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DOE to principals: Fire more teachers!

Written by Admin Thursday, 15 November 2007 04:00

The DOE initiative of the day is to fire more teachers, the Times reports. The city has hired top-notch lawyers to help principals build cases against tenured teachers and is encouraging principals to fire more teachers before they get tenure. UFT head Randi Weingarten is naturally upset, linking the new initiative to the progress reports and saying, “Basically, it’s signaling to principals that rather than working to support teachers, the school system is going to give you a way to try to get rid of teachers.”

A few thoughts: No one wants bad teachers to stick around, but the tone of the DOE's program is just mean. Hiring a former district attorney to supervise the firings? Now being a weak teacher is a crime. Under this system the same people assigned to help struggling teachers are also charged with building the case against them. Will teachers be less likely to seek out help when they are having trouble if needing help can be perceived as a sign of weakness? None of the DOE reforms can succeed without strong teachers who are happy to helm New York City classrooms. Making teachers terrified and suspicious of their supervisors can't be good for morale. And bad morale is bad for kids.

I'd also love to know what the DOE's projections are for how many teachers deserve to be fired each year under the new initiative. Right now about 10-15 tenured teachers are fired each year for "incompetence" and about 65 probationary teachers are not given tenure, the Times reports. How many do the number-crunchers at Tweed think need to be fired? Is it 100? 200? A thousand? I'm sure there are projections. Will principals be held accountable for meeting a purge quota? Will community superintendents? It sounds unsavory but in the data-driven DOE I wouldn't be surprised if school leaders were required to meet some kind of firing-to-student performance ratio.

Finally, we should think about how this push will actually affect the teaching corps in schools. After all, the city does have a hard time finding qualified teachers, especially in math, science, and special education. How many principals will really use the new resources to fire new teachers before they are tenured? I'm guessing that principals in high-turnover schools would often rather take a chance that a struggling new teacher will improve over time than go through the rigmarole of removing him and finding a replacement. So I think we will be more likely to see teachers terminated before they get tenure in more functional schools, where they have a higher chance of getting the resources they would need to improve. (On the other hand, preventing bad teachers who leave good schools from becoming bad teachers at weak schools does need to happen — at the Research Partnership conference I attended in October, one paper showed that that is the typical trajectory for struggling teachers. The paper said that bad teachers, as judged in value-added assessments of student performance, in weak schools were more likely to leave teaching altogether.)

But it's in less functional schools — schools where the principal and his teaching staff might not see eye to eye — that I think we will see more tenured teachers being pursued under the new initiative. I can't tell you how many principals have told me that their school's inability to help students is the fault of experienced teachers who refuse to adopt new programs. I'm sure it's a real problem in breeding a unified teaching staff. But refusing to get with the program du jour is not the same as incompetence and I am concerned that this initiative will allow principals to conflate the two issues. If they are permitted to do so, this could result in even larger numbers of inexperienced but impressionable teachers staffing the most difficult schools with the principals least likely to want to develop them.

Cell phone compromise plan on hold

Written by Admin Wednesday, 14 November 2007 08:25

Whatever happened to the DOE's plan to install lockers outside middle and high schools for kids to stash their banned cell phones during the day? Nothing, it seems. As recently as July we were reading that schools had been selected for the storage pilot, but now the Post reports that the plan has been derailed because of safety concerns. The DOE is now saying the program will kick off by next fall. In the meantime, the DOE will spend this year finding a vendor to provide the lockers and ensure that by next fall every single child will have a cell phone.

CPAC member reports on Queens G&T meeting

Written by Admin Wednesday, 14 November 2007 07:55

Marge Kolb, a CPAC member from Queens, sent Insideschools a report from the Queens meeting last week about the proposed changes to Gifted & Talented admissions procedures. Check out her report, then take a look at the Insideschools calendar for details about the two remaining public meetings.

Puppies in the schools

Written by Admin Wednesday, 14 November 2007 03:26

Here's one way to differentiate instruction for reluctant readers: bring in dogs, as the Bronx New School has done to provide reading partners for shy kids.

When I became president of LaGuardia's student government this year, the first question I felt needed addressing was: Who gets to be on Student Government?

Since I joined SGO in sophomore year, students had been appointed to be representatives by putting in an application consisting of an essay, a recommendation, and their transcript. In most schools, this is an effective way of selecting representatives because there will not always be enough applicants to represent every grade, official class, etc. When I joined, there were about 25 SGO members and I was the only one from my grade. An application process for lower-level officials increases the number of students involved in their school.

However, there were also several requirements for aspiring SGO representatives that I disagreed with. First, applicants had to have a grade point average requirement of 85 or above to be considered. In addition, they had to have a clean dean's record.

My problem with both of these requirements is that they exclude important members of the student community: those who have not succeeded academically and students who have not followed school rules. These students have just as much right to representation as any others. They are also affected by the school's successes and more so by its failures.

For that reason, my fellow officers and I decided to repeal those requirements and since then, the number of SGO representatives has jumped from 46 to over 100, with greater representation of students from every class, major, race and gender.

As we increased in size, we also created a Speaker position. This person would run personnel of SGO and would work on recruiting new representatives, accepting and rejecting applications and helping new members find the committee that they would be best for.

We also created a new Student Opinion Committee: a committee of 15 SGO representatives whose sole job is to research how students feel about the goings-on of our school and then report their findings to the officers so that we could bring them to the school committees that we sit on: Attendance, Safety, and the SLT.

Yesterday I attended the third annual symposium of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, where I am a student. This year’s topic is "Equal Education Opportunity: What Now? Reassessing the Role of the Courts, the Law and School Policies after Seattle and CFE."

The focus of the two-day symposium is primarily to discuss the role of litigation in promoting equal educational opportunity. This is particularly salient now given the Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding voluntary school integration plans in Seattle and Louisville, as well as New York State’s recent decision to put $5.4 billion into New York City schools as a result of litigation from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity.

The morning session gathered four leading scholars for a moderated discussion about the impact of the Seattle and Louisville case. Amy Stuart Wells, a TC professor of sociology and education, began by providing a brief overview of the Supreme Court’s 185-page decision. The decision is remarkably complex but the essence of it is that schools may not use racial classifications in assigning children to school—even if these measures are carried out for the purpose of racial integration. Justice Kennedy proved to be the swing vote on the case, siding with the conservative bloc of judges on all parts of the decision except one (where he argued that there is a compelling state interest in racial balancing). However, because Kennedy’s decision is “remarkably unclear,” the future impact of the Supreme Court’s decision is still unclear, the panelists said.

Wells was joined by Ted Shaw of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; James Ryan, a law professor at the University of Virginia; and john a. powell of Ohio State University’s Kirwin Institute for Race and Ethnicity. Each provided interesting perspectives on the court’s decision but I am most concerned with the way that New York City fits into this picture.

Professor Ryan commented that racial integration is only on the agenda of about 1000 out of 16,000 school districts across the United States. In fact, half of all school districts in the country are either 90% white or 90% minority. What this means in practice is that half of school districts could not adopt racial integration plans even if they wanted to. Such is the case in New York City, where 85.6% of the student population during the 2005-2006 school year was classified as “other than white/non-Hispanic,” according to the Legal Defense Fund. As Shaw commented, “Desegregation is already a lost cause in many places like New York City.”

If desegregation really is a lost cause in a place like New York City, then the question obviously becomes “what now?” The panel provided little insight into this topic since the panelists seem focused on the next steps in litigation over racial integration and about what will be allowed in the era ushered in by the Supreme Court’s decision. Nonetheless, powell did stress that education is the crucible for democracy and that “true integration” has transformative effects. I presume powell would argue that even if New York City cannot achieve racial integration, the question of how we ensure equal educational opportunity for over 1 million children is salient—particularly with the next round of reforms underway.

AFC PSA supports kids' right to stay in school

Written by Admin Tuesday, 13 November 2007 07:09

Speaking of PSAs, check out this one for Advocates for Children:

Seven students created the ad this summer to promote the fact that kids have the right to stay in school until age 21. Many of the kids in the ad had experience being illegally pushed out of school themselves. Read more at Advocates for Children's website.

