Two times a year the New York State English Regents Exam descends on the high schools of our city, requiring juniors to compose four comprehensive essays over a period of two days. January’s outcomes guided the makeup of the current semester’s classes, where we’re now getting ready for the next round in June. In my building, preparation for the exam begins in the ninth grade and continues right until the students enter class to take the exam.
“Hey, Mister!” a voice will ring down the hallway just minutes before the test. “Who wrote about those mice and men? George Steinbrenner, right?”
In line with the federal No Child Left Behind Act rules, everyone takes the exam in their junior year regardless of their proficiency in English. The student who’s been in the system since kindergarten takes it, as well as the child who recently arrived in America and whose second, third, or fourth language might be English. Whether they have designs on going to college after graduation or going on to become mechanics and electricians, they are going to sit for that exam.
The more students a school gets to pass, the better the school looks. As a result, many schools have pushed up the date for students to take the test. Rather than taking it for the first time in June, why not usher them in five months early and see what happens? If they pass, great, if not, get ready for round two. Even better, let’s start grading teachers on the results.
It came to light right around the winter Regents that the Department of Education initiated an under-the-radar pilot program where 2,500 teachers at 140 city public schools are being rated, based on student performance on standardized tests, without their knowledge. Sadly, some in the local media weighed in with typical lay comments and cliches regarding the teaching profession: “Imagine teachers treated like other professionals – having their performance monitored and quantified.” But this kind of scoring just doesn’t make sense.
Out of five classes taught last semester, I had one class of juniors, three groups of sophomores, and one senior elective. The juniors were an interesting bunch – bright, friendly, and respectful, one of the most enjoyable classes I’ve ever taught. And their results ran the gamut, lots of highs and lows. Some overslept and missed the exam, while others arrived early and pulled off stunning victories. Jamal got his 97, but Forrest received a 51.
As much as I would like to take credit for Jamal’s grade, the truth is he’s a self-starter who sits up front, takes good notes and never misses class. Forrest, however, disappeared around the holidays: “Going on vacation, bye.” He was gone for nearly six weeks, missing a lot of Regents preparation. He was probably visiting family he hadn’t seen in awhile, but should his extended holiday have any bearing on my teaching career?
There’s also no need to congratulate myself when Clarissa scores a high 86. She’s quiet, attentive, and likes to read. I did my job each day and she did hers. Or Victor, who managed to get himself suspended for three weeks, then recorded a 47. All four of these kids were in the same class and all four of them are responsible for their test scores.
When it comes time to give Jamal’s family a call to congratulate them on their son’s success, I discover that he lives in a group home. I’m taken aback. I expected to speak to the man Jamal identified as Dad on parent-teacher night, but he was really just the counselor on duty. It’s difficult to explain Jamal. He defies Department of Education logic and statistics. Over a period of two mornings he left his group home, reported to a high school that’s been labeled as “persistently dangerous,” submitted to scanning and frisking on his way in – then sat down to record one of the highest scores in the state.
As the new school semester began, my class of juniors moved on. Many of them became friendly faces in the hallway, while a few return to my classroom. Jamal reports to an honors class, where he’ll have the opportunity to take AP English next year. But Forrest is right back with me, preparing for round two. He sits up front this time, but still, his method of wiring himself for iPod use is ingenious.
Forrest has now been placed in a transitional English class, which means that every student in the room scored below 55 on their English Regents Exam. I requested this population because I enjoy the challenge of trying to reach them. Based on past experience, approximately one-third of these students will pass their Regents this June. Under the DOE’s new Big Brother tactics of monitoring a teacher’s success rate, why would I willingly volunteer for such a suicide mission? Shouldn’t I have lobbied for an honors class full of Jamals to make me look good?
Also, the so-called “transitional” students tend to take more than one English class, so who gets credit for their success when they eventually do pass the exam on their second or third attempt? Instead of focusing on students, teachers are forced to worry about statistics and standings in their departments. That makes Forrest no longer a challenge in the classroom, but a number with the potential to make me look bad. Rather than marveling at Jamal’s growth as a human being when I see him in the hallway, I might stare at him longingly, thinking, “Damn, there goes my meal ticket.” The DOE’s secret monitoring program is nothing more than a new way to instill fear and obtain control.
What makes monitoring or “proving a teacher’s worth” even more absurd is the concept of equal playing fields for all. My building was mislabeled as an Impact School last year, which means it is now regarded as one of the most dangerous schools in the city. Once a school is branded as Impact, a script is then followed to shut the place down.
Coincidentally, before the DOE can get its hands on a school and chop it up into “smaller learning communities,” it must first get it labeled as dangerous. Security is intensified. Letters are sent home to parents, notifying them that their child may transfer out of a “dangerous” building if he or she chooses, and incoming freshman opt to go elsewhere when it’s time to select a school. The faculty is left to shrug and wonder where all these dangerous kids are hiding.
The crowds in the school’s hallways then begin to shrink, teachers are “excessed,” and the budget is cut. The atmosphere becomes bleak, like something out of an old Western. It’s time to shoot the horses and circle the wagons because rations are low and the enemy is closing in.
Yet the DOE machine keeps rolling. During Regents week, my school was notified that a “brand new academy” will exist inside of our 80-year-old building next year. It will be virtually the same place, just with an imaginary border laid out. The new school will also be funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, while what’s left of Jamaica High School is systematically starved to death.
But if the building is really as dangerous as the city claims, why would it pick this particular campus to establish a brand new privately funded high school? The only answer is that the building was never dangerous to begin with. The DOE just wanted the space, so it set Jamaica up for failure.
Do Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, or Bronx Science, three of the finest specialized schools in the city, have Jamaica’s problems to contend with? They have waiting lists to get in, while Jamaica struggles with a two-year-long DOE chokehold. Whose secretly monitored test scores do you think will be more impressive?
One of my colleagues in graduate school recalled a recent incident in class. When she introduced herself and her school, the DOE official moonlighting as instructor explained that she was familiar with the building and that the school’s fate had been decided long ago. “Jamaica High School is a warehouse,” the instructor said. She then advised the teacher to stop battling the DOE, to comply with the inevitable, or transfer out.
A warehouse. Any adult who’s witnessed children passing through metal detectors each morning, then frisked with scanning wands, not because they’re dangerous, but for political reasons, knows what a disgraceful remark this is.
JB McGeever has been a teacher for 11 years and at NYC public schools for four. Students’ names above are pseudonyms.