NEW YORK—United Federation of Teachers (UFT) President Michael Mulgrew gave his two cents, and then some, on the “struggling” state of New York City schools to a panel of journalists and a room full of educators at Milano: The New School for Management and Urban Policy on Wednesday.
In Mulgrew's view, schools are being closed that shouldn't be, high-needs students are being neglected, and teachers are quitting because they don't have proper support. The current curriculum is also lacking in arts and social sciences, he said. Underlying all of this, according to the UFT president, is an inadequate means of evaluating schools' performances.
“There's something we can do in New York City starting right now, and that's change the school progress reports,” he said.
The Bloomberg administration has been using progress reports to assess school and teacher performances in recent years. According to the Department of Education (DOE) website, progress report grades are based on attendance and graduation rates, and incorporate parent, student, and teacher surveys. Mulgrew says that while a lot of data has been collected, that doesn't mean it is accurate.
“You begin to see that when the underlying premise is so completely flawed, that everything else is at risk,” he asserted.
When he was a teacher, Mulgrew worked on improving school safety with former senior superintendent of high schools Rose DePinto. He says DePinto recognized that the most important part of evaluating a school was visiting it in person.
The new schools chancellor, Cathleen Black, has been visiting many city schools since November and says she has had many conversations with principals. Time will tell how the DOE operates under Chancellor Black, but according to Mulgrew, the department has not had a regular presence in the schools up to now. Some schools slated for closure told the UFT president that they have never seen a DOE official.
Mulgrew maintains that schools must be evaluated on more than just the reports, and that the method for establishing which schools should be closed must also change.
“You cannot judge a school from a data report sitting at a desk in Tweed,” DePinto used to say in reference to the DOE's offices in the Tweed building in Lower Manhattan, recalled Mulgrew.
He presented the case of PS114 in Brooklyn. The teachers and school community repeatedly complained about the principal’s mismanagement. The school had historically performed well, but the principal began to cut many of the programs that had led to its success. While progress reports continued to show high performance, complaints were ignored. When the results of the mismanagement finally manifested, the school received its first “D” and was then immediately slated for closure, explained Mulgrew.
“The benchmarks used by the DOE to close a school are arbitrarily enforced moving targets,” said the UFT president. “There is no clear-cut reasoning behind school closure decisions.”
Mulgrew proposes a three-step process. If a data report shows a high dropout rate or chronic absenteeism, an initial intervention would take place. An internal school committee would be formed to evaluate the problems and develop a plan for tackling them. The second level would kick in if no progress takes place over a prescribed period of time. A DOE team would then come in to work with teachers and make recommendations for additional programs. The third and final step would be initiated if the school continues to stagnate, at which time it could be slated for closure or placed under the direct control of the DOE.
Mulgrew says that the DOE must step up and play a stronger role in supporting the schools while preserving the principal's decision-making capabilities.
“The word 'accountability' is a favorite at Tweed: school accountability, principal accountability, teacher accountability. But what about the DOE's accountability to the schools and to the public? … What the DOE has done is turn the schools over to individual principals and said, 'You're on your own,'” Mulgrew said. “That's not management, that's abdication.”
The antagonistic relationship between the UFT and the Bloomberg administration has led to instability in the school system, noted Errol Louis, one of the journalists on Wednesday's panel. Louis says Many parents who can afford to do so have simply taken their children out of the public system, Louis said.
Mulgrew conceded that with the loss of many such students and parents, what is left in the public school system is an increasingly high population of high-needs students.
The UFT president noted that while great improvements were made in some schools under former Chancellor Joel Klein, other schools have been left behind at their expense. He used the example of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, which has 700 English Language Learners (ELL). The school has also seen a 350-percent increase in homeless children since surrounding schools were reorganized or closed and these high-needs students were pushed out.
“It's clear that we have patterns of students who are absolutely being shuttered into certain schools and not getting what they need,” Mulgrew said.
While the DOE claims that the enrollment process is arbitrary, others say that high-needs students are excluded from charter schools and other schools the administration wants to perform well. Mulgrew would like to see greater transparency in the enrollment process through third-party involvement.
“The big education reform issue across this country is: How do we move education, especially for the neediest students?” he said.
The UFT president pointed out that approximately 17,000 children are homeless in the city—an all-time high. The ELL student population is likewise the highest it has ever been.
Mulgrew suggests for small international schools that have qualified ESL teachers to work with schools that have a high ELL population. He also recommends a “SWAT team” of counselors to be deployed to aid schools with troubled youth.
A Teacher's Perspective
Dominque Howse, 25, was a hip-hop journalist before teaching in Honduras and Wisconsin. She is currently an Urban Policy student at Milano: The New School for Management and Urban Policy. Howse worked for the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ), the renowned educational network in Harlem headed by Geoffrey Canada.
HCZ has worked with local families since 1970, providing a variety of support services, from health and educational programs to opening a public charter school. It aims to end a cycle of generational poverty.
Howse has lots of experience working with high-needs students. With her hip-hop background and her youth, she says she is able to connect with and engage students in urban schools. When a student says he doesn't care about school “because I be in a trap all day,” Howse knows that he means he has been selling drugs all day.
“It's emotional. When you go home, you're thinking about Dante, or you're thinking about Jamie, you're thinking about the homeless children—are these kids going to have some place to stay? You're making jail visits, because you know that one of your kids was just arrested,” she said, recounting the trials of her profession.
Mulgrew drew attention to the high teacher turnover rate. With 50 percent of teachers quitting within six years, he says it's a sign that they are not getting the support they need. He has also observed schools where the principals foster a culture of support. Howse pointed out that this may also be a problem of the educators' own motivation levels; many enter the profession simply because they don't know what to do after college.
“I think we need more people who have identified their purpose and passion in life working in education. Because if it's not your purpose and passion, you're bound to walk away and fail the student body,” she said.
After assigning a short essay to her new class in Wisconsin, Howse observed that a 19-year-old girl was not writing anything. She turned out to be illiterate. While many would be inclined to blame the teacher, the responsibility for a student's failure falls on many shoulders, Howse said.
“At some point, somebody failed along the line: the community, the parent, the school, the administration, the culture. We failed as a collective,” she maintained.
The culture most of her high-needs students are immersed in does not encourage youth to be engaged in education. Howse said they think they don't need math to own a “Benz.”
Mulgrew found that he had to find ways to get his high-needs students engaged in learning. Instead of making them work on an essay, he got them to write a script for a film they could make themselves. Howse creates a connection between historical figures and modern culture.
“They never see the relationships between their life and history, their life and social studies, their life and mathematics,” Howse noted, but if the knowledge is framed for them in the right way, they can draw value and inspiration from it. “I can teach myself how to read, because Fredrick Douglass taught himself how to read,” Howse imagines her students saying.