News and Speeches

In Major Policy Address, Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott Calls Middle Schools “Ripe for Opportunity,” Lays Out A Bold Strategy for Success


The following is the text of Chancellor Walcott’s address as prepared for delivery at New York University Steinhart School of Culture, Education, and Human Development on Tuesday, September 20, 2011.

View the video of Chancellor Walcott's address.

Good morning. 

I am delighted to be here today at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. It feels like I’ve been Chancellor for quite some time. With all that’s been going on, and all the time I’ve spent visiting schools, it’s hard to believe that it’s only been a few months.

The start of the school year is always a good time to reflect on the work that lies ahead to ensure that our 1.1 million students are receiving a high quality education.

So, Dean Brabeck, I want to thank you for hosting us here today, and providing me with a forum where I can really lay out my vision for the future of our public schools in New York City.

Opportunities like this are truly important, because when you are working in a school system of this size and scale, it can be hard to share your vision with the public on a regular basis.

So I want to thank all of the educators and community leaders and parents and advocates who have joined us here today and for your ongoing commitment to working on behalf of our students.

As you know, I am a graduate of New York City’s public school system. My children attended New York City public schools, and today my grandson attends a New York City public school. So the success of our schools system is very close to my heart.

Back in April, when I was first tapped to be Chancellor, I gave a speech at Columbia University’s Teachers College in which I said that one of my first priorities was turn down the volume, to move us away from the heated rhetoric, and shift the tone and subject of the debate to the one thing that matters most: our students.

I also made clear that we were not going to take our foot off the gas with regard to reform.

We have come a long way under Mayor Bloomberg—something that was abundantly clear as I moved from graduation to graduation this past June, and listened to our students talk about their accomplishments and goals for the future.

For more than a decade before the Mayor took office, New York City’s four-year graduation rate was stuck around 50 percent. But in every year since then, the graduation rate has steadily increased, to an all time high of 65 percent in 2010.

And, for the first time ever, the four-year graduation rate of Latino students topped 58 percent, and the rate for black students rose to over 60 percent—an incredible milestone.

These are not just numbers on a spreadsheet.

Tens of thousands more students are graduating our schools and going to college, and many are the first in their families to do so.

More than 25,000 city graduates enrolled at CUNY in 2010—up from just 16,000 in 2002.

There are also many more students doing college-level work in high school.

Last week, the College Board released the latest results on the SAT and AP tests. With more and more students taking the exams, scores nationwide declined. But here in New York City, our students held their ground.

New York City saw a 10 percent increase in the number of students taking the SATs, but we did not have the drops that most districts and states did.

And, on the AP exams, thousands more City students are taking AP exams, and passing rates keep climbing, with black students leading the way.

But this is no time to rest.

Our students are competing with students across the state and country—not to mention the world—and with each passing day the competition becomes more fierce.

We also face outside challenges that threaten to seriously impact our work;

We faced a very serious budget crisis due to state and federal cuts in funding. But fortunately we were able to come together with the United Federation of Teachers and the City Council and reach a deal to avoid teacher layoffs.

While schools still had to absorb a cut in their individual budgets and make hard choices, overall our Principals have done an outstanding job of maximizing those resources on behalf of our students.

We also worked with the teachers’ and principals’ unions to find common ground to help support 33 struggling City schools.

Those schools will now receive nearly $60 million in federal funds to help students succeed, and their teachers will receive new evaluations that provide them with specific feedback on their job performance– and, hold them accountable for student performance.

This could not have happened without us all working together on behalf of our students, and I hope it is a sign of more agreement to come.

We also had to confront the loss of January Regents, which the Board of Regents was forced to eliminate in the budget crunch, despite their critical role in student graduation.

Thankfully, six donors, including the Mayor, donated private funds to restore those January exams for students statewide.

The State still has a responsibility to find a long-term solution, but for now, this generous act means that thousands of students will still have an opportunity to take the January Regents.

Those are just a few examples of some of the things that have happened over the last few months.

While there have been a few bumps, I truly believe that the wind is at our back, and we have reason to believe our students are headed in the right direction.

When the Mayor and Joel Klein and I started this work together in 2002, we set out with one overarching goal:

To create a system of great schools that would provide families—particularly those in historically disadvantaged communities—with better options.

In the past 9 years we have created more than 500 new schools, including 124 charters.

We also phased out 117 low-performing schools.

