Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Albany Circus

There is just no way to defend what is going on in Albany.

Toothless Governor Paterson is trying his best to rein in the spoiled State Senators who are threatening to bring our state to a halt with their confounding bickering.

Yes, power is important, and the ability to lead the Senate, bring legislation to the floor, call for votes, etc. But what we need right now is real leadership. And that means someone sticking out his or her neck, risking short term political fallout, to make a proposal that will truly bring the parties together.

"If we don't hang together, we will most assuredly hang separately," said the Penguin in the first Batman movie. If these electeds don't get their acts together and do the bare minimum for hanging together - holding a legitimate session - they're all going to be hung out to dry when the voters have their chance to turn things over to a new group.


Monday, June 15, 2009

CREDO Report Critical of Charters - BRAVO!

Way to go CREDO to have the integrity to publish a report critical of charter schools - the public should know that CREDO is tied to charter supporters. The charter movement is supposed to be about what works for students, with no excuses, so by being unafraid to criticize the charter movement this report represents the best of what it has to offer.

Here, then, is an unbiased presentation of data on charter schools.

The report only looks at 16 states, but these represent (I think it says) 70% of charter school students.

The report also states that charters do a better job than district schools of educating ELLs, special education students and students living in poverty. And it's highly critical of authorizers who are unwilling or unable to close down low-performing charters - which is, after all, part of the deal.

I look forward to more reports from CREDO, because I'm confident that in other states (like NY and MA) and over time (when the charter movement starts to shed the 'first year charter dip' that the report discusses, and hopefully, more authorizers have the gonads to close low performing schools) the data will bear out the fruits of the charter promise.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

My Hilarious Turn to Talk

In the 1990s, accountability in New York State took the form of the PASS Review, a rigorous, soup-to-nuts investigation of qualitative and quantitative data on the school level. Preparing for the PASS Review at my first teaching assignment, in my second year of teaching, I eagerly awaited instructions from the principal. I admired my principal; she brought a high level of energy and verve to the position, and with her Catholic School background she provided a stern but loving, firm hand that had stabilized a school community that was spinning out of control prior to her arrival. She told me stories of how, just a few short years before, addicts were shooting heroin right on the school steps, gunfire in the playground wasn’t uncommon, and the building was dirty both inside and out.

It all seemed well and good, then, when the first step in preparing for the PASS Review was for her to post the school mission statement in the corridors. “We have a mission statement?” I remember thinking. “I thought that was for IBM and for the Red Cross.” Things took a turn for the worse, however, when the principal instructed the faculty to familiarize ourselves with the mission statement and, when the state reviewers came around, pretend it had been up on the wall all along.

The review was intense, to be sure, and when the results were announced, six or seven of our 100 teachers were cited by the reviewers as “star teachers.” Alas, I was not among these teachers. It was only my second year of teaching, and my first heading my own classroom, so as competitive and dedicated to my students and families as I am, I gave myself a bit of a pass from the passing the PASS. Of course, I wondered to myself, “I’m working so hard. What is it that is keeping me from being a ‘star’?” I decided that I was still novice in the area of planning and pedagogy, but I was on track with implementing the literacy and math instructional practices I was picking up in my graduate courses. I was very much dependent on the basal series provided by the district, but I brought a zest and excitement to it to make up for what I understood to be the chief deficit of a basal (it’s boring for students). And I had a glimmer of literacy stations and Guided Reading coming my way. In fact, within a year, the district literacy staff developer who came around every couple of months not only praised my laminated “Rockin’ Readin’” cards that gave students independence while I conducted Guided Reading lessons, but she actually took photos of my Word Wall to share with other teachers!

Aside from the staff developer’s intermittent forays into my classroom however—and I would be sure to grab her and pin her down for an observation and conference whenever I saw her or got wind of her being in the building—I had very little independent direction in deciding how to get to that ‘star’ category. My principal said nice things to me and about me, and my official annual observation went well, but I just didn’t see a clear direction for improvement.

In my third year of teaching, and second year teaching third grade, I felt I had made a great deal of strides. But I was still frustrated by how disorganized I felt. When the principal made an announcement on a professional development day to do “spring cleaning” and take the opportunity to discard old items that were lying around in our storage cabinets in the classrooms, I just could not bring myself to throw out boxes of graduated cylinders, cardboard bulletin board letters, old-timey readers. I saw a potential use for everything, but had no organizing strategy for how to make use of them. It just didn’t sit right with me to throw away perfectly good instructional materials when I had heard over and over again that the district was starving for resources.

To that end, I eagerly anticipated my next formal observation and review. I planned to be more proactive this time, and ask more questions in the pre-conference. I wanted my instructional leader to give me guidance in specific areas. I knew some elements of where I needed to grow, and I planned to ask for confirmation, advice in those areas and help identifying other priorities.

