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A teacher who loves tests — but not the ELA

“I love tests,” declares Leah Brunski, a 3rd-grade teacher at PS 29 in Brooklyn. “They help me do a better job teaching. They show me what’s going well and what’s not, which kids are learning concepts and mastering skills and which ones aren’t. They even show me whether or not I’m being effective as a teacher.”

But even Brunski — who’s in her 10th year of teaching — couldn’t stomach the state’s English language arts exam, which she calls “developmentally inappropriate.”

Jean Piaget, one of the godfathers of cognitive development, is likely rolling in his grave knowing that New York is asking kids equipped with 45-minute attention spans to focus for almost twice that amount of time. It felt cruel to ask students to go back and check their work after the 60+ minutes many had already spent reading and then re-reading passages, writing and revising their responses.

In an op-ed in the Daily News titled “Why state exams fail my test,” Brunski highlights the length (240 minutes over three days) and complexity of this year’s ELA. The veteran teacher, who frequently uses her own assessments to shape her lessons, also notes that teachers and students don’t receive the results of the exams until students have already moved on to the next grade — too late to inform instruction.

“[The test] may as well have disappeared into thin air the day my students were done with it,” Brunski concludes.

Read the full op-ed here.

Is the ELA turning children into “test-taking drones”? This teacher thinks so

Teachers, parents and students at more than 35 schools in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn mounted early-morning protests on April 11,  incensed by what they said were confusing, developmentally inappropriate or needlessly long questions on this year’s English language arts exams.

In a blog post at Slate that originally appeared on Testing Talk — a forum for sharing observations about standardized tests — an anonymous New York State public school teacher who worked hard to develop her students’ love of reading writes about how the tests “are sucking the life and love out of students’ literary lives.”

“During the test, my readers, who months ago couldn’t get their noses out of books, complained of stomachaches as they persevered and tried to read texts that were over their heads and had no relevance to their lives, age, or backgrounds,” writes the 3rd-grade teacher.

The teacher, who supports the Common Core Learning Standards, observes that the ELA’s “complex and nonsensical” questions bore little resemblance to the kind that should encourage critical thinking.

Instead of a question like: “What caused the character to (insert action here) in the middle of the story?” (which, mind you, is hard enough for an 8-year-old to identify as it is), there were questions like: “In Line 8 of Paragraph 4, the character says … and in Line 17 of Paragraph 5, the character does … Which of the following lines from Paragraph 7 best supports the character’s actions?” This, followed by four choices of lines from Paragraph 7 that could all, arguably, show motivation for the character’s actions in the preceding paragraphs.

Many across the city agreed. Twenty-five principals in Manhattan’s District 2 wrote a letter to families saying they were disappointed by the design and quality of the tests.

The anonymous teacher concludes, “It is not my job to take children who are developing, who are trying to make sense of the world and the books around them, and turn them into test-taking drones who read and write with the intention of dissection and choosing the best answer out of four complex answer choices that all say little to nothing about what the text actually meant.”

Read the full post here.

Think you understand teachers? You’re wrong

You may think you know who teachers are and what they do, but you’re wrong, argues Sarah Blaine in this blog post at Parenting the Core.

Blaine, a former teacher who now practices law, notes that ” people I encounter out in the world now respect me as a lawyer, as a professional, in part because the vast majority of them have absolutely no idea what I really do.”

Yet because nearly everyone has had the opportunity to observe teachers at work, everyone thinks they understand the teaching profession — and everyone feels qualified to criticize teachers.

“The problem with teaching as a profession is that every single adult citizen of this country thinks that they know what teachers do,” Blaine writes. “We need to stop thinking that we know anything about teaching merely by virtue of having once been students.”

Read the full post here.

New York’s badly segregated schools

A new Civil Rights Project report on segregation in New York schools, by UCLA researchers John Kucsera and Gary Orfield, demonstrates that New York State has the most racially segregated schools in the country. New York’s schools are more segregated than schools in the Deep South, even after the civil rights movement and desegregation efforts made around the state since the 1970s.

New York City contributes mightily to the state’s overall lack of diversity in schools, Orfield writes in the report’s preface, with the city’s recent school-choice policies tending to perpetuate segregation. The authors flag city charter schools as exceptionally segregated. Almost three-quarters are termed “apartheid schools” with less than 1 percent white enrollment.