And last year, a study by MDRC found that the graduation rate at new small schools was significantly higher than at traditional high schools, and that the new schools were narrowing the gap between white students and students of color across the city.

I’ll give you two examples:

In 2002, only one out of every four students who walked through the door at Bushwick High School graduated in four years. One out of four.

Today, the graduation rate at the Bushwick campus is nearly 70 percent—well above the citywide average.

At Harry Van Arsdale Campus, the graduation rate has reached 83 percent, up from a dismal 45 percent in 2002.

Those are lives forever changed.

None of it was easy. And I am the first to admit that we made some mistakes along the way. But what matters most is that we fix those mistakes and learn from them moving forward, always reminding ourselves that our students are counting on us to help them succeed.

Things don’t get easier for our students after they leave New York City schools. Far from it. In this economy it’s becoming more and more important to have a college diploma.

So, the goal for us is crystal clear: we need to set the bar higher than we have in the past, and find ways – old and new – to increase the rigor of the work our students are doing every day.

This year, we worked with schools to set high instructional standards, and charged our principals and teachers with integrating the new common core standards in their curriculum.

But if we are going to meet that higher bar, then we need to ensure academic expectations are high at every level—not just in high schools.

The time has come to take what we have learned and apply it to an area of our system that needs more attention.

Time and time again, in conversations with parents and educators all across the city, one thing constantly comes up: our Middle Schools.

For decades, cities including this one have struggled to address the lagging achievement among middle school students. Like other cities, we have tried different models: K-8. 6-8. 6-12.

Every year since 2006, including this year, our students in grades 3-5 have made steady progress on the state’s Math and English tests. But in grades 6, 7, and 8, the picture is different.

7th and 8th grade students were the only ones in New York City to actually fall backward in performance on the State English tests;

Similarly, on the national tests, taken by 4th and 8th graders in big cities, New York City students have made significant progress since 2002—except on 8th grade Reading. These results should be troubling to all of us.

Now, educators and experts have all sorts of theories about why middle school students struggle academically.

Students hit adolescence;

They suddenly have hormones;

They might have their first crush…or even their first heartbreak.

They move from an environment where they have a fixed desk in one classroom with one teacher, to a locker in a crowded hallway full of students.

And looking back on my own middle school days at JHS 192 in Queens, that was one of the hardest things—navigating the hallways and finding my way to classes.

There is something telling about the fact that I can name every one of my elementary school teachers—but the only middle school teacher I recall is the one who forced me to play the trombone because I had such long arms.

Let me tell you, life in middle school definitely isn’t easier when you have to carry around a giant trombone case.

So while some middle school students become more creative and independent, others become more introverted and isolated.

Maybe they no longer come home and tell their parents how their day was;

Maybe their parents think they are growing up and need less attention;

In reality, all of these things together contribute to the complicated nature of middle schools. And unfortunately, it is part of what makes middle school a tougher sell to some of our teachers and principals.

Last week, at a meeting with middle school principals, one talked about a recruitment fair he was just at:

The tables for elementary and high schools were buzzing with teachers and aspiring school leaders. But at his and the other middle school tables, traffic was slow.

And as he told the story, every middle school principal around the table nodded in unison. There was no question in anyone’s mind that this is a problem for principals as well as for the Department of Education.

This is all to say that middle schools are rife with challenges. But don’t get me wrong: they are also ripe for opportunity.

Each of those Principals would tell you that middle schoolers are inquisitive, curious, and resilient—and the opportunity to help shape their academic experience during such formative years is an incredible one.

So, we have a responsibility to do something about our middle schools.

Think of how much further we could take our students, and how many lives we could change if more entered high school on track for graduation.

I know this is not the first time we have talked about middle school reform.

In 2008, we launched the Campaign for Middle School Success, with Speaker Quinn, the City Council, and help from private funders and community partners. That strategy focused valuable attention on the challenges faced by middle schools, demonstrated the importance of coordination, and taught us a number of lessons about what makes a school a success.

And I want to thank Speaker Quinn, and the City Council, for their continued support for middle schools.

Today, I want to talk about how we are going to build on the Campaign for Middle School Success and on the lessons learned.

A few months ago I started this process by asking my staff a simple question: What makes a great middle school?

As you can imagine, it’s not a simple answer. And if you’ve ever met my staff, you probably know that they don’t often give just one answer!

But over the past few months I have visited a number of successful middle schools to see firsthand what is working.

It’s clear to me that successful middle schools have five things in common.

