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It’s test-prep season but I have hope

  Ms. R is a 4th-grade teacher in the Bronx.

It’s early spring, but instead of feeling lighthearted and happy, I feel stressed and tired.

Test-prep season is in full swing. This annual ritual of feeling intense pressure to prepare my students for state tests and boost their scores nearly drains me of hope.

But one thing gives me strength – my students.

Remembering how much I influence my students puts things in perspective. It reminds me that as a teacher, I’m not as helpless as the drive to raise test scores can sometimes makes me feel.

Last Monday, my principal said something like this: “If we focus on getting 3 percent of our pushables, I don’t care which 3 percent, to score a 3 or 4 on the state tests, we will knock down three quality review domains.”

Just in case you are not fully up on this teacher jargon, “pushables” are those students on the brink of reaching the next level. For example, a student who scored a 2.8 is extremely close to reaching a 3.

But do you see the problem indicated by my principal’s statement? It suggests that we focus on any pushables showing steady progress because doing so may help boost their scores, which in turn will improve our school’s quality review score.

I immediately wondered about my English language learners and my students reading far below grade level. Would I have to pause or minimize my efforts with them in order to focus solely on the “pushables”? The answer can seem to be an ugly yes. I’d have to focus more on those students who demonstrate promising achievement on tests.

No, my principal is not a jerk. His statement is the result of the immense pressure placed on administrators and teachers based on unreasonable criteria that force us to treat students as commodities.

Who is putting all of this pressure on us? What credentials do they have as educators? Why does our education system revolve around standardized exams? If our school does well on those quality review domains, what have we really accomplished? Clearly the quality review influences decision-making and the behavior and attitude of the staff. But does the feedback of the reviewers realistically even qualify as valuable insight?

I ranted about all of this to my mentor. His response was: “When you shut that door, it’s just you and the kids. You know what they need and what’s best. Shut your door and do it.”

Teachers are on the front lines with our students. We have say over what the way we teach in our classrooms. Standardized exams and other killjoy practices in education are obstacles that can be overcome through strategic practices.

Our students open themselves in order to learn from us. For their sake, we do our best to make the state tests as painless as possible and to make learning as enjoyable as possible. Yes, we struggle sometimes with this system. But it helps to remember that we matter to our students and we work for them.

Our classrooms have doors. Sometimes by closing a door I am able to open minds.

What I told our lawmakers in Albany

I had the wonderful experience of joining a thousand other educators, parents and public school advocates for the UFT’s lobby day in Albany last week. In one meeting, a legislative staff member seemed visibly moved when I told how disheartening it is to look at my students at LaGuardia HS every day and think that they cannot receive as rich a public education as previous generations. Gov. Cuomo could change that by providing schools the state funds that they are owed.

As the UFT chapter leader at LaGuardia HS, I was with a group from Manhattan high schools on lobby day who met with staff members for a state senator and a state Assembly member, who were both on the floor of the Legislature at the time. We knew we needed to relate to them our firsthand observations and experiences to make the dry data on our schools come alive.

The amount of Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement funds that the state owes our school is about $7.3 million. Imagine what we could do with that money. We could restore positions lost to attrition. We could hire enough teachers to decrease class size and restore electives lost to recent budget cuts. We could have the supplies we need paid out of our school budget rather than from teachers’ own pockets or through websites where we have to plead with donors for funding.

When it was my turn to speak, I said that although LaGuardia HS is not a high-needs school in terms of achievement, we too have suffered cuts to the bone. Not only have we lost academic and studio electives, but core programs that have worked successfully since 1936 are being threatened. Our very capable students are being stressed by having to struggle to do more with less. What wasn’t broken already by funding cuts is on the verge of being broken. We have drama and technical theater teachers who face the impossible choice of maintaining their programs by working way beyond the hours they are paid, or working the hours for which they are paid and eviscerating their programs. Governor Cuomo insults teachers when he implies that we do not care about students, but only about ourselves. Teachers sacrifice each and every day to make a quality education possible for their kids.

This hurts not only our students but also our city and state. By some estimates, about 40 percent of commerce in New York City is directly or indirectly connected to the arts. Our school’s programs are far from peripheral to our city’s economy.

Governor Cuomo, by withholding the Campaign for Fiscal Equity money owed to our schools, is shortchanging schoolchildren who are the future of this city, state and nation. It is the most unpatriotic and shortsighted thing he could do.

Other speakers from our group described the inequities of co-locations in their school buildings. They told of separate but unequal treatment of Success Academy charter school students and public school students in the same building, one with Fresh Direct lunches, new furniture, and the choicest facilities – the other without. They also talked about that Success Academy students being told not to even look at the regular public school children as they pass them in the corridors. This new segregation is not lost on most of the public school children.

One speaker also described how a community school program is a better answer to serving high-needs students and their community. His school offers social services, medical services, and adult education classes as a way to help the whole community. Parents are also able to take ESL classes in the evening so that they are better able help their children with their studies.

