Thursday, September 30, 2010

Why the school grading system, and Joel Klein, still deserve a big "F"

Amidst all the hype and furor of the release of today’s NYC school "progress reports", everyone should remember how the grades are not to be trusted. By their inherent design, the grades are statistically invalid, and the DOE must be fully aware of this fact. Why?

See this Daily News oped I wrote in 2007, in which all the criticisms still hold true, “Why parents and teachers should reject the new grades”.
In part, this is because 85% of each school’s grade depends on one year’s test scores alone – which according to experts, is highly unreliable. Researchers have found that 32 to 80% of the annual fluctuations in a typical school’s scores are random or due to one time factors alone, unrelated to the amount of learning taking place. Thus, given the formula used by the Department of Education, a school’s grade may be based more on chance than anything else.
(source: Thomas Kane, Douglas O. Staiger, “The Promise and Pitfalls of Using Imprecise School Accountability Measures, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Autumn, 2002.)

Now Jim Liebman admitted this fact, that one year’s test score data was inherently unreliable, in testimony to the City Council, and to numerous parent groups, including to CEC D2, as recounted on p. 121 of Beth Fertig’s book, Why can’t U teach me 2 read.” In responding to Michael Markowitz’s observations that the grading system was designed to provide essentially random results, he admitted:

“There’s a lot I actually agree with, he said in a concession to his opponent…He then proceeded to explain how the system would eventually include three years’ worth of data on every school so the risk of big fluctuations from one year to the next wouldn’t be such a problem.”

Nevertheless, the DOE and Liebman have refused to comply with this promise, which reveals a basic intellectual dishonesty. This is what Suransky emailed me about the issue, a couple of weeks ago, when I asked him about it before our NY Law school “debate.”

“We use one year of data because it is critical to focus schools’ attention on making progress with their students every year. While we have made gains as a system over the last 9 years, we still have a long way to reach our goal of ensuring that all students who come out of a New York City school are prepared for post-secondary opportunities. Measuring multiple years’ results on the Progress Report could allow some schools to “ride the coattails” of prior years’ success or unduly punish schools that rebound quickly from a difficult year.”

Of course, this is nonsense. No educators would “coast” on a prior year’s “success”, but they would be far more confident in a system that didn’t give them an inherently inaccurate rating.

Given the fact that that school grades bounce up and down each year, most teachers, administrators and even parents have long figured out how they should be discounted, and justifiably believe that any administration that would punish or reward a school based on such invalid measures is not to be trusted.

That DOE has changed the school grading formula in other ways every year for the last three years also doesn’t give one any confidence….though they refuse to change the most fundamental flaw. Yet another major problem is while the teacher data reports take class size into account as a significant limiting factor in how much schools can get student test scores to improve, the progress reports do not.

There are lots more problems with the school grading system, including the fact that they are primarily based upon state exams that we know are themselves completely unreliable. As MIT professor Doug Ariely recently wrote about the damaging nature of value-added teacher pay, because of the way they are based on highly unreliable measurements:

…What if, after you finished kicking [a ball] somebody comes and moves the ball either 20 feet right or 20 feet left? How good would you be under those conditions? It turns out you would be terrible. Because human beings can learn very well in deterministic systems, but in a probabilistic system—what we call a stochastic system, with some random error—people very quickly become very bad at it.

So now imagine a schoolteacher. A schoolteacher is doing what [he or she] thinks is best for the class, who then gets feedback. Feedback, for example, from a standardized test. How much random error is in the feedback of the teacher? How much is somebody moving the ball right and left? A ton. Teachers actually control a very small part of the variance. Parents control some of it. Neighborhoods control some of it. What people decide to put on the test controls some of it. And the weather, and whether a kid is sick, and lots of other things determine the final score.

So when we create these score-based systems, we not only tend to focus teachers on a very small subset of [what we want schools to accomplish], but we also reward them largely on things that are outside of their control. And that's a very, very bad system.”

Indeed. The invalid nature of the school grades are just one more indication of the fundamentally dishonest nature of the Bloomberg/Klein administration, and yet another reason for the cynicism, frustration and justifiable anger of teachers and parents.

Also be sure to check out this Aaron Pallas classic: Could a Monkey Do a Better Job of Predicting Which Schools Show Student Progress in English Skills than the New York City Department of Education?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

More on Education Indoctrination

We held a press conference yesterday at Rockefeller Center, in protest of the one-sided coverage of NBC's Education Nation, which has turned out to be an infomercial brought to you by the Billionaire boys club of Gates, Broad and Bloomberg. Here is some coverage from Gotham Schools, and the Epoch Times.

As made clear by this media extravaganza, a handful of wealthy men and their corporate-style, free-market views were allowed to completely dominate the media, as they already control much of the output of the education research organizations and think-tanks in DC, despite any evidence that their methods will improve our schools, all in the name of "innovation." They are wreaking destruction not only on our public education system, but waging a massive misinformation campaign, with even the National Academy of Sciences powerless before them.

Bloomberg was allowed to make a 15 minutes speech on MSNBC, uninterrupted, without a single reporter allowed to ask questions, in which he claimed great progress in our schools. At the same time, during Council hearings downtown, members of the public and local elected officials were lambasting his record, and pointing out that his claims of improvements were based on fraudulent and inflated state test scores.

And yet this highly damaging model of education reform that has utterly failed to improve our schools here in New York City is being held out as a model, and foisted on the nation as a whole, in the form of charter school expansion, wasteful teacher merit pay, and even more emphasis on high stakes testing, all of which which hurts our neediest students most of all.

In essence, NBC's entire media extravaganza should have been called Education Indoctrination, an opportunity for the corporate influences that are engineering their hostile takeover of our public schools to broadcast their distortions, without little or no fear of being contradicted. Here is our press release from yesterday, here is my Huffington Post column about it, and here is a letter of protest to NBC that you can sign.

