Thursday, February 28, 2008

ARIS: the super-mugging redux

Last March, we reported how Juice Analytics, a high-tech company based in DC, had greeted the announcement of ARIS, the DOE's superexpensive supercomputer, calling it an $80 million super mugging.

Ah, the sweet smell of a swindle. Don't you just hate it when consulting companies cajole deals with hand-wringing about technology and, especially, preying on clients' lack of expertise?

Teachers are underpaid, hardly appreciated, and overworked. I can only wonder what the half-life is of a system that asks teachers to log on to get information delivered by the "chief accountability officer."

See the latest from Juice Analytics, after we sent them the link to the recent NY Post article reporting on how ARIS has indeed proved to be a super-disaster: How to Feel Better About Your Data Warehouse Fiasco.

Update: In the midst of the budget cuts, the wasted money spent on this poorly conceived and executed project seems even more obscene. See this letter from Councilmembers Robert Jackson and David Yassky, saying that the contract with IBM for ARIS should be cancelled, especially given all the problems with its performance. Hurray for them!

Average Class Size - Are We Looking at the Wrong Measure?

The DOE’s recently updated average class size reports undoubtedly have their share of errors and flawed categorizations at the individual school level. However, these much-awaited reports also offer an occasion to ask a more fundamental question: Is “average class size” a meaningful measure of students’ learning environment, especially in large high schools? Based on class size data from my son’s high school, the answer is a resounding “NO!”

The reasons arise largely from the non-discriminating nature of simple averages and their unfortunate tendency to disguise information when the data is not concentrated closely together. Consider the situation where ten guys who each make $40,000 per year are sitting in a bar when Alex Rodriguez walks in (with his $25 - $40 million or more annual income). The average income of the customers in the bar is now somewhere around $3 million. This example shows how averages are easily pulled toward extreme values (mathematicians call them “outliers”) while other measures like the median (the value of the middle data point when they are all placed in ranked order) stays the same (in this case, $40,000).

A single (and by no means the worst) example from my son’s school’s data will help illustrate the problem and demonstrate why the DOE’s report is so misleading in their favor. Based on the school’s class master list for English 9, the DOE would have reported an average class size of 29.4, with 14 classes serving a register of 411 students. However, our actual class sizes were (in descending order): 34, 34, 33, 33, 33, 33, 33, 31, 31, 28, 26, 24, 23, and 15. What can we say about this 9th grade English learning environment?

A. The DOE’s reported class size average would have been 29.4 (due to timing differences, they reported it as 28.5 as of 1/23/08 - my data is from late February, after the Spring Semester began).
B. The median (middle) class size was 32 (the average of the seventh and eighth classes in the list).
C. The median (middle) student in this group (the 206th student in descending order) was in a class of 33.
D. 90% of these students were in classes whose average size was 31.1.
E. 80% of these students were in classes whose average size was 32.3.
F. 71.8% of these students were in classes of 31 or more.

All of these very reasonable mathematical ways of looking at the data suggest that our school’s 14 English 9 classrooms are substantially more crowded than implied by the DOE’s simple arithmetic average. From a parent’s viewpoint, the picture is much more disturbing than being told the average class size is 29.4. However, we would never know this because the DOE does not release the underlying data from which the averages are derived.

This pattern holds for every core academic course in our school, as shown below (the column labels A – F correspond to the measures in the example above).

Course --------- A ------- B ------- C ------- D --------- E --------- F

English 9 ----- 29.4 ---- 32 ------ 33 ------ 31.1 ----- 32.3 ----- 71.8%
English 10 --- 28.9 ----- 34 ------ 34 ----- 33.8 ----- 33.9 ----- 91.9%
English 11 ---- 30.0 ---- 33.5 ---- 34 ----- 32.8 ----- 33.5 ----- 87.1%
English 12 ---- 28.7 ---- 30 ------ 30 ----- 29.7 ----- 31.4 ----- 46.3%
Global 9 ------ 28.6 ---- 32 ------ 32 ----- 31.7 ------ 31.9 ----- 67.8%
Global 10 ----- 27.0 ---- 30 ------ 30 ----- 30.0 ----- 30.1 ----- 24.6%
US History --- 28.1 ---- 30 ------ 30 ----- 30.3 ----- 30.7 ----- 30.5%
Biology ------- 29.5 ----- 31 ------ 32 ----- 31.3 ----- 32.0 ----- 56.2%
Earth Sci. ----- 26.6 ---- 29.5 ---- 30 ----- 29.7 ----- 30.4 ----- 36.5%
Chemistry ---- 32.7 ---- 33 ------- 33 ----- 33.1 ----- 33.3 ----- 91.9%
Physics ------- 33.4 ----- 34 ------ 34 ----- 33.6 ----- 33.8 ----- 100%
Math B (1) --- 26.5 ------ 31 ------ 33 ----- 29.8 ----- 32.3 ----- 66.1%
Math B (3) --- 30.7 ----- 32 ------ 32 ----- 31.6 ----- 32.0 ----- 58.1%
Algebra 1 ---- 23.9 ----- 28 ------- 30 ----- 26.1 ----- 29.1 ----- 47.3%

These numbers tell me, as a parent leader, that 80% of the students in my son’s school are in classes whose average size exceeds 30 (often substantially exceeding, as shown in Column E) in every single core course except ninth grade Algebra 1. THAT is what the typical day looks like for the vast majority of these young people, and THAT is what the DOE does not want us to know. The DOE’s happy-go-lucky numbers, typically in the high 20’s, only occur because a few pull-out classes of 15 or 18 or 20 have dragged the average downward. The effect in smaller schools is even greater -- the DOE will report a school with (say) 4th grade classes of 30, 30, 30, and 18 as having an average class size of 27, a figure no reasonable person would accept as reflective of that school's classroom reality.

