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Student Voices: Homework matters, by Toni Bruno

Written by Admin Friday, 28 December 2007 03:18

This is a post by sophomore NYC Students blogger Toni Bruno, another member of the NYC Student Union, about Councilman Peter Vallone's proposed homework cap bill. I'd like to preface her excellent post by saying that at the Dec. 3 NYCSU meeting, the Union decided that some restrictions on homework would be a good thing. I agree with the Union's decision but I think that a City Council bill is not really the best way to do this. Instead, the goal of a reasonable homework cap might best be accomplished through a mandate that all School Leadership Teams should be charged with creating a homework cap, since they are the body most connected with each school. A cap would definitely be a good thing in my mind because 1) under it, teachers would have to be more selective over the homework they gave (hopefully resulting in less busywork and more meaningful exercises) and 2) it would force principals to create better methods of in-school communication, a problem in many schools. Enjoy!- Seth

A recent Sun article by Grace Rauh reports that Peter Vallone of the New York City Council is proposing a limit on homework. His main motivation seems to be his children who "...are routinely swamped with homework and stuck at home, slogging through it." Mr. Vallone also says, "As a parent, I have been unable to have fun with my kids. We can't go for bike rides. We can't go to the park. We can't go to the museum, and that's not fair." His proposal is for a maximum of 2.5 hours of homework assigned each night, and one night of no homework each week.

As a high school student, I fully appreciate where Mr. Vallone is coming from. I am given almost 4 hours of homework every night and have at least 3 tests a week to study for. I have no doubt that limits need to be set in schools.

Here's how I would do it. The DOE should consult with parents, teachers and students to decide on the right number of hourse per night, and then set it as a guideline. There would probably be a different number of hours for different grades, rather than 2.5 hours for everyone. Then, the principal of each school should be responsible for coordinating among teachers so that most students have no more than 2.5 hours of homework per night. That means each teacher would probably be given a limit, but the limit could be adjusted at times when other teachers are giving less.

At the high school level, students who take a lot of honors or AP classes would have to accept that their workload could exceed the 2.5 hour per night guideline. It's true that homework loads are taking away from other important activities in students' lives. More homework means less time for exercise, music, family, friends, etc. But at the high school level, this is a choice that some families might want to make, on the basis of interests and ambitions.

I have attended public school in New York since kindergarten, and I agree with Mr. Vallone. Restrictions on homework time should be put in place by the DOE, and implemented by school principals.

Cross-posted at NYC Students

Comics school a no-go for DOE

Written by Admin Thursday, 27 December 2007 10:32

Nestled in a Times article yesterday about the pedagogical values of graphic novels was the information that fans of the genre tried to start a comics-themed high school but were not approved by the DOE. I'm not sure if I feel better to know that there is some limit as to what school themes are approved, or worse knowing that the DOE thinks wildlife management and fire safety are more likely than comic books to get kids excited about learning.

The Comic Book Project is a national program run out of Teachers College that aims to trick kids into developing literacy skills by reading and writing comic books. Since starting in a Queens elementary school eight years ago, the project has expanded to almost 900 schools nationwide, according to the Times. Check out some comic books by New York City kids at the Comic Book Project's gallery.

And if you're looking for something to do this holiday week, go see "Persepolis." It's based on Marjane Satrapi's excellent graphic novel series about growing up in Iran.

Yesterday's Times article about a charter school in Georgia that enrolls many immigrant students, including several refugees, highlights how having diverse schools benefits all students. If you really want to see why diversity matters, check out the accompanying video, which profiles two adorable boys — one a native American, the other Burmese — who have become fast friends.

In New York City, there are more than 20 high schools for new immigrants, usually those who have arrived within the last four years. (Search for them.) I've always enjoyed visiting these schools because the students, like those profiled in the Times video, are pleased to be in school and are excited to help each other learn.

Study: Less than half of NYC high schools offer physics

Written by Admin Wednesday, 26 December 2007 11:44

Although the city's schoolchildren aren't heading back to their classrooms for another week, I'm back to work. I'm thinking there won't be too much school-related news until 2008 -- even the DOE wouldn't roll out a new initiative between Christmas and New Year's, right? — so for the next few days I'm planning to post about interesting articles and ideas that I just didn't get to this fall.

