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New report bears bad news about arts education

Written by Admin Friday, 07 March 2008 03:44

Yesterday the DOE released its long-awaited "Annual Arts and Schools Report" (pdf), an optional survey completed by 1,079 principals about their arts offerings in the 2006-2007 school year. The DOE says the report is important because it ushers in a new era of detailed reporting on arts education data, but the real story is that few elementary or middle school students get the bare minimum arts education required by the state. The New York Times, unlike the Sun, got the story right: Only 4 percent of elementary schools have the resources to provide the range and depth of arts instruction the state requires, and the vast majority of middle schoolers — 71 percent — receive less than the state-mandated two half-unit arts courses in the 7th and 8th grades.

The city is "not providing a well-education" to its children, said Richard Kessler, the director of the Center for Arts Education, which is ramping up its role as an advocate for arts education. He told me the city's anemic arts education has a lot to do with the inexperience of many new principals, who have never been taught the importance of the arts and whose own educational experiences likely lacked quality arts programming as well. Giving the arts and other marginalized subjects the role they ought to occupy will require "major in-service and pre-service" training for principals, Kessler said, but the DOE's plans, outlined in the report, represent only "tinkering around the margins" of existing programs.

Kessler was a member of the DOE's arts education task force, convened last summer when ArtsCount was announced in part to address criticism that the elimination of special Project Arts funds would lead principals to reallocate funds from the arts to other subjects. Ultimately, it sounds like the task force played a minimal role in creating the report or recommending its outcomes. The DOE also appears to have backed away from a major goal it outlined last summer: to use the arts data to hold principals and schools accountable for meeting state requirements in the arts and to make the school-by-school arts data transparent and accessible so parents can use the level of arts programming as a factor in choosing a school. The level of deficiency in elementary and middle school arts offerings indicates that principals can't justifiably be held accountable for a nearly systemic failure.

The report's "next steps" section includes news that the DOE will make lesson plans and standards-aligned curriculums available to teachers and that efforts are underway to make principals "better consumers" of existing arts resources. But with deep budget cuts looming and math and reading test scores continuing to make up 85 percent of schools' grades, what resources and incentives do principals have to spend their limited funds and time on the arts?

More bad budget news -- and this time, it's not just for schools. The mayor announced yesterday that all city agencies will have to trim an additional 3 percent from their budgets next year because of decreased state aid.

It's not clear whether the cuts will actually happen -- the Times suggests that the mayor's announcement yesterday may have been a gambit to pressure Governor Spitzer into finding more money for the city -- but if they do, they will be catastrophic for schools, despite the mayor's insistence (again yesterday!) that "you can always make do with less." Last month, when the mayor cut 1.75 percent of schools' budgets (and announced a cut of 5 percent for next year), Insideschools heard from dozens of principals that they were cutting tutoring, after school, and enrichment programs, as well as funds for supplies and professional development. An 8 percent total cut for next year would be severe.

Since the discussion of mayoral control has been heating up for a little while already, I was hoping at yesterday's City Council hearing on the subject to hear some concrete recommendations for how the city's school governance structure should be improved. But much of the morning session at least was spent conflating the issue of mayoral control with the myriad issues many parents, teachers, and advocates have had with the control exercised by Mayor Bloomberg. Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson repeatedly had to ask his colleagues to stay on task as they questioned Chancellor Klein on subjects as far-ranging as testing, the cell phone ban, and the progress reports.

Still, as council members discussed their frustrations with the current education administration, they also gave some hints about what the council's working group on mayoral control will recommend to lawmakers in Albany. It was clear from the council's questions that reverting to the old system of local school board control isn't a real possibility in 2009. Instead, and in keeping with its grievances of the last five years, the council appears to be seeking public — and more specifically, parental — checks on the mayor's power over education. Jackson said the group would likely recommend that the Community Education Councils, currently powerless, be given a formal, significant role in approving DOE decisions. David Yassky, one of the chairs of the council's working group, suggested that the CECs take on a role in the budget process similar to that which community boards play in the municipal budget progress.

And Jimmy Vacca, the third working group chair along with Jackson and Yassky, asked Chancellor Klein and Deputy Mayor Walcott what they thought about the creation of an independent research body being created to authenticate DOE data. "Having independent analysis is always a good thing," Klein said, noting that the DOE is in the process of setting up such a group right now. Later in the day, David Bloomfield suggested that the city's Independent Budget Office might be an appropriate home for the independent analysts, since that office is already "a reliable source of objective, professional budget analysis."

The Money Mom: Children design charity fundraiser

Written by Admin Tuesday, 04 March 2008 07:31

Recently I served as a judge on a panel considering the proposals of 5th graders for a fundraiser at their school. These kids combined a statistics and economics lesson with a writing assignment -- all for the purpose of raising money for charity.

