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Alumni at elite high schools back test-based admissions

Would changing the test-only admissions policy at Stuyvesant and the other specialized city high schools mean accepting students who aren’t up to the challenge?

Some alumni of the elite schools told The New York Times on Aug 26 that it would.

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, a 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.”

New teachers’ contract will benefit students

The new teachers’ contract is a win for students as well as educators, writes Greg Anrig in a blog post at the Century Foundation.

Calling the contract’s approach “the inverse of the top-down, improve-or-else philosophy pursued by former mayor Michael Bloomberg,” Anrig writes, “The new organizational practices embedded in the ratified UFT contract emulate strategies that have improved student outcomes, according to mounting research published over the past decade.”

Anrig identifies identify three central pillars, supported by a wealth of research on education, that will benefit students:

  • Enabling teachers and their union to be formally included in decision-making about most aspects of school operations
  • Creating opportunities for teachers to receive ongoing advice from peers and other instructional experts, much as athletes are coached on how to improve their performance
  • Strengthening connections between teachers and parents

“Those changes are intended to build trust among all the stakeholders in public schools, provide teachers with new opportunities to influence decisions beyond the classroom, and create systems for improving the quality of teaching day-in and day-out,” Anrig concludes.

Read the full article here.

Helping students cope with their emotions


nau_edwizePatrick Nau, a teacher at PS 369 in the South Bronx, was trained in January by the Institute for Understanding Behavior (IUB), a consortium of the Department of Education and the UFT, in how to respond to challenging behavior more effectively by using strategies that help foster social, emotional and academic growth. Staff from eight schools received training this school year. Patrick is blogging about his experience as he applies what he learned in his classroom. Read Patrick’s other posts »

We have a handful of students at my school who struggle with transitions and display aggressive behavior, fight, push, yell and curse. One of the Therapeutic Crisis Intervention for Schools strategies I have applied is to provide time away for the student who is acting out. After giving that student some time to calm down and get back to baseline, I talk with him in private about what happened and what he is feeling. The challenge is to let the student control the discussion and let him express his feelings and his interpretation of what happened, regardless of its accuracy or the appropriateness of his reaction.

What the IUB taught me is that it doesn’t matter if the student’s perception is inaccurate; he reacted according to how he perceived what took place. It is important not to get caught in a power struggle by disputing his version of events and saying things like “I heard you calling him names” or “I saw you pushing him, too.” It’s better to ask him “How did it make you feel?” and “What could you do differently next time?” instead of “Why did you hit him?”

The goal is to help the student cope with his emotions and think about a better way to resolve the situation next time — alternatives like walking away, speaking to a teacher, asking the person to leave him alone. I have to remember that I may have to repeat the process with him a dozen times before his behavior starts to change. We teachers must remember that students who struggle with their emotions are not going to suddenly figure out how to control themselves and not, in eyes of adults, overreact in a situation.

The IUB strategies have helped me deal with defiance, yelling, pushing and other disruptions. More importantly, they can be very effective in de-escalating situations. But I’m not convinced that the strategies pay off with students who have much more severe behaviors — students who fight without being provoked, emotionally disturbed children, children on the spectrum. I am not sure if these students can interpret and understand their emotions. The IUB approach may work to defuse a crisis for some of these students in the moment, but I don’t know how well it will work in the long term in changing their behavior.

Another challenge at my school is that the IUB model is premised on a critical mass of the staff buying into the new approach if a school’s culture is to change. Here at PS 369, almost half of the school’s staff, including most school aides, paras and security, have not yet attended the trainings. The IUB system cannot work until everyone uses the same strategies to deal with specific behaviors and specific children.

If I ignore a student for cursing and it stops but another teacher makes a bigger issue of it with the same student, then the student is receiving mixed messages. The response of adults in our school must be consistent. The challenge lies in everyone agreeing on what the appropriate response is to a particular behavior. The staff has to put their personal sentiments aside and support the system. This can happen only when everyone has a clear understanding of the IUB approach and how to implement it.

Why treating teachers like professionals terrifies the tabloids

The proposed new teachers’ contract takes landmark steps toward recognizing the expertise of teachers and giving them more of a voice in decision making in their schools and classrooms. For proof that the contract empowers educators, look no further than yesterday’s editorial in the Daily News, which stomps its feet over Mayor de Blasio’s “generosity to the UFT” and “collaboration with the teachers union.”

That editorial joins a chorus of criticism about our proposed contract in the tabloids, which reached its most absurd in the New York Post op-ed that described the agreement as “Satanic.”

Evidently, the idea of a mayor who works collaboratively with teachers, treating them like professionals, is terrifying to the tabloids. The Daily News editorial objects to the proposed contract on the grounds that it gives more job-placement opportunities to ATRs and enables teachers to spend time on training, parent engagement, and, heaven forbid, grading tests.