By contrast, the city’s magnet schools had the highest proportion of multiracial learning environments and the lowest proportion of segregation, the authors find.

Orfield, in a preface to the report, makes the case that integrated schools offer an advantage to all students across the board by preparing them for an increasingly diverse college and job market. Integration benefits academic achievement and health outcomes for minority students and social skills for whites and all other students.

School-choice plans without “civil rights standards,” he writes, increase the stratification of schools and leave children of color attending segregated and poorer schools. “Such ‘freedom of choice’ and ‘open enrollment’ plans were tried in many hundreds of districts,” he says. “The record, as the Supreme Court recognized in l968, was a failure.”

When districts implement choice, whether through magnets, charters or other types of assignments, the planning must be linked to measures that will uphold civil rights standards, such as extensive outreach, free transportation, “authentic educational options worth choosing,” and no admissions screening.

For students who speak languages other than English, the authors urge expansion of dual language immersion programs.

New York City’s notoriously segregated housing markets are a factor in school segregation, but not an excuse to do nothing, Orfield says.

Hurt schools, help rich people

[This editorial originally appeared in the March 27 issue of the New York Teacher.]

A new proposal making its way through the state Legislature is a thinly veiled voucher program that would use taxpayer money to fund religious and other private schools in New York City and across the state.

The proposal, already approved by the state Senate and included in its budget bill, threatens the future funding of public education and must be kept out of the final state budget.

It is misleadingly called the education investment tax credit. It would be more accurate to call it the plan to divest public education and further enrich wealthy donors to private schools.

The program would grant individuals tax credits of up to $1 million for donations to scholarship funds for religious or other private schools.

In other words, money that would go into state coffers to fund public education, affordable housing or infrastructure improvements would instead go into the bank accounts of wealthy people who donate to private scholarship funds.

And the scholarships themselves would benefit children of well-off families, with a generous household income limit of $550,000.

The tax credits would also be available for donors to public schools. But don’t let that fool you. Public schools were added to make the tax credit more widely palatable. This bill would allow wealthy donors to pick which public schools they want to support and which not.

In a cynical attempt by the bill’s writers to win over public school educators and their supporters, teachers would also get a tax credit of at least $100 for buying supplies.

Although the state Senate has passed the bill, which was sponsored by state Sen. Marty Golden, the Assembly leadership, to its credit, is showing less enthusiasm.

But the tax credit proposal has momentum. It is particularly alarming that 17 labor unions, most of them representing uniformed public employees, back the bill on the grounds that it would benefit their members, presumably because many of them send their children to parochial schools.

Have middle-class and working New Yorkers who choose to send their children to private school forgotten the importance of a well-funded public education system?

This proposed massive tax giveaway would hurt working people by increasing the already staggering wealth inequality in New York. By draining money that we need for our public schools, state universities, highways and other vital services, it would threaten the economic future of our state.

Committees upon committees upon…

“Kelly” is the pseudonym of a 3rd-year high school social studies teacher in Queens. If you’d like to write for the New Teacher Diaries, email edwize@uft.org!

High school teachers spend the entire year focusing on Regents preparation — especially this year, when Regents scores hold so much weight in our teacher evaluations. This year, like every other year, we are committed to improving student test scores. As part of our commitment, we’ve formed two committees focusing on how we can get our students to pass the Regents. So in effect, these two different committees are doing the same thing.

It sounds great in theory to have a literacy team and an instructional team, in addition to the school’s inquiry team. All of our teams are making progress: We’ve identified that low reading levels account for difficulty in test-taking for special education and ELL students.

But at a recent faculty meeting, the inquiry team presented essentially the same data that had been discussed at the literacy team meeting. Neither team has collaborated to discuss its findings or how its data can help us meet our students’ needs. Instead, each team has come up with its own approach on how to tackle the issue, with the result that not as much is getting done.

We struggle in education about how to make progress, but our multiple committees seem to be trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re so caught up in data and the other pressures of being a teacher that we think we exist in a vacuum, as if no one else in the entire school could possibly share the same concerns or have solutions.

Being on a committee is an honor, to be recognized for my skills and what I do. And it’s great to work with colleagues toward solving a problem.

But why is it that the same few teachers get picked for committees over and over again? Shouldn’t we all work together on everything, instead of relying on a few people? After all, we’re all accountable for results. Not to mention that committees create extra work for teachers who are already overextended: If I’m expected to prepare dynamite lesson plans that are Common Core- and Danielson-aligned, how can I do that in addition to serving on a committee?

