NYC mayoral debate wasted educational question moment.

“Should NYC schools be desegregated or improved?”

As professional educators, we are trained to never classify a question as “dumb.” So in that spirit, I will charitably designate this question as terribly uninformed.
My first question (still in charitable mode) about the question was: “Is this question designed to ferret out which of the candidates was for segregated schools?” (Or, where was this going?)

Now I am sure that professional journalism schools can do a much better job raising the standards for preparing their graduates to ask good and meaningful public education questions.

And so, how about this: I think that it is reasonable to assume that when the next mayor takes office (whoever that is), NYC schools will not be integrated; and so perhaps a more usefully practical and high information value question for parents and the general public voters would have been:

“What is your plan to significantly raise Black and Latino student’s academic performance, achievement, and graduation rates, regardless of where in NYC those students attend school?”

In their follow-up questions the journalist must not allow a candidate to venture into that vague politically safe “eduspeak” space that starts off with phrases that sound something like: “It takes a village,” “I believe children are our future,” “All children can learn,” etc. We need to hear some concrete “breaking the business-as-usual NYCDOE organizational culture” answers.

Perhaps one good place a sincere and well-informed mayoral candidate could start their answer is here:
https://majmuse.net/2021/06/06/a-low-political-risk-but-high-educational-reward-initiative-the-next-nyc-mayor-can-easily-institute/

Michael A. Johnson is a former teacher, principal, and school district superintendent. He is the author of a book on school leadership: Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership. He is currently completing (Fall 2021) his second book on school administration and leadership: Report From The Principal’s Office.

A low political risk but high educational reward initiative the next NYC mayor can easily institute…

The next NYC mayor should extend K-8 Gifted & Talented opportunities to very deserving & capable Black & Latino students.

High Educational Reward: Large numbers of NYC’s Black and Latino students would receive high expectations and high-quality levels of a dynamic teaching and learning experience. This G&T exposure would immediately lead to a rise in student academic achievement profiles and performances in the present Gifted & Talented (G&T) ‘desert’ (exciting and advanced education deserted) parts of the city. And to interject a positive political reward, this action would provide whoever the chancellor is with an opening ‘raising of achievement scores’ good-news-story victory. Most important, These students could take and pass algebra-1 by the end of the 8th grade, thus positioning them to advantageously pursue a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) college major path and career. Further, they would also be prepared by the end of 8th grade to do well on any standardized exams they take; and succeed academically in whichever NYC high school they attended. A political advantage (I know in NYC that’s important) is that many of the city’s most vocal advocates for maintaining the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) have fortunately gone on new media record as supporting the raising of the quality of the pre-SHSAT taking (K-7) learning standards, and the expanding of G&T programs access to more of NYC’s Black and Latino students. Those passionate public pronouncements (even if they were insincere and self-serving) would make any opposition on their part to the expansion of G&T programs to Black and Latino students a politically and morally contradictorily problematic stance to take.
Finally (assuming this means anything to NYC’s elected, appointed, and otherwise recognized leaders), this move would make large numbers of Black and Latino parents happy and positively hopeful of their children’s future.

Low Political Risk: If it is done right, and I will later explain what ‘done right’ means; the United Federation of Teacher’s (UFT) won’t be happy. And they will play their ‘best interest of the children’ nullification card with many NYC/NYS elected officials. And even if they do mount a Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) or other legal venue challenges to the initiative, let them defend in the legal courts and in the court of public opinion why they believe that able and very capable Black and Latino children don’t matter! However, the offsetting good news is that even if the Council of Supervisors and Administrators (CSA) is quiet about the plan, trust me, the NYCDOE’s rank & file principals and assistant principals (and many teachers) will be ecstatic about this G&T expansion initiative!

