When Ed Reform Goes Too Far

As all of my friends and co-workers would attest, I am extremely passionate about the field of education. I fundamentally believe that our students and thus our schools are essential to the future of our great nation. I also believe that every student can be pushed onto a track towards future success; Stanford Professor Dr. Jo Boaler pointed out during a recent conference in Boston that 95% of our current students have the mental and physical capacity to attend a post-secondary institution if they are taught in the right way. It promptly follows that we must make our schools better if we are serious about the lofty goal of putting every student on the road to college and career readiness.
Over the course of the last five years, I have read almost every book I could get my hands on that examines various theories about so-called education reform. I have considered a wide range of diverse opinions, ranging from Diane Ravitch to Michelle Rhee to Joel Klein. More recently, I have become immersed in the work of Elizabeth Green and more specifically the notion that we need to move away from the vicious ‘accountability vs. autonomy’ arguments that permeate the discussions surrounding education reform today.
One may be wondering where all of this incredible passion comes from. Over three years ago, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime as one of the 17% of applicants accepted into Teach For America’s 2012 corps, and was subsequently placed at East Side High School in Newark, New Jersey. Although there have been many emotionally draining and stressful occurrences over the course of the past three years, my experience working in Newark has shown me the potential our astonishing students really have. I think of my many students who are first generation immigrants, excelling at school while struggling to learn a language and grow accustomed to a new culture that is so very different from the one in which they have grown up. I think of students like Melissa, a junior who is poised to become the first person in her family to attend college, and has led the Robotics team to the first ever district finals. And then I think of students like Austin, a senior that has become like a little brother to me, who, through unimaginable stress and tremendous adversity, has persevered and risen to the top of his class, being named Salutatorian while being elected President of the Student Council and serving as captain of the varsity soccer team. Austin has also won some of the most competitive scholarships (including the prestigious Coca-Cola Scholarship and the NHL’s Thurgood Marshall Scholarship) while being offered admittance into some of the most elite universities our country has to offer (including Duke, the University of Pennsylvania, and Cornell). And they have all done well in part because of the opportunities they have had while attending East Side High School.

East Side is the largest high school within the governance of the Newark Public Schools. It is one of the few Newark high schools with high demand as enrollment has skyrocketed over the course of the past three years due to more families wanting to enroll their children at East Side High School. As a designated Title 1 School, 81.9% of our students are considered economically disadvantaged, 15% of students are classified with special needs, and 18.3% are English Language Learners (Source: The New Jersey Department of Education state report card for East Side High School). While our school has had and will continue to face many difficult and sensitive challenges in the road ahead, one thing that no one can argue is which direction East Side is headed. As many “Data-Driven” educational leaders would say, let us look at the data. Star-Ledger Reporter Naomi Nix has recently put forward that, “the share of students considered proficient in language arts increased from 67 percent during the 2010-2011 school year to 79 percent during the 2013-2014 school year, while the number of students considered proficient in math has increased from 63 percent during the 2010-2011 school year to 75 percent during the 2013-2014 school year.”

It sure seems as though there are many great things going on at East Side High School. I am not sure anyone would consider East Side a great school – yet – but we are definitely in the process of becoming one. Any reasonably coherent person would see the overwhelming positive trajectory that East Side High School is on.

Which is exactly why our entire building – teachers, administrators, and students alike – were shocked to discover that the Newark Public Schools has designated East Side High School as a turnaround school for the 2015-2016 school year.
Huh?
When pressed with any possible rationale as to why a state-appointed administration would aim to turnaround one of the brightest beacons of hope in the Newark Public Schools, they responded with saying that the incoming 8th graders are achieving at a significantly lower rate than last year’s cohort, and it is those students that truly need to be “turned around.” I am not sure I follow this argument; if this is true, why not turn around the K-8 schools first? For me personally, I already get to school by 7:00 am and leave at around 5:00 pm everyday. If these reforms are to go through, I would lose about 90 minutes of daily lesson prep time (40 minutes from a shortened prep and 50 minutes from the extended school day) in addition to gaining a 6th class. Until what time does the Newark Public Schools want me to work? Do they want me to put in 12-hour days on a consistent basis? I need at least two hours to plan a highly effective lesson that is culturally relevant and engaging for our students. This is in addition to all of the extremely important extracurricular activities, extra help, and empowering conversations that I have with students on a daily basis. I am worried that I will burn out even earlier next year, and that I will not be as mentally ready to give it my all during class day-in and day-out.

