First Person

The Progress Myth is Dead and I’m Not Mourning

While the precipitous decline in New York City test scores and re-widening of the achievement gap may have come as a surprise to some, it shouldn’t have shocked anyone who’s actually been in a classroom during the Golden Age of Accountability.  Reading The New York Times over the past few weeks has been both frustrating and redeeming, as it seems the truth behind New York City’s “miraculous” gains is finally coming to light. Today I finally had the chance to see how the new test scores affected my students and me personally. As you can expect, it wasn’t pretty, but then again, the truth often isn’t.

Before I talk about what the numbers mean to me and in general, let me first lay them out. Of the 18 students in my class who took the English language arts exam, six scored a 1 (below grade level), eight scored a 2 (approaching grade level), and four scored a 3 (at grade level). Of the 19 students who took the math test, five scored a 1, seven scored a 2, four scored a 3, and three scored a 4 (above grade level). That means 22 percent of my students who took the reading exam met grade-level standards, and 39 percent of my students met grade-level standards in math.

What do these scores tell me? First I will say that these scores are a much more accurate indication of my students’ performance levels than any scores I have seen before. While they are definitely lower than “expected,” those expectations were based on previous models of scoring, which as we now all know were deeply flawed. The scale scores and proficiency ratings are difficult to evaluate without any baseline assessment. Yes, there is Acuity data to compare them to, but those are far from a reliable assessment, especially for students reading two or more grades below level. Ultimately, I need to rely more on my own assessments like endlines, E-CLAS, and running records to determine my students’ growth. Except for a few surprises, the official test scores don’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.

What I do know is that at the beginning of the school year only two of my students were reading at grade level. According to this year’s assessment, four of my students met grade level standard on the reading test. That is an accurate assessment. While a few of the 1’s in my class were surprising, I don’t feel it’s an unfair score knowing what I know about those students’ reading and test-taking abilities. All of my students made a year’s growth or more in reading based on E-CLAS and Fountas and Pinell running record assessments. I can be proud of that. And yet, a year’s growth wasn’t enough to bring most of my students to grade level or above. They needed two and in some cases three years progress to get there. I’m not proud of my students scores. How could I be? But for the first time I feel the score reflects reality.

In math it’s a similar story. While there were more 1’s in my class than there would have been in 2009 or earlier, the numbers this year are the most honest I’ve ever seen. At the time of the test I had students who still hadn’t mastered basic addition and subtraction, and students who could not think their way through word problems. When that is the case, a student should not be given a score of passing or higher, and yet in the past, they often were. These scores were a tough blow to teachers, principals, and most likely Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, but from my perspective, in a strange way, I feel great about them. We’re no longer cheating children and their parents by disguising low performance behind a flawed and sometimes arbitrary system of scoring.

So what does this mean for me? In some ways, nothing. I have always struggled with the test scores because I didn’t think they told me anything. Students scored 2’s who were reading at grade level or had mastered grade level standards in math, and other students who were way behind scored 3’s. With a few minor exceptions, I am looking at the scores and seeing what I already knew. The case that confirms this best for me is with a student of mine who did not speak English fluently and couldn’t add or subtract by the end of the school year. Last year her scale scores would have gotten her 2’s in both ELA and math. This year she scored 1’s in both. Again, am I proud of her performance? Absolutely not, but at least I know the system we are using to judge our students’ performance is closer to reality than ever before.

Still, the scores aren’t totally meaningless to me. On a practical level they affect me deeply, because they will be used to grade my effectiveness as a teacher, and this is where the anxiety and confusion starts to sink in, because I don’t know how my performance will be judged now that the proficiency ratings have changed completely. The likelihood that I will be judged average or even below average feels much higher, but I must admit in the end, it doesn’t matter, because nobody, not even Mayor Bloomberg has higher expectations for my performance than I do.

If all my students scored 3’s this year, I wouldn’t feel any better, because I know they aren’t all at grade level. What frustrated me most about the old scoring system was the way in which teachers and schools used them to lie to themselves about their students. I remember in 2009 when scores skyrocketed across the city. Suddenly we had all figured it out? And yet, how come the students coming into our classrooms in September weren’t reading at level? How come they couldn’t multiply or divide with efficiency? For many schools in New York City the deflated test scores shattered the myth that had been created. It’s painful, but it’s necessary. Now, it’s time to figure out how to help our students truly succeed.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.