There were a few bright spots; check out NYC teacher Brian Jones, who managed to infuse a few words of truth amidst the heated rhetoric of Geoffrey Canada, Randi Weingarten, Steven Brill, and Michelle Rhee. On the same panel, Allen Coulter, the head of the Gates Foundation education division, managed to spread more of the special Gates' brand of misinformation, such as claiming that there is no evidence of benefits from class size reduction after 3rd grade, which is simply false.

There are at least 15 studies showing correlations between smaller classes in the middle and upper grades and higher student achievement and lower dropout rates, no matter how much the Gates Foundation would like to deny this. Like their support of the anti-evolution organization, the Discovery Institute, Gates seems to have no respect for research and evidence. Instead, the foundation would rather waste millions on incentive pay tied to test scores, and other free-market "experiments" that have repeatedly been proven to be worthless.

See our press release from yesterday, my Huffington Post column, and then send a message to NBC, by signing our protest letter, with 400 signatures so far and growing fast.

Here are some excerpts from the press release, from outraged parents, teachers and citizens:

Natalie Beyer, a founding member of Parents Across America and a school board member in Durham, NC: “Strong public schools are our most fundamental public resource and the foundation of our democracy. In recent years, a few wealthy philanthropists have profoundly influenced education policies and programs. Parents Across America believe that our public schools and our children’s educations are not for sale. Across this nation, we elect citizens to serve on local Boards of Education, to insure local accountability, transparency and oversight of our public schools. As a public school parent and elected school board member, I am disappointed that NBC’s Education Nation has excluded the voices of parents and critics. Your relationship with your sponsors seems to have turned what could have been an important news event into an infomercial. As your program concludes and you dismantle your Learning Plaza, rest assured that those of us who work in public education will continue the important work of challenging students every day.”

Karran Harper Royal, New Orleans parent leader and member of the Community Education Coalition: “The entire premise of this show is very offensive. The rest of America does not need another Hurricane Katrina, and certainly doesn’t need the kind of education reform that we’ve had in New Orleans. Parents are largely left out of the decisions being made by the State of Louisiana, and the claims of success of our Public Schools are being greatly exaggerated. In a recent report, the Brookings Institute and the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center admitted that "Statistically, academic growth has not been correlated with reforms." And despite Paul Vallas’ claims to the contrary on MSNBC’s panel discussion today, charter schools in New Orleans often push out students with disabilities or do not serve them well, and there have been many instances where such children have been turned away. We resent NBC using our tragedy to promote an agenda financed by big business, and that does not include the very people who use our public schools.”

Mona Davids, head of the NY Charter Parents Association, said: “Contrary to the claims made by NBC’s Education Nation, charter schools are not a magic bullet to improve our public school system. Too many of them have very high student and teacher attrition, exclude special education students, feature abusive disciplinary practices, and demonstrate disappointing levels of student achievement. What we need in this city and elsewhere is to learn from the practices of our best charter schools, and apply them to all public schools, including small class sizes, a supportive and welcoming environment for parents and teachers, and a well-rounded curriculum, featuring art, music science, all of which are being driven out of our public schools by Bloomberg and Klein, and the other so-called “experts” featured on these panels."

Lisa Donlan, NYC public school parent leader in lower Manhattan: “It is outrageous that NBC is allowing Joel Klein and our Mayor to portray our public schools as a model for reform, given the never-ending scandals, reorganizations and failed experiments that have damaged our kids over the last eight years. Charter schools, merit pay, competition among schools for students and resources, high stakes standardized tests as the basis for teacher bonuses, student promotions and school closings - -none of these things have worked in NYC, or anywhere else in the country for that matter. Bloomberg's experiments on our children have not improved teaching and learning, have not narrowed the achievement gap, have not increased equity of access to quality schools for most families, and any claims to the contrary are simply lies.”

Julie Woestehoff , Executive Director, Parents United for Responsible Education, in Chicago and founding member of Parents Across America: “Over the past few days, NBC, Oprah, "Waiting for Superman" promoters and other corporate-funded propagandists have waged war against public school parents and teachers, hoping to break their traditionally strong ties, to vilify, label, and destroy public schools, and to fool the nation into accepting a vision of education that consists of replacing open, democratically-run school systems designed to serve all children with a system of strip mall franchise schools where families are forced to "shop" for education and children are
served differently depending on how they score on standardized tests.

That's not the vision of education that will lift our nation or give our children a strong future. We reject NBC's corporate vision of education and instead support and dedicate ourselves to the rich, well-rounded, ennobling vision of education offered by true school reformers, beginning with John Dewey and embodied today by the millions of dedicated, hardworking teachers who are doing their best under ever-worsening circumstances. We choose to listen to our teachers first, and support their efforts rather than join corporate media's war against them."

Monday, September 27, 2010

Why Is There Suddenly an Education "Crisis"?

When did it happen? Was it after Hurricane Katrina and the physical ruination of the New Orleans public school system? Did it begin with the seizure of control over public education by the mayors and school chancellors of New York and Washington, D.C.? Was it the result of the Wall Street flame-out and real estate bubble-bursting leading into the worst recession since the Great Depression? When, exactly, did the state of the American public school system become such a "big-C" Crisis that unproven approaches and education policies demonstrably at odds with professional research are nevertheless being implemented wholesale, virtually without public debate, citizen participation, or democratic processes?

Does such a crisis really exist? Of course public education has problems; it always has, and it always will. An open society with constant immigration, new technologies with their attendant distractions and shortening of attention spans, and a goal of providing equal educational opportunity for all children regardless of race, religion, ability, disability, socioeconomic status, etc., will always face unresolved challenges. The vagaries of local public education funding (property taxes, federal and state aid, and the like), the impacts of macroeconomic cycles, and evolving economic competition on the world stage simply add to these challenges.