I fully understand the “attractive-headline” and “lead-story” challenges of the news media industry; so I can’t be angry with them for focusing their campaign reporting efforts on which NYC mayoral candidate will (pick one) 1. ‘defund,’ 2. ‘refund,’ or 3. ‘more-fund’ the NYC police department (NYPD). And I guess it’s irrelevant that several of the candidates don’t seem to have a grasp of the general or NYPD portion of the very complex NYC budget; or are unable to adequately explain how NYPD services are integrated with other city agencies (e.g., Mass Transit, etc.), or the NYPD’s role in supporting the extremely important (for employment and tax revenue generation purposes), NYC’s tourism, restaurant, commercial and entertainment industries. Or, finally (and not diminishing the seriousness of the too often occurring ‘high-profile’ subway shoving incidents), the news media has failed to force the candidates to specifically pay attention to the #1 victims of NYC crime, Black and Latino citizens; who in many cases are under daily pedeocratic siege. (Except for Eric Adams speaking unasked), there has not been a line of press inquiry that responds to those communities who are most suffering from crime, especially concerning their urgent request for more and better (serve and protect, not occupation style) NYPD services. The other mayoral candidates, intellectually lazy avoiding-the-elephant-in-the-room (the elephant being an educational system that favors adult employment and satisfaction over student academic success) focus, is around the “restricting or expanding” of charter schools. Of course, expansion could help a few parents. Still, a decision, either way, won’t make even a slight statistical educational impact for the majority of NYC’s one million-plus student population who won’t be attending a charter school. The charter school expansion/restriction debate could be an interesting analytical discussion if the real reasons that charter schools even need to exist were the theoretical foundations of the conversation, but that’s not the case. The NYC charter schools mayoral candidate’s debate, generally speaking, in its present form is terribly inauthentic, albeit a politically attractive target of conversation. However, in the current format, charter school conversations are dangerously distracting from the necessary confronting of the fundamental issues that plague NYC public education. But I digress.

Applying the most fundamental “law of parsimony” to organizational change: The ‘game’ only really changes when the leader is willing to make real ‘game-changing’ decisions…

One of my first acts after being appointed (2000) by then Chancellor Harold Levy to clean up and educationally refocus the badly educational leadership abused and neglected Community School District 29 Queens (CSD29Q) was to dramatically expand the number of G&T classes in the district. And so, here comes the ‘done right’ part. The prospective G&T teachers in CSD29Q were selected and assigned based on their completion of a G&T professional development program and a highly effective instructional performance history review, aligned with principal recommendations and utilizing formal observation ratings; which was followed up by a district-level (including me) staff person doing an observation of the teacher. National Board for Professional Teaching Standards graduates were particularly sought out as candidates. Seniority (building or system) was not a factor (most teachers actually respected the fairness of that aspect of the selection process) in our selection decisions. In fact, some teachers had less than 5 years of teaching experience, but they were instructional super-star practitioners. I also provided these newly established G&T programs with more funding for instructional resources. Each of the schools received additional art and music activities funding. Most were ‘gifted’ with a dedicated STEM-AT lab* and a specialized and trained dedicated F/T science teacher. Not making this up, but before my changes, “science teachers” in most of the district’s elementary schools did not necessarily have any serious expertise or professional training in science. In some cases, these “science teaching positions” were places to put tenured teachers the principal did not want teaching in any of the ‘testing-grades’ (which is ultimately all K-5 of them). Some of these teachers were actually good but did not have a dedicated science room or adequate funding from the school’s budget. Many of these ‘prep-coverage’ science teachers were forced (again not making this up) to travel from room to room around the school with their science materials on a cart, even when an empty room was available in the school building. And if you can believe it, these many science-learning negatives were operating in the face of all of the elementary schools in the district being required to face a 4th-grade state standardized science exam!
There was no accident that along with Math and Reading test scores, test performance scores on the 4th-grade standardized science exam rose dramatically in every elementary school in the district, and pronouncedly so in those schools with STEM-AT labs.
But it did not take long for me to receive a call from a central office NYCDOE official; “You know superintendent Johnson that you can’t on-your-own increase the number of G&T classes in your district.” I pretended to be shocked; “Really, I did not know that; you know I came from the high school division where even at the school level it is not required to get prior ‘central’ clearance to set up AP, advance, electives, I.B., and other special programs.” And me continuing in ‘I-had-no-idea’ mode, “Could you please send me the regulations governing the creation of G &T programs” (I knew there were no such regulations); and continuing; “And I’ll need someone from your office to assist me at the staff/community/parent meetings to help explain to the schools that have been designated, why the already allocated expenditures, and how the selection and training of the teachers could begin, but would now need to end; and more importantly to inform the parents, that those G&T programs that were promised to them would now be canceled”… If they did have ‘centrally mandated’ guidelines I had every intention, as I approached many NYCDOE “mandates,” of “making them work for children”; and so, I’m still waiting twenty-one years later for that callback! I learned early (as a principal) that in a mission undermining bureaucratic system like the NYCDOE; especially in a system that did not have the disentitled and disenfranchised children of the city as a priority, that in some situations, it was better to make an irreversible (politically can’t be reversed) bold ‘game-changing’ move on behalf of expanding student learning opportunities, and then after (if) you’re caught, sincerely apologize. This approach was far more positive and productive than asking for permission to engage in some audacious action on behalf of your students that would surely result in a negative no-can-do response. (but I still wonder to this day; who snitched on me to central? —— Not to worry, I have a list of likely suspects!)

