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The first step in our family's New York City public high school search did not involve delving into our growing piles of books, papers and test prep brochures, gathered at various information sessions.

We watched the movie “Fame,’’ that 1980 classic set at the old New York City High School for the Performing Arts, which became the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. It seemed like a better idea than shoving a pile of materials in front of my 12-year-old and pointing out that there are more than 400 high schools to choose from. “So, where do you want to go? Take a look and rank them from 1 to 12!’’ My musician son has thought very little about high school (didn't we just choose a middle school?) but he does know about LaGuardia, even if we've never set foot in the place and can't figure out when the next open house is.

"Fame" is a bit outdated. The students looked about 25, as far as we could tell, but we followed their hopes, dreams, and struggles with rapt interest. Afterwards, we talked a bit about competition, and about what auditions for LaGuardia might be like. We discussed the wisdom of entering high school with enormous focus and ambition at such a young age. Well, maybe ‘discussed’ isn’t the right word, I probably talked about the importance of combining passion for the arts with the strongest academic and college-preparatory curriculum possible; my son probably nodded and did his best to ignore me. It's time to take the next step, so we’ll head to Brooklyn Tech on Saturday for the citywide high school fair. Even though there are more than 400 high schools to choose from, I have a feeling the crowds will gather in front of about 20 of the best-known. I doubt it will be as much fun as watching “Fame,’’ but at least it’s a start.

We're happy to welcome back Insideschools guest blogger and school-search veteran Liz Willen. And for the record, LaGuardia has open houses for accepted students; the school does not offer public tours prior to admission.

Chancellor Klein and UFT president Randi Weingarten announced this morning that more than 6,000 elementary and middle schools educators will receive cash bonuses in reward for their schools’ performances on the progress reports. Faculty at 89 schools, slightly more than half of the 160 elementary and middle schools that elected to participate in the pilot program, qualified for the bonuses. The schools decided how to distribute the bonuses among full-time union members (either equally or based each individual's contribution). Most schools chose to divide the money equally, sending teachers home with either $3,000 or $1,500 each, depending on the school’s progress report turned out. (Principals were awarded up to $25,000; for more details on the methodology and results, see the DOE’s breakdown.)

The bonuses for elementary and middle schools this year totaled $19.7 million (cash awards for teachers and administrators at high schools will be announced later). All of the money was privately donated. Next year, however, the program becomes publicly funded. Since there is no cap on how many schools can qualify for the cash, if the progress report grades continue their upward trend, the bonus-program could take a big bite out of the shrinking DOE budget. Yesterday, Helen rounded up several concerns about the progress reports, and today, Insideschools alum Philissa Cramer analyzed apparent methodological errors in the progress reports. Chancellor Klein and Randi Weingarten stressed that the pilot bonus program would be studied by an independent consultant – but will the progress reports, which the bonuses are based on –undergo the same scrutiny?

In this first year, the program was both an experiment in implementation and a welcome reward for hard-working educators; whether the 'carrot' of a bonus actually inspires better teaching or contributes to hiring and keeping qualified teachers is still left to be tested because schools opted into the program too late last year for the cash incentives to have substantially affected this year’s progress reports. It will take many years, and no doubt many independent consultants, to determine whether the carrot-aspect of the plan actually works and whether that means even more stress on test prep.

Like so many official school announcements, the Washington Heights location of the press conference was strategic; everyone hiked uptown to the Mirabel Sisters campus, formerly the site of one of the city’s worst-performing middle schools and now the home of three small schools, two of which received As on their progress reports and cash bonuses for their faculty and staff. The teachers and principals from those schools talked about a moral imperative to help students succeed, collaborative work among the staff, and using data to drive instruction, barely mentioning the windfall they had just received. “The money is very nice,” Janet Heller, one of the two principals, eventually acknowledged with a smile. “We aren’t working for it, but it recognizes that we did it.”

High school fair this weekend

Written by Helen Zelon Wednesday, 17 September 2008 08:52

The DOE hosts its all-city high school fair this weekend at Brooklyn Tech; see this article in the current Insideschools alert for a nuts-and-bolts guide to beginning the high school admissions process.

Because it's wholly unlikely you'll want to look at all 400+ city high schools (one can only hope!), try to narrow your choices a bit before you go to the fair. Consider, for starters, admissions criteria, school size, and commute, and you'll whittle your list significantly.

Admissions criteria are meant to guide applications; take them seriously. If a school says it requires an 85% average in core academics and your child's average is lower, it may not be worth sacrificing a line on your child's application. If you're in doubt, ask at the fair -- but be aware that many schools will not consider students who do not meet their baseline criteria, and are not inclined to make exceptions.

School size is a big question for lots of families. Small schools offer personalization and, advocates say, a stronger support system for youngsters; large schools mean a wider breadth of classes (more teachers, more kids, more classes), more teams and clubs, and, critics say, an often-cumbersome and occasionally overwhelming school environment. Talk with your child about what she wants, both in terms of academic offerings and the life of the school -- the activities and interests that might engage her.

