Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Send a letter to DOE urging them to follow the C4E law and reduce class size now!

Dear Folks,
It is that time of year again -- when DOE submits a totally inadequate Contracts for Excellence plan, which does little or nothing to reduce class size or move our schools forward.
For the first time since the C4E law passed in 2007, I am not urging parents to attend the borough hearings, since there is no evidence that DOE takes the comments of those who show up in person any more seriously than those who submit comments through email. If you really want to attend a borough hearing, there is one remaining in Brooklyn on August 1, 2016 at the Wingate Campus at 7 PM; more info here.
I instead urge you to send a letter to the DOE, the Commissioner, and the Regents about the fact that NYC students are still being denied their constitutional right to smaller classes and the myriad ways DOE is defying the law.  A handy letter you can send, edit and/or add details of your own children’s experience is posted on the Action Network site here, you can also find the letter posted below.
The deadline for comment is August 19th and comments can also be submitted by sending e-mails to ContractsForExcellence@schools.nyc.gov. More information from the DOE about the C4E program is here.
Thanks, Leonie

Dear Chancellor FariƱa:

I write to object to DOE’s proposed Contract for Excellence plan for 2016-2017.  Again, not a dollar of the city’s targeted or districtwide expenditures is being spent on reducing class size. While as before, principals are being allowed to spend their discretionary C4E funds under the category of class size reduction, DOE provides no oversight to ensure that they actually do lower class size. 

Indeed, many schools are merely filling budget cuts made by DOE in previous years rather than hiring new teachers to reduce class size, violating the prohibition in the law that C4E funds must “supplement, not supplant” district funding.  In addition, DOE allows principals to openly use these funds not to lower class size but to “Minimize Class Size Growth.”  Even worse, when principals do attempt to reduce class size, the DOE often sends them more students, undermining their efforts.

The result is predictable:  class sizes continue to grow, as pointed out in this recent report from the Education Law Center.  Classes are now significantly larger than when the C4E law was originally passed, especially in the early grades, and larger than when the state’s highest court ruled that NYC class sizes violated students’ constitutional right to a sound basic education.

The one commitment in the current DOE plan, repeated from last year, is that they will focus their class size reduction efforts on the Renewal schools.  Yet even in the case of that limited commitment, DOE has not followed through. An analysis by Class Size Matters reveals that 40 percent of the 94 Renewal schools did not lower class size compared to the year before, 60 percent of these schools continued to have classes as large as 30 students or more, and only seven percent capped class sizes at the more appropriate C4E goals of 20 students per class in grades K-3, 23 per class in grades 4-8, and 25 in core high school classes. This year as last, no class size goals or targets are cited for these schools, and none of the “key elements” of their Renewal plan, according to DOE, even mention smaller classes.    As a result, many of the Renewal schools are still struggling.

Only one significant change has been made from last year’s plan.  DOE now explicitly claims that its original citywide class size reduction plan, approved by the state in 2007 and put on hiatus in 2009 by ex-Commissioner Steiner because of what he called the "current economic climate" is now officially "expired." Yet DOE has offered nothing in its place, despite the fact that the recession is long over, and both the state and the city currently enjoy billion dollar surpluses. 

As a parent, I urge DOE to introduce a real class size reduction plan that will yield positive results for NYC children, and to stop ignoring its legal and ethical obligations.  As the authors of the Education Law Center report conclude,

DOE needs to issue a five-year class size reduction plan with specific annual class size targets along with sufficient funding to achieve those goals. The plan should first focus on lower grades, and schools with the greatest number of low-income children. In the longer term, the DOE should extend this plan to schools citywide, and for all grades, as the law requires, while adopting a school construction plan to ensure there is sufficient space.

The New York State Education Department should refuse to approve any city plan unless it includes specific targets in specific schools a long with sufficient funding to achieve them. The State should also maintain strict oversight to ensure that it achieves these goals.

According to the CFE decision, it is as much the State’s responsibility as the DOE’s to ensure proper class sizes in NYC public schools. If the DOE fails to achieve its annual targets and overall goals, the State should require the implementation of a corrective action plan, and consider withholding C4E funds if the DOE fails to improve its compliance.”

Yours sincerely,

Name and address

Friday, July 15, 2016

Deborah Meier on the controversy about the principal at Central Park East 1

Deborah Meier, founder of Central Park East, sent this letter this morning about the ongoing controversy about the principal at CPE 1.  More on this here.  CPE parents demanding the ouster of the principal have a website here.

Dear friends,

I am frequently asked about the situation at Central Park East I that has recently made the news.  Which side am I on, I’m asked.