But do any of these circumstances warrant elevating education to the negative status of “national crisis”? Do they justify the self-insertion of billionaire “saviors” like the Waltons, Kochs, Broads, Mellons, Gates’s, and, most recently, the barely post-teenage Facebook czar and education expert, Mark Zuckerberg? Do they require the immediate, hefty cash infusions of little-known but exceedingly well-heeled hedge fund managers? Do they need the redemptive power of Oprah coupled with the soulful crooning of another education maven, John Legend?

Or is this really all about ideology (free market capitalism) coupled with the money-making opportunities of privatization. Do hedge fund managers expect nothing in return? Do Bill and Melinda Gates not expect to be lionized for saving our nation’s public schools? Does young Mr. Zuckerberg not expect to cleanse his tarnished image while holding hands with Mr. Gates? Do Oprah and American Express (with their cloying Geoffrey Canada commercials) not expect to make money by jumping on the school reform bandwagon? Of course they all do.

In the end, however, it comes back to right-wing ideology. After years under democracy of not having their way with vouchers, the free-marketers did the logical thing: they manufactured the needed crisis. The map was already neatly laid out for them by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine, but cable television, the Internet, and BIG money helped manufacture the shock without even having to wait for one. Just pick up a few current events strands (Chinese competitiveness, the national debt, fear of no longer being #1 in the world, global warming – whatever), mold them into a crisis narrative, and keep repeating the story line over and over until no one questions it any more.

Admittedly, America’s education system still needs lots of attention, some of it institutional (the schools themselves) and some of it cultural (us, ourselves – our values, the ways we regard education and raise our children, our disturbing dismissals of rationalism, disregard for scientific research, and disparagement of the well-educated as elitist). But how does any of this justify the blind, lemming-like acceptance of standardized tests as the ultimate measures and ends (rather than the means) of education, widespread trashing of teachers as the sole source of American miseducation, creeping and undebated privatization of the national public school system via charters, nearly unquestioned acceptance of “value-added” models as a way to evaluate teacher effectiveness, etc.? Where in the midst of this herd behavior are the media to question all this and offer a semblance of critical analysis?

As a nation, when it comes to education, we now look like passengers on a slightly damaged rowboat, praying madly and thrashing about wildly for anything to save ourselves, without recognizing that the water beneath us is only a foot deep. Meanwhile, we are surrounded by folks willing to throw us unneeded lifelines for the right price – the hedge funders, the billionaire philanthropists, the Oprah’s, the charter school network operators, and (sadly) even our President.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Education Indoctrination

Send a message to NBC News, by signing the petition protesting the monolithic presentation of views in Education Nation.

You would have to be living on Mars not to notice all the commotion the past week proclaiming the ills of our public education system, particularly our inner city schools. From the much-hyped opening of the documentary "Waiting for Superman," two Oprah shows this week featuring the movie's director, Davis Guggenheim, along with Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerman of Facebook fame, and NBC's "Education Nation" series, the mainstream media has given a huge amount of attention to the view that our inner-city public schools are dysfunctional, primarily as a result of selfish and incompetent teachers and their unions.

The latest outrage is the panel discussion scheduled for Tuesday as part of Education Nation, originally entitled, "Does Education Need a Katrina?" Though after protests, the name of the panel was changed, it still is being described as a discussion to examine "the advantages to the New Orleans school district of starting over post-Katrina."

When Arne Duncan made a similar statement about New Orleans schools benefiting from Hurricane Katrina, he was roundly and justifiably criticized. Hurricane Katrina killed thousands of people, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives. Since then, the poorest and neediest students have been increasingly concentrated in the New Orleans' public schools, while charter schools are attracting the highest achieving and wealthiest students. This two-tier educational system is a pattern that has been replicated in New York City, Chicago and elsewhere.

NBC has disinvited prominent experts from its panels who disagree with these policies, including Diane Ravitch and Yong Zhao of Michigan State, invited few if any public school parents, and has given up any pretense of providing a fair and balanced presentation of views. The panel on teacher quality will be moderated by Steve Brill, a journalist who has made a second career out of attacking teacher unions and promoting charter schools, in articles full of exaggerated claims and factual errors. (See my earlier column "Steve Brill's Imperviousness to the Facts")

Indeed, the vast majority of panelists appear to have been pre-selected by the Gates and Broad Foundations, Education Nation's co-sponsors, who by spending billions have been able to impose their rigid prescriptions on the nation's urban public schools. NBC has also asked the president of the University of Phoenix to participate, the nation's largest for-profit online chain and yet another co-sponsor, although this institution has been widely criticized for fraudulent practices. As the independent Poynter Institute commented, "it looks like the University of Phoenix bought access" onto the show, which "undermines the credibility of the project." Indeed, it is apparent that for NBC, money rather than real expertise talks.

The same monolithic cast of characters dominate "Waiting for Superman", which despite numerous cogent critiques, is likely to draw support from viewers who are otherwise ignorant of the real problems plaguing public education.

What are the rigid solutions that this film and NBC's "Education Nation" offer instead? The closing of neighborhood schools to make way for charter schools, more emphasis on standardized testing, performance pay, and the firing of more teachers, all based on student test scores.

Yet these simplistic and largely punitive policies have no backing in research or experience. There is no consensus among experts that they would work to improve our public schools, and plenty of evidence that they could make them even worse, as the National Academy of Sciences pointed out in comments on the federal program known as "Race to the Top". Why?

Evaluating and firing teachers on the basis of standardized tests scores is highly unreliable, with a recent study done for the federal government showing that there is a 25-34 percent likelihood of mislabeling the best teachers as the worst.

