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The headline on Diane Ravitch's op-ed piece in the Times today reads "Get Congress Out of the Classroom." It's a shame that title obscures the important point Ravitch makes about the necessary role of federal government in public schooling.
The piece's main point is that No Child Left Behind needs serious revision. The transfers it purports to make possible don't take place in practice, the law leaves decisions about school sanctions to congressmen unfamiliar with education policy, and worst of all, the law pays lip service to a goal that is ultimately unattainable.
But Ravitch also points out a crucial role that federal government should play in public education: that of providing full information about our schools. The current NCLB law, by requiring constant improvement on test scores while leaving test design up to the states, has created a perverse incentive to write absurdly easy standardized tests. Instead, Ravitch argues, Congress should "supply unbiased information about student academic performance," presumably by mandating nationwide standardized tests and publishing the results. Such an arrangement would allow local governments to take the actions best suited for their individual schools while nevertheless providing a standardized national benchmark of accountability.
Hey there! Once again, sorry for lack in posts lately, but my work has increased in size and I've been rather stressed out! My tutoring sessions have gotten more serious, and last class, we had to take a mock-Specialized High School Admission Test just to see how much we've all learned. Talk about grueling!
Last Thursday, I visited a school in a neighborhood not far from my own. It was a beautiful building, filled to the brim with wonderful student art and posters for clubs. The student representation at the meeting seemed happy, intelligent, and very enthusiastic about their school. The curriculum sounded rigorous and exciting, although I felt as though perhaps the stress-levels could run a little high (they get about five hours of homework a night). However, the neighborhood itself was a little troublesome. On our way back to the car at about seven the night of the tour, we were met by a gang of kids wielding sticks that had congregated outside of a nearby school. That in itself was a little nerve-wracking.
Over all, I could see myself possibly attending this school, but I'm not sure whether or not I would be able to keep up with the fast-paced schedule.
In his new book Letters to a Young Teacher, Jonathan Kozol tells the truth about education in America: segregation is as bad a problem as it's been since Brown v. Board of Ed; high-stakes testing and other failed policies are driving students and teachers into the ground; and the often overlooked process of teaching and learning is a beautiful thing.
Last year, I met Mr. Kozol at a conference on New York City's dropout rate. There, Kozol gave the greatest speech I have ever heard. He preached with fire and dirt in his voice and held nothing back as he took the activists, politicians, and journalists in the crowd to task. My friends from the NYC Student Union and I, who came to the conference as representatives of New York City's hundreds of thousands of public high school students, were instantly captivated by this short old man with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows (as though he was ready to plunge his fists deep into the muck of the New York City School System), telling this group of very important people that they had got it wrong.
Kozol pointed out that all of them, seated together in this stuffy florescent-lit conference room, had made the same mistake as many policy makers in America. They had skipped over the one issue that when spoken aloud made everyone in the room simultaneously cringe: Race.
As Kozol points out in Letters American schools are at worst levels of segregation since the 1950's. Stuyvesant High School, New York City's flagship elite high school, has gone from being 13% African American 25 years ago to now being only 2%. You read that correctly. The school that has been called the greatest public school in America, a beacon of hope for the oppressed communities of one of the world's most diverse cities, is only 2% African American.
But as Kozol notes, this situation is not the worst aspect of the segregation. In New York and California, seven out of every eight black students attend a school that is entirely African American. The problem of segregation is not an end in itself.
As our primary and secondary schools become more segregated, their failures multiply. In New York City and Chicago, Kozol says, the two school systems that educate a combined 10% of all African American students, 70% of students fail to graduate in four years and most of them never graduate at all. As we now see, when these schools fail, the problem of inequality continues into higher education. Over the last fifteen years, the number of African American enrollment in law schools has declined severely. Hopefully, a decline in the number of African Americans in political office and other important leadership positions does not decline as well.
Poor education systems seem to follow low income and minority students. According to Kozol, this failure results from poor national education policies. The No Child Left Behind Act has created a culture that makes low performing schools worse. It's emphasis on high stakes testing has crippled teachers and students in many low income areas. Slowly more money is allocated towards testing and test prep and less time is spent on actual teaching and learning. This stifles the creativity of America's teachers and demeans their profession, making them mere voice boxes for poorly constructed curricula instead of the intelligent and interesting people they are.
This system also leaves low-income students with less access to special tutors or small classes reach the third grade, they are slotted into gifted, regular or remedial tracks and are usually stuck with these "castes" until the end of their academic experience. Kozol puts it perfectly when he says:
There's something deeply hypocritical in a society that holds an eight or nine year old accountable for her performance on a high-stakes standardized exam but does not hold the Congress and the President accountable for robbing her of what they gave their own kids six or seven years before.
However, for all his harsh criticism of American education there is an unmistakable love for the process of teaching and learning in Letters. We see this in the playful nickname he gives a young girl he meets in a low performing elementary school: Pineapple. This is a man who loves children and like many great teachers, seems to gain as much wisdom from them as he gives to the rest of us.
That love of education is what made this short old man, with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, who spoke with fire and dirt in his voice, so special. There was more than anger in his words. There was the experience of really being a teacher and with that all of the difficult, joyous and sometimes too complicated to describe moments that a young teacher faces... and that those who make educational policy too often do not understand. There was also a warm admiration of all of those who fight in the trenches of American public schools, a proud recognition of the hard work and caring it takes to bring students from groups that are so often pushed aside in our society into successful participants in Democracy.
If nothing else, what one should take from Letters to a Young Teacher is a profound sense of respect for all of these men and women who pursue a low-paying, low-class job for the greatest good our country can produce: a future.
In the best school systems in the world (namely Finland and Alberta, Canada) teachers are revered and given the same societal status as doctors and lawyers. This respect for teachers seems to help them have a greater, more positive effect on their students and brings graduates from the top third of their college classes (as opposed to the bottom third in the US) into the teaching profession.
What we need in American schools, maybe more than anything else, is a respect for these teachers and their opinions on how schools should be run, whether that means lowering class sizes, reducing the number of high stakes tests, editing stale curricula or anything else. It's time that policy makers looked at those who are actually in our schools from day to day for the answers of how to fix America's schools.
Cross-posted on Open Left
Being principal may not be permanent Danielle Salzberg, the New Visions employee who was tapped to take over for Debbie Almontaser after controversy forced her from her post as principal of Khalil Gibran International Academy, the new school focusing on Arabic language and culture. The school is advertising for a principal, and the DOE told the Brooklyn Paper that Arabic proficiency would be a desirable trait for a candidate. I'm guessing the DOE is on the lookout for other qualities as well; stoicism in the face of hatred and an ability to keep one's mouth shut come to mind.
I just got back from the high school fair, where I spent three hours talking to kids and school officials and collecting open house information from schools. Brooklyn Tech was as much of a zoo as I expected it to be â€” when I arrived at 10 a.m., when the fair started, families were lined up dozens deep for the elevators â€” but I thought the fair was a little better organized than in the past, and it's always fun to hear enthusiastic kids sing the praises of their schools. At the very least, the mild weather made for a pleasant temperature, not the norm at the overcrowded fair â€” and the conditions should hold up for those of you planning to visit tomorrow. If you stop by tomorrow, you'll be able to buy a copy of New York City's Best Public High Schools from author Clara Hemphill herself!
Don't forget that this weekend is the citywide high school fair. Find out about open houses, meet representatives from the high schools you're interested in, and learn more about new schools at the fair at Brooklyn Tech. It's always a bit of a mob scene, so it's a good idea to get there early and have some kind of plan for what you'll try to see. There are workshops throughout the day; schedules will be available at the fair. If you come on Sunday, you can also stick around to enjoy the nearby Atlantic Antic street fair.
Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Brooklyn Tech in Fort Greene. Map
The DOE touts math coaches as an effective way for one "expert" to provide instructional support to many schools. But just how good are the city's 400 math coaches? That's the question CCNY dean Alfred Posamentier frets about in a guest column in yesterday's Daily News. There are no clear standards for what's required to become a coach, and coaches are hired at principals' discretion. So while CCNY has a privately-funded training program for teachers that builds on what Posamentier terms their "proper mathematics background," it's possible that many coaches don't have the math skills -- or even the teaching skills -- to be telling others how to teach math.
When I graduated from college, the DOE's Teaching Fellows program offered me a position as a high school math teacher. If they'd let me teach math, chances are there are math-deficient teachers making their way toward coachhood. Now that's scary.
Remember when the DOE announced that 51 failing middle schools would be sharing $5 million in special funds, per the recommendations of the City Council's Middle School Task Force? The principals of those schools met earlier this week to learn about the cash and how they may spend it. The Daily News reports that principals are thrilled to get a little extra cash, but can someone tell me how far an average of $100,000 per school can move schools toward "reducing class size, retaining math consultants and hiring more counselors"?
Just a (sort of) quick note from Wednesday's MSNBC Democratic presidential debate. About an hour and a half into the debate Rep. Dennis Kucinich said that he believed 16 year olds should be allowed to vote.
While this idea sounds radical, it should really be considered, especially on a municipal level. In the spring of 2006, the New York City Youth Congress proposed that New York City's voting age should be lowered to 16. Following this, the Future Voters of America Party lobbied the City Council on lowering the voting age and Councilwoman Gale Brewer introduced a bill that would do just that. I failed to find any news on how that's doing.
When one of my friends who was active in Future Voters told me about the issue, I was a little unsure about it. Now I believe that lowering the voting age to 16 could be a very important step for NYC and it would have the greatest impact in education, since around one third of high school students would be able to vote for the politicians who they felt best represented their concerns in improving their education system.
Students are clamoring for a voice in the decisions made on their education. That desire is one of the reasons for the founding the NYC Student Union and why last year he New York City Youth Congress voted for a resolution calling for the creation of a Student Senate whose opinions would have a weighted effect on DOE decisions.
Generally, simpler is better. It seems to me that the simplest way to give students a voice in their education is to give 16 year olds the right to vote. This will let the people in charge know how students feel, giving them a more clear and informed view of how our schools are run and more insight into the city's educational successes and failures. It also might serve to get more students interested in how city decisions affect them and give them some reason to believe that their schools are really serving the students.
The DOE closed its special schools for pregnant and parenting teens in June amid revelations that many were providing little in the way of substantive instruction. The 300-odd young women enrolled in those programs were instructed to enroll in other high schools, usually the ones they left when they became pregnant, and take advantage of the supports there. But according to a recent article in Women's E-News, this arrangement isn't ideal for some of the moms affected.
The article isn't totally clear about the specific problems facing pregnant students, and the young woman featured sounds slightly misinformed (she says metal detectors are dangerous to pregnant women; they aren't), but it does seem obvious that traditional high schools aren't great at meeting the specific emotional and academic needs of pregnant and parenting students. It also sounds like some schools are less tolerant of rules permitting maternity leave than others, forcing young women into tough decisions between attending the school of their choice and being as good a parent as they'd like to be. Given the DOE's track record of ignoring these students' needs, it's hard to trust the department to carve out special solutions for them.
The Brooklyn Young Mother's Collective (formerly the Brooklyn Childcare Collective) is tracking 20 students who attended P-schools when they closed. Let's hope they find that young parents are able to stick it out in regular high schools or, if they don't find that, propose solutions to help these students that the DOE is willing to implement.