Recent comments

Search News & Views

News and views

Weingarten shocked (shocked!) at tyke testing

Written by Helen Zelon Thursday, 28 August 2008 07:22

AFT and UFT president Randi Weingarten issued a strong denunciation of yesterday's K-2 standardized testing proposal, saying (in part) "There's a right place and a wrong place for testing, and this is the wrong place. Testing children at such an early age is bad practice and developmentally unsound. It puts academic pressure on children...[and] the potential exists for school administrators to use it to track students. It's the wrong way to go in terms of evaluating students."

Weingarten's point on development is legitimate: A child of four has different abilities than a child of five -- and kids entering kindergarten can be as much as 11 months apart in age, provided they share a birth year. But her protests of inappropriateness ring hollow, according to DOE chief spokesman, David Cantor. A SUNY/ Charter School Institute report on the UFT's own charter elementary school, which enrolls students in kindergarten to second grade, says "the school administers a combination of standardized, diagnostic and interim assessments as well as unit tests" to its very young students, to assess progress and group children in classes -- which sounds more than a little akin to the same tracking Weingarten paints as a negative in her statement.

As the volley of responses continues, parents may wonder if their child's school has 'volunteered' for the pilot testing program. To find out, contact your parent coordinator or school principal; strong parent support or opposition may be pivotal in a school's decision to test their youngest students -- or not.

Two tales of testing

Written by Helen Zelon Wednesday, 27 August 2008 07:02

Progress-report guru James Liebman made front-page news today with an email proposal to bring standardized testing to the kindergarten classroom. These test scores, the DOE says, wouldn't affect student progress or promotion. Vocal opponents decry the plan (and the late-summer timing), but it seems more than a few schools are interested in participating. It's important to realize that student progress, as measured by standardized test scores and mandated by No Child Left Behind, is the key to school survival. So whether the planned testing will actually help kids (in terms of shaping instruction) or help schools anticipate testing outcomes is an open question. It's also important to note that kids in many of the city's charter schools take tons of tests, many standardized, every week. In some charters, one day of the week is a designated testing day -- regular testing is a frequent, accepted school-wide norm.

Buried inside the Times' first section, though, is a story on SAT scores that reinforces every progressive educator's worst fears: Test scores show dramatic, persistent gaps between rich and poor, black and white, and children born to more- and less-educated families -- chasms that have long been part of the pre-college testing landscape. With average student scores in the 1500 range (of a total of 2400), gaps of 303-383 points separate the races and the classes. One expert calls the class gap the "Achilles' heel of the SAT. Kids from higher-income families uniformly do better than those from disadvantaged backgrounds."

From one education pole to the other -- kindergarten to pre-college -- testing dominates the conversation. It's true, our kids will be taking tests for years, until (with good luck and persistence) they're out of college. But as more tests creep into the academic calendar, it's worth asking out loud what's lost when room is made for yet another measurement -- and what benefits test-prep confers on the same kids who are advantaged by birth, race, or economic class. (For another take on test-prep, see Jeremy Miller's chronicle of his a year as a Kaplan tutor in a NYC high school in the September issue of Harper's.)

Family advocates AWOL on Public Advocate survey

Written by Helen Zelon Tuesday, 26 August 2008 08:05

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum's office today released survey results on their efforts to reach Family Advocates during the week of August 12 to 15. Guess what? They very nearly struck out, with only about a third of calls answered by actual people, 12 of 32 districts unreachable despite multiple attempts, and a paltry 6 of 63 voicemail messages returned within five business days. The news won't surprise many parents but may serve as a wake-up call for the Office of Family Engagement and Advocacy, which announced cuts in Family Advocate staffing last month.

