Monday, January 18, 2016

Do Black Men Matter in Urban School Leadership? by Bernard Gassaway

           After a year of social unrest centered particularly around the killings of Black men and boys across this country, I find myself pondering what role, if any, Black male educational leaders play in preparing Black boys for what is happening to them and for what they are doing to each other? These questions came to light for me after the unrest in Baltimore, which appeared to hit a high when the youths of Baltimore expressed their dissatisfaction with the murder of Freddie Gray by setting the community ablaze.

         First, I wondered: where were the Black male educational leaders in Baltimore when the unrest was occurring? What strategies, if any, did they implement to address the unrest with the children? If they took specific actions, might it be helpful for other communities to know what they did? We know from media accounts that grassroots individuals, parents, politicians, and clergy took to the streets to quiet the storm.

         What happened when the children returned to school? Were teachers trained to lead discussions about the conditions that led to the unrest? Was there a curriculum provided to teachers to plan appropriate lessons? Did the teachers believe they were ready and able to discuss race vis-à-vis murder and unrest?

         Looking at Ferguson, Chicago, Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Phoenix, North Charleston, and Cleveland made me think about Black male leadership in education in New York State (NYS) and New York City (NYC). I know from personal experience as a twenty-five-year urban school educator in NYC that educators are not prepared or trained to discuss race, riots, or unrest related to killings of Black men and boys.

         Are Black male educational leaders in NYS and NYC, if they exist to any significant degree, responsible for initiating training for teachers’ vis-à-vis writing curriculums and leading discussions that center on race and poverty? Would Black male educational leaders be prepared to engage with urban youths if the unrest experienced in Baltimore occurred in any major city in New York? Does it matter whether Black men are involved in the highest level of educational leadership in NYS and NYC?

         Where is Black male leadership in NYS and NYC public education? Does any evidence exist that having Black men at the table matters when public education is discussed and when policies, standards, curriculums and assessments are written, particularly related to racial and social conditions that may lead to organized and unorganized protests?

         Does it matter whether Black men are involved at the highest levels of public education in New York? Does it matter to the governor of New York, the mayor of NYC, or the chancellor of NYC’s public schools? Does it matter to you?

         Do any Black men currently sit on NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo’s education leadership team? I believe NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio has one on his school leadership team. Does NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina have any? Does it matter?

         What difference, if any, does it make having Black men engaged at the highest levels of leadership in public education? Should Black men have a role in writing education policy and curriculums? Should Black men be involved in the school-choice debate in New York? Should Black men have a role in deciding how to spend billions of dollars on education in New York? Should Black men decide which community-based organizations are given contracts to work with children and families, particularly related to social conditions that lead to violence? Does it matter?

         Does the absence of Black men at the highest levels of education leadership affect the quality of education for Black boys, in particular? What message, if any, does the absence of Black men send to Black boys about their futures? This rang loudly for me as I watched the media accounts of the unrest in Baltimore.

         As we undergo another round of education reform at the state and local levels in NYS and NYC education, perhaps the new state commissioner of education will determine whether Black men have a role at her table. Perhaps, the schools chancellor of NYC will be asked to address the presence of Black male leadership on her leadership team.

         At a NYS learning summit convened by the NYS Regents (May 2015), six panels weighed in on teacher-evaluation policy. Not one Black man participated on any of the panels. Why not? Does it matter?

         At the city level, the chancellor of NYC Schools apparently has decided that Black men do not have a seat at her central leadership table. Nor do they have a seat as a director at the newly formed Borough Field Support Centers. Of the seven centers, none of the directors are Black men. Why not? Does it matter?

         Does it matter whether state and city urban school agendas include Black men to any significant degree? If they were present, what role, if any, would they play in educating the public, particularly our youths, about the role that race and poverty play in the killing of Black men and boys?

         As the killings, whether through gun violence or through police action, continue throughout the United States, I recommend that the governor of NYS, the mayor of NYC, and the chancellor of NYC public schools engage in public discussion and action to answer the question of whether having Black men involved at the highest levels of public education in New York matters? If it matters, they should take appropriate action to demonstrate its significance and not wait for the next killing.