The children surveyed schoolmates about what kind of fundraisers the community would prefer, analyzed the survey results, and then wrote persuasive essays, backed up by data, about why their proposal should be the one accepted over all the others. Options included a movie night, sports field day, a stuffed animal sale, and other things along those lines. The proposals were rendered anonymous by whiting out the authors’ names, and the panel of judges included parents, teachers, as well as kids from another class.

Later in the spring the kids will actually carry out the winning fundraiser and donate the proceeds to a charitable cause shown by the survey data to be one that the kids in the school care about a lot. Right now polar bears and global warming are the front-running causes. What a great piece of curriculum!

Teaching boys and girls separately in NYC and beyond

Written by Admin Tuesday, 04 March 2008 03:23

The internet's abuzz with talk of this week's New York Times Magazine's cover story, "Teaching Boys and Girls Separately." The article describes a growth in single-sex education nationally, fueled by two sets of proponents of single-sex education: neuro(pseudo)scientists, who believe hard-wired differences in the way boys and girls learn make sex-segregated classrooms necessary; and those who want to empower boys and girls to succeed despite societal pressures that inhibit their success.

Those who believe in single-sex education because of its purported biological advantages are more plentiful, at least according to themselves, but in New York City, it's the second set of single-sex advocates who have opened schools. The Young Women's Leadership School and its three clones and Excellence Charter School, both of which appeared in the article, offer high academic standards and supportive environments. The tone of the schools may be aided by the lack of gender diversity, but those schools' success "has at least as much to do with their rigorous academic approach, commitment to high-quality teaching, and shared culture of excellence as it has to do with the fact that they're single sex," writes Sara Mead of the Early Ed Watch Blog.

(The city has several other single-sex schools, including Urban Assembly's all-girls math and science, business, and criminal justice schools for girls and history and citizenship school for boys; the Academy for Business and Community Development, an all-boys school that is adding a high school this fall; and Eagle Academy for Young Men, a successful high school that will see its first clone open in September. I've also visited a few schools that have single-sex periods during the day, often for math and science classes.)

Should public schools segregate kids by gender? The article makes it clear that despite proponents' claims, there isn't any biological justification for teaching kids separately and differently. And as Dana Goldstein at The American Prospect writes, the neuroscience approach smacks of "stereotyping, heteronormativity, and misogyny."

But I also agree with Alexander Russo's tentative claim that that single-sex education "could do some good" and Insideschools blogger Seth's opinion that some children might feel more comfortable in a single-sex setting. As Sara Mead points out, research has shown that girls can benefit when they have math and science instruction to themselves. And when issues of sexuality and gender identity come up at school, it can be safer for kids to discuss them in a single-sex environment, as in the AP English class at TYWLS the article describes. I've been to a number of schools lately that have single-sex advisories for that purpose. But shouldn't schools also teach young adults how to interact courteously and appropriately with their peers of the opposite gender, even when sex or sexuality is the topic of conversation? That's an important lesson that single-sex schools are incapable of offering.

Could it be? The DOE appears to be responding to its critics!

The DOE informed principals last week that it will be altering the controversial progress reports before new grades are released next year, and many of the changes reflect suggestions made by parents, school leaders, and even City Council members who thought the single grades were reductive, counterproductive, and often wrong. As Elizabeth Green notes in the Sun, the grades aren't going anywhere, and they'll still be based on test scores, but they could be gentler and easier to understand.

In the future, the DOE has proposed, schools will not be penalized if their top-scoring students receive the highest score on state tests two years in a row; schools whose special education students take standardized tests will get credit, no matter those students' scores; and the "peer groups" against which schools are measured will reformed according to test scores, not demographic data. And schools might get separate grades for environment, student achievement, and student progress, instead of just the one grade they received last year (the composite grade will continue to be issued as well). Read about the full set of changes proposed at eduwonkette, who posted the full memo principals received.

I'll believe all the changes when I see them, but it sounds like the DOE is on the right track. As I said last fall, there's useful information in the progress reports, and I think structuring the reports in a way that allows schools and parents to access that information will pay off for the DOE and for kids. (Removing the high stakes attached to the grades would also be good for schools and kids.) Just think about what could have happened last year if the DOE had listened to community input before releasing the problematic progress reports!

The words middle school strike fear into the heart of otherwise rational parents. It causes some to pack-up and move to the suburbs, afraid that the New York City public school system will fall woefully short of their expectations.Others may declare, "My child needs private school, with all that implies “ smaller classes, more individual attention, a wider range of arts, sports and after school activities, the perception – and in some cases the reality "of a more intensive academic program.

