Oh, The Irony

For the last few weeks I have been having a series of conversations with Tenicka Boyd, a community organizer who runs the New York affiliate of StudentsFirst. Our conversations range from the theoretical issues around the politics of school change, to her own experience with the public schools her daughter attends. Last week I shared the first part of our conversation. Today we continue our conversation, and it gets very personal.

Me: Strategically and tactically what are you trying to do with your organization?

Boyd: From the macro scale we are trying to change outcomes for kids in the whole state. But we think that what happens in New York City matters a lot for the whole state. On the micro level we are doing a lot of defense of prior reforms. And we’re trying to move the needle on teacher quality for district students. And we are trying to relieve the over one hundred thousand kids who are on waiting lists for charter schools.

Also, some of the worst performing schools have the highest number of teachers with unsatisfactory ratings in the system. In our highest needs schools you have the highest number of teachers with sexual misconduct cases. We want to make policies that make sure that a child in a low income community cannot be taught by an unsatisfactory teacher two years in a row. We want to make sure there is a fair and tough teacher evaluation system. We want to make sure that a teacher who himself fails the 12th grade English exam can’t teach in a high school, because that test only goes to 8th grade reading level.

Me: When you talk to parents, what’s their process of coming to grips with these issues? Are they aware of the challenges?

Boyd: We talk to parents with children in schools that are historically failing. There will be no kids passing the third grade test. The parents are usually completely shocked when they hear this. They have no idea that an elementary school in East New York could be failing. What’s even more shocking is for the parents of kids who are getting "As" on their school work, and that work goes right on the refrigerator. They’ll go get the work and show it to me and say, “See, I bet they passed the state test.” And that homework that got an “A” will be only halfway complete.

This happened to me as a parent. I was working for the Obama administration. My husband and I both have nice jobs. We were living in Fairfax County, Virginia. We had a half million dollar townhouse. Arne Duncan’s kid lived in the neighborhood. My husband and I have four degrees between us. Our teacher was very nice. She was the sweetest person I had ever met. Which actually made me skeptical a little bit. My daughter started really struggling in reading. I asked my daughter about reading time, and there wasn’t a lot of reading time in the class. I immediately wondered if my daughter herself had a problem. I started to wonder if I was working too much. I internalized the problem. I was like, “Oh, the irony. I’ve been scrutinizing teachers and now my daughter isn’t reading at grade level.”

When I got to PS 321 in New York City, our teacher sat us down and told me that my daughter was an entire year behind. This was like two years ago. She’s since caught up through the help of a private tutor, and I begged the school for a reading coach. My husband has a flexible job, so he’s working with her a lot more. But that’s economic access and privilege. I have the intellectual background to know something was wrong, but even I, working in the Obama education administration, I still couldn’t figure out what the heck was wrong with my child. Parents send their kids to school in good faith, assuming that everything that needs to happen is happening there. If the doctor tells us I have cancer, I get worried. If I have a little more money, maybe I go see another doctor. But in all communities we sort of implicitly trust teachers.

Me: Did your daughter catch up?

Boyd: She’s way caught up. I kept the tutor, though, because I’m nervous. I didn’t want her to fall behind again. This year she got another amazing teacher, but I’m not taking chances. I go in at the beginning of the school year, and I say, “This is on you. I’m sure you heard about me from other teachers. There will be no ‘Ms. Boyd, you’re not doing what you need to be doing.’ If there’s any problem with her reading, it’s because of an inadequate job that you’re doing. Let’s make sure that you’re doing your job, all day, every day.”

She’s the only child of color in her class. The teachers at my daughter’s school, they might assume that whatever happens to her, she’ll be fine, because she's middle-income like the rest of them. But the outcomes for my young black daughter are more precarious for her than for her peers, whether she’s middle class or not, because she’s black.