         I recommend that the clergy, the community, and elected officials engage in significant action to determine whether Black men matter in urban public school leadership. If it matters, they should advocate and act accordingly.

         I pray that we not wait for the next series of killings to determine whether Black men in educational leadership have a specific and significant role to play in working to prevent the violence that is likely to surface as a direct result of our failure to educate our children and our community.

         Based on the deafening silence about the absence of Black men in urban school leadership, one might easily conclude that having Black men in educational leadership does not matter.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Cuomo routinely fails to deliver on education promises

By Bernard Gassaway, Commentary 
Published in Times Union, Tuesday, January 5, 2016

I examined Gov. Andrew Cuomo's five State of the State addresses, focusing specifically on his education policy. To his credit, he was consistent when speaking about the need for school reform. However, Cuomo's tone was different in his 2015 address.

Last year, Cuomo ramped up his criticism of teacher performance and acknowledged state government did little to reform public education, particularly schools that poor children attend. According to Cuomo, "Over the last 10 years, 250,000 children went through those failing schools while New York state did nothing."

Although Cuomo declared this would end in 2015, it has not ended. Unfortunately, Cuomo's repetitive education policy speeches have done little to reform public urban schools, because he failed to deliver on his promises.

Cuomo's current education agenda includes evaluating teachers, removing ineffective teachers, transforming failing schools and districts, extending mayoral control over education in New York City, expanding charter schools and passing an education tax-credit law.

One year after Cuomo characterized the teacher-evaluation system as "baloney," he has signaled that he is prepared to accept the recommendation of his Common Core panel to delay tying student test scores to teacher evaluations until 2018-2019. The Board of Regents has proposed a delay until 2019-2020. This delay will affect Cuomo's pledge to make it easier for school leaders to expeditiously remove ineffective teachers.

Another of Cuomo's decisions — to place failing districts under a state-led receivership — is not grounded in research. There is no evidence of this approach being successfully implemented anywhere. In fact, the state Education Department is not prepared to support or implement Cuomo's turnaround design.

Cuomo and state legislators approved extending mayoral control over education in New York City for a year. Cuomo says he will study mayoral control for one year, to determine whether other urban school districts should replicate this approach. Yet there is no evidence that Mayor Bill de Blasio has a comprehensive, research-based plan to improve the city's failing schools under his control.

Cuomo has failed to convince the Legislature to pass his controversial education tax-credit plan. He also failed to significantly expand charter schools. These initiatives were major pillars of his education agenda.

As a public school teacher, assistant principal, principal and superintendent who worked in New York City's deprived and struggling schools for more than 20 years, I offer Cuomo the following suggestions to aid his reform efforts:

• Learn from existing research about teacher recruitment and retention. Recruit and train the top 5 percent of the graduating classes from the top colleges and universities to replace the 30 to 40 percent who are expected to leave teaching within the next five years. It is clear that new teachers are not prepared nor trained to handle the most difficult assignments, where they are often placed.

• Focus on system reform, not school reform. Current efforts to improve schools are futile at best unless reforms are made to the system that is failing to support the schools. To this end, Cuomo should first overhaul the state Education Department. Second, he should examine school districts in the state that do work well. Scarsdale's might be a great place to start. Yes, that community is wealthy; however, what makes Scarsdale work is its sound principles and practices, adopted by a community that values education.

• Study the 12 years of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's mayoral control. Glean best practices and revise policies to achieve community buy-in. Know that, regardless of the laws in place, control in the hands of the wrong mayor would be a disaster.

• Attempt to reframe the charter school debate. The current debate is divisive. It is not enough to simply focus on charter school expansion. If Cuomo were to improve all public schools, there would be no charter school debate, nor any need for education tax credits. Charter schools, vouchers and education tax credits are remedies to redress public school failure and educational inequity and inequality.