Of course, we want every measure of class size to be reduced, but as it now stands, the measure we are most often given by the DOE stands as the least representative and most misleading through understatement of all the possible class size measures. It is a classic example of a pickpocket's misdirection: "Keep looking here while the real action (emptying your pockets) is somewhere else." Shouldn’t we be demanding a truer picture of the classroom environment in our schools for the “average student?”

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Whose taking the Mayor's cuts? not those at Tweed

While the Mayor claims that his proposed cuts of more than $500 million over two years will have "no impact whatsoever" on our schools, see this Daily News article today: Teachers' furor over slashed budget about what the mid-year cuts are already doing to schools in Queens.

Some examples: larger classes, no money for substitute teachers so students have to sit in the auditorium with no teachers at all, elimination of academic intervention services. See also article in Sunday's NY Times, Citywide Scissors, Bloodletting in the Neighborhood, which reveals the devastating effects on class size and services at a school in Brooklyn, PS. 308.

On the impact on schools on Staten Island see here: Cuts clobber school programs.There's more from principals about the awful choices they are facing right now on the InsideSchools blog.

2. Meanwhile, see today’s NY Post: SCHOOLS COMPUTER AN $80M 'DISASTER' with teachers and principals unable to log into the superexpensive supercomputer. And NY1’s Mike Meenan reveals that DOE now admits to only cutting $15 million at headquarters – instead of $70 million as originally reported.

“There's really frustration that we're not seeing cuts at the bureaucracy level. The number they revealed today, $15 million, is quite small," said [Patrick] Sullivan, [Manhattan rep to the PEP]

The administration has also backtracked on their promise of a hiring freeze at Tweed. Instead, there’s something called a “head count reduction plan.” See Klein stumble on the NY 1 video while explaining what this means:

“Klein says that means taking a hard look before filling an open job at DOE headquarters "These vacancies can’t be filled until we need a critical assessment," said Klein.

Yeah, right. Incompetent administrators, supercomputers that don’t work, massive amounts spent on testing and “data inquiry teams” in every school without access to the data, while classes grow in size and kids have to make do without critical services. In reality, even the minimal $15 million Tweed now admits to cutting is partially illusory, since a good portion of these savings actually result from the failure of the contractor to produce all of the interim assessments on time.

I guess the Mayor is partly right: these cuts are likely to have “no impact whatsoever” on the overpaid “educrats” at Tweed. While in the suburbs, superintendents and school boards are planning to protect the quality of their kids' education by raising property taxes, here in NYC the administration would rather see schools cut back while protecting the bloated bureaucracy and reinstituting property tax breaks.

DOE Plans Billion Dollar ARIS Upgrade

February 27, 2008 (GBN News): The NY City Department of Education announced today a billion dollar expansion of its ARIS computer system. The plan calls for an ARIS terminal in every classroom within the next five years. At a Tweed Courthouse news conference, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein told reporters that the money spent on this system will “pay for itself many times over in creating new efficiencies in the delivery of educational services.”

Critics immediately questioned the appropriateness of such an expensive upgrade at a time of already devastating budget cuts at the school level. However, a high level DOE official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told GBN News that once the new system is on line, it will enable the Chancellor to implement what the source called “his final reorganization plan”.

According to the DOE source, the computer upgrade will save huge personnel costs by rendering teachers “obsolete”. The Chancellor is said to feel that ARIS is “every bit as capable of doing test prep [as a human being] at a fraction of the cost.” While teachers cannot, by union contract, be terminated en masse, the plan reportedly calls for a “phase-out” of teachers over a 5 year period through a combination of attrition, retrenchment as ATR’s, and disciplinary assignment to “rubber rooms”. Students, however, will not be left without a human classroom management component. School Security personnel will monitor children’s behavior through their ARIS computer screens to insure classroom safety by making sure that no cell phones are present.

The DOE official told GBN News that some staffers had questioned whether a computer that has reportedly had numerous problems at the school level can be relied on to exclusively teach a million school children in the system. Some aides warned that if the system went down, the children would potentially be left with no education at all. The Chancellor reportedly bristled at these comments. “There are always glitches in any new system,” he was said to have told his staff. “But the alternative would be to go back to the way it was before our reforms. And you all know what that was like. Why, if you people had jobs at all, you’d never be making the salaries you’re getting now. So get with the program!”

