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. 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 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. Unlike 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/

A Crisis Reveals the Quality of Leadership.

What ‘shows-up’ as leadership in a crisis situation is that which is already present. COVID-19 did not make Donald Trump into an ineffective and destructive leader; instead, he brought all of his immoral, grossly inadequate, and disqualifying qualities into the job.

An unofficial rule in public education is that principals don’t speak publicly when the people above our pay-grade screw-up and/or come up with a terribly flawed and unworkable initiative; we simply try to off-set and neutralize the harmful situation and do our best to not let it hurt our kids; but with so many NYC principals ‘speaking-up’ and publicly raising concerns about the NYCDOE’s school-opening plans, suggests to me that the situation on-the-ground is much worse than the news media is reporting it to be.

A serious crisis reveals the quality of your day-to-day leadership capabilities. Sadly, in organizational leadership, there is a type of consistency for competence as well as incompetence. As a superintendent, my experience taught me that the quality of a school-building leader’s response to a severe crisis reflects that school leader’s capabilities and management skills under ‘regular’ non-crisis moments in the school-building. When we (me and my deputy superintendents) heard that incident “X” occurred at a particular school, we knew that one of us had to immediately go to that school to assist the principal in making the right decisions; and this was based on our day to day interactions and awareness of that principal’s management and problem-solving inadequacies.

I have (repeatedly) warned NYC Black and Latino parents that no system-wide plan to raise their children’s academic achievement opportunities beyond the unethical ’emotional-beatdown’ of Asian students was distracting rhetoric and not real school improvement planning. Not having a plan in ‘normal’ school times suggested to me that in a crisis (ala COVID-19), the capability to produce a reasonable and workable plan was highly unlikely.

Any school (or district) crisis is exacerbated, as it exposes the true quality-level of the ‘normal-times’ school leadership capabilities! And in the ‘keeping it 100% school-leadership world’, the Nuremberg-defense (“I was just following the mayor’s orders”) won’t work. An educational leader must be willing to resign or be fired when ‘hyper-political and uninformed actors’ try to force you to endanger staff and students’ learning and lives.

Michael A. Johnson has served as a teacher, principal, and school district superintendent. He also served as an adjunct professor of Science Education in the School of Education at St. John’s University. He is the author of a book on school leadership: *Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership (http://majmuse.net/report-to-the-principlas-office-tools-for-building-successful-administrative-leadership/ ).

The idea of “sending students home” who don’t ‘comply’ with the mask-wearing requirement is extraordinarily complicated and problematic on multiple levels.

“Students who don’t comply with requirements to wear masks in schools will be sent home and barred from in-person learning, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza told parent leaders on Tuesday, a position he said is essential for maintaining public health.” —Chalkbeat/New York

“What problems could arise from this decision?” would be a ‘gimme’ question for the principal’s or superintendent’s certification exam’s education law section. And so, as lawyers sharpen their ‘lawsuit’ pencils, let’s be clear about somethings. First, even when a student violates a ‘real’ school district regulation like ‘fighting,’ school administrators are forbidden from ‘putting that child into the street alone’; because we know that when children are on the streets unsupervised, many very terrible things can happen. And further, as is often the case, a parent will refuse or is unable (perhaps because of who they are and where they work) to leave their jobs and pick up their child. Therefore schools must safely shelter all student ‘mask-violators’ until the end of the school day. Where will these students be held? What will they be doing for the rest of the school day? Which staff members (being exposed to them) will be responsible for their supervision? Mask or no mask, every school needs (especially Title-1’s) Covid-19 school-based human and medical resources. And finally, do we want a hospital worker, EMT/EMS or NYPD personnel, MTA employees, or other DOE staff members leaving their workplaces during a significant health crisis? And then, showing up at a school, potentially expanding the COVID-19 exposure parameters?

Presently, “not wearing a mask” or “failing to wear a mask properly” is not a ‘suspendable act.’ We need a smart and workable plan to make mask-wearing a core operational principle that can be easily and willingly followed and enforced when necessary. I would probably design an ‘educational’ (what public education is supposed to do) and a positive incentive-rewards approach, as a major part of ‘selling’ the initiative to students and staff. All principals (should) know that ‘punitive’ measures alone will doom any policy that seeks to achieve positive student behavioral objectives (e.g., yes, stop ‘graffiti artist’ but also give them art classes, programs, activities and exhibitions opportunities).

We should also be concerned that the existing ‘disciplinary-racial-inequities’ practices that exist in public education will also show-up with this new no or improper mask-wearing policy; what is being put in place to ensure that Black and Latino students don’t bear the outsized brunt of these compliance rules?

