Archive for October, 2013

diBlasio Speaks For Voiceless

October 27, 2013 Comments off

The NYTimes editorial today endorses progressive Democrat Bill diBlasio for mayor over Ray Lhota, a conservative Republican who sounds a lot like Rudy Giuliani. While I try to remain apolitical in this blog, I feel it is imperative that educators get behind candidates like diBlasio who are not offering platitudes about the need for programs like prekindergarten but explaining how they might fund them. His plan to tax the wealthiest residents of NYC to provide assistance to the poorest children may be quixotic, but his willingness to express his unequivocal willingness to raise taxes for education is heartening…. and the fact that he won the Democratic primary and seems assured of victory in the election may be a harbinger of national electoral politics. Here’s the message I posted in the comment section regarding diBlasio:

One reason diBlasio is getting national attention is that his message is resonating across the country. I believe a lot of voters are glad to see a true progressive break out of the pack of vanilla “non-Republicans”… and hopefully tired of listening to fear mongering candidates like Lhota.  diBlasio is clearly willing to take up the battle for “….the 46 percent living in or near poverty, the 50,000 living in homeless shelters, the millions living outside the zones of economic security and gentrified affluence”, the “takers” as Romney called them. If a critical mass in the NYS legislature or the US Congress were willing to support this principled message we’d begin to close the gap between rich and poor and make our country the land of opportunity we claim to be.

It didn’t seem possible diBlasio would win the nomination a few months ago, but he stuck to his message and it penetrated. Maybe people are fed up with cutting corporate taxes and benefits.

Obama in Brooklyn, NYSED in a mess

October 27, 2013 Comments off

The NYTimes reported on President Obama’s visit  to Brooklyn to use a high tech HS as a backdrop for an address urging Congress to adopt his education agenda and, in the same newspaper, reported that the State Education department is rolling back its  testing regimen in response to pushback from parents and teachers. Both articles are noteworthy for what they DON’T report.

The article on Obama’s visit is heartwarming and upbeat. He asks for things that are difficult to argue against: “…preschool availability for every 4-year-old in the United States, access for every student to a high-speed Internet connection, lower college costs, redesigned high schools that teach the skills needed in a high-tech economy and greater investment in teachers.”  He lands his helicopter in Prospect Park and meets Charles Schumer who travels with him and after the talk visits Junior’s on Flatbush Avenue with mayoral candidate Bill diBlasio. HOWEVER, the article makes no mention of the fact that unlike diBlasio he’s done next to nothing to explain where he’s going to get money for prekindergarten, how he intends to lower college costs or give relief to students who are up to their ears in debt, or why— if he values teachers— he’s done nothing to speak out against states like MI, PA, WI and In who have eviscerated teacher contracts in the name of “reform”. And it didn’t explain why a school like the one Obama visited that is underwritten by corporations and narrowly focussed on preparing students for specific jobs is a “school of the future”.

The article headlines NYS’s decision to “scale back” their tests.. but the scaling back in the article is laughable: “…students struggling in English would be given exams in their native languages. A math test would be eliminated for some eighth graders. Students with disabilities would take tests matched to their level of instruction, not their age.”… oh, and they won’t be giving any separate tests to field test questions, Instead,

…the state would embed more field test questions into math and reading exams. That would require the Education Department to seek more money so it could print more versions of each exam. That could cost $12 million a year.

The article did not mention the nascent opt out movement among parents, who were especially intent on opting out of field tests to that they could undercut the reliability of the examinations without compromising their child’s ability to get into a magnet school. Nor did it mention where the additional $12,000,000 for expanded state tests would come from. Nor did it mention how tests that take four months to grade will fulfill Dr. King’s assertion that tests should “…inform effective decision-making,”

Instead, readers of the NYTimes continue to read about how schools are failing because the standards are too low, that corporations like IBM should be entrusted to develop the curricula for “schools of the future”, and more and better tests will solve the problems with public schools.