Eva Moskowitz closed her schools on the same day as our lobby day to send her teachers and students to Albany en masse. They wore red hats and red T-shirts. They had their own marshals to direct people in their group. Some of us spoke with the young marshals. They were neither teachers nor parents but work in the Success Academy network. The Success Academy children were used as props in a photo-op. Our students were in class.

Paula Washington is a music teacher and the UFT chapter leader at La Guardia High School of Music and Arts and Performing Arts.

How a short story inspired my teaching

K.M. Jones is a second-year English teacher in Brooklyn.

“Perhaps Sedgewick Bell’s life would have turned out more nobly if I had understood his motivations right away and treated him differently at the start. But such are the pointless speculations of a teacher.” —Mr. Hundert in Ethan Canin’s “The Palace Thief”

After struggling with students’ behavior in my middle school classroom last year, I feared an uprising of students critical of my failings as a teacher. I imagined students collectively shouting, “I hate you!” and questioning my judgment. So when I first read the story “The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin, I was hesitant to expose my students to the story, which is about a teacher who failed to help his student become a better person. Would this story bring on the criticism I feared?

To my surprise, when I did teach it, the students cared less about the teacher’s development and were instead drawn to the antagonist Sedgewick Bell, a troublemaker who cheats his way to success. One student’s reaction to Sedgewick really stuck with me. While the majority of the class deemed Sedgewick a bad character, my student D. continually stood up for him. “He was cheating to make his father proud, right?” the student said to me one day after class. “Wouldn’t his dad be mad if he didn’t succeed? So I think it was the right thing for him to do.” Interestingly enough, this student had a very strict father and a problem with rampant cheating.

The story communicates the messages that history repeats itself and that one can’t change another person’s character or even one’s own. But the movie adaptation gives the teacher a second chance. In the movie interpretation, the teacher’s positive moral development leads him to let go of his failure with his one corrupted student and focus on all the other lives he has changed and will change in the future. In a nutshell, the movie tells us: You can’t change every life, but through your own personal growth, you can have an effect on many.

It may seem that these two messages are polar opposites. However, the difference between character change being possible or impossible is surprisingly subtle: it’s the difference between enforcing behavior and developing character.

Let me tell you more of my story.

Last year, I felt like I couldn’t reach my students on a moral level at all. Our middle school was struggling with funding and needed to score well on the state standardized tests. Instead of teaching literature like I wanted to, I taught excerpts from CodeX textbooks. Instead of writing my own curriculum and letting my students’ needs inform the lessons I chose to teach, there was a schoolwide mandate for teachers to teach the same standard every day. I didn’t have time to answer any of my students’ moral or behavioral questions; I had to lay down rules and stick to them relentlessly just to get through the prescribed materials.

By March, we had been doing just test prep for two straight months, and my students’ frustrations boiled over into disgust — toward English as a subject, me, all their teachers and to the school itself. Even my students who were voracious readers at home were resistant to the curriculum, refusing to engage and tossing verbal hate bombs. Because of the systematic pressure on English to be skill-oriented, it seemed to me that helping them with their emotional and moral development was next to impossible. I started thinking about changing my career, like an embittered co-worker did when she quit halfway through the year.

This year, however, because of a new principal who has a positive stance on literature and the absence of high-stakes testing for 10th-graders, my faith in English as an avenue for emotional maturity is renewed. Instead of enforcing behavioral rules so I can teach skills for a test, I’m teaching critical, moral thinking through the lens of literature. My student D., who fought so passionately for Sedgewick’s moral uprightness despite his cheating, later confided in me, “I’d like a teacher like Sedgewick’s teacher who keeps pushing me to succeed, no matter what I do. That might actually make me do my work.” Through critical character study and personal character application, he was able to identify and articulate what he himself needs in real life to become a better student.

Due to my own ineptitude in the face of systematic pressures, I have not helped every student I’ve taught to become a more thoughtful and moral person. However, if teaching “The Palace Thief” has taught me anything, my past failures do not need to define my future. I may not have reached every student, but I have at least reached one. And that’s a good start.

New teachers swell the ranks

The city Department of Education brought in 5,000-plus new teachers last year, confirming a definite uptick in hiring since the economic downturn five years ago. Who are all these new educators? And how long might they be expected to stay?

Some highlights from the UFT’s February 2015 report on attrition and experience:

The DOE expanded teacher hiring for the fourth year in a row in the 2013-14 school year. Almost 5,500 new teachers signed on, more than double the number brought on during the economic downturn of 2009-10.

The increased hiring represents a growing of the teacher workforce as attrition has been about stable. The number of teachers rose to 75,229 as of November 2014. When counting all pedagogues — including guidance counselors, social workers, psychologists, lab specialists, and secretaries — the number is about 84,000. (Paraprofessionals are not included in pedagogue counts.)

Attrition among existing teachers was, meanwhile, lower or stable except for what was probably a temporary rise in retirements.

Newer teachers are a growing share of the workforce. Teachers with zero to five years’ experience now make up nearly one quarter (24 percent) of all teachers, up from 20 percent just two years ago.

