Liz Willen

Liz Willen

Liz Willen is editor of the Hechinger Report, at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is a former senior writer focused on higher education at Bloomberg Markets magazine. Willen spent the bulk of her career covering the New York City public school system for Newsday. She has won numerous prizes for education coverage and shared the 2005 George Polk Award for health reporting with two Bloomberg colleagues. Willen is a graduate of Tufts University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and an active New York City public school parent.
Wednesday, 12 October 2011 12:00

HS Hustle: How to survive admissions season

A group of friends, parents of students who are fearfully entering that parental rite of torture also known as the public high school search in New York City, wondered recently what it takes to get into the best high schools.

"Test prep!" said one, who was calculating the daunting costs and time commitment of preparing twins to take exams that determine entry into the eight highly-coveted specialized schools.

"Community service?" said another, whose older child had been shut out of his first choice high school when he admitted in an interview to having no time to volunteer.

"Perfect grades?’" offered another, but then quickly recounted tales of students with tremendous grades who were rejected from their top choice – and in some cases left without a match.

Monday, 03 October 2011 10:48

High School Hustle: "Nobody has a curfew!"

After his bruising first week of high school, I found my exhausted freshman son lying in a heap of books and papers, soccer cleats and uniform still on, furry cat purring next to him. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that it would be a little while still before I have to worry about what time he’s coming home at night, where he is, and what his curfew would be.

But it’s coming. Parents of freshmen, who have endured an exhausting admissions season, may be taken aback by a new demand to go out on weekends and stay out ever later.

The new world of high school social life requires careful navigation for parents. Kids want to fit in, and for some, it’s the first time they develop a whole new life outside of the family and familiar friends. Because of high school choice, their friends may live in all five boroughs, making for some daunting transportation obstacles, late night commutes and a lot of sleepovers.

Thursday, 29 September 2011 11:49

High School Hustle: Cheating on the SAT

With thousands of New York City high school students taking the SATs this weekend, the news that a Long Island teenager was arrested and charged with fraudently taking the exam for six other teens, brings into focus yet again, the degree with which testing has become high-stakes at all levels.  

Insideschools' blogger Liz Willen, interviewed by NBC News for the story, says the cheating didn't surprise her. After all, New York City teachers have been accused of erasing wrong answers on Regents exams, and some wealthy parents pay big bucks to tutors and consultants to give their kids an advantage in admissions to top colleges. But, she writes, the headlines about the SAT scandal are overshadowing another, very real problem: the number of students who make it to college unprepared, and drop out.

Read her post: "We're asking the wrong questions in the latest SAT cheating scandal," on the Hechinger Report.

Thursday, 08 September 2011 09:50

High School Hustle: Waking up is hard to do

Shortly after noon one day this week, I called my household of young teenagers to inquire about progress on the summer reading assignments. (Why get them done early when you can wait till the very last moment?)

The phone rang endlessly, the texts went unanswered. A sleepy voice finally answered the call at about 2 p.m. and announced: “We just woke up!”

This morning, the first alarm bell went off some eight hours earlier -- shortly after 6 a.m. The ordeal that will follow from now on is one that defies the natural rhythm of teenagers, I dread it, and I imagine a similar struggle is unfolding in a city of long subway and bus commutes to school.

Liz Willen, editor of The Hechinger Report, writes High School Hustle. This is her final Middle School Muddle.

While preparing for middle school graduation this week, I was reminded of my older son’s orientation five years ago. Parents and children were separated, somewhat symbolically. We sat on the floor and listened as the principal described the enormous physical, emotional and academic changes that would transform our innocent fifth-graders forever.

He asked if we had any questions.

Stupidly, I raised my hand and asked if it was still okay to bring cupcakes to school to celebrate middle school birthdays. Wiser parents in the audience laughed. The principal shook his head and made it clear that not only were the cupcake days over, we very soon wouldn’t be taking our children to school or picking them up anymore.

“They are going to be riding the subway by themselves – get over it,’’ he said.

It seemed so harsh to me. No more hand-holding! No more chatting with parents at pick-up and drop-off.  Time to let go, little by little, as I explained recently to a new middle school parent, whose little girl clung to her side at a welcoming dinner.

Not that letting go was easy. My older son, now a high school sophomore, believes he was last in his class allowed to ride the subway alone. He may never forgive me for calling the Jamba Juice near his school one day and insisting his name be called out aloud so I could find out if he was there. He still resents my insistence that he could not have a Facebook page until eighth-grade, along with the outrageous embarrassment of lugging his mother’s very old and uncool cell phone around.

Such are the slings and arrows of middle school, also known as the Age of Embarrassment. Parents are not to be seen or heard, although they come in handy for cash, keys, Metrocards and the purchase of electronic devices.  Academic performance often slumps; educators have long argued over the best way to boost motivation.