Merit Pay for Teachers -- Not Invented Here

The teachers’ union, the school district, and city hall spent seven years collaborating on a public school teachers’ merit pay program, building from a task force consisting of five teachers, five administrators, and (good heavens!) two citizens. Under the resulting plan, a teacher can receive merit bonus payments if his/her school meets its annual goals, if his/her students exceed expectations on state exams, if he/she teaches in a high-needs school, if he/she exceeds personal goals he/she participated in setting at the beginning of the school year, if he/she receives a good evaluation from the school’s principal, and if his/her school is rated distinguished based on parent satisfaction and various other criteria. Veteran teachers can choose to opt in or out, while new teachers will automatically enter the program.

The city’s residents were so supportive of the program, they agreed to a nine-year, $25 million tax increase just to pay for it. And, as Time Magazine points out in its February 13 article (“How to Make Great Teachers”), half of the city’s teachers agreed to join this merit pay plan in just its first year.

Is it Utopia? Oz? Neverland? An alternate New York City in some parallel dimension?

None of the above – it’s Denver, it’s called ProComp, and it’s an object lesson par excellence in sensibility, cooperation, and responsible engagement with the citizenry who pay the bills and send their children to the public schools. No secret plans, no hubristic pronouncements handed down by lawyers who think they are educators, no private financing from a billionaire’s corporate and hedge fund friends as a way to end run public discussion and debate.

A 2004 editorial (02/15/04) in the Denver Post noted, “The system also wisely avoids tying salary increases to CSAP [Colorado Student Assessment Program] scores – which would be a sure death knell with teachers. Instead, teachers can work with their supervisors to create different measurements of student growth.” (Emphasis mine. For a 2008 update, see NPR story from All Things Considered.)

Open process, union and citizen buy-in, flexibility, use of multiple performance measures – is anyone at 52 Chambers Street listening?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Come to Albany, and speak out about budget cuts, class size and Mayoral control!

On Tuesday March 11, parent groups, including Class Size Matters, CPAC, and others are planning to travel to Albany to urge the state legislature to restore the Governor's proposed budget cuts to education, and insist on more accountability and real class size reduction instead of fake proposals that go nowhere. We also need to start talking to those responsible about whether mayoral control should be reinstated when it sunsets next year.

Please come with us - buses provided by the UFT are leaving from all boroughs. It's important that our legislators hear directly from us about what's happening (or not happening) in our schools and letting them know it's up to them to fix it! If you haven't gone to Albany before, it's time you did; if you have before, you should join us.

Just email with your name, school, district and contact info and I'll let you know the nearest bus and reserve a seat for you. We also have position papers available. CPAC decided to boycott the DOE lobby day planned for this week because of the city's own unacceptable cuts to our schools.

See here: Protesting budget cuts, group votes against lobbying with the Education Dept.

Monday, February 18, 2008

One Degree of Separation?

Two weeks ago, I posted an entry ("More Editorial Nonsense in the Major NYC Newspapers") taking rather strident issue with a NY Daily News editorial by one Kevin Carey. In his editorial piece, Carey likened the DOE's plans to evaluate individual teacher performance in NYC public schools using mathematical "value-added" models based on their students' standardized test performance to the multi-variable models used by baseball executives like Oakland's Billy Beane.

At the time, I opted not to mention Mr. Carey's background other than to state that he is an education policy analyst for Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank. I chose not to state that Mr. Carey is not a NYC public school parent or that he has zero connection to NYC public schools (although he has extensive connections to that paragon of progressive, liberal education, the State of Indiana -- my own home state through my college years).

A fascinating new exploration and blog posting by Eduwonkette puts a new wrinkle on Mr. Carey's rather spirited (albeit, off base) defense of the DOE and its educationally ruinous plans to rate teachers based on their students' standardized test results. It turns out, thanks to Ms. Eduwonkette's legwork, that Mr. Carey's employer, Education Sector, has a directorial interlock with, among many others, the Broad Foundation's Broad Prize for Urban Education. Recall that the DOE treated its receipt of the Broad Prize earlier this year as a major public relations coup as well as an ostensible vindication of its policies.

Education Sector's relationship to the Broad Prize is hardly an incidental one. Among the distinguished members of their Review Board is Andrew Rotherman, co-founder and co-Director of Education Sector. Was Mr. Carey's editorial submission to the Daily News intended as a defense of the Broad Prize award to which his organization's most senior manager was a party? Difficult to say, but Mr. Carey's election not to disclose this bit of information certainly leaves one wondering about his sudden enthusiasm for Chancellor Klein's teacher evaluation plans.

