What Would Pres. Obama Do About NYC’s SHSAT Schools, College Readiness, and Teacher Quality? Hear From His Secretary of Education!

Arne Duncan served as President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education from 2009 to 2015. This August, he released a book, How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success From One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education.

Many of Duncan’s lessons are applicable to New York City. Here, we break down three of them – Zagat-style! (All quotes come directly from How Schools Work.)

Using Grades for Specialized High-School Admissions

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza want to get rid of the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) and, instead, admit the top 7 percent of students from every public middle school, based on grades. (Initially the applicants would have needed to score in the top 25 percent on state tests too but that requirement has been mysteriously absent lately.)

If, as President Bill Clinton said in his 1998 State of the Union address,“[w]hen we promote a child from grade to grade who hasn’t mastered the work, we don’t do that child any favors,” who exactly are we helping when we admit unprepared students into an academically accelerated high school?

Duncan shares a personal tale:

Calvin Williams, a rising high-school senior on the B honor roll, could read and write at a second- or third-grade level… The most insidious part of the whole thing was that he didn’t know what he didn’t know… Perhaps worse still, the school and his teachers also didn’t know that Calvin was so far behind. As far as they were concerned, Calvin was an actual B student.

The big lies are the ones that the system tells to parents about how their kids are learning.

68 percent of community college students and 40 percent of public four-year college students take at least one high school-level class because they’re not ready for college coursework. Simple stuff like basic algebra or subject-verb agreement, need to be “remediated” for these students because they’re unprepared. Even some kids who graduate with honors or with GPAs above 4.0 aren’t ready – because the system lied to them… Kids who think they’re doing very well at the end of middle school are wrong. They’re not ready for high school – not even close. The standards are way, way too low.

“Raising scores involves hard work,” though. “A far simpler way that involves practically no work is lowering cut scores.”

Yet “lowering standards does nothing to help students and everything to help adults.” Especially adults like de Blasio and Carranza, who want to shore up their national profiles by boasting that they desegregated NYC’s schools.

But, just as I wrote in Will the DOE’s Plan to Diversify Upper West Side Schools Reverse Segregation or Merely Hide Student Achievement Gaps?, Duncan confirms, “On the surface, a school appeared to be doing alright. But when you broke the data down, you might find 90 percent of the minority and special needs kids… were not proficient at all. The total numbers, or “aggregate,” data hid what was really going on.”

Just like the Mayor’s SHSAT plan will do across the entire school system.

High School Graduation Versus College Readiness

Mayor de Blasio is always happy to tout that NYC’s high school graduation rate is up to 71.1 percent.

But, as Duncan shares in this anecdote from his time as head of Chicago’s schools, because the majority of students were passing middle school state tests, “we assumed they’d be fine once they got to high-school… (They) would have a good shot at getting close to 20 on the ACT as a junior. But, in fact, we’ve found that they only have a 5 percent chance of that…. High-school graduates were getting into college only to find that they were not remotely prepared for college level work.”

“The truth was that while test scores were going up, thousands of kids who were being told they were proficient really weren’t.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo is currently patting himself on the back for all the “free” college educations he’s handing out, but maybe he and de Blasio/Carranza should first “ensure that 100 percent of everyone who earns a high school diploma is college- and career-ready.” Currently, over 50 percent of NYC high school graduates are not.

As Duncan says, “We need to stop lying about what this means and stop handing out phony diplomas.”

What Makes a ‘Good’ Teacher?

Should getting a passing grade on a literacy test be a prerequisite for becoming a teacher? Do all teachers need to be certified by the state? Should teacher evaluations be tied to student performance?

Duncan drops a bombshell regarding his discovery that “actual student learning was nowhere in the definition of a ‘good teacher.’ A good teacher simply cared about and loved kids, and they taught stuff. Some kids learned that stuff and others didn’t, but that wasn’t the teachers’ concern…. We wanted more good teachers under a definition that included being responsible for what kids learned when they left that teacher’s classroom at the end of the year.”

But is that even possible when “nearly two-thirds of all new teachers self-reported that their own educations left them unprepared to stand in front of a class full of kids and teach those kids a lesson?” (It’s reached crisis proportions, especially among math teachers.)

Having a good teacher has been determined to be the most critical factor in a student’s success. A child with a couple of duds in a row would “in 8th grade be in for a rude awakening, finding himself two, three, even four years behind grade level.”

As some 60 percent of NYC students are.


So, on the one hand, it’s reassuring to know that NYC isn’t the only one suffering from the above problems. They’re prevalent nationwide (which is depressing in its own way).

But, on the other hand, Duncan’s How Schools Work does offer solutions. The question is: Will NYC listen? Should it? (After all, it’s not like implementing Duncan’s changes fixed every school system BUT NYC’s.)

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