Frances Vasquez discusses the success she's been able to produce as a Bronx principal.
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GUEST: Frances Vasquez
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Sidney Shamberg had a most interesting column in The New York Times not so long ago, one dealing with Ronald Reagan’s attitude toward American education and the federal government’s responsibility, or perhaps one should say its lack of responsibility, for providing the funds and the leadership to improve our schools. Shamberg called this piece “Voodoo Education”, referring to Mr. Reagan’s approach to the tide of mediocrity that still another national commission now says characterizes our schools. Shamberg recounted from a news conference President Reagan had used to praise the young woman who is our guest today on THE OPEN MIND, Ms. Frances Vasquez, the Principle of Morris High School in New York’s blighted South Bronx. Drawing from a Time magazine article about the enormously successful leadership Ms. Vasquez has brought to her school and to her students, the president used her educational rags-to-riches story, and others too, as an indication that as in the old Horatio Alger stories of yesteryear, pluck and luck, hard work, enterprise, determination and dedication are what is needed to turn things around educationally, not federal funding, or what the president considers federal intrusion in our public school system. That’s what Shamberg meant by “Voodoo Education”. But we ought to ask Ms. Vasquez what it’s all about, because she, after all, is one of those who have worked these educational miracles.
Thank you for joining me today. And let me ask you what your reaction has been to this wonderful fuss and feathers about your school, the way you’ve conducted it, the recent commission on excellence in education, and so on?
VASQUEZ: Well, obviously it’s been very exciting. We at the school are particularly pleased because something in the south Bronx is being looked at in a positive sense. But in actuality, I do not personally think that the president intended for us to believe that the federal government should totally divorce itself from education. I really don’t. In fact, his own blue ribbon commission, his Panel on Excellence in Education, clearly delineated the role that they feel the federal government should take. And I think, number one is that the federal government should be pointing out the issues that are national concern; pointing them out, promoting them, pushing for them. And I think this very Commission’s recommendations should be included in this category. If, for example, we are in a situation where there’s such mediocrity, there are such glaring deficiencies in our system that in fact the national economy and the country’s very security are being compromised, then certainly we can’t expect that the federal government will pull away and say, “It’s not our concern”. We have a situation where we certainly need stimulation by the federal government. Right now, there are 35 states in this country that demand one year of mathematics in order to get a high school diploma. Thirty-six states ask for one year of science. Believe it or not, in only eight states do we have the state mandating that foreign languages even be offered, much less taken. So that obviously we’re going to need, if we want to see any kind of change in an acceptable framework of time, push from the federal government. That’s one aspect.
The commission also recommended very clearly, his own commission, that they expect the federal government to assist and subsidize with funding when it comes to dealing with the disadvantaged, the minority, speakers of English, the gifted, the talented. So that they did indicate what role the federal government should take. And quite obviously there are things that require money. I mean, there are n o two ways about it. Even if you talk about something as basic as the hiring of teachers. If we want to hire more teachers to reduce class size and ultimately have better results, you need money.
HEFFNER: Don’t you think though that a great many of us would have come away from that press conference with the feeling that the president was saying, ‘Hey, there’s a young woman who has, by her own strength, her own brute force, if you will, really turned things around. And she has done it without our meddling. She’s done it without massive infusions of federal aid”. Don’t you think that was the message?
VASQUEZ: Well, in part, yes. He’s saying that there’s more to improvement than money. And I totally agree. I think that there are a series of things that can be done right now in every school that really do not require an immediate outlay of money. I agree with him there.
HEFFNER: Yeah. Now don’t you think there’s something to the point that when there are funds and more funds and more funds, or the promise of them, we don’t do what we need to do? We don’t pull ourselves up by the bootstraps?
VASQUEZ: It’s very possible.
HEFFNER: What about in your own school? You’ve done without.
VASQUEZ: Well, we’ve become experts at scrounging. We beg, we borrow, we write proposals. In fact, that’s what started all of the recognition: a Ford Foundation proposal that we wrote, as we do many others. You have to learn how to do this. But, as I said, in addition to matters that require money, there are many things that you can do and should do that don’t necessarily require that much money.
HEFFNER: Why do you think we haven’t been doing that around the country? You’ve done it. The President singled out two other schools.
VASQUEZ: Um hmm.