Gotbaum's staffers called all 32 school districts three times -- twice during business hours (once in English, once in Spanish) and right after work, between 5 and 6 pm. Of the 96 calls placed, 30 percent yielded an actual human connection. During business hours, a third of calls were answered, as opposed to 3 of the 32 calls placed after 5 pm. Calls in Spanish (32) were answered in 12 instances -- but only 7 resulted in substantive, Spanish-language conversations. Granted, mid-August is the deadest of doldrums in New York City, but the DOE was and is still placing students in schools, registering new arrivals, and working in advance of the new school year. Parents have questions year-round; their calls, in any language, shouldn't go unanswered.

New Yorkers can call the Public Advocate's schools hotline (212 669-7250) for help with logistics, transportation, and registration information and have a look at Insideschools' Parent Resources for details on schools, registration, navigating the system and more.

Chancellor Joel Klein has announced a new pilot program in 10 high-need grade schools to improve reading education, based on E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum (for reference, see his popular 1988 manifesto, Cultural Literacy, and the series of parent-focused education books that followed).

The K-2 program integrates phonics and content (no stranger to many early-grade classrooms), with an emphasis on nonfiction and classical sources, like mythology, as well as fiction. Reading gains for students in the pilot program will be compared with students in 'control' groups, who will participate in the current DOE reading curriculum.

Education academics and in-the-trenches teachers have long criticized the de-emphasis of phonics in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms. In fact, many teachers routinely include phonics instruction, especially in classes with large numbers of students who are learning English, in addition to the mandated DOE reading curriculum.

Private funds have been raised to pay for the program, which will cost $2.4 million. New York is one of eight cities nationwide to use its classrooms as test labs for the program, which is designed to give students a foundation of knowledge along with reading mechanics and eventual proficiency. Other sites include a mix of rural and urban schools (with mixed academic needs) in Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Oklahoma, and the South Shore Charter Public School in Hull, Mass., where Dr. Hirsch's son is the principal.

It's not known whether parents can opt in or out of the program (or the control groups) or how the 10 high-need New York schools were chosen. All are in the "outer boroughs" -- four in Queens, three in the Bronx, two in Brooklyn, and one in Staten Island.

As parents and students begin gearing up for the new school year, the news this week was dominated by the standard – yet colossal and complicated – contemporary education debates, including charter schools, standardized testing, and incentives.

Mayor Bloomberg kicked off the week by announcing that 18 new charter schools would open in the city this fall. The Times opened a Q and A between readers and James D. Merriman IV, the chief executive of the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence. The Sun editorialized in favor of charter schools and private school vouchers. The Daily News wrote about Bay Ridge, Brooklyn parents who oppose a charter school moving into public school buildings.

A Newsday reporter who set out to prove that the Regents exams were easy by taking the U.S. History test unprepared scored a 97 and made his point. Meanwhile, students’ scores on the Advanced Placement tests were released, and the apparently mixed results of pay-for-scores programs vaulted the issue of monetary incentives back into the papers. Employees of the Princeton Review, a high-profile national testing company, made a serious computer error that resulted in 34,000 Florida public school students' private information available to anyone online.

Several disheartening stories involved special education students: allegations of abuse in one city school, asbestos in another, and concerns over special education bus service for the fall. A disabled teacher sued, claiming his epilepsy cost him his job, and a national story about corporal punishment (legal in schools in 21 states but not New York) found that special education students – as well as minority and low income students – disproportionately felt the paddle.

And a couple of journalists used the end of the summer to ask key questions about the future. What will happen to No Child Left Behind, now that Bush is on his way out and a new president is on his way in? Will mayoral control be renewed by the state legislature, especially since Klein and Bloomberg have largely ignored politicians’ education opinions? And where does Obama really stand on education, as supporters of several different ­– and sometimes competing – initiatives claim to be in alignment with the candidate? Education mysteries abound.

Pre-K spots STILL open, per DOE

Written by Helen Zelon Friday, 22 August 2008 13:39

The DOE has updated its pre-K registers and says there are half- and full-day spots open at some city schools. Have a look at their updated directory (PDF) to see what's available; registration begins next Thursday, the 28th, and wraps up on the first day of school.

