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Would you wait in the cold at 4:30 a.m. to sign up for more classes with your elementary school science teacher? That's what parents from PS 261 in Brooklyn did this past week when Carmelo Piazza, known in the neighborhood as "Carmelo the Science Fellow," opened registration for the 8-week summer program he runs. The New York Times reports that parents started lining up around 4:30 a.m., and the entire summer session was full less than 3 hours after registration opened at 9 a.m. Piazza sounds indefatigable (and possibly insane), teaching a full schedule, running after-school classes at his neighborhood science joint, and entertaining at weekend birthday parties. The city needs more teachers like him.

It always surprises me how my fellow students always seem to take much more moderate and pragmatic positions on many of today's more controversial education issues than I would expect.

At last week's New York City Student Union meeting, the issue that came up was mayoral control of NYC schools, which Albany can either reinstate or let sunset in 2009. While much of what we hear on the issue from other members of the education community (parents, teachers, activists) is outright condemnation, most students were supportive of the idea of mayoral control.

I've been on the fence about the issue for a while now, but after hearing my fellow students arguments, I am convinced that mayoral control is not the devil after all.

For starters mayoral control assures that at least someone is responsible and accountable for the success and failure of our education system. It makes education an important issue in the municipal election with both the largest voter turnout and the greatest amount of press coverage and it also serves to keep education in the news because there are always reporters surrounding the mayor.

Mayoral control also centralizes education giving some hope for equal standards citywide and the possibility of important sweeping change.

Don't get me wrong, I do believe it needs some changes. I just took my US History Regents and the idea of checks and balances comes to mind. Since the president has to get his Secretary of Education approved by Congress, why shouldn't the mayor have to get the chancellor approved by the City Council? Makes sense right? I would also advocate that a Chancellor Selection Board be appointed comprising of teachers, parents, students and administrators to publicly review candidates for the position.

Up to now, most of what I have heard as criticism of mayoral control seems more to be criticism of what Bloomberg and Klein have done to our schools. What we have seen with the current Bloomberg-Klein Complex is a complete denial of some of the most important issues in education, especially class size. They have also shown a pattern of disrespect to many of the constituents of our education system and filled the department with bureaucrats, lawyers and businessmen instead of educators.

We know that we need a chancellor who has experience as an educator in the classroom and in the schools. We need one who understands the delicate processes of teaching and learning. So I say, instead of drifting back to decentralization and the disorganization and confusion that comes with it, why not demand a mayor who will give us just that, who will pledge to put an educator in charge of our schools. This in my belief is one of the biggest positives of mayoral control is that we the people can make this statement.

In 2009, Albany will have a tough decision to make. Mayoral control is an extreme system. It is likely to be very good or very bad because under it change comes much more easily. It does not tend towards moderation. However, in our current state of education, in which way too few of us students graduate and fewer leave our schools ready to support ourselves and become able participants in our democracy, we need a system that will enable change to occur. What we have had is not working. We need new solutions, new ideas. Mayoral control is the most effective way to implement the changes we seek in our schools.

So the question before Albany is this: Do we want to abandon a system that has such a potential for good, just because it hasn't been used as such in the past six years?
--Cross-posted at NYC Students Blog

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity ruling this summer raised our hopes that the city's schools would finally receive equitable and more adequate funding, but it's turning out not to be quite the banner year for school funding that some had hoped. First, Governor Spitzer reduced the amount of new money flowing to the city's schools. Now, Mayor Bloomberg has proposed a $324 million reduction in the city's education budget, representing a 1.3 percent cut.

According to the Post, Bloomberg sees the cuts as an inducement for principals to spend more efficiently. Speaking as the business leader who amassed a fortune of nearly $12 billion (or $324 million, 37 times), Bloomberg said,

"I'm sorry. You can always cut 1.3 percent. In fact, it's healthy to go and say let's cut a little bit and force the principals and the teachers and the administrators to say, 'Is this program worth it?'"

Bloomberg's sentiment is, of course, offensive to principals and teachers and administrators who are struggling to provide high-quality educations under difficult circumstances and who certainly don't think anything they're doing is worthless (except maybe confiscating cell phones and administering standardized tests under DOE orders). And more than that, it's offensive to children for whom every art class, field trip, and ounce of enrichment means something, even if those expenditures don't always immediately translate into improved "performance."

Elected leaders often have to make difficult decisions that adversely affect their constituents. We understand. But they don't have to sound happy about it.

REMINDER: PEP meeting today (1/28)

Written by Admin Monday, 28 January 2008 02:25

If you care about the mayor's proposed 8th grade promotion policy, tonight's Panel for Educational Policy meeting is your first chance to make your voice heard. (You'll also be able to speak out on the promotion policy at a series of public hearings in February and March; see the Insideschools calendar for details on dates and times.) 6 p.m. at Tweed; arrive a little early if you want to sign up to speak. Map.

Kindergartener handcuffed at Queens elementary school

Written by Admin Friday, 25 January 2008 06:01

We all know that overzealous security guards can be a problem in schools, but I didn't think the issue extended to kindergartens. Apparently it does. When a 5 year old at PS 81 in Queens had a tantrum which presumably had something to do with him being 5 years old a security guard handcuffed him and called an ambulance to take him to a local psych ward, the Daily News reports today. Of course, there may be more to this story than the Daily News is saying, but the school and the DOE aren't disputing what happened, and now a kid feels unwelcome at his neighborhood public school. This story is just one more reminder that the city's schools need personnel who are trained to work with children, not criminals.

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.