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Football Cuts Get Attention

October 26, 2013 Comments off

For several years the legislature in Louisiana has made devastating cuts to public schools and public colleges… cuts that have resulted in higher tuitions, reduced teaching and administrative staffs, and compromised infrastructure. At State funded Grambling University the budget axe fell last on football, the signature sport at the school, and THAT cut has brought national attention to the Louisiana debacle in the form of a lengthy article and editorial in the NYTimes and lots of coverage on ESPN. As the editorial implies, cuts to athletics come last not because athletics are sacrosanct, but because any administrator who goes after athletics first will be accused of grandstanding or failing to go after other low hanging fruit. The editorial board of the times can’t make those claims at Grambling because, as they note:

…the university has laid off more than 120 staff members and reduced the number of degree programs to 47 from 67. It also has deferred maintenance of classroom buildings, dormitories, the library and the football stadium.

Football was cut by $400,000, from $7.1 million to $6.7 million, but the program had already suffered because of deferred maintenance which left the athletic facilities in “horrible condition” and the stadium dressing rooms full of  “mold and mildew”. In short, the widely publicized experience of the football players shined a light the experience of ALL Grambling students.

Reading this shed a new light on my experience as school superintendent in New York State. During my first year as Superintendent, I inherited an austerity budget which required schools to de-fund athletics if the budget failed. The Board was attempting to get a new budget in place by cutting staff while the local taxpayers believed the district had used the threat of athletic cuts to mobilize athletic boosters and thereby get a budget in place that avoided making tough cuts.  Eventually we got the austerity budget lifted and shortly thereafter the law in NYS was changed in terms of budget passage. I believe he effect of the NYS laws then and now is to put Boards and superintendents in the position of deferring “high profile” athletic cuts while cutting deeply elsewhere. In this way they avoid charges from taxpayers that they are “grandstanding” or attempting to get large parent voter turnouts…. and as a result most NYS districts have cut to the bone in order to get taxpayers to support local budgets.

Unfortunately it takes an event like the Grambling football team boycott to call national attention to the impact of State cuts on public colleges. No one wrote an article about Grambling’s decision to cut 120 staff members or to reduce the number of degree programs or to defer maintenance…. and this made me think that the NYS legislators might have realized that their old law, whereby sports were cut if the budget failed, was flawed because it accomplished what the Grambling football team boycott did: it reminded taxpayers of the impact of their parsimony on local schools. Now, instead of being reminded annually of the impact of budget cuts, Boards prepare a budget figure that is lower than the rollover default “austerity” budget. Consequently there is seldom a public discussion of the pain these low budgets inflict on staff members and students and hardly ever a discussion on the cost to provide the kind of quality education programs offered in the most affluent districts in the state. Meanwhile, our public schools are metaphorically growing mold and mildew.

To Opt Out or Not…

October 25, 2013 Comments off

Diane Ravitch’s brief  blog post this morning talks about opting out. It led me to reduce to writing some thoughts I have on the movement.

I have two caveats to the opt out movement:

I would discourage opting out of NAEP. Some districts where I’ve worked have wanted to opt out of NAEP because it disrupts the flow of the school day(s) when it is given and pulls some students out of classes. This is especially the case in the high schools in “competitive” districts or schools where teachers, parents and board members are afraid that if a student misses one class they might be imperiled in terms of getting admitted to the college of their choice.

Secondly, if you are a parent in a NYC school or any district where these tests are the basis for getting accepted into a magnet school or getting promoted to the next grade level I wouldn’t opt out unless you’re confident that enough children at a given grade level are opting out. Call me a coward or unprincipled but I wouldn’t put my child’s academic career in jeopardy by sitting a test out UNLESS I was highly confident that a critical mass of parents was going to do likewise…

Alas, based on what I’ve read and witnessed there are many school districts who have bought into the testing regimen and would not want to “lose face” by compromising unless there was a strong showing of opposition by ALL parents.

A final cautionary note: it remains to be seen how the NYS chancellor will respond to Washington Heights’ parents opting out. He might look the other way because they are a K-2 school… but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a directive being crafted downtown giving elementary, middle, and high school principals an edict on disallowing opt outs. The standardized tests are the backbone of NYC’s “choice” system. The engaged parents in the city may be confronted with a tough choice if the central administration decides to play hardball with opt outs at higher grade levels.