But the NYC school system is not alone in failing to answer a core US public education question: “What do we do with the Black and Latino students who are on or above grade or performance levels, but who sit in a remedial, bad standardized-test-prep obsessed, school or classroom?” The short answer is “nothing.” The (politically safe) longer, more confusing, distracting, and non-productive answers are:

(1) “We need more integration!” A cynical idea because in most large (also small and medium-size) public school districts in our nation, we simply don’t numerically have enough ‘white kids’ to distribute around the system for integration purposes; and in some cases, it would be a busing nightmare (e.g., kids are riding buses for hours) to put every Black and Latino child in a classroom with a critical-mass (enough white kids to make the quality of educational services matter) of white children. Even if we came up with the most ‘inventive’ but not child-focused bussing program imaginable, the demographic and housing realities of localities like NYC would still require large numbers of Black and Latino children, at some point, to sit in classrooms composed solely of, or a majority of, other Black and Latino children. And even the expansion of NYC charter schools (based on their present NYC and national racial demographic profiles) would increase the number of highly racially segregated schools. The problem is that public schools are being unfairly asked to solve a societal racial and socio-economic segregated housing problem, a task for which they are neither structurally equipped nor have the resources to successfully pull off.

However, as professionals, we should be ashamed to say or have non-educational political actors say on our behalf that: “The only way a Black or Brown child can receive a quality education in our school system is if they are sitting in a majority white student classroom!” For sure, there are many enrichment learning advantages for any student who attends a culturally, ethnically, and socio-economically diverse school and classroom. But a school district that is serious about its professional moral responsibility to children must seek to diversify the quality of education so that wherever a child attends school in that district, regardless of their own or the color of their classmates, their parents will be assured that they will receive the highest of quality learning experience the district can offer; and that we are capable of doing.

(2) “We need to eliminate “special programs and schools,” G&T classes, standardized admissions exams to specialized schools, etc.!” This pedagogically cowardly position allows a school district to avoid the real truth and reasons why such large numbers of ‘likely candidates,’ meaning those Black and Latino students who are on or above grade/performance level, are simply not prepared to perform well on a SHSAT or any standardized exam. And (after having painstakingly reviewed the SHSAT question by question) speaking truthfully, my professional conclusion is that it’s the lack of adequate pre-test classroom learning preparation and not the exam itself that is racist and discriminatory.
There is indeed more than adequate quantitative and qualitative data that professional educators could utilize to make the case that any ‘single-admissions’ measuring tool and criteria is grossly improper, educationally immoral, and ultimately a poor predictor of future student academic success. The “single admissions test or interview” theory is more of a measurement of the quality of parent-push, a family’s ability to provide informal (out-of-school) educational resources, access to good formal test/interview preparation, and most importantly, having received a quality learning experience in the years prior to the admission-test-taking day; all factors outside of a child’s control. These admissions criteria could very well obscure or completely hide a student’s true G&T qualities and potentialities.
But that most important factor (that “test-prep” can strengthen but not replace) of being exposed to the quality of pre-admissions-test learning experience is the one most avoided by the most vocal and animated opponents of the standardized exam admissions process (e.g., NYC’s anti-SHSAT folks). Their feigned ignorance or uninformed avoidance of that most critical of factors is because they know that the tackling of that issue would essentially launch the pivotal political decisive battle of public education, and that is: who does or does not receive a NYC quality education experience, and why!

