I sat down with Chris Churchill’s Christmas wish-list column with anticipation. He always writes about the issues of the Capital Region with insight and wit, and I, along with many of my local friends, really enjoy his work. I found myself nodding in agreement at the first two items. Yes, local pride! This area has so much history and natural beauty. We need to start celebrating it. New bus station! The bus station has been deplorable for decades. It is a really terrible first impression of the area. Then I got to the third wish and had to stop cheering.
A wish for better urban schools. As a life-long Albany resident, I found the points quite familiar. I graduated from Albany High School in 1998 and during my 12 years as a student in the Albany City School District there were definitely some cringe-worthy moments, from mean and miserable teachers to terrifying classmates, to an overall lack of supervision. Yet, when I moved back to the area to raise my own child here, I chose Albany schools because I thought that they offered the combination of benefits that I was seeking for my son’s education: high-quality and caring teachers, robust offerings of extracurriculars, diversity of student body, and the largest selection of high school academic offerings in the area.
I did not look at the data; of course I see my own son as an individual and as he grows older I feel confident in his abilities to perform well on the battery of standardized tests that are a daily reality for all stakeholders in NYS public education. I did not know if he would test well when he was starting school at age 5, but I did know what has become the best kept secret in education today: poverty affects test scores (!). I grew up in a middle-class home that values education, enjoyed the opportunities that AHS offers to those who look, and went on to get a couple of college degrees like most of my middle-class counterparts. Many of my lower-income classmates did not.
So, anecdotally, poverty affects one’s educational prospects. If I had looked at the data during my school selection process, it would have supported this theory. I have not been able to find disaggregated data for Albany schools that account for income, but it is possible to compare the different elementary schools, which vary widely by income.
In 2011 the school I chose for my son, Delaware Community School, enrolled 69% children living in poverty, as measured by the number who qualify for free lunch. The test scores for 2011-2012 (pre-common core testing) are unimpressive: of our fifth-graders, only 33% scored a 3 or 4 on their ELA tests, and only 50% scored 3 or 4 in math. Next, visit Sheridan Preparatory Academy, with 91% students living in poverty, and the results are more dismal: 31% of students performed satisfactorily on ELA tests, and 30% in math. But when you take a short trip across town to New Scotland Elementary, you find a different picture: with a mere 28% of students living in poverty (still close to ⅓), 66% of students are passing ELA tests and 72% are passing math.
So, there is a correlation between higher incomes and higher achievement rates on NYS standardized tests. Correlation doesn’t prove causation, and maybe lower-income kids are faring worse because their teachers are lazy, don’t care, and are only there because they couldn’t find anything better. This is where my twenty-eight years of experience as a student, student teacher, and parent in Albany schools inform me. I have seen extraordinary hard work and personal investment. I have seen teachers spend their own money year after year to buy clothing, food, and school supplies for their students. They stay at school hours after their contractual day ends to make sure they have fun and valuable activities planned to dilute the boring skill and drill activities that NYS makes them use. I have seen parents who tirelessly volunteer and fundraise to be sure that there is a robust PTA, wide range of clubs, and strong sports programs for all students to take part in. I have seen teachers and parents who take time to help overstressed and bewildered low-income parents navigate bureaucratic systems of school registration, social services, and nonprofit organizations. I have seen art, music, gym, and other “specials” teachers shuffled between 3 schools per week to save a tiny bit of money that is used to provide more of the special education teachers, school social workers, and school psychologists that impoverished children need just as much as they need “good teachers”.
The teachers and parents of urban schools do not care less or work less than their counterparts; they care more and work harder. They are there because they love and believe in the kids, and they spend their days engaged in a heartbreaking triage system, trying to help as many as they can with the resources allotted. Meanwhile bureaucrats in NYSED and consultants who were hired to nitpick and micromanage teachers’ work look down their noses. Friends and relatives of Albany residents ask why they don’t move out of the city for “good schools”.
I have heard the talk about bad urban schools for my whole life (“The houses are so charming in Albany, but then you have to factor in the cost of private school”). I have a thick skin and am laughing my way to the bank as my son gets one of the most well-rounded educations around for the cost of school taxes. The reason I feel compelled to speak up this time is that right now, especially in NYS, urban public education is under attack from all angles. There are the national “reform initiatives”: Teach For America programs (funded by the Walton family) that replace veteran teachers with roots in the community with a revolving selection of inexperienced novices who are unprepared for the challenges that they face in urban public schools. There is the charter school movement, which was sold as a sandbox for educational innovation but is shrouded in secrecy, lines private pockets with public money, operates in competition with public systems, and violates FAPE in many cases by denying access for students with special needs. Finally, there is the engine behind these initiatives: absurd federal measures like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which put accountability and assessment over all else, even learning. Local school districts are forced to implement these destructive, experimental, and unproven strategies or lose the funding that keeps the doors open.
These are the challenges that public educators have gotten used to over the last few years while plugging away wiping noses, teaching long division, and assembling materials for their evidence binders into the wee hours of morning. I write this now because Andrew Cuomo has big plans for the sale of urban public education, spurred by his corporate backers and inspired by successes dismantling public education in other states. In his recent letter to the board to Regents, Cuomo has promised an “aggressive legislative package” to reform public education. Many of these reforms (merit pay, more emphasis on standardized tests to determine teacher effectiveness, raising the cap on charter schools) are directed squarely at “failing urban schools”. Does Cuomo stay awake nights worrying about the plight of the impoverished urban youth? Probably not. If so he would be touring schools, talking to parents and kids, including “effective teachers” in the dialogue, funding public schools at (at least) the same levels as 2008, and distancing himself from soon-to-be former Commissioner King, a man who believes in public education so much that he pays more than $10,000 per year to send his own children to private school. Nope, Cuomo (a man who has absolutely no experience with public education as a student, parent, or educator) sees a huge cash cow for his backers, which can pave the way for his own grandiose political ambitions. By aggressively promoting policies that target low-income and thus low-achieving schools, Cuomo can funnel public money to his hedge-fund donors while only minimally disrupting the “good schools”.
For my entire life it has been conventional wisdom, accepted as fact, that urban public education systems are failing their kids. Of course, as with most things, the real story is more complex. Have urban schools failed their kids? Yes, some urban schools have failed some kids. Some suburban schools have failed some kids too. This air of inevitability never bothered me much before; I could never imagine that public education would ever really be in danger in a state like New York. But now it is, with Cuomo and his army of reformers on one side and Sheldon Silver standing on the other with his thumb in the dike. The reformers have bypassed proven community-based programs that support low-income families from pre-natal days to preschool years in favor of an approach that identifies teachers as the only factor in student achievement (as measured by standardized test scores). If we, as a society, really care about urban low-income families and children, we should be celebrating the teachers who work in urban communities and asking them and the families they serve how we can help.