Through the NYCDOE Looking Glass

04/03/2012
A positive-edge-triggered D flip-flop

A positive-edge-triggered D flip-flop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First the NYCDOE says it is going to close 33 schools because they are low performing.

But, for no apparent reason, it changes its mind about closing seven of them, but not the other 26, even though some of those 26 perform better than the seven on a variety of measures.

Then the NYCDOE says it is going to ban about 50 words from standardized exams because those words might upset students. After all, students who daily face dangers in their neighborhoods that most of us cannot imagine might get distressed if the word ‘dinosaur’ appears on an exam.

Once again, it changes its mind – this time after a public outcry – and says it is okay to use those words after all.

So either it is all right to damage students or the words were banned  for no reason. Take your pick.

Tonight the NYCDOE is conducting a public hearing to discuss whether to shoehorn a new K-5 elementary school into the building that currently houses the middle school where I work, as well as the pre-K and kindergarten classes there’s no room for in the elementary school across the street.

Most of my colleagues think that no matter how many parents come and say it is a bad idea because almost all of the classes in the school already have more than 30 students and putting the new school in will mean the middle school will have about 50% fewer classes, the NYCDOE has made up its mind and the new elementary school will take precedence. I suspect that is the case.

If the girdling occurs, it will have some major, perhaps fatal, impact on our library’s existence and my job as librarian, but I am not worried.

The NYCDOE has a very bad record of sticking to its decisions, most likely because the decisions appear to be made on a whim, and whatever they decide is like – pardon the phrase – pissing in the wind. Everyone gets wet, but especially them.

Meanwhile, after making such a big case about the public’s right to know about those teacher ratings, you know, the ones filled with errors and based on spurious information, our mayor is refusing to make public a report critical of the City’s 911 system, particularly the revamp done during his administration because it failed during a snowstorm.

Which is your position, Mr. Mayor? Does the public have a right to know or doesn’t it? Or is this just one more case of a flip-flop, a particularly self-serving one at that?

No, don’t answer. What you say doesn’t mean what it appears to, and it is all rather confusing.

That’s the idea, isn’t it? Keep everyone confused and pretty soon they’ll just give up trying to understand.

That’s when it really gets dangerous for us.

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Paranoia in Education Strikes Again!

03/26/2012
cover shot of Children of Paranoia

cover shot of Children of Paranoia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I work for a paranoid school district.

It doesn’t trust students.

It doesn’t trust teachers.

It doesn’t trust administrators.

It doesn’t trust parents.

It doesn’t trust the public.

It is afraid that students will learn things that aren’t in the curriculum.

It is afraid that students will learn things that haven’t been approved in advance.

It is afraid that its teachers are not capable of teaching responsible use of the internet.

It is afraid that its teachers are not capable of teaching responsible use of social media.

There is a lot of good educational content on YouTube and YouTube for Education.

It doesn’t let students access YouTube in school, not even YouTube for Education.

It doesn’t let teachers access YouTube in school, not even YouTube for Education.

It doesn’t let school administrators access YouTube in school, not even YouTube for Education.

It doesn’t let principals override the filters that prevent access to those and other useful websites.

This can only be because it does not trust us. Any of us.

It does not let students, teachers or school administrators access Facebook in school, even though there is a lot of educational content on Facebook.

Even though we are required to teach students how to use social media responsibly.

Soon we won’t even be able model social media use for students.

The City is going to ban teachers and students from interacting over Facebook.

It doesn’t trust us.

Not at all. I bet the City would love to figure out how to stop teachers and students from interacting in the supermarket, the Laundromat, the shopping mall.

Heck, they’d probably even like to find a way to keep us from interacting in the classroom. Everyone knows how much trouble we can get into there.

There is an old adage that says you should treat people the way you want them to be. If you want young people to act like adults, treat them that way. That’s what I try to do in my library.

But the NYCDOE treats me and my colleagues like little children.

They are illogical.

They are insulting.

Or am I being paranoid?


An Open Letter to Rupert Murdoch

06/13/2011
Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and Chief Executive O...

Image via Wikipedia

Dear Mr. Murdoch,

Congratulations on getting a nice juicy contract for your corporation from the New York State Department of Education. A contract worth $27,000,000, is that right. A nice healthy piece of change, that is.

And do I understand it correctly that you got this contract without bidding on it?

How does that work? No, seriously, I want to know. Not because I begrudge you getting a $27,000,000 contract without having to bid on it; after all, that seems to be how things are getting done these days. Bidding just delays things and creates a needless level of bureaucracy, right.

No, I’m asking because I want to get in on the act.

Now I’m not looking for $27,000,000. It sounds great, but I have no idea how to handle that kind of money. You do. That’s why you’re a businessman and I’m a librarian.

That’s why I’m having the problem I’m having. You see, I want to buy a circulation desk for my middle school library and I have to get bids from three different vendors to do it, even though I know which circulation desk I’m going to buy. It is not really the one I want, but at $1,231, I know it is the one my school can afford.

Sure, I’d like to have a more efficient, better-built circulation desk, but I’d probably have to get a dozen bids. It doesn’t matter. My public middle school in the Bronx (that’s part of New York City just like Manhattan, but the way) doesn’t have that kind of money, not $2500, no sir.

Now you’re probably thinking this letter is looking for money from you. Perish the thought!