Obfuscation and Misdirection as political tactics to maintain the status quo conditions in public education…

The “Woke-Ones” can, if they wish, work on social integration and the elimination of all standardized exams and specialized admissions assessments. I, however, would prefer that they do the much more challenging and dangerous work of eliminating the segregation of the quality of learning experiences that exist between students enrolled in the same school system (and sometimes in the same school building); a disadvantage that permanently assures that Black and Latino students will be academically unprepared for a world with or without standardized exams (although I don’t believe that in the foreseeable future, we will live in a world without measurable standards).
I realize and realistically accept that taking on such a brave and audacious effort would mean that any elected or appointed leader would be stepping into High-Political-Risk minefield territory; and so, pardon me if I am not optimistic of such serious game-changing policies being enacted. After all, returning to an extended version of an earlier question: “What will society do with all of those ‘school-successful’ Black and Latino kids?” Where will their jobs come from?” “Who will replace them as raw-material feed for our vast criminal justice prison system? “What would it mean for large numbers of competent, confident and smart Black and Latino students to be placed in a fair and competitive college and economic environment with the entitled children of our nation?” And for those news media darlings who want to “defund” the police; well, guess what, by greatly improving public education outcomes for Black and Latino students we would overtime ‘naturally’ reduce the number of police officers (prison cells, correction/parole officers, etc.) a city like New York would need. But I don’t expect that advocation to happen; after all, “Ensuring Quality Education for Black and Latino Students!” does not a viral “sexy-political” hashtag make.
This is why, for right now, I would place my very “low-bar” expectations on the next NYC mayor and other elected/appointed/annotated officials and leaders on taking the ‘safe-small-step’ of expanding G&T programs (in at least one or two classes) in every elementary and middle school in every G&T deficit-district in the city. And as we learned in CSD29Q; by placing a G&T program in one of our lowest-performing schools in the district, a cascading effect occurred that caused high expectations to rise and for high instructional quality to permeate throughout the school building, and this “G&T diffusion effect” was doubly effective in those schools that also housed a teacher professional development center—having models of teaching and learning excellence on-site provided those school-building administrators with an additional instructional professional development resource-tool in helping to raise the quality of teaching and learning throughout the entire school building.
Seeing schools from a district supervisory level perspective, you come to appreciate that individual schools have unique institutional personalities. School families can collectively either feel good or not so good about themselves. If all a school community hears about their school is that they are “failing,” “underperforming” or “a bad school.” Such a school family can start to believe that those negative labels are genuinely reflective of everything and everyone (students, parents, administrators, and staff) in and connected to the school building: “Those negative attributes are who we are, and we can’t do any better!”

We found in CSD29Q that by putting a G&T program in previously academically underperforming schools, immediately the conversation changed for the upbeat better about those schools, with its teachers, administrators, parents, students, and the surrounding community. Before introducing a G&T program, parents whose children were “zoned” for a particular school utilized ‘the-full-bag-of-tricks’ (I won’t mention them) to keep from sending their child to their neighborhood school. But after the establishment of a G&T program along with the many other exciting school enrichment resources, prospectively “zoned” parents were now inclined to not use granny’s address (oh my, I mentioned one) to get their child into another school in the district. Some of the new G&T principals commented that their newly minted G&T programs, other music, and art programs, and especially the placing of a state-of-the-art STEM-AT lab turned what use to be a challenging annual recruitment process into an exercise of pride and the proud promise to parents that their children deserved, and would receive the best the system has to offer.