As Cuomo acknowledged in his 2015 State of the State address, real and meaningful reform will not be easy. It will take a tremendous amount of care and courage to do the right thing.

Cuomo's failure so far to reform urban education in New York will likely widen the achievement gap between the state's rich and poor children.
Cuomo's actions vis-a-vis education indicate that he may not be the education governor New York needs to reform the dysfunctional school system that he strongly criticized in each of his State of the State addresses.

What can Cuomo say in 2016 that will be different and believable, given his willingness to retreat from past pledges and promises?

We know that sustainable school system reform will take more than a series of passionate speeches. It will take vision, courage and leadership.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Teachers College "One Listen" Event

Champion or Bystander --
Dr. Bernard Gassaway

Good evening, President Furman, faculty, staff, students, and guests. I want to thank Chelsey and Paula for inviting me to offer remarks in this One Listen event.
I have decided to frame my remarks on Proverbs 38:1: “Speak up for those who have no voice, for the justice of all who are dispossessed.”
Please ponder this question: Are You a Champion?
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a champion as “someone who fights or speaks publicly in support of a person, belief, or cause”;  “a militant advocate or defender”; and “one that does battle for another's rights or honor.
While I agree with these definitions, I would add that champions create cultures of care and do not remain silent when they see injustice. To paraphrase the MTA slogan, if champions see something, they do something. Champions understand that silence is betrayal. They understand what Bill Ayers said about teaching, “Teaching has always been, for me, linked to issues of social justice. I've never considered it a neutral or passive profession.”
Were it not for champions in my life, I would not be speaking before you this evening.
As an elementary school student, I do not remember having a champion, other than my mother. I remember being suspended frequently from school for fighting or insubordination.
As a middle school student, my teacher Mr. Liebowitz was my champion. He made it possible for me to return to school even after I was arrested for an incident that had occurred outside of school. I was guilty of taking a quarter from another student. For this, I was arrested, and the police took a Polaroid picture of me and placed it on the bulletin board under a sign that read “Gang Members”—even though I was not in a gang.
In high school, my English teacher Ms. Kleinstein believed that even students who were classified as at-risk could learn to read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. Through her care and compassion, she concentrated on convincing me that I could go to college and be successful even when I did not see or believe in my own potential, similar to Jonathan in the Podcast Three Miles.
In college, Mr. Carl Thomas, director of HEOP at LeMoyne College, was my champion. He helped me to understand that I did belong at a Jesuit Institution, even though I was neither White nor catholic.
My college career almost ended as soon as it began. One day in my freshman English class, the professor said the one word that I never wanted to hear him say: Bernard. You see, he called on me to read aloud. Because I was aware that my education up to that point had been inferior, I was horrified to participate, particularly because I felt like an outsider among all of my Caucasian classmates. This was probably not unlike how the students of University Heights felt when they visited Fieldston. After the professor called my name, my hands trembled, and my knees knocked. In the middle of reading a passage, I made a mistake. Instead of saying “diaphragm,” I said, “diagram.” As if on cue, the entire class began to laugh, even the professor. I felt so small. This confirmed that I was not supposed to be there. I knew daily, consciously and subconsciously, that I was the only black student in most of my classes. Instead of reacting violently, as I would have two years prior, I decided to use this experience to work harder. I had something to prove. This was truly a defining moment for me.
Though I considered myself a champion for children, I have learned that even champions need champions.
In 2007, I became a doctoral student at Teachers College (TC). While 95% of my experiences here were positive, I do remember feeling a little intimidated in certain environments within TC. This is ironic because I worked and lived in some of the toughest neighborhood in New York City. I recall one specific time when I needed to have a form signed—such a simple task. I walked into an office to ask two individuals for help, and they literally berated me. I apparently had unknowingly not followed the established protocol. Fortunately for me, I had a champion at TC. My champion (now my friend) was Ellie Drago-Severson. From the first day of her class, I knew she was caring, compassionate, competent, and very demanding. When I explained to Ellie what I experienced, she did what champions do. She did something! I will leave it at this: I did get the form signed, and I went on to earn my doctorate on May 20, 2015.
As I reflect on the podcast, I wonder if Melanie had any champions at University Heights?
In 1997, I became the first African American principal at Beach Channel High School, in Queens, NY. One day during my fourth year, a student accused a teacher of hitting him. I filed the obligatory report to the Office of Special Investigation. They asked me to investigate the case and submit my findings. I decided to refuse the case and have them investigate it instead. I also insisted that the teacher be removed pending the outcome of the investigation. They complied with my request.  After nearly two months, they completed their investigation and found the charges of corporal punishment were substantiated. The superintendent then made the decision to allow the teacher to return to the school. I met with the superintendent and the deputy legal counsel for the department of education. I demanded that this teacher not be returned to Beach Channel. In fact, I DID NOT understand why they had NOT terminated the teacher. As they persisted, I informed them if they returned the teacher to my school, I would resign on the spot. They decided not to return the teacher to Beach Channel. It was extremely important for me not to just say something but be prepared to do something.
Sometime in 2010, now principal of Boys and Girls High School, as was my practice, I was welcoming students’ each morning as they entered the school. On this particular morning, a student appeared to be distraught. As she entered the building, she began to cry. I called for our school social worker. Moments later, I went to check on the student. The social worker said that we needed to send her home; she had woken up this morning and found her mother dead. She still somehow got dressed and came to school. I was dumbfounded—why would the social worker want to send her home? The student came to school to talk to the only person she knew who could help—her teacher—who was her champion.
Regrettably, because of the enormity of the challenges that my students faced, our efforts to champion them were not always successful. I remember when a 17-year-old student requested that I lighten her course load to enable her to come to school later in the day to accommodate her work schedule. I asked her where she worked. She told me that she worked near Grand Central Parkway in Queens. She then explained that she got off work at 5 a.m., but she needed to go home and take a shower and get an hour or two of sleep. She explained that she was an escort. Somehow in her mind, describing her job in this way gave her a level of dignity that did not come with the cruder term prostitute. I wish I could tell you that I (we) was instrumental in helping her change her life conditions. That is not the way this story ends. Frankly, I cannot tell you how it ended. I do know that my staff and I used our limited resources and made efforts to support this student, though our efforts were unsuccessful. Perhaps this is how some staff at University Heights felt when they tried to help Melanie.