Committees should be cohesive in terms of membership and focused on a specific issue, rather than overlapping with the same broad intentions. We should be encouraged to collaborate as a whole rather than attempt to tackle the same issue in small units without communicating. After all, the school’s mission applies to all of us, not just those on a committee.

Steve Jobs got it right; he ran a company that had only a few products, but they were high-quality. We as teachers should go for a similar approach; each committee should have a single, focused mission. As each committee begins to intensively address its assigned topic, other problems at the school might start to disappear.

Unprepared and knowing it

[This editorial was originally published in the March 6 issue of the New York Teacher.]

Would you want a doctor who had completed one year of medical school instead of four? A lawyer who had finished only one semester of law school?

In other professions, we assume that practitioners will have proper training.

But for teachers, a dangerous sort of denial has taken hold about the preparation needed to be effective in a classroom.

It is as if our society had tacked up a sign: Teachers wanted. Little training required. The less experience, the better.

Two programs that may promote the belief that teachers require minimal preparation are Teach for America and the New York City Teaching Fellows.

The UFT counts among its ranks thousands of Teaching Fellows and a handful of Teach for America teachers. The union proudly represents them and honors their good work. But many of them have a hard time in their first few years given the gaps in their training.

The Teaching Fellows program was founded in 2000 when the city faced a shortage of certified teachers. Its participants receive a crash course of six weeks of training before they are placed in high-need schools while continuing their graduate work after school and on weekends.

Reports over the years have documented that a significant number felt unprepared for the classroom. This concern has surfaced again in a new UFT survey of teachers. Among respondents, Teaching Fellows were more than twice as likely to rank their training as poor or fair as teachers certified through traditional college programs.

Since 2005, the city has had contracts totaling nearly $50 million with The New Teacher Project, which runs the Teaching Fellows program. We urge Chancellor Fariña to evaluate that contract closely to determine if it serves the city’s needs.

Also under the spotlight recently is Teach for America, which requires only a two-year teaching commitment from its participants and gives them just five weeks’ training before placing them in high-need schools. The organization Students United for Public Education has a new Twitter campaign, #ResistTFA, that has generated a hugely popular twitter chat about the controversial program.

The chat may be the start of an important debate.

Teaching is both one of the most rewarding and the most challenging jobs. To do it well, teachers need and deserve excellent preparation. And children need and deserve well-trained teachers.

How to read a poem (or how to teach)

Li Wenlan is in her second year as a middle school ELA teacher in Brooklyn. In this entry, she recalls analyzing the Robert Frost poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” with her 7th-grade Integrated Co-Teaching class. If you are a newer teacher and would like to write for the New Teacher Diaries, please email edwize@uft.org!

The education reform movement has an obsessive adherence to rigidly structured lesson plans, bewildering algorithms to quantify teacher effectiveness and the relentless collection and analysis of student data. But in my second year of teaching, I’ve come to realize that a true education is messy — gloriously messy, like a Kandinsky painting.

A true education blossoms at the nexus of wondrous insight, courageous inquiry and dazzling tangents. It eschews the arrogant certainty of algorithms, the military precision of linear thinking and the uninspired conformity of logical progression.

Halfway through my 7th-grade class’s study of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, the adolescent Ponyboy runs away with Johnny after the latter accidentally murders a Soc, a member of a rival gang. While sitting in an abandoned church and ruminatively observing a beautiful sunrise, Ponyboy is moved to recite “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” a Robert Frost poem about the fleeting nature of life. After his recitation, Ponyboy confesses that he “was trying to find the meaning the poet had in mind, but it eluded [him].”

Here was a chance for my students to help out their beloved protagonist by analyzing the poem’s significance.

I began the lesson by modeling a close reading of the first couplet of the poem on a document camera. I highlighted select phrases that stood out and recorded lingering questions and tentative interpretations in the margins to make personal text-to-self connections. Throughout the modeling, I invited my students to weigh in by asking them to contribute possible responses to my questions or to provide alternative interpretations. Then I asked my students to try to close-read the last three couplets of the poem independently.

When my co-teacher and I initially peered over the shoulders of our students, we noticed that many of them were reticent about jotting down their thoughts, understandably nervous about traversing into deep, unknowable territory. But slowly, questions — and interpretations cloaked in the safe, humble guise of questions — began to emerge.