Some parents have written in to say their kids didn't get placements or were offered pre-K seats far from their homes. The frustrations are real (and the time before school is short). Here's hoping that the Pre-K Borough Enrollment staff help resolve open questions (PDF) and that the DOE responds to the outspoken demand for seats in good schools by expanding pre-K opportunities.

Cash for school: The D.C. variation

Written by Helen Zelon Friday, 22 August 2008 08:46

Looks like Washington, D.C. schools head Michelle Rhee is borrowing another page from her mentor's playbook; see this story for her proposal, modeled on Klein's prototype, that students at 14 District middle schools earn up to $200 a month for steady attendance.

That's some kind of walking-around money for young teens and forces some tough questions: What do we teach kids when we pay them to show up? And where's the equity in rewarding some students but not others? What of the kids in schools who aren't getting paid to come to school -- do they strike for their 'due wages'? Badger their parents for allowances that match the city's incentive pay? The mind boggles.

Last-minute registration info. from the DOE

Written by Helen Zelon Friday, 22 August 2008 08:43

For students new to the city or returning to city schools after an out-of-school hiatus, the DOE is opening Registration Centers, beginning Monday August 25th. The centers will be open from 8am-3pm, but will be closed on Labor Day. A few caveats:

Registration centers can enroll all new high-school students and elementary and middle-school students without a zoned school. (Go to a registration center in the borough where you reside.) If you have a zoned elementary or middle school (call 311 or visit the DOE for information), register there beginning September 2, the first day of school.

Families of special-needs students who will be in collaborative-team-teaching (CTT), self-contained, or District 75 placements should visit their Borough Enrollment/Committee on Special Education office to register.

In order to register, parents and other guardians must bring proof of residence (see particulars here for what's required). Also bring your child's birth certificate (or passport), immunization record, and latest report card or transcript, if one is available. Special needs families are encouraged to bring their child's IEP and/or 504 Accommodation Program if they're available.

Registration centers will remain open until September 12th. And along with all the paperwork, don't forget to bring your child -- parents who show up sans students will not be permitted to complete the registration process.

Fewer dangerous city schools

Written by Helen Zelon Friday, 22 August 2008 08:32

The good news, from the DOE and the State, is that crime in the city's schools is on the wane: Of 25 city schools described as persistently dangerous by the State last year, 15 were removed from the list in light of improved safety and lower crime. The downside is that 11 city schools remain on the danger list. New York City also added more schools (six) to the state's list than any other area of the state.

In counterpoint, Comptroller William Thomson asserts that as many as one in five violent/criminal/safety incidents that occur in schools go improperly or incompletely reported. City leaders hope that a proposed amendment to the City Charter will improve school security by directing complaints of police misconduct to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (not the current norm) and requiring regular reporting on school violence to the DOE and NYPD.

In an article today, the Post documents a number of District 75 schools on the state's list -- D 75 schools enroll special need students with the most acute needs. Reports of persistent violence in D 75 schools, where staff ratios are far smaller than mainstream schools, raise difficult questions on all sides. And an AP story from am New York sets New York's improvements against a national canvas, noting without irony that the other 49 states document a total of 21 persistently dangerous schools compared to New York State's 19 (although reporting criteria vary from state to state).

Notably, despite pop-media visions of metal-detectors and box-cutter-wielding teens, "persistently dangerous" schools include elementary and middle schools, too. Under the provisions of NCLB, parents can request safety transfers for students enrolled at "dangerous" schools. But time is short before the start of school; those interested in seeking transfers should contact their school this week to explore the process.

Pre-K round ll news

Written by Helen Zelon Friday, 22 August 2008 08:27

Families who applied for pre-K seats in the second application round should have news by the end of this week; letters went out by mail yesterday afternoon, according to an email from the DOE's Andy Jacob.