HEFFNER: One in Texas, one in California. Why haven’t we generally been doing this? What’s the matter with the school people in this country?
VASQUEZ: Well, I’d like not to say “what’s the matter with the school people”, but…
VASQUEZ: …perhaps say…Well, there are lots of reasons for it. I think it all started in the 60s when there was a general decline in the society’s attitudes towards school and what we were doing. Everyone was working just a little bit less. We were getting away from the basics and doing more of electives in subjects that were not quite as difficult as before. There was a general decline in the discipline. All of these things, put together, helped to have a decline in education in this country. But I think we’re reversing now. Slowly, but we are.
HEFFNER: What signs are there, beside your own school and the other two schools that the President mentioned?
VASQUEZ: Well, I think we are looking at basic skills much more carefully. And if you go into schools that are successful, you’ll find that this is one of the conditions you’ll find. This is something that’s in common with successful schools: a structured program for attacking basic schools. It’s not hit and miss. It’s planned. And I think that the SAT scores are an indication. In 1973 to ’80-81 we had a decline; ’80-81 we finally leveled off a bit. The year following there was a slight rise. Nationwide we saw an increase of about two percent in the verbal and one percent in the math. However, in New York City, you saw an increase of 11 percent on the verbal and about eight percent in the math. That was no accident. I mean, this happened because we gave very well-planned and very careful attention to improving basic skills.
HEFFNER: What stands in the way of improving basic skills around the country on a scale that you would cheer about?
VASQUEZ: What stands in the way? I think, first of all, starting with attitudes. I know that when I first began this, you come across people who will tell you, for example, “I’m a science teacher. I’m a teacher of science. I can’t be bothered with reading and math”. And you’ve got to overcome this. You’ve got to tell them, “You’re not a teacher of science; you’re a teacher of children. And you’ve got to teach whatever is necessary for them to learn”. And then it becomes a question of training, of staff development, and teaching the teacher. The teacher may say, “Okay, I’ll do it. How?” And there has to be someone there to give him guidance. And it could simply be teaching him how he could, for example, integrate writing into an everyday lesson. Now, in my school it’s a policy, it’s mandated that in every lesson, every period, every department, there must be an opportunity for children to express themselves in original, complete sentences. We went through a whole period there where we did nothing but multiple choice, check the right answer, circle it, underline it. We weren’t writing. And this was nationwide; not just in New York City or in any other urban city. So that it takes training. And then other things that are so basic, and as far as I’m concerned, homework. I remember seeing situations where you’d go in and there was no homework assigned, or the homework would be: study, read chapter three tonight, watch such-and-such a television show. And in my book, none of these are acceptable homework assignments. But it becomes a question of setting a policy, teaching people how to do it, and then monitoring to see that it’s enforced.
HEFFNER: I’ve heard people say that one of the great problems now in trying to play this catch-up game is that there was such a long period of time in which basic skills were not sufficiently, not adequately taught, and those who teach now are not well enough grounded in those basic skills. Is that a fair statement?
VASQUEZ: It’s a possibility. It depends on the school and the staff. In my situation, for example, I have an older staff, a stable staff. And yet I know of schools that are new schools that have much younger people. And what you say just may very well be true.
HEFFNER: How do we get out of that one?
VASQUEZ: With great difficulty. Here it calls for even more supervision and more training and more monitoring of what teachers are doing.
HEFFNER: All of which, I gather, costs money.
VASQUEZ: Not necessarily.
VASQUEZ: There are situations where you have full staffs of supervisors, yet they have not been trained themselves, they’ve not been obliged themselves to spend the majority of their time in classrooms and dealing with teachers.
HEFFNER: Well, you know, that brings us back to Shamberg’s voodoo education.
VASQUEZ: Uh hmm.
HEFFNER: Are we really talking about a President who has imposed upon the school system an impossible burden? Are we talking about a man who has said, “Look, let’s get to it. There are enough resources in the machinery we have now working for us to be able to do the job that needs to be done”.
VASQUEZ: Well, I tend to think it’s the latter. Or at least we should begin with that. Because if we’re going to sit around and wait for individual states to make changes in their requirements, we’re not going to have any improvements for several years. I mean, it’s a very long and arduous process. And unless we begin to do whatever little we can immediately, we won’t see improvements.
HEFFNER: All right. Let me ask you: You’re a realistic person; what kind of bet are you willing to make about whether we will or will not do that?
