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Archive for December, 2009

It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

[Editor's note: Little Miss Sunshine is a second-year teacher in an elementary school in Queens.]

As any family with Italian heritage can tell you, speaking with your hands is practically a necessity. I come from a long line of hand-talkers; we simply cannot get our point across without using our hands. In fact, growing up in my family if you wanted to tell your cousin to “shut up” without getting in trouble, you would say “Sit on your hands!”

If you couldn’t use your hands, you couldn’t speak.

This habit of talking with my hands followed me into adulthood. When I began teaching, I continued to speak in this manner, using my hands to explain things that my words could not. I was surprised when one of my English as a second language (ESL) professors told me that there have been studies that have shown that speaking with your hands can actually help English language learners create meaning. More »

Show Us the Money!

“Show me the money!” “Knowledge is power!”

Both these expressions were worn-out by overuse or misapplication until a UFT arbitration victory last spring fused them with a revived and original relevance. That victory mandates that the UFT chapter committee, including, of course the chapter leader of every school, be provided a view of its Galaxy Table of Organization.

The Consent Award stipulates that this access to their schools’ budget shall be furnished them before the end of each school year and again prior to the re-opening of school in September. The award further directs that the chapter committee be provided with budget modifications that may arise and that there be facilitated discussion by each school’s principal and chapter committee of such modifications. More »

Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing: NYCSA’s Apology For Putting Ideology Before Education

macbethmA rhetorically challenged Lady MacBeth: that is the figure cut by Peter Murphy of the New York Charter School Association, as he attempts to explain away the well-established history of NYCSA’s pursuit of right-wing ideology at the expense of schools. Murphy’s mutterings of “blah, blah, blah” when faced with inconvenient facts lack the power and force of “Out, damned spot!” and “Will these hands ne’er be clean?” But the urge to wash away the stain of rightwing and anti-union Wal-Mart, Gilder and Icahn money in NYCSA coffers, the desire to erase the blemish of NYCSA leaders opposing the Campaign for Fiscal Equity and NYCSA lobbyists working against New York receiving Race to the Top funds, the effort to cover up the alliance with the leading union busting law firm in the country, all cast Murphy and NYCSA as political sleep-walkers deeply steeped in the psyche of the Scottish aristocrat Lady MacBeth. More »

“A Home Away From Home”

Christopher Columbus HS in the Bronx is one of 15 high schools targeted for closure by the Department of Education. Below, a look at the school’s students, faculty, and programs.

Fix, Don’t Close, ‘Failing’ Schools

[Editor's note: This op-ed was originally published in the Daily News on Dec. 20.]

The Department of Education recently announced the closing of 21 schools — most of them large high schools — in a stated attempt to provide better services to students. The truth is that the students in these schools are poised to become the latest victims of a failed educational strategy — one that ignores the possibility of strengthening schools, closes them on the basis of mysterious and ever-changing criteria and shuffles thousands of our neediest students from one struggling institution to another.

The first problem is how the schools were chosen. According to Mayor Bloomberg, the aim of the latest round of closings is to shut down the system’s lowest-performing schools. While it is true that some of the high schools identified for closure have problems that require drastic action, the list also includes schools that have made progress on every measure. It includes schools where teachers and administrators have gotten bonuses for improving scores. And it includes schools that have never received a progress grade lower than C.

Meanwhile, schools with worse records are permitted to remain open. More »

Appreciating My Students’ Voices

[Editor's note: Ms. Flecha is a third-year teacher in an elementary school in Queens. She blogs at My Life Untranslated.]

One of my newcomer Bangladeshi students, “Alia,” recently published a biography of her grandmother during our writer’s workshop. She is a beginner ELL, so she started the story with pictures — she sketched out exquisitely detailed pictures of her grandmother in her village, wearing traditional clothing and carrying fruit on her head. She added key timeline-related details and then asked me what the word is for a job where women carry food around on their heads. I asked if she meant in a restaurant, and she said, “No, no restaurant in her village.” I suggested food vendor, but she preferred waitress. Really, we don’t have a word for such a job — another interesting chasm between languages, cultures, and experiences. Slowly, I felt I was being invited into her life.

