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Cell phones in schools: Yea or Nay?

Should the cell phone ban in schools be lifted? Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week that he would seek to overturn the ban, which dates from the Bloomberg administration. He called it a safety issue, because parents need to keep track of their children.

Supporters of overturning the ban marshal several arguments, chief among them the inconsistent application of the rule. Some schools ignore it, and even the mayor acknowledges his son carries his phone into his classes at Brooklyn Tech HS.

Students who attend schools with metal detectors – mostly in disadvantaged communities – are more likely to have to adhere to the rule. Many end up paying $1 or $2 a day to a local store or to one of the phone-storage vans that have sprung up under the school ban.

So what do you think: Should the rule be enforced consistently at all schools? Should the cell phone ban be scrapped? Are there other ways to ensure student phones aren’t a distraction from school work?

Digital vs. paper reading: How technology makes a difference

Kindles, iPads and smart phones have made reading more accessible, interactive and engaging for many students. Search the web for “reading apps for kids” and you’ll find hundreds, even thousands, of ways to encourage reading on screens. But a growing body of research suggests that our brains process digital reading very differently from paper reading and that we need to make sure that we – and students – can do both.

“Linear reading, which is something we humans have developed over years and years, is what we need to do when we want to do deep reading—like immerse ourselves in a novel, or read a mortgage document,” says WNYC reporter Manoush Zomorodi in a recent story on the issue. “Dense text that we really want to understand requires deep reading, and on the Internet we don’t do that.”

In her story, “Paper vs. Plasma: How the Digital Reading Shift is Impacting Your Brain,” Zomorodi notes that researchers like Maryanne Wolf of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University recommend “setting some time aside each day to deep read with a paper medium.”

Do you personally find that reading on screens is different than on paper? Teachers, have you noticed a difference in how students comprehend information that is read on a screen versus information that is read on paper?

Listen to the original episode of WNYC’s New Tech City here.

To improve schools, look at principals

Corporate education reformers like to beat up on teachers under the pretext that teachers are the cause of the achievement gap, as if child poverty, class size and school funding play no part in a child’s opportunities for success. In a new article at Slate, reporter Dana Goldstein has a bold proposition: “To fix schools, stop beating up on teachers and start paying attention to their bosses.”

While we may not agree with everything Goldstein says in her new book, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, she makes an interesting case that effective principals are crucial in shaping a school’s mission and helping teachers build their pedagogical skills. “When McKinsey surveyed top teachers on what it would take for them to move to a higher-poverty school, they responded that the biggest draw, even more important than a raise, would be a respected principal who created a positive school environment,” Goldstein writes. “In short, principals have a unique power to multiply the effects of good teaching and help close achievement gaps.”

Read the full article here.

What do you think? Do principals make a big difference in schools? What makes a principal an effective leader? What are some ways you think principals can support teachers’ pedagogy?

A Brooklyn teacher reflects on tenure

Many people have weighed in on the importance of due process for teachers. Here’s one Brooklyn teacher’s perspective, which she posted last month on her blog, My Life as a NYC Teacher. 

I was a bad teacher. My first two years of teaching were awful. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, not even mine. I simply didn’t know what I was doing. I should have gotten a U rating. But I didn’t. I wasn’t even tenured yet. My administrators knew it was growing pains. I was learning. It did not make me any less embarrassed to be observed. I didn’t make much growth because I didn’t know how to take suggestions and turn them into action… yet. But they gave me a chance. And now? Well, things aren’t perfect but I know what I’m doing. I am still growing and learning, but that will continue every year, and not just in teaching, but in every aspect of my life, for the rest of my life. I learned by experience and by heeding the advice of veteran teachers whom I admire greatly.

 But what if I were a tenured teacher? What if I had a few years under my belt? What if I needed to improve? What if I were accused of something that I may or may not have done, by an administrator? What if he/she just didn’t like me? Or wanted to replace me with his/her friend’s niece’s cousin?

Without due process, which is guaranteed by and the object of tenure, a teacher becomes an at-will employee. All the work he/she has done with students, all the time and effort put into being an educator, would be snatched out from underneath him/her.