So it was that my heart sank when, on another professional development day, the principal made an announcement that ruined any chance of having this feedback. Our PD days began with faculty meetings in the auditorium, the only room sizable enough to hold all 100 teachers, and on this occasion the principal made an elaborate show of her enthusiasm for knocking out the challenges before us. As we sat in our chairs and the veteran teachers around me grumbled about “professional retardation,” the theme from Rocky suddenly blared and there she came – our principal, wearing a shiny red robe and huge boxing gloves, running down the aisle to the stage. She was Rocky and though we were the underdogs, we were going knock out whatever issue was on her mind. (I’m not sure if the PASS Review had recommended this metaphor the year before…something tells me not so much.)

It was all well and good, and had everyone enjoying a good laugh, until Rocky put forth her proposal. Time was running down in the school year, it turned out, and she hadn’t had time to start making her rounds of formal observations. With 100 teachers, alas, it just didn’t seem possible to have this pre-conference, full observation, and post-conference with everyone. There just wasn’t enough time, and there were too many priorities for her to waste all that time in meetings and classrooms.

But wait! The PASS Review last year had taught our fighter some new tricks, and she had put together a proposal along with our union chapter rep. She found the reviewers from the state the previous year to be remarkably efficient, visiting all the classrooms and identifying the star teachers in less than three days! So she was proposing replacing our formal observations with an “Internal PASS Review.” She would spend a few minutes in each classroom, snoop through our plan book to see that we were on target, open a few kids’ notebooks and look around the classroom, and after checking off her checklist and be on her way. She only needed a majority vote of the chapter to make this modification to our review schedule. And there was a lot in it for us, she said, to go along with her plan: we would be under less scrutiny, have all that pressure relieved, and also not have to waste all that time in those useless pre- and post-observation conferences. What a relief this plan would be for everyone!

She promptly left the auditorium so that our chapter leader could call an official union meeting and the teachers could discuss the proposal.

A few teachers spoke in favor—what’s the downside? She doesn’t give useful feedback anyway. Those meetings are a pain in the ass and we might as well just get on with it. Are there any pitfalls where she is going to try to trap us into agreeing to a “U” because of something she picks out in our classroom during these visits?

Finally it was my turn to stand up and speak. “I don’t like this plan,” I said. “I have a long way to go in my teaching and I want to have that feedback. I want the principal to come into my room and spend time, and tell me exactly where I have to go next.”

The union rep smiled. She was big—not just physically, but vocally and in the way her presence filled any room. She summoned up all of her impressive energy and massive dialectical power and pointed to the stage, where the boxing gloves were still hanging, an inspiration for our Internal PASS Review. “Don’t you see, Mr. Sink? Don’t you see? It’s all a show!”

Somehow that comment was enough to have the entire chapter, 100 teachers, burst out laughing at me.

Luckily we had what I considered a very positive adult school culture; the comment, the laughs, they were not mean-spirited, but collegially patronizing (if that’s possible). “You’ll get it, you’ll understand someday, Mr. Sink. But this is all a show. There’s no feedback, there’s no professional development. There’s just us, and there’s her, and when she comes around, we put on our show, she puts on her show, and we all move on, and we’re all happy. You’ll get it someday.”

The friendly guffaws continued, a few slaps on the back, old pal, from a couple of the more garrulous veteran teachers sitting around me, a shaken head and “Poor boy” here or there, and the meeting went on.

Clearly the proposal was much favored and passed nearly unanimously.

Some other time, I’ll tell you the one about the veteran teacher, who had confided in me that he was afraid to be too outspoken, and approached me (a nearly brand new teacher at the time) in the office the following week asking me to run for UFT rep.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Only Through Struggle... there progress. Or, an ongoing rumination on the links between sports and education. How often do educators fail to realize that failure, misunderstanding and struggle are part of the learning process? (And I don't mean failure on a massive scale, I mean failure at smaller objectives in the service of learning something to achieve a higher goal.)

I'm starting to believe that the Yankees have a chance again, because I just read some of the stories coming out of their first couple of days of spring training. They have a shot at being cast as the underdog, and nothing riles multi-millionaires up more than telling them they can't do something.

Maybe, like the late 90s Yankees that seem more and more in the distant past, just maybe they will take less for granted this year and go out to try and prove something.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Tragedy Echoes the Old Board

The report highlighted in this New York Times article is damning evidence of the chaos and mismanagement of at least one psychiatrict ward at a municipally run hospital. Although the conditions are more stark, it reminds me of the reason I became a teacher in the first place. It reminds me of how understaffed, overwhelmed and undertrained many school administrators and teachers feel in our least-served communities.

The hospital is glad to report that wait time in the psychiatric emergency room is down from 27 hours to 8. That's like saying that 10 parents attended, or even knew about, the last parent meeting instead of 5. Attendance doubled!

Have no doubts--parents care about their children. Schools need to take responsibility for informing and engaging them in appropriate ways.

The report cites a pair of hospital police's brief interaction with a dying patient in the emergency room waiting room. It may not be obvious, but the observation in the report is tragically similar to a lack of consistency among adults at our schools.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Another War Story: Greasy Palms

I was reminded last week of another very special episode from my first teaching position, at a large elementary school in inner city New York City. I had forgotten that our school was tracked - and all kids, from grades K to 5, were in a class that was numbered indicating how high they ranked. I taught class 308, the bottom class, and conversely 301 was the top class.

