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.”