Speaking with an Educator's Voice
Published in TC Today - Volume 32, No. 2
As Deputy Chancellor in the brave new market-driven world of the New York City public school system, Marcia Lyles draws on lessons she learned in sixth grade
It’s the first week of September, and Marcia Lyles, Deputy Chancellor of the New York City public school system, is talking to a small group of new Teachers College students at the College’s Harlem offices in the former Hotel Theresa on 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard.
Lyles, a TC alumna who grew up in the neighborhood and went to P.S. 57 (“I can remember standing on this corner when Castro was at the Theresa and when Malcolm X used to speak outside”), has a gentle, somewhat cerebral manner and—except when she smiles, bringing her entire face suddenly and joyously alive—can seem bookish behind her glasses and elegantly twisted hair. But she quickly draws in her audience.
“I suspect most of you were good students. How many of you had someone who thought you were special?”
Nearly everyone raises a hand.
“Well, I had Carrie Simpson in sixth grade. We each thought we were her favorite, and she still guides my thinking as an educator, even as an administrator, because she managed to know the story that each of us needed to be known.”
Lyles’ own story is that she was 10 when her mother died. She lived with relatives, bouncing around the five boroughs; there was food on the table, but they were poor enough that “moving into the projects seemed like a step up.” Lyles, who attended college at 16, would make good on her decision in second grade to become a teacher, but the way was not simple: like her own mother, she also married and had children while still a teenager. Through it all, Carrie Simpson and sixth grade would be the touchstone that brought her back onto the path.
“I wrote my first short story for her—‘Janie and the Mysterious Island.’ She made me feel I should take it to a publisher.” (As an English teacher herself, Lyles would later emphasize student journals “because when you’re fourteen, you think no one’s had the life you’ve had.”) “But she also said, ‘Marcia, you write very well, but you don’t speak as well, and people will judge you for that before they see what you write.’
“She also decided we needed to speak Spanish. It wasn’t part of the curriculum, she just did it.
“She decided we would take tests for Hunter College High School. Only one girl made it, but we were this East Harlem school, and no one had ever gone there before. I’m not sure anyone had ever even taken the test before. We gave up our lunches for a month to prepare, and so did she.
“She said, ‘You’re all going to college.’ And the college I went to” [SUNY Fredonia—Lyles later switched to Hunter College, where she graduated cum laude with a degree in English] “was the one I got the brochure for in Carrie’s class.”
There are other impressive alumna from that same sixth grade class, Lyles tells the students: Janette Domingo, now Dean of Graduate Studies at John Jay College; Alexis De Veaux, Chair of Global Gender Studies at SUNY Buffalo and former poetry editor of Essence magazine; and Linda Phaire-Washington, a biomedical researcher who now heads the federal government’s Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. All of them living proof that a teacher like Carrie Simpson has “awesome power and awesome responsibility.
“Your job will take much more than just building literacy and numeracy,” Lyles says. “Every kid needs an advocate whose task is to help that child succeed. Every child has to be loved. Every child has a story that has to be known—we have to pull it out of them. There’s no greater charge.”
An Unorthodox Pairing
Last June, when Chancellor Joel Klein announced at a Department of Education meeting that he was naming Marcia Lyles his second in command, the room erupted in cheers. At 58, Lyles has worked at every level in the City’s public schools, from English teacher to award-winning superintendent and—briefly, before her sudden elevation to the Deputy’s job—CEO of one of the system’s new all-purpose School Support Organizations (SSOs). She is widely liked and respected for what all agree is a genuine commitment to making public education work for all kids.
Yet for some observers, Klein’s choice of Lyles—whom he called “an extraordinary leader and educator”—was an eyebrow-raiser. The Chancellor is an education outsider who has pushed many veteran “educrats” out of the system in favor of advisors drawn from the ranks of law and finance. And where Lyles talks of educating “the whole child,” Klein is known for instituting a uniform reading and math curriculum, increasing the frequency of standardized testing and making student promotion dependent on test scores.
And yet, the two may be more alike than different.
“Marcia has enormous capacity for intense, hard work, and she doesn’t tolerate fools lightly,” says Ira Weston, Principal of Paul Robeson High School for Business and Technology in Brooklyn, who served for six years during the 1990s as Lyles’ assistant principal when she ran that institution. “She once said to me, when I complained about someone being unfriendly, ‘I don’t mind if people aren’t warm and fuzzy as long as I know that they’re working for the kids.’ And she’s a stickler for standards and rigor—she takes no prisoners in that area.”
But as Lyles herself tells it, her connection with Klein goes deeper than rigor.