However, there continues to be churn, as 35 percent of new teachers leave the system within their first five years. Over the last several years, teachers in high schools have represented a disproportionately large share of new teacher attrition.

Following the recent pattern of hires, one-third (34 percent) of last year’s new hires came in as special education teachers — 1,875 in all. The second largest license group was 700 elementary school classroom teachers, followed by 400 middle and high school math teachers. The system also hired 67 art teachers and 266 speech teachers.

About 7 percent of all pedagogues — 5,635 in all — left the system last year. The reasons were varied, including retirement, resignation or failure to meet various state or city requirements. This compares with a pedagogue departure rate of about 10 percent a decade ago.

Read the full report »

Charter schools fail to serve all students

Last week, the Independent Budget Office (IBO) published an update to its 2014 charter school report saying that students at charter schools generally transfer out at about the same or even lower rate as students at public schools. This includes students in subgroups, such as special education students and English language learners.[i]

Which naturally begs the question: how many ELL and special education students were actually enrolled in these schools to begin with?

The answer is − not a lot.

In the schools that IBO took a look at, for example, ELL students were more likely to attend public schools than charters by a factor of more than four. For high-need special education students the factor was seven. And when the IBO took a look at all special education students in their sample, the data still showed a large gap: the public schools served about 35% more special education than the charter schools to which they were compared.

In fact, the IBO report is entirely consistent with the analysis released by the UFT last week. The UFT and IBO reports looked at different groups of students, which makes the similarity of their findings all the more striking. Both found that the public schools served about 35 percent more special education students. The data in the UFT and IBO reports on special education students in self-contained classes is virtually identical. And all the analyses found that ELL students are underserved by charters.

Kindergarten

Same Building

District Averages

subset of all charters compared to 3 nearby schools (Kindergarten only)

All charters (except high schools) that share a building with a public school with overlapping grades

All elementary/ and k-8 charters coompared to their district averages

charter public charter public charter public

% ELL

4%

18%

5%

12%

6%

13%

% Special Ed

9%

13%

16%

25%

14%

21%

% High Need Special Ed.

1%

7%

1%

9%

1%

7%

% Temporary Housing

Not available

not available

8%

22%

8%

14%

As the column headers in this chart indicate, the UFT and IBO looked at different information. Specifically, the IBO report looked at a subset of charters and compared them to three schools nearby. And, they only focused on the kindergarten demographics.

The UFT, meanwhile, looked at students in elementary and K-8 schools and did two comparisons. It compared every elementary and K-8 charter to the district average. And the UFT did a same-building analysis,comparing the demographics of charter and public school that are in the same building and have overlapping grades. The UFT included middle schools when they were co-located with either other middle schools or K-8 schools.

Plus the UFT, unlike the IBO, included students in temporary housing. This includes students who face the huge challenges that come with living in a shelter or hotel or awaiting foster-care placement.

Charters will argue, of course, that at least some of these numbers don’t matter. The law doesn’t require them to serve kids in temporary housing, for instance, even if public schools in the very same building work with these kids at triple the rate. And as far as special education, charters do take (some) kids with IEPs, don’t they?  And, so what if they don’t really work with the severely disabled, highest-need special education students? After all, that’s not required by law.

But that would be an odd excuse coming from a community that is so hot to change current education laws and raise the charter cap. I mean, if you are going to solve the civil rights issue of our time (as the charters often claim it is their destiny to do), then you must begin by helping the students with the greatest challenges, the students most at risk of falling behind. Our highest-need special education students are precisely the ones with the kinds of learning and emotional disabilities that drive the achievement gap in the first place.

And the vulnerable kids in temporary housing? True – these kids are not explicitly covered now by laws governing enrollment requirements. But they ought to be.

Right now, the policies guiding charter schools are driven by outdated information about student needs and academic achievement, ideas from the dawn of the data era.   We know much more about students now, and we know that there are degrees of special needs, degrees of poverty, and a range of challenge within the ELL community (a group of students for which we still do not have information that reliably captures student need).

Given the current love in education circles of using data to drive decisions, isn’t it time to ensure that our charter laws around enrollment align with what data shows about the kids we teach?

[i] The IBO report does not consider the percent of its students in temporary housing.  Without taking that factor into account, the report may actually tell us very little about relative rates of student attrition.

Celebrate the legacy of Pura Belpré

Pura Belpré was an author, storyteller and a pioneer in bilingual education who brought Puerto Rican folktales alive in legendary performances with puppets that captivated children.

Now teachers can learn more about Belpré and bilingual education in an open house just for educators at La Casa Azul Bookstore, 143 E. 103rd St. in Manhattan.  The event will be held Thursday, Feb. 5, 4:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. Admission is free, but you must register via email: schools.lacasaazul@gmail.com. Educators with a valid school ID will receive 20% off all book purchases.

Dr. Vanessa Pérez, Associate Professor of Bilingual Education in the Department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College, CUNY and Galia Sandy, School Programs Coordinator at La Casa Azul, will lead a discussion on what bilingual literacy looks like in the classroom today.

