Dan Drmacich, a former principal of School Without Walls, is coordinator of the Rochester Coalition for Public Education.
The recommendations of the state-appointed Distinguished Educator, Dr. Jaime Aquino, to the Rochester City School District could result in a more effective bureaucracy and some superficial gains for students. However, without focusing on the family, neighborhood and school environments, students' experience, and the impact of assessment measures used to drive teaching and learning, Dr. Aquino is missing the key factors that improve student development.
Most important, volumes of research indicate a strong correlation among poverty, trauma, and student success. If education leaders are serious about achieving meaningful student growth in the skills, knowledge, and values that students need to become successful members of society, they must provide funding for the resources needed to help students – meaning more teachers, social workers, psychologists, and human development experts in every school.
Families must also receive adequate housing, job training, medical care, and parent education. These services would require higher taxes, but they would pay off, with reduced unemployment, lower incarceration rates, and increased tax roles, and could be viewed as the beginning of the long-overdue reparations due to people of color who have suffered immense harm from generations of institutional and structural racism.
Education leaders must also examine the impact of the state's current high-stakes standardized testing process. Dr. Aquino's recommendations are mainly for the purpose of achieving higher student test scores, despite the fact that the "test and punish" system has been a dismal failure in New York State for the past 20 years, especially with students living in poor urban environments.
Among other things, New York's use of high-stakes standardized testing results in:
• Emphasizing memorization versus critical thinking and creative problem-solving;
• Turning many teachers into technicians who "teach to the test" and avoid creativity;
• Promoting unrealistic expectations of high test scores for all students, when many are not ready;
• Discouraging teaching of subject areas not tested, including music, art, character development, and student interest areas, and,
• Discouraging teaching candidates from entering the profession.
Dr. Daniel Koretz provides several research-based recommendations in his book "The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better" that would vastly improve the teaching and learning environments in Rochester's schools. These include:
• Test only for what is important;
• Test sample populations versus all students;
• Use test results only for diagnosing student needs;
• Test for students' ability, to apply their skills to the real world;
• Use multiple forms of assessment for judging student growth, including projects, homework, participation, and teacher-made tests, and,
• Rely on teacher judgment as part of the assessment process.
To insure a significant increase in student success, Rochester's schools must also include two new high school options:
• A model following the Performance Standards Consortium, a group of 30 New York State public high schools that use projects judged by teams of teachers and community professionals, rather than Regents Exams, and,
• A vocational model, with more hands-on, high-standards learning and performance-based tests, sanctioned by local career education experts.
This visionary change for dealing with poverty and trauma, testing, and graduation would transform the Rochester school district into one that significantly promotes student growth and development. The difficulty in achieving this vision requires the education and lobbying of our school board members, the state education commissioner, and the Board of Regents. Without these creative, research-based changes, Rochester's students may be doomed to changes that only pretend to make schools better.