NYC District 2 demonstrates that rewarding merit and hard work are crucial for school success

New York City public schools sent top educators to Baltimore last week to learn how to implement a new literacy curriculum.

Yes, you read that right: Baltimore!

Next we’ll be sending cops to Chicago to brush up on homicide prevention.

The city’s educators chose Baltimore—a city where only 19% of students are proficient in literacy—to learn about “Wit & Wisdom,” one of Chancellor David Banks’ new reading curriculums.

They might’ve been better off simply visiting Manhattan School District 2, which covers the Upper East Side down to Battery Park City.

The heartbreaking educational failures in Baltimore, particularly the staggeringly low reading scores, mean generations of students have been deprived of the simple joy of reading books—and of course, of meaningful employment in any job that requires literacy.

As a mom of four public-school students in District 2 schools, a member of numerous Parent Associations and School Leadership Teams and a former president and current member of the district’s Community Education Council, I well know of its remarkable history and formidable academic strengths.

For decades, educators from around the country, and indeed the world, have been flocking to District 2 to learn from our teachers about our teaching methods.

The year before the COVID pandemic cruelly and unnecessarily closed schools and suspended state testing, District 2 achieved a 75% English Language Arts proficiency rate, the city’s highest.

Student success has been longstanding and consistent.

District 2 teachers and staff were encouraged to aim for excellence and to reward hard work and merit in students, and it resulted in an impressive array of highly coveted schools with innovative programs and incomparable strengths.

The district’s oft-discussed screened middle and high schools were the creation of Anthony Alvarado and were explicitly designed to staunch the 1980s attrition of public-school families departing the school system.

Chancellor Banks is facing the exact same crisis today, as over 120,000 families have fled the city public-school system and kindergarten enrollment numbers plummet.

School closures and mergers are now on the agenda, thanks to lower enrollment.

But instead of looking to the obvious and aiming to replicate the successful methods to attract and retain families, Banks’ team of crony advisers devised a $21 million ad campaign to boost enrollment.

When District 2 actively emphasized merit, hard work and academic achievement and freed schools to deliver their impressive results, families stayed and enrollment exploded.

The boom was so large it required several new elementary schools, and the district even built a new middle school—with the largest student capacity.

Yet when these priorities came under attack from the anti-merit policies of former Mayor Bill de Blasio and his identitarian-obsessed Chancellor Richard Carranza, who replaced good practices with lottery-number admissions schemes and social-justice narratives that pitted people against each other based on skin color—families fled.

Wit & Wisdom, the curriculum city educators were sent to learn about in Baltimore, is one of three reading curricula Banks offered district leaders.

Many educators were surprised District 2 selected it, as it’s not considered the strongest of the trio.

On the other hand, they and parents were thrilled to see the end of the disastrous era of Lucy Calkins’ Reading Writing Workshop, which rejected phonics and left so many families seeking literacy support outside school hours.

Banks’ focus on literacy and his willingness to get rid of an entrenched program failing so many students and families is commendable, but it’s insufficient.

He also needs to realize that one-size-fits-all planning that seeks to achieve equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity will cheat a lot kids and turn away many parents.

The chancellor should ensure that superintendents in high-achieving districts listen to both the departing parents as well as those who’ve stayed, when we say, “end the lottery” and “restore and rebuild honors programs.”

If given the opportunity, students in District 2, and districts all over this city, can and will dazzle us with their skills, willingness to work hard and achieve great results.

It’s our job to provide them pathways to do so.

And that road runs through recognizing, promoting and encouraging academic excellence.

Not through Baltimore.

Maud Maron is a former president and current member of District 2 Community Educational Council and a public-school parent.

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