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

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.