Belpré, who died in 1982, was the first Puerto Rican librarian when she was hired by the New York Public Library in 1921, and over the next 40 years she dedicated herself to expanding educational opportunities for Spanish-speaking children and their parents. The Pura Belpré Award, established in 1996 by the American Library Association, is given each year to a children’s work by a Latino writer that best portrays the Latino cultural experience.

La Casa Azul is celebrating Belpré’s life with two additional events:

Friday, Feb. 6, 6:00pm – 8:00pm, the bookstore will screen a documentary about the life of Pura Belpré followed by a Q&A. Light refreshments will be served. There is a $5 fee.

Saturday, Feb. 7, 11:00 a.m. – 1 p.m. is Pura Belpré Family Day, which will feature a re-enactment of Belpré’s legendary “Bilingual Story Hour” with Teatro SEA, the Latino Children’s Theater, combining

storytelling with puppets to act out Pérez & Martina, Juan Bobo, The Three Magi, and many more.

Perfect for families with children ages 3-10. Tickets: $10 per person, advance ticket purchase strongly suggested. Free for children ages 0-2.

You can read more about Belpré in The Stories I Read to the Children: The Life and Writing of Pura Belpré, the legendary storyteller, children’s author, and New York Public Librarian by Lisa Sanchez Gonzalez (New York : Hunter College, 2013).

When students miss school for family trips

Should a child miss school for a family vacation? It’s a tough question that Jessica Lahey explored in a recent New York Times column.

I’m a parent and a teacher, so I’m of two minds on this issue,” Lahey writes. “I have taken my children out of school for family events and other trips we deemed valuable enough to warrant a school absence. On the other hand, I am also an educator, and I have seen the havoc these absences can wreak on students and their teachers. It takes a lot of time to pre-plan for student absences, to package work that will approximate missed lessons, chase children down for that work, and invest extra one-on-one time in makeup sessions.”

Some teachers told Lahey that the such absences require them to prepare materials before the student goes away, or help the student catch up on his or her return. One educator told Lahey that technology could lessen the disruption: “Tech is not a replacement for teachers in those family trips, but it does become an extended connection for the student,” he wrote.

Lahey quotes some common sense from an Ontario psychologist who came up with the mnemonic FLAG – for frequency, length, ability and grade – to guide parent and teachers on this issue:

How frequent are the vacation absences? Parents send the wrong signal about their commitment to education if they remove the child from class too often.

How long is the absence? Too many days away might produce a learning setback for some children that they will struggle to overcome.

Does the child have the ability to catch up? Depending on the child’s temperament, the absence may produce anxiety about missing class lessons.

Missing several days in 3rd grade is very different from missing several days in high school. Take into account the child’s grade.

Striking the right balance between family time and the classroom can be tricky. Tell us your thoughts.

 

A lens on American Indian life

Eula Mae Narcomey Doonkeen

 

A rare view of American Indian life

Teachers, families and photography or history buffs will find a rare window into American Indian life from the 1920s through 1970s in a photography exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian at One Bowling Green in lower Manhattan. Admission is free.

For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw, on view until Feb. 15, features the previously unknown work of a Kiowa man born in 1906 in Oklahoma whose love of photography found expression through his images of his family, friends and the surrounding multi-tribal Plains community as it went through a time of great change.

No amateur, Poolaw worked with professional equipment, kept up with the latest developments in photography and was an instructor in aerial photography in the U.S. Army Air Force during WWII. He documented weddings, celebrations and funerals, and his juxtaposition of the traditional and the modern is intriguing throughout the exhibit. It’s part of what makes these photos both real and different from images we’ve previously seen of American Indian life. Although he did not support himself with photography, Poolaw sold his photos at fairs, parades and other community events, stamping the back of them with “A Poolaw Photo, Pictures by an Indian, Horace M. Poolaw, Anadarko, Okla.”

When his daughter Linda was sorting through the thousands of images he left behind after his death, she realized the importance of the archive and brought it to Stanford University, where a research initiative was established in 1989 and carried on by two Native American scholars.

“Dad was quoted as saying, ‘I do not want to be remembered for my pictures, but through my pictures I want my people to remember themselves,’” Linda recalled.

There’s a sly sense of humor at work throughout; we see Poolaw’s young children dressed as cowboys with toy guns. Another photo shows Poolaw and a side-gunner colleague in their B-17, both wearing war bonnets “ready for warfare in the 20th century,” the caption tells us.

The text throughout expands our understanding of and appreciation for what we are seeing, providing a context to our country’s history.

One of the ironies is that although the government had a long history of forbidding Indians their clothing, dance and language, Wild West shows and a nostalgia for the frontier past swept the nation in the 1920s. Native Americans performed in these shows in their native dress as a way to publicly reclaim their culture.

One photo shows a handsome group of young American Indians who were part of a Wild West Show on their way to New York City in 1930. Poolaw’s grandson John remembers loving the image when he first saw it at age 12. “The only other [historical photos] I had seen of Indians were … images in textbooks…in which the Indians always appeared to be sad and stiff. I enjoyed seeing my grandpa’s photo of sharply dressed Indians by a shiny car—they all looked so happy,” he reflects in the book that accompanies the exhibit.

