Tuesday, September 30, 2008

NY Times vs. Thomas Jefferson on Term Limits

The editors of the New York Times have taken the time to lecture us today on term limits, specifically how they are "profoundly undemocratic" because they interfere with the voters' right to choose. This right, they explain, is the "bedrock of American democracy". They ask the Council to abolish term limits. While term limits are not naturally the focus of an education blog, the concept of four more years of Joel Klein and autocratic rule over the schools is cause for concern.

Since it wasn't so long ago the same Times editors were saying the opposite on this topic, let's instead turn to someone with a more coherent viewpoint on the essentials of American democracy.

Writing in 1787, Thomas Jefferson expressed his two objections to the proposed Constitution in a letter from Paris:

I wish with all my soul, that the nine first conventions may accept the new constitution, because this will secure to us the good it contains, which I think great and important. But equally wish, that the four latest conventions, which ever they be, may refuse to accede to it, till a declaration of rights be annexed. This would probably command the offer of such a declaration, and thus give to the whole fabric, perhaps as much perfection as any one of that kind ever had. By a declaration of rights, I mean one which shall stipulate freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of commerce against monopolies, trial by juries in all cases, no suspensions of the habeas corpus, no standing armies. These are fetters against doing evil, which no honest government should decline.

There is another strong feature in the new constitution, which I as strongly dislike. That is, the perpetual reeligibility of the President. Of this I expect no amendment at present, because I do not see that any body has objected to it on your side the water. But it will be productive of cruel distress to our country, even in your day and mine.

Jefferson saw Presidential term limits as equally important as the bill of rights. What Jefferson feared and what the Times ignores is the grave danger that arises from the intense concentration of power in one man. In our public schools the effect will be all the more profound as the current governance structure of mayoral control already gives the mayor and his chancellor autocratic control.

Any ability of parents or communities to influence the educational policies affecting their children was stripped away years ago. Now the combination of theses two measures, total mayoral control of the schools and what Jefferson called "perpetual reeligibility" of his office will mean every policy and every decision affecting the education of a generation of the city's public school children will be decided exclusively according to the agenda of one man. Nothing could be less democratic.

Education beat losing its best reporters...and now Elizabeth Green

We have lost several terrific reporters from the education beat recently. Erin Einhorn of the Daily News, perhaps the best investigative reporter on schools over the last five years, has moved on to covering City Hall.

Michael Meenan of NY1 has recently departed the station; Mike was the hardest working reporter I've ever seen, in terms of covering hearings, meetings, rallies, and doing his best to cover both sides of every story – including the deep dissatisfaction that many parents and other educational stakeholders have with the Bloomberg/Klein policies.

Today, the NY Sun is closing its doors, which will end Elizabeth Green's peerless education reporting for the paper.

In her short time at the Sun, Elizabeth had one scoop after another: The fact that the Department of Ed had been spying on Diane Ravitch and had enlisted Kathy Wylde of the NYC Partnership to smear her in an oped for the NY Post. That the DOE launched a "truth squad" to scan blogs and list servs for critical coverage. A big cheating scandal at the Ross charter school, founded by the multimillionaire Courtney Ross and located in the basement of Tweed itself.

She also produced a lot of great reporting on the city's vaunted test results, breaking the story that the state scores were likely inflated, according to experts, and that there had been an unusually high level of special ed accommodations in NYC on the national exams.

She led everyone on what will be one of the biggest political stories of this year, the fate of mayoral control of the schools. She was the first to report on the unusually high level of discontent among legislators with the Bloomberg administration's handling of education; and provided leaked testimony from some biggies to the Gotbaum commission studying the subject. Elizabeth was also the first to reveal the likely successor to Randi Weingarten as the head of the UFT, weeks before it was announced.

Many prominent commentators recognized her talent. Eduwonkette called her "the sharpest and most inquisitive education reporter in New York City." Eduwonkette's main rival, Eduwonk, entitled a post about one of her scoops: "Elizabeth Green Strikes Again!"

Alexander Russo, a well-known blogger, included Elizabeth in his 2008 national "Hot...For Education" list, and described her work as follows:

With ability (and ambition) to spare, the NY Sun's relatively new education reporter Elizabeth Green regularly breaks news and scoops her competitors. All the while looking snazzy. Watch out, big-time education reporters. Elizabeth is eating your lunch.

Elizabeth intends to keep reporting on education, and I have no doubt that given her talent, energy and ability to spot the big story wherever it can be found, she will land on her feet very quickly. But it is a huge loss nonetheless to have her missing from the daily education beat – especially now, when we need her most.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Teachers on absent reserve -- the shame of our system

Recent news reports have focused on the fact that over 1,400 teachers are sitting in Absent Teacher Reserve – paid their regular salaries but assigned to no regular classroom duties. These teachers have been "excessed" through no fault of their own, but because their schools have been closed or restructured.

This represents an incredible waste of millions of dollars – not to mention manpower. See these stories: Budget Bind Turns Spotlight on Reserve Teacher Policy (NY Times) and Union, City Dig In Heels Over Fate of Reserve Teachers (NY Sun).

Meanwhile, our students continue to be crammed into the largest classes in the state and some of the largest in the country. I received the following letter from a retired teacher: why not offer these teachers to principals, free of charge, to reduce class size?

Dear Ms. Haimson,
Your group is to be commended for seeking to lower class sizes.