The Daily News is disappointed that the contract bases teacher evaluations on more than test scores: “As long as a principal likes the way teachers conduct their classes, they will be presumed to get an ‘effective’ rating.” The paper also complains that the contract makes teachers the peer “validators” who review the fairness of teacher ratings.

Read the full editorial here.

Teachers know what is best for their students. All they need is the respect, support and tools to act on that knowledge. That is what this proposed contract offers.

A matter of respect

[This editorial originally appeared in the May 15 issue of the New York Teacher.]

The proposed contract reflects the importance of having a negotiating partner in City Hall who understands and respects the work that UFT members do, both in and out of the classroom. It’s a striking difference from the modus operandi of the previous administration.

Case in point: the reluctance of the Bloomberg administration to pay the hundreds of UFT members who spent days and nights at 76 evacuation centers throughout the city in the wake of Hurricane Sandy 18 months ago.

Our members staffed the evacuation sites — many but not all were in public school buildings — and took on a variety of tasks: setting up cots, delivering supplies, organizing children’s activities, treating ill and fragile evacuees and even walking dogs.

Some members worked in 12-hour shifts; others worked around the clock. Many had suffered their own losses in the ferocious storm, but put those concerns aside to help others.

Members waited months for payment for the hours they spent assisting Sandy victims who sought refuge in those evacuation centers — and then Bloomberg’s minions decided the city would pay them only for hours greater than their normal workday, even if schools were closed on those days.

The UFT initiated a grievance on behalf of those members to challenge the decision, pointing out that the policy was tantamount to lengthening the work year without additional pay for educators who stepped up to help in shelters since UFT members who stayed home were also paid for the normal workday.

As a result of the grievance victory, members will get paid for all the hours they spent at the evacuation centers in hard-hit communities, including Far Rockaway and Staten Island. It was slow in coming, but in the end, fairness prevailed.

Affordable housing an education issue

[This editorial originally appeared in the May 15 issue of the New York Teacher.]

Many of us were haunted last fall by the story of Dasani — one of the 22,000 children living in homeless shelters in New York City, and a student at the McKinney Secondary School of the Arts in Brooklyn. The New York Times followed her and her family through bureaucratic indignities, the insecurity of shelters and temporary apartments, and other false starts. Her school was her anchor.

It is with Dasani in mind that we welcome the news of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing, costing $8.2 billion over 10 years. It is an important step toward helping families like Dasani’s who have been pushed to the margins of the city by rising rents. The plan addresses the needs of both New York City’s lowest-income residents and middle-income workers, including the UFT’s own members, who increasingly find themselves priced out of the city.

Under the mayor’s plan, developers will for the first time be required to include affordable units in any residential construction. And the city has vowed to more aggressively protect tenants in rent-regulated units.

Landlords that have been ruthless in hounding out tenants — especially by withholding repairs and services — should feel the full weight of the law. Both federal and state assistance will be needed to help families on the lowest economic rung make the transition from shelters to stable housing.

The plan is a long overdue response to the growing housing costs that have priced out many families. Change cannot come soon enough for our students and families.

The New York State Technical and Educational Assistance Center for Homeless Students reports that 80,574 city public school students were identified as homeless in the 2012–13 school year — living in shelters or motels, or doubled up with their families in inadequate housing.

As any teacher can tell you, the lack of stable and secure housing reverberates in the classroom. The state assistance center has the sad tally: More than 75 percent of homeless children read below grade level, and 36 percent of homeless children repeated a grade, twice the rate of other children. Students with two or more school changes are half as likely to be proficient in reading as their peers.

For the youngest students, the impact is especially profound. The Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness found that children experiencing homelessness or high mobility begin Head Start at age 3 “with poorer socio-emotional, cognitive, and health-related outcomes on average than their low-income, stably housed peers.”

The mayor has called the housing plan “a central pillar in the battle against inequality.” While many details need to be worked out, the plan holds promise for the thousands of Dasanis who struggle every day to learn, in a city that for too long had seemed to turn its back on them.

Ravitch praises proposed contract

Diane Ravitch, an acclaimed expert on education and a critic of corporate education reform, praises our proposed new contract on her blog for the opportunities it gives unionized public schools to innovate.

“This agreement should explode many of the myths that corporate education reformers like to spread about teacher unions,” she writes. “It shows that in an environment of trust and respect unions and districts can come together and agree on innovations that make sense for students.”

Ravitch neatly dispenses of Bloomberg’s disastrous contract demands and notes that the new chancellor and mayor, working with union leadership, “were able to come to agreement on a genuinely innovative set of ideas.”

Read the full post here.