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Archive for October, 2013

Parents speak out against co-location

Co-locations have been a hot-button issue of the mayor’s race, and with the Bloomberg administration pushing through proposals for co-locations that will take effect after Bloomberg leaves office, the issue is sure to stay heated in the months ahead. In this entry, two parents share some thoughts on their fight to keep a charter school from co-locating in the building of their school, IS 281 in Brooklyn. Maria and John Talmadge, former PTA co-presidents at IS 281, wrote this open letter. An expanded version appears in the Brooklyn Spectator.

The co-location of Coney Island Prep with Joseph B. Cavallaro (IS 281) is a huge mistake.  My husband and I are former PTA co-presidents of Cavallaro. We attended the public hearing held at Cavallaro on Oct. 21 to show our continued support for the school. We listened to Senator Diane Savino, Assemblyman Bill Colton, Councilman Domenic Recchia, and Councilman Vincent Gentile, just to mention a few politicians present, all of whom oppose the co-location of Coney Island Prep, a charter school, with Cavallaro. Many of our students, both past and present, voiced their opinions and fears of overcrowding in the hallways; cramped classrooms; and music, dance, art classes and afterschool programs being taken away. Adding 300 children, ages 4-8, to a school that already houses 1,200 children ages 10-14 is also certainly a safety issue.

Doesn’t Coney Island Prep care about the safety of their children?  We most definitely do.

Parents of the children who attend Coney Island Prep spoke at the hearing. They wanted us to understand how their children were failing in public schools and that Coney Island Prep has raised their scores and how well they are doing now. They told us how wonderful they were and how we should welcome them because they want to be our neighbors and enjoy the building with us…that we would grow to love them.  Cavallaro parents, teachers and students listened to what they had to say. Imagine our surprise when, as supporters of Cavallaro began to speak, one by one, Coney Island Prep parents left. NOT ONE PARENT stayed to listen to what we had to say.  This was brought to the attention of Jacob Mnookin, the executive director of Coney Island Prep.  He just looked up and smirked. While my husband John was asking why Coney Island Prep teachers are non-union teachers and why they don’t follow the same rules that our teachers must follow, Mr. Mnookin was checking his phone and texting. He did this to just about everyone. How disrespectful of Mr. Mnookin and Coney Island Prep parents!  Does this not speak volumes of their character and how they negated their entire message?

Why does Coney Island Prep hire non-union teachers? Why don’t their teachers undergo background checks like our teachers? Why doesn’t Coney Island Prep rent a building and put ALL their students in ONE place? We had many questions but received very few answers.

Cavallaro staff and students have and continue to work hard to make our school the A-rated school it is. We are a family at Cavallaro and we truly care for one another. It is our home away from home, and Coney Island Prep invading our home is a crime. We need the space in our school for it to continue to flourish and meet all of our children’s needs. This certainly cannot be accomplished with Coney Island Prep moving in.

Why do teachers leave?

That’s the question asked in last week’s Atlantic, in a piece by Liz Riggs titled “Why Do Teachers Quit?”

But perhaps a more important question is: Why do teachers stay?

And how can we keep them?

The statistics are troubling but familiar: between 40 and 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within their first five years.

Most of us can hazard a guess at why teachers leave, and Riggs names them all: lack of support, lack of respect, low pay. But the crucial flipside of teacher turnover is teacher retention, and Riggs is fairly definitive about the latter:

 If the overall attractiveness of teaching as a profession gets better, the best teachers will enter the profession, stay, and help increase the effectiveness of schools.

She also quotes Richard Ingersoll, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has done extensive research on teacher turnover and retention: “To improve the quality of teaching,” Ingersoll says, you need to “improve the quality of the teaching job. If you really improve that job…you would attract good people and you would keep them.”

But how to improve the quality of a teaching job is the big question. Ingersoll found that higher pay isn’t necessarily the most significant factor in attracting and retaining teachers.

What does make teachers want to join and stay in the profession? A supportive school administration, for one: Ingersoll’s research shows that teachers who have access to mentors and administrators who encourage them are more likely to remain in the job. Interestingly, Ingersoll also cites parental involvement and student achievement as a factor.

In other words: It takes a village to keep a teacher.

What do you think would encourage more teachers to stick with the profession?

Read the article in its entirety »

Eva uses her students

This editorial originally appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of the New York Teacher.