The Department of Education is missing a golden opportunity to do this. Why not take the 1,400 excessed teachers and use them to lower class size? This would make a lot of sense. Instead, these people are being used as day to day substitutes. These teachers, many of whom are teaching for 20+ years, did not get master's degrees and give the best years of their lives in education to be relegated to substitute status.

At first, the public was lied to by the city. The public was told that these teachers were incompetent. This is not true. These teachers received satisfactory ratings and were excessed due to the drop in student population. Next, the chancellor has the nerve to chide these people for not looking for positions. They did look. No principal would hire them since their teaching experience would allow for them to be at a higher salary.

This refusal to do anything for these affected pedagogues is a disgrace beyond belief.

I am a retired teacher. It was my pleasure to have worked with 3 such people at IS 228 in Brooklyn, the school I retired from in 2001. These teachers were excellent. They are caring individuals who were held in high esteem by their administrators, other teachers and students alike. Now, they face a completely hostile working environment. They are being treated in a totally unprofessional manner by people who either rarely or never taught.

Shame on the New York City school system and the newspapers for allowing this situation to continue.

Ed M. Greenspan, retired teacher, Brooklyn

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Tweed hires new ethics officer

NY Post points out that Tweed has hired Samantha Biletsky as the DOE chief ethics officer -- who held a similar job “with deposed, ethics-challenged former state Comptroller Alan Hevesi.”

Also: “Last month, the department hired a former divisional chief financial officer at Bear Stearns - the first of the major Wall Street banks to collapse - as its new chief financial officer.”

Way to go, guys!

Despite all the advertising, the cell phone experiment is a flop

Yesterday’s NY Times features an article about the new institute at Harvard run by Roland Fryer with Eli Broad’s money, which is going to evaluate the results of Fryer’s large scale experiments to pay students for good test scores, also backed with Broad money. For more on this shockingly conflicted enterprise, which appears to violate academic standards on research practices, see Paola De Kock's earlier entry here.

But the Times article also mentions in passing that Fryer’s cell phone experiment – in typical hyperbolic fashion, called “The Millions” -- has collapsed due to lack of funding:

"A separate Fryer initiative, which rewarded 3,000 New York middle school students with cellphone minutes for academic performance and classroom behavior, was discontinued because the city did not raise enough money from private donors to pay for it this fall."

This cell phone experiment got huge attention when it was first announced, and lots of people found it a ridiculous idea, given the fact that cell phones are officially banned in school through the fiat of Mayor Bloomberg. There was also much criticism about running ads by commercial vendors on these phones, that could lead to even more consumerism on the part of teenagers, as well as text messages from the likes of Jay-Z , urging students to work hard and stay in school -- especially given the fact that he was himself a high school dropout.

Yet I wonder if this is the whole story. Did the cell phone experiment collapse for lack of funding? Or was it canceled because the first year results were so poor? Clearly if this project had trouble getting second year funding, the results were probably dismal.

What’s amazing to me is that through the summer, even when Tweed must have known that the project was foundering, the PR office continued to put out one press release after another about it.

See this one released in June: DOE's Student Motivation Campaign Wins 2008 Cannes Lion Titanium Award:

The unprecedented initiative began operating in late February 2008 as a pilot program in seven City middle schools. Approximately 2,500 students received a free cell phone, known as the “Million” for the million-plus City students, that operates based on how well students perform academically. As the pilot expands, the phones will be used as a platform to communicate directly with students through a messaging campaign designed to “re-brand” achievement. Mentoring programs will cement core messages of the campaign while providing students with workplace experience, life coaching, and academic support. The Million concept was developed in collaboration with Droga5, with extensive input from students. The program is entirely privately funded.

But not, apparently, funded enough to continue.

Instead, the cell phone experiment turned out to be a flop -- falsely promoted as a great success.

Like his colleagues at Tweed, Fryer seems to be a terrific snake oil salesman --attracting attention and building support despite the fact that his there is no research to support his large-scale incentive experiments, which already have started, one by one, to fail.

Our Children--Only Pawns in Their Experimental Game

"We will have the willingness to try new things and be wrong — the type of humbleness to say, I have no idea whether this will work, but I’m going to try." --Dr. Roland Fryer; 9/24/08

Perhaps discouraged by the refusal of NYC children to respond to financial incentives by actually performing better as opposed to just taking more tests, Dr. Fryer is returning to Boston to head something called the "Educational Innovation Laboratory" (see the splashy EdLabs website).

Dr. Fryer laments that billions are spent researching drugs and developing airplanes, while little is spent “to scientifically test educational theories.” Thus his friend, Eli Broad, (see picture above) and the Broad Foundation are helping him with the first $6 million of a $44 million, 3-year, “research and development initiative” that will have EdLabs “partner” with NYC’s Department of Education, the Chicago Public Schools, and the District of Columbia Public Schools.

What does this “partnership” mean? EdLabs will “connect” top academics from various fields with its own “R&D teams that will be embedded in these three school districts.” (emphasis added). There, the EdLabs folks will “foster innovation and objective measurement of the effectiveness of urban K-12 school district programs and practices” and “quantify the expected "student return from an investment" (sic.) to help leaders direct their limited resources into high-return programs and initiatives.”

