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When choosing a middle school, what happens after hours is critical in a city where space is scarce and fields are threatened.

Parents mulling middle school options spend a great deal of time comparing math and science programs, class size and school philosophies. They also can't help noticing the wide disparity of sports and after-school programs and activities

Extras like robotics and rock bands can be big factors for working parents. Who wouldn't prefer having their kids in fun, structured activities in school instead of hanging out in city parks, unsupervised?

Kids care a lot about these offerings as well. My 5th-grade son is absolutely swayed by the promise of track, soccer and swim teams.

After school sports are even more critical at a time when the few athletic fields available to New York City kids are threatened by politics - as at Randall's Island - or by development, as at Pier 40, where a huge rally is planned this Sunday at noon to save the fields from development.

So far, no middle school we've toured can compete with the offerings at M.A.T. in Chinatown, detailed in a great piece last week in the Downtown Express. The promise of the long-awaited community center that will be available free for all students at IS 289 will also be welcome.

But only M.A.T. offers a climbing wall (a great metaphor for middle schoolers, who literally climb them anyway) along with a surfing club and a tremendous track and field program. John De Matteo, the school's ambitious athletic director, is building a really impressive program where 65 percent of all students participate in a sport.

To his credit, De Matteo has already met with the principal of Tompkins Square Middle School to explain how M.A.T. can support 16 sports and 38 teams. He plans to meet with other middle school principals to talk about how they can model their programs after M.A.T. as well.

De Matteo is happy to share his insights because he is so convinced that it makes a huge difference in the lives of middle schoolers.

"I believe that being on a structured sports team which teaches children how to work with their teammates, build sportsmanship, build community and character and motivate to improve grades will be one of the most important opportunities for our children to have," he says.

Any advice M.A.T. can offer middle school principals will be a positive step for all New York City public schools. Space, money and scheduling issues all interfere with the creation of after school programs. Just last week, hundreds of kids and parents crowded into PS 3 in the West Village, pointing out the critical need for more schools in Chelsea and the Village. Kids wondered why luxury condos are cropping up everywhere when schools are not.

There are not enough good public schools in the city. We also need fields, after school programs and sports. Parents are going to have to make a lot of noise to make sure we get them.

In the meantime, let's offer support and encouragement to the educators and visionaries who are creating, pushing and sharing programs that mean so much to our kids.

DOE considering making more time for more testing

Written by Admin Thursday, 24 January 2008 07:29

Next year, kids at 10-15 schools will have more time in school if all goes according to plan for The After School Corporation, which at the chancellor's urging has bought into a national push to give up on traditional school hours.

According to the Daily News, TASC is planning a pilot in which kids might go to school through the summer or until 6 p.m. daily in an effort to extend the amount of time they're learning. In addition to having more time for academics (and, presumably, testing), TASC President Lucy Friedman told the Daily News the new schedule will allow schools to preserve art, music, and sports programs that have been pushed out during the regular school day. TASC says the pilot will honor the teachers' contract, although it's difficult to imagine how it could, and it can't be a good sign that UFT President Randi Weingarten has already called the pilot "another one of these secretive plots."

The Daily News notes that the idea for the pilot germinated in conversations with Chancellor Klein. Nationally, there is a growing movement to extend school time; the National Center on Time and Learning was launched in October (with some funding from Klein favorite the Broad Foundation), and the issue even got discussed during a Democratic presidential debate this fall. Many charter schools already have longer school schedules.

Parents boycotting some tests; others ask why give them

Written by Admin Thursday, 24 January 2008 04:09

Looks like parents at PS 40 and PS 116 in Manhattan are taking the advice of Robert Pondiscio and the legions of parents who would do the same thing if they could find enough allies and boycotting some of the testing mandated this year by the DOE. The parents are upset that their kids were selected to take "field tests" to help testmakers devise future exams, in addition to having to take the real state tests in math and ELA and diagnostic tests to generate progress report data.

I don't think [the field test is] going to be a strain on any particular child, but it replaces classroom teaching, and it is a waste of everybody time, PS 40 parent told the Times. But according to Louise at Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn, individual kids are feeling the strain of one test after another. Louise, who says she's sick of testing, wrote yesterday that her 5th-grade daughter became distressed last week that the following day she would have to take "what seemed a sudden standardized math test that her teacher told me had something to do with appraising teacher performance." Louise asks, as did the Manhattan parents boycotting the tests, "Why put a kid through this kind of anxiety?" Perhaps Louise should spearhead a boycott at PS 321. I'm sure she'd have no trouble finding followers.

