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Ask Judy
Thursday, 12 March 2015 15:16

"Hey, ho! Cuomo's plan has got to go"

Hundreds of children, parents, teachers, and school leaders encircled PS 29 in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn before school this morning. Despite the chilly weather, the school community was fired up against Governor Cuomo’s proposed education reform in New York. Many feel it will harm children, teachers and communities—and I am one of them.

Cuomo aims to take teacher evaluation out of the hands of public school leaders and communities and into the hands of computers and outside evaluators. He proposes having teachers’ evaluations consist of: 50 percent student state test–score growth, 35 percent outside evaluators’ observations, and only 15 percent school leader's assessment. Research indicates that the computer calculation that evaluates teachers based on test-score growth has a high error rate (35 percent), because it cannot account for the many other factors in children’s lives. Its accuracy is almost as random as a coin toss. The most reliable evaluators of teachers are experienced educators within schools, who know the context, curriculum and the stakeholders.

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Q: My son is interested in a school that is very popular but has the reputation of not giving students access to "real professors" until the 2nd or 3rd year. Instead, they use a lot of "adjunct" faculty. When I asked the representative of this school about this at a college fair (much to my son's embarrassment), he said, "all our teachers are professors." How do I find out the truth?

A: Remember the TV show that said "the truth is out there"? Well, the truth about adjunct faculty is out there, too, and it's not pretty. Don't expect complete truth from admissions representatives—their job is to bring in as many applications as possible.

Adjunct faculty—also called contingent faculty—teach part-time, maybe one or two courses a semester. They are usually not given the same benefits as full-time staff; they have no health insurance or retirement plan. Therefore, they are much cheaper for the school to hire.

There are two kinds of adjunct faculty: those who teach in addition to their other, regular full-time career, and those who depend upon their adjunct teaching for a living. An example of the first is a lighting specialist who works full-time at a theater but may teach a class on theatrical lighting at a nearby college. This is not exploitation; she is an active professional sharing her knowledge with students, and the college gets someone with expertise that none of their other teachers has. In the second example, teachers—most of whom have masters' degrees or doctorates—are paid anywhere from $1,300 to $1,900 per course, per semester. Obviously, one cannot live on that income, and so the adjuncts need to work at two or three schools to make ends meet.

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Tuesday, 20 January 2015 19:01

Don't blame the Common Core

If the Common Core were a person, I think we could be friends. I’d call her CeeCee and take her out for a drink. She needs it. I imagine CeeCee sobbing on my shoulder, saying something like, “I’m just trying to give all our kids a fair shot. Really I am!” Poor CeeCee. She means well and I think she got a lot more right than anyone is willing to admit, but we’re all just having too much fun hating on her.

It’s all the rage to bash Common Core these days. People see the standards, not as a well-meaning mom like I do, but as a thug with a gun in a dark alley shouting, “Make those kids read developmentally inappropriate texts or you’ll be sorry!” A Siena poll cited by Capital New York in mid-January found that 49 percent of New Yorkers statewide think Common Core implementation should be stopped. Not amended, just stopped. I’m left wondering how many of those voters can actually explain what Common Core is.

In New York City, the standards have become a convenient scapegoat for an education system plagued by big problems. Drastic economic inequality, uneven teaching and mass confusion about pretty much any directive handed down by the Department of Education all serve to create a broken education system. Common Core was intended as a long-term, partial solution to schools that vary widely in quality. If all kids are held to the same grade-by-grade expectations, the logic goes, we’ll be five steps closer to making sure all kids who receive a NYC education receive not just a comparable one, but also a great one.

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At the teacher's prompting, a kindergartner at PS 251 in Queens tries to define "text evidence" for the rest of the class. "Test ed-i-dence," says the 5-year-old, tripping over the unfamiliar words, "is something when you say the word and show the picture."

"Text evidence"? What's with this incomprehensible jargon in kindergarten?

