Westchester Education Experts on Teachers, Budgets, School Evaluations, and Politicians (They Don’t Like Them Much)
You’ve been told by countless unsolicited advice-givers what to look for in your child’s school—but what do the real pros say? Here, experts from the front lines of education weigh in.
What happens when you get experienced educators and seasoned school administrators around a table and ask tough questions? They may not all raise their hands at once, but they certainly don’t hesitate to speak their minds. Oh yes, they even use the “t” word (taxes).
Photo by Toshi Tasaki
Westchester Magazine: We’ll start with the obvious: what should parents look at when evaluating a school?
James Langlois: If I were a parent going into a school district, I’d ask, ‘When you graduate someone, what do they know? What can they do? What kind of attitudes do they have? Work habits?’ Ask for their vision of a successful graduate. It’s very difficult for parents to say what they want for their child. Parents almost always say, ‘I want my kid to be happy.’
Louis Wool: If I were to evaluate a high school as a consumer, I would want to know, ‘Can this high school embrace and advance opportunities for both of my kids? Is there a depth to the curriculum that is going to allow my theater-oriented child to flourish as well as my more analytical, math/science child?’
Brian Monahan: Parents also say, ‘I want my kids to be safe.’ That is certainly more of a concern in some districts than others. When I was an administrator in Yonkers, I was very proud of the fact that our building was safe and that the kids felt secure.
WM: What was the sales pitch to parents in Yonkers?
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Brian Monahan: ‘Let’s walk the halls, let’s take a tour of the building’—and I’d have them see that the building is secure. Whenever I was going to visit a principal, I always tried to sneak in through a back door to see if that door was locked—and they would hear about it if it wasn’t.
Ross Abrams: A parent can also ask, ‘When my student is having trouble with a teacher, what does the school district do?’ Often, when there is a sit-down meeting, it turns out that there is some personality difference. It is oftentimes a misunderstanding. Good school districts have processes in place to make that relationship as good as possible and to help when there is trouble.
James Langlois: The issue of bullying has become much more high profile recently. So, a parent would want to know how the school deals with it.
Scott Nelson: Also, what kind of social and emotional supports are there in the school? Is there a school psychologist? A district social worker?
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Mitchell Combs: Last year, I gave a tour to a couple; she was pregnant with their child. I was taken aback at first—their child was not yet even born. But I gave them a full walking tour and told them about what the high school is like today—though I couldn’t promise what it will be like fourteen years from now.
Michael McGill: I’m putting myself back in the position of a parent, and I’m thinking about my two kids and saying, ‘So I want a school that is going to provide athletic opportunities for my son and artistic opportunities for my daughter.’ A lot of that I can get at by talking to principals, by walking the halls. But what I wouldn’t have a way of getting a handle on is, ‘Do you have a faculty that is really committed to kids?’
Scott Nelson: You need to take the role of an anthropologist. Do a cultural survey to get a sense of the culture of the school and of the school community.
WM: Isn’t the school’s culture often a reflection of the community’s culture?
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Scott Nelson: I don’t think the culture of the school is defined solely by the values and attitudes of the families in the district. It’s the staff and it’s the administration of the school that need to build the expectations and culture.
Michael McGill: One thing that is really important to building a culture of learning is having a certain amount of stability. If there is a lot of turnover in principals or a lot of turnover in faculty, it is really hard to build a culture that will sustain itself.
WM: So parents should ask about the percentage of teachers who are tenured and stick around?
Michael McGill: It’s less that than if you’ve had five principals in the last five years. It’s also knowing that there is a reasonable mix of newer and older faculty. What would be interesting to know is how long the teachers tend to stay. Do they all get out when they’re fifty-five?
WM: So you want them to stay beyond fifty-five?
Michael McGill: One of our strongest math teachers is almost eighty years old—and he’s absolutely vibrant.
But back to what we were talking about before: there’s not necessarily a correlation between the socioeconomic level of the community and the commitment of the faculty. But it certainly helps if you’ve got a community willing to pay competitive salaries and is concerned about the level of morale of its faculty. All of that makes a huge difference in how passionate educators feel about their work.
In our current climate, there is appallingly little concern given to these factors. Independent education has a different set of issues, but in my experience, the sense of care for faculty at independent schools is very different than what it is at many public schools.
Scott Nelson: We have non-union faculty, so it’s about ensuring that the faculty is taken care of: the salaries and benefits, the work conditions, etc.
