De Blasio: How to Make Every School a Good School for NYC’s 1.1 Million Students ‘Has Not Been the Essence of the Conversation’

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at a press conference Sept. 5. (Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday said he’d like to see more collective attention citywide paid to a “central question”: How can we make every school a good school?

Recent public discourse on how to remedy the educational inequities that exist in the city’s highly segregated school system has often fixated on its elite specialized high schools — and, in the past few weeks, gifted and talented programs. Both serve mostly white and Asian students in the predominantly black and Latino district. The first string of questions at Thursday’s back-to-school news conference with the mayor and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza — held in the basement of a newly minted 3-K for All center on Staten Island — referenced the recent explosive recommendations by a mayor-appointed advisory group to dismantle the city’s gifted and talented programs.

The specialized high schools and the gifted programs combined serve only about 3 percent of the city’s more than 1.1 million students. The highly sought-after elementary school G&T programs enroll roughly 16,000 students, and about 18,500 students currently attend the city’s nine elite specialized high schools.

Meanwhile, systemwide, more than half of students still struggle to meet academic standards. While New York City students made modest gains on the 2018-19 state exams, about 47.4 percent in grades 3-8 scored proficient in reading while 45.6 percent did so in math. Scores were more disparate when parsed by race; 28.3 percent of black students were proficient in math, compared with 66.6 percent and 74.4 percent of their white and Asian peers, respectively.

Responding to a question from The 74 on how he’d help all students achieve, de Blasio first acknowledged that the issue of “How can we make every school a good school, how can we make every school a strong school?” has “not been the essence of the conversation.” Parents, including himself, he said, have been guilty of assigning some schools as good and dismissing others as permanently bad.

“The conversation in this city should be about how do we educate all of our kids in the most effective manner and that the ultimate measure of fairness is that every child is getting just as good an education regardless of where they live,” said de Blasio, who’s running for president. He added, retrospectively: “My kids went to New York City public schools the whole way through, and there’s this vernacular we would all use when thinking about which school — that’s a good school, that’s a bad school, you know, when you think about where your kids are going to go next. It’s horrifying language.”

De Blasio then pointed to the city’s ongoing Equity and Excellence agenda as a broader, systemwide approach to student success. A focal point is growing the mayor’s signature pre-K and 3-K initiatives — 3-K programs, for example, are now officially in all five boroughs this school year, enrolling nearly 17,700 students. It also includes beefing up professional development for teachers and expanding programs like Computer Science for All, AP for All, free SAT testing and the Bronx Plan, which aims to recruit and retain employees in hard-to-staff schools. De Blasio’s four-year, nearly $800 million Renewal program to turn around the city’s lowest-performing schools was ended in 2018-19 after posting overall lackluster results.

It’s “just adding piece upon piece upon piece to the point that schools actually start to move,” de Blasio said. He wasn’t able to provide specific details on exactly how and where these programs are expanding in 2019-20, though he said efforts are “building every single year.”

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who chimed in after the mayor, had a starkly different reaction to the question. He warned against trying to separate the issue of segregation from helping all students achieve academically. The two, he said, “are inextricably linked.”

“The fact is New York City’s public schools … is the most segregated school system in America,” he said. “You can’t divorce academic achievement, social-emotional learning, professional development from the population that is in those classrooms. It’s part of the educational process.”

Watch the mayor and Carranza speak on the topic here:


Read their comments below:

The 74: So, in talking about improving educational equality, I feel like a large portion of the conversation has been geared more towards segregation, first at the elite high schools and now the elementary G&T programs. In reality, this is only serving a small fraction of New York City students. So, what is your plan this year for all New York City students, many of whom, more than 50 percent, are not proficient in math and reading?

De Blasio: So, I’ve – it’s a great question and I would say it goes right back to we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about Equity and Excellence in the coming months and trying to help people understand it again. This is the core vision, and the chancellor will jump in – I think that the discussion has often veered into one piece of the equation or another, and as you said, sometimes pieces that are very important but only affect a small number of kids. I think the conversation in this city should be about how do we educate all of our kids in the most effective manner and that the ultimate measure of fairness is that every child is getting just as good an education regardless of where they live. That’s what Equity and Excellence seeks to do. And we honestly believe that could not be achieved without going first at early childhood education. That was the foundation of both creating a much more effective school system but also a much fairer school system.

So, we’re going to keep building that out, and I think that when we think about how to move the schools forward, this is where we have to move this conversation. What uplifts all of our schools because in the end — I used to talk about the good schools and the bad schools. I mean, if you — my kids went to New York City public schools the whole way through, and there’s this vernacular we would all use when thinking about which school — that’s a good school, that’s a bad school, you know, when you think about where your kids are going to go next. It’s horrifying language. Right, that’s disgusting when you think about it and yet we’ve all done it. And that’s because, for years and years, there was an acceptance of the idea that some schools had it all together and had everything they need. Other schools were just objectively failing, but that couldn’t be changed, a lot of people thought.

And I think a lot of times, in the history of this city, that was sort of just accepted as a reality. But we don’t accept that reality. Equity and Excellence is about literally saying we’re going to disrupt that entire history. We believe we can make every school a good, strong school. We certainly have the caliber of educators to do it, and we’ve been pouring on professional development which our educators want and is working. But we were missing a lot of the strategic and programmatic pieces. We were missing on early childhood education. We were missing on things like AP for All. And as we’re adding those pieces into the equation, it’s working. But I would love it if we could move the conversation to the central question, how can we make every school a good school, how can we make every school a strong school? That has not been the essence of the conversation.

Carranza: So, I just fundamentally disagree with the premise of the question. The conversation has not been solely focused on equity and issues of integration. The fact is New York City’s public schools, not by my estimation, not by the mayor’s estimation, by research, researchers, is the most segregated school system in America. That’s just a fact. And when you think about the fact that 1 out of 300 Americans is sitting in one of our classrooms, then we have to make sure that those classrooms are responsive to the needs of the students that are in those classrooms. So, you can’t divorce academic achievement, social-emotional learning, professional development from the population that is in those classrooms. It’s part of the educational process. So, please, stop bifurcating those issues. They are inextricably linked.

Now, with that, what we’re doing in New York City is at scale. No one in the country is doing what we’re doing at the scale that we’re doing it. Yet in New York State, New York City continues to lead the five largest school systems in New York State in terms of academic achievement. And year over year for the last five years, in spite of changing accountability systems in the State of New York, we have continued to show academic progress in our subgroups and with our student bodies as a whole. So, we continue to move the ball forward.

The mayor spoke about this notion that you have good schools and bad schools. That is an antiquated way of looking at schools. You have to look at the progress that schools are making. How are they moving their student achievement, but also how are they moving their environments in their schools so that they are safe and supportive environments? We have schools in all five boroughs in some places where people would say, “Well, there’s a good school there — absolutely.” Let me take you and show you what teachers are doing to create learning environments. Let me show you what teachers are doing when students come in reading at a second-grade level and by the end of the year, they are reading at a fifth-grade level in the fourth grade. There are incredible things that are happening in New York City, but that never gets told.

So, you can’t divorce the issue, but at the same time, we are moving academically, the school system, in a very positive way. We had the highest graduation rate in the history of the New York City public school system. We have the greatest achievement that we’ve ever had in spite of shifting standards. We continue to have lowering dropouts. That means students are voting with their feet and staying in school. We continue to have increasing college-going culture rates, attendance rates. We continue to have the number of teachers that are seeking professional development that is increasing. We have a culturally responsive and sustaining curriculum definition now, which is being informed by our very community.

And again, I don’t want to go on a long monologue on this, but somebody asked me, “Well, can you give me an example of culturally responsive and sustaining curriculum?” I can, absolutely. Everybody knows this example. The most popular Broadway show in the history of Broadway is Hamilton. That is culturally responsive and sustaining. They told the story of Hamilton – American history – through hip-hop and rap. That’s what we’re talking about – how do you make it relevant for students. And you don’t have to go to Broadway to get culturally relevant and sustaining education, but you should have it in your classroom — who you read about, what the figures are. If a student is in school in New York City, and it’s commonly accepted that the civil rights movement includes the LGBT civil rights movement, and that started right here at the Stonewall Inn uprising. And if students don’t understand that going through the public schools of New York City, that that’s part of our civil rights movement, then we have not done the service we need to for those students.

