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A lens on American Indian life

Eula Mae Narcomey Doonkeen


A rare view of American Indian life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renewal of possibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Healthy eating, healthy learning

Are there lessons in the slow food movement for educators?

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

The old, false arguments for closing schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small Schools as Panacea?  Hold the Applause

Memo – June 23, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teachers Aren’t So Sure

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

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

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

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

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

Where the homeless are

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

And now the data confirm it.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

How the categories are determined

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

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

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

NAEP and state test results

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

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


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


Effect on school results

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

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

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

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

Even in high poverty schools table

A prism for examining proficiency

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Smarter charters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it too late?

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

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

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.