In other words, the cheerleader-in-chief for market-oriented education strategies will evaluate the results of programs devised by ideologically aligned education officials, his own teams or even himself (such as the preposterous scheme to reward student performance with cell phones, which apparently has collapsed.). This passes as “rigorous research.”

When a drug company funds research to study the safety and efficacy of its own product, we have no difficulty understanding that conflict of interest is a problem and means the results are suspect. Imagine what credibility a drug study would have if the research team actually included drug company personnel! And would anyone even entertain the suggestion that the head of Philip Morris USA’s Youth Smoking Prevention Program should be included in any study of teenage smoking?

The incestuous relationships in this new initiative would not be tolerated in a scientific study involving drugs or other products. That the proposal is made with a straight face by people who are smart enough to know better shows the utter contempt they have for our children. This is fundamentally a business enterprise, not a serious attempt to evaluate educational strategies by standards that are applied to scientific research. Calling it a “lab” and putting it at Harvard doesn’t cleanse it of this taint.

And here’s the kicker for all us parents and taxpayers. The Broad Foundation is committing a mere $6 million in “jumpstart” funds--where do you suppose the other $38 million will come from? Need I say it? EdLabs’ sources of support include “the three participating school districts.”

-- Paola de Kock

The need for a better capital plan; how you can help!

The lack of space in our schools – a problem that is getting worse every day in many neighborhoods -- is the biggest obstacle we have to providing a quality education for our kids.

Despite the worrisome economic news, we are going full steam ahead on our ABC campaign for a better capital plan for school construction, so that we can finally end school overcrowding and reduce class size.

On November 3, the Mayor is supposed to propose the next five-year capital plan, so we need as many parents, teachers and advocates as possible to get involved in this campaign – now!.

1- Click on this link and send a fax to the Mayor and Chancellor now!

2- Come to a rally at City Hall on Friday Oct. 3 at 9 AM -- with hearings to follow on school overcrowding. Here is a pdf flyer that you can distribute and post in your school; and here is a one-pager with more information on the need for a better capital plan.

3- There are postcards in every school for parents to sign; the UFT has distributed 63,000 to chapter leaders citywide. Please reach out to your PTA or SLT if you don’t know who the chapter leader is.

Our kids need more schools to learn and grow; and as a city, it would be disastrous to ignore this need, even in the current economic situation.

This principle has support from a surprising source --the Mayor himself. See this excerpt from last Sunday’s Meet the Press:

MAYOR BLOOMBERG: No, we're not going to make the mistake--the mistake that was made in the '70s is …we stopped supporting our cultural institutions and building parks and schools and all those kinds of things. We are going to go ahead and continue those things. …we are not going to walk away from our city. That's the prescription for disaster. When you do that, your tax base leaves, and the rest of this country, as well as New York, are going to have exactly the same decisions to make. The taxpayers are going to have to decide do they want to have a future or not? If they don't want to have a future, then they're not going to have to pay as much now, but if they want to leave a better world for their kids, they're going to have to pay the bills up front.

We want to hold the Mayor at his word. Please don’t allow our kids suffer just because Wall Street made a lot of bad loans. If we don’t build enough schools, this will not only damage our children’s future but the economic future of this city as a whole.

More info on our campaign is available on our new website: A better capital plan.

Monday, September 22, 2008

History of NYC governance and lessons for Mayoral control

Check out the first public session sponsored by the Parent Commission on School Governance and Mayoral control, about the history of NYC governance in our schools, held on September 17 at Murry Bergtraum High School.

On the panel was Diane Ravitch, eminent historian and critic, Jitu Weusi, former teacher and one of the organizers of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville events, Betty Rosa, former principal and superintendent of District 8 in the Bronx and now a Regent. The session was moderated by Pedro Noguera of NYU.

The introductions are a little lengthy (my fault!) but start watching at about ten minutes in and the rest is dynamite.

What's amazing is that these panelists, coming from very different backgrounds and with quite different political views, should agree so profoundly that the current governance system puts too much power into the control of two men, neither of them educators, lacks transparency and accountability, and should be significantly reformed by the Legislature when Mayoral control sunsets next spring.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The absurd NYC school grade system

There is now abundant evidence to show that the grades that DOE awards schools – their so-called “progress reports” -- are meaningless and rely on chance, like throwing dice, because they rely predominantly on whether a school’s test scores last year were above or below the year before.

Sixty percent of the grade depends on so-called “progress”, which means annual gains or losses in test scores, 25% on the test scores themselves, and only 15% on survey results. As a result, this year, many schools went from failing grades to grades of A , and just as occurred last year, some highly regarded schools received “Fs”.

Last year, in a Daily News oped entitled Why parents & teachers should reject the new school grades”, I pointed out that research shows that 30-80% of the annual gains or losses in test scores are random – and sure enough, this is what the grades turned out to be. Last week, Daniel Koretz, professor at Harvard and national expert on testing, wrote:

My advice to New Yorkers is to … ignore the letter grades and to push for improvements to the evaluation system…It does not make sense for parents to choose schools, or for policymakers to praise or berate schools, for a rating that is so strongly influenced by error.”

And yet according to the DOE, eighteen schools that received a D or an F last year have new principals this year – showing how lousy decisions are being based upon these inherently unreliable measures.

