Election Promises and the Myth of “Grade Level”

Last week after Mayor De Blasio sailed into a second term, he made a lot of bold promises to New Yorkers, including repeating a vow to get ALL third grade public school students up to grade level standards.

SIGH.

I just finished my report cards so I can tell you Mayor De Blasio, there will never be a time where ALL NYC third graders will be on grade level. There are nearly 150,000 students with IEPs in NYC and the same number of English Language Learners. The whole point of an IEP (Individual Education Plan) is that it is INDIVIDUALIZED to that student’s abilities and needs, not based on arbitrary standards.  Unless you expel all students with disabilities and ban immigration to NYC, our public schools will always be full of students of all stripes and at all levels.

Giving you the benefit of the doubt, I will assume that you recognize that it would be bad pedagogy to hold students with IEPs and those just starting to learn English to the same standards as general education students. In that case, perhaps you meant to promise that a majority of third graders will reach grade level.

Not likely.

Why?

Well for one thing, not all children learn at the same pace.  Especially for students as young as third grade, even typically developing / gen-ed children may be below or above “grade level” with no cause for alarm. In fact, being on grade level has nothing to do with whether a child is learning, which should be what we prioritize.

Second, does POVERTY and increasing inequality ring a bell?

Because academic performance– particularly test scores– is linked directly to income levels (which also mostly correlate with race). NYC public schools right now are home to hundreds of thousands of students who live in poverty.  Many of these students move frequently, live in unstable conditions and lack support at home or outside school. Not a recipe for academic achievement.

Worse, as you may have noticed, NYC is only becoming more unequal as housing in neighborhood after neighborhood becomes prohibitively expensive. This year, nearly 1 in 7 of the city’s 1 million plus public school students is homeless. That is approximately 100,000 homeless CHILDREN in NYC alone.

In my school, record homelessness means multiple students commute to my school in Brooklyn from shelters in the Bronx. These 7, 8, and 9 year olds have to wake up at 4 in the morning to get to school and then it takes them two hours to get home at the end of a long day. They spend time outside of school doing things like cooking, cleaning and caring for younger siblings. They are often absent or late and when they do make it to school, they are frequently exhausted.

If you want these students to “perform” on grade level, Mr. Mayor, I suggest you set a different goal; Affordable, stable housing for ALL third graders. Then we can talk about academics and I can teach you about child development.

 

De Blasio and Farina: Stop Worrying About Testing and Coding. Worry About Student Homelessness.

It’s time for NYC to make child homelessness a priority.

There were more than 100,000 homeless children enrolled in NYC public schools in the 2015-2016 school year. That is a small city’s worth of homeless children. And that number is expected to rise.

As a public school teacher, I know first hand the effects of homelessness on children’s well-being and achievement. Homeless students are much more likely to miss numerous school days, making it hard for them to stay on grade level. When they do make it to school, they are often hungry and exhausted- in need of rest and emotional support, not primed for academic challenges. Homeless students also often face long commutes from their shelters to get to school, and are more likely to be late for school. It goes without saying that homeless children also typically lack the support and stability needed to complete homework.

This high rate of homelessness is both unacceptable and unnecessary. New York City is one of the wealthiest cities in the entire world. As the city grows wealthier by the day, there is no reason- beyond skewed priorities– for such a high proportion of child homelessness.

The inequality is staggering. While hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers live in shelters and on the streets, there are empty luxury condos in Manhattan owned by off-shore billionaires, high-rises going up every year, tax credits for developers who build drop-in the bucket numbers of barely affordable apartments and billions of dollars spent on vanity projects like the Hudson Yards path station. On the same block, brownstones sell for three million dollars right next to a bus station that shelters the homeless each night. In my classroom, my homeless students who commute from shelters in the Bronx are expect to perform as well as students who live in multi-million dollar lofts in gentrifying Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, the NYC DOE and State Education department spends an exorbitant amount of money on testing, curriculum development and technology every year. Some of these initiatives are beneficial- but nothing should take precedence over meeting the basic needs of every child. Teaching a child to code doesn’t help them find a place to sleep comfortably at night. Spending millions on new instructional standards and resources is all well and good, but if our students are hungry, scared and tired we might as well throw that money out the window. Similarly, there is no point in pouring money into testing and accountability measures when our students don’t have homes. In an era in which we’re obsessed with data and student achievement, it is astounding to me that we are able to virtually ignore the epidemic of homelessness among NYC school children.

Mayor De Blasio did the right thing in bringing breakfast to classroom last year and making school lunch free for all children this fall. Children can’t learn when they are hungry. And they can’t achieve their full potential when they don’t have a home to go to at the end of the day. The needs of children should take precedence over the needs of developers, finance and testing companies. 100,000 homeless children should be declared a state of emergency by the DOE, the Mayor and the Governor, not ignored or treated as an inevitability. If Mayor De Blasio and Governor Cuomo truly want to improve educational outcomes for all children, they must make ending child homelessness a priority in the coming year. If we pass the millionaire tax, close the LLC loophole and get our priorities straight we can  tackle the homelessness crisis in our city.  Every child needs and deserves a home. We have the means. We just need the will to change.