“What did Frost mean when he wrote ‘So Eden sank to grief’?” “When Frost wrote ‘leaf subsides to leaf,’ did he mean that the leaves were dying?” “Isn’t this line similar to this other line about how the flower can only last an hour?”

My co-teacher and I agreed that it was time for our students to share their thoughts and wonderings out loud with each other.

Despite my students’ initial reluctance to delve into challenging poetic terrain, our whole-class discussion unexpectedly became a safe, nonjudgmental haven within which to share ideas. And though I had prepared a set of text-dependent questions that would guide my students to a more symbolic interpretation of the poem, I quickly brushed those aside as my students unwittingly took the lead.

Unburdened by my carefully-laid plans for a scaffolded discussion, students jumped from line to line, couplet to couplet, making unlikely connections amongst disparate phrases, peers’ remarks, and other works of literature. With only the gentlest of teacher guidance, the discussion flowed wherever my students willed it.

“Gold refers to something that’s valuable or precious, so I think Frost is trying to say that nothing good in life can last forever,” offered a student.

“Well, if that’s the case, what are some good things in Ponyboy’s life that don’t last forever?” I asked.

“Maybe the important people in his life. For example, his mom and dad, who died in a car crash,” suggested one student.

“Or maybe he’s relating it to the sunrise and his friendship with Cherry, because even though they see the same sunset, their friendship still can’t last because he’s a Greaser and she’s a Soc,” suggested another.

“But what about the Garden of Eden? What’s that got to do with anything?” a student asked.

“Maybe it refers to a character from the novel that’s grieving?”

Suddenly, another student who had been quietly observing the discussion excitedly chimed in: “I got it! It’s Darry, when Ponyboy runs away! Maybe Darry is the Eden that grieves when he realizes that he has lost Ponyboy!”

“I’d actually like to share a text-to-text connection I’ve made between that ‘So Eden sank to grief’ line and the myth of “Icarus and Daedalus,” said a student. “When Icarus dies after flying too close to the sun, Daedalus becomes so heartbroken that he literally sinks to grief because he gives up flying for the rest of his life. This situation is actually pretty similar to both Ponyboy’s and Darry’s that other students mentioned.”

I have heard teachers bristle at the prospect of teaching struggling students out of the mistaken fear that they will have to sacrifice sophisticated intellectual inquiry for mind-numbing, rudimentary mechanics. Though my students’ writing certainly suffers from its fair share of run-on sentences, nonexistent thesis statements and weak explanations of text-based evidence, I still wish those teachers could see my students. I wish they could see how their burgeoning insights and intellectual courage belie their test scores, see how they are able to escape the fetters of low self-esteem to take a chance on their brave ideas, see how they make breathtaking, convincing connections between “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and the myth of “Icarus and Daedalus” or the Bible.

The process of reading a poem is, I’ve come to realize, a lot like teaching. You don’t know where your mind (or your students’ minds) will wander, what questions will emerge or what imaginative insights will blossom, but you let go nevertheless.

And this can lead you to moments of buoyant incandescence, to life-affirming moments when both teacher and student become equally genuine arbiters of knowledge, to unreal, quite bittersweet moments, in fact, when life imitates art and you realize that this very moment is so, so “golden” that it certainly cannot stay.

And yet, it does.

Inequality and you

[This editorial originally appeared in the Feb. 6 edition of the New York Teacher.]

You know how college costs today seem nearly out of reach for all but the most affluent families?

How so many families now are under financial stress and struggling to pay their bills, despite holding down jobs and working hard?

How housing prices in New York City keep climbing faster than wages, forcing more families to move farther out or to the suburbs?

That is income inequality at work.

Bill de Blasio made it the touchstone issue of his mayoral campaign. President Obama focused on it in his State of the Union address. Occupy Wall Street helped us all start talking about it.

The statistics are alarming. Since 1979, the share of total income going to the top-earning U.S. households nearly doubled. In 2012, the top 10 percent of earners took more than half of the country’s total income. An international study in 2013 found that the widest gaps between rich and poor are found in four countries: Chile, Mexico, Turkey and the United States.

The issue really hits home, though, when we consider how growing inequality hurts ordinary people and narrows the future possibilities for our children.