Commuting is a New York City reality; for most city teens, the walk-to-school era is over, and has been for a while. The DOE considers up to two hours a reasonable commute (it grants travel transfers when commutes extend past that time; check hopstop for 'official' travel time -- it's the DOE's source, too), but two hours one way adds to 20 hours a week, which is a lot of time to spend in transit (and likely a lot longer than most parents spend commuting to and from work).

Once you've thought through these basics, visit schools of interest at the fair to learn more about them. Often, kids from the high schools attend the fairs, so it's a great way to meet real students. And for those who can't get to Brooklyn this weekend, boro-wide fairs will be held in mid-October; again, see our alert for details.

Good luck to all, and happy hunting.

Progress reports progress debatable

Written by Helen Zelon Wednesday, 17 September 2008 05:30

The public conversation about this year's Progress Reports has begun in earnest. If nothing else, the very fact of a public debate on the measure -- which hinges on how best to measure what kids learn -- can only be healthy for our city's schools and the kids who attend them.

The Times' overview, which does a great job describing how the progress reports work and identifies apparent incongruities (eg, very low achievement levels in A schools, and NCLB-designated 'failing' schools awarded with DOE A's) is complemented by profiles of two schools, one new A (from a 2007 F) and one new F (from a 2007 A). The Sun connects the dots -- rising citywide test scores translate to higher progress-report grades -- and points out a pattern of dramatic school gains rather than incremental progress. The Post called the scores a "seismic shift," crediting the "kick in the pants" of previous failures, and the News also linked the "surge" in good grades to "soaring" test scores -- and highlighted the objections of some beloved, respected schools that didn't ace the progress reports. Overall, the link between test score and progress grade can't be overstated (the single measure for student progress is student scores on standardized ELA and math tests).

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum derided the reports' narrow scope, saying arts and other vital academic curriculum shouldn't be excluded, and both Randi Weingarten (of the teachers union) and Ernest Logan (of the principals union) expressed cautious concern. Advocates for Children Executive Director Kim Sweet, in a radio interview this morning, suggested that a single grade is too blunt a tool to really reflect what goes on in a school, and echoed parent concerns about matters beyond testing. And Eduwonkette dissects the scores with a statistician's scalpel.

Ellen Foote, an outspoken middle-school principal whose school's score rose from a 2007 D to a 2008 A, told the Times, "A school doesn’t move from a D to an A in one year unless there is a flaw in the measurement or the standardized test itself. We have not done anything differently, certainly not in response to the progress report." The Sun, noting that Foote's school, IS 289, won a Blue Ribbon award earlier this month, spoke with her, too, and reported that "when she finally opened the report card and found an A, she laughed; what meaning could the letter grade have if it had given the same school such different grades?"

It's a good question -- and Foote's not alone in asking it.

At a crowded midday gathering at PS 5 -- where principal Lena Gates was celebrating her birthday as well as her school's "A" grade -- Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Joel Klein and Chief Accountability Officer James Liebman presented an overview of the 2008 progress reports for elementary and middle schools.

This year, nearly 80% of schools scored A or B overall. Across the city, 58% of schools bettered their 2007 grade or maintained an '07 A; in 21% of schools, grades declined, although many fewer schools earned grades of D or F (7% total, compared with 13% in 2007). Of the F schools in 2007 that weren't shuttered by the city, some earned A's this year, like PS 5. None still open scored F again, although there was one D.

Unlike last year's reports, each school received three category grades -- for school environment, student performance, and progress (with extra attention and credit for struggling students). Each grade correlated with a score, which summed to the school's overall grade.

A few notable points: Progress, as measured by standardized ELA and math scores, continues to outweigh the other report variables by a significant factor. Together, the school environment and student performance count for only 40% of the school's score. It's not clear why scores that correspond to the letter grades are set lower this year than they were last year.

Schools with greater proportions of struggling kids -- with academic and/or economic challenges -- could earn extra credit for their progress, and academic growth made by kids in the lowest third of each school factored into calculating school scores.

In a seemingly counterintuitive mode, schools with F in one area, like student performance, could earn an A for overall progress, provided that the school hit specific targets (defined on the 2007 report) and that students progressed toward grade level (without requiring actual achievement of same). And one school identified by the NYSED as persistently dangerous still earned an A from the city.

Two of the three top-scoring schools are established charters in historically underserved communities. (The city says comparing schools against peer schools, with comparable demographics and student characteristics, resolves questions about comparing progress for striving schools against schools with track records of high performance.) The Mayor said that teachers and schools that showed outstanding progress would be rewarded, although he didn't say precisely how, when, or if rewards would accrue to individual teachers, schools, or school leadership.

Find progress reports for your child's school via the DOE's home page.

Class sizes edge upward, despite targeted funding

Written by Helen Zelon Tuesday, 16 September 2008 03:41

Classes in more than half of the city's schools are growing larger, according to a new report by the New York State Department of Education, despite Contracts for Excellence funding directed at decreasing classes and lowering the student/teacher ratio.

While class sizes dropped in many schools citywide, classes actually grew in 53.9 percent of schools. In addition, the NYSED noted 70 city schools that received $100,000 or more where either class size or the student/teacher ratio increased. The estimated damage? $20 million in wasted funds, according to Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters.

