Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Magic of Community History-What Test Based Accountability and School Closings Ruined in the Bronx

Yesterday, while going through my files to do the footnotes for a book of African American Bronx oral histories I was completing, I came upon a document that filled me with great sadness. It was a speech, and powerpoint presentation I gave in February 2006 to over 600 Bronx social studies teachers assembled at Lehman college about the musical traditions of the Bronx- supplemented by nearly 20 songs.
The response from the teachers, principals and assistant principals in the audience was incredible- some of them were dancing in the aisles- and out of this experience came the opportunity to work in over 20 Bronx schools doing community history projects, lectures and neighborhood tours. In every school I entered, the teachers, administrators, students and parents took ownership of the material I presented, creating amazing projects, presentations ,displays and musical performances. So incredible were these teacher/student developed projects that I decided to showcase them at the 2008 Organization of American Historians Convention at the New York Hilton. as an example of the kind of community history projects scholars all over the nation should be doing.
Little did I know, when I organized the program for the OAH, that within two years, all of these programs would be gone. By 2010 my invitations from Bronx schools would shrink to nearly zero, with one school in Morrisania, PS 140, being the only hold out.
What happened?
In 2007, under the aegis of a misguided Columbia law professor named James Liebman, who was appointed the NYC Department of Education's first "accountability officer," the DOE began giving schools letter grades to schools based on students test scores and threatening to close schools which received failing grades two yeas in a row. This began what amounted to a "reign of terror" in Bronx schools. Principals who once joyously set aside two full months for community history projects in the spring suddenly realized that if they didn't devote almost every moment of school time to test prep, their school would be closed and their staff dispersed. And they were not wrong in this assessment. Betweeen 2008 and 2014, the NYC closed 168 schools in New York City, nearly 70 of them in the Bronx.
But the damage done was not only in the schools that were closed. It was done in every school in the Bronx, and in other high poverty districts of the city, where arts, physical education, community history, even recess, were sacrificed to make room for test prep and where everyone worked in fear.
I look forward to the time when this fear will lift, and I can bring community history back to Bronx schools.
But based on what I see happening with receivership schools, which are still being threatened with closure, I fear I will be waiting a very long time.