Voices crack and change at the most awkward of times. Straight hair turns curly and curly hair turns straight. Growth spurts of eight inches a year or more are not unusual. Dreaded acne appears. The mirror becomes a friend and an enemy. Sweet girls become mean girls.  Old friends may become strangers, or even enemies.

Suddenly, there are secrets of all kinds. And sometimes, outright, unexplained misery.

“Nobody gets through middle school unscathed,’’ a wise middle school educator once told me, during a particularly painful moment.

Some of us retain middle school memories that still make us cringe.  The lucky leave buoyed by tremendous friendships and new self-confidence. Much depends on the chemistry of a particular class, or the sensitivity of teachers to the astonishing changes that take place during these crucial years.

Watching the eighth-graders at a pre-graduation event recently, I noticed some of the extreme height differences had started to even out. Some of the guys looked ready to shave. I was struck by the amount of time the soon-to-be graduates spent simply hugging one another.

“It’s what we do,’’ one young woman – for she could certainly no longer be called a little girl – said to me.

For a brief moment, it appeared she would get through unscathed.

I sat with my mouth agape as the dentist poked around and asked a question.

“It appears you have been grinding your teeth,” he said. “Do you know why?”

There could have been many answers (high-pressure job, deadlines, raising teenagers) but I knew at once the real reason: My teeth are likely as ground down as I feel after 10 years as a New York City public-school parent, fighting everything from admissions decisions to scheduling and budget cuts.

Not that I have any regrets. My kids have flourished in the city’s public schools, and most days we feel really lucky to have had access to the great schools they’ve landed in—even though there’s always a new battle to fight.

I can’t help wondering what would happen if we all stopped pushing back, and just let it be.

What would happen if the parents of dozens of children who have been shut out of their own neighborhood schools just accepted the decision and sent their little learners to schools far from their homes, to locations that are often terribly inconvenient?

What would have happened if we didn’t fight back with a letter-writing campaign and a phone call barrage the year three of my younger child’s friends were shut out from any middle school at all?

What would happen to the thousands of high school students who every year get no match at all to a high school of their choice if they didn’t fight back against unacceptable placements?

What would have happened to my younger child’s middle school if parents had simply accepted a highly unpopular New York City Department of Education proposal last year to jam 270 students into the American Sign Language & English Dual Language Secondary School, even after parents and educators from the school insisted the move would create dangerous overcrowding and deprive special needs students of needed space?

Ultimately, the Department of Education backed off, but only after parents fought back by finding our own new building—St. Michael Academy, a closing Catholic school. It wasn’t ready when we moved in this year, but we’ve been so happy to have our own space—and gratified that the fighting back paid off.

That particular battle left me more exhausted than any other I’ve encountered as a public-school parent, but it clarified for me the drastic need to push back and make our voices heard.

Before he stepped down, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein acknowledged in an interview with Beth Fertig that he had problems getting his message across to parents who – among other things -- were angered by his decision to close an array of city high schools.

Students were plenty angry about the school closings as well. By the time kids get to high school, it’s time for them to develop the tools and instincts to fight their own battles.

This became clear to me last week when I opened up my son’s tentative schedule for junior year and noticed many mistakes. I immediately called and emailed guidance counselors, teachers, and department heads. I even offered to show up in any office that might welcome me.

The responses were polite but non-committal.

Finally, I impressed upon my son the need to take responsibility for his own schedule, and to find out how to make the changes he wanted.

I was tired of fighting.

What would happen, I wondered, if he didn’t fight back? Would he be stuck with unacceptable classes and languish on waiting lists? I’m happy to report he found the right person to meet with, challenged his schedule and got many—although not all—of the changes he wanted.

He’s learning.

I can’t help wondering what would happen if we all stopped pushing back, and just let it be. The thought terrifies me. It's not an option. To be a New York City public school parent means you must question authority and fight back  -- even if means a lot of teeth-grinding.

My sophomore came home from school the other day and declared that he was sick and tired of working on the same practice paragraphs over and over for the English Regents exam. He was bored of test prep and annoyed by constant conversation about test scores and student performance. And he decided to voice his concerns aloud, in class.

The ability to question authority may be admirable, but it’s not necessarily welcomed by teachers who may be judged, compensated and evaluated on how well their students score on standardized tests.  Teachers at his school are even offering extra credit for sitting through two-hour practice sessions for the English Regents, which I gather is not students’ first choice of activity on these stunningly beautiful June afternoons.

I strongly urged him to get the extra credit, but not because I defend this new testing culture. Discussing some of the great books and plays he’s been reading in high school is a lot more fun. If I have time, I’ve enjoyed reading, or re-reading in many cases, some of the texts his class is discussing from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to Richard Wright’s Native Son, as well as one of my all-time favorites, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Apparently those in-class conversations have ceased, replaced by non-stop discussions of the "critical lens” essay portion of the exam – not exactly dinner-table conversation. Nonetheless, I decided to poke around and find out more about what these essays ask students to do. Here’s what I learned.