As Ellen Foote points out, the principal at IS 89, a school that received a “D” last year despite being selected as the only NYC middle school to receive an award for its achievements from the federal government:

Last year’s grades often reversed the state’s opinion of schools… She knew of one District 2 middle school that got a B last year but was on the state’s list of schools that need improvement. Under No Child Left Behind, many students in that school transferred to I.S. 89, a Blue Ribbon school. That meant the students transferred from a B school to a D school. This year, both schools received an A.

Indeed, as Eduwonkette has written, the proportion of NYC schools receiving an “F” that are in good standing according to federal or state government standards is larger than the proportion of schools receiving an “A”.

“How do you reconcile those discrepancies?” Foote said. “How do parents make sense of that? It just is all over the place — it’s such a disservice to schools and to parents…. It’s so simplistic at best and confusing and probably invalid at the worst, at a very high cost in terms of money, resources and morale.”

The smaller the school or number of students tested, the more likely annual gains or losses are invalid; and as this post in Gotham Schools reveals, the smaller the school, the more likely it received an extremely high or low grade this year.

In response to this sort of criticism, Jim Liebman, the head of the DOE accountability office, said last spring that this year’s progress score would be based on two years of data instead of one year– which would have improved its reliability, yet for some reason, he went back on his word.

Why? To my knowledge, the DOE has never explained.

Rather than making things better, Liebman made the grade even more unreliable by increasing the importance of the “progress” score to account for 60% of a school's grade, an even larger percentage -- up from 55% last year. Why? Again, this has not been explained.

Was this to take advantage of last year’s anomalously high increases in scores? Were Klein and Liebman themselves gaming the system to ensure that 80% of schools would receive “A”s or “B”s --so that they could claim great credit for their so-called but illusory improvements? Who’s to know?

The idea that 80% of NYC schools could be rated “A” or “B” is in itself absurd, given the fact that our school system has among the highest class sizes in the nation and among the lowest graduation rates. This is grade inflation of the highest order, apparently crafted so the administration can pat itself on the back.

I wish those reporters who uncritically reported on the $20 million teacher bonus program on Friday – which also rely on improving a school’s score in the unreliable progress category – would now dig a little deeper, to examine how these cash rewards were likely awarded randomly as well.

Friday, September 12, 2008

the response to our letter from the President of Harvard

In response to my letter to Harvard and other foundations about their support for the controversial large-scale experiments in NYC and DC, being carried out by Roland Fryer, to pay students for test scores, good behavior and the like, I received the following email today:

From: Drew Faust [mailto:president@harvard.edu]
Sent: Friday, September 12, 2008 10:24 AM
To: Leonie Haimson
Subject: RE: re paying for high test scores vs. reducing class size

Dear Ms. Haimson,

Thank you very much for your email and for taking the time to share your concerns with me. I appreciate your candor. I must tell you, however, that academic freedom on university campuses, which serves us all well, includes the freedom to express controversial views, with which others may disagree. The views held by Professor Fryer are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Harvard University.

With my best wishes,

Drew Faust

What do you think, folks? Does this response invoking academic freedom get Harvard off the hook? And what about allowing Fryer to evaluate his own experiment and not requiring an independent assessment of the results -- which is contrary to accepted practices and was not mentioned in her reply?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Post-9/11 Effects on Children – No Concern to DOE

According to the online newspaper Metro NY, a psychologist, Michael Cohen, was brought in by NY City in 2001 to study the effects of the 9/11 attacks on city school children. He found “significant mental health problems among students citywide”. Now, he reports that the city has refused his proposals to follow up on the study to see what ongoing effects the disaster may have had. Says Cohen, “I think the concerns about academic performance and outcomes overtook everything.” The only Department of Education response: “This is baseless.”

Meanwhile, a recent study finds that “35,000 to 70,000 people developed post traumatic stress disorder” after 9/11. The study encompassed largely adults who were directly exposed to the tragedy – people working in the area, rescue workers, and the like. But we know that there were numerous children exposed to it as well, at the very least those who attended schools in the area.

These were the ones most affected. But those of us in New York who lived through the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, even those who did not witness it directly, can attest to the fact that we were all profoundly affected by the events of that day. And in many ways we continue to experience, to one extent or another, a heightened anxiety that, while perhaps not reaching the level of PTSD, lingers as a daily reminder of what could happen again.

As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I can professionally attest to the effects of anxiety on families and children. It can interfere with anything from physical health to emotional development to school performance. And as a parent of two, I can attest to the anxieties that my children, my wife and I have felt since 9/11; anxieties that still linger eight years after the event, and that I know are shared by countless others across the city.

Whether people are suffering from PTSD, from other anxiety disorders, or are simply just not functioning up to par, one would think that a study on the effects of the 9/11 tragedy on our school children would warrant a follow up by the city and the DOE. But they seem no more likely to do this than they are to obey City Council law and allow children to carry cell phones to and from school so that parents and children could maintain this vital lifeline and provide some measure of safety and reassurance in this post 9/11 world.

The city could probably be sued for failure to follow the City Council law, or for policies or decisions that damage children’s mental or physical health. Perhaps someone will eventually bring such a lawsuit. But in the absence of legal action, these folks are only likely to change their policies if they have a real stake in that change. If, as Mr. Cohen postulates, their academic concerns are paramount, someone will probably have to prove that the exacerbation of children’s post 9/11 anxieties is leading to lower test scores. It’s not so far fetched, and unfortunately, based on their track record so far, it will be that, and not a concern for our children’s safety and well being, which would bring about such a change.

