Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Great Day for Education

You have to figure that June 28, 2010 is not going to go down as one of the all time great days in the history of American education. That's the day, after all, that the DOE and UFT celebrated the end of another school year by sniping at each other about whose fault it is that there's going to be a wacky start to the next school year with one day on, four days off, and then back to school.

Let's set aside - at least for the purposes of this post - whose fault it actually is. The DOE says that they want to make the change, but that the UFT won't let them. The UFT says that DOE has the power to do it without UFT approval, so they can't be blamed. So we've got plenty of finger pointing going on. Check that off the old to do list. All you really need to know at this point is that they're blaming each other for not being able to solve a problem.

Actually, all you really need to know is that the problem is not solved. That's right. The combined forces of the DOE and UFT can't even agree on how to solve something that they both say is a problem. That's insane!

I can't help but look at this situation and wonder where the grown ups are. Where's the person who's going to come in, look past the silliness, and get things done.

Let's be clear. In the grand scheme of things, this really isn't that big a deal. It's annoying and weird, but it's manageable. The fact that the DOE and UFT can't even get their act together to solve the little stuff doesn't fill me with confidence that they'll be able to solve the big stuff.

I blame both sides for this. This is just a silly squabble to try to score cheap points and in the end, it doesn't help anyone.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Beyond School

I've been seeing stories about cyberbullying popping up in the media quite a bit lately. I guess it's one of those stories that's pretty easy to cover and is guaranteed to arouse some feeling. I mean, who's in favor of bullying? I imagine editors across the country thinking, "We'll send a reporter to the school, talk to some bullied teens, and the story will just write itself. Piece of cake!" The New York Times is the latest entry with a pretty long story today.

Here's my take. I don't know whether or not schools have the authority to impose restrictions on what happens outside of schools. I also know that when school districts - like in New York - try to ban things like sexting, it raises the obvious question of how it's going to be enforced. Given that there are often issues with addressing misbehavior in school, how are we going to enforce rules on things that happen outside of school?

What comes to my mind, though, is that this latest push is symptomatic of society's larger expectation that schools are going to be able to fix everything that needs fixing in today's kids. Reading behind grade level? We need better teachers and more accountability and that will make all kids learn. Cyberbullying taking place at home? The school system will spring into action.

In either instance, I think the school-only approach is unrealistic. In either case, teachers and school administrators are constrained by time, access, and availability. Certainly schools can be the focal point for addressing issues having to do with kids. In fact, schools should be the focal point. But they cannot be the only point. Kids need more than schools.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Seems Like a Good Idea

It's hard to tell whether this is big news or not. On the one hand, the city seems to be moving away (at least slightly) from their position that bad schools must be closed at once. On the other hand, the whole thing seems awfully limited in scope, so we should exercise a little caution before hailing it as the wave of the future.

For those of you who don't like following links, the New York Times is reporting that the city and UFT have come to an agreement on following a transformation model for 11 of the lowest-performing schools in the city. As the name suggests, it's about turning schools around rather than closing them. The schools will hire master teachers who will train other staff at the school to try to develop the teachers there, student data will be used as a factor in rating teacher effectiveness, and ineffective teachers will face an expedited hiring process.

Now, with the caveat that all my information on this comes from a pretty short article in the newspaper, I'm going to go out on a limb to say that this makes sense to me. I've long been a proponent of working to better develop the teachers we have rather than fire everyone and tap into the imaginary pool of master teachers who just can't find a job as replacements. So I'm a big fan of that. I also broadly agree with the idea of stricter methods for evaluating teachers. Using student data as one of several factors for evaluating teachers makes sense to me too.

I'm impressed that the city and the union seem to have found a middle way forward here. Too often both sides dig into their bunkers and lob grenades back and forth. That's unhelpful to everyone. Let's hope the spirit of collaboration continues.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Appearance of Action

Upset with the lack of racial and economic diversity in its gifted and talented programs - and perhaps a little flustered under questioning by City Council members - the DOE is apparently going to be looking at the possibility of changing how they determine G&T eligibility. They'll be looking for a test that's a little harder to prep for so that families from wealthier communities can't "game" the test by hiring tutors, etc.

I have to say, this is not a great moment in critical problem solving by the DOE.

