate the power of positive symbols. And so, I am not questioning the sincerity (hearts) of our Kente adorned politicians, or even their right to wear the attire of any one of the many American beautiful collage of cultural attires, some representing groups who are daily disrespected and denigrated by the present occupant of 1600 Black Lives Matter Way. My concern with the recent ‘Kente wearing performance’ is that it is tragically symptomatic of what always happens in public education, where rhetoric, form, and appearances are offered to the Black community, in place of real educational learning quality substance and authentic change for the children of that community.

Recently in NYC a great deal of ‘storm and drama’ was created by the introduction of that politically hot trigger word, ‘integration’. And unfortunately, NYC’s Asian students (and their communities) were unfairly maligned and castigated for doing nothing wrong except following the rules and conditions that were established in the past and were actually created to help white students and not Asian students gain access to the then 3 academic specialized high schools!

I along with several others informed whoever would listen that in reality, the NYCDOE had complete (total) control over the admissions policies of the majority of ‘specialized high schools’ in the city, as well as the many specialized high school programs (inside of schools), and those high schools with a special admissions process. The NYCDOE could have enacted major, sweeping, dramatic and profound access changes (for Black and Latino children) at 10X the population of the three specialized high schools that formed the center of the integration controversy; and this could have been done without seeking the permission of any state or local legislature (or emotionally beating up on Asian students).
And further, the NYCDOE has the authority to redesign a present high school or design a brand new school that could then essentially become: a Brooklyn Technical High School #2, Bronx Science H.S. #2 or Stuyvesant High School #2; and no legislative body can stop the NYCDOE from doing this.

The best-ignored solution, of course, is to ‘integrate’ great school leaders, quality instructional practices, adequate materials, supplies and equipment, and high expectations and efficacy into any school a Black or Latino child attended; thus properly preparing them for the SHSAT or any standardized exam they will face in life.

In terms of that important ‘Integration’ ‘pipe-line’ to gain access to a high performing high school, also known as K-8 gifted and talented programs. We proved in (2000-2003) Community School District 29 Queens (CSD29Q); that there is no legal or regulatory ‘cap’ on the number of gifted and talented programs that can exist in a local school district (e.g. NYCDOE). In CSD29Q we placed (without consulting the central board) additional G&T programs in a geographical and performance cross-section of schools in the district, thus giving more students who were on and above academic grade and performance levels the ability to receive the rigorous and challenging academic work that met their needs. It is my hope, that out of a very tragic situation for the Floyd family, a legacy of a national and local political action hunger will grow for the realization of serious and not superficial change.

I think the common cry theme we are hearing from all over this nation and the world; is that people want real change, not symbolic gestures. It’s been a ‘nice ride’ for a Democratic Party whose, let’s just be honest, total credibility and legitimacy with Black people is wholly dependent on the Republican Party performing (‘acting the fool’) in the role of first-class bigots and racist; but, that’s not a sound long-term organizing and mobilizing strategy.

Further, the “just vote your troubles away” Black leaders have taken some serious (but not fatal) hits as of late. For example: Black New Yorkers overwhelmingly voted in a ‘northern liberal’ city, for an alleged ‘progressive’ mayor; and yet clearly the NYC police department is not properly operating under civilian control and seems to be immune (inoculated by the various police unions), from adopting any of the modern enlightened and effective policing methods. We only need to look at the Philippines to see what results from a para-military police force not being under civilian and judicial control.

I suspect that the Republican’s racist and bigotry posture won’t change even if Trump is removed. Full disclosure: I’m voting not so much for Biden, but to remove a serious existential threat to the well-being and safety of many citizens in this nation and the world. But I am only one vote, and if I were the Democratic National Committee (DNC) I would be careful and concerned for that day when the Republican bigotry ‘pass’ alone won’t grant the DNC access to the ‘collective black cookout’.

The DNC better start thinking about some real and substantial change actions (not Republican lite projects) quickly. Don’t just show-up but show-out with some meaningful generational improvement economic and educational* change initiatives. And importantly, don’t keep believing that you can also just show-up, year-after-year thinking you’ll get into the collective black cookout by simply wearing Ghanaian, Kenyan, Nigerian, Senegalese, Egyptian, etc. outerwear. I think Black people are beginning to say: “Come real or don’t come at all!”

*would require that the DNC end their unquestioning and unprincipled alliance with teacher’s unions!

“10 Black Students Got Into N.Y.C.’s Top High School”– But what does that mean?

3/20/2020 –NY Times;This Year, Only 10 Black Students Got Into N.Y.C.’s Top High School :https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/19/nyregion/nyc-schools-numbers-black-students-diversity-specialized.html?action=click&module=Latest&pgtype=Homepage

“Asian students make up a majority of the schools’ enrollment.”