As a closing point, Mr. Carey's response on Education Sector's blogsite to my posting was quick to state that I didn't know what I was talking about while repeating the same faulty analysis and missing entirely the point of my criticism. Furthermore, their response to Eduwonkette was even more haughtily dismissive -- three paragraphs of "So what?" accompanied by a picture of a yawning baby -- lest anyone so uncredentialed should dare question a think tank's positions or motivations. Given this extensive web of connections in the ed policy club, it's hardly surprising to find them so suddenly supportive of a Schools Chancellor whose programs are widely reviled among the City's informed public school parents.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The corporate mindset at Tweed: a tale of two Sirs

See this recent BBC article, about a speech by Sir Richard Pring, who to terrific applause, lambasted the corporate mentality that has come to infect the field of education in Great Britain. Pring was presenting the latest report from Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training, (in pdf) that examines how the aims and values of education have come to be "dominated by the language of management." Here is an excerpt:

When education is conceived in terms of inputs leading to measurable outputs, or in terms of targets which constitute the performance indicators against which learning can be audited, or when teachers are seen as curriculum deliverers, or when cuts in resources are referred to as efficiency gains, then education is being conceived very differently from how it was seen only a few decades ago. …. Change the metaphor, and you change the understanding of the aims of education and the values which such aims embody.

A similar perspective has invaded the management of NYC schools during this administration. Joel Klein tries to justify inflated salaries (and a huge PR staff) by saying that they are "running a $20 billion company" and could earn three times as much in the private sector. (Then send them back!) See also all the chief officers of this and that who inhabit the elegant halls of Tweed --a chief accountability officer (earning $196,000), a chief knowledge officer ($177,000), a chief talent officer ($172,000) and a chief portfolio officer ($162,000).

Many parents noted critically in our independent parent survey the way in which the administration viewed our schools as businesses rather than educational enterprises; in the words of one, children are "being treated like they are a business venture instead of like human beings." Now that we have a deficit, management is not surprisingly pushing most of the cuts to the lower level of the organization (in this case, our underfunded schools) rather than making the savings at headquarters, where there is alot more fat to cut.
The resemblance between the corporate mentality in the UK educational establishment and at Tweed is not coincidental; both have been heavily influenced by Sir Michael Barber, former efficiency expert who advised Tony Blair on education and subsequently became an adviser to Joel Klein.

The NY Times carried a puff piece about Barber in August; Sir Richard Pring wrote a famous but still unpublished letter to the Times in response, disputing the article's claim that Barber's advice had led to real improvements in the UK . Here is an excerpt from Pring's letter:

In the last few years, England has created the most tested school population in the world from age 5 to age 18. School improvement lies in scoring even higher in the national tests, irrespective of whether these tests bear any relation to the quality of learning, and schools which see the poverty of the testing regime suffer the penalty of going down the very public league tables. The results of the 'high stakes testing' are that teachers increasingly teach to the test, young people are disillusioned and disengaged, higher education complains that those matriculating (despite higher scores) are ill prepared for university studies, and intelligent and creative teachers incleasingly feel dissatisfied with their professional work. ...'What counts as an educated 19 year old in this day and age?'. The answers which we are receiving from teachers, universities, employers and the community would point to a system very different from the one which Sir Michael nurtured and is now selling to the United States.

What’s funny (or sad) is that few impartial observers in the UK think that the Blair/Barber reforms have been successful, just as there are extremely few in NYC who currently believe in the Bloomberg/Klein initiatives -- so much so that a recent article in Education Next was forced to quote a hedge fund manager who supports charter schools in their defense.

See this semi-amusing tidbit from an interview with Joel Klein published in the British Guardian in 2006:

Klein is a fan of Blair's education reforms and "learnt a lot" from talking to Sir Michael Barber, the former No 10 education adviser. "The UK is performing better on international tests and moving in the right direction," he says. "They have a lot of the challenges we have." He is surprised when I mention the sense of failure, especially in London. "The work just hasn't finished," he says, blithely.

But Barber cleverly keeps traveling to new climes, before his failures can catch up with him. He seems to continually find new people to pay him for his advice, as he merrily trips along. His motto? If "everything seems under control, you're not going fast enough.”

For the entire Pring letter, see Diane Ravitch's posting in the Huffington Post.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Why I resigned by Diane Ravitch

An article in the NY Sun reported on Wednesday that Diane Ravitch, eminent education historian and contributor to this blog, resigned from the board of Education Next, a journal that covers education research and policy.

Today, Diane herself explains in her own words in an Sun oped, Why I resigned. Excerpt:

. I resigned because Education Next published a deeply flawed account of Mayor Bloomberg's school reforms. I resigned with regret because I admire Education Next. I have found it to be the most consistently interesting and lively publication about American education currently available.

That is all the more reason why I was surprised to read Peter Meyer's article, "New York City's Education Battles," which is a thinly veiled puff piece for reforms that have been both costly and ineffectual. As a member of the editorial board of Education Next and as someone who has written extensively about education in New York City, I was stunned that I did not see the article until after it was published.

The article treats school reform in New York City as a matter of conflicting opinions, of "he-said, she-said," rather than as a matter of verifiable fact, even when facts are available.

For example, Mr. Meyer says that the New York Times reported "no significant progress in reading and math" between 2003 and 2007 for city students on the federal test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress and "little narrowing of the achievement gap." Mr. Meyer then quotes a hedge fund manager and blogger, Whitney Tilson, who said that the Times' story was "lousy" and that city students actually made gains in three of the four measures.