“I didn’t know Joel Klein well before I took this job,” Lyles said one afternoon during an interview at Tweed, the former New York City courthouse that became home to the Department of Education in 2002. “But one of the things the Chancellor and I have both said is that the quest for equity drives us. And that is what I respect about him more than anything. I mean, he’s got a wonderful vision, and he’s inspirational and he moves people. I know and firmly believe that he wants equity for every child—well, sometimes we disagree about how it’s going to be achieved, but I do know what his intention is.”
As one of the few career educators on Klein’s leadership team, Lyles says she feels “this moral imperative that I keep an educator’s voice in the mix.” For example, she’s had a strong hand in recent changes to the City’s Gifted and Talented (G&T) programs, which have long been criticized by some as a sheltering ground for middle-class white children. Under the old system, there was no cut score on the tests children were given to qualify for G&T; typically, schools admitted enough kids to fill all the spaces in their programs. In wealthier neighborhoods, like Manhattan’s Upper West Side, that meant demand outstripped supply, while in poorer neighborhoods, G&T programs either went unfilled or never were created in the first place.
Under the new rules, approved in December, there is now a qualifying cut score that will be strictly enforced; all kindergartners will eventually be administered the Bracken Skills Readiness Analysis, one of the instruments also used to test for G&T; and Lyles and her team are traveling the length and breadth of the City to spread the word that G&T programs exist.
“Because, I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe that there aren’t G&T children in every community and every area,” Lyles says. “A lot of it is access to information, because there are certain places where the parents are knocking on the door—‘Where’s the test?’—and other places where they don’t even know this kind of program is available. So you have to prime the pump.”
Heart and Mind
As her story about Carrie Simpson suggests, Lyles’ methods as an educator are an intense blend of theory and experience. In her 1992 Teachers College dissertation, titled “We Have Always Lived in the Castle: How the Politics and Culture of a School Affect Restructuring,” Lyles wrote about small learning communities in public schools and how they could function as a tool both to personalize learning and help bring together teachers and students from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. She knew whereof she spoke: a few years earlier, as the assistant principal of Erasmus High School in Brooklyn, she had grouped ninth graders and their teachers into themed academic “houses”—partly to boost achievement (the school had a dropout problem), but partly to defuse tensions between longtime faculty members and a new influx of Caribbean students at the school.
“We had teachers who had been there 15 or 20 years, some of whom had even graduated from Erasmus, and there was a big disconnect between them and the students in front of them. Some of them were saying, ‘Well, if we only had good students.’ I said, ‘You have to value them for who they are.’”
Houses also figured prominently in Lyles’ principalship of Paul Robeson. Located in Brooklyn’s Bedford–Stuyvesant district, across from one of the most dangerous housing projects in the City, Robeson was created in 1986 around a vision of individualized learning and collaboration with the community. However, by 1990, when Lyles arrived, the number of students had nearly quadrupled, the building was in serious need of renovation and a much ballyhooed corporate partnership with Salomon Brothers was not going well.
Lyles led faculty on field trips to Philadelphia to see how prototypical “learning schools” there made use of time and space. She instituted a new program in which eighth grade students took four subjects for eight weeks, meeting for double periods every day with the same teachers, and then flipped over to another set of classes under the same arrangement. The program won the Redbook Award for best instructional practice. And she served notice to the school’s corporate partner that things needed to change.
“One day we were meeting with them, and their people were saying, ‘So these are the goals,’” Weston recalls. “And Marcia said, ‘Whoah, hold on a minute, are you assuming that we don’t have goals?’ Not long after that, they made a promotional video for us to recruit kids from middle schools, which was nice, but at one point in it they quoted one of our students saying, ‘We’re so glad Salomon Brothers adopted us.’ And Marcia said, ‘No. Cut.’ Her point was, this is a partnership, and we’re giving our resources and our kids, so no, we’re not just lucky, it’s a two-way street. And I love that she did that.”
Prodding the Troops
In January, Lyles visited I.S. 349, a middle school in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, for one of what she calls her “drive-bys”—an hour of sit-down with the principal, a whirlwind tour of the classrooms, and some quick chats with staff and students. These aren’t “enforcer” sessions—under Klein’s latest reorganization, principals are essentially handed a budget and given free rein to choose the help they need for as long as their students meet improvement targets. That’s made the job of Deputy Chancellor less about monitoring performance and compliance and more about supporting (and thus, marketing to) principals as clients—and yet the position clearly still demands someone with the gravitas to do both.
I.S. 349 would seem to exemplify that challenge. With a student population that’s 84 percent recent immigrant, 349 is part of a citywide initiative that’s targeting low-performing middle schools. In 2004, it was also designated a “SURR” (School Under Registration and Review) based on its students’ scores.