First, literacy is a central focus of the curriculum.

We know that strong reading and writing skills are essential to success in high school and beyond. Our best middle schools are exposing their students to non-fiction books and helping their students develop critical comprehension skills.

They push students to move beyond writing about their feelings—to consider not just whether they like a book—but to form arguments about the characters and themes, and debate them with one another.

Second, a successful middle school has stable, high quality leadership.

A school leader should be able to choose their own team, forge a common mission and strategic plan, and be given a few years to try and make it work.

They must set high expectations, clearly communicate a vision for their school, and encourage collaboration among educators.

Third, a successful middle school has teams of teachers working together with responsibility for a group of students.

Like any other profession, teachers benefit from regular opportunities to discuss student work and share ideas about how to help students succeed.

At Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters, this strategy is working wonders.

Principal Allison Gaines Pell has organized her teachers around shared groups of students, giving them a chance to know their students better and to focus their work. The teachers develop best practices so that their students can spend more time on learning, and the strategy is paying off.

Fourth, a successful middle school instills strong culture, discipline, and academic routines.

This is one of the areas where our Charter middle schools, like Excellence Boys Charter School in Bed Stuy, are setting a great example.

It can be as small a thing as emphasizing the need for everyone to be in their seats before the first bell rings, or ensuring that each student has their pencils down and is focused on the same point.

The best middle schools address broad areas of youth development:

They understand the importance of teaching respect for all; working to help our students understand their health and emotional development; and instill in them a love of learning they carry throughout their lives.

And finally, a successful middle school has a close relationship with its students and works in partnership with their families.

Students entering 6th grade often come from a different elementary school—they are unknown to the teachers and school leaders, and sometimes they don’t make a connection at the start of middle school.

Perhaps there is an assumption that middle school is just a stepping stone, a gap between elementary and high school, and families do not need to be as engaged in their children’s lives.

But schools that go the extra mile to connect with families find it well worth the effort.

Successful principals, like Ken Baum at the Urban Assembly for Applied Math and Science, a 6-12 school, asks teachers to go out to students’ homes and meet families before the school year even begins.

Others, like Principal Brett Kimmel at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, insist that students lead parent-teacher conferences, allowing students to drive the conversation and pushing parents to get more involved.

There is no one correct way to engage parents and families—but the love and support of a parent or caring adult can only help.

Now, there is much more to the magic of a successful school than these five areas alone.

But I think it’s clear that these five areas are essential, and we will focus on these areas as we move forward on creating better options for families.

And that’s what I want to talk about for rest of my time this morning.

Given the daunting size of our school system, and the large number of success stories out there, the question comes up time and again: How do we replicate success?

Our strategy to move the middle will fall into four areas:

  • New schools.
  • Leadership and talent.
  • Turning around or phasing out poor-performing schools.
  • And channeling resources and attention to middle schools that have shown promise, but need continued support to succeed.

So, let's begin with our new school strategy.

Today, I am committing to opening at least 50 new middle schools across the city in the next two years.

These schools, which will be a mix of district schools and charter schools, will serve areas where there is a high need and demand for better middle schools. And, we will be looking to replicate the most successful models already out there.

In the last few years, new charter middle schools have substantially outperformed traditional middle schools citywide.

In fact, they are some of the highest-performing middle schools in our city.

In the next two years, we will be looking to those partners to open even more successful schools to serve our students. And, to those successful operators who have yet to come to New York City, our doors are open to you.

We will pair that strategy with a plan for opening new district middle schools.

Of course, this requires ensuring our school leaders are of the highest quality, which brings me to the next step in our plan to move the middle: ensuring our middle schools – old and new – have strong principals, assistant principals and teachers.

Each year, we need to fill 40 to 50 middle school principal vacancies—and that’s not including new schools.

Unfortunately, too few aspiring principals plan to work in middle schools when they enter our leadership development programs. Last year, only one Principal from our Leadership Academy went on to lead a middle school.

That means we must do a better job affirming the importance of our middle schools.

So, I am calling on all of us –and all of our leadership development partners – the Leadership Academy, New Leaders for New Schools, LEAP, and others – to find that talent and develop the next generation of middle school leaders.

The same urgency must be felt within our teaching force.

So, we will create a new class of Teaching Fellows to work in shortage areas in middle schools, and create additional pathways to encourage teachers to work in middle schools.

Of course, we can’t have a conversation about advancing student progress without talking about how we will tackle our lowest-performing schools.

