First Person

Researcher: Small Schools Aren’t Enough, But They Help

Rosa Rivera-McCutchen began her career in education as a high school Humanities teacher in a small Bronx high school. She then became interim director of DonorsChoose.org, an online charity that facilitates donations to classrooms, before earning her doctorate in teaching and learning at New York University. She is currently an assistant professor of educational leadership at CUNY’s Lehman College. Her research has appeared in Urban Education and in a new book entitled “Critical Schools: Beyond privatization in New York City Urban Educational Reform.”

What questions guided your research?

Having started my career in a small Bronx high school that was modeled after progressive educatior Deborah Meier’s Central Park East Secondary School, I was interested in better understanding the evolution of critical small schools, and the what challenges to the fundamental philosophy of “critical” small schools existed. I focused my research on “Bridges Institute,” a small school Bronx high school (different from the one where I had taught) that had, by a variety of indicators, remained true to its original vision of reform; it was still very much aligned with the philosophy of school advocated by prominent small school reformers like Meier and Theodore Sizer. In 1994, Bridges, along with three other small high schools, was founded to replace a failing comprehensive high school in one of the poorest sections of the Bronx. I wondered, to what extent was Bridges Institute actually aligned with the tenets of critical small school reform? How did the policy and community contexts influence the vision and implementation of the reform agenda? How did the leadership and staff respond to threats? And, most importantly, was it a good school?

How did you conduct your research? What were you looking for and how did you find it?

I spent a year and a half working with the principal of Bridges Institute to organize various professional development initiatives including a small schools conference. During that time, I was granted permission to collect data for my study. I wanted to get a thorough understanding of the history of the school — the challenges and successes — as well as document the teaching and learning practices. To do this, I interviewed the school’s founders, as well as current and novice teachers. I also interviewed alumni of the school, to get their perspective about the quality of the education they received while at Bridges. Finally, I spent two semesters observing classroom instruction, as well as professional and staff development activities.

What were your major discoveries?

Once I began my research, I realized how layered and complex the story was, and that at the heart of the story was the community Bridges served. At the time of the research, over a third of the community lived below the federal poverty line and educational attainment beyond high school was very low. With a community in crisis, Bridges aimed to provide a quality education to students that emphasized critical thinking and social action. Cognizant of the community needs, the school’s founders were still astounded by students’ lack of academic schools when they entered the schools in ninth and 10th grade. Because Bridges was a zoned school, students came to it from low-performing middle schools and prior to that, had attended low-performing elementary schools.

These challenges were compounded by an almost immediate shift in the policy context within which Bridges and other newly formed critical small schools were operating. Key allies in important leadership roles within the city and state education departments were pushed out or resigned their positions, and were replaced by individuals who were not favorable to the vision of critical small schools. This resulted in overcrowding within the first couple of years of Bridges’ opening, a critical juncture in the school’s development. At the same time, the standards movement took hold and ushered in an era of high-stakes Regents exams that were fundamentally at odds with Bridges vision of schooling.

In spite of these challenges, at the time my research was completed, Bridges Institute was far more successful at retaining and graduating struggling students than either its predecessor or its sister schools, even though their student population included a higher percentage of students who were behind to begin with when compared to the rest of the city. Alumni I interviewed credited their success to the caring environment the school’s leadership and staff created. They also felt well-prepared to write in college and noted that Bridges’ teachers ingrained in them the value of drafting. Founding and veteran staff members also spoke of the value of a collegial and collaborative community, and believed that this community was essential in maintaining their vision.

Still, the school struggled in some critical ways. Although the school was founded by veterans of small schools like CPESS, the rapid growth and overcrowding of the school led to the staff being dominated by novice teachers who had no experience in critical small schools. Professional conversations began to shift from being deeply reflective about practice and student learning to more basic issues that dominate novice teacher’s experiences (i.e. classroom management, effective lesson and unit planning, etc). This was compounded by frequent turnover among the newer staff members. More importantly, the shift in the staff dynamics made it difficult to cultivate an environment where ongoing critical conversations about race and class would inform teaching and learning. Consequently, my research revealed disturbing evidence of lowered expectations for students, or “soft” caring. This was manifested in lowered standards of work and behavior on the part of too many teachers that failed to be called into question. In this regard, Bridges’ success was severely limited.

What can policy makers learn from your work?

Small size is not a sufficient reform strategy to improve urban schools in low-income black and Latino communities. It has to be coupled with strong school leaders and teachers who understand their students have been historically underserved, and who are committed to educating students as matter of social justice. The conditions needed for this work to be carried out rely on the willingness of policy makers to create the conditions that would allow this to effective.

First, schools like Bridges, that serve students who have not had access to quality education in their prior schooling, need more time to help their students make up the lost ground. It is simply unrealistic to expect that students entering high school who are years behind in literacy and math can catch up in four years. Unless schools are relieved of the pressure to graduate kids in four years, corners will be cut. Another critical policy shift has to come in how schools serving communities like Bridges are staffed. Bridges was founded by a cadre of veteran small school teachers and leaders who were able to focus their energy on shaping the educational experiences of students to reverse years of educational neglect. But in later years, the school’s focus shifted because it was staffed primarily by novice teachers. The inexperience, coupled with frequent turnover, led to some of the challenges I discussed earlier. School communities cannot develop rich practices and reflect on their value when a majority of the teachers are struggling with the kinds of basic challenges that come with being a novice. Schools like Bridges need more resources to attract well-qualified veteran teachers, as well as retain novice teachers through meaningful and ongoing professional development and support. These are some of the basic conditions that are essential to provide the students living low-income Black and Latino communities with the quality education they deserve.

Are there further questions you are exploring?

One of the important questions that emerged from this research was the role of school leadership in sustaining school reform. One area that I’ve begun to explore is the idea of insider succession as a means for sustaining promising school reform. In the model of schooling we see in Bridges, tapping an insider who was a veteran of small schools had some obvious benefits in that she/he understands the vision and promise of small schools. However, the transition from teacher to leader can be challenging in that an insider principal has to manage both a relationship shift from “colleague” to “supervisor,” as well as effectively communicate a rationale for decision-making to former peers.

I’m also interested in exploring the concept of school leadership for social justice more deeply. I’m embarking on a study of principals working in schools that include social justice as part of the school’s vision to identify specific behaviors that are aligned with social justice leadership. In other words, what does it mean to “walk the walk” of social justice leadership?

Why is this of interest to GothamSchools readers? What is new and exciting here?

With the rapid-fire creation of (and subsequent demise) of small schools in New York City, particularly in the Bronx, understanding how to successfully implement small school reform is critical. In Bridges, we find the beginnings of a template for providing quality schooling for historically underserved low-income Black and Latino students. Bridges has been around for over 15 years in spite of a number of challenges. This is not a “boutique” small school; it serves a population of students that few want to serve, and they do surprisingly well given the challenging circumstances. There is so much to learn from this example!

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 misterrad.tumblr.com, 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.