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A few days ago, walking to the train after an NYC Student Union meeting with some of my fellow students, it struck me to ask, Why has the debate on the NYC DOE's progress report program garnered so much attention? Why have so many newspaper articles been written on it, so many people been riled up about it? It's just a silly report card program, right? Aren't there so many important issues out there?

Well, yes and no.

While there are more urgent issues facing our schools, especially class size, this issue gains its importance because it very thoroughly defines the main theme of Klein/Bloomberg's tenure running our schools: The Search for Results. Under this administration and probably in many other school systems around the country, the focus of broad educational policy is measurable results. These results set the agenda for individual schools and school systems as a whole.

Hopefully, all of us witnessing and participating in this event can use what has transpired in New York as a learning experience on the short-term future of American education politics. Since the first school Progress Reports were released, many education advocacy groups have viciously attacked the DOE, alleging that the reports are a waste of money and encourage a culture of constant test prep.

Many of these attacks have been directed at DOE accountability czar James Liebman. I personally feel that these were uncalled for. The man is trying to create a system that brings a measure of accountability, transparency and, most important, attention to our schools. In that third category, Liebman has unquestionably succeeded.

The progress report debate has brought education issues into the public eye more than any other issue this year. It has stayed in the paper and on the minds of parents, politicians and plain old people. It has inspired questions to be asked and answers to given and has gotten more people thinking about their schools. Without the letter grade, bold and big in the top left hand corner of the progress report (the main qualm for some anti-report card activists), this would have been a non-story and no change would have come of it.

If there's one thing I would like to put out there before the debate begins to die down it is this: The report cards are not inherently evil. They are flawed, but their spirit is important and good. For my school's SLT at least, our Progress Report has given us important information about what can be improved in our schools and has forced us to develop strategies to deal with the areas in which we did not do as well. Hopefully, the progress reports also got more parents informed about what's going on in their children's schools and inspired them to take some action.

As I said, however, the report cards are flawed. Last week several reps from NYCSU went to meet with Mr. Liebman to explain our grievances about the current progress reports. In my next post, I will describe them.

Cross-posted on the NYC Students Blog

School opening news: A bumper crop of charters to open in 2008

Written by Admin Wednesday, 12 December 2007 13:29

This past spring, when the state lifted the cap on the number of allowed charter schools, you could hear prospective school operators salivating. Now some of the first charters have been granted under the new cap.

Eight schools chartered by SUNY will open in the fall; all are part of existing networks of charter schools. There will be a new Achievement First school in Brownsville, a Carl C. Icahn school in Far Rockaway, an Uncommon Schools middle school in Brooklyn, and three replicas of the Harlem Success Academy Charter School in Manhattan. That represents a 300 percent expansion of Eva Moskowitz's charter school, which opened in 2006. And of course the UFT-endorsed Green Dot charter high school, based on the model out of Los Angeles, will open somewhere in the Bronx.

And while I can't find evidence that the DOE has actually granted charters yet for next year, this summer it did invite a number of schools to submit full charter applications for the fall of 2008, and at least a few of those are now hiring. It looks like the DOE is more comfortable with home-grown charters than the state; many of the proposals it requested came from individuals or community-based organizations.

School closing news: Canarsie added to list

Written by Admin Wednesday, 12 December 2007 09:02

Teachers, administrators, and students at Canarsie High School got the news they feared earlier this week: the Department of Education will phase Canarsie out because of its consistently poor performance. It won't accept any new 9th graders in the fall of 2008, and the last seniors will graduate in 2011. Presumably, new small schools will open in the Canarsie building.

With the school scoring an "F" on its progress report and an "undeveloped" rating on its Quality Review, its demise seemed inevitable. But a teacher told the Daily News that news of the closing "came as a shock to everyone," and a Daily News article last week described the school's attempts to stop its doors from closing. Administrators planned to ramp up the level of academic work and tighten security this spring, saying, "We won't go down without a fight." Teachers told the Daily News that they think Principal Tyona Washington is receptive to change -- but she's also experienced in ushering troubled schools to their deaths; after graduating from the Leadership Academy, she was principal of IS 390 in Brooklyn for its final year.

This week, G&T presentations in other languages

Written by Admin Tuesday, 11 December 2007 15:09

There are only two more nights, but you should still know that this week the DOE is holding presentations about the new Gifted & Talented admissions policy in the seven languages for which the DOE provides translation services. Tomorrow there will be presentations in Haitian Creole, Bengali, and Russian; on Thursday, Bengali and Spanish. Share this news with your school and families who might want to attend the forums, and see the Insideschools calendar for details about locations.

Unfortunately, the Arabic and Chinese presentations were tonight, as was the single presentation in the Bronx, but families should be able to get their questions answered in their own language by calling their District Family Advocate.

Advocates for Children, Insideschools' parent organization, has just released a report about the status of overage, under-credited kids — of which there are about 138,000 — in the reorganized DOE. The policy brief, "Dead Ends: The Need for More Pathways to Graduation for Overage Under-Credited Students in New York City," says that despite the creation of the Office of Multiple Pathways to Graduation, which incubates programs to serve older students, and the addition of new transfer schools in District 79, many older students are still without options. In particular, many of the new transfer schools require students to be able to graduate in two years or to have a certain number of credits before enrolling; young adults who never accumulated any credits are shut out of these programs.