Such policies are likely to encourage even more mindless test prep, narrowing of the curriculum, and unfairly target teachers who working in our most disadvantaged schools. There is also not a single research study showing that teacher incentive schemes, which the US Department of Education just spent nearly half a billion dollars of taxpayer funds to support, have ever worked to improve public schools. Instead, studies out of New York City, Chicago, and now Nashville, in what is called the most rigorous experiment yet done, by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University, have shown no positive results.

These top-down policies are being promulgated not by educators, parents, or experts in the field, but by corporate billionaires, including Bill Gates, Eli Broad , the Walton family of Walmart fame, and Michael Bloomberg, all of whom adhere to the sort of deregulatory, free-market philosophies that have recently found to have disastrous results in our financial system.

Indeed, given the recent recession and the resulting anger at Wall Street elites, it would be hard to find any other field of public policy in which a few billionaires have so easily controlled the dominant narrative, convinced most of the politicians in both parties and the mainstream media that they know what's best for our children.. Yet none of these moguls have ever sent their children to an urban public school, and seem totally unaware of what really ails our urban public schools.

As charter schools proliferate, they have led to more segregation, according to UCLA's Civil Rights Project, as well as a growing concentration of poor, immigrant, homeless and English language learners in our neighborhood public schools. For example, in New York City, fewer than one percent of charter school students are homeless, whereas many of the public schools in the same neighborhoods, and even in the same buildings, are composed of ten percent homeless students or more.

During the recent primary elections, the charter school lobby donated millions of dollars to candidates that supported their top-down agenda, including Adrien Fenty, DC mayor, and Basil Smikle, running for State Senate in Harlem. Yet these candidates were roundly defeated, because by and large, most public school parents and community residents would rather support candidates who are interested in improving their local neighborhood schools, instead of closing them down or forcing them to sacrifice more space to expanding charters.

As the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote, "Mr. Fenty was cheered by whites for bringing in the cold-blooded Michelle Rhee as schools chancellor. She attacked D.C.'s admittedly failing school system with an unseemly ferocity and seemed to take great delight in doing it. Hundreds of teachers were fired and concerns raised by parents about Ms. Rhee's take-no-prisoners approach were ignored. It was disrespectful."

Similarly, according to a recent Gallup national poll, support for President Barack Obama's education agenda is slipping, among members of all parties, with just 34 percent of respondents giving the president an A or B for his education policies. According to the poll, the majority of Americans oppose closing low-performing schools, and would rather improve them by providing more support.

Another national poll, financed by Time magazine, showed that the vast majority of Americans believe that test-based accountability has either not worked or has been harmful, though interestingly enough, Time omitted this finding from their coverage.

Yet perhaps in order to control the message, there are practically no public school parents or dissenting views among the scores of participants on the three day line-up for Education Nation, despite a letter sent by Parents Across America to NBC, urging them to invite public school parents, weeks ago.

Gates and Broad have also backed "Waiting for Superman", with the Broad Foundation contributing half a million dollars to its marketing campaign One of the documentary's producers is yet another billionaire, ultra-conservative Philip Anschutz, well known for financing Colorado's anti-gay marriage amendment. (Anschutz and Gates are also partners in financing another project without any research backing, the anti-evolution, pro "intelligent design" Discovery Institute.)

Attacking the teacher unions may be convenient, but is essentially wrong-headed. Well-financed suburban school systems throughout the country, as well as schools in other countries like Finland which result in high achievement levels are also unionized, with very low teacher turnover rates. No, the reason so many of our inner city schools are failing is that they are confronted with educating our neediest students in the worst, most overcrowded conditions, and given these systemic inequities, neither these children nor their teachers are given a real chance to succeed..

One of the appealing children focused on in the film is named Francisco, a first-grader from the Bronx. The movie describes how his school is overcrowded and his teacher is "overworked with too many students"-- conditions that are sadly all too common in city schools. Class sizes in New York City public schools are often overflowing, at thirty students or more, and have increased sharply in recent years, exceeding class sizes in the rest of the state by 25 to 70 percent.

Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institute and Stanford, one of the few so-called "experts" interviewed in the film, has spent much time as a witness in court, defending states when they are sued for not providing equitable education funding. Hanushek's claim, which he has personally profited from, is that resources and class size do not matter.

Yet the SEED charter school, also featured in the movie as a major success, spends $35,000 per student; about four times the average spending, requiring a special act of Congress to fund.

Another one of the stars of the movie, Harlem Children Zone founder Geoffrey Canada, has built facilities that rival that of any private school, and he caps all class sizes at no more than eighteen students. Canada is now constructing a new branch of HCZ costing $100 million, with $60 million paid for by New York City taxpayers, with another $20 million contributed by Goldman Sachs. Meanwhile, HCZ is sitting on more than $200 million in assets, and last year, reported a a $25 million surplus, while our city's public schools have seen their budgets slashed to the bone, and are facing even more cuts this year.

Alan Krueger, economist of Princeton, has convincingly shown that Hanushek's published work has consistently distorted the research, by minimizing the number of studies that show positive results from reducing class size and increased spending. If honestly reported, the research overwhelming shows that smaller classes improve outcomes for children.

This is especially true for the poor and minority children that the film so poignantly depicts, since reducing class size is one of the very few reforms that have been proven to narrow the achievement gap. And yet Bill Gates and many of his grantees, including NYC Chancellor Joel Klein, consistently dismiss the need to provide smaller classes to poor and minority children in the public schools that they control, and have encouraged class sizes to grow sharply, while they send their own children to private schools where class sizes are capped at fifteen.In the movie, Hanushek calls for firing six to ten percent of all public school teachers each year, a la Jack Welch of General Electric fame. Instead, these slash and burn policies would likely have disastrous effects, and lead to even fewer effective and experienced teachers in our highest-need schools.

In short, though the current propaganda campaign, financed and promulgated by billionaire entrepreneurs, promoting ruthless corporate-style tactics, may currently be the rage, the true experts, including teachers and parents who send their own children to public schools, realize that there's a better way.