There are ways to close the income gap, and the president is right that government has a big role to play. Solutions include increasing the minimum wage, closing corporate tax loopholes and strengthening labor laws so that workers who want to unionize can do so.

As a union, our fight for fair contracts acts as a counterweight to the rising tide of inequality. So does our support for other labor campaigns, such as the fight by fast-food workers for decent wages.

Inequality affects us all every day. It is, as President Obama said, the defining issue of our time.

A strike averted

[This editorial originally appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of the New York Teacher.]

More than 1,800 UFT members were poised to strike recently. Picket sites were selected around the city for nurses employed by the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, if a new contract was not reached by the Feb. 1 strike deadline. Strike captains were named.

The strike was narrowly averted when the UFT won an agreement to preserve the pensions and health care that the employer had sought to cut. The nurses also won a pay raise.

The victory is a reminder of how necessary unions are.

It isn’t just people who work at public schools, at other government agencies or in private industry who need collective bargaining.

“Employees of large nonprofit organizations need unions, too,” UFT Vice President Anne Goldman said.

VNS is a large and well-established nonprofit that provides in-home nursing care, therapy and hospice care to the frail and elderly.

You might think that such organizations, with nonprofit status and a mission of care-giving, could naturally be counted on to treat employees fairly.

But last fall, VNS abruptly laid off 500 staff, including 300 nurses, after the organization came under state scrutiny for improper Medicaid billings linked to the use of social adult day-care centers. The organization had to repay the government $33.6 million in the settlement.

In the wake of that settlement, VNS told its nurses that it needed to eliminate their pension benefits and require them to pay for their own health care. The nurses, backed by their union, held firm.

Now that a contract has been won, the UFT hopes to turn a page in its relationship with VNS to one of mutual respect.

VNS nurses gained that respect at the bargaining table by standing in solidarity with their union.

Charter Schools: A UFT Research Report

As charter school proponents go to Albany this week to plead their case, let’s examine the realities behind their claims of stretched resources, unique student demand and stellar academic results.

How poor are charter schools?

While charters maintain they have very thin budgets, and some smaller charters in fact operate close to the margin, others are extremely well-funded.

A review of the most recently available public documents showed that as of 2011-12, the schools in six of the city’s most prominent charter chains had a total of more than $65 million in net assets, including nearly $16 million for the charters which are part of the Uncommon Schools Network and more than $13 million for the Success Academy Network.

What’s more, this supposed poverty doesn’t prevent some charters from paying very large salaries to their executives, as the Daily News recently reported.  The two Harlem Village Academies run by Deborah Kenny pay her a total of half a million dollars a year;  Eva Moskowitz of Success Academies reported a salary only a few thousand less, while David Levin of KIPP got just under $400,000.  All these salaries are dramatically more than those of the city’s mayor and chancellor, who supervise roughly 1,700 schools.

Charters’ opaque bookkeeping methods make it difficult to figure out how much many schools spend on their vendors, but tax filings by the Success Academy schools suggest that management fees charged by that network totaled $3.5 million of their schools’ per-pupil funds in 2011-12. In 2013, the Success Network requested and received a raise in management fees to 15 percent of the per-pupil funding it receives from the state and city.

The total amount of management fees charged by just four of the city’s charter chains in 2011-12 — Success, Uncommon, Achievement First, and KIPP — was over $12 million.  (see table below)

Charter Chain Financial Data, 2011-12


Network Name Number of NYC Schools with Audits Total Net Assets of Schools Total Management Fees Top Executive Compensation 2010-11
Achievement First





Success Charter Network





Uncommon Schools










Village Academies Network



Not Listed on Audit


Icahn Charters










All of these figures are based on the schools’ own filings; the lack of publicly available audits for many other chains limits information about what other networks are charging.  Meanwhile, charter proponents led by Success Academy have launched a court fight to prevent an independent expert — the State Comptroller — from auditing charters’ and charter management companies’ books.

A study based on 2010-11 by the city’s Independent Budget Office calculated that as of 2009-10, co-locating a charter school in a public school building in effect gave the charter about $650 per student more in public funding than district schools spend. Their calculations were based on earlier, lower levels of charter per-pupil funding, however; at current rates, that disparity may now be over $2,000 per student.