The Reason School-Districts Need Strategically Smart and Comprehensive Reopening Plans.

Many questions must be answered to protect students, staff, and yes, also any ‘mask-wearing’ violators. For example, what does ‘non-compliance’ look like in the 2nd, 7th, or 11th grades? Is it refusing to wear a mask or not wearing it properly(which kids will figure out how to do)? And, what is to be done with a student who has an IEP that plainly states something like: “Student will have difficulty following (verbal or written) directions or adult-directed instructions“; I’m not sure if those categories of students who don’t fully comply with the ‘wear your mask and wear it properly” suspension ‘rule,’ can legally be suspended. We already know from experience the many problems that emerged when classroom teachers are asked to ‘enforce’ a very straightforward ‘cell phone’ restrictions policy; mask-wearing will be ten times more complicated.

As a superintendent, you get to visit the four levels of schooling (early childhood, elementary, middle, and high school); and therefore see the radically different developmental psychological levels children go through. From my experience, I believe that this mask-wearing thing will produce many ‘different,’ difficult, and in some ways challenging and ‘amazingly creative’ outcomes, as only K-12 kids are capable of producing. They will purposely or by accident disable their mask, do things like wearing a mask around their eyes to play some version of “blind man’s bluff” or “ghost,” wearing a mask as ‘hats’, to students exchanging masks during the school day. And to that list, add those students who will be flat out ‘rebellious,’ and ‘contrary,’ no matter how valid and safety beneficial a regulation is for them.

I understand that the news media must do their job, but one of the things I learned (painfully) as a leader, is that you can’t always take their ‘bait’; they are looking for that ‘hot-headline’ story; while you are responsible for personnel and children. You should never ‘wing-it’ or go ‘off-script’ with a serious policy decision that carries significant life-implications for parents, students, school-building administrators, and staff members. (Full disclosure: In the past, I have assisted Chancellors with their ‘talking-points’; but this (format and venue), is not how I would have advised that a policy of this magnitude be presented.)

The other thing that must be done in a major crisis is to keep civic and elected leaders’ in-the-information-loop’. If they find out about an (in this case ‘half-baked’) major policy decision for the first time when a reporter asks them for a response, they will not be inclined to defend you because they don’t have the full ‘information package’ at their disposal. The present NYC mayor’s official or unofficial policy of either encouraging or allowing city agency officials (e.g., NYPD and NYCDOE) to disregard and disrespect city and state elected and legislative officials; maybe ‘normal politics’ but it is the worst possible approach in a severe health crisis when cooperation, calming*, clear and excellent communication to the public is desperately needed.

* I was a superintendent of a district with a large Muslim student population. Understandably, the parents had many concerns about how their children were going to be treated after the tragedy of 9-11(by the way I lost Muslim constituents in the Twin-Towers). I realized that (without being asked) I had to personally visit and speak directly to the Imams, Muslim civic leaders, and the Muslim community generally, to let them know that the safety and well-being of their children was of high importance and a priority for my district office staff and me. The worst place and time for any leader to communicate ‘casually,’ wrongly, or incompletely, is during a major crisis (see: Donald Trump)!

The usual public school system’s public relations stunts won’t work during a deadly pandemic.

That moment when the governor of New York says that your school-reopening plan is an “outline”…

It was one of the most ‘coded’ but not so coded ‘shade-rebukes’ you can issue in our profession. And so let me translate. From the local district to the national level, if any educational oversight body says to a principal, superintendent, chancellor, or school board: “What you sent us was an outline of a plan!”; it can only mean one or both of two things (1) “I don’t really think that you have a plan!” And, (2) “I don’t think that you can develop a plan!” In the context of the deadly nature of the COVID-19 disease and the importance of maintaining a significant degree of student learning, either #1 or #2 designations are not good.

As a superintendent, if I informed a principal that what they sent me was an “outline” and not a “plan” in preparing for or responding to a crisis. They could next expect to hear a knock on their door from a deputy superintendent who I sent to the school to help that principal with developing a serious and comprehensive plan.
When safety, lives, and learning is at stake, decisive and knowledgeable action must be taken quickly. Covid-19 time is not a time for amateur hour; too many important things (e.g., lives) are at stake. This is not about playing the ‘political firing’ game; it’s about getting school districts the kind of experienced and knowledgeable support they need to design soundly balanced and smart reopening plans.