The media, thanks to Campbell Brown (formerly Michelle Rhee) and the education reform movement, wants to do just that. Propaganda such as “lifetime employment as a teacher granted by tenure” permeates the debate. Her organization, Partnership for Educational Justice, helps fuel the fire by spreading such falsehoods. Shadowing the grave injustice of the tenure defeat in California, Brown and PEJ is supporting seven parents in a lawsuit against New York State’s teacher tenure laws” calling for the overhaul of teacher tenure, because, they claim, unions protect “bad teachers.”

Another lawsuit, once again, looms in the air. A parent in this new suit claims that “That same teacher allegedly gave Natalie [her daughter] good grades despite her being unable to read.” So why not take it up with that teacher? Or principal? None of the suits do. “The complaint does not name the allegedly incompetent educators, but argues that tenure laws lead to bad teachers.”

So if that is the case then “Mississippi (with no teacher tenure) should have stellar schools and Massachusetts (with teacher tenure) should have failing ones. Instead, it’s the other way around. Correlation is not causation, of course, but across the country the states without tenure are at the bottom of performance rankings. States with the highest-achieving public schools have tenure (and teacher unions).”

Point-by-point, Brown’s arguments are unfounded. She, like her reform movement counterparts at Students First, is a union-buster. This is not a new tactic for the reform movement. Education reformers are mostly well-intentioned in that they want to improve schools and help students, especially our neediest ones. However, how to go about doing so are at odds with what most veteran educators believe would make a difference. Reformers believe in school choice, charters, improvement of teacher quality by way of merit pay and firing “low-performing” teachers.

Teachers unions not only protect teachers (as they should because they are LABOR unions), but they are large advocates of education. They lobby for better workplace conditions (kids are part of that workplace); we can advocate for students without fear of retaliation; unionized states produce higher-achieving students; they provide (often free) professional development so we can get better (I frequently attend UFT PDs); and they often hold events for teachers and students celebrating our accomplishments.

Veteran teachers who oppose the reform movement know that there are many outside factors that affect student performance, such as abuse, hunger, homelessness, lack of parental support/supervision and illness. Many of these issues are rooted in larger societal problems that affect the community at large, such as poverty and institutional racism. It is indeed possible for children to overcome these circumstances and teachers can be a factor in that, but it is often the exception rather than the rule. We need the support of those around the child in the other parts of his/her life.

Charters have the ability to screen student admissions as well as expel students for behavioral issues. Those students wind up back in community schools.

Merit pay creates competition between teachers when we need to be working together. And incentives don’t work. I know of very few teachers who are in it for the money.

If a teacher is indeed low-performing year after year, or is found to have done something wrong, he/she is fired. All tenure guarantees is just cause. Do we really want to give absolute power to administrators to get rid of teachers for any reason they choose (just or unjust), without a hearing?

Yes, the education system needs an overhaul, but attacking teachers and bashing teachers unions isn’t the way to do it. Reformers, we agree on the destination: better schools and equity for students. But we need to get on the same roadway. (And not to privatization of our public schools).

As a former “low-performing” teacher, I am grateful that no one gave up on me. I am proud to be a member of the most powerful union[s] in the country. (The NEA, AFT, NYSUT and UFT). After all, how can anyone get better if we do not practice? I attend professional development and constantly learn from wonderful veteran teachers to inform my practice. Teaching is, after all, a practice.


Artist of the people


Catch it while it’s here: the American Folk Art Museum is exhibiting the artwork of a working-class American original, Ralph Fasanella, from Sept. 2 – Nov. 30. Fasanella’s colorful, lively and detailed paintings are infused with history and politics and dense with visual descriptions of life in a still-recognizable New York City from an earlier era.

Born in 1914, Fasanella worked many different jobs, beginning at age 8 when he assisted his father, an iceman, delivering ice to local homes in that pre-refrigeration age. He went on to work as a labor organizer, gas station attendant and truck driver— but found his calling as a self-taught painter, recreating the world of the Lower East Side which he grew up in and knew intimately.

