Recent comments

Search News & Views

News and views

Is there any lobbying happening in Albany today?

Written by Admin Tuesday, 11 March 2008 08:05

Today the Chancellor's Parent Advisory Committee and other parent groups are up in Albany lobbying on behalf of the city's schools. But something tells me lawmakers have other things on their mind besides the plight of New York City's public schools.

In the last few years, the city's schools have gotten better about identifying overweight students and suggesting more activity for them, but physical education still gets short shrift at most schools, according to the Gotham Gazette. The DOE's Office of Fitness and Physical Education implemented a fitness test, called the FitnessGRAM, to give students and their parents more information about their fitness level. But because of the pressure to focus on tested subjects and space and staffing constraints, most elementary schools continue to offer far less than the state-mandated 120 minutes per week of physical activity, instead suggesting to parents ways to help their kids be active and eat healthfully at home. I wonder how many families are able to respond to the FitnessGRAM results the way the DOE expects them to. And even if every parent of an overweight child changes his or her habits because of the test results, should we let schools pass off state-required health and fitness instruction to students' homes?

At a recent Legislative Breakfast in District 3, a member of the state legislature explained that the city's representatives in Albany face challenges as they seek to restore education money to the state budget because of Mayor Bloomberg’s cuts to the city's education budget. The money in question at the moment is $193 million in education funding increases promised for next school year by Governor Eliot Spitzer as part of the settlement of the long-running Campaign for Fiscal Equity legal case.

Education funding comes from both city and state. Because of the way the city budget works, it was possible in the past for the city to use state education funding to close city budget gaps and not pass the education dollars on to schools. State legislators have tried to ensure that if they increase state education funds, the city will maintain its part of the funding; this is called “maintenance of effort.”

State legislators from other parts of New York may well ask why they should vote to restore funds for New York City schools when the mayor, far from showing “maintenance of effort,” is slashing hundreds of millions from the city’s education contribution.

What should parents do? Keep up pressure on Mayor Bloomberg to restore the $340 million he plans to slash from next year’s school budget. If pressure on the mayor is successful, our schools may reap a double bonus: restoration of state funds as well.

Defenders of large high schools raising their voices

Written by Admin Monday, 10 March 2008 04:51

As the mayoral control forums have heralded in an open season against the last five years of New York City school reform, I've heard a growing defense of large high schools. Last week at a New School event, Merryl Tisch called on the DOE to "revitalize the concept of large high schools," noting equity issues in the assignment of students to small schools; increased curricular and extracurricular options generated by a larger student body; and increased bureaucracy of having 1,500 principals citywide. Now, in today's Post, we see the smiling principal of 4,500-student Francis Lewis High School, where despite the problems caused by overcrowding, students are successful and happy. It's useful to know that some students prefer having "something for everyone" over small class sizes — although that's a choice students and schools shouldn't have to make.

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!