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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Education Reform and What I Learned at Taft High School

Here's what education reformers like:
- Tenure reform, which would end tenure to stop protecting “bad” teachers who supposedly are responsible for “failing” schools.
- School turnaround, where lots of teachers at “failing” schools get fired in order to stop the failing.
- Closure of “failing” schools. Self explanatory.
- Merit pay, where teachers get extra money to teach better, because presumably, without financial incentive, they’re not teaching as well as they could, resulting in - you guessed it - more “failing”.
- High stakes testing, based on which teachers are evaluated and “bad” teachers are identified. Again, this is supposed to cut down on the “failing.”
- Ending LIFO (Last In First Out), a system said to promote failing because it grants greater job protection to teachers with seniority, favoring “bad” older teachers over “good” younger ones. 
Get the common thread here? To get rid of the "failing problem," you have to tackle the “teacher problem.”
Here’s my response: Gerry Cohen.
In 1988, I was a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism when I received an assignment to do a story on education. So I called Gerry Cohen.
The father of one of my oldest, dearest friends, Gerry was an English teacher at William Howard Taft High School in the South Bronx. He’d taught there for...well, I have no idea how long. A really long time. I asked him if I could shadow him for a day. He said yes.
I’d known Gerry since I was five years old, when I became friends with his son. He was a warm, laid back guy who made every visitor in his home feel like family. He was what people in the heartland would have called a real New York character: a left-leaning, intellectual, vaguely bohemian Orthodox Jew with the accent of a cab driver and the laugh of a longshoreman. In the New York of my youth, he was just a dad, and just a teacher.
In 1988, I was a 26-year-old grad student who would never have confessed this truth: I was terrified about visiting Taft. A lot of things I did at the J School were kinda scary, but the prospect of spending a day in a South Bronx high school was near the top of the list.  My ideas about poor urban public schools were formed entirely by the media, and mostly involved violence, drugs and general mayhem. Having gone to a Jewish private school and an ivy league college, I was as sheltered as one could possibly be in urban America. I planned to stick very close to Gerry.
When I showed up at Taft that morning in 1988, Gerry greeted me with a huge smile and a warm welcome, and proceeded to overturn many of my misconceptions. Not that he was intentionally doing anything of the kind. He was just having a normal workday.
I have a few strong memories of that day. One is of sitting in the back of Gerry’s class while he led a discussion on Macbeth. It was a good discussion. Most of the kids weren’t participating, but those who were had clearly read the play and understood it about as well as you’d expect of a high school kid. Gerry was a skilled teacher who guided the conversation with practiced ease, explaining difficult passages, leading his students to make their own discoveries and offering his own insights. He was very much in control of his classroom without looking like he had to work at it. It seemed to me that the students liked him, though that might have been my own bias, because I couldn’t see how anyone wouldn’t like him.
I remember walking the hallways while students rushed to classes in between bells. There were no lockers - something to do with security, I was told. The place was pretty run-down - depressingly so. No fights broke out in my presence, and I didn’t feel particularly unsafe. Kids mostly ignored me. As I wandered among the students, it seemed that the only demographic not represented was American-born whites. I remember Gerry telling me that there were a dozen different languages spoken among Taft’s students. They’d had a recent influx of Guyanese immigrants. 
I also remember sitting in the back of the auditorium during a midyear graduation ceremony. It was a special program for girls who were graduating late because they’d had babies. There was a lot of pride in that room along with all the fussy babies, and a lot of huge smiles under the tasseled caps. The whole thing took me off guard - I knew teen pregnancy was common, but I was surprised to see it treated so openly.
The final thing I remember of that day was asking Gerry one last question: “Why do you do it?” And his exact answer: “If I don’t, who will?”
I left at the last bell. Gerry stayed late. The walk to the subway through those South Bronx streets was by far the scariest part of the day. There’s no sugar-coating it. That was a really bad neighborhood.
Here’s how Taft High School is described in Wikipedia: 
Demographic changes in the sixties, the exodus of the homogeneous population, and the advent of specialized magnet schools brought about shifts in enrollment at Taft HS. During the Abraham Beame (1974–77) and Edward Koch (1978–89) Administrations, there was no priority given to the needs of the shifting demographics in the school community. City-wide, crime rates were high and unfavorable publicity further accelerated the decline of the school. Entering the 1990s, as a non-selective high school, it was unable to compete with the newer schools housing magnet programs that attracted prime students from throughout the borough. Crime intimidated vibrant young professionals from teaching at the high school. The danger was highlighted in May 1997, when Jonathan Levin, an English teacher at the school and the son of former Time Warner chairman Gerald M. Levin, was murdered by a former student in his Manhattan apartment.

Due to the above-mentioned demographic changes, of the 629 students attending Taft in the 1990s, the majority were Hispanic and African-American. On any given day, attendance hovered around 86%. The impoverished community, lacking in political clout or a cohesive PTA, was provided 10 truancy officers, rather than improved education strategies. The last graduating class of Taft High School was in June 2008.
By today’s definition, there’s no question Taft would be seen as a failing school. 
And Gerry Cohen? He was NOT a failing teacher. He was a dedicated teacher and a wonderful man. His commitment to his ideals and to his profession brought him back to that school day after day, year after year, despite everything. It’s likely many of his students would have struggled on standardized tests. A lot. But NOT because of Gerry or the other teachers I met that day.
I know. It was one day at one school. It doesn’t prove anything. It’s hardly scientific. But my experience certainly convinced me of this: It’s total madness to say that the biggest problem at a school like Taft is the teachers. Worse, it’s clear that those who would say such a thing are motivated not by a desire to improve public schools, but by a desire to demean and disempower teachers.
Gerry Cohen passed away a couple of years ago - not long after Taft High School closed, though he’d retired many years earlier. I often think of Gerry when I read about education reformers who blame teachers for “failing” schools - the teachers who show up every day in neighborhoods that a lot of people wouldn’t even drive through without locking the car doors.  It’s somewhat reassuring to know that Gerry’s educational legacy will outlive theirs - because he was a teacher. A really good teacher in a “failing” school.
Note: After I finished writing this, I found this 2003 New York Times story about Taft. Looks like I wasn't alone in my impression of the place.