Fasanella brought to his art a strong sense of social justice.

In “Family Supper,” one of his various paintings depicting his hardworking Italian immigrant family, his mother, a garment worker, is at the center. “The Iceman Crucified #4,” shows his father on a cross, a representation of the struggles of the working class.

The trial of the Rosenbergs, the assassination of President Kennedy, Watergate, the 1912 Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Mass. — all found their way into Fasanella’s work. He also painted some of the more pleasant parts of working people’s lives, including the joys of baseball or stoop-sitting outside apartment buildings, and the more mundane, such as his piece showing tired subway riders on the way home from work.

Fasanella painted in obscurity for many years, until a 1972 New York magazine cover story shot him to fame, comparing him to another self-taught American master, Grandma Moses. It was a comparison he vehemently rejected, but his work sold well from that time on. In the 1980s, he teamed with a union organizer in a project called Public Domain which successfully raised money to buy back some of his works so they could be exhibited in public spaces such as the 53rd Street subway, the Ellis Island Museum and union halls throughout the country.

Whether for your own enjoyment or as a springboard for teaching your students about New York and labor history, you won’t want to miss Ralph Fasanella: Lest We Forget, at the American Folk Art Museum, 2 Lincoln Square, Columbus Avenue at 66th Street, NY, NY 10023. Admission is free. For hours, visit http://folkartmuseum.org/info.

The battle over summer break

No sooner are we back from vacation than some critics are saying we should end the summer breaks to avoid a slide in learning. Their arguments ignore the benefits of summer vacations:  enrichment, unstructured play and family time for kids – and rejuvenation for teachers. A Colorado teacher writing in Salon comes up with an interesting solution: Make summer count for students by improving the experience, not eliminating it, he writes. Enhance it with programs and activities, especially for low-achieving students whose parents can’t afford summer camp.

What do you think? How important is summer to you and your students? And are changes needed to ensure it benefits all children or to build on learning that takes place during the school year?

 Read the full article here.

Alumni at elite high schools back test-based admissions

The huge and troubling racial imbalance in admissions to New York City’s specialized high schools recently prompted a UFT task force to recommend altering the current test-only admissions process to improve equity and access.

But some alumni of the elite schools told The New York Times on Aug 26 that they oppose such changes.

The grads base their arguments on an interesting assumption: that admitting more black and Latino students into Stuy, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech or the other five specialized schools would dilute the academic rigor of their alma maters by taking in students “who can’t do the work,” in the words of one alum, or who “can’t keep up.”

Graciously, the alums suggest expanding test prep for disadvantaged students to help them score higher on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. But beyond that they offer no solutions to the wild racial imbalances in admissions to these schools. In 2012-13, of 830 students who were offered admission to Stuyvesant, only nine were black and 24 were Latinos. That’s 4 percent combined, in a school system where blacks and Latinos make up 70 percent of enrollment.

Earlier this year, the UFT task force made up of teachers from those very high schools did offer solutions. They recommended “thinking beyond the test,” and taking steps to improve equity and access.

There are students capable of doing the work, the task force said, who haven’t been given the opportunity because the sole entry criterion is a single, flawed, test. As one Stuyvesant teacher on the panel said, “I think I speak for just about all the teachers in my building when I say that we would want to opt for a system that was fairer in terms of admitting kids into our building.”

In its March 2014 report the task force recommended seven creative educational solutions that would maintain the elite reputations of the specialized high schools while allowing them to look more like the city they serve.

They include:

1) Creating a pathway that would target top-performing 8th graders at every middle school, and taking at least one top student from each, proportional to enrollment;
2) Using a composite “power score” for admission, based on student grade point average, ELA and math results, attendance, participation in advanced classes and a revised test for the specialized schools, which would look at more dimensions of student excellence;
3) Revising the SHSAT, the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, to better reflect the content that is taught in the city middle schools;
4) Pre-registering all city 8th graders for the test, so they don’t depend on their parents hearing about it and signing them up;
5) Making prep materials free online so families without the means to enroll their children in test-prep get access and level the playing field;
6) Ensuring every middle school family knows about the schools;
7) Putting a Discovery Program into each of the schools to identify and develop promising students for admission.