Later in life, as the grandson realized that most of those modern-looking young people “probably spoke their native Kiowa language and….carried out traditional Kiowa customs, I found it even more fascinating,” he writes, “that they were able to do so and look so care-free, confident, and elegant in adapting to their changing worlds.”

The show leaves you wanting to know more about the people and their stories, and our nation’s not-so-long-ago history. See more information about the museum and its resources for educators >>

Renewal of possibility

To fully appreciate Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new strategy to help struggling schools, it helps to remember former Mayor Bloomberg’s approach.

Mayor Bloomberg was less interested in helping schools struggling to teach high-needs students than in punishing them.

Often, his first step was what should have been his last: closing the school. Or if a school was not closed right away, it got no support and exactly what it didn’t need: a new influx of high-needs students let loose from closing schools and low letter grades that discouraged other students from choosing the school.

Bloomberg put struggling schools on a fast track to failure and closing.

In contrast, Mayor de Blasio is investing $150 million in 94 struggling schools and providing the help they have long cried out for. The money will go toward having the schools provide academic support; more guidance counselors; teacher mentoring; and health, mental health and other services to address student needs that interfere with learning.

A crucial difference is that de Blasio really understands how poverty and the concentration of poverty within a school can harm students, communities and schools. To boost student achievement, we must address issues outside the classroom that may be obstacles to learning.

Bloomberg, on the other hand, largely ignored the effects of poverty. He blamed educators instead.

The 94 schools in the new School Renewal Program have challenges ahead. They also have opportunities. The UFT, working together with the DOE, will be there to help along the way.

Healthy eating, healthy learning

Are there lessons in the slow food movement for educators?

The slow food movement began as a backlash to the fast food of McDonald’s and Burger King and all the other quickie drive-through businesses that feed us high-fat, high-salt meals. It’s also a reaction to our corporatized food chain, the pesticides used on crops, the massive kills of animals in inhumane conditions. Slow food devotees revere the local, the homegrown, the natural and organic. Eating in a communal environment and savoring the meal, not rushing through it.

Nick Romeo, writing in The Atlantic, sees parallels to the resistance to education reforms foisted on the public by for-profit corporations:

“It’s hyperbolic—and sort of creepy—to say that students are directly analogous to animals packed into crowded feedlots and pumped with hormones before their slaughter. But the analogy works on some levels: Just as factories aim to maximize profit, schools seek to boost test scores. In both cases, shortcuts are irresistible. Animals are injected with growth hormones, and students are taught quick tricks to answer test questions they don’t fully understand.”

Romeo zeros in on his point thus: “We need to let students experience the pleasure and wonder of learning. Teachers can’t afford to ignore test results any more than farmers can profits, but it’s worth rewarding them for the process—not just the results. This means prying open classrooms and evaluating teachers throughout the process of instruction. Are they helping students enjoy the process of learning? Are they sufficiently focused on deeper comprehension? Are they discouraging the petty pursuit of prestige?”

What do you think?

Every teacher knows

by Ms. D, a 5th-grade ICT teacher in the East Village

If you’re interested in writing for the New Teacher Diaries, email edwize@uft.org!

Every new teacher knows that feeling when a new year starts — the glass-half-full Augusts when you dream of the boundless potential of your incoming students; the vow every year to work harder than last to make this the best year yet; the idealistic expectations you set for yourself as the school year begins.

Every teacher also knows another feeling — anxiety when the annual honeymoon period comes to a close and you realize imagination and reality couldn’t have been farther apart.

Nine days into the previous school year, my 5th-grade student Taquan was already on a schoolwide list for low attendance. I tried a few strategies, to no avail.

Attendance wasn’t Taquan’s only issue. Countless conflicts, angry outbursts and threats of suicide were also serious concerns. I began to pray for an answer, for a solution, for a change for him. I volunteered my time to tutor him privately after school. I contacted the Administration for Children’s Services repeatedly. Then, one night at 10:30 p.m., I got the phone call that changed everything.

“Ms. D? I don’t know what to do. I need help,” Taquan pleaded.

“What happened?”

“Those kids. The ones I told you about. I was at the park and I looked across the street and they were running toward me. They tried to jump me.”

“Wait, start over, why? What did you do? Are you OK? Does your mom know?” I flooded him with questions.

“I’m OK. I ran into the projects behind mine. But I’m scared.” I could hear the tension in his voice.

“How are you getting to school tomorrow?”

“Walking.”

“I’ll get you in the morning. You’ll have to wake up early and I’ll call you when I’m outside. When we get to school, we’ll figure it out, OK?”

“OK. Thanks, Ms. D. Really, thanks …” His voice faded away.

Every new teacher is all too familiar with the next feeling: Defeat.

Feeling threatened after that night, Taquan’s flight-or-fight instincts kicked in, and he entered survivalist mode. He joined a gang at the school and began carrying a screwdriver. He insisted he needed protection.