As John Dewey wrote, what the best and wisest parent wants for his own child is what the community should want for all children. When all the hypocrisy and and furor has died down, the clear findings of research and the wisdom of ordinary Americans will hopefully be recognized once again, and the truth will emerge: that all our children, whether or not they attend charter schools, deserve a better chance to learn.

NYC teacher and parent critique "Waiting for Superman"

Check out the dynamic duo, Julie Cavanagh, public school teacher at PS 15 in Brooklyn and member of CAPE and GEM, and Mona Davids, charter school parent and head of the New York Charter Parents Association, talking about "Waiting for Superman" on Fox TV this morning.

Also be sure to check out the GEM video, "The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman." Hurray for them!

No Disaster Left Behind

September 26, 2010 (GBN News): An upcoming education forum, dubbed “Education Nation”, is being seen by Education Secretary Arne Duncan as a springboard for new, urgent interventions to reform the nation's school systems. One particular panel discussion, aimed at examining “the advantages to the New Orleans school district of starting over post-Katrina, and whether the lessons learned there can be applied across the country”, will form the crux of a new initiative to be proposed by Mr. Duncan in the weeks ahead.

The panel, according to GBN News sources close to the preparations, will not only discuss the relative merits of disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, bubonic plague and terrorist attacks, but will propose plans to quickly capitalize on such events even as they occur.

The Education Department, using real time data collected with software jointly developed by Microsoft and Bloomberg LLP, will stand ready to swoop down on disaster areas with teams of educational experts such as hedge fund managers and wealthy philanthropists. Using sophisticated data analysis, the teams will be able to fire poorly performing teachers and principals and replace entire public school systems with charter schools even before FEMA arrives on the scene.

“To paraphrase Rahm Emannuel, ‘Never let a good disaster go to waste’, ” an Education Department spokesperson told GBN News. “We’re working with all the folks who have already proved that they can destroy an entire economy. Now, with climate change upon us, we can have them harness the energy of the coming apocalypse and use it to destroy the educational status quo once and for all.”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in town for the UN General Assembly, told GBN News that he might just stay in New York and amuse himself at the Education Nation conference. “Maybe the US Government didn’t actually bring down your World Trade Center,” he said through a translator. “But they’re doing a pretty good job bringing down your school systems.”

Friday, September 24, 2010

Mr. Klein Goes Back to School

September 24, 2010 (GBN News): A number of NY City high school students, who were told this week that they had to return to middle school, can take solace in the fact that they were not the only victims of a bureaucratic foul-up. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein was informed today by his putative alma mater, William Cullen Bryant High School, that his 1959 admission to the school was in error. Due to a recently discovered poor test score performance in eighth grade, Mr. Klein will now have to return to middle school to repeat that year. Presumably, the Chancellor’s high school diploma and any credentials earned afterwards will be null and void.

Mr. Klein, speaking to reporters outside Tweed Courthouse, struck a defiant tone. “It’s certainly not my fault,” he insisted. “If I scored low on a test, you’ve got to put the blame where it belongs – on the teacher.”

Asked if Mr. Klein’s standing as Chancellor would be jeopardized by the new revelations, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said not to worry. “The State Education Department gave us a waiver to hire him,” the Mayor told GBN News. “They agreed that he didn’t need any qualifications. Obviously, nothing’s changed.”

But DOE bureaucrats may have the last word after all. A department spokesperson, repeating a statement he had made about the students who were returned to middle school, said, “If we promote students who aren't ready, we are setting them up for failure”. It seems that his own department intends to hold up the Chancellor’s failure as an example.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Andrew Cuomo's Education Platform is Weak

The Times reported Thursday that recent polls show the governor's race is closer than expected. Regarding leading candidate Andrew Cuomo, the Times relates how senior Democratic officials "privately expressed concerns that he was not doing enough to galvanize his own base."

Have a look at the very limited education points in Cuomo's 250-page positions document. He focuses on improving efficiency of education spending by reducing mandates, unlimited expansion of charter schools and the tired Race to the Top agenda of more testing and school "turnarounds" through closings and charter conversions.

Cuomo has been criticized previously for being too close to the hedge fund moguls backing charters, more testing and the de-professionalization of teaching. There's unfortunately nothing in his current platform to galvanize NYC voters focused on education.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Revelations concerning SED's secret backdoor deal with DOE on class size

See today's Juan Gonzalez column here, about the backdoor deal made nearly seven months ago between State Education Commissioner Steiner and Joel Klein, to allow the city to nullify its legal and moral commitments to reduce class size, and to let class sizes increase this fall to any levels they like, while continuing to call this a “class size reduction plan”.

I made the letter available to Juan Gonzalez, because it had been kept secret up to now, despite the transparency and public process required before the city can amend any aspect of its Contract for Excellence and/or class size reduction plan.

Even more importantly, this deal makes a mockery of the entire notion of class size reduction. It clearly contradicts the language of the C4E law, passed in 2007, mandating that NYC reduce class size in all grades, in exchange for receiving over $2 billion in state funds. Rather than the full public disclosure promised, and the tracking of every dollar to ensure that it would be spent according to its specified purpose, the Contract for Excellence program has become yet another slush fund for the DOE.

Despite receiving billions from the state, class sizes have risen sharply the last two years, and are expected to rise even more sharply this year. After Class Size Matters, the UFT and others filed a lawsuit last January in the State Supreme Court against the DOE for its failure to reduce class size, the DOE went behind our backs and negotiated this secret deal, which apparently even the Board of Regents have not been aware of until now.

In the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, the state’s highest court concluded that our children’s constitutional right to an adequate education had been violated, in large part because of excessive class sizes. The State Education Department, as a result of its negligence and active collaboration with DOE, has shown itself to be a willing partner to this continuing violation.