They’ll say it was about “school choice” and “for the children,” but the morning rally on Oct. 8 by Harlem Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz and other charter school honchos was little more than a thinly veiled campaign rally for Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota.

That wouldn’t be a problem if Moskowitz hadn’t closed her schools and forced parents, students and staff to attend. Children, who should have been in class at that hour, were instead bused to the rally with their parents.

“Several emails from senior leadership make it clear that the event is not optional,” a “concerned charter teacher” wrote to Diane Ravitch on her blog. “It seems very unethical that adults and children are being forced into this political statement.”

The rally was billed as a protest against Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio’s charter school policy proposals, not a campaign rally. But if it wasn’t a de facto campaign rally for Lhota, then why was he there? Lhota’s wife and daughter were at the head of the march across the Brooklyn Bridge and the candidate himself posed for pictures with children who should have been in school in a small area cordoned off in front of City Hall Park.

Moskowitz, a former chair of the City Council Education Committee, and others in the charter movement have lined up with Lhota because de Blasio has called for a moratorium on new charter schools and has said that he will charge charter schools rent to use space in public school buildings.

But we’re public schools, too, the charter operators complain. They’re right, of course: Charter schools are public schools. But the for-profit operators of charter schools only own up to that fact when it suits them. When it comes to accepting students with special needs, for example, they’re private schools through and through.

Not all charter schools are fans of Moskowitz’s tactics. Leaders of some independent charter schools said in an open letter that the rally “sends entirely the wrong message” and is “at best premature.” They wrote that they would rather have dialogue with de Blasio than protest against him.

A Proposal: Assign OTC and high-needs students more fairly across high schools

In this post, guest blogger Norm Fruchter, co-author of the new Annenberg Institute for School Reform report, “Over the Counter, Under the Radar,” argues that the Department of Education should change its current method for assigning students to high schools. A “controlled choice” model would be more equitable and help all schools succeed, he says.

Some 36,000 late-enrolling, high-need students, traditionally labeled as “over-the-counter” or OTC students, are annually assigned to NYC Department of Education high schools. Most of those over-the-counter students are disproportionally placed in struggling schools, essentially setting up the students and schools for failure, according to a new study [PDF] from Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

To improve the placement process for over-the-counter students, the Annenberg Institute study made the following recommendations:

  • The DOE should identify high schools in which over-the-counter students achieve significantly higher academic performance than systemwide averages, and then identify the exemplary practices of these “beat-the-odds” schools.
  • Schools targeted for closure or already undergoing the closure process, as well as persistently low-achieving high schools, should not be assigned any over-the-counter students.
  • The DOE should assign over-the-counter students to all other high schools at an annual rate of between 12 and 20 percent of their respective student populations. (These recommendations appear in the report’s Executive Summary.)

Implementing these recommendations, particularly by reserving an annual percentage of high school seats for over-the-counter students, would adapt the current merit-based high school choice and selection process by introducing an element of controlled choice. If all high schools were assigned a guaranteed percentage (and specific number) of over-the-counter students every year, both the students and their assigned schools would benefit significantly. Schools could develop a variety of methods to assess their over-the-counter students’ academic capacity, and then reconfigure class assignments, scheduling, and instruction to best meet those students’ needs.

Such a controlled choice model could be extended. Students with disabilities and English Language Learners are too often disproportionately assigned to struggling high schools, a policy that fails to benefit both those students and their assigned schools. Because there is considerable overlap across the categories of over-the-counter students, students with disabilities and English Language Learners, their total may well exceed 30 percent of the system’s high school population. A controlled choice process could reserve 30 percent of the seats in all high schools for these students, who would be assigned outside the school choice process. This policy would allow each high school to re-configure its curriculum, programing and instruction to more effectively meet the needs of a predictable annual percentage of challenged, and challenging, students, and would undoubtedly achieve dramatic gains in equitable treatment for almost a third of the system’s high school students.

Is “Dream School” a reality-TV nightmare?

With shows like American Idol and The Voice suggesting that anyone can become a pop star, it was only a matter of time before we had a reality show suggesting that anyone can be a teacher.

In 2010, A&E brought us Teach, which featured actor Tony Danza teaching English at a Philadelphia high school. Danza went on to write a book, aptly titled I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High.