One of the reasons mayor Bloomberg was mistaken by his uninformed decimation and cynical removal of NYC’s most experienced senior educators; was moments like now. Many of us were battle-tested and survived complicated, challenging, and severe (e.g., 9-11, CSD29Q) crises during our long tenures. These are the individuals who know every available resource inside and outside of the school system. Those are the system-vet superintendents, along with retired principals and assistant principals, that you now need as part of the Covid-19 district and school-based response planning teams. I understand that politics (and the news media) will direct a focus on the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), but there is an unmatched wealth of crisis leadership knowledge in the working and retired ranks of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators (CSA); for goodness sake utilize them!

Public school systems are very good at pulling off a lot of public relations’ stunts’ (one might say public hoodwinking), year after year. Like getting the Black and Latino communities mad at the Asian community for doing the kinds of things that many of us have been (doing and) begging Black and Latino communities and their leaders to do for years. Also, ‘slickly’ having those same Black and Latino communities distracted by ‘integration’ and ‘implicit-bias’; while ignoring the real issue that is blocking Black and Latino student academic achievement; the inequality of having the opportunity of receiving a quality learning experience, and the explicit bias of running a system that favors specific entitled communities; while educationally dismissing and denying other communities. But the problem is that public relations ‘distracting’ stunts won’t work in a pandemic. First, because the virus does not discriminate, the children of entitlement are at equal risk. Not effectively educating entire zip codes of children under ‘normal school conditions’ is one thing, but a plague is no respecter of zip codes. This means that any ‘reopening plan,’ unlike the standard separate and unequal inequality educational plans presented annually, means that this reopening plan must work across the entire city, or it won’t appear viable to any segment of the city.

The original “reopening plan” put together by the Stuyvesant High School school-based team was an excellent boilerplate model for how an effective NYC reopening plan could work through a school-by-school; district-by-district, community-by-community uniquely creative plan. It was a wise plan because that school, if operated anywhere near normal, would make it a Covid-19 ‘time-bomb’. Students traveling from long distances across and coming from many different neighborhoods + the school’s overcrowded situation would make it impossible for the staff and students to safely-distance from each other. Since a large percentage of these students (as well as 11th & 12th graders attending other high schools) can take AP courses, why not make a collaborative arrangement with SUNY, CUNY, and other local/state/national public and private colleges to allow these students to enroll in actual college courses online? Saving these kids some money when they eventually transition to college; while also presently giving us both more space and more excellent safety conditions!

The best educational (in the interest of students) decisions don’t usually align with the best political decisions. As a former principal and superintendent, I see many troubling and dangerous ‘operational holes’ in the plans of many of the school districts that are rushing to open up.

For electoral purposes, Mr. Trump and his political acolytes are unreasonably pushing schools to open ‘on time,’ to give the appearance of a normalcy that does not exist. But for some student populations, even a ‘normal’ response under non-pandemic ‘normal’ school conditions is disastrous. No one should harbor any pandemic-school-year illusions; the children who academically suffer the greatest under the ‘regular-normal’ school year conditions; will see their learning ‘double-suffer’ under these severe Covid-19 crisis conditions. Both learning and achievement gaps will expand and remain fixed-for-life for different cohorts of students, based on their ethnicity and zip code, regardless of how ‘good’ the opening plan feels or looks. Part of any district’s reopening plan must be the closing of the parental-provided-resources gap!

In any event, the people leading the ‘school-opening-conversations’ should be health officials and professional educators, with input from parents and elected officials. Now, I will probably never get an invite to the UFT ‘cookout’; but I am convinced that a district of any size can’t successfully pull off a significant program or a workable response to a massive health crisis, without working in a sincere consultative and collaborative mode with multiple public education stakeholders, including federal, state and local elected officials, state, city agencies and unions.

Perhaps some of my ‘woke’ friends won’t like part of this; but right-about-now the mayor and chancellor must be ‘laser-focused’ in order to not completely lose a year of learning, and to save the lives of school personnel and students; this is not the time to ‘needle’ Trump, or to not give the governor the type of plan he requested, and that the state and city legislators can get behind. To borrow a line from the movie “Drumline”; with a crisis of this magnitude we need: “One band and one sound!”

Any 2020 school year opening plan will need to be boldly and radically different from what we now know as ‘schooling.’ And, as in the example of Stuyvesant*, the model could look and be different (and it should be) for different cohorts of students, schools, and school districts. You will need all categories of school employees (school aides to superintendents) to ‘buy-in’ and support the new school year’s crisis response learning model. That ‘buy-in’ should start (or should have started a few months ago) by giving schools the ‘legal’ and ‘regulatory’ guidelines that their plan must meet, and then let each school-based staff, parents and their communities draft a ‘proposal of school-year operation’ (trust your principals to not ‘sign-on’ to a ‘silly-plan’). This approach can’t hurt since the school district will always retain the right and power to reject or modify any school-based proposal in consultation with the state. But with the presence of school-based options proposals, no one can claim that they had no chance to offer input or denied access to information.

