First Person

Jury Nullification

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s selection of Hearst Magazines chairman Cathie Black as chancellor of the New York City public schools has hastened a crisis over how to assess expertise in a complex educational system. Does Black have the expertise necessary to assume leadership of a school system with a budget of $23 billion, 135,000 employees, and 1.1 million students? The mayor certainly thinks so. He has described the job as being able to “solve complex problems in the face of controversy, motivate staff, communicate with and bring together diverse constituents, manage labor relations, use data in decision making, and sustain a culture of change and excellence.” Black’s experience in publishing, he has argued, has demonstrated her bold vision, capacity to make tough financial decisions, skills in negotiation and building support among constituents, and knowledge of state and federal laws. In the eyes of the mayor, these skills — none specific to the field of public education — constitute the expertise required to do the job.

The state of New York has a different conception of the expertise needed to be a school district superintendent. State law specifies that to obtain a professional school district leader certification, school district leaders (i.e., superintendents) must have completed a School District Leader program authorized by the state; accumulated a minimum of 60 semester hours in graduate courses approved by the state commissioner of education; and have at least three years of teaching experience. The certification also includes a full-time, 15-week clinical component of school-building leadership experience or its equivalent, and requires passing two written School District Leader assessments.

The content of the School District Leader assessments provides some purchase on the kinds of expertise that the state views as necessary to successful practice. The standards expressed in these assessments include applying knowledge of skills for engaging building leaders, board members, community members, parents/guardians, students and school staff in an ongoing dialogue regarding core values, goals, policies, practices and achievements; demonstrating knowledge of the New York State Code of Ethics for Educators and the role of values and ethics in district leadership; demonstrating knowledge of factors to consider in comprehensive, long-range planning, including the importance of involving all key stakeholders in planning processes; analyzing concepts, principles and best-practice applications of developmental and learning theories, curriculum development, instructional delivery, and classroom organization and practices with regard to the diverse needs of all students (e.g., special-education students, English-language learners, gifted and talented students); analyzing strategies for developing staff capability through the supervision and evaluation of teachers and building leaders, effective staff assignments, and systems of mentoring, support, and development; and demonstrating knowledge of processes of collective bargaining and contract management that support and extend the educational vision, to name just a few.

If the various requirements of the School District Leader certification are indicators of the expertise that New York state requires of school superintendents, and Cathie Black has not met those requirements, how are we to judge if she has the requisite expertise? Mayor Bloomberg sought a waiver to the requirements, which provides an alternative route to the credential. State regulations allow the state commissioner of education to issue a professional certification to exceptionally qualified individuals “whose exceptional training and experience are the substantial equivalent of such requirements and qualify such persons for duties of a superintendent of schools.” State Commissioner David Steiner convened a screening committee of eight education professionals to advise him on whether to grant the waiver. To the surprise of many, the screening committee did not recommend granting a waiver to Black. Four of the eight members voted no; two voted yes; and two voted “not now.”

In inviting the screening committee to consider the option “not now,” Commissioner Steiner paved the way for the education version of “jury nullification.” Jury nullification is the term used to describe when a jury reaches a verdict that is contrary to the facts in evidence, typically because of a belief that the law is immoral or improperly applied to a defendant. Cathie Black is not, of course, on trial, although many may feel that she is, by virtue of the high-handed way in which she was selected from Mayor Bloomberg’s mental Rolodex to be chancellor without any signs of a search. Steiner has now brokered a compromise in which an insider to the New York City public school system, Shael Suransky-Polakow, will be appointed Senior Deputy Chancellor and Chief Academic Officer. Press reports indicate that with this proviso, Steiner is now prepared to grant the waiver to Black.

I describe this as a form of jury nullification because Commissioner Steiner’s willingness to grant Cathie Black the professional certification needed to be appointed school superintendent is based on criteria other than those specified by the state’s education code. Steiner has already determined that, on the merits of her application, Black was not qualified for the position. In suggesting that Black would be acceptable if accompanied by a chief academic officer, he is saying, as have Mayor Bloomberg, Chester E. Finn, Jr., and others, that the rules should be ignored, mainly because New York City is a special case.

In my view, Commissioner Steiner’s decision should be independent of the context of New York City. The state’s requirements for school district leaders do not state that there’s one set of rules for New York City, because it’s so big and complicated, and another set of rules for the 700 other districts in the state. If the state wanted to create a different set of qualifications for the New York City schools chancellor, it could have done so.

It has not.

Therefore, it’s hard to see how Steiner should take account of the exceptionality of New York City’s educational system. He has found a political solution that further undermines the view held by most professional educators — and, I dare say, the overwhelming majority of school superintendents in New York state — that there is a body of expertise they apply to their daily work that cannot be picked up overnight.

In the long run, trying to assess the expertise necessary to be a school district leader without taking local context into account may be shortsighted. The compromise brokered by Steiner proposes that Black’s lack of experience in public schooling can be offset by the fact that she will be joined by a chief academic officer, and there will be others in the new chancellor’s “cabinet” who have specialized knowledge of educational issues in general and the New York City school system in particular. And if we take seriously the shift in leadership studies from “great man” theories that emphasize the distinctive charisma and personality traits of individuals in positions of formal authority to a view that focuses on the interactions among leaders, followers, resources and context, we’d want to pay close attention to these features in assessing the qualifications of Cathie Black to lead the New York City schools.

But doing so raises some tough questions. Once we acknowledge the notion that expertise is distributed among individuals in a setting, why would we rely on credentials that emphasize individual accomplishment? Why would we seek to isolate the contributions of individual teachers to students’ learning when teaching is an activity distributed among the educators in a particular school? Why would we even assess students’ learning via methods that preclude students from using tools in concert with other students? If, as Mayor Bloomberg has asserted, Cathie Black’s appointment is justified because she’ll be learning in concert with others, why don’t schools assess students’ preparedness to do just this? In the spirit of the season, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

This post also appears at Eye on Education, Aaron Pallas’s Hechinger Report column.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.