Michael McGill: People aren’t being seen so much as the hired help.
WM: In public schools they are?
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Michael McGill: There are a lot of public schools in which teachers are seen as day laborers.
James Langlois: The people who perceive it that way often are politicians. One of the frustrations in the whole Accountability Movement going on right now is that people believe it’s designed to get rid of problem teachers—let’s figure out which ten or fifteen percent of teachers we are going to axe. But that’s opposite the kind of environment that is desired. You select carefully, provide a model of support, challenge your teachers, and develop them.
Louis Wool: The politicians are attempting to quantify something that isn’t really measurable. The most important people in my organization are teachers. Research shows that a high-quality teacher is more important than socioeconomic background or access to resources. But to think you can define teacher effectiveness using a simple measure or that publishing in a newspaper a test score and a measure of a teacher is somehow going to help people get a better understanding of what high-quality teaching is is going to do nothing but damage and confuse people.
We have four elementary schools. Our most diverse school has a preponderance of ESL students and a handful of special education students. If you were to look at an ESL teacher’s results, you might draw the conclusion that the ESL teacher isn’t as proficient when, in fact, if the growth measures are applied, you will find that she is actually a superior teacher. While I agree with the concept of incentivizing, research shows that a high-quality professional environment does more to value and advance teacher practice than an additional $1,500 at the end of the year. When we treat teachers as if what they’re doing is somehow not complex, we disrespect the whole process.
Michael McGill: You could ask, ‘How robust is professional development in the school?’
WM: Can you give me examples of the type of professional development you use in Scarsdale?
Michael McGill: Sure. We have large numbers of teachers involved in what you would call lesson study, basically a Japanese technique for collectively planning for the individual executing and then analyzing a lesson that has been taught—it’s a good way of being coached in a technique and developing a technique within a collaborative group. We know from research that good teaching is very often the product of direct experience and direct coaching and that the conversation among teachers is much more effective than taking more coursework.
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Ross Abrams: A district where teachers are working together will often be more successful.
WM: Do you think teachers are born or made?
Michael McGill: Both.
Scott Nelson: There are qualities that great teachers have that are unique to them.
WM: What are those qualities?
Michael McGill: They have to be able to inspire. I don’t know how you teach that.
Brian Monahan At Pace University, I teach people how to teach. I’ve gotten good at it, but I’m not sure that I can do it. For some people, deciding, ‘I want to be a teacher,’ just probably isn’t the right thing.
Michael McGill: You can train somebody who’s not very good to be confident, but you can’t train somebody to become terrific.
Louis Wool: Great teachers see potential in all kids. Great teachers raise the expectations for children about themselves, find the best within them, and say, ‘This is who you can become.’
WM: Are there bad teachers in your school?
James Langlois: Bad teachers are not acceptable, and much less acceptable in Westchester. But the biggest weakness in the whole educational reform movement is that it doesn’t look at Scarsdale or Harrison and say, ‘How much of that is transferable?’ The school reform movement is saying we need everybody to take standardized tests, we need a curriculum that’s driven by the state education department or by the federal government. Mike McGill is a pain in the neck for the state education department. Lou Wool too. They’re saying, ‘Your idea of improving education is actually lowering the standards that we’ve spent years establishing in these districts.’
Scott Nelson: Independent schools have had the benefit of not having to follow the state curriculum and the state testing program. We’ve been granted variances by the Board of Regents because independent schools have demonstrated what we do is better than what you would impose on us.
WM: Why would somebody send their kid to Rye Country Day if Westchester’s public schools are so good?
Michael McGill: Because every school isn’t right for every kid.
Scott Nelson: We have the luxury and the advantage of being able to select our students, so there’s a much narrower range of students to play that second sport, to write for the newspaper as a freshman.
WM: So would you say that your faculty has it easier?
Scott Nelson: No. Their job is different. The expectations are different. The student load is lower for our high school teacher: an average fifty-five students in four sections. But the expectation is they’re going to provide that individual attention and serve as their academic advisors.
Ross Abrams: I have one hundred and four students in five sections. I’m not going to disregard the importance of smaller class sizes; that changes the nature of the interaction. Parents may want to ask, ‘On average, how many students does each teacher have?’, although you can be a great teacher with one hundred and fifty kids.