Already-large schools were most challenged by first-year size reduction targets, said NYSED, which criticized DOE reporting and record keeping and urged better compliance in coming years' efforts. It also asked for stricter accounting of how class-reduction funds were spent and for more stringent review of New York City's C4E funding. In other words, accountability and transparency; sound familiar?


Special education students are facing even more significant problems than the busing issues  that continue to keep them spending almost as many hours en-route to school as in the classroom. Despite such snafus, the Times editorial board endorsed the reinstatement of mayoral control, only with the changes recommended last week by the Public Advocate's commission of experts. Meanwhile--as the future of mayoral control hangs in the balance--a  former New York City chancellor is being fired from his new job, and the DOE is investing a million dollars in its own think tank, hoping that the schools can teach each other a lesson. Several NYC lessons have leaked down south where schools in Washington D.C., called the "worst" in the country by Education Week, have seen significant changes with Klein-protege Michelle Rhee at the helm. 

Obama laid out his education plan and the Times analyzed McCain's school policies while advertisements (mis)claiming that Obama wanted to teach sex ed. to kindergarteners hit the airways. The good news: Education issues have suddenly moved to the forefront of the national race. Kindergartners in New York may not have sex ed. class, but many of them will have the Big Kid experience of sitting for standardized tests this year--principals have gone gaga over the proposal. And on Tuesday, the Post ran a glowing profile of PS 8 principal Seth Phillips, just two days before the news broke that his school would receive an F on its report card this year. 

New York students who want to learn about international politics can no longer visit the United Nations on a field trip--at least until the mayor feels confident that they won't be in immediate danger while on international property.  A more likely menace, however, rears its very ugly face on the pages of the Daily News, as well as in classrooms and on heads across the city. 


2008 School progress reports

Written by Helen Zelon Friday, 12 September 2008 03:24

Well, Eduwonkette called it last Monday (and even had fun with a stats results pool):  The DOE has delivered 2008 School Progress Reports cards to the city's schools, far earlier in the academic year than the November 2007 release.  (Nomenclature alert:  Progress reports are DOE measures; school report cards are products of the NY State Dept. of Education.)

Elissa Gootman's Times story leads with a failing grade for PS 8 -- the same school that Bloomberg praised when the DOE committed to building a new, multimillion-dollar annex to accomodate all the students flocking to the now-thriving school.  The school's current F (after last year's C) highlights what critics call the Progress Reports' greatest flaw:  More-than-majority weight on student academic progress -- measured by standardized test scores -- means that schools that start with more kids on or above grade level can show less 'progress' than more challenged schools. The reports weigh other factors, including parent and teacher satisfaction, but a 60% weight on progress could clobber other, quality-of-school-life measures.

The apparent contradiction -- major capital investment in an F school (which, if rules are followed, could risk eventual closure) -- forces the question:  Don't the various departments of the DOE talk to each other?  Parents have to wonder how a school can be rewarded and punished by the same hand.  Parents who want to see scores for their child's school have to wait -- the 2007-08 scores are not yet posted on the DOE website.  

Update:  DOE sources say that someone in the school "apparently leaked" the score information.  The 2007-08 Progress Reports will be released sometime next week.   Stay tuned...  

In Memoriam

Written by Helen Zelon Thursday, 11 September 2008 05:34

The same sixth-graders who were in their first week of middle school, seven years ago today, are in their first month of college.  2001's first-graders are now eighth-graders; the children who fill their small, primary-school seats weren't even born on that crystalline September morning. 

One foot in front of the other: Life goes on.  We remember.

Charter chatter

Written by Helen Zelon Wednesday, 10 September 2008 08:09

With the news that the Obama campaign aims to double federal dollars for charter schools in concert with the McCain camp's established charter-school support (along with its concerted push for public-school vouchers), more attention is being focused on charters as alternatives to failing mainstream schools. Charters are fairly young institutions -- the first charter school in the U.S. opened its doors in 1992 in Minnesota -- but 4,300 more have debuted in the years since, and a new report by Education Week predicts an "acute shortage of leaders" -- to the tune of up to 20,000 new principals -- in response to the "unprecedented scale-up" in charter school growth. Charter school leaders tend to be younger and less experienced than principals of traditional public schools; nearly 60 percent have less than five years experience as school leaders.

Lumping all charters under one expansive umbrella risks oversimplifying the issue: For starters, some are run by veteran administrators, others by mission-driven idealists; some are sponsored by profit-making business entities and others by non-profit philanthropic or community-based institutions; and because most do not use union teachers, there's  enormous variability in pay, hours, and what's expected on the job. Philosophically, charters can be ultra-structured and traditional, as many are, or more progressive. So while it's convenient to talk about charters as a single bloc, it's important to realize the variability in each school's mission, staffing, teaching practices, and the community it serves.

Charter schools have become a fixture of the public-school landscape. Their exponential growth gives some serious pause, but many families find much to praise, as evidenced by jammed lotteries for prized schools. Yet whether charters truly serve all the city's students, or only certain swaths of historically undeserved communities, remains an open question. And given the location of the 18 charters opened by the DOE this fall, it's one that won't likely be answered anytime soon.