Charters also get foundation grants — including from right-wing organizations like the Walton Family Foundation, which has given more than $1 million to Achievement First in recent years. In addition, a look at official filings by many charters — in particular the Success Academy network — show that the schools or chains have boards dominated by hedge funders and other financial interests whose contributions could theoretically absorb any reasonable rent charged for public school space; at a gala in 2013, for example, the Success Network raised more than $7 million in one evening.

How unique are charter waiting lists?

Charters make much of the length of their student waiting lists.  But the reality of New York City schools is that tens of thousands of students at all levels end up on waiting lists or completely frozen out of the schools they would like to attend.

More than half of the city’s nearly 64,000 eighth graders did not get into their first choice for high school last year and 7,200 — more than 10 percent of the total — did not get into a single school they applied to.  Approximately 20,000 students who take the test each year for the specialized high schools do not get into one of these schools.

The same is true for thousands of elementary school students who apply for slots in competitive middle schools, and for thousands more families who cannot find space in gifted programs or whose kids end up waitlisted for kindergarten in their neighborhood schools.

Students can and do get off waiting lists in district schools, which generally backfill empty spaces in higher grades if and when students transfer out; most charters, in contrast, almost never accept transfer students off their “waitlists” beyond their early grades.

Does admission to a charter guarantee academic success?

Student scores plummeted across the city last year when the state introduced new tests based on the Common Core standards. But in reading, charters schools as a whole scored under the citywide average (26.4 citywide average, charters 25.1).

Even highly touted charters had classes with significant problems.  Democracy Prep’s Harlem charter had fewer than 4 percent of 6th-graders proficient in reading and fewer than 12 percent passing math.  Fewer than 12 percent of 5th-graders at KIPP Star College Prep were proficient in math and just 16 percent passed the reading test, while 11 percent of their 7th-graders scored proficient in language arts and 14 percent in math.

These results come despite the fact that, as a group, charter schools serve a smaller proportion of the city’s neediest students, including special ed and English language learners.  A 2012 report by the charters’ own association —  the New York City Charter School Center — showed that on average, charter schools had only 6 percent English language learners, compared with 15 percent in district schools.

A recent IBO study showed that an astonishing 80 percent of special education students who start in charter schools in kindergarten are gone by the third grade.

Student attrition is a particular issue for the Success network, whose schools tend to have far higher student suspension rates than their neighborhood schools; they also see their class cohorts shrink as many poor-performing students leave or are counseled out and not replaced.

How can we level the playing field?

If charter schools are serious about playing an important role in New York City education, they should take four immediate steps to level the playing field between them and district schools, as outlined by UFT President Michael Mulgrew below in an article reprinted from the New York Daily News:

For the past 12 years, the Bloomberg administration has singled out charter schools for special treatment, a strategy that embittered many ordinary New York City public school parents and children. Here are four steps charter schools should take now to end that divisive relationship:

Serve the neediest kids

State law requires that charters serve the same percentage of poor and special-needs children, along with English-language learners, as their local district schools do. Unfortunately, many charter schools ignore this requirement. Meanwhile, parents complain that special-needs children and students who struggle academically have been “counseled out” of charters, most of them ending up in local district schools while the charters hold onto students with better scores. A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that a shocking 80% of special-needs kids who enroll in city charter schools as kindergartners leave their schools by the third grade.

Be good neighbors

The Bloomberg administration often shoehorned charters into public schools. Because some charters didn’t want their children interacting with public school kids, gymnasiums and cafeterias would be limited to charter students at certain hours. Worst of all, students in dilapidated classrooms with outmoded equipment and few supplies watched with envy as the incoming charters spent small fortunes on renovations, paint jobs, new desks and equipment, books and supplies. If they want to be good neighbors, charters should share the wealth — and make sure all students sharing one school building have the same opportunities and environment.

Open their books

If charter operators truly want a new start, they need to abandon the lawsuit they have filed against the state controller seeking to block his ability to audit their books. Parents and taxpayers deserve to know where their money is going.

Stop treating children as profit centers

Charters receive taxpayer dollars. In addition, many get donations from major hedge funders, have millions of dollars in bank accounts and pay their chief executives — who typically oversee a small group of schools — as much as half a million dollars a year, along with lavish benefits. Charters with such resources need to pay rent, as Mayor de Blasio has suggested. And charters should set realistic salary caps for their executives and appropriate limits on payments to consultants.

Data Sources

Other sources:

 How poor are charter schools?

 How unique are charter waiting lists?

Does admission to a charter guarantee academic success?