I went to Greenburg Central School District 7. And the question that I am going to ask, now that I have a four-year-old daughter, is, ‘What kind of students is my child going to be interacting with?’ I went to a very diverse school district, and there is a real benefit to that.
Michael McGill: How many parents have you heard say, ‘I live in a large urban area and I would love to send my kids to public schools because I really believe in the values of public education, but I just can’t.’
WM: The Clintons. The Obamas.
Michael McGill: The problem becomes all the more apparent the more we place emphasis on education as a process of getting kids ready for the workforce as opposed to a process that has other really important objectives.
WM: And you think that’s even more
Michael McGill: The emphasis on college admissions, on getting good grades so that you can get into the right college so that you can get the right job, or so that you can make a lot of money—that emphasis, I think, has become so much more a part of our national culture. It really shapes people’s attitudes about school. Up until the 1950s, most kids of high school age weren’t even in high school. We’re now in a period where education is viewed as so essential to a kid’s future that it’s very, very difficult for parents to take a broader understanding or a more ‘socially generous’ view of its purposes.
WM: But research will tell you that a kid who goes to college will make more money.
Michael McGill: People are not crazy to think that way.
Louis Wool: It’s a perfectly narrow view.
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WM: What do you mean, ‘It’s a narrow view?’
Louis Wool: Go back to the question you asked from the outset. What are the things we are looking for? Parents want their kids to be happy. What does that really mean? It means an environment that is nurturing in some ways, not just cut-throat and competitive and focused on how much money he will earn. Public school is, I think, the single most important institution in a thriving democracy. Until you provide the resources to Mount Vernon that Harrison has, you are not going to level the playing field. You are not going to create a fair, basic education for all kids, and as long as you create that permanent underclass, you are going to see that ninety-nine-to-one-percent disparity maintain itself.
Scott Nelson: I’m on the board of a charter school in the South Bronx, which gets $13,000 per student per year, and you wonder why there’s a difference.
WM: The money is coming from taxpayers?
Louis Wool: In Harrison, we get some from the state, but it predominantly comes from taxpayers. One advantage to working in Harrison is that, because of the resources we have, we are able to attract the highest quality teachers. On the other hand, people always forget the cost of living of a teacher if you have a four year old in Westchester County.
James Langlois: There is a huge wave of commuters in education coming from Dutchess and Putnam counties.
WM: Because they can’t afford to live in Westchester?
James Langlois: The only reason I was able to take my job in Westchester is I was able to commute from Orange County. I looked at living costs and said, ‘I can’t take this job if I have to move.’ I want to add one other thing: every kid doesn’t have to go to college. I like the fact that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs dropped out of college—not out of high school. Maybe high schools have a place for people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs that colleges don’t.
Louis Wool: One of the things that we’ve talked about over and over again is that there is nothing more important than high-quality teachers. We are severely criticized as superintendents for having too much administration. We need that in order to effectively and fairly evaluate a teacher. And if we are going to take seriously the business that children have quality teachers, part of that is the supervision of instruction. But our governor is basically saying we want high quality but spend less on administration. We have a commissioner who has been saying, ‘We want you to engage in a really high-level evaluation of teachers, but we will give you a model that is based on a single measure.’
James Langlois: So maybe a question parents might ask is, ‘How do you evaluate? How do you, as a principal, know if a teacher is good or not? What are your standards for a teacher and how do you determine whether a teacher measures up?’
Louis Wool: Most of our teachers, because they are recruited so carefully and supported so well and have great capacity to start with, not only achieve, but continue to grow. It’s very easy to criticize tenure, but there are reasons that teachers are tenured.
Ross Abrams: There have been times in my classroom when I’ve been very successful doing one thing with one particular group, and then, in the next group, I have three kids who are dyslexic, and thus I am not as highly effective because this is new for me. But when you get a system where your name is going to be in the newspaper as not as effective, guess what classroom I would desperately try not to teach? Yet that is the class I want to be in most, because it’s new and those are the kids that I want to help empower.
Louis Wool: See how he articulates the disconnect? You want to serve all kids well, but you’re dis-incentivizing teachers because they are going to be judged unfairly. Or if you work in a district where you have a high ESL population where kids don’t come with the same degree of readiness, what is the incentive? We want our best and brightest to go to these places and make a difference, yet we are setting up a structure that is going to encourage them to do the opposite.
