An Open Letter to New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo
Dear Governor Cuomo:
I hope this letter finds you and your family in good health and good spirits. I write not only to you, but also to those who share your view of public education.
I want to start by thanking you for creating a commission to review and “reboot” the Common Core standards. I agree, “the implementation of the Common Core just did not work,” and needs a “total overhaul.” By forming the commission, you have provided a platform for parents and educators to share their thinking regarding not just the Common Core, but public education in general. I am hopeful that the feedback you receive will make its way into our schools and begin a much needed student centered redesign of public education in New York State.
I also want to personally thank you for allowing me to provide testimony to the Common Core commission at the College of New Rochelle. It seems that my testimony went over pretty well as it has nearly 4000 views on social media. Your commission has also chosen to make me one of their technical advisors, which provided the opportunity for me to give additional testimony in the areas of curriculum and assessment. The work of the commission, along with your hiring of Jere Hochman as Deputy Secretary of Education, has me very excited about the direction in which we are moving.
My excitement turned to devastation however as I watched your November 17th interview with David Gergen at the Harvard Kennedy School of Public Leadership. As an education practitioner for sixteen years, I was both frustrated and disheartened to watch the two of you pontificate about public education in what I consider to be a dangerous and irresponsible manner.
Your discussion was wide ranging; covering topics from police reform to the new construction at LaGuardia Airport. As the conversation shifted to education, you told the audience that you are in constant conflict with the teacher union. You shared that your “unabashed” support for charter schools, which you refer to as “laboratories of invention,” as well as your teacher evaluation mandate, are two of the causes of this conflict. You also went on to share your excitement around the possibilities of technology as a means to help circumvent the “machine” of the teacher union bureaucracy.
Mr. Gergen, whom you refer to as one of the experts and craftsmen of his generation, recklessly framed the conversation in a way that greatly mis-categorizes the public education narrative. Mr. Gergen stated that teacher unions don’t want “young smart” people from Teach for America entering the profession. He then went on to praise charter schools as places that provide “24/7 support to children and families,” and “really work with the children themselves.” While Mr. Gergen made these comments, you nodded your head enthusiastically in agreement.
There are two things that are incredibly careless about this conversation. First, it lacks a valid and reliable research base. Second, the two of you have a platform to really shape public discourse. As such, you must take extra special care to avoid facilitating misinformation regarding public education or any other topic. If you don’t, the perpetuation of child suffering will continue in schools throughout the state — as it does in schools all over the country.
What does the data tell us about these widely discussed topics? First, public schools as a whole “outperform” charter schools. I place the word outperform in quotes because of our narrow view of what it means to perform in public schools today. The few charter schools that are celebrated for closing the alleged “achievement gap” have faced extreme criticism and scrutiny for their draconian test prep and recruitment practices, and boast incredibly high student and staff attrition rates. Some may argue these practices are the price to pay for achievement, but consider these questions:
1. Are we ready to accept the instability and emotional trauma that comes with schools designed around draconian test prep practices?
2. Does high performance on standardized assessments truly equate to what we all mean by achievement?
Research shows otherwise: In 2003, the “gold standard” of charter schools, KIPP, had a graduating class that ranked fifth in New York City on the math standardized tests. Six years after entering college, only 21% of that cohort had earned a college degree.
In the landmark book, Crossing The Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, former college presidents William G. Bowen and Michael S. McPherson found that student high school G.P.A. was more predictive of college success than S.A.T. scores.
As you can see Mr. Governor, high performance on standardized tests alone does not equate to a quality education. What research identifies as a determinate of quality schools, lies in a well rounded curriculum inclusive of both academic and adaptive skills, where students get to solve problems creatively, work with their peers, and experience both teacher and student centered pedagogy.
As to your comments regarding charter schools serving as “labs of invention,” allow me to remind you that some of the most innovative schools in the country are public schools right here in your state. From the NYC iSchool, to Westside Collaborative, to Brooklyn New School, to Quest to Learn, there is amazing work happening in unionized public schools that we all can learn from. Charter schools that promote silent breakfast, silent lunch, silent hallway transitions, and have teachers walking around with clipboards to give demerits to students who misbehave, do not sound like labs of invention to me — they sound like labs of oppression.