First up: a recent article in the student newspaper of Stony Brook University about the state of high school science education in New York City. A Stony Brook researcher has been examining what kinds of science courses the city's high schools offer; she found that more than half of high schools did not offer physics during the 2004-2005 school year (I would imagine that the percentage has gone down, given the proliferation since that time of small schools). The researcher also found that a lack of advanced science courses correlates with students' socioeconomic status. Schools with higher proportions of poor and minority students are less likely to offer advanced science courses. On the one hand, this seems intuitive: we know that poor and minority students are more likely to receive inadequate math and science instruction before high school, making them ill prepared to take physics.

But reading articles like this one reminds me that the "soft bigotry of low expectations" is alive and well. An assistant principal at Townsend Harris, which has many advanced science courses, is quoted in the article as saying, "For many of the kids in other schools their goal isn't physics. It's to be able to count their change so they aren't ripped off when they buy food or to be able to read their prescription so they can take care of themselves when they're sick." Those may be the horizons that poor students can see, but their teachers can see farther. Obviously, someone who can't count change can't pass the physics Regents exam — but shouldn't that be the goal? Simply getting a kid ready to deal with the daily math he'll face in the work world or in the first year of a basic college program is a major accomplishment in many places — but doesn't that still sell the kid short?

The state has released its own list of elementary and middle schools in good standing and in need of improvement under No Child Left Behind — and the news isn't great for the city or its progress reports.

The state removed 18 city elementary and middle schools from the list but added 64, bringing the total number of city schools not in good standing to 318. Many schools that received D's and F's on their progress reports are considered in good standing with the state, including at least two of the schools that the DOE has announced it will close this year. And many other schools that received A's and B's made the state's list of failing schools.

City education officials say there is "correlation" between the two lists because as a school's progress report score gets higher, it is more likely to be considered in good standing by the state. Still, the discrepancy between the two lists makes sense; after all, the two accountability systems focus on different things. No Child Left Behind looks only at the percentage of students scoring at proficiency each year, while the progress reports look at individual student improvement over the course of each year. The higher number of failing schools this year on the state's list could have to do with more students being tested, as the Post suggests, or on the fact that the state's requirements are getting stricter each year as we get closer to 2014, when No Child Left Behind expects every child to be proficient on state tests.

Performance pay, incentive programs moving into phase two

Written by Admin Thursday, 20 December 2007 11:59

The DOE proudly announced earlier this week that 86 percent of the schools given the option of accepting performance pay this year chose to. Thirty-four eligible schools chose not to participate. (The percentage would have been slightly lower had the DOE not included the additional schools it apparently solicited once it became clear that a chunk of schools would abstain from the program.)

By the end of the day tomorrow, each of the schools will have to decide, by committee, whether their merit pay will be shared equally among all teachers or given in varying amounts to teachers who especially deserve it. I'm curious whether any schools will choose this latter option, and if they do, whether their choice will reflect an honest attempt to see the effect of merit pay or cronyism, as Norm Scott at EdNotes Online speculates will happen.

Interestingly, a slightly higher percentage of "A" and "D" schools than "B" and "C" schools given the option to participate chose not to. But of the 19 schools with F's on their progress reports, not a single one opted out of the performance pay pilot. I'm not sure what, if anything, to make of this -- I'm open to suggestions.

In other incentives news, we also learned this week that the city has distributed $740,000 so far through the Opportunity NYC program, although we don't know how much money was distributed because of kids' achievements in school.

City-chartered schools getting grades get very good ones

Written by Admin Thursday, 20 December 2007 03:02

When the progress reports first came out, many, including Regent Merryl Tisch, were not happy that charter schools did not get grades. Chancellor Klein said he didn't have the authority or the data to issue grades for charter schools. But now the city has issued grades for more than a dozen of the schools it chartered, and the results are, unsurprisingly, favorable to the charters. Of the charter grades, 79 percent were A's and B's (compared with 62 percent of other schools), and only one school, Peninsula Preparatory Academy in Queens, received an F. KIPP Academy was among the five schools with A's — guess the staff retreat in the Carribbean paid off!