But the NAEP scores are not a matter of opinion; the facts can be easily checked — google NAEP TUDA 2007 and look at pages 50-51. Anyone who does check will learn quickly that New York City students made no statistically significant gains between 2003 and 2007 in fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade reading, or eighth-grade math. There were no significant gains for black students, white students, Hispanic students, Asian students, or lower-income students. New York City was the only city (of eleven tested) where eighth-grade reading scores declined for black, Hispanic, and lower-income students, and the achievement gap grew. Only in fourth-grade math did city students make statistically significant gains. If facts matter, Mr. Tilson's opinion is wrong.

…..I admire Mayor Bloomberg but I do not admire what he has done to the public schools. I hope that the state Legislature, when it reconsiders public school governance next year, abolishes the bumbling, tyrannical Department of Education and restores an independent Board of Education, appointed by the mayor.

The school system needs checks and balances. It needs a regular, independent audit of graduation rates and test scores. It needs a leadership in which education decisions are made by educators. Such changes won't solve all of our schools' problems, but they will end the pointless turmoil of the past five years, provide honest information about academic progress, and reestablish the role of the public in public education.

The article in Education Next by Peter Meyer that Diane refers to is here.

College Board Report on AP Exams in NY State Public Schools -- Are We Really Doing Better?

Larger Share of Students Succeed on A.P. Tests,” the NY Times headlined its story yesterday, drawn from the College Board’s release of the 2007 results on Advanced Placement exams (see also AP Exam Grade Summary Reports by State). The NY Post seconded the Times. “The 23.4 percent of students who scored proficiently [achieving a 3 or higher out of a possible 5] on the exams is a full percentage point higher than in the previous year and an increase of 3.2 points over 2002....” The Post accompanied its article with an eye-catching chart featuring the increased percentages (20.2 in 2002, 22.4 in 2006, and 23.4 in 2007).

What was the message readers might have taken away from yesterday’s good news? At one level, the story is actually what it says: an increased percentage of NY State public high school seniors are achieving a 3 or better on at least one AP exam before they graduate. This is a commendable result in and of itself. As the newspapers left things, however, the inference is clear – public high schools appear to be doing a better job educating students. But is this the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

There are several ways a higher percentage of graduating students could be achieving proficiency on at least one AP exam:

1. Higher percentages of students may be taking AP exams;
2. Individual students may be taking more A.P. exams, thereby increasing their chances of passing at least one such exam with a 3 or better;
3. A change in the mix of tests taken may have fostered higher success rates; and/or
4. Students may be experiencing higher success rates in passing A.P. exams.

Consider the first option. From 2002 to 2007, the number of NYS students taking at least one AP exam increased from 42,365 (30.2% of public high school seniors) to 54,182 (35.5%). One could reasonably expect, all other things equal, that a five percentage point increase in participation rate should lead to a roughly three percentage point increase in students passing at least one exam (based on a 60% pass rate), and that is exactly what happened

How about the second option? In 2002, the average NY State public high school student was taking 2.84 A.P. exams. By 2007, this figure had increased 7% to 3.04 exams per student. Had the 2002 test-taking rate stayed constant, NY State graduating seniors would have taken over 11,000 fewer tests, with 11,000 fewer chances for some students to pass at least one exam.

How about the mix of tests taken? Are students declining Calculus, Physics, Computer Science, and Foreign Languages in favor of English, Economics, and Social Studies (even though one might fairly argue whether tests in these subject areas are necessarily easier to pass)? The College Board’s data suggests that this is indeed the case. In 2007, NY State graduating seniors had taken almost 44,700 more exams than their counterparts in 2002. Almost 34% (15,129) of these increased exams occurred in World History, U.S. History or U.S. Government and Politics, with another 5.9% (2,631) from Macroeconomics and Microeconomics. English Language/Composition and English Literature/Composition accounted for another 20.6% (9,214) of the increase. By comparison, Calculus AB and BC made up just 3.4% (1,534) of the increase, and even adding in Statistics (2,606) only brought the percentage up to 9.3%. Biology, Chemistry, and three different Physics exams suffered similarly, accounting for a combined increase of 5,694 exams, about 12.7% of the five-year increase.

Finally, we come to students’ success rates on exams. From 2002 to 2007, the number of students taking A.P. exams increased 27.9%, but the number of students reaching proficiency increased only 25.8%. Across all AP exams, graduating NY State public school seniors achieved a mean grade of 3.03 in 2007, down slightly from 3.06 in 2002, and pass rates dropped from 65.5% in 2002 to 64.2% last year. During that same period, the success rates of Hispanic students fell from 59.1% to 50.1% while that of black students dropped from 32.7% to 32.1%. White students remained largely unchanged -- declining from 68.4% to 68.3% -- while Asian students increased their success rates from 68.2% to 69.6%.

Thus, more NY State students are taking A.P. exams and taking more of them each, and they are also shifting their A.P. focus increasingly toward Social Studies and English areas. All good things to the extent that schools are bringing students to a level of A.P. readiness. However, their exam success rates are declining slightly overall, with marked drops among black and Hispanic students who may be feeling pressured to stay abreast in the great A.P. race for college creds and college cred.