After everything I had done for him, I began to wonder, “What can I possibly do for my students? What hope do I have for making a positive impact?” The answers were unclear until the day I read “Tuck Everlasting” to them.

“No connection, you would agree, but things can come together in strange ways,” wrote the author, Natalie Babbit. “The wood was at the center, the hub of the wheel. All wheels must have a hub. A Ferris wheel has one, as the sun is the hub of the wheeling calendar. Fixed points they are, and best left undisturbed, for without them, nothing holds together. But sometimes people find this out too late.”

This idea of myself as a hub in my students’ lives gave me the power to continue on.

“You did this for me, didn’t you?” Taquan probed a few weeks later.

I’d arranged for a group of six high school students to visit my class. Their task was to discuss gang awareness and offer advice for how to avoid the lifestyle.

“What do you mean?” I responded.

“You asked them to come here for me. You got sick of me fighting all the time and wanted me to hear this.”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” I said, smiling.

“I get it, in case you’re wondering,” he continued. “I’m gonna stop. I won’t do it anymore.”

“Do what?”

“All of it.”

It’s my hope that every new teacher sticks with the job long enough to know the next feeling: joy.

It didn’t happen overnight, but Taquan began attending school five days a week rather than four. He started going to an after-school program to do his homework rather than hang out on the streets. He learned to cope with his anger well enough to avoid physical altercations. And I recently found out he went from a Level 1 to a Level 2 academically.

Taquan still faces difficult choices, and I know his path ahead won’t be easy. But for now he remembers the things I’ve tried to instill in him and is receptive enough to the relationship we’ve built to seek advice and an escape when he needs it.

Every new teacher will go through myriad emotions as they set out on their journeys. But it is joy that new teachers should wait for with bated breath. It is joy, after all, that brings meaning to our profession and supports the belief that we can and will change lives.

The old, false arguments for closing schools

You may have seen that former Chancellor Joel Klein has been back in the news. Reacting to Mayor de Blasio’s announcement of the School Renewal Program to intervene decisively in struggling public schools, Klein defended his policy of closing large schools and replacing them with small schools.

Continuing a practice common to him and his former boss, Bloomberg, Klein ignored evidence that fails to support his argument. He cited a Gates-funded study by MDRC that touted the successes of some small schools, but failed to point out examples of small schools started under Bloomberg that were themselves later closed for poor performance, such as the Academy of Collaborative Education, the Global Enterprise Academy and others.

He also neglected to mention the small schools opened under Bloomberg that are now among the 94 low-performing schools that de Blasio is trying to save, including: the Henry Street School for International Studies, the Holcombe L. Rucker School of Community Research, Bronx Collegiate Academy, the Leadership Institute and DreamYard Preparatory School.

And he passed over the fact that a Coalition for Educational Justice report on a previous MRDC study in 2012 showed that small schools started under Bloomberg under-enrolled students with severe disabilities.

The UFT Research Department took serious issue with the methodology of an earlier version of that study, pointing out that the survey looked only at a portion of small schools started under Bloomberg, compared these schools’ results to all schools rather than to large schools, and ignored the fact that the new schools studied admitted far fewer students with special needs than other high schools.

Here’s a copy of that UFT Research Department memo:

Small Schools as Panacea?  Hold the Applause

Memo – June 23, 2010

The Chancellor’s Memo in Principals’ Weekly boasted about a Gates-funded MDRC research report that finds new small schools graduated a little less than 69 percent of their students compared with 62 percent in a control group of students who applied but weren’t accepted to the small schools. The 189-page report also finds that more freshmen in the small schools of choice are on track to graduate and that these include good representations of minority and special needs students.

Klein wrote, “Our reforms are transforming the lives of the thousands of students enrolled in the schools studied by the report, and have the potential to reach many more.”

He included an extremely laudatory quote from Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Foundation, who said, “Today, with the release of this new report, we finally have the news that we’ve been waiting decades for: with vision, dedication and carefully constructed strategies to stimulate and enrich student learning, graduation rates can be significantly improved in large, urban school systems.”

But it’s important to look at what the study does and doesn’t say:

The small schools in the study did not include all 216 small schools Klein has started. Instead, 105 schools were examined where there were more applicants than admissions, so the researchers could do a “lotteried-in, lotteried-out” analysis, similar to what Caroline Hoxby did with NYC charters.

  • This is not a comparison of small schools to large high schools. Rather, it compares students who attended SSCs (small schools of choice—ie., nonselective, non-transfer) to students who attended a range of other types of schools, from large high schools to other small schools to specialized schools.
  • The students in the SSCs included much smaller percentages of ELLs and special education than all first time 9th-grade students in NYC.

Teachers Aren’t So Sure

Teachers, responding to the study on Gotham Schools, noted that credit recovery was part of the explanation for the difference in graduation rates. One wrote:

“I work in one of Klein’s new small high schools. The higher graduation rates are a scam. Principals use ‘credit recovery’ to get the graduation rate that Klein is pressuring them to get. NYC is one hell of a depressing school system to work in. It’s sad and frustrating to go to my school’s graduation and see so many kids who didn’t even show up for class and who don’t have the knowledge and skills to make it in this world – graduating. Good job Klein! We did it!”

