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A Tale of Two Cities and the School System that Created Them

This post is the first in the "Op Ed: Opinionated Educator" blog series from former TFA Corps members that discusses issues and topics in education today.

New York is a city "where too many mothers and fathers [fear] that their daughters and sons [will] never achieve the very thing we want most for our kids: ... [the] education they need to pave the way for a better life." Democratic Mayoral Candidate Bill De Blasio's words are true and alarming. Throughout his campaign, he has been quick to point fingers at Mayor Mike Bloomberg's administration's legacy on education, but he himself has not delved into the inequities plaguing the New York City public school system. After all, mothers and fathers in New York City's wealthiest neighborhoods can be confident that their daughters and sons will achieve. But what will the next mayor do for a parent in Bed-Stuy choosing between a D and an F school? How will the mayor ensure that we move forward with rigorous Common Core curriculum so that every student in East New York has the chance to graduate college-ready? When can Crown Heights' parents expect to see the same quality of teachers as public school parents enjoy in more affluent neighborhoods like the Upper West Side? These are questions to which our StudentsFirstNY members demand answers before they cast their votes in November.

An even larger question remains - after nearly a year of campaigning, why have these questions remained on the margins of the education debate? Douglas Covington, a member of the SFNY Brownsville Chapter, provides an answer saying that people "tend to base [their] views on [their] world and what [they] see." Based on Mr. de Blasio's personal experiences with the New York City education system, it's easy to see why his policy positions lack an understanding of neighborhoods served only by failing schools. Park Slope and Brownsville are indeed two different cities in Brooklyn.

It must be hard for de Blasio to imagine a parent's deeply conflicted emotions as they send their students to their zoned failing school. Maybe he thinks it's not so terrible, choosing between a C school and a D school, with a 25% and 15% chance of reading on grade-level respectively; but in choosing between a C- and a D-rated restaurant, he would walk away without lunch. Fortunately for de Blasio, he doesn-t face either of these scenarios on a daily basis, and therefore can't understand the urgency with which the new mayor must address school choice. Any education platform that includes a moratorium on charter schools and co-location, as he has promised, guarantees that our parents will continue to face a system where their children walk away without a quality education.

Much of the campaign season has been focused on Mayor Bloomberg's alleged failures in reforming public school education. The candidates have pointed to new Common Core testing data as proof of this failure. At a recent panel on NYC education, where questions on Common Core were addressed, a District 2 parent (the highest performing district in NYC), stood up to voice his concerns over the common core standards that have raised expectations across the board. He chided the test results that labeled his children as failures. His words fought hard for the status quo - a status quo that serves upper middle class communities quite well, a status quo that has simultaneously and purposefully left behind low-income communities and communities of color. For too long, schools that serve low-income communities have been striving towards minimum standards that duped families into thinking their students were striving for a worthwhile prize. Simultaneously, affluent communities have ignored this low bar, aiming instead for college readiness (at least). Now, with Common Core, low-income parents and students have a standard that approaches the goals and expectations we assume every student in America should be offered - an adequate education which prepares them for a 21st century society. When asked his opinion on Common Core, Mr. Covington of Brownsville responded succinctly, saying "the SAT doesn’t care that you came from a failing school." We need standards and exams aligned to college readiness, and we needed them yesterday.

Rigorous curriculum and exams will all be useless without a quality teacher to deliver them and prepare students to succeed. By opposing "high stakes testing," educators are complicit in a culture of low-expectations and continue to do a disservice to our students in low-income neighborhoods. If our teachers are teaching to high standards, students will succeed on any exam meant to assess yearly minimum benchmarks. Mr. de Blasio's "tale of two cities" New York is just what we have. But what is he, or any candidate, going to do to address this inequity in our city's public school system? NYC parents need to see that these candidates value a robust and comprehensive evaluation system -- one that, when implemented, will give critical feedback to teachers and provide opportunities for development. de Blasio, however, has failed to endorse this meaningful reform and thus has failed to endorse the future potential of our students. For parents in failing districts, the ask is clear and simple: Don't sunset the new teacher evaluation system. They want a mayor that will embrace change, not halt momentum on meaningful, effective, and lasting reform.

As Okhee Lee, professor of education at NYU's Steinhardt School and a leading academic in the field, has stated, our nation grapples with changing demographics. Minority students make up 45% of our nation's youth, and 48% qualify for free or reduced lunch -- both numbers are rising. As Mr. de Blasio himself stated on Tuesday night, these demographics mirror New York City "where nearly half our citizens are living at or near the poverty line." Any conversation related to education must center on how to meet the needs of our nation’s traditionally underserved youth.

In his de facto victory speech Tuesday night, Mr. de Blasio again harkened back to his "tale of two cities" as he promised to, "put forth a plan to give every child of this city the opportunity to reach their god-given potential." StudentsFirstNY members need to know this plan will continue to provide them with school choice -- particularly when their neighborhood options are unacceptable. "Settling for the status quo [is] a risk that we as a city cannot afford to take," cried Mr. de Blasio. Indeed, the status quo has not and will not work for parents in failing school districts. We need a mayor who will embrace the Common Core standards that raise the bar for students and teachers alike. We need to be able to trust that when Mr. de Blasio says, "we have come too far to go back now" he is referring to the parent-driven progress in bringing evaluations to teachers that not only deepen their development but ensure that all of our students have a highly-effective teacher.

In reflecting on the state of education in New York City, Brownsville resident and SFNY member Mr. Covington has little patience, but on the challenges ahead, he is optimistic and unhesitating, "We are a work in progress," he says, with conviction in his voice, "and if that's the case -- let's get to work."

Authors Miranda Cohen and Michael Sedillo are L.E.E. Community Organizing Fellows at StudentsFirstNY. 

Click here to read Miranda's bio.

Click here to read Michael's bio.

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