Learning how to support children in crisis: A collective awareness of classroom stressors

nau_edwizePatrick Nau, a teacher at PS 369 in the Bronx, has completed his training with the Institute for Understanding Behavior, a consortium of the New York City Department of Education and the UFT. The institute trains entire school staffs in using strategies that help foster social, emotional and academic growth in students. Eight schools have signed up for the training. Patrick is writing a series of blog posts about his experience and the lessons he hopes to bring into the classroom. Read Patrick’s first post »

The four-day training of the Institute for Understanding Behavior asks you to take stock of yourself and your school community. Each day, for six hours, we were asked to think with sincerity about our school’s successes and where our school needs to make changes. We rehearsed how we would deal with stressful situations. And we shared with the other participants what behaviors really irk us and what we do to help ourselves remain calm.

My co-workers and I realized a few things: mainly that our staff — as do most educators — knows what we are supposed to do. We know that in stressful situations we need to support student needs and understand the correlation between their needs and behaviors, use positive language, avoid power struggles. We know what environmental conditions cause children to struggle with behavior.

The trainers suggested that teachers ask themselves four key questions before responding to a child’s behavior: What am I feeling? What does the student feel, need or want? How can I change the environment? What is the best response?

In the heat of the moment, I sometimes struggle to pause before reacting. I need to not panic during a stressful situation — even if there is fighting — take a deep breath and quickly assess the situation before trying to address it.

My colleagues and I also found the Life Space Interview to be a helpful tool. In a nutshell, the Life Space Interview is a way to engage a struggling student, one-on-one, to understand what is frustrating him or her, to understand the behavior correlated to how the child feels, discuss and practice alternatives, and ultimately reintroduce the child into the class.

But ultimately all of this led to more questions. How do we find time to use these strategies when you have a full class of other students? What do you do when multiple students are having difficulty at the same time?

During the training, my colleagues and I found ourselves frequently in discussions about applying what we were learning to our particular school and staff. We kept returning to one key question: Will everyone buy into the program and implement it in earnest? How do we implement the components and strategies of the IUB training with consistency across the entire school community?

For the IUB strategies to be implemented effectively, all staff needs to develop a collective awareness of how to handle stressful situations.

The ABCs of a First-Year Teacher

by MsOui, a first-year 2nd-grade ESL teacher in Queens

Advance: Formerly just a category students were put into based on ESL assessment scores; now it is the name of a new teacher evaluation system we are all still trying to figure out.

Budget: Hopefully in my second year of teaching I won’t have to spend quite as much of my own money on classroom supplies as in my first.

Charlotte’s Web: The first text my 2nd-graders read in our ELA curriculum.

Danielson: Familiarize yourself with this teaching framework and you will be amazed at how you grow in your instructional practice.

Engagement: No matter how interesting and awesome a lesson is, there’s always one student who sits in the corner and reads a book.

Family: The relationship I have with my students. We stick together like crazy glue!

Gobbela: What we named our paper turkey, who was eventually replaced by a stuffed turkey acting as our class mascot. Fortunately, by “stuffed,” I mean with cotton.

High expectations: Because sometimes all it takes for a student to succeed is a seed of belief planted by someone they believe in.

Inspiration: Learn to grow, grow to teach, teach to learn.

Just kidding: Something I learned I can no longer say to my students – because after awhile they won’t take me seriously. I’m not kidding.

Kaleidoscope: Looking at my students is like looking into a kaleidoscope. I see so many bright possibilities. We as teachers have the ability to adjust our perspective to create high expectations for all students.

Laughter: Giggles, chuckles, snorting and bellyaches.

Mathematics: What’s odd plus even? Even odder. Math has become more than numbers. It includes word problems or riddles that calculators cannot solve.

Normalcy: Each student shows me unique and extraordinary possibilities, and this has become the norm.

Oops: Failure drives our success.

Princess: I have one student who frequently forgets to write her name on her test papers and assignments. However, her illustrations always include the same princess on a unicorn with a rainbow background. While other students print their names, she has her own signature!

Quiz: What used to be called quizzes are now called assessments. If you tell students they are having a quiz, you’ll just see a quizzical look on their cute faces.

Rainbows: See princess description above.

Sarcasm: Sarcasm confuses the students who are told their parents are going to be so happy to hear that they are misbehaving at lunch that day. I will just say what I mean and mean what I say from now on.