The gap between rich and poor has never been greater in our city, the task force notes. “Our best public schools represent unique opportunities to level the playing field.” Instead of remaining so racially imbalanced, they could become genuine centers of citywide excellence.

Teachers’ due process rights are not the problem

Since when do due process rights for teachers hinder students’ ability to learn? That’s blogger Kristin Wald’s reaction to the lawsuit filed by seven parents in New York State that seeks to erode due process protections for teachers.

In a post titled “Without Tenure — Everything Is Awesome!“, the Montclair, N.J. writer highlights the absurdity of faulting teachers’ due process rights when students struggle to perform:

It must be the teachers, you see. It MUST be. Because it couldn’t be fine motor skills or exposure to reading and learning at home. And it couldn’t be socio-economic status that poses particular challenges. It couldn’t be health complications for a student or a student’s family. Of course it couldn’t be anything about the parents or community that affects a child’s learning. And certainly the ability to learn wouldn’t be affected by status as an English Language Learner or having stresses outside of school…

So it must be the teachers who are at fault. It must be tenure that is the problem. Tenure is what must change. Remove a teacher’s protection from dismissal without due process and she’ll work harder, fall into line, do what she’s told, scramble to get class test scores up, and be better.

Wald closes her post by calling for those who attack teachers’ rights to take on the challenge of truly supporting students and teachers:

Those suing to get rid of tenure should spend their time & money ensuring excellent pre-K prep & long-term support for all students. … If you truly want excellent teachers, work for excellent working conditions instead of destroying the protections that provides.

Read the full post here.

What happened to “No bias, no bull”? The new face of CNN’s Campbell Brown

Former CNN talk show host Campbell Brown is all over the headlines these days, but not for her skills as a journalist. Instead, Brown has reinvented herself as the face of attacks on teacher tenure, teacher unions and the teaching profession.

“My view of public education,” claims Brown, “begins and ends with the fundamental question: Is this good for children?” Based on the lawsuit that Brown and her organization, the Partnership for Educational Justice, plan to file in New York — modeled on Vergara v. California, which led to the striking down of California’s tenure and seniority statutes — Brown apparently thinks that what’s good for children is firing their teachers.

In her criticism of the lawsuit on her blog, education activist Diane Ravitch notes, “One curious aspect to this copycat case is that no one has been able to establish the basic claim that every child would have a ‘great’ teacher if no teacher had due process rights or any job protections. If people like Campbell Brown really cared about poor kids, they would fight for small class sizes, arts teachers, school nurses, libraries, and improved conditions for teaching and learning. They don’t.”

Get to know Campbell Brown by reading these recent articles:

Campbell Brown goes after teacher tenure in transition from journalist to advocate,” Washington Post, July 14

Tenure haters’ big delusion: Why Campbell Brown and co. are wrong about teaching,” Salon, July 16



Closing the achievement gap by supporting teachers

Instead of pouring more resources into high-stakes standardized tests, those working to support low-performing students should focus their energies on supporting teachers, writes education professor Linda Darling-Hammond in a blog at the Huffington Post titled “To Close the Achievement Gap, We Need to Close the Teaching Gap.”

As evidence, Darling-Hammond points to the findings of the Teaching and Learning International Surveyof 100,000 teachers worldwide, which were released last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The survey, she said, revealed:

American teachers today work harder under much more challenging conditions than teachers elsewhere in the industrialized world. They also receive less useful feedback, less helpful professional development, and have less time to collaborate to improve their work.

Current education policies, writes Darling-Hammond, “ignore the facts that one in four American children lives below the poverty line and a growing number are homeless, without regular access to food or health care, and stressed by violence and drug abuse around them. Educators now spend a great deal of their time trying to help children and families in their care manage these issues, while they also seek to close skill gaps and promote learning.”

Darling-Hammond highlighted the survey finding that nearly two-thirds of U.S. middle-school teachers work in schools where more than 30 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. That is triple the average rate reported in the survey, and by far the highest rate in the world, she said.