Students are given a quotation to read and are then asked to interpret it. They write an essay using two works they’ve studied to show how the work is true or untrue, making mention of literary elements like irony, symbolism or foreshadowing, for example.  They must avoid plot summary, establish criteria for analysis, organize their ideas clearly, specify details (title, author) and follow the conventions of standard written English.

I have no problem with asking students to master these tasks. It all seems quite reasonable. However, like my son, I am questioning a testing culture that has “sapped so much of the joy from the classroom and pushed so many teachers to replace creative, imaginative lessons with timid and defensive ones,” according to my sage colleague, Insideschools.org founder Clara Hemphill.

Her comments and some other fascinating ones around testing – including much passionate defense of it can be found in an excellent Room For Debate conversation that appeared in the New York Times last week. The debate comes at a time when the city is developing new “performance tasks” that administrators believe will help students learn—and help teachers judge what students have learned.

Kevin Carey of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington D.C,  says “the city should be cautious in using initial test results for high-stakes personnel decisions,’’ but he calls the new  approach “a welcome development for students who deserve to be taught by educators with a demonstrated ability to help children learn.”

Carey, however, does not have a 15-year-old son in a New York City public high school who is bored to rebellion by test prep, or a middle-schooler so anxious about the fact that his teachers may be judged on his results that he can’t sleep the night before standardized tests.

There is no shortage of opinion about test prep, and no consensus either. Marcus Winter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, believes the tests “provide important information about teacher quality that we should use to improve our terribly flawed system for evaluating teachers.”

On the other side, PBS News Hour correspondent and Learning Matters president John Merrow deeply probes assumptions about standardized tests in a column reproduced on the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” blog.

“We don’t respect students’ intelligence; hence we focus on the lowest common denominator in skills,’’ writes Merrow, author of The Influence of Teachers: Reflections on Teaching and Leadership. “We don’t respect teachers, which is why we turn to standardized testing as the be-all and end-all of evaluation.”

Insideschools.org would like to hear from parents on how their children are faring in this new test culture. Any other rebels at home? Are there parents who believe more tests and an increased focus on testing will actually improve teaching and learning? We welcome your thoughts.

After two New York City public high school searches in four years, I’m convinced it’s time to revamp the admissions system to make it more transparent and humane.

I don’t want to overhear another conversation about who got into certain schools and who didn’t. I don’t want to listen to teenagers and parents comparing lateness records, grades, and test scores, or discussing why one talented artist or singer got overlooked

I don’t want to know about who cried all weekend after being turned down by a specialized high school. No 13-year-old should have to.

I'm not alone in this thinking.

“The process is inequitable, illogical, unfair, unduly harsh and, really, just silly,’’ one parent noted this week on Insideschools.

On paper it seems like there are more than enough choices.  Pick up the weighty high school directory or check it out online and you’ll see hundreds of options.

A clear downside to school choice, though, is the stiff competition for many of the best and most well known schools, which leads to a large number of students who end up disappointed and sad when they don’t get in. That’s how many are feeling this week after being notified of specialized high school decisions, where the odds are against admission.

And come March 31, when all decisions are revealed, many kids may not get a match to any high school. The city can’t possibly open enough quality high schools fast enough to meet demand.

So what can we do to encourage change, beyond pushing for more schools that replicate successful models? A few thoughts:

  • Chancellor Cathie Black could host a series of open meetings and hearings to solicit views about how the high school admissions system should be changed.
  • Every middle school in the city could offer free test prep for the specialized exam high schools. Test prep is not equal, but equal access to it could help level the playing field.
  • All middle schools could offer portfolio and audition preparation to help students trying out for the talent schools. For any talent, the more nurturing and honing, and the more help and opportunities kids can get to perfect their skills in after school art, music, drama and dance programs, the better.
  • The system of ranking and matching high schools needs an overhaul, with clear, concise criteria for admission laid out. Some of the most coveted schools acknowledge a geographic preference or test score ranges, while others ask for portfolios and interviews. Yet students regularly seem to be admitted who don’t meet the criteria. And we’ve known dozens and dozens of kids who easily met multiple requirements, and still got shut out of their first, second and even third choices.

“I’m convinced they just end up picking names out of a hat,’’ my eighth-grade son said. Since schools are under no obligation to describe or explain how they make decisions, he could be right.

There were many thoughtful responses to my December post on whether Chancellor Black should revamp high school admissions, including  a great deal of appreciation for maintaining a system of choice. “Let’s just have more and better choices,’’ was a typical refrain. Others called for  a system of strong neighborhood high schools.

Understanding that none of this will happen instantly, let’s focus on coming up with some concrete suggestions for making high school choice more manageable for kids, parents, and educators.

Insideschools.org welcomes specific ideas.

There’s a middle school scene my youngest child will never forget. On the day when eighth-graders received decisions about who got into the city’s nine specialized high schools, the sounds of sobbing reverberated through the hallways. While plenty of students got good news, others experienced the sting of disappointment in the company of supportive friends and school officials.

He was devastated and taken aback by the tears. The idea of public rejection and of having to go through a search process all over again seemed particularly painful to a sensitive sixth-grader, who had just finished touring and ranking middle schools and was trying to settle in.

Two years later, it’s his turn. Offer letters came out today, and some schools called all students awaiting word into a guidance office, and allowed them to open up the envelopes together. Roughly 6,000 eighth-graders got offers to these elite schools.

Students at my son’s middle school will not get their results today, because school officials decided to no longer break the news to them personally. In a letter home, the school noted how stressful this time can be for students.

“Some will receive splendid news, and others will be very disappointed with their results,’’ the letter noted.  “It's very important for parents to open the letters with their children and also to have a conversation with them about the next steps.’’

The letter also offered some comfort: “If your child receives disappointing news, remind them that this does not mean they haven’t been matched to a school at all, it just means that they will find out about their match in March.  It always works out in some shape or form, and it is important to remind our children of this.  If we remain calm and optimistic, so will our kids.”

I thought that was tremendous advice, even though some parents pushed hard for an immediate answer. Because different schools have different ways of giving the news out, some kids found out today. Others may get letters on Saturday or not until next week. The news, meanwhile, will trickle out via Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks.

Insideschools.org is interested to hear from parents – and students – on the best way to get – and handle the news. How is it going in your child’s middle school? Is it better for kids to open the letters together or wait and get it at home?

I keep getting caught up and confused by high school exam schedules. Of course, I knew about final exams that took place in most New York City public high schools last week. And I vaguely recall seeing something about a reduced schedule during Regents week, which runs through Jan. 28.

But I didn’t realize that would mean my son would have only one day of school this week!

If I had been savvy enough to study the schedule in advance, I might have done something like my far-more in-the-know friends have done – ship the kid off to say, a grandparent, or line up a week of paying work or community service.

I checked in with my suburban siblings -- who assured me their teenagers are also off.

Friends in some city high schools, though, said their kids are still in class.  For the statewide scoop, I went straight to Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Education.

Schools “are expected are expected to continue regular instruction during the January and June Regents Examination periods to the fullest extent possible,’’ Burman told me.

Classes may be canceled only when the number of students taking examinations is so large that normal instruction cannot be carried on effectively, he said. I could not get firm numbers on just how many students are taking the Regents exams, but the pool has grown larger with requirements that high school students pass five of them to graduate.

Apparently, the mid-year exams create something of a scheduling nightmare for schools. In small schools, teachers have to find rooms where they can teach during Regents week. The exams also come at a time when teachers are grading finals and working on programming students' schedules  for the second semester.

Schools don’t have to take attendance on Regents exam days, Marge Feinberg of the New York City Department of Education told me. And if grades 7-12 are housed in the same building, the middle school students may also get the time off if their class schedules are disrupted by the Regents exams.

All of this is likely making a whole lot of teenagers happy, even if working parents are somewhat disgruntled.  My son clearly articulated what he wants to do with this week: Chill.

Chilling generally involves multiple sleepovers and band practices, and it can turn the average city apartment into a landfill. I’m already anticipating coming home to cartons of pizza and cookies and card games strewn about.  I also won’t be home to complain about screen abuse and to witness what could be endless, mind-numbing hours of video games.

The unscheduled free time might even convert me to the more stringent, no sleepover, no television and no video game parenting ethos of Amy Chau, author of the highly publicized and best selling  “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”

I’m sure Chau would have figured out a way to handle an unanticipated week off of school: (Extra credit projects? More piano lessons? Better birthday cards? Prepare for graduate school?)

Chilling, on the other hand, does nothing to improve grades. It earns no money and no community service credit. And chilling adds nothing to the general ambiance of a family household, especially when a resentful younger child still has to go to school.

I reluctantly acknowledge the value of so-called “down time,” even if I don’t get any of it myself. I’m not completely against giving over-scheduled kids a little time off in the middle of January when many of us would much rather stay in bed.

I just can’t help wondering why an entire high school must come to a halt because of exams that may involve a small percentage of students. Must every teacher be occupied with these mid-year exams so that all classes are canceled? Isn’t there some way high schools could continue to be open and maybe offer tutoring clinics in tough subjects or some SAT prep?

What about clubs or activities, a Red Cross babysitting course, CPR or some skill that would help students find a job? How about a resume writing workshop or a book group discussion? What about sports and games?

Insideschools.org would like to know if other parents have been caught off guard by Regents week. Are you satisfied that you had enough notice?  Any coping tips?