All of that said, I sincerely hope that some community organizers in the districts where high stakes testing is the be-all-and-end-all will find a way to get the critical mass of parents to opt out… and that some idealistic parents in affluent districts might lead the way by recruiting a critical mass of parents to opt out… after all, in most affluent districts the tests have no bearing on the status of the school and serve only to deny children one week of classes.

We may be in for interesting times…

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Good News on Schools Buried on Page 12

October 24, 2013 Comments off

The GOOD NEWS: NYTimes reporter Mokoto Rich’s article, “Better News in New Study That Assesses US Student” WAS printed.

The BAD NEWS: It appeared on page A12… two days after Tom Friedman’s column explaining why US schools are failing and one day after an editorial using data from a month old study reported on the flagging performance of US schools.

Like most educators I find the international comparisons pointless… but if the bad news about US schools performance is going to be featured prominently in the media the good news should receive comparable coverage… which leads to:

THE REAL NEWS: As Diane Ravitch noted in my earlier crosspost: the US schools performed horribly on international tests in 1964 yet our country flourished since that time emerging as the strongest economy with the most innovation. Our schools always need to be improved but international test scores are no indication of success or failure.

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What Do International Test Score Comparisons Mean?

October 24, 2013 Comments off

What Do International Test Score Comparisons Mean?.

Diane Ravitch made these points last night at her talk at Dartmouth College. I wish the NYTimes would give her space to write an op ed piece laying out the facts on International testing. Maybe Thomas Friedman and the editorial board would read it and begin undercutting the “US schools are failing” meme.

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Pre-K Works: Why Aren’t We Doing It?

October 23, 2013 Comments off

Two articles in the NYTimes on two different reports drew one clear conclusion: Universal pre-Kindergarten would make a huge difference in the academic performance of children raised in poverty.

Mokoto Rich’s article on Monday recounted the findings of a recent study conducted at Stanford:

(The study) showed that at 18 months children from wealthier homes could identify pictures of simple words they knew — “dog” or “ball” — much faster than children from low-income families. By age 2, the study found, affluent children had learned 30 percent more words in the intervening months than the children from low-income homes… In the new study, the children of affluent households came from communities where the median income per capita was $69,000; the low-income children came from communities with a median income per capita of $23,900.

This reinforced an earlier study that showed that the children raised by professional parents “…hear 30 million more words by age 3 than children from low-income households.”  Here’s a key concept that might get lost in the debate about pre-K: the issue ISN’T learning reading skills— it’s hearing language used in context and learning social skills. I shop in a pricey co-op in the college town where I live and witness lots of conversations between mothers and 2-year olds over the items placed in the grocery cart and the items left on the shelf. The youngsters are learning colors, shapes, and categories of food and learning basic nutrition from the parents as they travel through the aisles. I contrast this to my experiences working in a blue-collar grocery store in Philadelphia in the late 1960s and witnessing parents shouting and cursing at their 2 year old children at the check-out counter.  My concerns are the same as those of David Dickinson, now a professor of education at Vanderbilt University, who:

“…feared that some preschool teachers or parents might extract the message about the importance of vocabulary and pervert it. “The worst thing that could come out of all this interest in vocabulary,” he said, “is flash cards with pictures making kids memorize a thousand words.”

Last Thursday the Times featured a parenting blog post by Randye Hoder that provided the findings of a report on preschools financed by the Foundation for Child Development and produced in collaboration with the Society for Research in Child Development. The report’s key findings:

•Large-scale, high-quality public preschool programs can have substantial impacts on children’s early learning.

•Quality preschool education can benefit middle-class children as well as disadvantaged children, though children from low-income families benefit more.

•Quality preschool education is a profitable investment, with $3 to $7 saved for every $1 spent.

So we have two reports with the same conclusion: pre-Kindergarten is cost effective and helps close the gap between children raised in affluent families and those raised in poverty. Why aren’t we moving apace to make prekindergarten available to all children? You guessed it: money. It will be interesting to see how Bill diBlasio fares with his proposal to tax millionaires to help pay for pre-K.