This fall, I visited over a dozen elementary schools and saw firsthand how hard teachers are working to meet the new Common Core standards for reading. I also saw precious time wasted, as teachers seemed to confuse harder standards with puzzling language. 

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On Monday the Department of Education released new School Quality Reports for every city school, fulfilling its promise to abandon the labeling of each school with a single letter grade. For parents who appreciated this simple shorthand when seeking out the best school for their children, this new system may appear daunting. But for anyone who ever wondered how those grades were calculated or why some fluctuated wildly when all appeared stable on the ground, the new system will be a breath of fresh air.

The new School Quality Reports are comprised of two separate documents, both intended to make the existing school data more transparent to parents and educators alike. The School Quality Snapshot is a short and straightforward tool intended for parents. Much like InsideStats on Insideschools' profile pages, it seeks to present the most relevant information for parents in a way that is easy to read and understand. On this document, you won't see any statistical analyses or weighted comparisons, only the raw test scores, graduation rates and school survey results that matter to parents most.

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Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday announced his strategy to support the city's schools that are "most in need of help." In conjunction with some additional coaching, oversight and a longer school day, 94 "Renewal Schools" identified for their poor test scores, graduation rates, and School Quality Reviews will receive $150 million to become "Community Schools" that provide additional programs and social services to meet the needs of the "whole child, whole school, whole community."

Yesterday's announcement doubles down on de Blasio's campaign promise to establish 100 new community schools by the end of his first term. This summer, he repurposed state funds dedicated to attendance improvement and dropout prevention into a competitive grant to fund 45 new community schools. When those schools (to be announced soon) and the additional 94 Renewal Schools are underway, the number will far surpass de Blasio's goal and will establish New York City as the largest system of community schools in the nation.

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Wednesday, 05 November 2014 11:36

My son's teachers shun email

I wasn't too happy in September when I found out my son's 1st-grade teachers have no email. The only other person in my life I can't email is my landlord, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't want to hear from me.

Last year in kindergarten, Noodle's 26-year veteran teacher had not only email, but a Twitter feed and Instagram account. So I was just plain confused when I read via a typed letter in my son's backpack on the first day of school that "all correspondence must be in written form." Huh? Like, with a pen?

At drop-off the next day, most parents' reactions were the same. "Notes get lost," one mom said, shaking her head. "When I write to the teacher, I want a record and I want it time-stamped." Another told a story of a former teacher who refused to receive emails from parents, but would on occasion email them when she needed something, like say, last-minute field-trip chaperones. "Why should parents have to function on a two-day time delay?" she asked.

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Bill de Blasio had been mayor for less than four months when the city's elementary and middle school students took standardized tests this past April. And, according to numbers released on Thursday, more than 68 percent of students who took the tests this year failed to meet state standards in English; 64 percent fell short in math.

Still, the scores are somewhat higher than they were when de Blasio's predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, announced test results a year ago. To announce this year's numbers, de Blasio along with Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña held an ebullient press conference on Thursday, predicting that the administration's reforms would propel students towards bigger gains in the year ahead.

De Blasio made the announcement outside the Brooklyn Brownstone School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which, he said, saw the percentage of its students scoring proficient—generally regarded as a level 3 or 4 score—on the English test rise from 27.5 in 2013 to 44.1 percent in 2014. The number of students meeting state standards in math also increased substantially.


Standing with school principal Nakia Haskins, de Blasio said Brooklyn Brownstone developed a program aimed at having students "think analytically—not just take a test ... This is a deeper approach."

"This school is a trendsetter for things that are starting to happen citywide," de Blasio said. In particular, he cited improved teacher support and training. "You can see the difference it’s making when our teachers are supported in their efforts to help students get to the root of things." 

De Blasio readily conceded many students still fall short on that measure. But he said he hopes the types of programs in effect at Brooklyn Brownstone, along with more professional development for teachers, the expansion of pre-k, increasing the number of afterschool programs for middle school students and creating community schools offering a variety of services and supports to students and their families would improve academic performance across the city.