All I want is for you to teach me how to get money from the New York Education Department, the New York City Department of Education, or any other entity without having to get bids and without begging.

I know you’re a busy man and don’t have the time to teach me stuff yourself. But you do have employees who could do it. Maybe that fellow Klein who works for you now, the one who was NYC schools chancellor for a few years. I bet he knows how to work the system.

With the highest regard for your business acumen, I remain,

Deven Black

Librarian

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Is it Ever About the Students?

06/02/2011
Question ?

Image by Ninja M. via Flickr

Is it ever about the students?

No matter where I turn I hear teachers, principals, superintendents, mayors, governors, education secretaries, regents, newspapers, radio stations and the President saying it is all about the students – every lesson, every decision every policy is about doing what is best for the students.

Really?

Let’s start with the President. You remember him, he’s the guy who promised change but doesn’t seem to have the knowledge, interest, ideas, or power to effect it.

Sure, the Race to the Top looks a little different than No Child Left Behind, mainly because there seems to be more of a willingness to leave some children behind (there’s not enough room at the top for everyone). Still, decisions remain based on misguided ideas about testing, teaching, learning and incentives. For the President it is all about political game playing and not doing anything radical that might interfere with his re-election is 2012.

Instead of a freethinking leader we have a gullible man doing pretty much what his predecessor did and calling it something else.

Barack Obama

Image via Wikipedia

Gullible? That’s my take, but a case could be made that the President is deliberately misrepresenting the success of the program he cited in his State of the Union Address for having a 97% graduation rate. It appears that the Bruce Randolph School in Denver didn’t actually prepare those graduates for academic life beyond high school. In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Diane Ravitch cites Noel Hammatt, a former teacher and instructor at Louisiana State University. He looked at data from the Web site of the Colorado Department of Education and found that while the school did, in fact, have a high graduation rate, ACT scores there were well below the state average, meaning students are not well prepared for college.

A high school diploma should mean that the student receiving it is ready for further education or skilled employment. That would be about the students. Instead, we have school cooking the books on their graduation rate to make a program look like a success when it isn’t.

Our education secretary, Mr. Duncan, was part of the cabal that cooked the books in Chicago to produce apparent gains in standardized test scores. What gains? Where did they go? Rhee in Washington? Same thing? What gains?

I’m not even going to touch whether the tests measure useful learning; that’s for some other post.

The head of my school district, who also happens to be Mayor of New York City, is also not above cooking the books. He is fast to toot his horn when testing results seem to indicate that his programs are leading to huge jumps in student learning, but he is strangely silent the next year when those apparent gains disappear.

I have to give Mayor Bloomberg some credit. He has been willing to spend money on education, but he spends that money on data systems and consultants who set up the data systems and then interpret the data for him. The mayor cannot do that himself, probably  because he is busy running the rest of City government single-handed.

NEW YORK - JANUARY 03:  Cathleen Black (R), th...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Worse, he has utter contempt for students, teachers, parents and all the other stakeholders. That’s clear from his appointment of know-nothing Cathie Black as schools chancellor without, he claims, even considering anyone else, especially someone who actually knows a little bit about the system he or she will be running. That contempt is reinforced daily in the mayor’s comments about parents and the dismissive way parents are treated in setting the policies that affect their children.

Now he wants to spend even more money schools are desperate for to create additional tests to give students, tests explicitly designed – he claims – to assess teacher effectiveness. Even if they do that, which is doubtful, at best, what benefit do students get from these tests? How does taking even more time from their school day to administer these tests, not to mention lessons preparing for these tests, and whatever anxiety the tests might cause them, benefit the kids sitting in that classroom?

Does anyone doubt that if teacher jobs are dependent on student performance on these new tests teachers will spend time prepping the students to perform well on them?

In New York, a board of regents is supposed to oversee all education systems in the state. Despite all his money and power, Mayor Bloomberg could not get his know-nothing chancellor hired without a waiver from them. Of course they gave it. They’re all about the politics, not the students.

FOX News Channel newsroom

Image via Wikipedia

The media? They’re not for the students. They exist to sell newspapers, magazines and airtime. Most want to spend as little as possible on gathering the news. That precludes paying reporters to take the time to actually look beyond the press releases, or even ignore the press releases, and do independent, investigative and interpretive reporting. If the media reached its highpoint during and in the wake of the Watergate scandal 40 years ago, we can only hope they are reaching their nadir now and can’t possibly get any worse. See, I’m still an optimist.

Principals?

I don’t know about anywhere else, but in NYC principals are rewarded financially when the schools they run show improvements in test scores and the use of the data the tests generate to drive teaching. My principal, whom I like and respect, used to ask the tough questions like ‘what do the grades we give really mean?’ and ‘how can we change our practice to focus more on genuine learning and less on test scores?’ He doesn’t ask those questions anymore.

Perhaps this is because he, with the teacher’s agreement, has decided that an additional set of meetings between parents and teachers, that fewer than half the parents come to, is more important than regular staff meetings. The teachers would much rather spend a couple of hours one evening with some parents than a monthly 40 minutes Monday afternoon staff meeting.

Now we come to teachers.

This is a hard one for me. I am a teacher, but when I look at what we do and how we do it, I am forced to admit that we are not focused on students either. Where is the activism against standardized teaching? Where is the activism against the way parents are treated in our system? