Mayor Bill de Blasio (81271)

New York City is not alone in facing a crisis in education. You have an opportunity to lead the nation in real education reform. It will require that you take extreme but prudent actions.

You must begin with a plan. You currently do not have a comprehensive plan to address the struggling school system. Your announced community school plan is one small step in the right direction. However, I believe you will have a major problem with scaling up the plan, largely because you do not have the leadership infrastructure within the Department of Education to implement it successfully on such a large scale.

Here’s what I recommend. Convene an education commission to create a comprehensive plan to improve the struggling school system. It is not enough to focus on 94 struggling schools when the actual number exceeds 500. These schools are predominately in poor and African-American communities.

Use your authority as mayor to bring all relevant city agencies into the education discussion. City agencies get failing grades for communicating and collaborating with the DOE. Fix the communication problem; collaboration will follow. The education solution will not come from Tweed—school officials currently function in too many silos. Increase your capacity by holding agency heads accountable for coming up with strategies to be included in your education plan.

Recruit conscientious African-American men to serve on the chancellor’s leadership team. The fact that there are no African-American men in her cabinet is disturbing, given the fact that African-American boys are disproportionately left behind in the school system.

Develop a plan to train parents to become partners in education. This training is particularly necessary to support parents who are socioeconomically deprived. Enlist private, college and university and community partners to help with this work. Parents must play an integral role in any education plan.

Understand that students are struggling with Common Core because teachers are struggling. According to 2013 to 2014 citywide results for state reading and mathematics tests, only 28.4 percent of third- through eighth-graders are reading at or above grade level. This means that 71.6 percent are below grade level. Only 34.2 percent of students in those grades are at or above grade level for mathematics. The numbers for African-Americans (18.1 percent for reading, 18.6 percent for math) and special needs students (6.7 percent for reading and 11.4 percent for math) are even more staggering. These data are evidence that hundreds of schools are struggling, disproportionately impacting African-American males.

Examine how school leaders are trained to interpret student data. The current discussion is likely to drive some school faculty to cheat and target the lowest performing students for removal to improve the data picture. What reportedly happened at Boys and Girls High School is a case in point. The current administration was accused of pushing out off-track students to improve the graduation rate for June 2015. This accepted DOE practice disproportionately aflects African-American males.

Examine the work we began at BGHS during my tenure. You will find evidence of your espoused approach. In May of 2014, we partnered with Lutheran Family Health Center to open a comprehensive school-based medical clinic at BGHS. Over the past four years, we developed effective school-community partnerships with various partners to provide needed services to our students and families. We began a Young Adult Borough Center. We partnered with District 79 to bring career and technical education programs to BGHS. I know from experience that the community-school approach works.

Examine how your community school plan is in conflict with the recent United Federation of Teachers collective bargaining agreement. Teacher contact time with students has been reduced because of the required 80- to 75-minute Monday and Tuesday professional development and parent outreach components. Renegotiate.

Examine the companies that are providing professional development to schools and principals: What evidence do they provide to prove that their approach works? From my experience, many of them do not have evidence. They get contracts because of their past affiliations with DOE officials.

Enlist college and university partners to work with schools to develop individualized “reform” plans. Schools that are saddled with incompetent staff are incapable of creating plans to improve themselves. The most effective strategy is to swiftly remove incompetent staff and replace them with competent staff. Your current plan recycles incompetent staff, which will perpetuate failure.

You have less than three years to fix a flawed, failed and struggling school system. Use your relationship with the education unions to convince or to pressure them to change their approach to protecting incompetence. To date, your team has been too slow, too shortsighted and too clandestine. You must act boldly, broadly and courageously with all deliberate speed before you run out of time.

Sincerely,

Bernard Gassaway

Chief Child Advocate