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Michele Somerville Headshot

The New NYC Schools Chancellor Learned All He Needs to Know (to Fix the Schools) in Kindergarten

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I was not quick to jump on the anti-Cathie Black bandwagon when she was first appointed as chancellor of schools in New York City. I believed a shakeup was needed and that a DOE (Department of Education) insider was the worst possible candidate. The new chancellor of NYC (New York City) schools, Dennis Walcott, is both an insider and an outsider, but he has two mighty credentials; he is a black man who was educated in New York City schools and he worked for two years as a kindergarten teacher.

I never worked as a kindergarten teacher, but I taught first grade for a year, so I know how a year of teaching very young children can serve as a boot-camp, or crash course in classroom management. A good teacher of early readers and pre-readers rapidly learns to make frequent use of art, music, movement and humor in the classroom. Children at the pre-reading and early reading stages provide abundant information about how people learn, and a smart kindergarten teacher quickly learns that imagination plays a critical role in education.

Unfortunately imagination is currently in short supply in the NYC DOE.

It should come as no surprise that a system so inclined to devalue imagination would rely upon the closing and "truncating" of black and brown schools as its most effective means of solving the problem of "failing" schools (failing being a transitive verb in this, the direct object of which would be "students"). It should come as no surprise that a system that devalues imagination along with scholarship should allow educational malpractice to run amok in poor school zones as it strains to hang on to the children of affluent families by increasing the number of "screened," "selective," and "elite" schools. It is no accident that less experienced educators wind up working in poorer schools, nor that poor children are most often victims of social promotion. It should surprise no one that even before the looming threat of budget cuts and "last in, last out," top university graduates were not much interested in becoming New York City public school teachers.

Formulaic assessment and instruction predominate in NYC DOE classrooms, and pedagogic ingenuity has taken a back seat to methodology. Unfortunately teaching methodologies are only as effective as the educator who employs them, and over-reliance upon prescribed protocols and rubrics creates the illusion of teaching expertise where it is wanting and while too often masking incompetence. A teacher's bag of tricks should indeed be filled with educational tools -- but like a good musician, a good teacher knows when to "throw away the sheets."

When I worked as a classroom teacher, I never worked without a conventional lesson plan, but the best lessons were those whose direction I could never have predicted beforehand. Paint by numbers teaching crushes ingenuity. When teacher ingenuity is crushed, students suffer, because what supplants it is the cookie-cutter, test-mad steamroller of mediocrity. So dependent on this reductive way of looking at all things educational have select educrats "manning" the system become that they now yearn to extend this approach to include the grading of teachers. I'd be all for the grading of teachers if I thought there were educational experts in the DOE capable of fashioning a proper metric -- but the Bartleby Tweed hacks lack the sophistication to pull this off.

The most dangerous aspect of the devaluation of imagination is the increase in prejudice that accompanies it. Prejudice in all its forms is a failure of imagination. The DOE's lack of vision (imagination) keeps its endemic racism -- and tendency to discriminate on other bases -- in place. The worst problem facing NYC schools is discrimination. So pervasive is discrimination (on both bases of race and disability) that teachers, administrators and students often appear inured to it.

Black and brown students are widely and flagrantly discriminated against in our (NYC) public school system. "Gifted and Talented" programs and tracking systems throughout the city fail to recruit and enroll children of color. Teachers who have the talent for converting "street smarts" (in struggling students) into "school smarts" receive inadequate support for this exciting, difficult and invaluable work. I've been working as a poet for more than 30 years with a focus on how sound works in poems. I've studied a little Latin, Greek and Hebrew in order to better learn more about the musical aspect of poetry. I've had the good fortune to study with some "Class A" poets, but the truth is I've learned as much about language and song from 17-year-old (sometimes "failing" or "struggling") students from "the projects" -- as from any award-winning writer. I've seen up close how the DOE prematurely consigns many very bright students to 'non-graduation.' This is a disgrace.

Walcott's experience in a kindergarten class has no doubt taught him that most students are excited about learning when they first come to school. He knows that all too often it's their school system that flunks.

Discrimination in the DOE, is not limited to that based on race either. Children with special needs are discriminated against on a daily basis as they are placed in inappropriate programs, denied services to which they are entitled by law, and warehoused in programs that don't work. Like parents of children of color, parents of children with special needs often lack a voice when it comes to advocating for their children. Caring for children with special needs is often so demanding that doing battle with the DOE is often, even for the most conscientious parents, impossible. Challenging the Kafkaesque CSE (Committee of Special Education) is thoroughly demoralizing. Parents of children with learning and developmental disabilities often accept inappropriate placements for their children out of sheer desperation.

Unscrupulous superintendents and principals bank on this desperation. The "least restrictive environment" policy of placing children with disability in mainstream and inclusion settings sometimes helps the discrimination along. While enlightened in theory, "least restrictive environment" can be disastrous for students who are ill-suited for it. It is certainly cheaper to put a child with learning or developmental disability into a large class with a floating second teacher; however, this educational course is inappropriate for those who require a low teacher-student ratio. Many DOE special education students are highly intelligent, but most require small classes, one-on-one support and help from reading specialists.

The DOE would save hundreds of thousands of dollars each year were it to achieve a better grade in Special Education, but designing and implementing programs for students with special needs is as much an art as it is a science. Several New York City private schools have figured out how to do this without spending very much more per child than does the NYC DOE. Their secret? Imaginative instruction carried out by highly intelligent pedagogues. Artful teaching is helpful at all levels of instruction, but never so much as with students with disabilities and general education students at risk.

Dennis Walcott knows this. Whether he will be able to make changes based on what he knows remains to be seen. Whatever Walcott's vision, it will be circumscribed by the mayor's educational vision or lack thereof. But if the mayor permits Dennis Walcott to put to good use lessons he learned as both a kindergarten teacher and a black student in New York City schools, Walcott could wind up deserving the grade of "A" in the class Cathie Black flunked.