High Stakes Testing Reaches Into the Cradle

September 11, 2008 (GBN News): A high stakes standardized testing program for newborn babies will soon be instituted by the NY City Department of Education, GBN News has learned exclusively. The pilot program, to be funded initially by the Gates and Broad foundations, will be designed to establish a baseline by which to evaluate the schools that the children later attend.

The DOE is already implementing a standardized testing program for kindergarteners, and will soon be testing Universal Pre-K children as well. But according to a source at the DOE, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein was concerned about the lack of earlier data through which to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers and administrators of kindergarten and preschool programs. “If we wait to test until pre-k or even kindergarten”, the Chancellor was said to have demanded, “How do we know the children have made any progress in those programs? On what data do we base performance pay? How do we know which underperforming principals to fire? Or what programs to close?”

The DOE source said that the newborn testing program will be designed by McGraw Hill under a no-bid contract with the Education Department. The test, which will be conducted immediately upon birth of the infants, was described by a source at McGraw Hill as “The APGAR score on steroids”, and will encompass a wide range of cognitive and developmental dimensions. Data will be fed into the DOE’s ARIS computer, and will be used as a baseline for all later standardized testing.

The DOE has also contracted with Kaplan, Inc. to offer test prep programs to expectant parents. Given that fetuses are known to be capable of hearing outside sounds while in the womb, the test prep will consist of audio tapes which will focus largely on early math and reading skills. A Kaplan executive, speaking on condition of anonymity since the program has not yet been officially announced, told GBN News, “This will be really popular among expectant parents. It may even be bigger than Lamaze.”

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A NYC parent and advocate for children with disabilities writes in response to Gov. Palin's remarks about Obama

The following letter was written by Maria T. Garcia, President of Parents of Blind Children of New York:

In response to Governor Palin's recent remarks about Barack Obama’s service as a community organizer;

For some time now I have felt that the only type of service that is regarded by many in our nation as truly valuable is service in our military. I think this is tied into our collective definition of heroism and strength. Governor Palin’s recent remarks dismissing Barack Obama’s service as a community organizer seemed to perpetuate that perspective.

As a community organizer, an advocate for children with disabilities, their parents, families and educators, and as a parent of a child with disabilities I understand that standing in defense of one’s country happens in many places and in many ways. It is found in the fight to preserve public education and public libraries and our public spaces. It is found in the battle against the erosion of our civil liberties and against those who support censorship and seek to ban books. It is found in community organizers battling racial and gender discrimination and in the struggle for fair wages, affordable housing and in the fight to reform our health care system. It is found in the movement for peace and in standing in opposition to war and occupation and to bringing our troops home. It is also found in the ongoing battle to prevent discrimination against the disabled.

In her address at the Republican National Convention, Governor Palin promised parents of children who have special needs that they would “have a friend and advocate in the White House. “ I believe that was a well meant sentiment, but Sarah Palin like every other brand new mother of a child with special needs is taking the first steps on a road she can’t possibly imagine. As the mother of a four month old infant with Down syndrome, Sarah Palin will learn by hard experience what her son needs and more importantly what she needs to be as the mother of a child with disabilities. In time she will learn what navigating the system really means when you have a child with special needs. I expect that she will have the fortitude to fight the system and be the warrior advocate that the parent of a child with disabilities needs to be. I pray that she will stand up to negative societal attitudes and demand high expectations of her child. I hope that she will have the courage to face her own and her family’s deepest fears about disability and that she work to make effective personal change and project that change into her own community. Very soon Governor Palin will know that her staunchest allies in this gut wrenching battle are the veteran parents with years of service on the front lines and she may even look up in surprise to see just who is standing by her side.

Then and only then will Governor Palin understand that what her child and every other child with disabilities needs is not a friend in the White House but rather a community of friends at his side that will stand up every day in a hundred ways and demand that society see him and every child like him as a whole person. Because change does not start at the top and gravitate down but is driven up from the bottom by people that are looked through, and from those within the community who give them a voice. Through that voice the people who are overlooked are elevated. That is the voice of the community organizer. The proud Americans who choose to serve in our disenfranchised communities to provide that voice to families facing seemingly insurmountable barriers to success are our nation’s unsung heroes and they should never be dismissed.


Monday, September 8, 2008

Parents paying for teachers; Joel Klein approves!

See an article from Sunday’s NY Post, about parents raising funds to hire assistant teachers to help out in overcrowded classes, a practice that has gone on for many years in our wealthier schools.

Some examples in the illustration to the right; courtesy of the NY Post.

I talked to the Post reporter at length who was researching this practice, and pointed out to her that it was DOE's failure to provide reasonable class sizes that put NYC parents in this impossible situation- having to decide whether to raise money to hire assistant teachers, or move to the suburbs or transfer their kids to private schools, in an effort to ensure that their children do not suffer in substandard conditions of classes of 25, 30 or more.

Unfortunately, the editors cut my quote from the final article.

It is still against the regulations to hire full-time teachers with private money – that is, is in our regular public schools as opposed to charter schools; although Joel Klein seems unaware of this distinction.

According to today’s NY Times blog, at a charter school event, Klein said he has not problem with parent funds being used to hire even extra teachers, no less assistants:

After the event, Mr. Klein said that he was having his lawyers make sure that the parents were abiding by the department’s regulations, but added that he had no problem as with the policy of allowing PTAs to pay for teachers or teaching assistants.