I’m unequivocally on the side of those who wisely have concluded that the current principal must move on.  She cannot do the job required.  Bringing in someone to “help” her where she is weak is not a solution, but merely a postponing of the inevitable drift into more “standardized”  practice and a more hierarchical school structure.

What is needed is an interim solution that helps pull the school together, hire new staff, set the tone and continue to improve the practices and approach that has marked CPE I’s 43 year history. 

These include: staff governance, choice for families and staff, strong parental voice and advice, substantial teacher autonomy to develop curriculum,  no admissions requirements re academic or social “fitness”, dedicated to serving predominantly low-income students of color, and the belief that a good open, progressive school should be able to serve all children together without separating them by so-called ability—by tracking in any form including social or racial indicators.   CPE I’s form of progressivism was, on the spectrum, perhaps more inclined to emphasizing “play”—self-initiated cognitive activity--which often includes physical movement, as well as choice, sustained periods for uninterrupted work, peer collaboration, and demonstration versus standardized testing.  Work and Play share common purposes and are, in fact,  hard to distinguish.  Play is at the heart of serious intellectual work, and observation provides teachers with the best means of support for further growth which rests, in professional jargon, in something called self “agency”.

CPE was dedicated to the task of creating a democratic community of citizens with different roles to play--students playing the role of citizens-to-be in some areas and equal citizens in others.  It was based on substantial time set aside for children and their families to meet with their teachers, and open access to classrooms by family members. 

It was also based on an agreement between the staff to meet together several hours a week, mostly during the school day as well as before and after the school year—plus a planning meeting for the fulltime professional staff in mid winter.  If the faculty was responsible for the school’s work it needed time to effectively play such a role—on matters great and small.  

For 32 years this process worked—serving largely District 4 families, plus a very small number of District 5 and others.  We had a commitment not to seek a waiting list!  When we had more applicants than spaces the District agreed to start other schools that worked together with us and had a single application process--thus CPE II and River East.  The teacher-directors (and later principals) of these schools were almost always former teachers in the same or similar schools.

We were just three out of what became a District of 50 small schools during that same period, all with far more autonomy than generally found in urban public schools—including the neighborhood schools (only one was closed due to low enrollment in the district) and the new schools of choice. 

A few years after we opened the District asked us to add white students to help the District to gain access to Federal integration funds—and to increase District enrollment.  We liked the idea and set a kind of informal quota so that we’d still remain predominately for low income minority students.  (Before that it was first come, first serve.) 

When Jane Andrias left as principal in the early 2000s no one on the staff was prepared to take the job.   Over the next 10 yeas, CPE I had 5 different principals, only one of whom had a professional background in any form of progressive education. During this period the school was largely held together by the commitment of its staff and the activism of its devoted families.  It often faltered in terms of cohesion, shared time, and support for new teachers.  In some ways, while classrooms continued to attract positive attention from parents, university educators and scholars, it lacked what a lead-teacher/principal (the former was the original conception) could do best.  It remained the school I happily sent colleagues to visit—including those from Mission Hill which I started in Boston. 

But this fall, after the last short-lived principal retired, it was clear that the newly appointed principal had no background knowledge or experience with elementary, early childhood and/or progressive education, much less functioning in the tradition of collective decision-making and belief that all children—not just privileged children—were well-served by our kind of pedagogy.  We had data that proved it had worked for more than 30 years—why all of a sudden was this kind of school not sustainable by a principal who believed in such practices.   Rather than wait to critique, the newly appointed principal almost immediately began to make changes in the way the school had practiced open, progressive education.  

Many decisions were made without consulting staff from day One through Yesterday—on matters that have always been the purview of faculty and parents.   Some of it was unavoidable given the circumstances but the practice continued even where emergencies didn’t require it.  It was clear by word and action that the principal believed that she was the boss, the first and final authority.  It appeared also, that she saw the kind of play that CPE always engaged in as frivolous and that the flexibility the school was accustomed to re rules and regs were  henceforth taboo (we had followed our former Superintendent’s advice to practice “creative compliance”.)  Above all she made clear that “some” children needed a very different kind of education than the school was accustomed to providing—i.e, Black and low-income children;  in short, the very children we had historically served.

For reasons mostly out of the school’s control--the changed demographics of East and Central Harlem (gentrification) and CPE’s disengagement from District Four during the Bloomberg reorganization--the school’s demographics gradually changed during the past ten years.  It became a school with a minority of low income children, although still substantially racially integrated in a city with few such integrated schools. If  one included bi-racial families as students of color CPE has remained about 60% Black, Brown and bi-racial and 40% white and Asian.   (About 2/3 of the families of color have signed the petition asking for the removal of the current principal)

To rectify the loss of low-income children the elected parent representatives  made efforts to apply for the new Chancellor’s admissions initiative that would enable CPE to set aside spaces for low-income children.  The new principal was uninterested.  Thus while other progressive schools have applied in order to help them be more economically integrated CPE I has not.   Unsurprisingly, by following the “rules” the latest lottery-based PreK will be almost entirely white and mostly District 4.