  • Others noted that the study didn’t look at students’ SAT scores, which have actually gone down, on average, over the last two years. They also note that 75 percent of CUNY freshmen require remediation after graduating from city schools. They question what a city diploma really means these days.
  • The study includes only one cohort with a 4-year graduation rate and no cohort with a 6-year graduation rate (though it does look at four classes of incoming students). Often, the small schools have started strong and then regressed to the average. These 105 SSCs have not yet withstood the test of time.
  • Though the small schools increased the percentages of their students getting 75 or better on their English Regents, there was no effect in math. And the control group (that is, the kids who were lotteried out) actually had a higher percentage of students receiving advanced Regents diplomas than the lotteried-in students in the small schools of choice.

Today there was a four-part story about one of the closing small high schools, Metropolitan Corporate Academy. It is a damning picture of a school where dedicated teachers and willing students were virtually abandoned by DOE. They have no gym, cafeteria, library, sports, no water fountains. The staff brings in paper cups and pours water for them from the sink. They share textbooks which they leave at school. Met Corporate was promised a real facility many times by DOE but it was never delivered. After their debate team still won the NYC Championship, DOE announced it was closing the school.

MDRC highlights reduced teacher load and common planning time as features of the small schools. This would help all schools, not just the ones Klein seeks to claim

Where the homeless are

Teachers know the number of homeless students in New York City is on the rise – they see it in their classrooms.

And now the data confirm it.

A new atlas of homelessness uses City Council and school district maps to show where more than 100,000 homeless children and the resources available to them are located. The Bronx had 27,298 homeless students in the 2012-13 school year — the highest number in the city, the report shows. Within the Bronx, District 10 — which includes Riverdale, Bedford, Fordham and Belmont — had the most homeless students, 7,583, a 73 percent increase from the 2007-08 school year.

In Brooklyn, the most dramatic increase has been in school District 20 (Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and Borough Park), which had 2,315 homeless students in 2012-13, up 183 percent since 2007-08.

The report, “On the Map: The Atlas of Family Homelessness in New York City,” was produced by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness. It is a treasure trove of statistics, as it overlays the maps on homelessness with information about poverty rates, rent burdens, and unemployment and education levels.

“The presentation of these factors is meant to help the user draw connections between what the data show and their own experiences within their community, thereby providing a richer understanding of the issue and prompting thought about what effective responses might include,” the user’s guide to the atlas states.

Have you noticed an increase of homelessness among students in your school? What changes, if any, have you or your school needed to make in response?

 

With student test scores, even a little income means a lot: UFT analysis

The link between poverty and academic achievement, particularly in terms of test scores, has long been established.  SAT scores closely track family income.  The difference between poor students (those qualified for free or reduced-price lunch) and those from better-off families is clear in all kinds of test reports, from state exams to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the “gold-standard” of national testing.

But what has gotten less attention is the very strong difference in test score achievement within the subsidized lunch category.

On both national and local levels, children from families eligible for reduced-price lunch – while they score significantly lower than more middle-class students – also score significantly higher than children in the free-lunch category.

In fact, in New York City higher numbers of reduced-price-lunch students in their overall poverty cohort can mean a significant increase in a school’s average reading proficiency – so any analysis that attempts to compare school results has to take this issue into account.

How the categories are determined

Federal guidelines specify that a family of four can have a maximum annual income of $23,850 to qualify for free lunch.  The maximum income for reduced-price lunch eligibility is nearly twice as much, $44,123.

Families in New York City whose income is so low that they qualify for free lunch usually are led by parents who have very low-wage jobs, are on public assistance, or struggling with medical problems that keep them from full-time work.

Families whose income qualifies them for reduced price lunch generally have one or two working adults with jobs that separately or combined pay roughly $20 an hour.  A survey by NAEP found that such families were characterized by higher levels of education than parents in free-lunch families, more books and access to computers, and other factors linked to educational success.

NAEP and state test results

On NAEP 4th grade reading tests for 2013, for instance, the national average scale score for students from middle and upper-class families is 236; students eligible for reduced-price lunch had an average scale score of 220, 16 points less;  but students in the free lunch category scored only 206, 14 points less than children eligible for reduced-price meals, and 30 points less than middle-class students.

On New York City NAEP, the 4th grade reading pattern is very similar, though the gaps are a little more narrow – average scale score for non-eligible students — 235;  reduced price students – 223;  free lunch – 210.

gl107-naep-average-scores-chart

The same pattern holds true looking at NAEP 2013 results through the lens of proficiency rather than scale scores.  In New York City, nearly half the students from families making more than $44,000 were judged proficient or advanced;  in the reduced-price category about one-third were proficient or advanced;  in the free-lunch segment, only about one-fifth of students managed to get over the proficiency bar.

gl107-student-proficiency-income-chart

Effect on school results

The average poverty index (free and reduced-price combined) for New York City’s elementary and middle schools is 70 percent.  Reduced-price lunch students make a small portion of the total – 7 percent – but because their scores are on average significantly higher than free-lunch kids, their presence can have an outsize effect.