SED, by the way, has still not posted the city’s approved class size reduction plan for last year (2009-2010). When I asked the state last spring why the plan was not posted, contrary to the regulations, they put me off, and first claimed it due to technical difficulties with their website. When weeks went by and the city’s plan was still not posted, they admitted to me that someone high up in the State Education Department did not want to make it public. When I was forced to FOIL the plan, they ignored my FOIL and I finally had to threaten to sue.

They finally relented, and on Sept. 14 sent me a long document, originally submitted by DOE in October 2009, full of the usual obfuscation and gobbledygook. To add insult to injury, they followed up with another email three days later, saying that what they had just sent me was just a preliminary draft and not actually the city’s final approved plan for 2009-2010, which they have so far been either unable or unwilling to provide. So much for the accountability, transparency and oversight that is the state’s fiduciary duty under the law.

The secret letter signed by Steiner and Klein in February that Juan writes about today is posted here; the city’s apparently unapproved class size reduction plan for 2009-2010 is here; and here is a summary of all the billions of C4E dollars the state has thrown at the city since 2007, and apparently intends to continue to provide, despite the city’s long string of broken promises and now open defiance of the intent of the law. Finally, here is the DOE’s recently posted C4E presentation that first tipped me off to the existence of this secret deal.

There are CEC hearings on the city's C4E happening this week and next. I will provide a sample resolution soon concerning this moral and legal outrage that you can forward to your CEC or other organization to consider passing. Thanks for your support during these dark days, as always.

Here is an interview I did with WBAI on this today.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

My unvideotaped debate with DOE's Suransky re NCLB, testing, and NYC's dismal results

On Wednesday, September 15, I was invited to New York Law School to debate Shael Suransky, NYC's Deputy Chancellor for Accountability, about NCLB and the negative effects of high stakes accountability systems.

I also took the opportunity to rebut the claims of impressive progress in student achievement in NYC that DOE continues to make, even after the state test score bubble has burst, and to point out the many errors in Chancellor Klein's written statements concerning this issue.

Unfortunately, NY Law School did not allow Lindsey Christ of NY1 or Norm Scott of Education Notes to videotape the event, reportedly because of pressure from DOE.

Lindsey was quite annoyed, and said she had never been barred from taping any such forum, either at NYU, Columbia, the New School, CUNY or SUNY.

For more on what transpired, you can see Norm Scott's accounts here and here, and the email exchange between Lindsey, the very testy VP for PR at NY Law School, and me.

As many people have asked for it, I am posting my powerpoint here, part 1 and part II. If you would like me to present it to your organization, please email me at

-- Leonie Haimson, Executive Director, Class Size Matters

Thursday, September 16, 2010

PEP Update: State Ed Reprimand on ELL Education

Update: Letter from SED on ELL deficiencies provided.

Highlights of the September, 2010 Panel for Educational Policy meeting held on Staten Island:

State Ed Reprimand

I asked the Chancellor to release the letter from the NYS Education Department reprimanding the DOE for failures in providing services to English language learners. Meredith Kolodner had reported on the existence of the letter in the Daily News Wednesday. The Chancellor responded that he did not know if legally it was appropriate to release the letter. I then asked DOE General Counsel Mike Best what the legal issues preventing the release of the letter might be. He said he would review the issues with SED to see if the letter could be released. Click here for the letter.

Chancellor's Reg C-30

The regulation governing the process to appoint principals and assistant principals was up for approval. I was not comfortable with the outsized role of the Children's First Network and its "cluster" leader on the committee to review the candidates and select the best one. Principals choose their network and cluster in the current arrangement established by DOE. The network provides services to the school. There is an incentive for the network leadership to select principals who will, in turn, select their network to provide services. In effect, we have a vendor running the process to select the principal. I abstained on the vote. Anna Santos representing the Bronx voted against the regulation citing the diminished parent influence in the process.


All contracts were approved. I voted to reject a consulting contract for "virtual learning". The Panel has been asked to approve large expenditures for a virtual learning platform, content and now consulting services to assemble it and deploy it to schools. We've added 18,000 students this year and lost 2,000 teaching positions. Instead of spending real money on virtual learning we need real teachers to provide real instruction.

Cuts to Busing on Staten Island & Queens.

In the public comment session Sam Pirozzolo, president of Community Education Council 31, led Staten Islanders in a spirited attack on the DOE decision to eliminate the policy of granting variances to 7th and 8th graders who would face hazardous commutes without yellow busing.

The public raised a number of important points:
  • No one in DOE appears to have considered the fact that one set of busing decisions was made many years ago as a part of a racial integration plan.
  • The DOE has not proposed rezoning for Staten Island and none has been done in over twenty years.
  • The decision to eliminate the entire policy of granting variances would itself require a full Panel vote along with proper notification. No process has been followed to do so.
I explained to the Panel and audience that I've asked three times to be provided by DOE with data on yellow bus routes by school. The Panel needs to be able to understand where routes are being added and subtracted in order to assess whether the budget is being appropriately allocated and if elimination of variances is the appropriate policy. The chancellor and assorted deputy chancellors repeatedly asserted that their management of the busing procurement and routing was exemplary. I responded simply that if DOE is increasing the transportation budget yet forcing children into hazardous commutes, then they need to provide more transparency into these decisions.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Testing, as Bad as the Chinese Way

Last Sunday, the New York Times elected to give over its education coverage to reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal, an M.D. who normally writes for the "gray lady" about epidemic diseases and other scientific and environmental topics.

Titled "Testing, the Chinese Way," Ms. Rosenthal's banner-style lead story in the Times's "Week in Review" section argues the merits of frequent testing based on her children's experiences in China while attending the International School of Beijing, an institution likely more closely akin in NYC to Dalton, Chapin, or Columbia Grammar than to the P.S. 1's, 10's, or 45's attended by most children. Nevertheless, in extrapolating from her observations in China, Ms. Rosenthal erroneously equates her children's experiences with those of regular Chinese students and simultaneously conflates early childhood testing (Grades K - 2), in-class quizzes and progress-monitoring exams for older students, and the high-stakes tests actively promoted by the current wave of "education reforms."