“Obviously we want parents to support our schools but we want to do it in a way that is clear and open and transparent,” he said. “I think it’s great that parents would support our school. We want everybody to support our schools. We’ve raised lots of money to support our schools and individual parents and PTAs have raised lots of money.

“The basic policy is good…”

It’s interesting that the Chancellor is so favorably inclined to this unfortunate practice, (not that I blame the parents involved one iota.)

After all, it’s his refusal to reduce class size which is at fault – despite billions of dollars in state funds provided for that purpose and a law that requires him to do so.

It remains a somewhat peculiar position for someone who supposedly believes so strongly in equity, though I suppose it is pragmatic. After all, this private fund raising helps get him off the hook.

I also wonder when he will require the same transparency for charter school fund raising and per pupil spending …but that would dispel the fantasy that these schools accomplish more for less.

See this blog entry from Patrick for more about how contrary to the view commonly expressed, charter schools are apparently receiving more per pupil funding from the city than regular public schools – even apart from their opulent private fundraising.

Mayor Defends VP Choice Against “Inexperience” Charge

September 8, 2008 (GBN News): New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg today defended Republican Presidential nominee John McCain’s running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, against charges that she is too inexperienced for the Vice Presidency. In an exclusive interview, the Mayor told GBN News, “There’s no reason to think she can’t handle the job. Like Wendy Kopp says about the Teach for America recruits in our schools, lack of experience isn’t a negative – it’s a prerequisite.”

Mr. Bloomberg went on to say, “Of course, after a few years serving as Vice President, just like our TFA teachers, I’m sure she'll will want to move on to a more lucrative position. But by then, she’ll certainly be ready for a high profile job in the business world, like Schools Chancellor.”

First public education session sponsored by the Parent Commission on School Governance

The History of NYC Public School Governance

When: Wed. Sept. 17th at 7:30 PM.

Murry Bergtraum HS, 411 Pearl St., Manhattan, behind City Hall.

Speakers include:

  • Diane Ravitch, eminent educational historian;
  • Jitu Weusi, veteran educator, community organizer, and one of the organizers of Ocean Hill-Brownsville;
  • Betty Rosa, former Principal and Senior Superintendent, District 8, elected as a Regent from the Bronx in 2008;
  • Moderated by Pedro Noguera, NYU Professor.

Please spread the word! A flyer (in pdf) you can distribute or post in your school is posted here or just click on the picture to the right.

For more information, please email parentcommission@gmail.com

Common-sense education reforms for the candidates

Today the NY Sun broke the story about our letter to the Presidential candidates, sponsored by Class Size Matters and Parents United for Responsible Education, out of Chicago:

Senators Obama and McCain have a panel of education advisers each, and there is no shortage of school administrators, union bosses, business leaders, and policy wonks who would very much like to be in those ranks.

A new group is urging the presidential candidates to pay attention to another constituency as they craft their education platforms: parents.

Led by two parent organizers — one in New York City and one in Chicago — this group says it's parents, not the unions, not the CEOs, and not even many of the academics, who have the right idea of how to improve public schools.

"There's a complete disconnect between what we're being told by the politicians and the businesspeople about what we should want schools to do, and what parents want schools to do," the executive director of the Chicago-based Parents United for Responsible Education, Julie Woestehoff, said. "But frankly what parents want schools to do is better for their children. They know best."

Our letter to McCain and Obama -- posted in full here -- describes some common-sense education reforms that parents and other stakeholders believe the federal government should be supporting, including safe and uncrowded schools with more counselors, smaller classes, a rich curriculum including arts, and more parental involvement. This isn't rocket science, guys!

High-needs kids need these sort of conditions in their schools as much as the children of those who are backing the so-called Education Equality Project, who are pushing a very different agenda for urban schools that, in the letter, we call "NCLB on steroids."

We also have a slightly different emphasis than those who put together "A Broader, Bolder Approach" in that the education reforms we propose are both more specific and more wide-ranging, and we strongly believe that making these sorts of fundamental changes can make a significant and sustainable difference.

As our letter says, "Until these goals have been achieved, we cannot and should not give up on the potential of schools to transform lives."

We are also more explicit in our critique of the current regime of high-stakes testing and the argument that simply adding more charter schools will lead to improvements systemwide though competition and market forces-- which we see no evidence of in NYC or Chicago.

Instead, here in NYC, charter schools are allowed to cap enrollment and class size and are being forced into overcrowded buildings, where they are diminishing the ability of the children who attend the existing school in the building from enjoying the same advantages. Meanwhile, the Bloomberg/Klein administration remains vehemently opposed to reducing class sizes in our regular public schools systemwide.

As we say in the letter, the last thing our nation needs is a "trickle down" educational system.

