First Person

All Families (Without The Dependent Clause)

This piece first appeared this morning on the website of Harlem Link Charter School, where Steven Evangelista is the founding co-principal.

The scene: a community board meeting in New York City, circa 2005. A charismatic executive was speaking to the crowd about a new charter school network that was in the offing. The executive emphasized that the school didn’t need community board approval but felt it was important to have the blessing of these community leaders. After a few perfunctory comments about school design and achievement gaps, the executive uttered a carefully crafted statement I have been thinking about ever since:

“We will work with any family that will work with us.”

On the surface it sounds great, even noble. Who wouldn’t admire such openness, even magnanimity? A typical public school educator would probably shrug and say, “I do that every day.” But a reformer with a cape coming down from the elite to work with the little people promises to work with them all!

A close parsing of the dependent clause of that sentence, however, reveals another side of the hero story and raises questions that get to the heart of a core issue about school reform and school design that our board of trustees will debate tonight at its public meeting. Who exactly are we serving? What is the real cost of serving everyone? And who, exactly, wants to work with us?

An alternative — and, I would say, more noble — statement would be: “We will work with any family.”

The question of whether or not to include the dependent clause boils down to this: Are so-called high-performing schools of choice on one level just great sorting factories? Are the “families that will work with us” just another way of identifying the same families that researchers like economist James Heckman would find already imbue in their kids the “soft skills” required to persist and be successful in school, college and life?

If so, what happens to those other kids? The ones whose parents are intimidated by the prospect of charter school rigor, or by the demands of keeping up with the schedule and the requirements of having a child in a charter school, or who won’t agree or feel they can’t agree that it’s important to get their kids to school on time and in uniform every day?

Creaming and Counseling Out

According to defenders of the status quo, the charter answer to this predicament is to ignore the problem so it will go away for someone else to solve. Charters allegedly use intimidating, even hostile techniques such as harassment both to prevent parents who are less engaged and equipped to support their child’s education from signing up (so-called “creaming” or “skimming” the best students and families) and, if they do sign up, to push out those less engaged parents once they show their stripes (“counseling out”). This issue has long been Criticism Number 1 of charter schools, and charter folks like me have spent years denying that our own schools engage in such practices, even as we know, and admit, that it happens elsewhere to varying degrees. (As an aside, I know that this practice occurs at district schools as well, increasingly as school choice has proliferated; I know because I’m curious and parents with firsthand knowledge and an atypically blunt principal have told me so.)

I also argue that de facto counseling out occurs as a result of high expectations. If I demand that a child come to school on time every day — and then have our school social workers and parent coordinator work with that student’s family if the child is repeatedly tardy or absent — some families will choose the path of least resistance and transfer their children to a school down the street that won’t bother dealing with attendance concerns. In these cases (which are rare) I don’t see an alternative for preventing that family from leaving our school other than lowering our standards — and that’s not an option.

Charter Choices

To the extent that there is counseling out, are charters making conscious choices to push out or exclude families that require greater resources or refuse to get on board? Or do some parents self-select out simply as a result of the rigor or perceived rigor of school policies? How aware are charter operators of the enrollment and attrition implications of their policies?

I believe that by failing to answer these questions explicitly, comprehensively and publicly, charter schools are wasting the opportunity to contribute to long-lasting, meaningful reform. As a charter school founder and mentor of mine told me recently, “In 25 years no one will care about this school’s or that school’s test scores. A rigorous analysis will be longitudinal, and start with all the students in a school’s original cohort. If you’re only reporting on the ones who stay, you’re not doing rigorous research. And no one should care.”

There are some charter schools confronting these questions, but I’m not entirely satisfied with their answers. KIPP, among the largest and most respected charter schools, publishes its own annual report card that asks questions such as: “Are we serving the children who need us?” and “Are our students staying with us?” The report contains statistical answers on how many students stay in the program and the demographic composition of students — more transparency than you will typically find in a public school district — but no analysis of how a “no excuses” policy impacts those statistics.

Is Harlem Link Intentional?

At our school, we have always believed that having high expectations can lead to an inclusive and still high-performing school, if all families are required to meet the same standards but support is provided to ensure that those who need help get it. We have continually raised expectations — for everyone about everything — and have seen that the strain of meeting these expectations has exposed some disagreement over the standards by some families.

Examples of our policies include:

  • If a child comes to school out of uniform, we require that to change and are unyielding about it, but if acquiring a uniform is a demonstrable financial burden, we will provide a uniform.
  • We have hired multiple support personnel to hear the concerns of and provide support to parents — including two full-time social workers and one parent coordinator for our small student body of 300 students. (There was one counselor and no parent coordinator at my first public school, which had an enrollment of 1,700.)
  • If a child comes to school late multiple times, several different members of our staff will contact the child’s parent or parents to offer support and remind them of the importance of being on time. If we ask for a meeting and a parent misses the meeting, we will ask to reschedule.
  • When seats open up in the upper grades, we continue to enroll new students to fill those seats. We plan our budget accordingly, knowing the burden it places on all of us at the school to acclimate new families and students to our expectations and support new students who, on average, enter far behind the typical academic performance of our current student body.
  • We have three full-time Academic Intervention Services teachers to help with remediation for students who are behind academically. (That’s one for every 100 students, compared to one for every 350 or so at my first school and probably most schools nationally.)
  • We have continued to support the independence of our parent association, which has since our opening year elected its own leadership, even though in some years in the past the parent willing to make the most noise and get elected president was a disgruntled one who used the office to grind an ax rather than make productive change for children.

Behind each of these policies is a conscious decision that has a discernible impact on the composition of our student body, on whether the children of parents who are uninformed about, feel powerless to control or simply disagree with our society’s norms about the basics of school readiness continue to attend our school.

Tonight, as we begin the process of building our next five-year strategic plan (2014-2019), we will debate whether we should continue these policies and others like them and we will take a stab at uncovering their true costs.

My presumption entering the debate is that if we are to take the stance that we are here to serve “all families” (without the dependent clause) we need more resources than we have now. Two social workers and one parent coordinator aren’t enough — simply because instruction needs my full-time attention and that of our other instructional leaders.

Right now, we’re half an instructional team. Half our attention seems to be occupied with issues like those described above. (I’ll bet the ratio is even higher for many district school principals.)

What if we had not only two but a full team of social workers, who would work not in the school but in needy families’ homes? What if we supplied everyone with a uniform? What if we had intervention teachers who only worked with individual students who were new to the school in the upper grades and need remediation?

Well, you might say, why don’t you do all those things already? Why don’t you spend your money more wisely to meet your mission? You won’t typically find me saying, “Schools need more resources.” That’s because I know that the money that is currently allocated to district schools in high-poverty neighborhoods is typically not well-spent to begin with.

In addition to having a strong curriculum, faculty and school ethos, I hope I have demonstrated that our school has already devoted significant time and money to providing support to families that need it and ensuring we attract and retain students of all varieties. What I’m saying is, if we are to serve “any family” and not just “any family that will work with us,” we need a parallel school, one for the soft skills that in high achieving communities are taken for granted.

You don’t have to look far down the street from our school — Geoffrey Canada and Harlem Children’s Zone are basically trying to do these very same things (except, they were a social service agency that started a school rather than the other way around). Our questions are different: What can one school do? What can each school do? What does each school need to do? And tonight at our board meeting, what ought we do?

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.