There are many Covid-19 converging and sometimes competing concerns; there are also many justifiable fears in play here; they all need to be adequately addressed. No plan will be ‘perfect,’ and no proposal will make everyone happy, but risking a life or an education should not be part of the plan.

School districts could operate from a much stronger planning position if an extraordinary ‘Marshall Plan’ type effort is made to dramatically close the cable-tv, computer, internet access , and home learning materials, supplies and books gaps between students, based on their race, ethnicity, and economic class. Based in part on the calls I am receiving daily from parents and educators at all levels; the usual: “Let’s just throw this out there and see if it gets us through this” won’t work. I think right now citizens are in a deeply concerned and frightened place. Therefore, they will insist on receiving a first-rate sensible, safe, and strongly strategic school-opening plan.

* “Make it easier on yourself”: Once the majority of students attending “targeted” schools like: Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Technical H.S., Staten Island Technical H.S., A. Philip Randolph H.S,Townsend Harris H.S., Medgar Evers H.S. and similar K-12 schools, have been confirmed or provided with home technical/internet distance learning capabilities; those huge empty buildings could then be utilized as ‘safe-distancing’ support spaces to relieve other schools that face safe-distancing space challenges. I say that Stuyvesant’s plan-of-action works best for them and all NYC students.

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!

It might be up to ‘entitled’ NYC parents to fix this “distance learning” mess; well good!

“…Some parents at highly-regarded Forest Hill elementary school PS 196 said their teacher has gone weeks without personal interaction with their child…” — NY Post

I have spent enough years in public education (at multiple levels), to fully grasp the apartheid of quality educational learning opportunities that form the basic framework of America’s public school systems. Anyone who says different is either an enabler of that discriminatory system, or, well, I not sure what to say that would be nice.

When I became a superintendent in 2000 I inherited an ‘unofficial’ NYCDOE policy. It seemed that teachers who won their arbitration cases (and there were a lot of them), against principals who were trying to rate them ‘unsatisfactory’ were somehow sent to specific districts and schools (you can’t send them back to their original school for a lot of reasons). To be specific, they were sent to Title-1 school districts and schools. I only found out about this ‘process’ because one of my principals called me practically in tears one day saying: “Superintendent Johnson, we are working so hard to turn this school around; and we are making tremendous progress; please, I can’t take a teacher that’s going to hurt us!” She was right, this was a school that had one of the highest concentrations of homeless students in the city; and yet we were making some demonstrative academic achievement progress. I called in the Director of HR and she confirmed that indeed she had directed the teacher to that particular school. “Why?” I asked, “Clearly that’s a school we are investing a lot of resources (e.g. teacher center, extra AP & staff-developer, STEM lab and F/T science teacher, art & music programs, etc.) to turn-it-around; at this point, we can only send good instructional practitioners into that school!” (beside we would ‘own’ that tenured teacher next year!) Her honest and sincere answer was painfully startling as it was enlightening. “I know you are doing everything possible to fix this district and a lot of people are fighting against you, and so if I sent that teacher to P.S X, Y or Z; the parents would raise hell and give you problems.” I thanked her (at times as a leader you must focus on the ‘good intentions’) and then directed her to “send the teacher back”. This led to my receiving a call from an official from central who proceeded to explain to me “how things work in community school districts”; a not-so-subtle dig at my having come from that less politically driven “High School Division”. I listened politely, and then informed the official that: “This process does not work for me, and therefore I am not taking her; and will not take any like her in the future.” I continued, “the Chancellor charged me with turning around what is in everyone’s estimation the most underperforming district (CSD29Q) in the city, and that’s what I am going to do!” “I would be happy to meet with you and the Chancellor, and if he directs me to take the teacher I will!” Never heard from him again and the process of ‘dumping’ (from both bad ratings and rubber rooms) personnel into our district stopped! I did not celebrate over this victory because I was fully aware that my stand meant that my colleagues/friends in places like districts: 9, 12, and 16 would suffer.

School systems nationally, not just NYC, have different ‘response modes’ for different communities. I and many others have said from the beginning that this “distance learning” thing was more effective public relations then efficacious public education. And further, this school closure crisis, if not addressed in a radical and strategically smart way, would produce dramatic learning losers and learning winners*.