The full letter is posted here, on our new website, Common-sense reforms for our schools ; if you'd like to sign on, just send us an email with your name, affiliation and town or city to commonsensereforms@gmail.com and we'll pass on your names to the candidates as well.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Public Advocate’s Commission on School Governance Report Hugely Disappointing

Mayor Bloomberg’s reaction in the NY Daily News to Thursday’s much-anticipated Commission on School Governance Report from the NYC Public Advocate’s Office was, predictably, haughtily dismissive. “Just a political thing,” he commented, as if the steady stream of press releases and television ads emanating from the Tweed public relations machine was something far more noble and pure. Ever on the alert for the telling metaphor, Mayoral supporter Kathryn Wylde threatened the dangers of ANY legislative changes in the Mayoral control law by hearkening back in one fell swoop to Condoleeza Rice's smoking gun/mushroom cloud and Hillary Clinton's doomsday, 3:00 a.m. call on the dreaded red telephone: "Who knows what can happen in the middle of the night in Albany." Yes, that's right, NYC public school parents: Be afraid, be VERY afraid.

The Mayor and his mouthpieces have little reason to complain, however. Instead of a badly-needed call for action and meaningful change, the Commission offered up a timid program of tweaking around the edges that would leave governance of the public school system virtually unchanged: the Mayor and Chancellor in full and unfettered control, accountable and answerable to no one, with parents and children still on the outside, looking in.

Given Ms. Gotbaum’s past criticisms of the DOE under Mayoral control, her Commission’s 48-page School Governance Report is an astonishing disappointment. The document is larded with typographical errors, overly devoted to background material on its own workings and theories of school governance, and devoid of any genuine assessment of the last five years of Mayoral control. Far worse, however, the report offers up recommendations that run from the non-relevant-to-governance obvious (follow City Charter guidelines on procurement of services, a reference to the DOE’s 100 million dollar plethora of no-bid contracts) to the blandly ineffectual (please make the CDEC’s and SLT’s more effective and give parents more opportunities for meaningful input!) to the maintenance of a barely modified status quo in the actual governance structure.

In essence, the Commission recommended retention of Mayoral control under the theoretically watchful eye of the Panel for Education Policy (PEP). That oversight body would continue to have 13 members, with eight still named by the Mayor and one each named by the Borough Presidents. The “bold” changes would be to give members fixed four-year terms corresponding to the terms of their naming authorities -- thereby ostensibly increasing their independence by immunizing them from sudden removal – and removing Chancellor Klein from Panel Chair and voting member to non-voting, ex officio participant. Under such a scheme, the Mayor still retains 61.5% control (8 of 13) of those named to PEP and purse-string control over most of the rest.

As we have seen over the past few years, the Borough President’s representatives (with the sole exception of Manhattan BP Scott Stringer’s representation by Patrick Sullivan) have been no more independent in their behavior or voting records than have been the Mayor’s hand-picked representatives. PEP has consistently looked more like a dozen rubber stamps wearing business suits, or a Jesus and his twelve disciples following in lockstep (Mr. Sullivan the doubting and often denying 13th), than an independent oversight and decision-making body. The Commission’s report does nothing to change this situation and leaves the Mayor’s and Chancellor’s current dictatorial powers to manipulate the public school system according to their whims and political needs virtually untouched.

To its credit, the Commission recommends reinstating the 32 school district offices to bring the DOE back closer to the local community level. It also offers a vaguely worded and rather weak-kneed suggestion that the Independent Budget Office (IBO) be given “explicit responsibility to report on the performance of the Department of Education.” The IBO offers hope for at least occasional independent evaluation and reporting, but even this recommendation falls far short of honest data auditing and investigative analysis.

The bottom line here is simple but alarming. Public school parents who have looked to the Public Advocate as one of their critical voices on NYC educational policy and governance have been dealt a harsh body blow. The Commission on School Governance Report is a clarion call for the status quo, long on rose-colored vision and short on specifics or real change. Under the governance system proposed in the Commission’s report, parents remain standing powerless on the outside, their voices barely heard and, even when heard, inevitably ignored or condescendingly dismissed as just so much carping by a disgruntled few.

In the coming days, I will have much more to say about the assumptions underlying two key aspects of the Commission’s report: Mayoral accountability and public participation.

Charter School Funding Per Child Much Higher Than Public Schools

While it has been well known that charter schools have attracted large amounts of private funding, information released by DOE now show that even the public funds charters receive result in much higher per-capita spending than at public schools.

In a budget package released last week, DOE cited a figure of $8,278 in per capita tax levy funding for public schools exclusive of District 75 which serves children with developmental challenges and has dramatically higher funding per child.

In contrast, DOE documents provided last spring (see page 8c) show per child funding of $12,432 for next year for the city's charter school students.

This funding disparity helps explain why charters have been able to cap class size at much lower levels and provide far more in terms of curriculum and enhancements than traditional public schools.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Why did our students have to wait four years?

The Mayor and Chancellor made a big announcement yesterday about how they are implementing anti-bias and anti- harassment procedures in our schools, and requiring that these incidents be reported.

This announcement came primarily in response to several years of repeated and well-publicized incidents in which Sikh students have had their hair cut off in school -- and subsequent protests, including an rare oped on local educational issues that made it into the NY Times and a more recent column in the Daily News.

David Seifman of the NY Post was one of the few reporters yesterday to note that many of the procedures that Bloomberg and Klein announced were first proposed in 2004 in a law passed by the City Council called DASA -- the Dignity for All Students Act. But at that point, the Mayor and the Chancellor rejected them.

In a September 2004 interview on WRKS radio, the mayor was quoted as saying the council's bill was "silly." "You cannot [expect] the teachers or the principals to follow some script," he said back then. "They are professionals, and you have to leave it up to them to do it."

