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We're entering crunch time for elementary school students preparing for the state ELA exam. It's being given on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday next week, and of all of the dozen tests over the course of the year, it (along with the state math exam in March) has the highest stakes for kids and schools. Third and 5th graders need passing scores to be promoted; 4th graders' scores are used in middle school admissions. And since 85 percent of progress report grades are based on these test scores, schools have even more riding on the scores than they did in the past.
How to deal with all this pressure? Two different columnists proposed solutions in the Sun today. "Boycott the test," suggests Robert Pondiscio, who recently returned to a career in journalism after several years teaching in the South Bronx. Regular columnist Andrew Wolf doesn't think schools should play fast and loose with their test results but he fears that some will resort to cheating. He notes, "It won't take too much illicit manipulation to yield results for those who stand to benefit." I'm skeptical of Wolf's claim that the dissolution of regional offices will result in less testing oversight but not of his observation that the incentives to cheat are stronger than ever. Certainly, we're more likely to see cheating next week than a school boycott by parents who are fed up with all the testing.
I've toured New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies in Chelsea twice in three years for my very different sons, and each time I've had a similar reaction to the hothouse of high achievers. I'm fascinated and slightly overwhelmed. I thoroughly wish there could be more middle schools like it. Lab is diverse, eclectic and brimming with excellent teachers and students who enjoy working in groups and swapping ideas. During my visits, I heard enlightened exchanges between teachers and students. I gazed at walls covered with elaborate and worthwhile collaborative projects the school is well known for. I was impressed by the many opportunities for students who love to learn.
Each time, though, I found myself recoiling at tours jammed with high-anxiety elementary school parents already obsessed with high school and college admissions. A battery of obsessive queries about tutoring, test scores and Who-Gets-In dominated conversation, taking away from a truly interesting academic program I wanted to hear more about.
No wonder both my kids rolled their eyes. I had to remind myself the school is for kids, not parents in a city where the supply for high-quality public education does not meet the demand. My older son declared that "cruel stories about hours and hours of homework" turned him off from listing Lab as his first choice two years ago, even though I hoped heâ€™d want to go there. He was probably right to trust his own instincts. He's been delighted with his first choice, the Clinton School for Artists and Writers -- smaller, less selective and strong in two of his favorite subjects-- writing and art.
My 5th grader found himself put off by crowded hallways (mostly with touring parents) along with large class sizes (between 32 and 34 students). He declared the school of 583 to be â€œtoo big,â€™â€™ in part because Lab also houses a high school (in my mind, a distinct advantage) and he couldn't always tell what he was seeing on the tour.
Both whirlwind visits provided only a small piece of the Lab story, so I consulted my well respected former colleague on the education beat, Joe Williams, author of Cheating Our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education (Palgrave MacMillan, 2005). He's the father of a Lab 7th grader and we'd swapped middle school impressions last time around.
Joe pays equal attention to larger education obstacles in the U.S. along with the vexing smaller kind city parents face, like keeping your kids from losing multiple Metrocards. Lab, he explains, is built on high expectations and creation of an ideal culture for a school. It has a distinct philosophy, articulated on its website and evident in all instruction.
"It's the kind of place where it's considered okay to be intellectual," Joe says. "That alone is hard to pull off." It also adds pressure that in Joe's mind â€œcan be both good and bad. At some level it pushes my son to do as much as he can. The downside is heâ€™s stressed out. The homework is intense. There are a lot of kids who are at that high level without having to try that hard.â€™â€™
On balance, Joe said his 7th grader "is very happy at Lab." He hopes he'll consider staying through high school, and that his 4th grader will choose it for middle school as well.
For a New York City parent, that's the ultimate endorsement.
With great fanfare today, Chancellor Klein announced that the 134 schools that earned both an "A" on their progress reports and a "well developed" on their quality reviews would get the cash prizes promised to high performers. (The DOE's press release calls those the "top-performing schools," but we know that isn't quite accurate -- they're really the schools that improved most from 2006 to 2007.) The schools will get $30 per student to use at their discretion, as long as they also share the secrets of their success with schools that didn't get such high marks.
Three times as many elementary schools as high schools are getting the funds, as are more than twice as many schools in Queens as in the Bronx. According to the list of schools the DOE released, schools are taking home chunks of change ranging from $4,458 (East New York Family Academy) to $122,837 (Franklin Roosevelt High School). I wonder why the amounts being disbursed are not all multiples of $30 -- perhaps it's a result of the DOE's class size reduction plan that diminished classes by an average of just a fraction of a kid each?
Itâ€™s nearly halfway through the year. Have you spent at least half the money that your PTA has raised?
Raising money is not easy, but spending money well can be at least as big a challenge. You have to decide and then research exactly what you want to buy, work with teachers and principals to choose the purchases that work for them --whether new white boards or science books-- and then actually make the purchase. Sometimes you even have to lay out your own money and save the receipts to get reimbursed later. Spending takes follow-through and commitment. It's sometimes especially challenging, to get spending all the way into the classroom to improve a childâ€™s learning experience. This money, whether spent on grow lights and plants, digital cameras, visiting poets, or field trips, is the most important money parents can raise.
