Losing Track of Dropouts—and Successes—in New York City Schools


Last week, I sketched the promised land of Randi Weingarten’s “community schools” project, the most thoroughgoing regeneration of any city’s public school system I’ve seen proposed. But while we wait to see how serious the president of the United Federation of Teachers (and now, the American Federation of Teachers) actually is about getting to the promised land, there are many immediate problems that must be confronted now.

Although there are valuable advocacy groups—like Class Size Matters, Directions for Our Youth, and Advocates for Children—there is no strong, citywide parents’ organization that the next mayor and City Council will have to deal with. Joel Klein’s Department of Education too often treats parents as nuisances, recently cutting deep into the district family advocates.

And the City Council has been asleep on educational oversight ever since Eva Moskowitz left to start charter schools in Harlem (which will not have nearly enough space to meet demands). For example, do we know how many students under the Klein-Bloomberg regime actually get a diploma in four (or more) years, and how many drop out before then? More on these questions next week.

I am told by the UFT that the teachers’ union depends on the Department of Education for those statistics. That’s like depending on Police Commissioner Ray Kelly for an explanation of the NYPD’s grossly disproportionate racial and ethnic stop-and-frisks, which overwhelmingly result in no arrests.

There is a growing movement for asingle federal standard for calculating graduation and dropout rates. Currently, under the No Child Left Behind Act, each state can create its own formula for figuring these bottom-line statistics. This is an invitation to statistical manipulation, especially considering that many states—very much including this one—have already loosened up their testing standards in order to meet the law’s benchmarks.

As for dropout “facts,” how many students in this city are “pushed out” because their performance on these all-important standardized tests would blight the school’s record (and thus the extra pay that principals get for “successes”)? How many students are told they’re too old to stay in public schools—even though they can legally remain in school and try for a high-school diploma until they’re 21?

There is so much we don’t know. Will there be a demand by parents, the UFT, the press, the next mayor, and the City Council to finally create an independent commission to track what’s happened to these dropouts and pushouts? What has become of these people? How many have enrolled in GED programs instead? How many are unemployed? How many are in prison? Every survey I’ve seen of prison populations reveals a very high percentage of school dropouts. How many former New York City dropouts are now behind bars?

In the CIA’s still-functioning secret prisons, there are many “disappeared” people, so-called “enemy combatants” and other terrorism suspects; except for a few who slipped out, their names are unknown, let alone their present ability to function. And throughout this country, there are many “disappeared” school dropouts and pushouts—without any official record of their current existence.

I see hardly any concern about these ghosts from the local or national press or the presidential or Congressional candidates. Will these lost youths become an issue in our next mayoral campaign? Place your bets.

We also know very little about individual teachers who make a difference and keep students in schools. When I used to teach graduate-school classes, I’d always ask the students how many teachers had had a lasting effect on their lives. Most could name only two or three. How many can you? But there are such teachers, and they should be better known as an example to other teachers as well as to parents and principals; they’re in some of Klein’s schools that do work.

On July 24, a full-page ad in The New York Times carried this banner headline: “Teachers Who Make a Difference—The New York Times honors educators who have played a major role in inspiring and supporting students who receive a Times college scholarship.”

A list followed, citing the teachers and schools—including elementary and intermediate schools. And that was it. End of story.

At the very end of the ad, though, came this quote from Elizabeth Piligromova, accepted at Harvard University, who was speaking of a teacher named James Harmon at John Dewey High School: “Somehow, he saw the potential in me before I gave up.” And it struck me: If The New York Times really wants to honor these educators, why the hell doesn’t it assign a team of reporters to interview the students and teachers in this ad to show us specifically how these young New Yorkers’ lives were changed?

On May 21, the Daily News‘s Juan González broke a story about a teacher and his students who should have been stoutly defended by the UFT. As the story described it: “More than 160 students in six different classes at Intermediate School 318 in the South Bronx—virtually the entire eighth grade—refused to take last Wednesday’s three-hour practice exam for next month’s statewide social studies test.”

The students protested the continuous testing that causes them, as they put it, “to lose valuable instruction time with our teachers.”

All over the country, not only students but many teachers bridle at these standardized, assembly-line tests—and the instruction that goes with them, which is targeted only toward perfecting the students’ test-taking skills—that have led to the disappearance of classes in history, music, the arts, and what used to be called civics classes (as in: Why are we Americans? What’s in this Constitution thing? How did we get the First Amendment? What is the separation of powers? These days, how many students even know?).

I.S. 318’s administrators blamed the student rebellion on a 30-year-old probationary social-studies teacher, Douglas Avella, who, according to González’s story, “was [summarily] assigned to an empty room in the school and ordered to have no further contact with students. . . . Avella denied that he urged the students to boycott tests.” And gosh, several students even said that Avella had made social studies exciting. No wonder he’s a suspect.

Speaking for the Department of Education and Chancellor Klein, spokesman David Cantor solemnly explained the decision this way: “This guy was far over the line in a lot of the ways he was running his classroom. He was pulled because he was inappropriate with the kids. He was giving them messages that were inappropriate.”

No surprise there: “I teach them critical thinking,” the discarded teacher acknowledged.

So why don’t Randi Weingarten and the UFT hold a tribute and otherwise show their support for Avella and those courageous eighth-grade students? It’s not too late. And invite the kids’ parents!