Net net, not a bad picture, but a bit more mixed than the rather simplistic takes offered by our local newspapers. The good news seems to be more about sheer numbers than student success rates, though.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Results of the independent parent survey

Class Size Matters released a report yesterday, exploring how New York City public school parents view conditions in their children’s schools and the system as a whole.

The official parent survey developed by the Department of Education had some glaring deficiencies. It omitted any questions involving the overall direction of our public schools and the key policies put in place by this administration, and relegated critical concerns of parents about class size, testing, and other issues into a catch-all question towards the end of the survey – in an apparent attempt to minimize their importance.

Class Size Matters decided to develop an independent, parent-driven survey with questions covering some of the key areas left out of the official DOE survey. Hart Associates used this survey to poll a representative cross section of 604 parents by telephone. More than 1,000 parents responded to the survey online. The latter group was unusually active, involved, and informed about conditions at their schools and system-wide, with half of them either active members or officers of PTA, School Leadership Teams or Community Education Councils.

Over 80% of both groups of parents said that overcrowding and class size had stayed the same or worsened over the last few years, and over 70% believed that class size reduction was the most important reform that should be taken to improve the public schools. On testing, over half opposed the DOE policy of holding back students primarily based on standardized exams, and felt that the emphasis on the results of such exams caused too much stress for their children. In the online survey, when asked about the new initiative that will pay students for high test scores, parents overwhelming opposed it.

A substantial majority of respondents believed that Mayoral control should be ended or amended by the State Legislature. Nearly 800 parents provided detailed comments on this issue, which clustered around several main themes: In the current system of governance, there was a lack of checks and balances, leading to almost dictatorial powers being exercised by the Mayor and Chancellor. The views of important stakeholders such as parents had been routinely ignored, and the school system had been run more like a business than an educational enterprise.

Other common criticisms revolved around what parents saw as the results of this unchecked, unaccountable power. The DOE had mismanaged finances and spent too much money on consultants and contractors, had embarked on too many confusing reorganizations, and had put in place the wrong educational policies. Finally, many parents expressed the view that schools and the educational system as a whole needed more separation from the political sphere and greater continuity than politics could provide.

When asked about the positive and negative aspects of their child’s school, more than one thousand parents responded in detail. Their comments on this question, as well as on Mayoral control, are a rich source of information about the views of New York public school parents, as well as some of our most engaged and active parent leaders.

For some comments from civic and parent leaders about the report, see the Class Size Matters website . See also articles in the NY Sun and Gotham Gazette about the results.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Public Advocate's Office Requests Data on Unannounced Scanning Program from DOE

A letter from Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum dated February 8, 2008 has been sent to Chancellor Klein expressing disapproval of the DOE's unannounced ("random") scanning program and requesting detailed information on the program's costs, impact on school attendance, and safety enhancement results. Ms. Gotbaum's letter argues that: "This program was implemented without any meaningful public discussion and continues despite growing public concern over the disruption it causes. The DOE has provided little evidence of the program's effectiveness, and there is reason to believe it has done more harm than good."

Ms. Gotbaum's letter continues by noting that "...rather than deterring students from carrying weapons, unannounced scanning actually deters blameless students from attending school...." She further states that parents who disagree or have complained about the scanning program "have been denied a meaningful opportunity to provide their input," and later adds that excessive absences on the days schools are subjected to unannounced scanning are "hardly an acceptable consequence of a program that purports to promote a school environment that is conducive to teaching and learning."

The Public Advocate's requests for information from the DOE are specific and comprehensive, including:

"-- A complete list of every school that has been subject to this program since it began;
-- The dates that scanning took place at each school;
-- A complete breakdown of confiscated and/or cataloged items from the inception of the program to the present including...weapons and other dangerous well as cell phones, ipods, and other electronic devices;
-- The attendance rate at each school on the day(s) the unannounced scanning took place;
-- The attendance rates at each school the day before and the day after the scanning day(s);
-- The average attendance rate at each school where unannounced scanning took place;

-- A cost breakdown of the unannounced scanning program including...the number and cost of portable scanners; their maintenance costs; the personnel costs directly associated with scanning; the personnel costs associated with administration of the program and with other personnel who attempt to prevent children from leaving school grounds or hiding their belonging
s; and the cost of record-keeping, reporting, and program administration."

Ms. Gotbaum's letter is a direct consequence of a posting on the NYC Public School Parents blog concerning the effect of random scanning at John Bowne High School on January 10 of this year. That posting, in turn, came about due to the past reporting of public school parents from Forest Hills, John Bowne, and Benjamin Cardozo high schools at the nyceducationnews Yahoo group ( Many thanks to each of these parents for their timely news postings that enabled us to accumulate concrete information about the negative attendance effects of this DOE program. Thanks as well, of course, to Ms. Gotbaum and to Tomas Hunt in the Public Advocate's Office. We will hopefully have more to report in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

MBP Stringer on class size

Excerpt from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s State of the Borough Speech, February 11, 2008

For years, attempts to reduce class size have been at the heart of efforts to improve the public schools. And the job of school planning is only getting more difficult. With more and more families choosing to raise their children in New York City, and the City’s population on the rise, class size has become a moving target.