Now we have Dream School, which premiered last week on cable TV. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and rapper 50 Cent produce this show that follows celebrity attempts to teach 15 teenagers who have either dropped out or been expelled from school.

The celebrity teachers’ mission is “to excite these young minds, reignite their passions, and get them to graduate from a real, accredited high school,” according to the show’s publicists.

The show’s real-life dropouts have all faced challenges familiar to anyone in urban education: teen pregnancy, bullying, drug addiction, a dying family member. They have come to Dream School for what the show’s publicists call a “last chance” to graduate high school.

What groundbreaking tactics do the intrepid celebrity teachers bring to the classroom? Well, for starters, 50 Cent kicks off the first day of homeroom by, brace yourselves, asking the students to suggest classroom rules.

“In a traditional school, these students would just be expected to follow the rules,” says Dream School’s principal (who off-screen is the superintendent of a suburban school system in California). “But here, we want to empower and motivate each and every kid to be part of the process.”

Did you hear that, you teachers in “traditional” schools? Is it possible that you somehow missed that you’re supposed to empower and motivate your students?

Oliver Stone is the history teacher, and if you think of every approach you would not use for reaching your most disengaged students, you’ll get a sense of Stone’s instructional strategies. He drones on while the camera zooms in on the clock ticking and students falling asleep at their desks. “This is a great example for folks coming in: Teaching is hard,” observes the principal.

Teaching is hard – but this show seems to us at Edwize like a shameful gimmick that’s disrespectful to both teachers and high-risk students. Can you imagine the outcry if we had a show, Dream Courtroom, where non-credentialed celebrities represented defendants in their “last chance” to avoid prison? Or Dream Hospital, where celebrities acting as doctors became their patients’ “last chance”…literally?

What do you think? Does Dream School reinforce the public’s misunderstanding of what makes a good teacher? Or, could the show have a positive impact by showing that teaching is not as easy as some may think?

Annenberg Institute study: Struggling schools are set up to fail

Are high-needs students disproportionately assigned to struggling schools? A study released Thursday by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform reveals that low-performing high schools are unfairly overburdened by late-enrolling students (also known as “over the counter” students), who tend to be new immigrants, special-needs students, previously incarcerated teens, transient or homeless youth, over-age students and those with histories of behavioral incidents in previous high schools.

The study also reports that late-enrolling students are disproportionately assigned to schools that have already been targeted for closure. At Christopher Columbus High School, for instance, which the DOE began phasing out in 2011, late-enrolling students accounted for 37 percent of the population; the city average was 14 percent.

Annenberg Institute Principal Associate Norm Fruchter, one of the study’s authors, concludes that “compelling evidence suggests that the DOE’s inequitable assignment of late-enrolling students to struggling high schools reduces the opportunities for success for both the students and their schools.”

The report doesn’t come as a surprise to teachers in schools with large percentages of late-enrolling students. Christine Rowland, who taught at Columbus, recalls that the stream of late-enrolling students “put incredible pressure on the school.”

 Late entry students provide incredible challenges for programming. Classes fill up, leading to challenges in giving students the courses and programs they need to succeed. Then courses fill up, leading to a need to open up additional sections of a course. This may mean someone needing to take on a sixth class, someone teaching out of license, or even hiring an additional teacher. [But] schools are only budgeted based on estimated register (not including over-the-counter students), and funding for the additional students [does] not arrive until November. This meant that additional teachers could not be taken on, since there was no budget to support their hire. Sometimes it means changing a huge percentage of teacher and student programs in order to cope with the fluxing student body.

Columbus “bravely attempted to address our high needs students by establishing a number of specially designed support programs to meet the needs of these students,” says Rowland. Unfortunately, “the over-the-counter numbers played a very significant role in our report card grade, which played a major role in our being targeted” for closure.

“This new research confirms what we have known all along: that the Department of Education set these schools up to fail,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “It is failure by design.”

Read the Annenberg Institute’s press release, or check out the full report.

What drives the success in Success Academy?

When scores for the first round of Common Core-aligned state tests were released this summer, it wasn’t surprising that the results were lower than in years past. What did come as a surprise, however, was how well students at Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy schools had fared: At one SA charter in the Bronx, 97 percent of students scored proficient in English and 77 percent were proficient in math.