This past Saturday, in protest of this decision, our school community held an inspirational #WeAreEastSide rally to showcase some of the great things that are going on at East Side High and to highlight everything that would be lost if these changes go through. As our fearless principal Dr. Mario Santos has said, “East Side has been on a road to greatness and the results have shown it! The key ingredient of any great school is great teachers, and my focus and my goal is not to lose any great teachers. The term turnaround…can affect that. Obviously, I don’t want to lose any great teachers.” As our vice principal (and TFA alumna) Meg Murray said during the rally, “East Side IS a turnaround; we are a great school and constantly getting better!”
At the #WeAreEastSide rally
I worry that some of our educational leaders have lost touch with reality, and that we are starting to lose focus of the bigger picture. I resonate strongly with Nicholas Kristof’s recent piece in the NY Times, which put forward the notion that improving our schools is essential, but at what cost? While working in an inner-city school for the past three years, I agree with him that we must “support education reform. Yet the brawls have left everyone battered and bloodied, from reformers to teachers unions.”
Our principal Dr. Santos speaking at the #WeAreEastSide rally
To my peers and fellow educators: let us keep showing the world what Newark and East Side High School is capable of doing. Let us keep pushing ourselves to improve our craft and become the very best teachers that we can be. And let us keep up with the biggest responsibility we have – to pass down knowledge onto the next generation of leaders while preparing them for the dynamic and globally connected world that is the 21st century.
And to the Newark Public Schools: as a Teach For America alum, I want to be on your team. I want to believe in what you stand for, but it has become increasingly difficult to support a vision that completely decimates our public schools. I share in your resolve to make the Newark Public Schools a great school district, but I promise you that “turning around” East Side High School would do nothing more than de-stabilize the most stable comprehensive public high school that Newark has to offer. If the turnaround designation stays, many of our best teachers will choose to leave the district in large droves. The fallacy with many of these reforms is that the best teachers – “The Irreplaceables,” as they are often called – will have opportunities in other districts, and that only the worst teachers will be stuck in the Newark Public Schools. At the Partner’s for Excellence reception the district held earlier in the year, district leaders declared how we as a district must do everything we possibly can to retain our highly effective teachers, yet the actions of the district seemingly advocate for the exact opposite. I worry that if these reforms go through and there is a mass teacher exodus as expected, it will take at least a decade to restore the school to anything faintly resembling East Side as we know it today. I urge the district to reconsider this turnaround designation, and instead give our instructional leaders worthwhile professional development that will truly improve our pedagogy. I lobby for new teacher coaches so that my colleagues and I can continue to grow as educators, which will help our students far more than simply extending the school day by an hour.  And please allow for an open and honest dialogue with the people that have the biggest impact on student achievement and the ones who are fighting on the front lines every single day – your teachers.
To close, I must ask: Are we creating conditions in our urban schools such that our best teachers leave and our worst teachers stay? Does urban education go too far when it does more to drive away the irreplaceable teachers to other districts or professions than to keep them in the classroom? And when will we learn that education reform must be done WITH schools and communities and not TO them?
As for me, I still have tremendous hope for our future. Perhaps I am an eternal optimist or a hopeless romantic, but I am a teacher because I fundamentally believe that education has the power to change the world. I know that our schools can do better and that many things in the K-12 system need to change. But is there a point when education reform goes too far?

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