First, let's consider the Chinese education system to which Ms. Rosenthal alludes. She conveniently ignores the fact that in virtually every major Chinese city, foreigners' international schools largely operate outside the Chinese curricular and examination system. She also chooses to omit -- or perhaps is simply unaware -- that in most of China, students in elementary school are placed in middle schools based on a single test result taken at the end of elementary school (in China, the sixth grade), and they are then placed again in high schools (after ninth grade) based on another single, standardized exam at the end of middle school. Those exams not only create citywide, rank-ordered student tracking systems as early as sixth grade, they are also used to rank order schools and rate teachers and principals in much the way America's currently ascendant "education reformers" are seeking to implement.

By the time a Chinese boy or girl enters high school, he or she has already faced two high stakes exams that have, for those who scored lower, already effectively eliminated academic high school and further higher education from their future. For Ms. Rosenthal to claim, as she does, that the Chinese "march of tests" is regarded as "not evil or particularly anxiety provoking" is patently absurd. There's a very good reason why Chinese students used the term heise qiyue, Black July, when referring to the national collect entrance exams (they have since been moved to June, or probably heise jiuyue for Black June.

Furthermore, with regard to Chinese high schools, virtually one hundred percent of the educational effort and focus in those schools is directed at preparation for those one-time, one-shot, three-day national college entrance exams that will determine which students will go to college as well as which ones. On several occasions, I have asked English language teachers in Suzhou, where I taught, if they wanted to have their students participate in what I viewed as unique English language learning opportunities, such as reading and analyzing together a vastly simplified version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or contributing student-written articles about their city to an English language website. The response from teachers is invariably the same: they love the ideas, but they can't afford the time it would take away from their fixed, text-centered college examination preparing curriculum. In point of fact, I had never once seen a public high school assessment in China that wasn't either an exam or a standard homework problem assignment. There simply aren't any other mechanisms -- research projects, posters, surveys, book reports, thesis papers, creative writing -- used for measuring students' knowledge.

Ms. Rosenthal's support for more frequent assessments is a grossly misleading reading of the current education reform movement. Most teachers, for many years, have used regular, in-class exams and quizzes for student assessment and diagnosis; there have always been enough tests of that sort, and rare indeed were calls from parents that more were needed.

The difference Ms. Rosenthal fails to appreciate is the education reformers' efforts to transform testing from an educative means (which her own children have clearly experienced in Beijing) to the primary end of education (certainly not her objective for her own children's education). The ill effects of this misguided, end-rather-than-means movement are being still further compounded by employing those exams as tools for evaluating and rewarding/punishing teachers and principals or even closing entire schools. Such high stakes inevitably pervert the entire system, influencing curriculum, teachers' time allocation to different subjects, teaching methods, and test administration behaviors such as coaching or outright cheating.

Curiously enough, frequent tests and quizzes ARE NOT really defining characteristics of the Chinese school system, but hugely high stakes exit exams ARE. As Professor Yong Zhao points out so clearly (here and here), this is precisely what China is now seeking to move away from at the very moment our education reform movement is so eagerly embracing it.

Ms. Rosenthal appears fortunate that her two children are now ensconced in one of NYC's specialized high schools where these issues can be safely ignored. Regardless, is copying the Chinese system really the education she desires for the rest of the city's public school children?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Fighting Closure: A Report from William H. Maxwell HS (CTE)

The legacy of Mayor Bloomberg and his reforms on education may very well be a footnote vilifying the extent of damage impacted on a generation of students in New York City. The story of Maxwell HS should be a canary in the mines of what is to come for the rest of the city. Situated in East New York, Brooklyn - arguably one of the most difficult neighborhoods to learn and teach in – the school proudly ran vocational programs that actually placed students in viable careers.

The students in the optics program ran a free eyeglass clinic for all the students and staff in the building. Anyone who needed to replace their glasses came with their prescription or old frame. The students measured the lenses, cut new lenses, fitted them into new frames – and instead of paying 200 dollars, one received a new pair of glasses free of charge. Not only were students learning a valuable professional skill, but they were helping those in a community who may desperately need a new pair of glasses.

The students in the cosmetology program were not the most academically minded. If you remember the musical Grease, beauty school may not attract the next generation of Nobel peace prize winners. But that program was doing something that very few schools can claim – keeping struggling kids interested and motivated to come to school. The attendance of cosmetology students were among the highest at Maxwell. These same students that might otherwise shun a high school degree, could be seen hard at work in the barbering and nail technology labs. They would attend academic classes with their mannequin heads in hand and struggle through tough courses so they could continue what they loved to do.

Our health care students boasted of having the New York State president of the Health Occupations Students of America – a national student organization. Through internships in hospitals and instruction under a practicing physical therapist – our students have enrolled in medical and nursing programs throughout New York.

Just as in the case of Jamaica High School, all these programs are being abandoned by Mayor Bloomberg. Since our freshmen enrollment is down to sixty students – thirty teachers had to be excessed. At one point there were 300 students slated for our school, until the city violated the spirit of the judge’s ruling and sent out reselection letters to these students “in case” the city won the appeal. Our excessed cosmetology teacher is being replaced with a wood shop teacher from another school. There are not enough vision students to keep up the program. What was once a legitimate career alternative and stepping stone to college is now on the brink of vanishing.

Ironically, the mantra always touted by the mayor’s DOE is, “putting children first”. By not hearing the pleas of the students, parents and teachers in these “failing schools”, the mayor is putting his ego first. He said as much in his radio program – where he denigrated the desires of parents to keep these schools open. The mayor seems intent on breaking the teacher’s union, and if that means putting the 1 million plus students in harms way, disenfranchising parents and their voices, and vilifying thousands of dedicated teachers – so be it. If the reformers win, it will be a pyrrhic victory – and history will show, there were will be very few winners to show for it.

