Listen up, De Blasio and Lhota. As New York City prepares for a changing of the guard pending the upcoming mayoral election, a new initiative wants to make sure the new mayor starts out with a few pointers on education. This person will have to assemble an entire strategy for education, but the philanthropic community is eager to partner in improving our schools.
Earlier this week, Philanthropy New York's Education Funders Research Initiative (EFRI) released two new papers and hosted a discussion on what’s working in New York City schools—and what’s not.
New York City public schools have made some impressive gains over the past decade. High school graduation rates have risen from less than 50 percent to 65 percent. But the city’s schools are still a long way from the goal of college and career readiness for all.
The reports released by the initiative show a huge disparity in student outcomes along socioeconomic and racial/ethnic lines. In some low-income areas of NYC, less than 10 percent of high school seniors pass the state’s college readiness standards, while almost 80 percent passed in the city’s wealthier neighborhoods.
Throughout the city, just 8 percent of black and 11 percent of Hispanic males met the state’s college readiness benchmark (compared to 40 percent of white and 48 percent of Asian males).
The reports also show students’ early academic progress is highly predictive of later outcomes. If we want to see more students meet learning targets, we need to ramp up support in early grades, and we need better intervention strategies in later grades.
Among a cohort of NYC students who entered ninth grade in 2005, less than 3 percent of students who failed their third grade state language arts test went on to pass the language arts test in eighth grade. Conversely, over 90 percent of students who passed language arts in third grade passed again in eighth grade.
Given the huge ground left to cover in order to prepare more students to succeed in college and beyond, what can we do now to improve New York City’s schools?
Education leaders from the city and state, K-12 and higher ed, tackled that question at the EFRI event. While a number of ideas emerged from that discussion, I was particularly struck by three proposals.
1. Provide more time for teacher collaboration.
If we want to help students, we need to give teachers the tools and time to improve their practice. Shael Polakow-Suranksy, chief academic officer of the NYC Department of Education, explained teachers need more time for planning and collaboration, particularly as they are transitioning to using the new Common Core literacy standards.
As part of a pilot program to implement Common Core, teachers at eighteen NYC schools worked together to boost literacy skills for a cohort of students. There is a large but often overlooked body of research showing the most effective public schools give teachers time to collaborate and encourage collective responsibility for student outcomes.
2. Integrate schools and classrooms.
Over forty years of research shows giving students the chance to attend socioeconomically and racially/ethnically integrated schools is a powerful way to boost student performance.
Judith Johnson, past New York State Superintendent of the Year winner, lamented that zip codes are such strong predictors of student outcomes. Johnson wondered whether low-income students given the chance to live in more affluent neighborhoods and attend more affluent schools are more likely to succeed academically.
Not only do low-income students fare better in mixed-income schools and neighborhoods, but integration does more to improve student outcomes than increasing per-pupil funding at higher-poverty schools, according to a study by Heather Schwartz and TCF.
Another suggestion to increase school integration would be to redraw school attendance zones—a politically tricky proposition, but one worth fighting for, according to John B. King, education commissioner of New York. Residential segregation is only a partial cause of poverty and racial isolation in NYC schools. There are many untapped opportunities to draw attendance zones more equitably.
At the high school level, NYC’s school choice system could be harnessed to integrate schools by creating a more equitable socioeconomic balance. Integrated charter schools are another possibility, and some already exist in NYC.
3. Fund the arts and extracurricular activities.
Johnson grew up in the projects and attended NYC public schools. She now emphasizes the importance of a longer school day in high-needs schools, not for extra test prep, but to offer low-income students access to the full realm of cultural experiences that affluent students take for granted. Johnson recalls her own experience of an eye-opening school trip to a Broadway show.
Extracurricular involvement is also important for success in higher education, particularly in building confidence among students who might be subject to stereotype threat, argued Scott Evenbeck, president of Guttman Community College, a brand new school run by the City University of New York.
College and career readiness requires more than good test scores. Students need grit, perseverance, passion and direction. “Soft” skills like these are best learned through art, music, theater, debate, journalism or volunteer work.
You’ve probably heard of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and the need for American improvement in these subjects to compete in the global market. But some educators are advocating for STEAM, adding art to the mix to as a way to further innovation.
Collaboration, integration and the arts are not the education buzzwords you may be used to hearing, but they could be an important part of the strategy to improve our public schools, in New York City and beyond.