Tattle: Yes, because your partner spilling a drop of water on her desk will somehow have an astronomical effect on your learning.

Unicorn: See princess description above.

Vow: Because children have pretty darn good memories, keep those promises. Once a promise is broken, good luck!

Why? Curiosity sparks discussion. Get ready. Kids can say the darndest things!

Xerox: Another paper jam?!

Yo-yo: Days are filled with ups and downs…ahhh, and the worst is when the tricks are performed!

Zeal: If you still have this on day 180, then congratulations, you have survived your first year of teaching. Now the best thing about this year is what’s yet to come!

A memorable MLK Day for 3 UFT chapter leaders

When I received an email from the UFT about the Martin Luther King, Jr. ceremony at Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem, I decided that I would like to go. Michael Mulgrew would be there, and I know the union is only as strong as the dedication of its leaders and members. Erin Oates, Joseph Usatch and I became friends when we recently trained together as pension consultants. The three of us are also chapter leaders. We touched base with each other and decided to go to the celebration together.

We made our way from Queens to the church that Monday morning. I didn’t think twice about it, even though I could have stayed in bed late on a day off from school. I posted a quote earlier that day on Facebook that Dr. King said: “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.” I relate this to our union and how we are fighting the good fight day after day, and that we aren’t afraid to do what’s right. Not just for our members, but for the children in our schools.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who spoke at the ceremony, explained that our union and Martin Luther King Jr. “go way back.” He explained how a group of teachers “passed around a hat” so they could get station wagons to go down south and meet with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. Mulgrew also drove home the point that just like King fought for what he believed, we have to do the same, and we have to make sure our students are at the center of our efforts. “It’s about the kids,” he said. The congregation clapped as Michael Mulgrew gave credit to teachers for their hard work.

To say the least, the ceremony was very moving. We sang and swayed to songs like “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

When we left the church, we decided to go to the iconic Sylvia’s restaurant. We enjoyed delicious soul food as we reflected on the day’s events. I looked up and recognized Chirlane McCray walking in, and a second later Bill de Blasio! The mayor shook people’s hands. As he passed our table, I said “Hi Bill, can you take a picture with us?” Joe told him that we were UFT members, and Erin mentioned we had just come from the MLK ceremony where Mulgrew spoke. He smiled and said, “That’s great.”

We immediately took to our phones to tell all our friends that we had met the mayor, and that night our picture was posted on the UFT Facebook page. It was definitely a memorable MLK Day for Erin, Joe and me, and, boy, am I glad that I didn’t stay in bed!

Denise Verde is the UFT chapter leader at PS 186 in Queens.

Stigma from obesity affects achievement

[This article originally appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of the New York Teacher.]

Research showing that obese children perform below normal-weight peers on math and reading assessments has attributed the cause to health issues linked to obesity. But a new study finds that the social stigma suffered by obese children may affect their academic performance. The research published in Child Development found that math achievement among obese children in elementary school varies depending on when the child became obese and whether it has affected the child’s social and emotional functioning.

Researchers Sara Gable of the University of Missouri, Jennifer L. Krull of the University of California and Yiting Chang of the University of Vermont tracked more than 6,000 elementary school students from kindergarten through 5th grade. Each child was assigned to one of three weight-status categories: persistently obese — those who were obese from kindergarten or 1st grade through 5th grade; later-onset obesity — those who became obese in 3rd grade or later with the condition persisting through 5th grade; and those who were never obese. The children were also rated on their social skills with peers and their emotional behaviors, such as whether they exhibited anxiety, sadness, loneliness or low self-esteem.

Math achievement among the persistently obese children in 1st through 5th grade was significantly below that of children who had never been obese. Among later-onset obese children, math performance varied by gender, with only the girls exhibiting lower results compared to children who had never been obese.

The researchers found that emotional behaviors explained part of the link between obesity and lower math performance. Among the persistently obese children, boys in 3rd and 5th grades showed negative emotional behaviors that could affect academic achievement, and girls showed such behaviors as early as 1st grade. Girls in both the persistently obese and later-onset groups also showed weaker social skills, although this was not true for boys in these groups

The researchers suggest that the cumulative stress of being a member of a stigmatized group can interfere with academic performance, student engagement and cooperative classroom behavior. They recommend that school staffs and health professionals who work with obese children consider the social and emotional strain the children may be under.