VASQUEZ: Well, I think it’s up to the individual communities, the individual boards of education and chancellors. I, in this city, in New York City, we have seen very definite improvements. And I think you can go back and you can credit the chancellor, Chancellor Macciarolla who came in and he put people on notice – certainly the supervisors – that they will perform or else. And I think it was wonderful. I thought it gave me a great deal of support, and it assisted me in doing the types of things that I wanted to do anyway. But if you have people of that type and of that caliber, and of that mettle in charge, then you will have change.
HEFFNER: It’s funny, because in a sense, you’re saying what the President said.
HEFFNER: And in a sense, there were those who leaped or leapt upon…
VASQUEZ: Jumped all over him, is that what you’re trying to say?
HEFFNER: Jumped all over him, but jumped to your situation, and said, “By no means was this just an example of what this wonderful young woman can do and did do. Rather, she used the resources that were made available to her, indirectly perhaps, by the federal government, and the notion that the federal government should get its nose out of our schooling system was nonsense”. And they used you, not as an indication of what determination can do and resourcefulness can do, but as an example of the kind of person who squeezes out the resources the federal government has put in and makes them work in the way she wants them to work. Now, federal government: Do we need more? Do we need a continuation of the kinds of assistance that the federal government has provided education? Or can we do with less and less from Washington?
VASQUEZ: Well, I always say that when you get ten cents worth of federal money or government money, you have ten dollars worth of paperwork. That’s the truth. Because I’ve been very active in writing proposals, getting them, and I know the kind of monitoring and reports that are involved. That we can do with less of. But otherwise, I would say no. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying in any way that you don’t need money. There are things that we should be doing and have to be doing for the good of this country that require money. I think first and foremost, if we want to get teachers of a better caliber, more qualified people, we’re going to have to pay for it. Teachers who have been working for 12 years are only averaging $17,000 in salary. And they have to have a master’s degree. Now, why would any young person coming out of college today with any type of background in science, math, or computers, even consider becoming a teacher when they can jump right into a job at $25,000? If we want something, we’re going to have to pay for it. That’s a definite.
I also see the tremendous need for equipment. All estimates, all prognoses indicate that by the turn of the century, literally millions of jobs will be dependent upon people who have a functional knowledge of computers, high technology, laser technology. We don’t have these people right now. We, in the schools, will have to at lest introduce this type of computer and machinery to our students. And I really think it’s going to be a question of the haves and the have-nots.
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
VASQUEZ: Students graduating from schools where they have had experience and they have had some sort of familiarity with them will have a better chance of jobs. That too is something that’s predicted by most of the reports that I’ve read; they we’re going to have two classes of workers: We’re going to have the supertrained, the highly-trained technicians, service workers and professionals on the one side; and you’re going to have those that are nonemployable. Because by that time, the tasks that are less demanding will have been relegated to robots.
HEFFNER: In a sense, you’ve been fighting against this polarization throughout your academic career.
HEFFNER: and that’s what this is all about. Now, again, I ask the question: If you had to make a bet…
VASQUEZ: Um hmm.
HEFFNER: …really, not just pie in the sky by and by, but what kind of bet would you make about the polarization, the dichotomization, the differentiation between the educational haves and those who have not?
VASQUEZ: Well, I think I started to allude to this before. That if the local communities are willing to push hard enough and are willing to get people in there that are going to be tough – and it takes a tough person to make these types of decisions and to push people, to remove people – I remember reading an article in The Times where it, basically it said that Chancellor Macciarolla was boasting that he had removed 60 percent of the high school principals. And it’s true. I mean, there are a lot of people that were there five or six years ago that are no longer there, because the situation was tightened up, and you were expected to produce. And if you didn’t, then pressure was brought on you in one way or another. Now if other communities are willing to do the same, and if the state boards of regents or boards of education, those in leadership positions, are willing, and are willing to get involved and to make decisions that are not necessarily pleasant, I think we’ll see improvements.
HEFFNER: And the educational bureaucracy itself, in terms of unionization? What role do unions play in the potential for making this jump, this quantum jump that you want to make?
VASQUEZ: Well, certainly the UFT in New York City is a very strong union.
HEFFNER: I mean around the country.
VASQUEZ: In any city. I’m pointing to the UFT because it has a reputation for being particularly strong, and it’s got many, many members. Yet we’ve made many changes in New York City. So I think that with reasonable approaches we’ll be able to get them to cooperate also, because after all, I like to think that we’re dealing with professionals and that they too want to see improvements and results. And I think we can.
HEFFNER: You say “I like to think that we’re dealing with professionals”.
VASQUEZ: Yes, we are.
HEFFNER: Can I bet on that? Will you bet on that?
VASQUEZ: If the people in the leadership positions push, they will get the results. It’s the same thing that I tell my teachers, and that you’ll find in any schools that are succeeding: Their level of expectancy. If you’re walking in thinking it’s not going to happen, it won’t. but if you’re pushing for it to happen, and you keep on working towards it, you will have improvements.
HEFFNER: Which means I really can’t get you to be a prophet here.
HEFFNER: Because you keep saying, “If, under these circumstances, under those circumstances, the answer will be this, or that answer will be that”.
VASQUEZ: Will I predict otherwise?
HEFFNER: Uh hmm.
VASQUEZ: No, I won’t. No.
HEFFNER: Tell me, then, about the…it’s fair.
VASQUEZ: Uh hmm.
HEFFNER: You say you won’t; I take you at your word. Let’s talk for a moment, about some of the other themes that one encounters in discussing American education these days: The question of bilingual schooling, bilingual education. Where do you fall in on that? What’s your feeling?
VASQUEZ: There is a definite role for it. As long as it doesn’t become a permanent situation. In my situation, for example, I was a supervisor of a bilingual department. Now, I walked in where youngsters were getting one period of English a day, and I thought that was rather ludicrous. My youngsters in the bilingual program get three periods a day. As far as the bilingual education is concerned, the content areas, the science, the math, and the social studies, they are by no means inferior. They are having to produce not only what the others produce, but they have also to conquer the language problem. They have to deal with English in addition to the vocabulary in Spanish. Just consider biology. Now, to many students it’s a difficult subject, in your own language. Now, try taking a youngster who just walked into the country and throwing him into a biology class in English. Obviously you’re setting up a situation for failure. However, if you have a very structured program – and here too, teacher training is involved – and you have your teachers teaching whatever biology the mainstream youngsters get, and in addition insisting that they master the vocabulary, then I see nothing wrong with it. Right now my valedictorian is in, was a former bilingual student. Five years ago he spoke almost no English. Today he’s trying to decide whether to go to RPI or Cornell. So that it can work, given the right personnel and certain conditions.
HEFFNER: I love it, the way you keep coming back to…
VASQUEZ: Well, absolutely.
HEFFNER: …”It can work, given the right circumstances”.
HEFFNER: But you know, as a nation we have to make a bet one way or another. And you don’t want to be a prophet. I’m not going to lure you into betting. But as a country we do have to make a bet. We have to say, “Look, given the resources we have, and given our educated estimate of the way in which we use our resources, we either opt for continuation of bilingual education or we move in the opposite direction”. Which direction really reflects best and most intelligently the real circumstances of this nation?
VASQUEZ: Well, I think it would depend on the area that you’re in. If you’re in an urban area where you have a tremendous number of youngsters coming in from other countries, it would be ridiculous of you just to ignore that fact. You certainly would not get any sort of achievement. You would have a situation where they wouldn’t be getting much in the way of English, and they’d be getting nothing in the way of content area. Now, what would that accomplish? Now, if it’s a situation where the majority of your youngsters are English-speaking, and you can accommodate them with little problem, then certainly do it.
HEFFNER: I guess the point that many people raise is that you’re catering to a situation that is going to be worsened, not improved, by being catered to. Is that totally unfair?
VASQUEZ: It depends on your results. If I’m catering to youngsters and I can get them into RPI and Cornell, then I will continue to cater. What would I have accomplished by letting the children flounder in the schools and then ultimately drop out? It would become a burden on society in another way.
HEFFNER: So, as a national policy, you say in a sense, “No national policy”.
VASQUEZ: As a traditional program, there are two points of view: We should have bilingual education for maintenance; in other words, we should go into the bilingual program, remain there forever, despite, or regardless of the English-speaking ability. And we have the transitional bilingual programs, where we take them when they first come in, we give them as much English as they need, we give them…without totally ignoring the other subjects that they should have in the high school, and as soon as they’re ready you move them out into the mainstream.