To address these inequalities, Darling-Hammond suggests some important policy changes that would support teachers rather than penalize them:

  • Address inequities that undermine learning
  • Value teaching and teacher learning
  • Redesign schools to create time for collaboration
  • Create meaningful teacher evaluations that foster improvement

“We cannot make major headway in raising student performance and closing the achievement gap until we make progress in closing the teaching gap,” Darling-Hammond concludes. “That means supporting children equitably outside as well as inside the classroom, creating a profession that is rewarding and well-supported, and designing schools that offer the conditions for both the student and teacher learning that will move American education forward.”

Read the full post here.

Summer is for…

School’s out. But we know that many UFT members have busy summers ahead.

Many will still be working, including the members of our Federation of Nurses/UFT. Some others who work in the schools will teach special-needs students or summer school during the summer. Many others will use this time away from the classroom preparing for the next school year.

We all know that some people who have never worked in schools don’t understand the intensity of the demands on educators. These same people may also fail to grasp the fulfillment and gratification that can come with the job. And they likely misunderstand how teachers and other educators spend their summer breaks.

We work, take professional development courses, care for our families, prepare for the coming year.

Just as importantly, we try to find time to recharge. In our devotion to our students, we can pour so much into our work that we become emotionally and physically drained.

The UFT recently asked our Facebook followers to share their tips on how to have a productive summer. Some of the answers are on page 55. Here is one:

“Spend time building yourself intellectually and spiritually,” said Jessica Leung Rivera, an ESL teacher at PS 101 in Brooklyn. “Spend time doing what you love. But also do something new. Learning a new skill will remind you what it’s like to be a student.”

Whether you are working this summer or getting a much-needed break, find some time to relax and recharge. You deserve it.

A top-down plan for charters’ growth

[This editorial originally appeared in the June 26 issue of the New York Teacher.]

Over the last 15 years, as the number of charter schools around the country has multiplied, the movement has increasingly become dominated by charter school networks such as Success Academy and Uncommon Schools as opposed to independent or community-based charter schools.

That is no accident.

Researchers have found that large foundations are deliberately fueling the growth of charter school networks, also known as charter school management organizations. One recent study, described in our Research Shows column on page 17, looked closely at the explosive growth of charter school networks in California from 1999 to 2005. It found that four foundations had worked in concert to drive that growth: the Gates, Broad and Walton Family foundations along with the New Schools Venture Fund.

The Walton, Gates and Broad foundations are also the largest funders of charter school networks nationally.

Why would these foundations want to fund networks rather than independent schools? A main reason is that networks can grow. An explicit demand of the foundations in the California study was for networks to add more schools fast. Charter school leaders interviewed for the study said foundations told them that they would receive funding only if they had a plan to scale up.

Some of the charter organizations aimed to grow big enough within a particular school district to challenge that school system. One said that scaling up was akin to having an effect on “public education the way FedEx affected the Post Office.”

We know that the ultimate goal of many in the corporate education reform movement is to privatize public education. These foundations and the other billionaire funders of the corporate reform movement see building up charter school networks as a pivotal part of that work.

We must call out the orchestrated, top-down growth of the charter school movement. Studies show that charters perform no better and often worse than public schools. And an unbridled and unregulated increase in charter schools poses a threat to public education and our democracy.

Do decorated classrooms distract young children?

Picture a kindergarten classroom. What do you see?

Chances are, your mental image doesn’t include blank walls. But a new study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that kindergarten students in a visually stimulating classroom tended to be more distracted than those in a comparatively sterile environment.

As reported in a New York Times article, “Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom,” this study suggests that elaborately decorated classrooms might distract from, rather than encourage, learning.

In the austere classroom in the study, the kindergartners — age-appropriately wriggly and restless — were inclined to be distracted by others or even themselves. In the decorated one, the visuals competed with the teacher for their attention. The children spent far more time off-task in the decorated classroom than in the plain one, and their test scores were also lower.

Teachers who agree with the study recommend starting the year with relatively blank walls and adding student work to decorate the room as the year goes on.

