A Painful Decade of School Reform

The biggest obstacle for today's public school teachers is reform fatigue.
This batch of state-mandated tests is different from all the previous ones!

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Robert Brown/Thinkstock.

Reforms come and go so quickly at Intermediate School 61 in Queens. First there was the push for smaller schools that began in 2003. Then a mind-boggling data system was introduced in 2007. The implementation of Common Core began in 2012, a process on track to continue through at least 2022. A new teacher evaluation system debuted in 2013.

The experience over the last decade at this very large middle school—which enrolls nearly 2,400 students, employs close to 200 teachers, and takes up nearly an entire city block—offers a case study in how fatigue with top-down reforms can become the biggest impediment to meaningful educational change. With each reform, teachers and administrators have lost a little more trust in the city, state, and federal officials setting the agenda—not to mention a lot of their time.

The decade of ceaseless change started with one of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s signature initiatives: the push for smaller schools. Bloomberg (as well as the deep-pocketed Gates Foundation) was a big proponent of small schools, aggressively shutting down or breaking apart a total of 157 large, comprehensive schools. This shift, which occurred simultaneously in several districts across the United States, dramatically altered the New York City school system and helped give the charter movement a more significant foothold.

“The whole focus of the prior administration was to make everything small,” said principal Joseph Lisa, who has run I.S. 61 since 2007 and was assistant principal before that.

When Bloomberg came to power, I.S. 61, located in the largely poor and immigrant Queens neighborhood of Corona, was indeed a school in need of a turnaround: Test scores were low, and discipline problems were rampant. (One longtime assistant principal, William Voges, described the school he arrived at as “a hellhole of destruction.”) So the school adopted a twist on Bloomberg’s small-schools model, breaking the school down into five distinct academies. The move offered an opportunity to improve the school’s culture and, hopefully, pre-empt any potential reorganization by the city. Each academy was named after a prestigious school—Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Princeton, and Stanford—and staffed by its own assistant principal, dean, and faculty. The idea was that teachers would likely never be able to know more than 2,000 students, but they stood a chance at getting to know a couple hundred.

But the small-schools movement quickly became a prime example of the kind of fleeting change that comes and goes before even a class of kindergarteners makes it to middle school. Though small schools ultimately fell out of favor in cities across the country, the staff at I.S. 61 stayed committed to their reorganization. But they began to question the staying power of any change introduced from on high.

Some of these changes are much-needed and well-intended. But, almost always, they alter a teacher’s job, requiring additional work outside the classroom to fulfill new requirements or learn to teach in a different way. That consumes a lot of staff time—time that can come to be seen as wasted if the reform fades away. “Nothing has stuck, so people are thinking, Oh, here we go again,” said Antonella Caccioppoli, a science and social studies teacher who started teaching 12 years ago, just as the Bloomberg era was beginning.

Lisa understands his staff’s frustration because he feels it himself. Though he prides himself on working closely with his faculty—his office is just an L-shaped desk at the end of a conference room with a copy machine and spare computer, a workspace frequented by teachers with free periods and administrators who need a place to meet—he’s increasingly unable to devote the time. He spends 80 percent of his days just making sure the school is in compliance with city education mandates.

“They’re so worked up about compliance issues and deadlines instead of me being the instructional leader for the school,” he said.

One of Bloomberg’s signature reforms mandated the never-ending use of data to evaluate the performance of just about everyone and everything—students, teachers, principals, individual lesson plans, and entire schools. In keeping with this priority, in 2007 the city launched ARIS, a $95 million software system that tracked student data, creating the back-end infrastructure necessary to implement the controversial ranking system that gave schools letter grades. But schools found the system slow, unreliable, and clunky. At I.S. 61 the system was particularly difficult to adopt because of a simple lack of computers. Teachers were being told they needed to put student data online, but most didn’t have a computer when ARIS launched. A tenth of teachers still didn’t at the end of last year.

But by that point, all the time and energy spent adapting to ARIS was for naught. Late last year the Department of Education shut the system down and announced plans to adopt a replacement next fall.

Much of the data that ARIS collected was generated from high-stakes standardized tests, the results of which aren’t all digital: A walk-in vault at I.S. 61 stores ream after ream of archived paper tests; even more are in the basement. City education policy requires that all of this paperwork be retained, even though each test is already scanned and uploaded onto city servers.

The task is so huge—last year the school used more than a million sheets of paper for testing alone—that one assistant principal, Beth Tekverk, spends most of her time scheduling and managing the steady stream of tests throughout the year. “I am constantly swamped, and there is no reward for me,” Tekverk said. “It’s not why I became a teacher.”

While the first part of the last decade was dominated by a series of local reforms initiated by Bloomberg and his school chancellor, Joel Klein, the last five years have brought a relentless stream of state- and federal-driven changes. With a new policy to implement every year or so, even the most meaningful reforms can come to feel like fads.

Fads that sometimes contradict each other: The rise of student test score data to evaluate teachers has brought an increase in the number of subject-specific tests teachers administer to their students. But at the same time, Common Core encourages teachers to teach—and students to think—across disciplines.

Teachers have also been trying to adjust to a new teacher evaluation system, enacted during the last school year as a condition of contentious union negotiations. Teachers are evaluated four to six times each year—double what was previously required—which means each of the six assistant principals conducts nearly 150 reviews throughout the year, each requiring its own written report filed onto city servers. The new method is so taxing and time-consuming that Lisa had to hire an additional assistant principal to help shoulder the burden. And no one’s even certain this model is the final one—Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo continue to squabble over the best approach.

In the year since he took office, de Blasio has introduced another round of reforms, including the city’s universal pre-K program, a new program for a relatively small number of struggling schools, and a move announced last month giving local superintendents more control over area schools. New policies on issues like co-locations, charter schools, and teacher tenure remain in the works.

Many of these policy shifts scale back or replace Bloomberg initiatives; others are de Blasio’s own signature programs. But they ultimately send a clear message to teachers: No matter how good or bad it might sound, don’t expect any reform to stick around for long.