News and views
The city's schools are not immune to the wave of hate that has swept the country recently. When the football team from Harlem's Wadleigh Secondary School visited Staten Island Tech earlier this month, Wadleigh players found what appeared to be racist slurs written on their bench. Then last week, someone drew 22 swastikas on doors and walls at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers in downtown Manhattan. And today, the papers are reporting that a noose was sent to the black principal of Canarsie High School in Brooklyn; Chancellor Klein has just sent out a statement condemning the attack. These kind of unsettling events are a reminder that schools ought to be teaching more than just the content and skills that appear on standardized tests.
Last week New York City Comptroller William Thompson came out in strong support of added physical education programs in New York City schools. According to a press release that his office issued, he has called for more PE because of the mass health problems of New York City students, especially those from low-income neighborhoods.
This is an important issue and a serious problem, but more physical education is not the way to approach it. This is in no way an attack on Comptroller Thompson, but on the more general and widespread notion that phys ed classes could possibly give students the amount of exercise they need and that more of it will help reduce youth health issues like obesity.
The important function of physical education is to educate students on how to get healthy and take care of their bodies. Students do not need this class five days a week. In many situations, my school included, added phys ed classes have cluttered up schedules so badly that the school had to extend the regular day to 4:10 p.m. Healthier students won't come from more phys ed classes, but from creating a culture of exercise in the younger grades and changing government policies that propagate the unhealthy lifestyles of many students.
Recess, for one, is a great way to create a culture of exercise. As Jonathan Kozol points out in his latest book, Letters to a Young Teacher, playgrounds and recess are disappearing from low-income schools because the No Child Left Behind Act has increased the need for test preparation. (Linda Perlstein makes the same point in her new book, Tested.) Under this system of high-stakes testing as a gauge of educational "results," recess is deemed unnecessary. In the low-income neighborhoods of New York City and the rest of the country, however, recess is vital in improving student health. It gives students the chance to use their bodies and also gives them time to develop their imaginations (thus leading to better health, mentally and physically, for all).
Other important factors in youth health are the environment and nutrition. As one of my fellow NYCSUers pointed out at Monday's meeting: "My school did have a playground, but it was right next to a highway." Pollution is a real contributing factor to poor health among low-income students and must be dealt with. Right now, asthma rates among Harlem youth are at crisis levels.
And our nutrition can be improved by changing the Congressional Farm Bill that determines what food producers get federal subsidies. This week the Senate is taking a look at the bill, which has been criticized by organizations like Eating Liberally for subsidizing producers of unhealthy foods (Twinkies and fast food come to mind) over those who produce more healthy and nutritious comestibles.
And if legislators care about kids' health, it also might be a good idea for them to renew SCHIP. Just a thought.
The word in the email pipeline is that the Regents may be voting today on whether to accept the city's proposed Contract for Excellence. When last we heard, the state had mysteriously delayed its approval timeline and parent advocates were calling on the Regents not to approve the contract as it was proposed because it did not adequately address class size issues, even though it was required by law to. We've heard from experts at the State Education Department that the state has serious questions about whether the DOE is really directing new funding where it's supposed to go â€” into schools with the greatest need.
Last month, the city's Independent Budget Office released an audit showing that despite $200 million in class size reduction money, most grade school classrooms were overcrowded and any decline in class size could be attributed to decreasing enrollment, not DOE efforts to reduce class size. So the Regents are wise to be skeptical of the DOE's newest promises as well, especially given the city's many new testing and accountability initiatives that require new funds. Let's hope the Regents hold the DOE to its word â€” and to the law â€” on class size and other improvements.
The Regents' meeting today (starting at 11 a.m.) and tomorrow is being broadcast online, so you can watch the discussion for yourself. Let us know what you see!
With so many small, themed high schools not having much to do with their themes at all, it's exciting to see that kids at Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology are now running their own private North Fork bank for the Roosevelt campus. The bank sounds like a useful laboratory for student workers and those who will learn to save. This weekend, the Times added color to the story, describing how the seniors working in the bank are teaching their classmates good financial habits with only a modicum of moralizing:
â€œWell, what do yâ€™all do when you get paid?â€
â€œI pay all my bills,â€ answered a blond girl in tight pink jeans. â€œAnd then I go to the street.â€
â€œAnd do you save anything?â€ Jeffrey asked.
A dubious look was her answer.
Just a reminder that there are high school fairs in each borough from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. both days this weekend featuring the schools in that borough. If you missed the citywide fair last month, or you need more information about a few schools you are considering before filling out your application at the end of November, head over to the fair in your borough. Check out the Insideschools calendar for details on locations.
It's October now, and as a 5th grade parent, I can't be in denial any longer. The middle school search process and tours have begun in earnest. Parties, PTA events, pick-up and drop-off are marked by parent conversations, comparisons and discussions.
It's an obsession familiar to me as both a middle school parent (I have a son in 7th grade so I've done this once before) and as a journalist who writes regularly about schools.
I'm starting out this search as muddled and intimidated as most parents, although I have three advantages:
1. I've done it before.
2. I have great access to the top experts in U.S. education through my job as assistant director of the Hechinger Institute for Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University, where I help plan and run seminars aimed at educating journalists about pressing issues in education.
3. I'm privileged to send my two children to schools in Manhattan's District Two, where there are several really good choices. Although some of my son's classmates are veering toward private school, there isn't the same kind of despair I've heard about middle schools in my career covering New York City's 1.1. million public school students for New York Newsday years ago.
I'll be blogging my search and plan on sharing any insights, interviews, observations and details about the public schools I'm looking at, described in CSD 2 Region 9 Middle School Directory 2006-07. (New middle school directories, reflecting the elimination of the regions, will be out in December.)
But let me say this: the more I learn about education, the less I often feel I know. And, mostly, my search will be guided by my 5th grader, who would prefer to remain at PS 150 in Tribeca with his buddies.
I'm also aware that this decision ultimately may be made via small quirks that can have nothing at all to do with education -- my son's desire to be with his good friends, mine that he has a reasonable commute, his excitement over a band, track or soccer team, for example.
I'll share impressions, tips and expert interviews along the way! I invite you to share yours as well.
As the Times notes today, reaction so far on the city's new "merit pay" program has been mixed. The Times article talks to a cast of reformers, teachers, and former teachers who think the plan is interesting but may not be effective in the way the DOE hopes. For now, I'm going to turn now to what parents and teachers are saying online.
One parent leader told us he sees the agreement as a victory for the UFT because it reduces the retirement age, unheard of in any field. And the UFT's own blog, Edwize, is predictably thrilled about the agreement, saying, "The agreements create positive, pro-active programs that address two major issues which face our schools: attracting and retaining quality educators in our schools, and creating collaborative learning environments where teachers have real voice."
But other teachers are more skeptical about both of those claims. I've seen many comments expressing skepticism that teachers will actually influence the way the money is distributed given that the the principal and his or her appointee make up half of the four-member school-based committees. In the comments on Edwize, a teacher writes, "I sit on a few different 'committees in my school.' The meetings all follow the same formula. My principal tells us what she/he plans on doing and we get to nod approval."
NYC Educator, who opposes the current UFT leadership in general, writes that teachers have paid twice for the change in pension structure, which the UFT indicated was on the horizon when the union's contract was signed in 2005, but only gotten it once. Some, such as Jim Horn on School Matters, have picked up on the line in the original Times article that said the plan would "allow [UFT head Randi] Weingarten, a potential candidate to lead the national American Federation of Teachers, to cast herself as a reform-minded union leader" to support their claims that the new deal is not necessarily good for teachers, even though it was negotiated by the woman charged with advocating for them.
And some teachers are simply speechless.
What do parents think? Again on Edwize, the head of ACORN's education committee, a parent, writes, "The plan isnâ€™t merit pay. Itâ€™s $20 million for 200 of New Yorkâ€™s lowest performing schools." She also writes that the program is a "savvy investment" that will pay off big in terms of teacher retention for good teachers.
But NYC Public School Parents criticizes the plan's dependence on test scores as practically the only determinant of bonus eligibility, saying it will lead to corruption at the school level. The parents' blog also weighs in on the pension issue, noting that the agreement will give an incentive for the most experienced teachers to retire.
From the policy angle, it's a question whether the plan is actually a form of merit pay at all. Judging from the language in today's article, the Times appears to have concluded that it is not, drawing on merit pay proponent Eric Hanushek's quote in the Post, where he said, "This is just group rewards." (The Post and the Daily News, however, enthusiastically continue to call it a merit pay plan, leading NYC Educator to write sarcastically, "If the Post and the News both like it, it must be great for teachers.")