So, along with Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters, and Patrick Sullivan, my appointment to the Panel on Education Policy, I recently convened a group of elected officials, parents, and community board members.

Their mission is to:

_ draw a sharper picture of the school needs we have today;

_ become smarter about the demands we’ll face tomorrow; and

_ get a handle on where school construction will do the most good.

Let’s put education experts and urban planners together in a room with one shared goal: to plan school construction before – not after – our children find themselves in overcrowded classrooms.

I’d add another point – we hope to devise policy and legislative solutions that will help to solve the crisis of school overcrowding citywide. Kudos to the Borough President for daring to help us tackle this problem.

The full speech will be broadcast on Time Warner Channel 34 and RCN Channel 82 on Sunday, February 18 at 8:00PM.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Mayor Mike talks about cutting carbon emissions while cutting school budgets

While Bloomberg was playing world leader, speechifying at the UN about global warming, the Daily News reported on the multi-million dollar costs of grading the state standardized tests.

Unmentioned is the cost of all the data-inquiry teams working overtime in every school, and the huge expense of time and money resulting from the periodic assessments, given five times a year -- with bubble sheets picked up to be scored and scanned by private couriers . Not to mention that multi-million dollar boondoggle, ARIS. The DOE accountability initiative, according to its czar Jim Liebman, is costing at least $100 million per year.

This is obscene, especially at a time when more than $100 million is being cut from school budgets in the middle of the year-- with an additional $324 million in cuts planned for next year.

Check out what principals are saying about the effects of these cuts at the InsideSchools blog.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

East Harlem: Schools Closed and Replaced With No Input From Parents

Hector Nazario, President of D4's Community Education Council sent a long letter of protest today to senior DOE officials including Chancellor Klein, over their unlawful refusal to properly consult with the CEC in decisions over school closings and replacement with new schools, including charters.

Here is an excerpt:
...Although there is value in conversation there is greater value in conversations that are part of consultation. The recent series of conversations are about a year too late. The Office for Family Engagement and Advocacy (OFEA) took on the responsibility of organizing the discussions that have taken place thus far. As the department directly in charge of parent involvement, OFEA needs to get to know our district in depth and our parents in particular. It is clear to us that they are unaware of the key players in District 4. For example, 1) some community based organizations, with a long history of serving our schools, were left out of the discussion, 2) to date, there has been no parent representation from affected schools at the meetings, 3) meetings are poorly promoted, 4) some members of the District Leadership Team were not invited, 5) OFEA representatives were inexperienced, lacked interest and comprehension on the significance of the discussion, and lastly, 6) parent coordinators and district family advocates need to be kept informed on matters relating to the proposed school closures in order to address the concerns of parents.

Today, at what was literally the 11th hour, a member of the Office for Family Engagement and Advocacy called me and offered a breakdown of incoming schools. This disjointed effort at communicating is not working. CEC members and parents are not being served like this.
For the full text, click here.

The cell phone arguments by Ellen Bilofsky

Beginning last Thursday, when Justice Shirley Kornreich concluded that that the administration had illegally circumvented laws requiring public review when they tore up Randalls Island to create fields for private schools, then Tuesday, when judges criticized the manner in which Debbie Almontaser was fired from her job as principal of the Khalil Gibran school, and yesterday, when the parent lawsuit against the ban on cell phones was argued before the Appellate branch, the Mayor and Joel Klein have had a really bad week in court.

See this from NY Times article about the cell phone arguments:

One justice, David B. Saxe, remarked that if the chancellor, Joel I. Klein, had been more directly accountable to parents — instead of the mayor — he would probably be out of a job by now.

“I suspect that in a smaller school district, if the school superintendent tried such a ban, they’d probably fire the whole school board,” Justice Saxe said. But, he added, parents “can’t easily fire the chancellor.”

See below observations from Ellen Bilofsky, one of the parent plaintiffs in the lawsuit:

Oral arguments in the appeal of the cell phone lawsuit (Price v. New York City Board of Education) left parents and lawyers feeling hopeful that the five-judge state appeals panel might reverse the negative ruling in the suit to overturn the ban on possession of phones in schools. Although the five-judge panel lobbed some hostile questions at our lawyers, in the end they seemed to "get it": that banning cell phones outright is not about educational policy. For the DOE, it's about control and convenience, while for parents it's a safety issue and the right to promote our kids' well-being.

Justice Andrias commented that his son used to be gone from 8:00 in the morning till 8:00 at night and he never heard from him or knew where he was. (We all figured that Justice Andrias might not have known his son's whereabouts, but his wife surely did.)