What’s their secret? (If there can be a “secret” to high scores on standardized tests, that is.) A new blog post by education writer Diane Ravitch, in which she quotes an anonymous Success Academy teacher, suggests that the disappointing truth may be old-fashioned test prep, and lots of it, otherwise known as “drill and kill.”

ELA test prep starts in November for two periods a week, the teacher wrote to Ravitch. After winter break, we have daily hourlong ELA test prep. Then we add math. By late February, we spend several hours a day on it. The last few weeks are almost all-day test prep.

So much for the Success Academy mission statement that proclaims, “Our schools are fueled by wonder.”

The same teacher notes that “we have people whose job it is to put together custom test prep packets based on state guidance. Much more aligned to Common Core and closer to the test than the published books I’ve seen. The teacher adds, “Thousands of dollars [is] spent on prizes to incentivize the kids to work hard.”

Custom test prep packets and bribery — is this the way to close the achievement gap?

The anonymous teacher, who says a typical Success Academy work day lasts 11 hours, describes “literally pour[ing] 100 percent of yourself into [test prep] day in and day out.” And just in case teachers are not feeling enough pressure, they receive “daily inspirational emails from principals with a countdown, anecdotes about the importance of state tests, and ever-multiplying plans for ‘getting kids over the finish line’.

And while Success Academy’s test scores were high, so was another statistic: its teacher turnover rate, which at one point approached 40 percent. Could experiences like the one above be the cause?

Read Ravitch’s entire entry here.

In Education

“The new [teacher evaluation] systems will succeed or fail depending on how well they accommodate basic feelings like anxiety and whether they inspire confidence in the teachers they are meant to help,” writes the New York Times editorial board in a piece about how principals and teachers in Chicago are handling their new teacher evaluation program.

The study also suggests that principals desperately need better training in how to help teachers improve. One administrator said of struggling teachers: “There’s 15 things they need to get better at, and so all 15 of them are important, where do I begin?” Another spoke of struggling to find the right ways to reach teachers with markedly different sensibilities. Some do well with the direct approach, he said, but the phrase “this is what you should do” turns others right off.

“The study includes important lessons for the 40 states that are constructing new evaluation systems and especially for large cities that plan to introduce systems similar to Chicago’s” — like New York City.

Read the entire article here.

In Education

Shaun Harper, director of the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, released research findings about about the black and Latino male students who succeed in New York City high schools.

Generally, the descriptions of the high school students left cause for optimism. A combination of the right encouragement from parents and teachers makes a difference, the interviews suggest.

Read more at Inside Higher Ed.

Any progress is progress, right?

by Zack Simone, middle school ELA teacher

One evening, late in August, as the school year was fast approaching, I was reviewing the student surveys I had administered on the last day of school.  In an attempt to be a reflective teacher (Domain 4, anyone — hello?!) I was attempting to determine which new systems I’d put in place, what went well, and what needed revamping.  See, last year, according to my perception, was like my rookie year (even though it was my second).  I knew a better version of my teacher-self existed.

As I was reading surveys, I stumbled upon “Sam’s.” As I recently had found out that I was going to have Sam again, one of his responses flagged me, as if to say, “You may need to address this.”

In order to understand my initial reaction, you have to know a little about Sam. Sam was a student in one of my most (sheesh, not one of, the most) difficult classes last year.  It didn’t help that as a newbie of sorts, I allowed my emotions to get the better of me, and as opposed to just disciplining Sam, I actually allowed myself to be sarcastic at times, which ultimately didn’t correct Sam’s behavior, but actually, in a strange way, kept him and his classmates entertained.

However, there were moments where I surprised even myself and dealt with Sam’s ever-growing desire to creatively defy authority in new and inspiring ways. For example, I asked him to be my monitor.  At first he seemed taken aback, but later, when I asked, “Why do you think I did that?” he responded with:

“Because you wanted me to behave.”

He got it, he understood; that seemed like progress, right?

Flash-forward to the present: there I was at Dunkin’ Donuts, it’s fairly late, I should have been out enjoying the last few remaining days of relaxation, yet I was staring at Sam’s response.  In regards to my question: “Which lessons were most memorable this year?”  Sam responded, “The lessons Mr. Simone taught me when I got in trouble.”  The Robin Williams in me wanted to write a poem immediately about all the amazing things we as teachers can achieve!  The Michelle Pfeiffer in me said, “Smells like it’s placating season.”