That’s another example. So, all of these things are things that we are working on in conjunction with the Equity and Excellence agenda. That is the Equity and Excellence agenda. So we are proud of where we are. We are not satisfied with where we are. And that’s really the urgency with which we’re doing the work.

Reporter Question (Summarized): So what are the next steps? Are there any timelines in place because I’ve heard a lot of, “We’re going to talk about it, we’re going to talk about it.” But what can parents expect next?

De Blasio: So, this is — I appreciate the question because this is an indicator of something we have failed to do effectively, which is to communicate this agenda which has been in place for years and continues to build. But I don’t think it’s widely understood. So, one of the things we’re going to do this school year is go back and explain it again and really make it vivid to people. Equity and Excellence includes pre-K and 3-K, it includes things like Computer Science for All, it includes AP for All, it includes making SAT tests available for free, and CUNY admission fees being waived. It’s a whole host of strategies to open up opportunity for kids across the board and to improve schools in every zip code.

And when I mentioned the professional development, that’s also a key part of it. The Bronx Plan, which we’re going to talk about later in the day, which is already working bringing a lot of educators to schools in the Bronx that couldn’t fill their rosters because we weren’t applying the kinds of strategies that actually would bring those educators to some of the toughest schools in the Bronx. Now, we’re finding a way to fix that, right. When you think of it through an equity lens and you say, OK, we used to accept the good schools and the bad schools concept. Just think how sick it is that we used to think that was normal. We don’t accept that anymore. So, now we are taking every tool we’ve got to fix that and bring up and support a whole host of schools that used to be left for dead. We’re actually giving them the help they need to become really good schools.

And then, regardless of the composition of a community, every child is getting a strong education. That is the vision, and it is so important to understand that that’s — and I’m speaking as a parent now, too. Like, all the theory about how we create a utopian world, you know, how we get everything to be perfectly balanced and all — that’s not what parents are talking to me about. They are talking to me about how do you make my child’s school better right now? That’s what they care about. And we need to understand that the Equity and Excellence vision is a right-now thing.

Everything I just talked to you about is literally building every single year. I mean you’re sitting here right now in a place that exemplifies the growth of one of the strategies, which is 3-K coming to Staten Island for the first time. So, to me — and this is based on a lot of conversations with educators for years and years and years — this is everything people kept asking for, right. For years, we would have this conversation – I’ve had it with Richard [Carranza] and [UFT President] Michael [Mulgrew], I’ve had it with [former schools chancellor] Carmen Fariña and many others before, and they said, “What would actually be transcendent?”

Professional development was one of the biggest things. It doesn’t get talked about in the public debate a lot. But taking our professionals and help them get stronger all the time was one of the big missing links, right. Early childhood education — huge missing link. And just adding piece upon piece upon piece to the point that schools actually start to move. And now these test scores say – we’ve got a long way to go, I’m not saying these test scores are the end-all be-all, but they prove that these things actually start to move the ball. So, there will be a lot more of that this year, and what we need to do is make that vision very clear to people.

QuestionBut my question specifically is what’s next? What’s next on the agenda? There’s a lot on the plate, but what is next? What can you tell parents to look out for next and what’s the timeline for it?

De Blasio: So, I think – and this is to say to you that there are so many pieces that have been started. What I can tell parents to look for is each of these things to really blossom and have more and more effect on their school. There’s not always going to be a new announcement each month of, we have a new program and a new program and a new strategy. Some of this is about taking strategies that are working and making them reach each school more deeply. The Bronx Plan is a great example.

We see already a number of educators going into schools that didn’t have enough educators in certain areas. That’s just begun. You’re going to see more of that in the course of this year. You’re going to see more of that even next year. So, it is taking the strategy and getting it to deepen across schools and watching those schools start to move. That’s what we’re doing now.

Full transcript of the news conference here.

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