Who knew I was already right when I hypothesized two weeks ago that the DOE was hoping to change the way teachers are evaluated? Well, besides Eduwonkette, who left a comment telling me so, and at least 140 principals whose teachers are already being judged according to their students' test scores in an initiative so top secret that even the teachers don't know about it? Very few people, it appears, according to the New York Times.

In the already-underway experiment, which the Times was the first to report, the test score gains of students at 140 schools will be used to judge their teachers' success. The DOE is setting "predicted gains" for teachers based on their students' skills, experiences, and backgrounds and then crunching the numbers to see if the teachers meet those goals. The DOE told the Times, which broke the story, that it doesn't plan to use the results to make hiring or firing decisions about individual teachers. But Chris Cerf, who apparently has been deputized to talk up the program, said the results could be one factor used in those decisions, and that ultimately making the results public (a la the progress reports) would reward good teachers and put pressure on bad ones. Certainly, the DOE must be interested in providing more ammunition for the teacher firing squads assembled earlier this year.

Naturally, the UFT's Randi Weingarten, who has backed down in her opposition to other controversial plans, including the Teacher Performance Unit, sounds angry about this one, telling the Times that she and the city disagree on whether results from this pilot or its expansion could be used under the teachers' contract to make hiring or firing decisions. (On the other hand, the Times says the UFT has known about the experiment for four months, but we haven't heard any complaints until now.)

The initiative also appears to undercut the little agency afforded teachers in determining how performance pay is distributed this year. I'm pretty sure that we don't know how many of the schools included in the performance pay pilot elected to distribute their earnings across the whole faculty rather than to individual teachers, but I think it's safe to guess that's what happened in most schools. Now the DOE is doing the divisive, problematic work its teachers declined to do.

The Times predicts a battle this summer between the DOE and the UFT over the experiment results. Let's hope Randi Weingarten (or, potentially, her successor) is up for the fight. The DOE is abusing test score data, which aren't meant for this kind of crunching, and keeping teachers in the dark about how they're being evaluated. Regardless of the quality of the research (though even that is questionable  Eduwonkette wonders whether the experiment is ethical given that many of the research subjects don't know they are part of an experiment at all), the way the DOE has gone about this one is just not right.

State reducing amount of new money to city's schools

Written by Admin Tuesday, 22 January 2008 08:02

Speaking of scaling down big plans, it looks like the state will be giving the city's schools $100 million less this year than originally planned in new money. Citing budget constraints, the state is backing down on the amount of money, secured as a result of the 13-year Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, awarded to the city's schools. Yesterday at the middle school equity rally, CFE Director Geri Palast said, "Committed funding increases for education must be immunized from claims of tight budgets and economic downturns." Unfortunately for kids in New York City and other communities around the state, that immunity doesn't exist.

New science test a no-go for this year

Written by Admin Tuesday, 22 January 2008 07:14

The DOE makes a lot of noise when it rolls out a new initiative but it does a good job of staying quiet when it scales them back. The Post reported this past weekend that the science test planned for grades 3 and 6 will not be offered this year after all, at least not for the vast majority of middle and high schools. And science proficiency won't be a consideration in promotion decisions as the DOE last year suggested it would be. According to the Post, the DOE now plans to start testing all students in science next year.

What's the reason for the delay? Apparently, the DOE found it didn't have time to train teachers adequately in the new citywide science curriculum; the Post has quotes from a couple of anonymous teachers who report having "boxes of junk" in their classrooms but no idea how to use their contents. The DOE also says it needs further field testing to devise a fair test.

Inadequate training for teachers and a flawed test sound like good arguments for slowing down implementation of the science test schedule. I'm just surprised that the DOE listened to those arguments after rolling out initiatives far more half-baked than this one. And for those who saw the science test as a sign that the DOE would no longer tolerate schools spending all of their instructional time working on skills tested on the math and English state tests, the delay is certainly disappointing. Let's hope that schools haven't been trained too well on teaching only to tests and still make use of the new science curriculum.

With so much to worry about on a daily basis gifted and talented screening, middle school admissions, the barrage of standardized testing  it can be easy to lose sight of the larger reality that schools can help move society toward racial and economic equality  and that they also can hold society back. To honor Martin Luther King Day today, the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice is holding a rally to call for improvements to middle-grades education, when black and Latino students fall behind most. Other groups and institutions are holding Martin Luther King Day events around the city as well. Tomorrow it's back to school and work for all of us, but today we ought to step back and think about the big picture.

More details are emerging on the mayor's new plan to "end social promotion" in 8th grade. According to the New York Times, the 8th grade rules are "stricter" than those already in place in grades 3, 5, and 7 because students will have to pass all of their core subjects as well as score a 2 or higher on state tests. Last year, the Times reports, about a quarter of 8th graders failed to meet these standards.