AFC's report also discusses the ability of the DOE's programs to meet the special needs of English language learners, students in special education, and pregnant and parenting teens, whose special programs were closed this year. AFC found that more than half of Young Adult Borough Centers don't offer adequate services for at least one of those needy groups.

This may be the worst time of year for New Yorkers to stop by Rockefeller Center, but the million dollars in pennies that the city's schoolchildren raised this fall looks like it's worth the hassle. Penny Harvest has been going on for 16 years, but this year Common Cents, the organization that runs it, commissioned a "field" to showcase all of the pennies and raise awareness about the program. I think it's working — at least partially — because last night a friend in Chicago called me to ask what was the deal was with the giant pile of pennies next to the Christmas tree.

At each school, students work together to decide where to donate their pennies. As Jennifer Freeman pointed out last week, the experience of giving at school can be a great way to teach kids about thoughtful, deliberate philanthropy — and to make the point in a visually powerful way that every little bit counts when it comes to helping others.

“Did you get anything back?’’I posed this question to my 7th-grade son the other day. I hated the nagging tone of my voice. I’m sure he did too. After all, I’m constantly asking how he did on the math test, the science project, the Spanish quiz.

Wouldn’t it be better if I asked, “Did you learn anything interesting today?’’

Why do I care so much? Because 7th grade counts for high school admission, and the grades you get do have an impact. After that, grades affect what college you get into.

It’s an endless cycle of evaluation. And last month, some staff members at Institute for Collaborative Education, a well respected middle and high school in Manhattan, decided to offer a way out.

After a staff meeting where teachers spent “about two straight hours contemplating and debating about grades,’’ 6th grade parents received a letter offering a chance to “opt-out’’ of receiving letter grades — while still receiving detailed narratives at the end of each cycle, along with time to conference with the teachers.

“To us, the goal of education is to foster a sense of curiosity in the students, to encourage them to explore the world around and try to find ways to make it better,’’ the memo said. “Too many times, education boils down to competition for the best letter grade. And this should not be what education is all about.’’

An interesting take at a time when schools in the city are being awarded controversial letter grades, a concept I totally disagree with.

It's different, though, when it comes to your own kid. I broached the idea of no grades with my 7th grader, who does not go to ICE but wished he did the minute I told him about the “opt-out” plan.

Possibly, he just liked the idea of not hearing my voice at the end of the day: “Did you get anything back? What did you get?’’

I can’t say I blame him, although I’m still conflicted here. As I search for a middle school for my 5th grade son, I love the idea of telling him that grades – and test scores – really don’t matter, as long as he is trying his hardest and doing his best.

Except it wouldn’t really be true, would it?

After yesterday's excitement, I'm ready to take a more substantive look at the content of the City Council hearing on the progress reports. Jenny Medina at the Times has the best rundown of all of the papers and for an overview of what James Liebman said and how the Council members responded, I would go to her report.

What stood out most to me was that once again the DOE managed to present a compelling initiative in a way that frustrated and angered elected officials and parents. A numbers-oriented friend of mine who shares my interest in education has told me that the progress reports are sound from her vantage point, and from mine, nothing I heard yesterday dissuaded me from thinking that they contain useful information parents ought to be able to find out. Liebman's presentation also helped me understand just how some top schools got low grades by showing how their students' progress, particularly that of their students who began the year in the lowest third, stacked up unfavorably next to other schools with similar students.

So I don't understand why Liebman had to undermine his own hard work by arguing that the grades are not based almost entirely on single assessments in math and English; saying that his office had "consulted" with, among many others, an organization whose leader was in the room and later testified that their only conversation was not about the progress reports; and by giving Time Out From Testing the runaround on his way out the door.

I was also relieved to see that in disliking the progress reports, Insideschools readers are more like typical New Yorkers than the Quinnipiac poll would have us think; Council member after Council member commented that their constituents have told them that poor grades are unfairly stigmatizing some good schools, some of which fear that their recent progress could be undercut. Liebman did say, as he has before, that he is open to tweaking the formula used to calculate the grades or even assigning schools multiple grades based on different criteria. But in my view, it's the presentation and the attitude behind it, not the formula, that need a major revision.

*Title updated to reflect an exchange in the comments about the statistical validity of the reports.

Wow. Folks here are pretty blown away by what just happened. After the council members finished grilling James Liebman (this took about 3 hours), Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson announced that the parents from Time Out From Testing were set up in the City Hall rotunda to present their petitions to Liebman.

But as they waited, Liebman left out of the Council Chambers' side door. The parents — and the many reporters and photographers — scurried to meet him downstairs, on the other side of the building. But security officers and DOE aides pushed the parents back at every turn; it looked like only Time Out From Testing leader Jane Hirschmann made it through the gates to the doors of Tweed, where she too was turned back.

Liebman said many interesting things at the hearing, for sure, many of which could help make parents feel more comfortable with the progress reports and Liebman's accountability program in general. But I can't remember much of what he said. All I can think about is watching him try desperately to avoid involved parents who care very much about what's happening in their children's and their city's schools, just because he disagrees with them.

Time Out from Testing members tell me they collected about 7,00o petitions from schools in every borough and with every possible grade. Now those petitions are sitting in boxes in the hall.

I'm at the City Council hearing right now, and so are a couple dozen representatives of Time Out From Testing, all holding up signs emblazoned with bold F's. James Liebman has just settled in for his presentation, the first, which he says will take about 25 minutes. Will his voice or Time Out From Testing's folks' arms hold out longer?