Teacher of Teachers
I am currently teaching a graduate course in public school finance at another institution. I asked one of my students, a New York City teacher, what she would say to the governor or to members of the New York State Legislature about funding inequities and fixing what she described as a broken school system. She gave a passionate response with several excellent ideas and strategies. I then asked her what was preventing her from delivering her message to them. She responded, “I never thought about it.” We may surmise that if she and others remain silent, nothing will change. People often say, “I am only one person. I cannot do anything to change the system.” I am reminded of a quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
            In closing, when I listened to the podcast, I did not think of social justice; rather, I thought of the effects of injustice. When I think of injustice, I can hear it, see it, feel it, taste it, and smell it. In other words, it is palpable. I think of the high suspension rates among African American boys, the school-to-prison pipeline, homelessness, illiteracy, poverty, racism, violence, gaps in all categories, and inferior education. This describes the experiences of University Heights students and many of my students; in fact, it also describes my own experiences.
Furthermore, when I think of social injustice, I ask myself, what responsibility, if any, an institution has for addressing social justice challenges, first within the institution itself and secondly within the larger community? What role, if any, should for example TC play in influencing, shaping, and (when necessary) correcting the urban educational discourse? Does TC have a moral responsibility to not only say something but do something?
The answer lies in this quote from Helen Keller: “Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.”
So I ask, are you willing to Speak Up For Those Who Have No Voice? Are you willing to be a Champion?

Thank you!

Dr. Gassaway delivered this speech on September 30, 2015 at Teachers College.
© Bernard Gassaway, September 30, 2015