I don't judge or begrudge those choices. It's just that I've come to an entirely different conclusion about what matters most in a middle school, based on a mere year and a half experience as a public middle school parent.

The problem is this: You can't escape this thing that happens when middle school kids become middle schoolers, no matter where they end up going or how much it costs.

At some point, your middle schoolers are likely to no longer resemble the compliant, easy-going children you remember. Maybe they have grown five inches in six months. They have a crush for the first time and start acting weird. They have secrets. They rebel. They lie. They become impossible, petulant, annoying, withdrawn and prickly. They act out to impress their friends. They test you, try you and twist you if you let them.

That's why it's essential they end up in a building where there is someone they can talk to, someone they trust.

No wonder middle school parents get scared. My only advice to parents looking for middle schools anywhere is to watch how the grown-ups in the building relate to the kids.

During tours, does anyone mention the enormous physical and emotional changes that start taking place during adolescence? If they don't, you might want to ask.

If you attend an event at the school (highly recommended) watch to see if the kids are interacting with any of the faculty. Or ask kids at a school how they feel about the staff. Is there someone in the building kids talk to: a coach, drama teacher or guidance counselor?

Maybe the principal likes to shoot baskets with the kids or occasionally go out to lunch with them? Does he or she complain about these kids? Does the staff think these half-grown kids are funny? (They are, truly, even though they make you want to cry as often as you want to laugh.)

My son’s middle school, the Clinton School for Artists and Writers, does not have small classes, athletic fields or other amenities typical of private and suburban schools. But everyone from the school aides to the parent coordinator and the principal has a sense of humor and perspective, the ability to roll their eyes at the awkward stages, behavior and sheer height differences that seem to shift daily.

At school events, I've noticed swarms of kids hanging around the 7th-grade language arts teacher and the social studies teacher, for example. They look really comfortable, laughing and chatting about everything from music and books to friendship.These are teachers who give plenty of homework and expect a lot. But they also look like they are really enjoying these kids.

And I am so relieved that someone does.

Déjà vu all over again for Khalil Gibran school

Written by Admin Friday, 29 February 2008 03:19

Less than a year after struggling to land a location, Khalil Gibran International Academy could become a vagabond again.

The DOE is hoping to move it to PS 287 in Fort Greene for the fall, even though last summer DOE officials said the Dean Street building where it's currently housed would be able to handle a second year of growth. But parents at PS 287 say they don't want Khalil Gibran in the building. The PTA president told the press that the elementary school parents don't want older kids sharing the space.

What they — and the reporters who have covered this so far — haven't mentioned is that for the last four years there has been a high school in the PS 287 building. The Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice is moving to a new building in downtown Brooklyn this fall, but since its inception has been located at PS 287. It's possible that the space-sharing has caused problems. If that's the case, we should know. And if it's not the case, parents at PS 287, which according to the DOE is operating at only 42 percent capacity, should come up with a better line for why they don't want to share their space with a school that clearly needs all the help it can get.

Déjà vu all over again for Khalil Gibran school

Written by Admin Friday, 29 February 2008 03:19

Less than a year after struggling to land a location, Khalil Gibran International Academy could become a vagabond again.

The DOE is hoping to move it to PS 287 in Fort Greene for the fall, even though last summer DOE officials said the Dean Street building where it's currently housed would be able to handle a second year of growth. But parents at PS 287 say they don't want Khalil Gibran in the building. The PTA president told the press that the elementary school parents don't want older kids sharing the space.

What they — and the reporters who have covered this so far — haven't mentioned is that for the last four years there has been a high school in the PS 287 building. The Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice is moving to a new building in downtown Brooklyn this fall, but since its inception has been located at PS 287. It's possible that the space-sharing has caused problems. If that's the case, we should know. And if it's not the case, parents at PS 287, which according to the DOE is operating at only 42 percent capacity, should come up with a better line for why they don't want to share their space with a school that clearly needs all the help it can get.

Tone-deaf at the DOE: a brief history of middle school reform

Written by Admin Wednesday, 27 February 2008 17:25

First, the City Council recommends realistic, affordable, broadly supported middle school reforms. Then, after earmarking only $5 million to fund a few of the reforms, the DOE rolls out a punitive policy to retain more 8th graders. The mayor then cuts funds that go to support the very programs it says will prevent retentions. Next, the day after a major press conference by a coalition of parents and advocates upset about the retention policy and the budget cuts, the DOE announces an initiative to "re-brand achievement" using cell phones. And finally, in its press release, the DOE notes that cell phones, include those that promote learning, continue to be prohibited in schools.

Sometimes you just have to laugh.