And no disrespect to charter schools, but that is another failed idea. You take a place like Mount Vernon where kids don’t have enough resources, and you incentivize parents who are probably the most proactive to take their kids out of the public schools and take the resources with them. We all acknowledge there are issues that need to be addressed. But the systems that are being perpetuated are going to damage everyone.
WM: It sounds so depressing.
Michael McGill: Ask teachers what it feels like to be a teacher today, and many would say they feel really embattled, demoralized, depressed.
Scott Nelson: You wouldn’t hear that from private school teachers. We’re not under attack by politicians and taxpayers.
Ross Abrams: One more thing we should bring up: most affluent school districts have PTSAs or education foundations that offer a significant resource from within the school. We offer a lot of grants to teachers, and that is not happening at other schools.
Scott Nelson: What percentages of students get free or reduced lunch in Harrison?
Louis Wool: District-wide, about seven.
Scott Nelson: At the charter school in the South Bronx, it’s eighty-two percent, and you are getting $13,000 per student to educate them.
James Langlois: So much of your funding is determined by local taxpayers, and it is not just the wealth of the people in the community, but it’s also how much of a commercial base you have, etc. The current commissioner is quite eloquent about the fact that he believes that it is an inequitable system and far more of the money should be going to the less well-resourced districts. There is a formula that somewhat attempts to modify that discrepancy, but it doesn’t go very far, and part of the reason that it doesn’t go very far is that the state legislature is heavily controlled by people from Westchester and Long Island, and their biggest issue— their biggest political issue, what gets them elected—is school aid.
Michael McGill: One of the delicious ironies of this whole situation is that, several years ago, the so-called Campaign for Fiscal Equity won a lawsuit, which mandated that New York State redistribute wealth so that poorer districts get a fairer share. Then-governor Pataki refused to comply, and no governor since Pataki has been willing to comply with the ruling. Meanwhile, our commissioner now says there should be a single school district in Westchester and that all the money from all the school districts would be pooled and shoveled back out.
What we don’t have is political willingness to comply with the existing law and do what the courts have already ordered. What they would rather do is to create a huge political battle over what amounts to district consolidation, create one humongous school district, which will not actually be significantly less expensive than what already exists in terms of material differences.
Louis Wool: And less effective.
James Langlois: We’d dismantle the highest quality schools. The commissioner is now saying he wants to take money from Scarsdale and give it to Port Chester and Mount Vernon.
Michael McGill: So-called Robin Hood.
James Langlois: There are a few problems with that. One is that Scarsdale residents wouldn’t want to give away more of their money. And Scarsdale residents paid twice as much for a house in Scarsdale in order to send their kids to the local schools. They were buying the education. When people buy a house in Westchester, many are buying the education system.
James Langlois: You asked what the solution is. The solution is higher taxes. The reality is that compared to other nations, we invest far less in education and we should invest far more.
Michael McGill: We say we want great schools and we want them cheap.
WM: So one way to evaluate a school is to look at per-pupil expenditure?
Louis Wool: It’s a variable.
Ross Abrams: I went to Greenburgh Central 7, which in a ranking is not going to be in the top in Westchester. My father could afford to send me to private school and offered to move us, but we decided to stay, and that education has altered me so. And if my parents had looked at the numbers only, I would’ve missed everything. I would’ve missed getting to meet different kinds of kids, learning what it was like to be in a minority in a school district. Parents can look at Regents scores, they can look at average graduation rates, but if you support your kids and you are engaged in their education, they can get a good education at almost any school in Westchester County.
WM: How important is it that parents be involved in their kids’ school?
James Langlois: There are different kinds of involvement. One is personal involvement in your kid’s education. But the involvement of parents in the school district and the involvement of the community in the school district is almost more important. I worked a lot in the City, and most of the parents there are just overwhelmed. We try to engage them, because so much of what happens outside of school has such an impact. About five years ago, I was talking to a kid that I taught in 1966, and I told him what I remembered about him: that he couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag and that I finally got him to be able to write by getting him to write about slaughtering a pig, something he knew how to do; I use that story a lot. He had no recollection of that.
‘You know what I remember?’ he said. ‘I remember that when I came into your classroom, I felt safe. I lived with an uncle who was abusive; he used to beat me up. I would come to school and have this whole sense of relaxing.’ And he was a lousy student.
You never know. At the very heart of the educational experience is a real human mystery—it’s about what happens when adults and kids interact in a way that they literally do not know what is going to happen.