Do you have a solid budget, a spending plan, or a spending committee to help with the legwork? Does your PTA have a working process for deciding how to spend your money? One source for ideas on how to spend money (and how to raise it) is PTO Today, a national organization that supports parent organizations in schools.
When you do spend money, document it. Tell parents in a newsletter what the PTA has accomplished. Post a photo of on your school's website, for example, of kids performing in a holiday show wearing PTA-funded costumes, and write a caption letting the community know who funded the show. There is a direct connection between spending money well and being able to raise more money. Donors --whether they are parents contributing to an annual fund or foundations supporting a special arts program-- will be impressed to know that youâ€™ve been able to spend money in ways that really made a difference for your kids.
If you're like me, you're having trouble getting back into the workaday routine. Here's something to hasten your return: If you want to have your child to be considered for admission to Gifted and Talented programs in kindergarten, 1st, or 2nd grade for the fall, tomorrow (1/3) is the deadline to request testing. The Request for Testing form is in the DOE's G&T handbook; it must be returned to your child's school or to a borough enrollment office. Testing will begin Jan. 22.
The Post's Yoav Gonen kicks off 2008 with a status update on the cell phone ban. He notes that the bill the City Council passed in July and then reaffirmed with an override of the mayor's veto in September allowing kids to carry their phones to school is now in effect. But it won't make a difference to kids and their families â€” the mayor isn't wavering on prohibiting kids from having their phones at school. Cell phone ban opponents go to court next month in their suit against the city, and council members hope their bill, ineffectual as it is right now, will be ammunition against the ban.
Earlier this month 45 of you answered a poll about what you consider the best source of information about New York City's public schools. As I hoped and expected, most of you (68 percent) said Insideschools is your favorite source â€” but I was a little surprised that the DOE came in second, with 13 percent of responses, before other parents, your school, and "other."
Here's a new poll for the new year. What was the most important 2007 NYC education story? Your choices:
- The DOE's reorganization
- The launch of the Insideschools blog
- The rollout of Roland Fryer's incentive programs
- The showdown between the City Council and Mayor Bloomberg over the cell phone ban
- The state delivers Campaign for Fiscal Equity money 13 years after the initial suit
- The progress reports
Or did I miss something big? It's totally possible. Leave your nominations for additional stories in the comments. Let's hope the pace of change is happier and healthier in 2008. Happy New Year!
One teacher who hasn't totally taken the week off is NYC Educator; he's been blogging away. Today he takes aim at the culture of school as work that led PS 15 in Springfield Gardens to schedule optional 5-hour test prep sessions daily over winter break, as the Daily News reported earlier this week. "As we know ... inner-city kids with low standardized test scores are not eligible for vacations or time away from the standardized test prep practice mills," NYC Educator writes sarcastically. "They must be socialized to expect a future where 9 and 1/2 hour work days, little-to-no vacation time, and weekend work days are the norm. In addition, they must be socialized to expect that much of their compensation will come in the form of 'performance bonuses'" â€” in this case, XBox game systems, which were promised to the top scorers on the state test.
NYC Educator thinks that KIPP schools embody this philosophy, and there is an interesting exchange between a KIPP teacher and his critics in the comments. (Of course, we know that KIPP schools, or at least their teachers, have a healthy appetite for fun and games.)
As valid as his critique of the system are, it's true also that of all the dozen tests kids take each year, the January ELA and March math state tests matter the most for promotion and placement. Even if you're no fan of high-stakes tests, you've got to want to give kids a fair chance to succeed on them as long as they are required, and I've always thought it didn't make too much sense to have such a high-stakes test just five school days after a holiday vacation full of travel, sugar, and video games. If PS 15 cuts the kids some slack after the exam â€” and for the three kids who bring Xboxes home, it will have to â€” holding lessons the day after Christmas might be a semi-reasonable thing to do.
Yesterday, I went to Rockefeller Center so you don't have to. But maybe you should â€” the Penny Harvest display really is impressive. Equally impressive: overhearing parents tell their kids to "put those coins down!" in dozens of world languages. The display is up through the end of the year.
"Education job titles stump parents," Erin Einhorn writes in today's Daily News. Redolent of Insideschools' attempt to spell out the "ABCs of the DOE's reorganization" earlier this fall, the article points out that DOE officials have been bestowed with "wacky," abstract titles such as "chief accountability officer" and "chief equality officer" that don't make their responsibilities clear.
But in focusing on the titles, Einhorn skirts around an important point. It's not the fact that there are highly paid education officials whose tasks aren't immediately apparent that bothers the average parent; there have always been numbers men and strategic planners working behind the scenes at the DOE and other city agencies. It's that, as one parent points out in the Daily News article, "[the DOE] switched from districts to regions and now they've switched back ... [Parents] don't know who is representing what and who is doing what."
In other words, the situation on the ground for parents is a mess, and parents don't feel able to get the help that they and their children need. That's a much bigger problem than an overstuffed nomenclature.