But casual comments such as this one fail to take into account how much the world has changed since they--or their children--went to school. Most mothers are at work now, rather than at home keeping close track of their kids' whereabouts, so family arrangements are much more complicated. The advent of cell phones themselves means that there are few pay phones inside schools or on the streets for children to use. No Child Left Behind, among other educational trends, means that many more children of all ages are traveling far from their home schools on public transportation. And the events of 9/11, along with a number of school shootings, have increased parents' concerns about the inability of schools to keep their children safe in school, let alone before and after.

In any case, the other judges gave the DOE a harder time about what the basis for the policy was (the DOE said they didn't need to show any), whether they had looked for any alternatives (we know they didn't), and whether they had looked into policies in other districts.

Civil liberties attorney Norman Siegel waved his silenced cell phone to demonstrate that it was possible to possess a cell phone but not use it. The DOE's refusal to believe that public school students are capable of doing that (while private school students are accorded that right) is an insult to students and parents alike, he said. The lawyers also noted that the number of cell phone incidents the DOE had cited in their briefs amounted to less than two incidents per school per year--not much of a basis for banning them.

For more news on the arguments in court, see the AP story , Daily News and NY Sun.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

More Editorial Nonsense in the Major NYC Newspapers

Can it be that a couple of major NYC newspapers have quietly been acquired by billionaire Michael Bloomberg and turned over to the DOE’s relentless PR machine?

Hard on the heels of recent editorials attacking the integrity of Diane Ravitch (NY Post) and proclaiming the wonders of charter schools (NY Daily News) now comes the latest barrage in these two newspapers' relentlessly right wing editorial assaults on public education. This time, the perpetrator is one Kevin Carey, identified as a research and policy manager at an education think tank called Education Sector.

In an outlandish and mathematically inept Daily News editorial, Mr. Carey regales Chancellor Klein as the education field’s revolutionary counterpart to professional baseball’s number-crunching hero, Billy Beane. To champion the Chancellor’s pilot program of evaluating individual classroom teachers through “value-added analysis,” Carey compares this data driven approach to the one successfully used by the Oakland Athletics’ general manager for assessing and acquiring baseball players. This comparison is fallacious on so many levels, one hardly knows where to begin.

As all baseball fans know, every pitch, swing of the bat, fielding play, and stolen base is a measurable event, now routinely cataloged and amassed in gigantic statistical databases that allow for ready comparison with other players (or with that same player himself) in similar game situations. What aspects of education can be so measured? A child’s asked question, an idea or answer ventured, a reading assignment completed and understood, a new fact integrated into a broader context, an “Aha!” moment of new understanding, a quiz or test passed, a lesson in tolerance, empathy, or social development achieved, an original homework submitted? Of course not. Learning – that is, integrating and imprinting intellectual information in the human mind – is not a visible activity in even the best circumstances. As Einstein reportedly observed, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

True baseball aficionados -- those familiar with the work of Bill James, for example -- also understand that these now-famous analytical models are almost exclusively multivariate regression models. In other words, baseball general managers like Billy Beane use mathematical models that predict a player’s value or performance from many different variables simultaneously, each variable clearly measurable and each contributing a portion of the total “value added.” These models are mathematically complex, fraught with issues of relevance, cross-interference among variables, and time series interdependencies (respectively called statistical significance, multicollinearity, and autoregressive conditional heteroskedasticity) that must be carefully considered in their formation and use.

Contrast this approach with the DOE’s under Chancellor Klein, where a teacher’s ostensible “value added” is derived entirely from a single variable, standardized test scores, that is itself an arguably spurious measure. Imagine baseball owners paying their players on the basis of just one variable, such as number of home runs. Within a few years, it would hard to tell the New York Yankees from the New York Giants – every Yankee would be 6’6”, weigh 275 pounds, bench press 500 pounds, and hit 40+ home runs per year. With players judged and rewarded on any single variable, the game of baseball would be rendered unrecognizable, grossly perverted from the multiple-skill game it is today.

No less is true in NYC public schools, where absurdly disingenuous arguments by faceless “experts” are routinely being foisted upon an unsuspecting public by dressing them in pseudo-intellectual clothing. In reality, such notions merely support the gradual perversion of public education into a form few of us would recognize from our school days. Instead of oversized, home run swatting baseball players, our teachers and schools are increasingly being pressured by this Mayor and Chancellor to produce one-dimensional, steroid-charged test takers otherwise devoid of the broad skills, experiences, and enthusiasms we used to recognize as desired products of public education. Worse, what teacher (in the classic, Socratic sense of the term) is willing to commit to a 20- or 30-year career in such a stultifying environment?

Note also that on the very same day (February 6) of Mr. Carey’s editorial, the Daily News ran a separate piece lionizing the accomplishments of P.S. 62 in Richmond Hill. The secret of Principal Angela O’Dowd’s success? The Daily News knows the answer, and they feature it right up front, in just the story’s third paragraph where it will most likely be read. “We teach them the tricks and the tips of test-taking,” says Ms. O’Dowd.

As if that wasn't already enough, another Daily News piece, also on the same day, described how students at 23 Brooklyn schools are now being "paid to perform" on Citywide reading and math exams -- "up to $500 for seventh-graders and up to $250 for fourth-graders."

Would somebody please pass me the steroids?