"Test scores are one indicator of progress," de Blasio said, "but tests like this are only one measure. And I'll say this when scores are good and when they're not so good."

Certainly the tests will have less clout than they once did. Indications are that the city's progress reports for individual schools will put less emphasis on test scores. The state has barred selective middle and high schools from using the scores as the sole means for determining which students they admit. In response, the Department of Education has committees working on new admissions procedures, which are expected to issue reports by the end of September, Fariña said.

Education department officials at the press conference said students will be able to access their scores the last week in August.

In light of persistently low scores among many black and Hispanic students, particularly boys, Fariña said the department would create more single-sex schools, such as a new branch of the Eagle Academy for Young Men slated to open on Staten Island, and would improve guidance services. She said an emphasis on technology, while beneficial to all students, might particularly help these low-scoring boys.

Fariña said she was encouraged by the decline in the number of students scoring at Level 1, meaning the student is "well below proficient." In 2014, 34.7 percent of children were at level 1, compared to 36.4 percent in 2013. In math, the percentage dropped to 33.9 percent from 36.8 percent. Students with a level 2 are considered approaching proficiency and are thought to be on track to graduating high school, though perhaps not to being "college and career ready."

While the sharp drop in test scores last year—the first year that the tests reflected the new Common Core standards—spurred opposition to the Common Core, de Blasio expressed strong support for the standards. "This is a new standard and a higher standard and the right standard," he said.

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When I first found out in June that my son’s elementary school would be ending 30 minutes earlier this year and I would have to pick up two children at the same time, ten blocks apart, my first thought, of course, was, “Yes! Now I can harness those superpowers of time travel I always knew I possessed!” Actually, just one word came into my head, and it's unprintable here.

Apparently I’m not alone. According to The Daily News, about 450 schools will be changing their start and end times this year in order to comply with the new UFT contract. In a nutshell, the contract does two things as far as the school day is concerned: First, it elmininates 37.5 minutes each day that teachers were previously devoting to small-group work and tutoring for students who were behind. Second, it reapportions that time for professional development, parent communication, preparing lessons and all the other behind-the-scenes work that teachers must complete but never have time for.

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Monday, 28 April 2014 12:18

Poetry is bite-sized, why aren't books?

(This article by Lydie Raschka, Insideschools writer and school reviewer, appears in the April 22, 2014 online edition of Education Week.)

Recently I spent 10 weeks as a classroom teacher again, after a long hiatus. One night, I stayed late at school to prepare the shelves for our cross-genre reading unit. My six-year-olds were going to hunt through baskets of books to find fiction, nonfiction, and poetry related to a topic of interest to them. I ransacked the shelves and filled the baskets with books about math for a boy in my class named Evan, about U.S. presidents for Deana, and old-fashioned automobiles for Eliana.

Over the course of the week each child would pick a topic and read for information about it from different genres, so I'd spend prep time making it easier for them to get the books they needed. But when it came to poetry, I hunted around and was pulled up short. All the poetry books were unwieldy and hard to categorize by topic. They were also oddly shaped: I had to place them between our book baskets because they were too big, too fat, and too wide to go inside. One of the metal bookends I was using bent and the books clattered to the floor like the dominoes the children set up in snaking rows around a table at indoor recess.

Take a perennial favorite, Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends. Because poetry lends itself to being read aloud, most teachers of young children (myself included) keep a copy of this beloved book on a shelf by the daily schedule, cover faced out, or tucked into a larger basket of read-aloud books on the rug where the class gathers for morning meeting.

Unfortunately, at 176 pages, Where the Sidewalk Ends is a heavy book, so for the most part it remains in the hands—and the power—of the adult. I'm not saying the kids in my class couldn't or didn't browse through it on their own but they were generally less inclined to pick up this book and other classroom poetry books because they were big and occupied a separate space.

Read the rest of the article at Education Week.

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