The charter progress reports are shorter than those for regular public schools, and "environment" is measured solely by attendance. Because of this, the reports clearly note that "it would be inaccurate to make a direct comparison to the grades assigned to non-charter DOE public schools" — but that hasn't stopped the press. The Sun proclaims, "Charter Schools Win Top Grades: Surpass Traditional Public Schools on Progress Reports," and notes that two city-chartered schools had higher numerical grades than any other schools in the city.

For equity's sake, I'm glad the charters are getting grades, but in reality, how much will they matter to the hundreds of families waiting for spaces to open up in charter schools that are often more disciplined and academically oriented than neighborhood schools? The charter schools' strong showing does little to dispel the notion that lots of test prep will equal a high grade in the city's accountability system. As Julie Trott, head of Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School, which got one of the two highest grades in the city, told the Sun, "We just basically are super, super serious about academics and don't play at all." Parents don't need a grade to tell them whether that's an environment they want for their child.

Still, given how little information is available about charter schools that isn't generated by the schools themselves, charter school reports strike me as more useful than those for regular public schools. We'll soon have more information; according to the Sun, the state has agreed to have all charter schools receive grades next year.

DOE announces improvements in class size ... data

Written by Admin Wednesday, 19 December 2007 07:52

The DOE has just announced "new measures to improve transparency and detail in class size reporting." Using improved means of data collection, the DOE will start publishing class size reports so parents can know on a grade-by-grade, school-by-school level how large classes are. Now that sounds like the kind of report parents might actually trust when deciding where to send their kids. Of course, they'll have to wade through an Excel file with more than 16,000 entries to get the information they want.

Nowhere in the press release is there any indication that the DOE has intentions of reducing class sizes beyond what principals choose to do on their own, with the help of the DOE's "targeted class size reduction coaching program." But perhaps the improved transparency is a concession by the DOE that parents think class size is important? That would be a major shift from earlier this year, when the DOE worked hard to downplay parents' calls for smaller class sizes in the Learning Environment Surveys.

Anyone who thinks the New York Times has been soft on the DOE in recent years should take note: Sam Freedman is on the job. His column today addresses the question of "How a Middle School Can Be 'Dangerous' and Still Get an A." Freedman takes a look at South Bronx Academy for Applied Media, which got an A on its progress report but also holds a slot on the state's list of "persistently dangerous" schools.

Former teachers describe a place where they spent more time putting out fires and deflecting profanities aimed at them than teaching. It's true that teachers who have left a school may have competing reasons for wanting to go to the press with their complaints — but the school's Learning Environment Survey bears out their assertion that the school isn't safe. Principal Roshone Ault said the school got its "persistently dangerous" designation because she reports every incident, but teachers said they were dissuaded from reporting some incidents. (Ault, formerly a teacher at a charter school that was closed due to poor performance, was the subject of a Times article last year about the new wave of young principals.)

At South Bronx Academy, which opened in 2005, 13 of 16 teachers were brand new last year, and Freedman said half of teachers fled the school in the last year. The progress reports don't take teacher retention into account. James Liebman told the Times that "many teachers flee schools that are in the midst of reform and instilling a 'culture of accountability,'" though how a new school can be in the midst of reform is not clear. What is clear is that in the bizarro world of DOE-2K7, teacher attrition, widely understood to seriously inhibit school success, is actually a good thing.

Freedman doesn't contest the fact that the progress reports adequately measure what they're designed to measure — year-to-year improvement, especially among the most needy students. But his column points out, as many others have, that the progress reports don't measure many of the factors that teachers, parents, and students think are most important.

Thorough rundown of progress report issues in City Limits

Written by Admin Tuesday, 18 December 2007 09:05

For a thorough and thoughtful rundown of the issues surrounding the progress reports, check out a new article in City Limits Weekly by regular Insideschools contributor Helen Zelon. Using the City Council hearing on the progress reports as a starting point, Zelon takes a look at how parents use the grades, the relationship between the grades and school closures, and the role of parents in the DOE's reforms generally. (Here's a hint: it's not meaningful.)