No one's suggesting that a quarter of 8th graders will really have to stay in middle school, but as I noted yesterday, summer schools are sure to expand in 2009, when the first set of kids affected by the new policy finishes 8th grade. The Daily News notes that Chancellor Klein plans to head off "mass flunkings" by putting in place stronger intervention strategies earlier in middle school but without new funds to support those strategies, it's not clear how schools with lots of struggling students will be able to offer intensive support to their weakest students and at the same time scale up their advanced offerings, as a policy announced last summer is requiring them to do.

Advocates for Children Director Kim Sweet told the Daily News, "We're very concerned that kids are being stuck in the eighth grade who can't meet the requirements to graduate currently and are already over-age and unable to get into high school." The new policy could exacerbate that problem.

Fortunately, the Times has some small consolation for advocates and over-age kids, noting, "Officials said it was unlikely that eighth graders who had already been held back twice would be retained a third time."

Student Thought: Our role as students

Written by Admin Thursday, 17 January 2008 18:17

What is our role, the students' role, in our society?

As it stands now we are the constant object of the education discussion sentence. My English teacher told me (and mind you, this was last year... in my junior year of high school) that a simple sentence contains three parts: the subject or actor, the verb or action, and the object or that which is acted upon.

As in: "The Department of Education (that's the subject) puts (the verb) children (the object) first (I guess that's an adjective)."

In the American education debate, we are acted upon by many subjects: The Department of Education, which treats us like products, numbers that need to be manipulated so that it can look good; the city, which treats us as criminals who need to be babysat by the NYPD for a couple of hours a day; and our teachers, whom people assume can snap their fingers and turn us into brilliant astrophysicists ready to herald in a new age of American economic glory.

In debates about the issues, class size for example, we always hear about how current conditions make teaching impossible. What about learning? Do you think it's any easier to learn in a class of 34 than it is to teach? Since when has learning become a passive action? Just because it contains no plosive sounds and seems to flow off the tongue a bit easier doesn't mean it's any smoother of a process. Learning is not an exact science. It takes hard work, intense concentration and in today's schools, quite a bit of luck.

If our education systems are truly trying to put "Children First," then it is time for us to become the subject of our education. People like Joel Klein need to stop asking, "Are our teachers teaching?" and instead ask, in the words of the Bard, "Is our children learning?"

To refocus this picture, we students need to take a more active role in our schools. That is the key mission of the New York City Student Union, a citywide, student-founded, student-run organization. Since its creation in 2006, the union's goals have been to act as a powerful collective voice for New York City's students, to give students a say in the decisions made about them, and to provide communication between students from all over the City.

Each Monday, these students from small schools, impact schools, specialized schools and others, meet to examine the problems in our city's schools and come up with student-generated solutions to them. For example, we've advocated the need for smaller classes to the governor and other state officials. We testified before the New York City Council against the cell phone ban, and most recently we've lobbied the Department of Education on improving its new progress reports and student surveys.

Additionally we work on student empowerment projects such as our Student Government Project, in which we are researching the state of student governments around the city and look to develop an effective student government model so that students can have a greater say in their individual schools, and the NYC Students Blog, the first-ever student-run blog about the NYC education system, which features the voices of seven student bloggers, representing every borough, giving their take on education issues.

I believe that the only way to make students the subject of the education debate is for us to take a more active role in larger education politics and the goings on of our own schools. We must remember that we are the learners. That is an honorable position to be in. We are not products or tools or criminals. We are potential incarnate.

Cross-posted on the NYC Students Blog

It's been a couple of years since the mayor added another grade to the list of those in which a failing grade on either state test requires a child to go through the holdover process, but in his "State of the City" address today, Mayor Bloomberg announced that next year, 8th grade will join grades 3, 5, and 7 on that list.

The details have yet to be announced -- that must be what the chancellor's 3 p.m. press briefing is for -- but we can expect that 8th grade teachers and middle school principals can plan to spend time this spring reviewing the work of their 1-scoring students, as the automatic review process requires. And this new policy will be sure to cause problems for high schools and summer school planners, who will have to update their rolls based on the results of 8th graders' test scores.

The mayor also noted that the city is planning to step up vocational offerings in the public schools. A task force has been convened to supervise the 2009 launch of programs that will begin in high schools and continue in local colleges. And he also said that this fall, families will be able to log in to the test score monitoring system that principals and teachers already use. Hopefully it's less confusing than the progress reports, which befuddled parents and school officials alike.

The mayor had lots to say about things other than education. You should read the whole address and find out what else he has planned for New Yorkers.