Your statement related to wanting teacher evaluations because “right now we have none” is categorically false. Teachers have been evaluated throughout my entire career. With regard to the new evaluation system, the issue isn’t that teachers are averse to evaluations, they just want evaluations that are fair and just. An evaluation that is 50% aligned to invalid and unreliable tests, created by a 3rd party for-profit company, aligned to new standards and curriculum with minimal teacher input, is both unfair and unjust. What makes matters worse is by continuing to turn a deaf ear to the research on child and brain development, we continue to have an achievement gap that will never be closed by an evaluation system tied to test scores.
Furthermore, why are charter schools exempt from your teacher evaluation plan? That also doesn’t seem fair or just.
Regarding Mr. Gergen’s comments, teacher unions aren’t afraid of “young smart” teachers entering the profession. On the contrary, that is what they want! Teacher unions oppose Teach for America (TFA) because the majority of TFA recruits leave the classroom within three years, with most leaving the profession entirely. This obviously creates a continued vacuum in our most vulnerable communities and has indirectly undermined the recruitment and stability of teachers via traditional pathways. Further, Teach for America has been around for 25 years and our so called “achievement gap” has grown. Their impact has been a net zero at best for the profession.
Mr. Gergen also seems to think only charter schools support students and families 24/7. To this I say check my phone records, and the phone records of educators throughout the country. We all love our students as our own children and we are constantly in touch with families into the evenings and on weekends to support them with whatever they need. Mr. Gergen disrespects and undermines the profession with these nonsensical statements.
Lastly, regarding your excitement for technology, technology is simply a tool to help us get things done more efficiently and effectively. It will not in and of itself “revolutionize public education” as you say. The education revolution begins with a paradigm shift driven by the needs and brilliance of the children we serve.
If we really want to transform public education, Mr. Governor, we have to stop investing in purchasing, administering, and scoring annual assessments from grades 3-8. We know 3rd grade reading scores predict future outcomes, so let’s invest heavily in early childhood education, teacher training, and school support. Lets focus on birth to age eight programs, implement a strong literacy and Montessori curriculum, and institute portfolio based assessments and apprenticeships in grades 6-12. If we do this, you will have a model education system for the world to aspire to.
Mr. Governor, you, like many of your elected colleagues, are lawyers, not educators. I am an educator. I have been throughout my professional life. I do not know the law, and would never try to speak with any conviction about what should happen in a courtroom. What’s most dangerous about the public education discourse is the fact that finance, tech, government, and the “elite” are all driving the conversation without educators included. They have the audacity, to make life-altering decisions for other people’s children, while sending their children to independent schools.
The masses of people, who are our most vulnerable, continue to be handled without empathy or care. Empathy requires that we walk in the shoes of others; something that charter reformers, Common Core advocates, and Teach for America have never done.
In closing, I want to turn your attention back to your announcement of the Common Core commission. Do you realize that in that speech you mentioned the word “standards” ten times, and the word “tests” fifteen times, while only mentioning the word “learning” one time? Standards and tests are meaningless if they aren’t grounded in learning. Learning is innate, natural, and driven by the needs of children. This is why we must change the conversation from standards and testing to teaching and learning. This fundamental flaw in ideology continues to lead our education system down a destructive path.
Further, although you and Mr. Gergen discussed innovation as essential to moving the education agenda forward, during your Common Core commission announcement the words creativity, collaboration, and communication, which many experts believe are pillars of innovation, received a total of zero mentions. Innovation is not just about using a computer, tablet, or smartphone; innovation is a way of thinking, doing, and being.
Thank you Mr. Governor for all that you do for our state. In the future please be mindful to handle the topic of public education with extreme care. Be wary of your pro charter school advisors. The charter school money train and gentrification plans are well documented. Our work isn’t about teacher unions, charters, or technology; our work is about children — and the future of our democracy.
Have a happy holiday season.
Jamaal A. Bowman