What Does It Mean to Put Students First?

I hope that a group called "Students First" would make it a top priority to stop the rapid rise in New York City public school class sizes.
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More than just about anything else we do in New York City government, our public schools reflect a shared commitment to our city's future. For me, our schools are a place of real civic magic, where our kids learn to be tomorrow's innovators, leaders, writers, engineers, teachers, and citizens. I love spending time in classrooms, at after-school arts programs, and at PTA meetings.

So I'm proud to again be a sponsor of the Brooklyn PTA 5k run, on Saturday, April 29th at 9 AM, in which students, parents, teachers, principals, and friends come together to raise money collectively for our schools. I hope you'll register now to join us this year. This is one of the few events I'm aware of anywhere in the city where PTAs raise money together, across schools, with an eye toward equity.

This is also a good moment to reflect on some of the public policy issues facing education at the moment. This morning, both of my kids (third grade and seventh grade) sat down to one of the high-stakes tests that increasingly dominate public education. My third-grade daughter is already asking me like whether the grades matter more in evaluating her or her teacher, why they've spent so much of the past few weeks on test prep, and what happens if a good student just has a bad day.

Meanwhile, a new, well-funded, well-connected lobbying group was launched earlier this month with the name of "Students First NY." I hope that a group called "Students First" would make it a top priority to stop the rapid rise in New York City public school class sizes. Last month, my office put out a report (covered in the New York Times) showing that the number of first, second, and third graders in these very large classrooms has grown ten-fold over the past few years, as a result of budget cuts and teacher attrition.

However, in an alchemy I don't quite understand, Students First NY isn't worried about tens of thousands of young kids in classes of 30 students or more. Instead, their idea of putting students first is to focus on continued high-stakes testing, on contentious co-locations of charter schools (even where communities don't want them), and on the public use of so-called "teacher data reports" that even long-time education reformer Bill Gates believes amounts to misguided public shaming. In the most telling quote in the New York Times article on their launch, one of the Students First NY board members put it plainly: "someone has to make war."

I'd like to invite the board members from Students First out to the Brooklyn PTA 5k run, to meet some of the students, parents, and educators who are working hard in the public schools in my district. They're not interested in making war; instead, they are working together to build great schools communities. Here are a few of the people they might meet:

  • Students from PS 124 (who will finally get repairs to their bathrooms thanks to voters in our community's "participatory budgeting" initiative) might tell you about this truly moving video they made as part of the Department of Education's "Respect for All" week, showing that they are learning far more than you can measure on tests.
  • The long-time principal of PS 321, Liz Phillips, who wrote this great article on what's so insidious about releasing the Teacher Data Reports, and how harmful they are to teaching and learning.
  • The fifth grade teachers at the Brooklyn New School (a school dedicated to inclusion and collaborative learning), a compelling example of how to build a learning community that gets teaching right, could tell you how the current testing regime gets it wrong.
  • Students at John Jay High School might tell you about the mural they produced, "College for all: education is a right," highlighting both the inequities that make it hard for students (especially students of color) to get to college, and some of the strategies that they use to succeed in the face of challenges.
  • You might meet students in the journalism program at Ditmas Intermediate School 62 in Kensington, who produce a fantastic news show in which they confront issues of the day, and integrate literacy, current events, and technology.
  • Parents from PS 130 (who organized the best participatory budgeting election-day canvassing operation, notwithstanding the fact that they speak over three dozen different languages at home) might tell you about how much it means to have a funded after-school program, integrated with their curriculum (unfortunately, budget cuts have meant that tens of thousands fewer kids around the city have access to after-school programs).

If you ask them what works -- and what they want -- in our public schools, I think most would tell you that it's hard work, but not all that complicated: classes small enough for teachers be able to work with students, inclusive schools and classrooms, engaged parents, experienced principals who both support and challenge their teachers, and teachers who put their time and creativity into student learning and are valued for doing so. They want more thoughtful approaches to evaluation (that involve some tests, of course, but also many other ways of measuring teaching and learning) to make sure students are learning reading, writing, and math ... but that also pay attention to helping kids learn to think critically, to create, and to collaborate.

They know that public schools are the foundation for our kids' success, both individually and collectively.

These education leaders in our community are working hard to make sure that students are prepared for college, for good jobs, to invent new products and start businesses -- and to create drama, art, and music, to design buildings, to inspire, to lead, to steward the environment, to respect each other, and to make sure our democracy has a future.

The students, parents, and educators at the Brooklyn PTA 5k can't be reduced to test-scores, won't improve by public shaming, and have had enough of "making war" over public education.

Raising money is as easy as it is fun -- join the 5k as part of a school group to raise money for your own PTA or participate as an individual and we will assign you to a school. If you would like to organize a team at your school, email us at lander@council.nyc.gov.

We can't promise that any of the board members from Students First NY will be there, but we can promise great company and a great cause. And after the run, if they're still looking for a fight, we have one to propose: let's fight together to make sure that no elementary school kids in classes of 30 students or more? Seems like a pretty good place to start.

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