In fairness to the NYCDOE some of that learning winning and losing can’t be controlled by any school district. Those children who have parents with the financial resources, education, information, and time, will gain during this school closure time. And it would be professionally unethical to ask (even if they would listen) those parents to decelerate their home instruction program. But if the official ‘distance-learning’ program is not working in more ‘entitled’ schools; then perhaps (and unfortunately but true) NYC’s elected officials will be forced to take some affirmatively drastic actions to fix the situation. And this could greatly help those communities where distance learning is also not working and could very much be inflicting long-term educational harm.

*“I said that the Covid-19 school closure situation would greatly help some students, while badly hurting others, well…”: http://majmuse.net/2020/03/26/i-said-that-the-covid-19-school-closure-situation-would-greatly-help-some-students-while-greatly-hurting-others-well/

*“Long-term school closures will produce student winners and losers”: http://majmuse.net/2020/03/24/notes-from-in-house-exile-sadly-the-u-s-covid-19-virus-pandemic-will-expose-and-expand-the-prek-12-educational-learning-opportunity-gap/

“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/]

Eight Grade Algebra Gives Students an Important College/Career STEM* Start

Eight Grade Algebra Gives Students an Important College/Career STEM* Start

“Entire Bronx Success Academy class aces statewide math exam”: https://nypost.com/2019/07/01/entire-bronx-success-academy-class-aces-statewide-math-exam/

Deng Xiaoping the former architect of China’s present ‘market-economic’ system once said: “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice.” And so I am not engaging in the traditional vs. charter school battle here. For sure, I am extremely happy for these young people and their teacher. My focus is on something that many of us have been saying for many years. (I talk about this in my book) And that is the advantage that many students have in this nation over less-advantaged (but equally capable) students when they enter high school; and this is because the advantaged children have taken a high school level Algebra 1 course in the 8th grade. The first advantage is that these students are able to take Algebra 1 under very favorable and less-stressful middle school conditions (1) Adults don’t realize this, and most 9th grade students don’t articulate it, but transitioning into a high school setting creates various levels of stress for most students (e.g. new teachers, less ‘nurturing’ environment, the school’s size, they move from ‘top to bottom dog’, etc.).(2) Offering Algebra 1 in the 8th grade means that this course could be offered in an extended format (e.g. double periods, after-school, weekends, etc.) and a ‘comfortably familiar’ place, without competing with a full-program of ‘tough’ high school courses. In fact, we proved at the Science Skills Center pre-high school after-school program, that even earlier then 8th grade students, who are not facing extremely challenging courses in their regular school can focus large amounts of their intellectual powers (and do well) on a high school course and standardized exam for which they have been prepared. And on that note, (3) As was the case with Ms.Karina Mateo the Algebra 1 teacher for this great class, it is very easy to convince pre-high school students to take on the course as a mission of self-empowerment; especially when it is hinted that “people” don’t expect them to succeed. They very much want the ‘bragging rights’ to say to every high school kid they know and the entire world: “I conquered a high school course!” They will approach the mastery of the content material as if it was a personal and group challenge. (4) An additional important benefit is that these 8th grade Algebra-1 high achieving students are perfectly on track to take a regular high school or AP calculus course. This will then place them in an excellent position to not only do well in high school physics, but to also be prepared to hold their own in any post-high school college STEM major course.

We have known for many years that Algebra-1 is the ‘great gate-keeper’ either into or away from a STEM college career. But the ‘gate’ shuts early and often for some students. The problem is that students cannot take, let alone do well in Algebra-1 if they don’t receive a first-rate pre-Algebra arithmetic experience. And in my view the ‘planned’ real segregation of thousands of very capable Black and Latino students from access to a quality pre-Algebra mathematics experience (especially when it is offered in a gifted and talented program), is the real and explicit “bias” and ‘racism’ that should be addressed and eradicated by the NYCDOE.
The only hope for these children is if the Black and Latino communities focus, organize, agitate, and force their leaders to act as if they were not rhetorically hypnotized into only wanting a few specialized high schools symbolic integration seats for a few kids of color; but instead demand the removal of the real (and not meaningless ‘made-for-dramatic-effect’) discrimination barriers that prevent Black and Latino children from receiving a first-class K-8 mathematics education. We know the NYC mayor can quote Che Guevara, now let’s see if we can get him to follow the words of Jaime (Stand and Deliver) Escalante!

“If we expect kids to be losers they will be losers; if we expect them to be winners they will be winners. They rise, or fall, to the level of the expectations of those around them, especially their parents and their teachers.”— Jaime Escalante

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/]

*STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics