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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.

Inadequate counseling a persistent problem in NYC schools

Written by Admin Thursday, 17 January 2008 07:17

In Insideschools' most recent college advice column, our counselor noted that guidance counselors in many high schools are responsible for so many students that they often are unable to give each kid the attention he or she deserves. I recently heard from a father who said the same situation persists in middle schools as well. Kids applying to high school or college don't get adequate support, nor do kids who need help solving personal or family problems.

Why doesn't this issue get more attention? Possibly, it's because the situation hasn't changed much in decades. Check out a 1990 New York Times article on the subject, "Trying Times for Guidance Counselors." The article describes a system that is underfunded by the state, where guidance counselors can just barely stay on top of paperwork, much less grapple with the individual and very adult challenges of their students. If that doesn't sound familiar, perhaps this will:

''Our kids are feeling totally alienated and not connected,'' said Caesar Previdi, the principal of Martin Luther King Jr. High School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. ''The schools have gone too far in the direction of judging kids on the basis of test scores and grades. In the schools we should not be ducking our responsiblity to support the family if and when thqe family is crippled.''

Some things never change.

Many of us know that kids with limited English proficiency have limited high school options. But it's a lot easier to understand what that means to immigrant kids and their families after reading Jessica Siegel's article about Ralph Antony Toussaint, who arrived from Haiti in August at age 16, in the Village Voice's education supplement this week.

For weeks this past fall, Ralph Antony and various members of his family ping-ponged around Brooklyn, encountering obstacles at the enrollment center and finding that several schools suggested by the DOE were too crowded to take another student or lacked the special English language instruction that a new immigrant would need. Eventually, it took the help of an advocate to get Ralph Antony admitted into overcrowded Clara Barton High School, which has a Haitian Creole dual language program.

No one should have to spend five weeks finding a high school, but at least Ralph Antony finally landed in a school that was right for him. A DOE spokesperson told the Voice, "If a school is sent a student from the enrollment center, the school should take him or her." But several of the small high schools to which the enrollment office directed the family rejected Ralph Antony because they couldn't provide him the services he needed. Last year, Advocates for Children Director Kim Sweet explained to the Citywide Council on High Schools that the DOE requires kids with special needs to go through the regular high school admissions process without having any assurance that their match will have the services they need. The DOE's thinking in this situation appears to be similar, and kids who need English language services lose out.

(Incidentally, I know that I read this article last fall I read an article on the Voice's website and for a while I tried to find it again to link to it, but it was gone. I guess holding articles for six months is one way New Times is cutting the Voice's costs. It's too bad, because articles like this one deserve to be seen.)

Lunch at 8:59 a.m.? That's what some kids at Richmond Hill High School are scheduled for -- so they've taken to drinking water all day to feel full. In today's "On Education" column in the Times, Sam Freedman continues his crusade against overcrowding in the city's few remaining comprehensive high schools, writing about conditions at Richmond Hill now that it enrolls 3,600 students, twice what it is meant to hold. He last wrote about the impact on Beach Channel High School of being slammed with dozens of poorly behaved students entering through "over the counter" enrollment.

Principal Frances DeSanctis says only a construction project can reduce the crowding pressure. But while DOE officials say it's a "priority" to reduce enrollment, their only plan seems to be to hope that new small schools in the area siphon away entering 9th graders.

This letter, signed by Dana O'Brien, was published last week in the New York Times.

As a public school student myself, as well as on behalf of the New York City Student Union, I would like to commend Assemblyman Mark Weprin on his public statement on the overemphasis on high-stakes testing in New York City public education.

While there are still many great teachers in this city who are working hard to foster critical thinking, creativity, imagination and all of the qualities that make a truly educated person, their efforts are often squelched by Department of Education policies and curriculums that value uniformity and accountability over teaching and learning.

While we at the Student Union recognize and appreciate the need for accountability in such a large system, we believe that a degree of flexibility and subjectivity is necessary in evaluating schools and students. We are working with Chancellor Joel I. Klein's staff on improving aspects of the school report card system, but there is still much to be done.

The Post today has a little more information about charter schools opening this fall. It looks like the Board of Regents is approving a dozen new charter schools: four in Queens, three in Manhattan, three in the Bronx, and one more that is still trying to settle its location. Here are three schools the Post mentions whose approval was news to me:

  • La Cima, a Spanish dual-language school in Queens, opening with kindergarten and 1st grade. According to an October article in the Queens Times Newsweekly, schools in District 24 welcomed the school with "not exactly open arms" because of the district's widespread overcrowding.
  • Voice, in Queens, which will have daily music classes. According to the State Education Department, Voice's proposed principal is currently an AP at PS 131.
  • Ethical Community Charter School, in upper Manhattan or the Bronx, which is being opened by people who are inspired by the philosophy of humanist and reformer Felix Adler.

Check out our earlier post on charter schools opening in 2008 to see the names of more schools that will be opening their doors this fall. We'll let you know about charter school application deadlines and lotteries as soon as we find out about them.

Middle School Muddle: Middle schools and math

Written by Admin Tuesday, 15 January 2008 07:45

Prospective and current middle school parents might want to question math curriculums more aggressively. What topics are covered and what kind of background and training does your child's math teacher have?

Chances are the answer to both questions could be not enough.

A new study, Mathematics Teaching in the 21st Century,’’ by Michigan State University researcher and Professor William H. Schmidt, reminded me why I should be paying more attention to math issues during middle school tours.All too often, middle schools offer an unfocused curriculum taught by unprepared educators who can't help middle school kids make the transition from arithmetic to real mathematics, Schmidt's study found.

Teachers in five other countries are more prepared to teach math than middle school teachers in the United States, the study says.Schmidt believes the existence of a coherent and challenging math curriculum should be a deciding factor for judging the quality of a middle school. Kids who don't get the math they need will have trouble with math in high school and won’t get very far, he warns.

Any parent touring middle schools in New York City can quickly discern wide variation in the way math is taught. Some schools offer more and push students to learn high-level math, like the well regarded NEST+M, which offers a challenging program of Singapore math. Some middle schools provide Regents-level math and others don't.

School of the Future offers a curriculum map for 7th grade, promising a linguistic/real life approach to mathematics.’’ One school I toured handed out a sheet noting that math is part of the 6th-grade curriculum; another simply said it offers “high-quality instruction, without further explanation.

It's easy to get confused and skip the math questions if you don't know what to ask.That's one reason Schmidt has long pushed for specific content standards laying out what every child is expected to learn and know by every grade in mathematics. If such standards existed nationally, parents would know what to expect. The standards would inform teacher training in math, he says.

“It’s incumbent on education schools and on our society to deem math education important enough to have such standards,€™™ Schmidt told me during an interview about his study last week.

“It’s logical,’’ he explains. With clear standards, you would have the whole system organized instead of arbitrary and hit and miss. If you follow Schmidt's logic, choosing a middle school with a particularly strong art or music program should not mean sacrificing math education. Each and every middle school would offer similar math curriculums with properly trained teachers.

Parents who want to know more about math requirements can consult the New York State math standards, which describe should be taught in each grade. That they are somewhat confusing to follow comes as no surprise to Schmidt.

“The problem is the standards are not very accessible to parents,’’ Schmidt says. “And they can be so full of jargon it's difficult for parents to agitate for them.

School officials may tell you it's really hard to find enough highly trained and math teachers, says Schmidt. "But your child shouldn't have to suffer as a result.''

Parents, says Schmidt, should ask questions about math and demand answers.

It's one small way to push for change.