A Fan’s Statistics



Jamaica, Queens, 11432

Neighborhood: Jamaica, Queens

Two times per year the New York State English Regents Exam visits the high schools of our fair city, four comprehensive essays over a period of two days, and this January’s results are in. In my building, preparation for the exam begins in the ninth grade and continues right until the students enter class to take the exam.

“Hey, Mister–” a voice will call down the hallway just minutes before the test. “Who wrote about those mice and men? George Steinbrenner, right?”

Due to the No Child Left Behind rule, everyone takes the exam during junior year regardless of their proficiency in English. The student who’s been in the system since kindergarten takes it, as well as the child who recently arrived to America and whose second, third, or fourth language might be English. Whether they have designs on going to college after graduation or going on to become mechanics and electricians, they are going to sit for that exam.

The more students a school gets to pass, the better the school looks. As a result, many schools have pushed up the date for students to take the test. Rather than taking it for the first time in June, why not usher them in five months early and see what happens? If they pass, great, if not, get ready for round two. Better still, let’s start grading the teachers on the results.

The Department of Education has been conducting a secret pilot program where 2,500 teachers at 140 city public schools are being measured without their knowledge on student performance on standardized tests. Sadly, the local media has weighed in with typical comments and clichés regarding the teaching profession. “Imagine teachers treated like other professionals–having their performance monitored and quantified,” writes Adam Brodsky in an op/ed piece for the Post. In his late January article, Mr. Brodsky even cites Tom Brady of the New England Patriots as a good lesson to all of us regarding the power of impressive statistics. But the city recently discovered, in the most stunning way imaginable, that gaudy, blown-up stats aren’t everything.

Despite his condescending attitude toward teachers, Brodsky still raises a good point. So let’s ‘monitor ‘and ‘quantify’ some of my students on their recent performance on the English Regents exam then determine my net worth once we’re through. Out of five classes taught this past semester, I had one class of juniors, three groups of sophomores, and one senior elective. The juniors were an interesting bunch, bright, friendly, and respectful, one of the most enjoyable classes I’ve ever taught.

But before we can examine their performance on the test, as well as my accountability, we need to establish setting. My building was falsely labeled as an Impact School last year, which means it is now regarded as one of the most dangerous schools in the city. Coincidentally, before the DOE can get its hands on a building and chop it up into ‘smaller learning communities,’ it must first get it labeled as dangerous.

Once a school is branded as Impact, a script is then followed to shut the place down, and Phase I is complete. Security is intensified. Letters are sent home to parents, notifying them that their child may transfer out of a ‘dangerous’ building if he or she chooses, and incoming freshman opt to go elsewhere when it’s time to select a school. The faculty is left to shrug and wonder where all these dangerous kids are hiding, but come away with nothing. The school’s hallways then begin to shrink, teachers are excessed, and the budget is cut. The atmosphere becomes bleak, like something out of an old Western. It’s time to shoot the horses and circle the wagons because rations are low and the enemy’s closing in.

Yet the DOE machine keeps rolling. During Regents week, my school was notified that a ‘new’ school will exist inside of our eighty year old building next year (Phase II complete). It will be the same building, the same amount of kids, just with an imaginary border put into place, a brilliant new version of divide and conquer.

One of my colleagues recently began her graduate school semester. When she introduced herself and her school, the DOE official moonlighting as an instructor explained that she was familiar with the building and that the school’s fate had already been decided. “Jamaica High School is a warehouse,” she said. She then advised the teacher to stop battling the DOE, to comply with the inevitable, or transfer out.

A warehouse. Any adult who’s witnessed children passing through metal detectors each morning then frisked with scanning wands, not because they’re dangerous, but for political reasons, knows what an absolutely disgraceful remark this is.

Let’s return now to my classroom of juniors and Mr. Brodsky’s pomposity: “…Why not make teachers prove their worth?” Very well, but shouldn’t instructors be given an equal playing field before they’re forced to compete? Do Stuyvesant High School, Brooklyn Tech, or Bronx Science, three of the finest specialized schools in the city, have Jamaica’s problems to contend with? They have waiting lists to get in, while Jamaica struggles with a two year long DOE choke hold. Whose test scores do you think will be more impressive?

As I scan the list of results I find that my class ran the gamut, lots of highs and lows. Some overslept and missed the exam, while others arrived early and pulled off stunning victories. Jamal got his 97, but Forrest received a 51.

As much as I would like to take credit for Jamal’s grade, the truth is that he’s a self-starter who sits up front, takes notes, and never misses class. Forrest, however, disappeared into the West Indies around holiday time: “Going to my country, bye.” He was gone for nearly six weeks, missing all of his Regents preparation. I’m sure he was visiting family he hadn’t seen in a while, but should his extended vacation have any bearing on my teaching career? Of course not.

There’s also no need to congratulate myself when Clarissa scores a high 86. She’s quiet, attentive, and likes to read. I did my job each day and she did hers. Or Victor who managed to get himself suspended for three weeks then recorded a 47. All four of these kids were in the same class and all four of them are responsible for their test scores. Not their teacher.

When it comes time to give Jamal’s family a call to congratulate them on their son’s success, I find out that he lives in a group home. I’m taken aback on the phone. I expected to speak to the man Jamal identified as his father on parent/teacher night, but he was really just the counselor on duty.

There’s no way to explain Jamal. He defies DOE logic and statistics. He left his group home each morning, reported to his ‘persistently dangerous high school,’ where he was scanned, frisked and instructed to readjust his belt in the auditorium, then sat down to record one of the highest scores in the state. The kid’s a winner, a true New York Giant, and I would love to bask in his glory or dance in his victory parade, but I’m nothing more than a fan.

* All students appear in this essay under pseudonyms.


Jb McGeever’s stories have appeared in Hampton Shorts, Confrontation, $pread Magazine, and the Southampton Review, with nonfiction in the New York Times, the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program Report, and City Limits. He recently received an IPPIE award from the Independent Press Association for best editorial, and teaches writing and literature in the NYC public school system.

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