On the internet, big questions seem to be getting lost a little in the pitched discussion over contract details and philosophies of education. Will the plan make a difference in spreading good teachers across the city? Will it entice good teachers to move to low-performing schools? Will it make bad teachers leave the field? The folks quoted in the Times article think it's too soon to tell, but that the amount of money probably is not large enough to encourage teachers to change their place of work and quality of life. One reformer told the Times the biggest benefit is that the bonus plan "sends a signal that your performance, your effort, your talent, is recognized and rewarded in this industry."
I've spent so much time blogging and visiting schools that I haven't had much time to watch TV lately. But I've settled in for a Thursday evening of "Jeopardy!" and "Ugly Betty" and I just saw for the first time the Fund for Public Schools' ad touting the turnaround at Evander as proof of the DOE's improvement. It's a slick ad â€” part of a campaign called "Keep it Going NYC" â€” but as other bloggers have noted, it makes some questionable claims. Gotham Gazette's Wonkster has a roundup of opinion from the excellent Eduwonkette to Edwize to NYC Public School Parents. All of these blog say Evander's "turnaround" has less to do with leadership than with the fact that the types of students the building serves has changed, an outcome forewarned by a Parents for Inclusive Education report last year that highlighted new small high schools' failure to serve students with disabilities.
The Fund for Public Schools, which encourages private donations to the schools, is running several ads, all of which can be viewed on the fund's website. What do you think of them?
Today, I stayed home sick (somehow my back went out yesterday after a long School Leadership Team meeting), so I figured I'd be productive and write a post. A few days ago, I sent out my first college application so I am a little "college-on-the-brain"ed. It looks like other people are too.
In September, Deborah Bial, the founder of the Posse Foundation, won a MacArthur "genius grant" of $500,000. I have a lot of friends who are currently going through the Posse process and they are really working hard so that if they win they could end up at the one of the great schools that Posse is connected to. Posse is a pretty innovative way to encourage students from NYC to go to and succeed in college. Its strategy is sending students in groups, or posses, of about ten students to one college where they would be more comfortable and eager to continue because they come into the school with a built-in posse.
Another interesting strategy for getting kids to go to and succeed in college was announced last week.
Though controversial, the plan would give students up to $1,000 for scoring well on an Advanced Placement exam. As some of you may remember, my fellow students and I were a bit uncomfortable with Opportunity NYC; however, I'm kind of into this new plan.
Studies have shown that students who take AP courses are more likely to succeed in college. Then, you ask, why doesn't every student take AP courses? In my experience students refrain from taking AP courses for several reasons:
1) Their school doesn't offer the AP course they're interested in.
2) They have a time-consuming job and can't bear the extra work.
3) They don't see college as a real option.
Seems to me that this program could alleviate those problems. It could encourage schools to offer more AP courses through the extra funding they'd receive. It could make taking an AP course more accessible for students who need the money. And it could encourage more students to pursue a college education, now that they have some idea of what a college course looks like.
The reason I prefer this program to Opportunity NYC is that this uses the cash-for-kids formula to promote the idea of going to college and to give students the abilities to succeed. Even though both problems draw similar criticisms, I feel that Opportunity NYC was more of an end in itself and didn't work to promote future plans so much.
Do I contradict myself? Just a little? Okay then, I contradict myself. This is the New York City public school system. There's a lot going on.
I don't usually like to post about incidents at individual schools that only involve one kid. The Post and the Daily News get a lot of mileage out of stories where affronted parents and kids tell their tale, but you can never be sure whether their stories point out real flaws in their school, although undoubtedly they sometimes do. But today the Daily News is reporting that a 1st grader at Agnes Humphrey School for Leadership in Red Hook was bound with tape by two older students, who threatened to throw him down the stairs, and I think the situation deserves a little attention.
Adults intervened quickly, the child wasn't hurt, and one 9th grader was suspended for bullying and intimidation. The school has only recently expanded to include high school grades, and the mother says in the article, "Teenagers are going to be teenagers and they are going to be doing things that aren't appropriate for younger kids," reflecting the argument made by angry parents at other elementary schools where the DOE has tried to place middle and high schools. At most schools I've visited, kids in different school levels keep to themselves, but at Agnes Humphrey, these fears appear to have been borne out.
Also mentioned in the article: another older student was arrested "after becoming belligerent with authorities." Another downside of housing middle and high schools in the same building as elementary schools? Younger kids may be exposed to tensions between school safety agents and students.