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Pollyanna Alert! Three Potential Silver Linings to Unscreening All NYC Middle Schools

I’ve been called a Pollyanna so often, I was even featured in an article on it at the start of the pandemic. My husband accuses me of being able to see the silver lining in absolutely anything. (I’d wonder if he meant it as a compliment, but I’m such a Pollyanna I have no doubt that he does!)

In the spirit of the 1960 Hayley Mills classic (and the Keisha Knight-Pulliam reimagining in 1989 which I also love, natch), I offer three silver linings to what might happen, what might not happen, and what we’ll say about it when New York City removes admissions screens for all of its public middle schools in September of 2021.

(Pollyanna Alert! Isn’t it lucky that the first academic level to go unscreened is middle school? Middle school lasts the shortest amount of time, only three years, grades six, seven, and eight, as opposed to elementary school, which lasts six years, and high school, which lasts four. This means we’ll know the consequences of this change sooner! Mayor Bill De Blasio and School Chancellor Richard Carranza can sooner accept accountability for their actions… after they’re out of office, but who’s counting?)

Silver Lining #1

What Might Happen: Students who enter arts schools that previously required auditions like the Special Music School, Ballet Tech, Professional Performing Arts School, and more are, within three years, performing artistically as well as those who either entered and have been rigorously training since the Kindergarten level or were selected via a screening process that tested for natural ability and/or previously effective instruction.

What Might Not Happen: Kids who are only mildly interested in a particular art or instrument will not be put through hours of potentially torturous conservatory level training. Their self-esteem will not plummet if they are surrounded by those more naturally talented, more committed, or more experienced, and they will not then give up a hobby they otherwise might have pursued for the rest of their lives as happy amateurs.

What We’ll Say: Oh, my goodness! This proves there is no such thing as natural artistic talent! My child who, at five, had no pitch and no rhythm can still become a virtuoso, no matter how late they start their training! With this being the case, how can NYC justify NOT offering this level of artistic instruction to every single child in every single public school to ensure the development of an army of Mozarts?

Silver Lining #2

What Might Happen: Students who enter Honors programs which previously looked at grades, state test scores, and, sometimes, their own exams for admission like Christa McAuliffe, East Side Middle School, Booker T. Washington, and more are, within three years, performing academically as well as students who were admitted via screening. It doesn’t matter if they enter reading and doing math at the sixth grade, the fourth grade, or even the second grade level, by 8th grade, all are equally ready to take highschool Regents exams. (Oh, and pass them, too.)

What Might Not Happen: What’s been happening up to now. As I wrote in February of 2019: Let’s take, as an example, District 3’s Computer School. It’s principal, Henry Zymeck, has been a huge supporter of the new admissions plan from the start. Except, even before new students with failing test scores arrive in September 2019, The Computer School already has 33% of students not performing at grade level in math. Since The Computer School is a screened middle school (currently 27 percent Free Lunch and 48 percent White, stats Mr. Zymeck could have tweaked without a District-wide moratorium but chose not to until the opportunity to virtue signal arose), we can assume either that these kids entered proficient at math and The Computer School lowered their scores, or they entered not proficient and graduated not proficient. Or as a mom raged at a Community Education Council meeting in October of the same year: They don’t have a plan (for integration). They don’t know what to do with the low-scoring kids who got into these ‘great’ schools, and now they have no support. Do you know how they’re supporting my daughter? They’re not returning my calls. They have no plan!

What We’ll Say: Oh, my goodness! This proves that the teachers at these previously Screened schools truly are better than the teachers at other schools! They’re not achieving successful results simply because all their students are coming in prepared to learn the material and, if they’re not, are getting prepped outside of school because their families have the resources to do so! Instead of insisting that 97% of teachers are either “effective” or “highly effective,” we’ll be forced to admit that some teachers are better than others, whether due to natural ability, superior training, or greater effort. And that, with 50% of NYC students not performing at grade level, it’s likely that a lot more than a mere 3% of teachers are “ineffective.” We’ve been told it’s not ineffective instruction that leads to low test scores, but poverty, exclusively. If newly unscreened schools challenge that narrative through great teaching, how can NYC justify NOT offering a truly “highly effective” instructor to every single child in every single public school… and exorcising those not getting the job done?

Silver Lining #3

What Might Happen: Students who enter Accelerated citywide programs which previously looked at grades, state test scores, and, sometimes, their own exams for admission like The Anderson School, NEST+M, Brooklyn School of Inquiry, Talented and Gifted School For Young Scholars, and Q300, are, within three years, performing academically as well as students who were admitted via a Kindergarten Gifted & Talented test and have spent the last six years doing the standard NYC academic curriculum a year in advance. This means that incoming sixth graders should not be ready to tackle merely sixth grade, but actually seventh grade curriculum. By 8th grade, all are performing not just at grade level, but above it.

What Might Not Happen: Kids who, through no fault of their own, are unprepared to do the accelerated work, will not become convinced that they’re stupid, that school “isn’t for them,” and won’t quit trying or drop out altogether, a result that research has repeatedly shown to occur when students who might have been at the top of the class in one school end up at the bottom in another.

What We’ll Say: Oh, my goodness! This proves that any student at any level of preparedness can, at any moment, handle and thrive doing above grade level work. If that’s the case, how can NYC justify NOT accelerating instruction – by one year or even more – at every single public elementary and middle school? Aren’t all of our kids with it?

What do you think? Will any of the above silver linings happen? Or am I being too much of a Pollyanna?

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