Just Great, what we really needed now, along with the daily POTUS racist insults press briefings; another nonsensically contrived reason to be angry with Asians.

At some point (and I’ll just keep saying this until they put me in the retired superintendent’s rubber room), a significant segment of NYC’s Black and Latino citizenry will come to understand that no test-prep program, regardless of its good intentions and accessibility, can substitute for actual K-8 learning concepts and skills mastery. I have practically run out of metaphors like: giving a nursing certification exam to someone who has not spent a day in a nursing program; giving the Bar exam to people who did not attend law school; giving free shoe shines to people who don’t have shoes. I am not sure what more I can say at this point!

Test-prep is an excellent ‘technical’ and study tool that can absolutely raise the potential score of anyone who engages it. But as a Saturday Princeton Review SAT prep-course coach once warned my students: “I will help you to get a higher score on the exam, but you must continue to study hard!” What she did not say that is also true, is that you must bring ‘something’ to the test-prep process; and fortunately for my students (as the SAT coach offered as a compliment to them at the end of the course), they brought an everyday experience of being exposed to rigorous formal and informal standards based learning activities. Our finals, midterms and weekly classroom exams consisted of questions directly (word for word) lifted from past State Regents Exams, while inviting standards (and above) rigor in non-standardized testing courses. We were accused by some liberals of ‘teaching to the test’; when in fact we were providing our students with the same level of quality instruction their children enjoyed, we were teaching and learning to the standards. That’s how you get Black and Latino children to do well on standardized exams; you actually teach them to the level of standards that the exam will test. You can’t do well on an 8th grade exam, by ‘prepping’ in middle school; the real rigorous learning (aka test-prep) for that exam starts in Kindergarten and consistently continues every year until the 8th grade.

“Some of the schools’ relatively few black and Hispanic students have said they often feel isolated in their classrooms and hallways because of their race.”

Over the next few months we will hear the ‘integration’, ‘segregation’ and ‘diversity’ bell distractedly rung over and over again. Asian-American students will (because of adolescent psychology) feel that they did something wrong, when they have done exactly what the adult society has told them to do— and that is to study hard, sacrifice some ‘fun time’ and apply themselves. They will also be made to feel like ‘outsiders’ in their own city; Black and Latino people (remember “stop and frisk” and “gentrification”) should know how painful that feels, and therefore should be the last ones to engage in that ugly ‘outsidering’ and ‘blame-game’ behavior.

“This year, as last year, only one black student got into Staten Island Technical High School.”

Sadly, this same NY Times article could be used year after year, for the last (and frighteningly next) ten years, all that is needed is to simply change the dates. This is the low-expectations (Black and Latino brains are less than capable) story-line that will continue to reappear until (1) Black and Latino communities push their leaders; many of whom are tied at the waist (or by the neck) to the Teacher’s Union (UFT), and force (by political and active protest) the NYCDOE to provide their children with a quality K-8 education that test-prep programs could truly enhance; and secondly, to expand Gifted and Talented programs to the presently chronically undeserved Black and Latino elementary students who are on or above grade level. It has been demonstrated that many of these Black and Latino non-G&T classes elementary school students are so smart and capable, that they could even pass high school Regents exams; and so where are their G&T programs? (2) I love Public Education, but no community should depend on any public school system to adequately, let alone fully educate their children; especially if you are not part of the ‘entitled class’; something many Asian-American parents seem to get. (3) The beauty of NYC’s size is that a student who really should not go to a specialized high school (for a host of reasons); could possibly have a rich choice of safe and academically strong high school options. There was a time in the not too distant past, when not applying or getting into specialized high school was not a big deal and did not mean future career options death. Restore and strengthened a high school (independent of local school boards) division that lost so many of its accomplished and experienced administrators by way of Mayor Bloomberg’s destructive educational “school-reform” blunders.

“Black and Hispanic enrollment in the schools has plummeted over the last two decades in particular; Brooklyn Technical High School was 51 percent black in 1982, and 6 percent black in 2016. Only 79 black students got into Brooklyn Tech this year, down from 95 last year.”

Finally, disenfranchised communities need an intensive parallel educational system consisting of: An academically rich and culturally confirming pre-school start e.g. Little Sun People; after-school, weekends, school breaks and summer learning enrichment/enhancement programs; these activities should include a standardized test-prep component. Just sending your child to public school every day won’t work. For what part of: “Your children are not a priority”, is missing from your understanding of the public school education problem.

Michael A. Johnson has served as a NYC public school teacher, principal, school district superintendent and as an adjunct professor of education at St. John’s University. His book on school leadership is titled: “Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership.” [http://reporttotheprincipalsoffice.net/]