At the same time, though, things have been looking up. Last year, under a new principal, Rogelis Parris, a little over half of the students achieved a year’s growth in reading and just under half made the same gain in math. As a result, 349 earned a “B” on the City’s controversial new school report cards, which are weighted primarily to recognize an institution’s progress from where it started the year. Meanwhile, the halls and classrooms are spotlessly clean and, for the most part, orderly; children wear uniforms, and their artwork and writing is on display everywhere. Parris has used his new autonomy to put a dentist in the building, hire new teachers in drama, music and the fine arts, and take kids on more trips to museums, libraries, Rockefeller Center, even skating and bowling—an approach reinforced by a recent professional development seminar at Tweed, which he attended at Lyles’ invitation.
“It let me know we’re on the right path,” he said before Lyles arrived. “It’s really important to me, especially given that we’re a SURR school thinking strictly in terms of student performance, to honor other kinds of achievement. It’s not right to just look at José’s reading scores after he’s been in the country for just two years and say, ‘He’s a low 2—there’s nothing more to him than that.’ [Scoring on the City’s tests ranges from a low of 1 to a high of 4.] As a kid, I came here myself from Panama, to this very district, and in seventh grade I was reading on a third-grade level. I became who I am over a period of time. So it’s not where you’re at, but how you’re moving. And I think Dr. Lyles really believes in that.”
And indeed, when Lyles arrived a few minutes later, she found much to praise. She jokingly demanded to know why Parris hadn’t posted his report card score on the wall of his office. She was pleased that he had replaced the old “one-armed bandit” desks in many of the classrooms with modular tables that allow kids to work in groups around a single surface; that teachers were posting photos of their kids outside the classroom doors; that Parris had organized his sixth and seventh graders into houses; and that many of the teachers in the houses were “looping”—that is, sticking with the same students for two years in a row, a practice that many believe boosts student achievement.
And yet, in a pleasant, mock-schoolmarm way, she made it plain that she was looking for more.
“I see from your progress report that you’re not offering any Regents-level courses—and that you indicated you didn’t want any help with that,” she said, shaking a finger at him. “I really want you to think about that, because I’ve looked at your scores, and you’ve got kids who are moving.”
Lyles also zeroed in on test scores posted in the room that houses the school’s inquiry team, which focuses on helping a small group of low-achieving students who show promise for improvement.
“Here’s your challenge,” she said, pointing at a column of figures. “You have very few Level Ones in eighth grade, but that’s partly because of the promotion policy. [Kids who score Level One in seventh grade can sometimes appeal or earn a promotion to eighth grade through summer school work.] When those kids take the tests in March, a lot of your Twos are going to drop back down.”
She urged Parris to canvass students in the school to see how many had ever thought about going to college—or of even attending a high school outside their neighborhood. She praised the samples of student writing posted in one classroom but wanted to see multiple drafts of the same pieces on display “to show students taking responsibility for their own growth.”
Even the chess club came in for some tweaking. Stopping in front of its bulletin board, she pointed at a newspaper clipping with a picture of Maurice Ashley, who had recently become the nation’s first black grandmaster.
“His wife, Michelle, teaches at a public school near here,” she said. “I bet you could talk to her, and get him to come here.”
When the visit ended, Lyles and Parris exchanged a hug, and she handed him a book of poems by Maya Angelou.
“Read the one titled ‘Continue,’ which she wrote about Oprah,” she told him.
Afterward, assessing what she’d seen, Lyles said, “He clearly has a vision. There’s a good feel that the place is moving in the right direction—and believe me, there are some schools you walk into where you don’t get that. But there needs to be more rigor, because—bottom line—his scores still need to come up.”
Coming Full Circle
There is a postscript to Lyles’ story about her sixth grade teacher, Carrie Simpson.
In August, prompted by a reunion with her old classmate, Janette Domingo and aided by the miracle of Google, Lyles tracked her old teacher down. Simpson, now 76, was still working in education, as a public school leadership consultant for the Lorraine Monroe Leadership Institute. It turned out that she had become a principal after her teaching days and had served under Lyles when Lyles was superintendent of Region 16, once even standing in a crowded room to listen to her speak.
“She looked so familiar, but I don’t know the married names of my students, and she was Marcia Pope back then,” Simpson said, in a phone interview. “It’s the most fantastic story, because this was a woman I had been admiring, and I had heard that so many principals admired her.”
Simpson said that Lyles had “blossomed unbelievably” during that year in sixth grade, but that “she was just waiting to get there, to come to the place I was in. I really believe that when students are ready, the teacher will come.”
Was young Marcia Pope still recognizable in the Deputy Chancellor of today?
“Oh yes, she hasn’t been changed by working at this high level. She’s risen to the occasion as a whole person. She’s not on a stage. She’s the real thing, and that’s a compliment that not many can be paid.
“She is a shining star,” Carrie Simpson said. “She’s living proof of what young people can do.”