With text message plan, DOE reforms officially absurd

Written by Admin Tuesday, 13 November 2007 02:25

Is there any idea that wild and crazy Roland Fryer won't try? Last week the word was that he was arranging to give kids cell phones whose minutes would be dependent on school performance. This week's plan, according to the Times, is to have famous people, such as Jay-Z and LeBron James, send poor New York City kids text messages telling them to stay in school. Really. Because a rap artist who dropped out of high school and a basketball player who skipped college for a multi-million-dollar professional contract are the perfect figures to teach kids about the long-term benefits of doing well in school.

Even getting past the obvious ironies, this plan just seems weird. I have questions about why the program will roll out in KIPP charter schools, where students already have someone at home who recognizes the value of doing well in school enough to enter them in the lottery and make sure they are in uniform for each 9-hour day. And I'm not sure Fryer needed a focus group to find out that "reaching [teenagers] through a concerted campaign of text messages or through the Internet was far more likely to be effective than a traditional billboard and television campaign" — any parent or 9-year-old could have told him that. Finally, I wonder whether it's crossed Fryer's mind that one way to increase "demand" for education would be to make school enjoyable — by bolstering the quality of teaching, reducing the number of tests kids must take, and encouraging creativity in the classroom.

I don't think there's anything wrong, necessarily, with what's essentially a 21st-century version of this 1990 public service announcement. I just don't get it.

The text messages will start transmitting in January. I can already imagine one unintended consequence that could be a boon for DOE officials and cash-strapped parents. If their cell phones start spewing motivational messages, many kids might feel incentivized to leave their phones at home.

Cash-for-kids plan starting to pay out

Written by Admin Monday, 12 November 2007 03:21

In the midst of all of the report card madness, the Post remembered to catch up with some of the children receiving payments for their performance in school as part of the DOE's new incentives initiative. The kids at MS 302 (percent of kids on grade level: 22; progress report grade: B) say they're studying more and excited about school because of the money. "I was thinking if I studied more, I'd get all the answers right, and I'd probably get more money," one girl told the Post.

I wouldn't go so far as anti-testing activist Jane Hirschmann, who told the Post that the payment plan is "about the worst thing I've ever had," but I do think the crude idea sounds even cruder from the mouths of children whose schools have obviously given up on teaching them to appreciate learning and studying for their own merits. At least there are "several students" who told the Post they have always worked hard and will continue doing so. It's just too bad they are buried at the end of the article when the Post might have put into public record what motivated students think kids need to want to succeed.

Yesterday, the New York Times went after the progress reports in an editorial titled "Grading the Grades." It said pretty much everything I think (and much of what I said the other day):

The new system "does a valuable service to students, and teachers, by holding schools accountable for both overall performance and for how much progress students make from one year to the next. But Mr. Bloomberg should ditch the simplistic and counterproductive A through F rating system. It boils down the entire shooting match to a single letter grade that does not convey the full weight of this approach and lends itself to tabloid headlines instead of a real look at a school’s problems.

Last week, I heard from a couple of people that I was too generous in my appraisal of the progress report initiative. I don't know that I was. I said basically what the Times said — that the idea is a good one but the execution has big problems — and parent advocates were pleased with the Times editorial. Still, I admit that I am just getting up to speed on the theory and history behind the growth model of evaluating education, which is what the progress reports are based on. But the Times points out that while growth models are currently beloved by education researchers, they expect to see three years' test scores factoring into the computations — and the DOE used only one to judge elementary and middle schools. In their haste to show results (or to push initiatives through before they can be challenged?), the chancellor and mayor have compromised their reforms and created what parent leader David Bloomfield suggests could be considered a "crazy experiment gone bad."

Like Seth and the Times editorial board, I do think there is value to the growth model — as I said, parents should be able to know whether their schools are helping their kids make progress. And I still believe that a high-performing school may not score high on a growth model "improvement index." If a well-designed measure showed that, schools and parents would be more likely to take the news to heart. It seems that an "improvement index" that factors into a school's entire grade, if there must be one, at a much lower weight, would make more sense. I do think a single grade is reductive and distracting and unnecessary. At any rate, I agree with the Times that a "more subtle and flexible" school evaluation system is needed. Given our current leaders' inability to handle even the most reasoned criticism, I'll be pretty surprised if we see that.