The process for admission to a G&T program is not statutorily or regulatorily fixed-in-stone…

Like the absence of regulations that ‘fix’ the number of G&T classes in a school district; there are also no official-standardized guidelines for admission to a G&T or specialized school or program in a district; unless they are artificially imposed (e.g., the SHSAT) for political and non-pedagogical reasons. Any present “admissions process” is arbitrarily applied and is not the product of a research-based (and proven) process. For all we (professional educators) know, admitting students to a specialized or G&T program, school, or classes, based only on their performance on elementary and middle school state standardized exams or a ‘specialized test,’ might not be the best way to capture large numbers of potentially powerful highest-performing students across the district’s vast educational landscape; students who may have gone educationally and G&T unnoticed because they don’t ‘test well,’ or as a result of their zip coded limited learning experience, or their lack of access to parent-push-power, means that they (and the world) don’t get a chance to discover and display their talents and gifts. The present G&T admissions process is heavily weighted in favor of those children who enjoy solid and effective parent support; even the “admission interviews” are in many ways interviews of the parents (including the often unconscious ‘adding-of-points’ effect by the review team when seeing both a mother and father, presenting “professionally” while attending the information or pre-admission assessment session) and the learning quality of the child’s home life; not the child’s demonstrated or potential “talents and giftedness.” There is every reason, based on my 40 years of educational experience (and having observed teacher G&T professional development sessions) that any K-8 child on grade level (or even below) could benefit and thrive in a G&T instructional environment. In fact, my experiential observations reveal the opposite effect when there is no G&T differentiated learning intervention. When above, on, or slightly below grade and performance level Title-1 K-8 children are in classes with a lot of students who are struggling academically or who require a great deal of social-emotional support systems (often not available); this results in those above, on and slightly below students not being pushed and challenged to reach their next highest academic performance levels.
Further, the teachers in these types of classrooms (not uncommon in Title-1 schools), if not extremely highly-proficient, may find it very difficult to give all of the students across broad academic performance levels and counseling needs spectrums, who are sitting in the same classroom, the full instructional attention they all need; unless that classroom is specifically designed as a team-teaching (e.g., SPED/REGULAR-ED) blended classroom with full-time behavioral and educational paraprofessional support, and a comprehensively robust school-based counseling/medical services resource department.

Maintaining as both being true; two seemingly contradictory concepts…

I realize that I am asking a lot of readers by requesting that they accept my posing of two seemingly, on the surface appearing, contradictory ideas (a classroom technique teachers should utilize more often to grow student’s intellectual skills). One idea being that standardized exams are not a perfect or even a good measuring tool for admission to a G&T, specialized/advanced learning programs, or schools. But on the other hand, I am pushing for the immediate creation of K-8 G&T programs for NYC’s Black and Latino students who have standardized tested on or above grade level. I see this immediate and focused expansion plan (and its inherent contradictions) of G&T programs as a ‘first-aid’ educational response to the present educational trauma and high-expectations depersonalization situations these particular students are presently subject to daily.
Simultaneously adopting these two ‘conflicting’ positions is also based on my experience of having transitioned from a school-building principal to a school district superintendent. “It’s a different world than the one you came from!”; is the first song that came to my mind when I stepped into the superintendency. Significant effective changes on the school-building level have the capability of occurring quickly, quietly (under the political radar), and without the central office, politicians, and the news media getting involved. As a principal, many ‘things’ that happen in my school-building fell under the “we won’t ask, and you don’t tell us” rule. That school district-school relationship understanding worked because year after year, we produced high achievement scores in every school quality measurement criteria (and generated much positive press for the NYCDOE), from school-building safety and cleanliness to graduation rates, college admissions & scholarships earned, to our students’ successful performances on all (Regents to AP) standardized exams. In summary, we were able to engage in some “interesting practices” because, as a Title-1 school, we were one of the “best” (a chancellor’s words, not mine) performing high schools in a city with 500 high schools!
A school district, however, is another matter. A school district ‘change-action’ is like changing the direction of a giant ocean liner compared to a school’s ability to produce and maneuver ‘change’ like a speed boat. Any significant action, initiative, or project on the school district level will generate many active and vocal advocates and a likely cast of equal in number of passionate opponents, who will all have their own unique agendas, access to school board members, connections to influential and powerful political stakeholders, and even ‘contacts’ in the news media. And often lost in their demonstratively divisive or conflicting efforts is the possibility that the superintendent could actually be pursuing (without prejudice or political partisanship) a path that is in the best interest of children. However, a word to those wise principals with higher career aspirations; superintendents can’t completely avoid making a “greater good” decision. For even in CSD29Q, I had to put a G&T class and STEM-AT lab in a high-performing school that ‘technically’ could have waited until the next (year) round because the school’s well-politically-organized parents “protected my political flank” and made it possible for me to enact the G&T program district-wide and especially in struggling schools.