As I said earlier, since 2002, we’ve phased out 117 schools, and opened smaller, higher-performing schools in their place.

This strategy, which has been extremely successful, mostly focused on large high schools—but now it’s time to shift some of that focus toward our middle schools.

We will hold our middle schools to the same tough standards we hold our high schools. If a school is failing its students, we will take action and phase it out. We cannot afford to continue letting schools fail when we know we can do better for our students.

Another way we will take action is by implementing an aggressive federal model for transforming struggling schools. It’s calledTurnaround.”

At a school that undergoes Turnaround, students remain in the school, but ineffective school staff are replaced. In their place, we install teacher teams that have been trained and worked together in a leadership development program.

It’s an approach that will foster new possibilities for teacher compensation and help attract top talent to our lowest-performing middle schools. And, it will be guided, above all, by a focus on our students-- with consequences for teachers who fail to help students make progress.

I invite the UFT and CSA to join us in this effort to turn around struggling schools.

These unions have already made significant commitments to the federal models in 33 schools this year—so I hope they will view Turnaround with an open mind.

I plan to apply for money to implement Turnaround in five middle schools starting in 2012-13, and five more in the following year—which would make our schools eligible for up to $30 million in federal funds for our students.

For those schools that have shown promise, but are not quite getting it right—I plan to offer a package of supports to move them toward success.

This may mean training their teachers to work in teams, or helping schools develop a culture that ensures every student and family is well-known to the school.

In the coming weeks, I will be talking to the City Council about how we can use money already earmarked for the Campaign for Middle Success to build on what we have learned and identify schools for additional instructional support.

Another group of our middle schools will soon join a program, already underway, within our Innovation Zone.

Schools will utilize the supports and strategies within the iZone to redesign their schools’ instruction, tailor lesson plans to individual students, and maximize the time students spend learning.

This will allow students to do rigorous work independently and in small groups, and help develop critical relationships between teachers and students.

This robust program, which is funded primarily with Race to the Top dollars, has shown great promise, and will help more schools and students succeed.

Lastly, for all our middle schools, we will be placing a big emphasis on literacy.

We know it’s an area we need to work on, and one of the ways we have already begun is by phasing in the Common Core Literacy standards.

To support that effort, we will be using $15 million of our allotted State textbook budget to buy our middle schools non-fiction books aligned with the Common Core standards.

We know that the earlier we start exposing students to complex texts the better. And it is my hope that by supplying middle schools with these books, and placing an emphasis on critical thinking and reading, we will better prepare students for high school and beyond.

I don’t pretend that any of this will be easy.

We know that people have tried and struggled with the complicated nature of middle schools for decades—not only here, but across the country. But the plan I’ve laid out is bolder and more focused than anything we’ve tried here in New York City before. And we have something to learn from the schools that are getting the job done.

Yesterday, I walked my grandson Justin to school. He’s now in 3rd grade. And in the back of my mind, each step of the way, I thought about the importance of developing a system of great middle schools that I would be proud to send my grandson to; that is something all parents deserve.

It’s going to take a focus on curriculum and literacy, teaching our kids to read and write and think critically.

It’s going to take raising the bar for our teachers and helping them continue to grow as educators.

And it’s going to take parents partnering with us in these efforts.

You may think that as students get older, they need less attention. But middle school is one of the most important stages for parents to be involved.

Now, for some of our students, a school community may be the only real family they’ve got. And in those cases, we must go the extra mile. We must reach out to our partners in the community and across city agencies to support those students, and remember that we are one city, and these are all our children.

Next month, I will be talking more specifically about how we plan to better engage families and community partners and involve them in our children’s education. So, this is the first in a series of speeches I will give to share my vision for our schools.

But let me be clear today: Parents, families, we want your help.

So walk your son or daughter or grandchild to school. Engage them in a conversation about their day.

Talk to your child’s teacher—don’t wait for the teacher to reach out. Be proactive, and ask what you can do to help your child succeed.

It might be checking homework, or choosing a book that you can read together.

These may seem like small things. But to our children, and in particular our middle schoolers, who are on the cusp of learning who they are and coping with so many changes, it can make a big difference.

We will not have met our responsibilities as educators, as parents, and for me now as a grandparent, if we do not succeed in our mission to give every child a high quality education.

So I want to thank you all for being here today. I want to thank you for your continued support of our students and our schools, and for all that you are doing on behalf of New York City’s children. Thank you, and have a great day.