After my third year at this school, for a number of reasons I moved to a smaller elementary public school in another part of the same community.

Here's the story: I gave my principal plenty of lead time to know that I was leaving so she could plan for my replacement in the fall. I think I told her in early March. I was expecting some fallout but I wasn't expecting this: "Mr. Sink...if you stay...I will give you the Top Class."

I was being bribed by getting to teach the "smart" kids!

Needless to say, the offer only made me more certain that it was time to leave, and I never looked back.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sign of the Times?

The possibilities raised by the Internet just go on and on. I just looked up one of the students I taught in my fifth grade class - nearly 10 years ago - on facebook. What a trip.

Monday, January 19, 2009

My War Stories

So all the trash talking about the KIPP AMP unionizing on has got me thinking that it's time for me to start sharing some war stories from my five years teaching in one of the poorest neighborhoods of New York City.

These "war stories" are not about children, or about families; they are about the adults I shared breathing space with. Some of these were heroes - 30 years+ in the classroom, dealing with constant change, and providing structure, order and inspiration for their young charges. Everything I needed to learn, I learned from Mr. G's kindergarten! (And from Mrs. C-R's second grade.)

But there was the Other Kind. Those who played the Morlocks to the Eloi I admired were the embittered folks who had long given up on (or who never believed in, as some were very young like me) the notion that our students, our school, could achieve at high levels like the kids in Scarsdale.

Here are the three war stories that I posted on this week:

1) In my first three years, I taught science in a large elementary school. The professional development expert sent by the district provided me with the only preservice orientation I received by handing me a copy of Stella Luna and saying, “This is a good story about bats. It’s science. The kids will like it,” and, “Just make sure that no one gets hurt, the kids are ready for their teacher when she comes back at the end of your lesson, and if you can weave a little science in there once in a while, that’s great.”

2) One of the teachers with whom I shared an office with that year spent the year waiting to hear back from a suburban school district on whether she yet had enough experience to transfer to that higher-paying, “easier” job. She asked me, “Where do you want to teach?” When I answered, still incredulous, “Here,” she laughed and said, “You’ll learn.”

3) In my second year, when I taught third grade, the Academic Intervention Support teacher gave me a piece of unsolicited advice. “The way you teach, you should be in Long Island. The kids there can learn! They just can’t learn here.” Mind you, this is the woman who had been sent by the principal/Targeted Assistance Plan Consolidated Application to my classroom at the start of the year to ask for the five students who were struggling the most in reading so she could help them move up. She spent the year yelling at them for forty-five minutes a day. Why not? 'They can’t learn anyway,' I’m sure she reasoned.

There's a lot more I have to say about this AIS teacher, who, by the way, once committed the indiscretion of driving over a parent's foot in the school parking lot on her way out - three minutes before dismissal.

Is anyone else getting the picture that this person should have been fired long before I even got there? Does anyone else agree that the UFT, for all the good it has done for teachers over the years, probably played some role in continuing the pumping of federal dollars toward this detestable practice?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Cheating on the state tests?

On the eve of the NYS ELA tests, I'm thinking about Freakonomics and the chapter about using algorithms to find out cheating educators.

Not only are some people unscrupulous enough to cheat on these tests, some of those are stupid enough to cheat by changing correct answers to incorrect ones.

But in my view, as long as high stakes tests are here to stay, they must be done right. And state officials should be doing everything they can to ensure that there is no cheating going on. Everything.

As for the merit of high stakes tests themselves, here's my view: while schools and people are both multilayered organisms that are far too complex to be boiled down to a single number, high-stakes tests are with us for at least the next ten years. It will take a crisis of morality - something a degree of magnitude higher than the Columbine shootings - to adjust the national opinion. But they will always be a useful snapshot of how kids/schools are faring, and while I would decry "teaching to the test" with anyone, I also think that a school with a rigorous instructional program that is meeting its mission will also successfully prepare kids for these tests.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Educators Can Learn From Sports

So the Yankees are at it again this offseason. Spending obscene amounts of money for the best available free agent players to stock their team. If the objective is to win the World Series, it's doomed to fail unless these players happen to have the character and hunger to win that ultimately makes the difference over a long, 162-game season and three rounds of playoffs.

It's an old adage but true as ever, "The best team wins." And the best team doesn't necessarily have the best players. The evidence is clear: year in and year out, with little exception, Frankenstein fantasy teams with high payrolls flop while the team with a solid core, often home-grown, takes the crown.

It's no different in publilc schools, where the grind is even longer (180 to 200 days in New York City, depending on your school). If the school leader can put together a strong team, hungry for success, and with all partners defining success in the same way, that's a winning combination. Stocking a team with egos and me-firsts is not going to produce the coherence needed to accomplish the gargantuan task before today's educators.