Even after the City council passed the law over the Mayor's veto, the Department of Education refused to comply with it -- arguing that their policies are not subject to city law.

"That's the job of the chancellor," Bloomberg said yesterday. "We never disagreed with them on the intent."

So why did it take them four years? Four years of unchecked bias and harassment in our schools? And why should it be considered okay for the Mayor and the Chancellor to consider themselves immune from obeying city law?

This is a perfect example of why we need more checks and balances. Not only is it more democratic, but it makes for better policies.

For more on the Mayor's previous position on bias-related violence and harassment in our schools, see our blog posting here.

If there's one thing worse than another Bloomberg administration...

See today's NY Sun here.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

On the first day of school, a visit to the Excellence Charter school in Bed-Stuy

Jenny Medina of the NY Times captured the following exchange during the usual dog and pony show of yesterday’s media tour of the first day of school:

In a kindergarten classroom — its door designating the students inside as members of the Class of 2025 — Mr. Markowitz cornered Mr. Klein. “Why can’t our public schools have a place like this?” he asked a bit testily. “Do you know the resources it takes for a place like this?

Elizabeth Green of the NY Sun also observed this conversation:

On a visit to the Excellence Charter School, which is housed in a sparkling new 90,000-square-foot school building in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the president of Brooklyn, Marty Markowitz, became visibly agitated.

"Listen to me," he said to the schools chancellor, Joel Klein, as the two toured a classroom, "we have some public schools that are starving for these kinds of resources."

Mr. Klein replied that some schools are doing as well as Excellence with more modest budgets.

Mr. Markowitz was not convinced; he said that while he supports charter schools, he is "conflicted" about the extra resources they sometimes receive from private donors.

"I really believe the jury is out on this whole thing," Mr. Markowitz said, walking out the door.

Is it all a matter of private donors? According to the school’s website,

Excellence is housed in a 90,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art facility with a 10,000-volume library, a 500-seat auditorium, music and art studios, a gymnasium, a climbing wall, a rooftop turf field, and sufficient classroom space to house Excellence as it grows into a K-8 school.

According to InsideSchools, the building was renovated from a former DOE public school (PS 70):

In the new facility, students will enjoy amenities that rival deeply-endowed private schools. Designed by Yale School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern, the renovated building includes an AstroTurfed roof garden/play yard with sweeping city and harbor views, secluded and inviting book nooks on every floor, double-sized science labs, a giant gymnasium complete with climbing wall, a spacious school library, and a state-of-the-art auditorium. Sawicki lives around the corner from the new building.

Here are some before and after photos, including this photo that looks like there are about ten kids per class. So where did all the money for this incredible facility come from?

See this 2006 article from Fortune magazine, about the Robin Hood foundation and its founder, “hedge fund maestro Paul Tudor Jones” :

“The school is the product of a pooling of dollars by the New York City Board of Education, Robin Hood, and Jones personally, plus contributions from a variety of corporations.

The school's physical plant, including a fabulous AstroTurf roof, would be the envy of any $30,000-a-year private school. Inside, groups of energized young teachers and little boys, kindergarten through second grade (and 100% minority), in white shirts and ties, ready themselves for the coming school year. Principal Jabali Sawicki tells me there is a 170-student waiting list.

Just a few years ago this building was a neighborhood eyesore, a symbol of all that had gone wrong in Bed-Stuy. Originally constructed in the 1880s as PS 70, and later used as a yeshiva, it became a home to drug dealers and prostitutes after a fire in the 1970s - even a venue for illegal cock fights.

Then, in 2004, another organization that Jones supports, Uncommon Schools, committed $30 million ($6 million from Jones personally) to buy and renovate the property. David Saltzman, the executive director of Robin Hood, persuaded Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, to design the facility, which was completed this spring. Signs throughout the school were done gratis by renowned design firm Pentagram. And Robin Hood sent a check for $150,000 for the school's operating budget. Books were donated by Scholastic and HarperCollins, which have given a collective two million volumes to Robin Hood…”

This 2006 article notes how the Robin Hood Foundation raises hundreds of millions per year; from charity concerts of the Rolling Stones (take: $11 million); benefit dinners hosted by Jon Stewart with guest star Beyonce, and the auctioning off naming rights to charter school buildings going for $1 million:

Most charity dinners in New York are considered a smash if they bring in $1 million. Here success is measured in tens of millions. "If you are on Wall Street, particularly in hedge funds, you have to be here," says one of my tablemates….The final tally? In a single night Robin Hood hauls in $48 million. Some $20 million is earmarked for the new school - which will be matched by the board, $2.25 for each $1. And New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, who at one point during the gala, at Jones's urging, stands and takes a bow, has said the city, in turn, will match the combined sum (as well as the amount of a tax credit). Overall, the $20 million for the school will grow to $180 million. The cost to put on the dinner? Around $5.6 million.

And the cost to taxpayers: $90 million.

In answer to the Fortune reporter’s question: Don't charter schools draw precious resources away from other public schools?

Jones makes no apologies: "Charter schools are the best thing that ever happened to education in New York City because they provide competition to regular public schools and raise the bar that everyone is trying to attain. They provide thought leadership for other schools, so again there's a multiplicative impact."

This is Klein’s usual response as well. Wonder why so many other schools in Brooklyn and citywide still have substandard conditions.

Can someone explain to me how that competition thing works again?