All our early dreams seemed to me unachievable if the mission we began with continued to be undermined—by misinformation or open disagreement. We lasted through many superintendents in District 4 and even more city-wide regimens for a very long time.  I tended to despair as I learned more about the situation—including conversations with the new principal and the district superintendent.   But committed parents and staff kept “pestering” me and I realized I could not avoid my responsibility to them.  I had to take a stand.

We need to find a solution that is fair to the latest principal, who might well be fine in a different setting she is more in tune with, to those parents who agree with her, while also providing the majority of the community with the leadership that will enable the CPE we put so much of our hearts into to be restored.   We need to embrace the spirit of democracy that CPE I was intended to demonstrate but which requires an unusual collegial form of leadership to restore, .

That’s where I stand.

Deborah Meier
Founding teacher-director of Central Park East

Thursday, July 14, 2016

My disappointment with the amended Democratic platform: "group mentoring" instead of class size reduction?

There has been much discussion of the recent amendments made to the Democratic platform.  See the video below of delegates including Pennsylvania attorney Chuck Pascal , Troy LaRaviere, head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, Randi Weingarten, President of the AFT, and others proposing and approving changes to the original, highly flawed document

Clearly there have been substantial improvements, pointing out the destructive impact of high-stakes testing, particularly on students of color and the schools they attend, proposing that parents have the right to opt out testing, and describing  the destabilizing influence from the unchecked rapid expansion of charters.  See Valerie Strauss on the amendments, as well as a transcript of the discussion that occurred here.  

Some of the language seems to have been influenced by the petition to the Democratic Party posted by the Network for Public Education Action.  (Full disclosure:  I'm on the board of NPE.)  Corporate reformers including  Peter Cunningham, former press secretary to Arne Duncan,  and Shavar Jeffries of Democrats for Education Reform expressed predictable outrage.

At the same time, public school teachers and bloggers like Peter Greene pointed out that the platform only opposes for-profit charters, even as the distinction between for-profit and non-profit charters is often hazy, as non-profits can contract with for-profit operations to run their schools.  See also this excellent Pro Publica report for more on this issue.

And although the amended platform specifically calls for charter schools to be obligated to "reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools" this has been the law in New York since 2010 -- without any real attempt to enforce it.

Democrats on Charters and Testing from Schoolhouse Live on Vimeo.

There are other  aspects of the platform that I find disappointing still. It contains a proposal to fund group mentoring, which is described as a "low-cost, high-yield investment that offers the benefit of building a supportive network of peers who push one another towards success….".

I have checked the research on group mentoring, which is thin indeed.   One report looked at the benefits of group or peer mentoring, published in 2002.  The concept is described as following: "volunteers who interact regularly with small groups of youth can fulfill the role of a mentor —to be a trusted counselor or guide—by developing a number of successful and productive relationships simultaneously. In this way, these programs can provide mentors to large numbers of youth without depleting scarce volunteer resources." 

The study looked at three small programs, in LA, Erie County NY and Kansas City, and found that from self-reports, participants spoke of improvements in social skills, relationships with individuals outside of the group and to a lesser extent academic performance and attitudes.  Yet there were no controls or attempt to quantify improvements. The study concluded that "Perhaps the most important issue to explore is whether these youth- and mentor-reported benefits  translate into observable effects. ...outcome studies need to be conducted before we can conclude that group mentoring programs are, in fact, effective."  

A meta-analysis of several group mentoring programs showed mixed results; one large scale controlled study in 2009 found that mentoring did not lead to statistically significant impacts in any way  --so much so that the Department of Education proposed eliminating funding for mentoring from the federal budget for Fiscal Year 2010.

This is not to say that group mentoring is not a model worth pursuing.  But for the platform to focus on this specifically as a "low-cost, high-yield investment" when the evidence base is so weak is unfortunate.  Yes, group mentoring is comparatively cheap, but the "yield" is uncertain at best.

Compare this to how class size reduction was completely omitted in the platform- one of the few proven reforms shown to narrow the achievement/opportunity gap, and to improve student outcomes in a whole host of ways, including boosting achievement, morale, graduation rates, non-cognitive skills, and lowering the number of disciplinary problems.  Moreover, lowering class size has been estimated at producing economic benefits twice the cost, and is strongly supported by parents and working teachers.  See the Class Size Matters research page or this new fact sheet from the National Education Policy Center for evidence.  Why was it neglected in the platform?