April 12, 2011
I was teaching my precalculus class when the news broke that Cathie Black was no longer our chancellor. Precalculus is one of the very few classes I have taught in my three years that is not tied to a Regents exam, and for this reason it is one of my absolute favorites. I use an inquiry-based curriculum taught in a Socratic method style, with students initiating ideas for solutions and communicating their ideas with one another. The idea is to teach critical thinking, and to change students’ conception of math from one of a large collection of “steps” or “right ways to solve problems” into the complex yet accessible system of logic that it is. I am there as a guide and as a facilitator, to provide access to the vocabulary and language of the math, and on rare occasions to provide students access to particular solution strategies used in mathematics that may not be obvious based on anything they have learned previously.
In classes that are Regents-based I am only able to do this type of teaching to a very small extent. Inquiry-based learning requires time, and it does not lend itself well to broad, shallow curriculums. Teaching with the test in mind starts in the early grades, and it is especially prevalent in schools where students struggle to pass the exams, which are also often schools dominated by low-income students and students of color. Most of the ninth-graders I am preparing for the Integrated Algebra Regents exam in June came in struggling with many basic pre-algebra topics, which means that to prepare them in one year to receive a passing grade on the exam I have to review a lot of middle-school skills and focus on particular, Regents-approved “methods” for solving particular types of problems. Almost all of my students can solve a multi-step algebraic equation by this time in the year, but few of them truly understand why the method that I imposed on them actually works. They will remember the method in June when they have to take the test, but I personally do not believe that their critical thinking skills or their understanding of the meaning or purpose of solving an equation will have improved greatly in their time with me this year. How my students perform in June does matter a great deal for their futures and for our school’s future. But what they understand 20 years from now, and how the seeds planted now have developed by that point, matters much more.
Students in my precalculus class were incredibly resistant to the inquiry-based methodology at the beginning of the year. Several of them would complain consistently that I wasn’t “telling them how to solve the problems” or “teaching them the steps.” I was feeling so much resistance that I turned to my assistant principal for advice. I am lucky to work with an educational leader who holds a social justice view of education, and she gave me a riveting speech about how I needed to be completely honest with my students about why they have that view of mathematics, that they are wrong about what mathematics is, and that it isn’t their fault. “Students who look like me and who look like them are given a different type of education than students who look like you,” my assistant principal, an African-American woman, told me. “You need to tell them that their minds have been enslaved; that they have been educated to believe that they are good students if they don’t think and just perform as they are told. That is not educating. You have a responsibility to un-teach that view of learning and support them in learning to think for themselves.”
I want to be able to teach all of my classes like that. I know that in algebra there is a place for learning skills and strategies, but I wish every day that there was a great deal more of a place for deep critical thinking, for reflection, for developing conceptual understandings that will last longer than June. As long as high-stakes testing remains as high-stakes as it is, however, it is simply a reality that the curriculum will narrow and many teachers will focus on the specific skills students need to be successful on the exams. And the stakes associated with scores on these exams, including having one’s school shut down and its space converted into a charter, will remain incredibly high as long as the reforms being pushed in New York City and nationally do not shift course.
And so, when I went on lunch and heard the news that Cathie Black was no longer our chancellor, there was a piece of me that felt so much hope about a possible shift in that course. Maybe this meant real change. We had won something — we, the teachers and parents who pushed and agitated against Black’s appointment; who turned people out to PEP meetings; who created a legal case to deny her a waiver; who kept the reality of her incompetence in the press; who held Fight Back Fridays to protest her offensive appointment. This is a pretty huge and validating reality, and one would have to be a complete cynic to not take a moment to smile about that fact. If we could build, together, enough public opposition to Cathie Black and force Bloomberg to admit he made a mistake and remove her from her post, perhaps we can win on the standardized testing front. If we can win that, perhaps we can win in the fights against school closings, charter conversions and colocations, and the fundamental issue of mayoral control.
But then reality set in: the truth is that Black was just a pawn, and with mayoral control in place it actually matters very little who the chancellor is. In fact, one could argue that the choice of Dennis Walcott actually makes it much easier for Bloomberg to push his misguided, destructive reforms on the children of New York. Walcott’s personal history makes him a much less offensive choice of chancellor, even for me. I remember feeling so deeply disgusted by the fact that Cathie Black had never once stepped foot in a public school (primary, secondary or higher-ed) in her entire life before becoming chancellor. She had no knowledge of the meaning of educational terminology or the history of education that all New York State teachers must study in masters programs. These statements are less true for Mr. Walcott because he grew up in our public schools, his children and grandchild attend public school, and he has been involved in education work through the mayor’s office and as a professional before that.
Yet Walcott has already said he will still push for school closings and more charter schools replacing public school space. Teachers and parents should still be offended by the choice of Walcott because their opinions were not a part of that choice, and because according to state law he, like Black, is unqualified for the position of chancellor. He will still push for the use of high-stakes standardized tests to justify closing schools and to hold students back, and as long as he is Bloomberg’s chancellor he will do it whether he himself believes in it or not. At the end of the day, Walcott will be accountable to one person and one person only, and that is Mayor Michael Bloomberg. While we have a system in place that has no checks and balances, where one person can make considerable changes to our educational structures with no accountability, then the purpose of a chancellor is to serve as nothing more than a salesman and a talking head for whatever changes the mayor would like to impose. And Walcott will actually serve as a much more effective salesman for Bloomberg’s policies than Black ever could have been. While the mayor seems to be immune to any accountability, in my classroom and in schools across the city, the word accountability and its twisted effect on teaching is a constant in my daily life.
Over the course of the year the students in the one course I teach that is not tied to a standardized test have transformed their relationship with mathematics. I never get requests to “explain the steps” anymore. Instead, students explore various ideas and methodologies that they come up with through the process of struggling with problems. Sometimes these methodologies lead to solutions and sometimes they do not, but it is through this process that they have developed a much deeper understanding of mathematics and problem-solving that will benefit them immensely both in college and in life. The growth of high-stakes standardized testing has endangered this type of learning, and as long as such a disproportionate amount of our budget is going into pushing discredited reforms instead of strengthening teaching and learning it may even become extinct.
This narrowing of the curriculum because of the overuse of tests to make high stakes decisions predates black and will exist after her. The short-lived joy I experienced after learning of Cathie Black’s removal only reaffirmed to me, once more, that mayoral control must end. The use of test scores as a justification for closing schools and replacing them with charter schools that then underserve students with the highest needs must be stopped or we are putting at risk the deeper type of learning that we all know is what good education should be.
Yes, Cathie Black’s removal was a win, but in some ways it was an easy win because her appointment aroused so much resentment. Reforms such as school closings and the proliferation of charter schools, the central reforms being pushed right now, are generally opposed in the communities who face them, but they don’t feel so deeply offensive for the teachers, parents and students who escape facing their school being closed or pushed out by a charter school. They are of grave concern for all of us, however, and should be fought city-wide because they undermine and disempower communities, the same way standardized tests disempower our children. The truth is we will never ‘win’ as long as mayoral control is in place because without the input and empowerment of parents, children, educators and communities, there simply cannot be the kind of change needed to move our schools forward. Becoming a member of the Grassroots Education Movement is one way to join the fight.
Cathie Black was just a face from the corporate world, but what her face represented is actually much more damaging. She represented the belief that reforms borrowed from that same corporate world, such as accountability in the form of high-stakes testing and a consumer choice model of education, will change our schools for the better. They won’t, and attempting them might well irrevocably damage much of what we hold dear about public education.