To prepare them for the unit I had read them picture books such as The Librarian of Basra, A True Story From Iraq, and Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa, both by Jeanette Winter, as well as books about Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks. With these books, I taught them how to focus in on their subject’s most important moment as the heart of the story. In retrospect, the powerful nature of these people’s lives in particular had probably helped some of my students to see the importance of retelling the often heartbreaking struggles their person had experienced. Some had chosen to describe when their father or mother had hiked across the border into the US, through thickets of thorns and desert. Alia, however, told me her grandmother was still in Bangladesh, so I asked her to sketch some more so I could help her choose the most important moment.

Although it wasn’t hard to figure out, it really took my breath away. More »

New York Teacher

New York TeacherHighlights from the Dec. 17 issue of New York Teacher:

UFT President Michael Mulgrew sent an e-mail to members accusing the mayor and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein of promoting “fake reforms, simplistic ‘solutions’ and sheer fantasy.”

The city packed more students into its classrooms for the second year in a row, a new Department of Education report confirmed, giving students less individual time and making teachers’ jobs more difficult.

Teachers, students, parents and communities reeling from Department of Education-announced school closings are fighting back and building well-organized campaigns to save their schools. UFT President Michael Mulgrew offered the union’s full support as schools reach out to political leaders and plan meetings to bring these stories to the communities.

Despite a relentless focus on test performance since Mayor Bloomberg took over the school system, New York City failed to score any significant gains in either 4th- or 8th-grade math in the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gold standard national achievement test. More »

We Were Born – It Just Wasn’t Yesterday:
How NYCSA Places Ideology Before the Interests of Charter Schools

Leveling the Playing Field coverRepresentatives of the New York Charter School Association have been lobbying against New York State receiving Race to the Top funds, elected officials in Albany and Washington DC have told the UFT. If successful, these efforts would deny funds for important educational reforms to both district and charter schools in New York — at a time when all of these schools are facing draconian cuts in funding.

But NYCSA — and the allied New York City Charter School Center — are once again placing their ideological agenda above the interests of the schools they claim to represent. Their agenda to eliminate the limits on charter school expansion in New York and create a completely deregulated, unfettered charter school sector, such as that in Arizona and Ohio, is taking precedence over the needs of all public schools — including charter schools. Little does it matter that where states like Arizona and Ohio have abandoned the careful and deliberate chartering of schools that has taken place in New York, an essential part of which is the charter cap, the quality of charter schools has plummeted. More »

Reflecting Upon Sixteen Months of Teaching

[Ms. I is a second-year teacher in a high school in Brooklyn.]

As tends to be the case in major life events, my high school teaching career began when I least expected. Midway through the school year, I was welcomed into a wonderful school community. I shed tears of joy. For sixty seconds, I was elated. Then, reality hit. I realized I had so much to learn even though I was now the teacher. So, in order to continue to learn about teaching and learning, I would now have to bring my attention, awareness and understanding to my own classroom performance.

An Irish immigrant and a mother with four degrees and years of professional experience, I was terrified. I asked myself: “What will I teach? How will I teach? What will my students be like? How will I know if they are learning?” I felt unprepared. Sixteen months later, these four questions are the focus of my current reflection. More »

Class Warfare Against Poor Kids

That’s the only way to describe the MTA’s decision to make students pay for the use of public transportation to commute to school. In practice, it can only mean students living in poverty missing school — and often missing the meals school provides — because they do not have the money for the subway.

Shame on all of you — the MTA, New York State and New York City — as you play with kids’ lives.