During the first week of the new school year, I had students role play various scenarios regarding our classroom expectations.  Sam was playing a student who disrespects a teacher.  During the skit he called the other actor “stupid” and I immediately paused the skit, my way of showing Sam who was boss.  However, a colleague later offered me stronger advice: why not pull him aside, see if that survey comment was actually genuine, and try to get him on your side.

The day following the skit incident, I asked Sam to speak after class, but it was poor timing, so I mentioned we could speak the next day.  The next day, without my having to prompt him, Sam arrived at my door, prior to going to lunch.

“You wanted to talk to me?”

“I did.  I’m a bit surprised you showed up without my having to call for you.”

“I was curious.”

We sat.  I asked him if what he wrote in the survey was genuine, or was he trying to placate me. Except, he didn’t know what placate meant. Once I explained it to him, however, he responded with…

“No, it was real.  I meant it.”

He appeared genuine. When I asked if he wanted to be a captain or sorts for his class, be the guy to rally them when I needed him to, he admitted that he’d like that. To this day, I’m still a bit shocked about Sam’s change of heart, but I wouldn’t say that I was disappointed.

I have to admit, when it comes to particular things, I still have a lot to learn (balancing engaging lessons with not smiling until after Thanksgiving — can’t I just be engaging and have high expectations?).  I probably spend too much time planning in the evenings, and not enough time during my preps, but already the year feels better. And while I learned a lot about what I wouldn’t want to redo from last year, apparently some of my practices worked. After all, Sam went from drawing degrading pictures of me and writing inappropriate connotations of my last name on hallways walls to… admitting my teaching had affected him.

Moments like these remind me why…you know the rest.


Zack Simone is the pseudonym of a third-year middle school ELA teacher in Queens. If you’d like to write for the New Teacher Diaries, email edwize@uft.org.

A new year in advisory

by Grace Lamm, high school science teacher

As a teacher at a high school in Brooklyn, you take on many roles. The role of classroom teacher is a given, and a challenge. The other role that many people take on is the role of advisor. As an advisor, you commit to mentoring 15-20 students from their freshman year through their graduation day.

I am very lucky to advise the students that I have in my advisory. My advisory is full of quirks, but as a group, we work well together. Of the 15 kids, I have the five most popular girls in the junior class, two of the shiest girls in the junior class, and four of the dweebiest dudes in the junior class. In addition, I have the pleasure of having a French foreign exchange student, and three girls who thrive on the drama created with breaking up and making up with their boyfriends on a weekly basis. Needless to say, my 15 students are some of the most typical high school archetypes you could find. In another decade they would watch The Breakfast Club and all identify with every part of the movie.

Part of being an advisor is preparing your advisees for college. This year is the first year that my high school has a junior class (we opened our doors in 2011) and all junior advisors are nervous. In a recent grade level meeting, some people started fretting over ways to give their kids an edge in the college application process. One of my colleagues suggested reading a book “just for fun” but in advisory. Another suggested visiting CUNY schools with kids during after-school hours. I thought my advisory would benefit from having very honest conversations about applying to college in addition to the visits, extra reading time, SAT and ACT prep, and essay writing workshops. Needless to say, I am setting myself up for quite a year.

On the first day of school, my advisees came bursting into my classroom all freshly scrubbed and perfectly pressed, ready for the first day of school. As we gathered around our “family” table, I began handing out the first day of school materials. Blue cards, lunch forms, MetroCards, and permission slips were all passed around the table, and I built up the courage to tell them what was ahead for their junior year.

“Over the course of this year, there are many things you will accomplish. You will have taken an SAT or ACT, begun the college application process, and participated in extracurriculars. And then you will have another year of high school left.”

One of my advisees, Alindra, shot me a look of pure agony.

“WAIT. You are telling me I NEED to do something outside of school?”

“Yes. You need to participate in a club, internship, volunteer program, or get a job, but you must work on becoming a person who doesn’t just go to school and then go home.”

Fifteen sets of eyes turned towards me at the head of the table. Junior year had begun. I knew that this year I would have to make the difficult transition from ally who is always supporting advisees to ally who is always pushing them to do more than they want to do. I did not know that I would have to start that transition on the first day.


Grace Lamm is the pseudonym of a third-year high school science teacher in Brooklyn. If you’d like to write for the New Teacher Diaries, email edwize@uft.org.