First of all, the idea that they're going to stumble upon some un-gameable test is just ludicrous. Change the test and you'll change how people prepare for it. That's all. Those families that want to prep their kids are going to prep their kids and it's really just a matter of what they're prepping for.

More fundamentally though, the DOE actually seems to be missing what the real issue is. Do they really think that the reason more kids from the Upper East Side are determined G&T eligible than kids from the South Bronx is that the Upper East Siders are "expending thousands" of dollars on test prep? Really? That's the only difference they might be able to think of?

My biggest pet peeve in any sort of policy discussion is when people try to look like they're doing something rather than actually doing something. The DOE is far from alone in this practice. But they are certainly guilty of it. Changing the test from one to another gives the appearance of action and seeking to redress apparent racial and economic inequality, but really it's just changing how that inequality is measured. It doesn't matter what ruler you use, until you actually do change something, the results aren't really going to change.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Need for Fathers

Regular readers of this blog should know by now that I favor a pretty broad approach to tackling educational problems. Rather than just focus on what goes on in the school building, I think you need to look at what happens in the lives of children when they're in school and when they're out of it. That's why my eyes perked up a bit when I read in the New York Times about a program in the Bronx to teach men how to be better fathers.

The article was disappointingly short on details, so I'm afraid that I can't comment much on it other than to say that, in theory, it sounds like a pretty good thing.

I'm not one to say that the only way to raise a child is in a familiy where both parents are married and still together. But it does help. At the very least, children do need multiple people who care about them in their lives - both women and men. The statistics are grim in poor, urban communities about this kind of arrangement. Too many women are raising too many children on their own. That's a problem.

The program highlighted in the Times seemed to have worked with 16 men. That's not a lot, but it is a start. If the program works at getting men involved in the lives of their children, let's hope that it grows.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Do We Still Need TFA?

A sure-fire sign that things are getting tough is when you start seeing people blame groups for something that isn't really their fault. So when you read a story out of Las Vegas about teachers there being wary of Teach for America and thinking that they might not be needed and may even be keeping teacher salaries artificially low, it's a sign that things are not great in Las Vegas. (Full disclosure: I am a TFA alum myself, but not in Las Vegas, though I have been there.)

First, let's rebut the whole TFA is keeping salaries low theme. According to the article, TFA has placed 308 teachers in Las Vegas over the last six years. That's about 51 a year. For 51 teachers - who are part of the union, by the way - to have any impact at all on the average teacher salary would mean that you have the tiniest district in the world or people are talking nonsense. My bet is nonsense given that they employ well over 16,000 teachers.

That's pretty low-hanging fruit, but it's worth pointing out since it shows the realm of ridiculousness that we're talking about.

The other, and more serious, issue raised by the article centers around what the role of TFA should be in during this time of layoffs and cutbacks. As teaching jobs become harder and harder to come by, is there still a role for TFA to play in terms of bringing in new teachers to the system?

I think that the answer is yes, but with changes. TFA needs to take a more focused approach at this point and probably needs to cut back on how many teachers it recruits. But even with layoffs and cutbacks, there are going to be some positions that are harder to fill than others and that's the role that TFA thrives in. Is Teach for America the answer to all of education's problems? Absolutely not. Does it still have a role to play in education today. Absolutely.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Much Ado

The New York Post was shocked - shocked! - on their cover yesterday to discover that New York students were getting credit for putting the wrong answer on their state math tests. Those fiends at the DOE have done it again! Will there be no end to the dumbing down?

Amidst about 500 words of outrage over the policy - which was upgraded today to "controversial", apparently based on the fact that the New York Post wrote about it yesterday - it comes out that the reason kids are getting partial credit for those problems is that they show work demonstrating at least a partial understanding of the math principles involved.

I'm sorry, but that policy actually makes sense.

Look, ultimately it matters whether or not kids can solve math problems correctly. No argument from me on that point. But these tests are supposedly measuring student learning. If a child is able to demonstrate that they are learning - even if it's not as much as they should be - doesn't it make sense to account for that in our measurement?

The Post's "exclusive" yesterday is essentially an expose on giving credit for showing work, something that's been around at least since I was in school and probably before. It's certainly not a new policy on the New York state tests either.

