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.

The art and craft of being an effective principal is to be political without being political.

The art and craft of being an effective principal is to be political without being political.

A very common education bad news media story lead that is usually some version of :

“Principal in trouble, for saying, writing or engaging in some ‘overt’ political act, in the context of their official work role… The principal “took-sides” in a foreign political or military conflict… As a result of the principal’s actions… ”.

Usually, if a principal is asked to apologize for a mistake publicly, they will—to keep their job. But the principal’s coach (the superintendent) can’t only be concerned about the bad publicity or ‘punishment’ aspects of the incident. Instead, the superintendent must also focus on professionally developing the principal’s judgment capabilities and school leadership skills.

As a superintendent, I always coached and cautioned principals to execute extreme judicious behavior and be both words and phrases careful about what they put in any memo. “You should assume,” I warned, “That your memo will be made public and/or leaked to the news media!”. There are also many potential legal implications (e.g., labor-contract laws, lawsuits, etc.) relating to what a principal commits to writing. I’ve seen Special Education lawyers eat principals alive (and by unhappy extension also me, the superintendent) for what a principal unwisely put in writing.

It is much easier to defend your intent in the face of a bad outcome when the ‘delivery system’ is verbal (although you should also be careful with your spoken words) by ascribing any problems that arise to linguistic misinterpretations and misunderstandings. However, this corrective (or retreat path) option is removed from you when your words are permanently written on paper or in an email. In terms of memos generally, “make them rare and absolutely necessary,” was the advice a veteran senior principal gave to my rookie principal-self; and for the next ten years, after I received that wise counsel, I wrote so few memos that even today I could almost remember all of them!

The myth of public education being politically neutral; and the hypocrisy of accusing principals of being political.

Ok, let’s start with a logic exercise:
Public Education is a political act. If there is any confusion about this statement, then I would call your attention to the issues of: “Specialized Schools,” — “Gifted & Talented Classes,” — “Advanced and Enrichment Programs,” — “Highly-Effective Large Quantities of Quality Learning,” and the “Schools and School Districts Resources Gaps;” all controversies presently occurring in many school districts across this nation. Who does and does not (as in zip codes, communities, socio-economic class, ethnicities, etc.) receive the best positive learning benefits from public education is a political decision.

Now, don’t get distracted by the faux and insincere angst over the present Asian student’s doing-well success story with the NYC Specialized High School Exam (SHSAT). This success story was not the result of an Asian community ‘political power move.’ The SHSAT was an initially designed “gate-keeper” (for segregation and quality education purposes) to benefit NYC’s 1970’s white (not Asian) student population. Asian students’ success, in this case, is a flukey and accidental exception to the Political Power = Quality Education rule. Generally speaking, the parents with the most political power (entitled or acquired) consistently get the most (best) beneficial efforts and outcomes for their children from their public education system; this is even true if the levers of governmental political power are controlled either locally, statewide, or nationally, by people who look like (e.g., Black & Latino) the children who are on the short-end of receiving the positive public education benefits. If you are still not clear on this question as to whether public education is a political act; one can simply count the number, starting with the US secretary of education, down to the thousands of elected local school board members; those people who are the political stakeholding governance officials (elected and appointed), who influence or control public education policy. I would include here the many powerful and influential political players (e.g., teacher’s unions or the “billionaires donor club”) who, to borrow from one of the old-folks sayings, will “throw harmful education policy rocks, but then hide their hands!”

Therefore,
Principals are necessarily political ‘agents’ with ‘officially’ limited agency in the public education political process. In such a highly-hyper-politized unjust and unfair system, the only professionally ethical extraofficial option available to principals is to insurgently counterbalance the advantages of the powerful and dismantle the disadvantages of the powerless. These actions should represent the bulk of the principal’s pedagogical and operational focus; and, if done correctly, should (especially in a Title-1 school) take up most of your working time and attention. Multitasking skills notwithstanding, as a Title-1 principal, I actually needed more than 24 hours in a day (like 34!) to save more kids. And for the record, personally, I am sensitive to whatever struggles the people of Wales might be facing, as well as the plight of the ocean whales; but there was only one of me in the building, and so much that needed to be done; therefore, I had no extra time to solve the problems of the near east, middle east or far east.

The ‘world’ was in a difficult place when you assumed your principalship. It will probably (without Devine intervention) be in a difficult place when you leave your position. The problems of our nation and the planet are too big and too numerous for any single or group of principals to solve. However, what you can definitely do for children (and win at doing it), is to change, in their favor, the national and world access to intellectual growth opportunities options for each of your students.
Let the specialized professional political activist solve the world’s problems. Your professional political activism should be focused on changing the negative trajectory world your students have been societally selected to suffer. The most revolutionary thing you can do for a disinherited and disentitled school child is to give them, through academic achievement empowerment, a vastly improved possibility for future life survival and success.
Granted, this is not social media or hashtag ‘sexy’ (on the contrary, it will probably result in you receiving some painful political wounds). Still, it’s what your students desperately need from you. These are the children for whom public education is their only good-and-real-shot at realizing family status improvement, acquiring a bright and promising future, or those who need to break what could be debilitating generational chains of disappointment, despair, and destitution.

In the soul-lifting words of Al Green: “Let’s Stay Together” — and focused on the school’s mission!

Principals are the leaders of the adults (not just the children) in the school building. These adults represent many different political views, ethnicities, religions (or no religion), personal philosophies, cultural and family experiences. An effective principal will keep their staff focused, not on the external political-world issues that might divide them, but rather on the internal challenges that will unite them in wanting to provide the maximum level of quality education to all of the students in the building. Be the student-success bound school-ship’s guiding rudder, not its sails that react to every political wind blowing in the world. One of my all-time favorite principal responses to the never-ending parade of planetary issues: “Let’s stay focused on our students folks!”

Michael A. Johnson is a former NYC 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.

“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