Looking at 1,250 elementary and middle schools, we did an analysis to try to find out what happens when – holding the overall poverty index (free-and reduced/price students combined) steady – the number of reduced-price lunch students in this total goes up (and obviously the percentage of free-lunch students goes down).

The following chart shows that – other factors being equal – if reduced-price lunch students in a school make up 2 percent of its entire poverty cohort, overall school results on reading will be 1.5 percentage points higher than if the school had only students who were eligible for free lunch.

As the percentage of reduced-price lunch children in an overall poverty cohort rises, so do overall school scores.  In fact, if about one in seven of a school’s poor students (14 percent) is eligible for reduced-price rather than free lunch, overall school scores will be more than 10 percentage points higher than they would be if all the school’s poor students were in the lower income category of free-lunch.

Even in high poverty schools table

A prism for examining proficiency

As an illustration, let’s take two apparently similar schools – call them PS 999 and PS 888 – each with about 600 students, each with 75% of the student body eligible for free or reduced price lunch.  But PS 999 has an average proficiency score on the New York State reading test of 34 percent, while PS 888 is at 27 percent.

It might look like PS 999 is doing a better job, but not necessarily.

Each school would have about 450 of its 600 students eligible for free or reduced price lunch, but let’s assume for the sake of discussion that in PS 999 there are 395 free-lunch kids and 54 reduced-price students (12 percent of its poverty total).

PS 888 on the other hand, has only free-lunch eligible kids. (This is not an extreme example.  Dozens of New York City elementary and middle schools fall into this category).

The analysis above shows that PS 888, though it is seven percentage points in overall proficiency below PS 999, may be doing a slightly better job, since the larger number of reduced-price lunch students at PS 999 should produce a nine-point gap between the two, rather than a seven-point gap.

gl107-reduced-price-lunch-chart

In isolating the effect of reduced-price-lunch students, this report does not attempt to deal with the many other issues in schools that have an effect on student outcomes, including the number of English language learners and the number and degrees of need of special education students.  All these factors also play a role.

But any thoughtful analysis of public school results is incomplete without an examination of each school’s poverty cohort, making it even more important that the city and state break out these categories of poverty when reporting school results, particularly for those schools – either public or charter – that make extravagant claims about their success with poor students.

 

Smarter charters

The rapid growth of charter schools, in New York and around the country, has often put union supporters’ teeth on edge. This idea for an experimental public school model led by unionized teachers and working closely with district schools — originally the brainchild of UFT co-founder Albert Shanker — has morphed into an anti-union movement by some charter advocates in New York, who have taken hedge fund millions to promote their schools at the expense of the public school system. This week, in fact, a pro-charter group, Families for Excellent Schools, will spend a big chunk of that donated dough,  $479,000 to be precise, on an advertising campaign designed to denigrate district public schools.

Authors Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter of The Century Foundation  have stepped into this ugly fight with admirable even-handedness. In an op-ed in the Daily News on Sept. 28, they criticized the hostile approach of some charter advocates and called for charter leaders to stop “union busting” in their schools and instead move to forge collaboration between charters and regular public schools.

Charter school chains should call off their dogs, the authors suggest.

In their new book on which the op-ed was based, “A Smarter Charter, Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education”, they explain that charters enroll a small minority of students, and their quality is uneven—some are great, some are poor, most are somewhere in between. Charters should not be pitted against district schools because in some important ways the two types of schools do not educate the same students. But they can and should test out new practices and share them with the district schools, the essence of their mission.

Teachers in today’s charters lack representation and voice, the authors say. That must be addressed if charters are to improve and play the role they were originally designed for — to test out educational innovations that could be used in other schools. In the end, it is charter teachers, not the Walton Foundation or hedge funders, who will drive and implement innovation within their schools. And by the same token it is district teachers who must test, modify, reject or accept the new ideas that charter teachers pilot.

The teachers need the space to work this process out, and so using charters as a wedge against unions is completely the wrong strategy. Kahlenberg and Potter say. They examined research on teacher unionism and find that unions may be a tool for improving student achievement or they may be neutral, but there is no evidence to argue that unions undercut achievement.

Is it too late?

A kinder and gentler — and more constructive — charter sector may be pie in the sky. But it may not be. The authors find several examples of collaborative, unionized charters, even in the city, where working conditions are good and student achievement is high. They suggest ways to increase teacher voice in charters, build collaboration across charter and district schools, and integrate and increase diversity in charters. Their suggestions come from the experiences of teachers they interviewed.

So yes, it makes eminent sense to call for smarter charters. Some are already smart, in fact, and they are not devoting their time to attacking other schools. The ones that are waging the current anti-union crusade could find themselves plagued by turnover and ill will in the end, and going nowhere.