-- by Seung Ok, teacher at Maxwell HS

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Charter Schools Mysteriously Survive the Budget Ax that Falls Hard on "Regular" Public Schools

A memo from the law firm White, Osterman & Hanna to the New York Charter Schools Association (circulated on nyceducationnews) urges members to file a "Request for State Aid Intercept" with the NY State Education Department to preserve their "legal right" to increased per-pupil funding--a right they seem to have acquired through a combination of stealth statutory insertions and legislative inattention in the confusion of budget negotiations. So, we'll be looking at even more money being taken out of our schools to satisfy the hungry Charter School Monster that's devouring the public school system.

  • The Governor and the Legislature intended to freeze 2010 aid payment to charter schools at 2008 levels, and such a freeze was actually in the Governor’s budget and in the relevant Assembly and Senate bills (that seems eminently fair and just, given what they've done to "regular" public schools in the same period).
  • Somehow, those provisions were not enacted into law.
  • Therefore, charter schools now will now get increased funding by operation of law (a statutory formula found in §2856 of the Education Law, according to the White Osterman memo and I’ll take their word for it)
  • Charter schools have a mechanism, kindly provided by the State Education Department on a handy form, for “intercepting” from school districts money due to them under the funding formula, which apparently inexorably “mov[es] forward” to ever increasing levels of funding unless stopped by vigilant legislators.
Some quick research reveals that financing uncertainties are probably the biggest impediment to the spread of charter schools. (for an overview, see the paper presented by Jonathan Kivell of United Bank at the Charter Schools Facilities Finance Conference hosted by the Federal Reserve Board in September 2008). Several states (e.g., Colorado) help charter schools through "Intercept” programs that guarantee payment of principal and interest on charter school bonds by literally "capturing" funds allocated to school districts.

New York caters to charter school operators’ dislike of uncertainty by guaranteeing their per-pupil allocations through State Aid Intercept. Nothing wrong with that in principle because after all, we wouldn’t want to disrupt kids’ education by not giving their schools money they have already taken into account in planning the school year.

No, sir—that would be unfair to the kids, though we do allow it for “regular” public school kids……to wit, the great “midnight raid” of February 2008, when each NYC school principal woke up to find out DOE had snatched a pile of money from his/her school, literally in the middle of the night.

The biggest thorn in the side of charter school operators, however, is facilities funding--most states (including New York) bar or restrict direct public funding for it. But even here, there’s government help: US DOE has a program—the Credit Enhancement for Charter Schools—which provides full or partial guarantees of principal as well as interest (pretty generous, really) to lenders that finance construction or renovation of charter schools. But why bother with all that paperwork and uncertainty (it’s a competitive program) when you can just snatch space from hapless "regular" public schools?



Here's my sample letter:


It has come to my attention that provisions freezing 2010 payments to charter schools at 2008 levels, contained in the Governor’s budget as well as in Assembly Bill 9707 and Senate Bill 6607, were never enacted into law. UNLESS YOU ACT, charter schools will be entitled to increased funding, which they intend to capture under the “intercept” procedure provided by state law. That would be both contrary to legislative intent and grossly unfair to our “regular” public schools, which have been asked to absorb budget cut after budget cut. Please do whatever is necessary to prevent this injustice when the Legislature reconvenes.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Welcome back, updated info on class size and other events happening next week

Dear parents: I hope your child had a good first day of classes today; or if you decided to sit it out today, starting next week.

1. I have posted an updated fact sheet with information about the city’s class size limits and goals, our class size lawsuit, and what you can do if your child’s class is too large.

Please also get in touch and let me know what your child’s class size is, as well as the grade level and school. This is critical information. The best way to find out is to count the class roster or ask your child’s teacher or parent coordinator.

2. Unfortunately, we anticipate class sizes larger than ever this year due to sharp budget cuts, the loss of 2,000 teaching positions, and a growth in enrollment of over 18,000 students. This, despite $200 million in funds that the city received from the federal government to prevent class size increases, which the DOE is refusing to spend this year, and 1700 teachers who remain on absent teacher reserve, who Klein refuses to allow principals to hire without having to pay for them out of their miniscule budgets, despite the fact that the city is already covering their full--time salaries.

Not to mention the nearly $1 billion in state funds the city has received in exchange for a promise to reduce class size, a promise that has been broken. More on this issue in the above fact sheet and on our blog.

3.On Wednesday, Sept. 15 at 12:30 PM I will be debating Shael Suransky, Deputy Chancellor and head of DOE’s Accountability office at NY Law School, 185 West Broadway; map here, on the failures of NCLB and other test-based accountability systems. To RSVP, just email Please come if you can!

The bursting of the state test score bubble in July revealed that there has been little progress in city schools over the last eight years, with more than 300 schools where at least two-thirds of students are not meeting state standards and where at least 20% of them are scoring at Level one. There has been no narrowing of the achievement gap in any grade or subject, according to the national exams known as the NAEPs, and even during the era of state test score inflation, there were neighborhoods where one in five students had been held back two or more times, as revealed in today’s Daily News. (Click on the map to the right.)

And yet the city has no plans to address this tragic situation except more of the same: more testing, more “data analysis” of test scores, and more holding back kids.

5. Finally, please join Class Size Matters, CEJ, and other groups on Thursday Sept. 16 at 11 AM, in front of Tweed at 52 Chambers St., to demand smaller classes and other necessary improvements to our schools, for the sake of our children. Hope to see you there!

And remember to let me know at what the class sizes at your children’s school are this year. Even though Joel Klein and Michael Bloomberg do not care, I surely do!