Is the amount of credit being given for showing work too generous? Perhaps. I don't know. I do know that overheated Post rhetoric doesn't help.

That brings me to my last point of the morning. The more I read education reporting in the Post and other New York papers, the more troubled I am by the things I recognize to be misrepresentations or outright falsehoods. It makes me wonder what I would find if I knew more about, say, economics or world affairs. I mean, if we can't trust the papers to report accurately on education, how can we trust them to get right the big stories like this one?

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Reasonable Deal

So, you've probably heard by now that Mayor Bloomberg has unilaterally decided to avert teacher layoffs by not granting raises to teachers for the next two years. Say this about the guy, he's not afraid to pull the trigger.

Now, both the UFT and CSA have come out against this, saying that the Mayor doesn't have that authority. And while they may technically be right, in practical terms it probably won't matter. As long as a contract hasn't been signed, the Mayor does have the practical authority to do this.

But is it the right thing to do?

Well, certainly teachers always deserve more money. You'd be hard pressed to find me ever arguing against that. But let's look at the facts here. Just three days ago we all woke up with the expectation that nearly 4,500 teachers were going to be laid off and booted from the system. You think class sizes are bad now? Is that really the education system we want? Furthermore, (and this isn't entirely clear to most people) most teachers are still going to get raises next year. Step increases, which you earn just for being in the system another year or for increasing your education, are still going to be happening. Teachers are going to get raises, just not as big as they may have thought. Honestly, in this economic climate, that's a deal I would take.

Again, the unions have come out against this, and I guess that's there job. They always need to ask for more. But I hope that this is posturing on their part and not the start of an actual fight. If given the choice between no additional raises for everyone and layoffs plus raises for everyone else, I'm going for the no-layoffs plan. In the end, it's better for everyone.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Follow the Money

The other day, my wife got a mailing from Education Reform Now - a group formerly pretty focused on lifting New York's charter cap. Essentially (and unsurprisingly for someone who's seen ERN's previous work), the full color flyer was a hit on the UFT. On the front was a picture of a third grade parent saying something to the effect of, "I used to think that the union was on our side. But now they're working to protect the teachers who have been their longest, not the best teachers." (Unfortunately, my wife threw away the flyer so I don't have the exact wording.) Inside was a little more explanation on why last in/first out is so bad. There was also a little tear out card that you could put your information on and mail in to say that you think teacher quality and not seniority should be the major factor in teacher layoffs.

Two things struck me about this mailing.

First, the heat is definitely on the union, or at least the heat is trying to be on the union. When there are direct mail pieces trying to whip up popular support against you going out, you know that you're in a precarious spot. At the very least, someone is trying to put you in a precarious spot.

That's what bring me to my second point to ponder: how did my wife end up on the mailing list, whereas I did not? (And yes, I am a little jealous.) We are both former UFT members, though she's a little more recent, but I don't know that it makes sense to target union members with something like this. Plus, I doubt the UFT would share their list with ERN. We don't have kids so her name wouldn't appear on any lists of that sort (if such things exist). She'd never heard of the group, so she hadn't signed up directly as a supporter.

What I keep coming back to is that she is a registered Republican, while I'm a Democrat. Where that starts to get interesting is that in the past that's mattered because she received all of the Bloomberg mailings during the last Mayoral election. I had to read them over her shoulder. Given the facts that I have now, the explanation that seems to make the most sense to me is that the Bloomberg campaign has transferred into OFA-mode and is using their resources to try to bolster non-election campaigns - in this case, the repeal of last in/first out.

This is not entirely out of the realm of possibility either. Joe Williams of the group Democrats for Education Reform sits on the board of ERN. He has hired former Bloomberg campaign manager Bradley Tusk to help in his efforts. So there is a connection there, but it wouldn't totally explain what's going on. After all, Tusk presumably wasn't allowed to keep the various campaign lists after the election for his own personal use.

Now, obviously, that's almost pure speculation at this point and there may be a perfectly good explanation that I just haven't thought of because it's early in the morning. But were I an enterprising reporter, it's a link I just might be trying to look into. After all, if the Mayor or the Republican party in general really is putting resources (monetary and otherwise) behind a group that's explicitly declaring war on the UFT, that would be a story.