Yet teachers of primary grades often start the year with decorated classrooms to help create a cheerful and welcoming environment. And many teachers have had administrators who expect them to cover every inch of wall space with some kind of chart or poster.

Tell us: What’s your reaction to this new research? What works for you when decorating your own classrooms?

Report: Co-located schools may violate students’ rights

Many co-located city schools have inadequate facilities, oversized classes, restricted course offerings and insufficient student supports that violate state education laws, according to a new report by the Campaign for Educational Equity.

The campaign is calling for a full-scale investigation into potential violations of student rights at all co-located schools and for the Department of Education to impose a moratorium on new co-locations until violations are remedied.

Housed at Columbia Teachers College and headed by the attorney who brought the original Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, the Campaign for Educational Equity says the inadequacies found in the report are not only a result of budget cuts but also of the rapid expansion of co-locations.

The hundreds of new schools launched under former mayor Michael Bloomberg resulted in an explosion of shared facilities. By 2013, according to the report, 63 percent of the city’s 1,818 schools were co-located, most commonly in buildings that had not added any square footage to accommodate the additional school. One hundred and fifteen charters account for 10 percent of co-locations; the other 90 percent are district schools.

But co-location “often exacerbates resource inadequacies and further limits already under-resourced schools’ ability to provide a sound basic education,” the CEE charges.

In a closely examined sample of 38 high-needs NYC schools, the report found that:

  • Students in a number of schools had no access to a library;
  • They had limited access to an auditorium, gym or yard;
  • Some schools provided adaptive physical therapy or physical and occupational therapy in the hallway;
  • Specialized rooms such as pools, dance studios or weight rooms were off-limits to students in their own school buildings;
  • Many middle and high schools could not provide required art classes, much less a sequence of classes in arts, band or orchestra;
  • Schools lacked staff and space for science labs, foreign languages, AP classes or career and technology programs;
  • Closets or storage areas served as rooms for special education, academic intervention services or English as a Second Language instruction;
  • Some schools changed student IEPs for lack of adequate space and resources;
  • Without the available classrooms, class sizes rose above contractual maximums.

Principals of co-located schools told CEE they spend 20 percent to 80 percent of their time in any given week managing building-related issues, such as space-sharing, security, and managing tensions between students in different schools in the building.

The CEE said its report should spur a full-scale investigation into potential violations of student rights at all co-located schools. Among its recommendations, it calls for the Department of Education to impose a moratorium on new co-locations until violations are remedied.

The last public school

[This editorial originally appeared in the June 5 issue of the New York Teacher.]

This June, New Orleans’ Recovery School District closed its last five traditional public schools, making it the first all-charter school district in the country.

Some observers call the all-charter district a grand urban experiment. We see the unfettered, underregulated expansion of charters as a threat to children’s education and to democracy.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the state took over 102 of New Orleans’ 117 schools. More than 7,000 teachers and other school employees were booted out. Charter operators were invited in.

Charter boosters in New Orleans point to higher state test scores and graduation rates than before Katrina. But such comparisons are questionable because many families and students who lived in the city prior to the storm have left.

Other trends are clearer. A 2010 study by the University of Minnesota Law School found that while New Orleans remains a majority African-American city, 80 percent of its white students attend the most selective, higher-performing charter schools while children of color and lower economic status attend lower-ranked schools.

Similarly, advocates for students with disabilities say children with special needs are routinely denied equal access to educational opportunities and are often pushed out of New Orleans’ charter schools.

A similar lack of fairness can be found in the treatment of educators. While most of the fired teachers were African-American, many of the new recruits are white. The fired educators sued for unfair termination and won.

Unequal treatment can thrive more easily in a district of privately run, though publicly funded, charter schools. The privatization and decentralization of New Orleans schools have led to both a loss of community control and a diminished sense of community as neighborhood schools disappear.

At a time when public education is under attack, New Orleans should remind us that public schools offer both an equality of access and a sense of community essential to our diverse democracy.

“Public education isn’t important because it serves the public,” the late cultural critic Neil Postman said. “It is important because it creates the public.”