HEFFNER: How do you feel about tracking students, identifying them as of one level of capacity, identifying them with certain skills and certain lacks of skills?
VASQUEZ: Well, if the child is severely deficient, then I think that we’d be doing them, certainly would not be helping them if we put them into classes with children who are on or above grade level, because they would not be able to keep up. They would not succeed. You would only be giving them built-in failure. However, if we’re going strictly by reading levels of math levels, I think there is certainly leeway. And if we put youngsters in and push and try to get them to achieve, I think very often you do. And this is one of the things that we’re leaning towards right now, certainly in New York City, and I am in my school…is to have more heterogeneous grouping. But it takes more in the way of teacher training. Your teachers have to know how they can individualize instruction, how they can draw youngsters in to get them to participate more. And that’s been a problem for years in our school systems. You walk into classes and find that teachers are talking at the students. And I say “at”, and I mean “at”. With very little involvement, and very little opportunity for the youngsters to take this information that the teacher is just spitting out at them, use it, apply it into different circumstances. And this is what we’re pushing for very hard now, and we should be. We should be teaching youngsters how to think, now to learn, how to reason, how to solve problems. Because all studies show that, studies of graduates who by all definitions are better than average students, after a year of being out of school, one year past graduation, they can recall, at best, ten percent of the facts that have been crammed into them. So what’s the point of cramming in facts when it’s going to disappear? What we have to do is teach people how to think.
HEFFNER: Strange. It was that argument, to a certain extent, that let to the softening of educational standards. Not true? That very argument: Don’t teach children facts. Don’t give them that hard stuff – I don’t mean difficult stuff…
VASQUEZ: Uh hmm.
HEFFNER: Don’t give them the hard stuff. They forget it very quickly.
VASQUEZ: There was a lot more happening at that same time. I mean, we were in an era where we were, we shouldn’t do things if we didn’t feel good about them. If it feels good, do it. If it’s too hard, if it’s too taxing, don’t do it. And I think we went overboard in that sense.
HEFFNER: Do you think we can come back on board?
HEFFNER: You did in your school.
VASQUEZ: Yes, very definitely, we can.
HEFFNER: Now, I’m not going to ask you again will you predict as to whether we shall or not. What indications are there that in a realistic sense this is happening around the country in sufficient numbers so that we don’t find just a few spots where an elite school develops here and there…
VASQUEZ: Uh hmm.
HEFFNER: …but rather that we can think in terms of a changing pattern for American education?
VASQUEZ: Well, I think at least now we have an awareness, where we’ve raised consciousness, so to speak. And I think that will lead to more changes. We have, as I said, standards that are really minimal. This must be changes. And I think with all the publicity that we’ve been getting, it might just happen.
HEFFNER: If you leave those standards as they are…
VASQUEZ: Uh hmm.
HEFFNER: …if you don’t improve them, aren’t you at least giving a youngster a chance still to opt into high school and maybe opt into a large public college? And if you don’t, aren’t you thrusting him out and saying, “You’re not going to get by this gate, no matter what”, aren’t you in that way creating a to-class system, or intensifying that phenomenon?
VASQUEZ: I really don’t think so. I think that we will have to increase our minimal standards. There’s no two ways about it. But we can give more in the way of support services to our youngsters. We can do better work in terms of training our teachers, and we can do better in terms of dealing with the individual students. Where is the law, where is it written that we must have four years of high school? If it takes a youngster five, then fine. If it means that he will have a better life and that the society in general will improve, then let’s do it. But I don’t think that we should compromise on the education as a whole.
HEFFNER: You don’t really feel that people were suggesting compromise as much as they were suggesting doing more for more people by letting more kids in?
VASQUEZ: No, they certainly were not saying, “Let’s compromise”. But we have to improve those minimal requirements. I don’t see any way out of it. If we are to see changes in the nation as a whole, if we are to attempt to compete with other countries, then we have to make changes.
HEFFNER: And you don’t think that will leave a large class pressing its nose against the window, looking in, but being out?
VASQUEZ: No, not really. Not if we give the support that we have to give.
HEFFNER: Ms. Vasquez, thank you very much for joining me here today on THE OPEN MIND. I told you it would be over very quickly.
HEFFNER: Thanks a lot.
And thanks, too, to you in the audience. And I hope that you too, will join us here again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.