Holiday Cheer Markdown

giftSuperintendents across the nation are meeting in emergency session to draft memos to educators laying down the parameters for accepting gifts from students and their parents during this holiday season. In Boston the value of the gift may not exceed $50. That’s certainly more reasonable and realistic than the prohibition by Chancellor Klein a few years ago in which a gift of $5.01 or more would need to be returned.

Fresh from ripping the upholstery off the Polar Express, superintendents/chancellors and other educrats of exalted title have redefined contraband as any token of love, gratitude or holiday cheer, worth over an arbitrary retail value, gifted to teachers.

They seem to regard teachers as more prone to corruption than is the general population and assume that they must be protected from their impulse to put their soul and job on the line for a silk tie. In some districts, anything in excess of a slice of cherry pie must be returned to the sender. More »

The Closing of New York City Public Schools: A Case of “Persistently Failing DoE Management”

With the last of the official announcements of the schools targeted for closure by Chancellor Klein, the final grim toll can be tallied. An unprecedented twenty-one schools have been told that the Department of Education will begin their phase out in September 2010. Fifteen of those schools — a completely disproportionate number — were high schools.*

With this wide swath of devastation, there can be no illusion that this is a process based on an educational calculus. The evidence simply tells a very different story: the Chancellor could not close significant numbers of Elementary and Middle Schools, once 97% of them scored A and B on School Progress Reports that so heavily weighted the wildly inflated and broken state exams. So Klein decided that to reach his targets, he would close high schools in much larger numbers. Among the high schools slated for closure are schools which are in good standing with the New York State Education Department and schools which are meeting their Annual Yearly Progress benchmarks under No Child Left Behind, as well as a school which just received the school-wide bonus. The list includes schools which never received a School Progress grade lower than C, and schools which actually improved on every measure in the School Progress Reports.

Why take a machete to New York City public high schools in this way? The reason is not difficult to decipher. The Chancellor needs a great deal of space in public school buildings to pursue his political and ideological agenda of creating and supporting new charter schools and new DoE schools. Since it had become politically untenable to create that space by closing large numbers of elementary and middle schools, the space would have to be found in high schools. More »

Cheating Kids

[Editor's note: This piece was originally published as an opinion column in the New York Post on Dec. 10.]

National math scores were released this week for 18 cities, including New York City, and we learned that our state tests are a complete sham. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is administered by a federal agency, is considered the gold standard of education testing. The big lesson: Our state test scores are grossly inflated.

For the last several years, state education officials have held an annual press conference to boast about dramatic improvements in scores. But the NAEP scores tell a very different story.

According to state officials, the scores for New York City have soared year after year. From 2003 to 2009, they said, the proportion of fourth-grade students who met the state standard for proficiency leapt from 66.7 percent in 2003 to 84.9 percent in 2009. In eighth grade, where test scores had long been flat, the proportion who reached proficiency soared from 34.4 percent to an astonishing 71.3 percent. These amazing changes seemed too good to be true. More »

Mulgrew on “Road to City Hall”

On Dec. 9, UFT President Michael Mulgrew was interviewed on NY1’s “Road to City Hall.” He discussed the national math test scores, UFT’s stalled contract negotiations, and school closings.

Part 2 after the jump. More »

Spreadsheet Education: TUDA in New York City Stays Rather Flat

Though local newspapers did not bother to ask them, any teacher could have named a key reason why state math scores are soaring while the federal TUDA for NYC is largely flat. In spite of their own best professional judgment, their complaints, and their protests, teachers in New York City have been compelled to teach narrowly to a narrow state test, and to use test results to determine what to teach. Teach to a test — and worse, teach to a bad test — and you can’t expect kids to know very much. In fact, you can’t expect them to get much of an education at all, beyond the education that is politically convenient for some and gratifies the ideological enthusiasm of others. NAEP asks for more of education, and that’s the more we are denied from giving them in NYC.

The ideology to which I am referring of course is the penchant everywhere to replace real learning with a spreadsheet education: education by the numbers sliced and diced and then sliced and diced again. More »