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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?

TODAY (12/10): City Council hearing on progress reports

Written by Admin Sunday, 09 December 2007 20:13

There's plenty to do this week if you're concerned about the progress report grades that were recently released. (And if you have anything to do with the 13 schools the DOE has already said it will close because of poor grades, you're probably concerned.)

First, this morning the City Council's Education Committee is holding a hearing on the progress report grades. 9:30 a.m., City Hall. Map.

Then, tomorrow Central Park East I and II elementary schools are hosting a forum, featuring Deborah Meier and others, about the grades. Tuesday, 6-8 p.m., CPE I, Manhattan. Map.

And if that's not enough, you can also sign Class Size Matters' online petition against the report cards. Class Size Matters says the millions of dollars that are going into the progress reports would be better used lowering class size and building new schools.

I'll find out the answer to this question tomorrow morning when I see how many people are at the City Council hearing, but I'm curious: Are folks still at your school still as worried about the report cards as people were two weeks ago, when most Insideschools readers gave the initiative a "D" or an "F" in our poll? Or have people moved on?

Looks like the state was wise to reject abstinence-only sex education funds. Teen birth rates have just gone up for the first time in decades, at a time when more money than ever has been sunk into abstinence-only programs. Most researchers think the rising teen pregnancy rate relates to the misinformation about safe sex practices that abstinence-only programs promulgate. Fans of abstinence-only sex ed call those claims "stupid," saying instead that young women who become pregnant understand contraception but want babies. If schools choose to adopt the sex ed program the DOE is now recommending -- which includes real information about contraception -- New York City could be a leader in reversing the disturbing trend.

(Though upsetting, this news does get me excited to see "Juno" this weekend. See you Monday!)

Seats available in universal Pre-K programs

Written by Admin Friday, 07 December 2007 12:32

For the first time ever, the state is going to reimburse the Department of Education for the costs of educating children who enroll after the end of October. So the DOE is spreading the word that kids who turn 4 before Dec. 31 can still enroll in Pre-K programs that have space. According to the DOE's guide, both full-day and half-day programs in schools in nearly every district "may have space." Call to inquire -- you could get lucky!

Everyone deserves a Carribbean workation

Written by Admin Friday, 07 December 2007 12:24

Other than Alexander Russo, am I the only one who isn't totally repulsed by the Carribbean vacations that KIPP Academy Charter School staff members took in the last two years? The papers, the state comptroller, and bloggers are up in arms about the $70,000 spent on trips of only moderate educational benefit, and KIPP says it is putting into place tighter internal controls to prevent similar uses of funds in the future. But if, as the school claims, the funds really came from private sources, not the state, is it so bad that KIPP holds some of its professional development on the beach?

KIPP teachers work long hours (often 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.), teach on weekends, and give out their cell phone numbers to their kids. Their hard work seems to pay off for their students (although some dispute the evenness of the field they're playing on). As KIPP founder Dave Levin, who attended the retreats, told the Post, creative rewards are required to keep teachers motivated. A system that struggles with teacher retention should appreciate Levin's attitude, if not the particular reward KIPP offers.

When teachers leave the profession after only one or two years, it's destabilizing for schools and expensive for the system. But when they, like career-changing Teaching Fellow Robert Pondiscio or Bronx blogging teacher Ms. Frizzle, hit a wall or begin "teaching on the ledge" after half a dozen years, schools lose their most valuable teachers. The public wants its teachers to be highly educated, hardworking, and constantly improving. If there's no cost to the kids, why not spend a few bucks to keep teachers happy?

The Money Mom: The holiday spirit of giving

Written by Admin Friday, 07 December 2007 09:35

Next Thursday my child will play the trumpet in his winter holiday concert. After the music and singing, the class will gather for cider and cheese and crackers, to share a time together and give the teacher a little token of appreciation. The mom who arranged the gathering also asked parents to bring donations of food, if possible, for the nearby Yorkville Common Pantry, where, as in all food pantries in the country these days, food shortages threaten.

'Tis the season for kids to experience the joy of giving. For much of the year we put on fundraisers to supplement our kids’ classroom and programming needs, but at this season we can bring a sense of holiday spirit to school by reaching out to others. Whether it’s a bake sale to benefit the Heifer Project, which provides live animals to supplement the livelihoods of families around the world, or food for a local food pantry, or a spare change collection for a local charity, school kids can learn from working together on a benefit that lets them reach out and give to others, bringing a real sense of meaning to the holiday season.