So as not to push the NYCDOE too dramatically and too quickly forward (public civil service systems can have bureaucratically inbred growth limitations issues); we should be willing to accept as a temporary G&T admissions and participation approach, one that focuses on those Black and Latino students who are on or above grade level based on standardized test scores, and teacher/school administrators recommendations, as initial G&T programs participants; these young people are presently educationally suffering badly by sitting in poor quality and severe under-learning classrooms. It’s a children saving triage move that admittedly has many pedagogical deficiencies.

The Hypocritical Hyperadvocates…

Ok, so this is where we will hit the liberal (both black and white advocates) wall. Some of my critics (in the past) and the newly recruited ones based on this article will say that this call for expanding G&T programs harms struggling, performing below grade level Black and Latino students in Title-1 schools. But their “tell” (and I always look for it) is that they, their children or their family and neighbors children, presently or in the past, enjoyed some type of G&T high-expectations rigorous academic program experience, even if those programs were not labeled “G&T.” These (in deeds) G&T entitled programs or specialized schools have as their daily basic-floor-standard, the drawing out and development of their students best talents and gifts; and most important is the school’s instructional requirement to have high expectations (and thus high-efficacious behaviors on the part of the teaching staff), for all students, as a core uncompromising operating school culture attribute.

I have visited many entitled public and prestigious private PreK-12 schools serving the entitled in this nation; while school administrators, staff members, and parents connected to those schools may rail against and perhaps even discourage the taking of state standardized exams; they are at least in one essential way, right. Their state’s ‘Core Curriculum Standards’ are far below their school-based teaching and learning (and internal assessments) standards; therefore, having to spend an excessive amount of time preparing for the syllabus, unique ‘rubric-language-styles’ of the questions, and the test format structures of state standardized exams will slow down their ‘authentic’ learning process. But for many unfortunate disentitled public school children living in the wrong zip code or skin color, just being able to learn and master ( at a proficient or highly proficient level) a state’s subject/content areas Core Curriculum Standards by their 3rd, 4th, 6th or 8th grades, at or above grade/performance levels, would be the equivalent of those students winning a public education lottery. This is why an even greater G&T educational experience would take many of those same disenfranchised students to national and international academic peer competitive stratospheric learning levels! But even this approach is only a temporary measure to stop the low-quality-learning ‘bleeding’ that’s destroying large numbers of NYC’s on and above grade and performance level Black and Latino students. Ultimately, a school system must be ethically committed to providing G&T techniques and practices in every school and classroom in the city; but that is an action that would invite a whole new dangerously high level of political risk for any mayor or chancellor.

*Working with the Scantek corporation, a company that traditionally developed high school and college-level Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) hands-on Applied Technology (AT) labs; we designed a new curriculum (aligned with the 4th-grade state science exam), lab projects, activities, components and teacher professional development programs for a Pre-K-5 and middle school grades appropriate models of their H.S./college AT labs.

Michael A. Johnson is a former teacher, principal, and school district superintendent. He is the author of a book on school leadership: Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership. He is currently completing (Fall 2021) his second book on school administration and leadership: Report From The Principal’s Office.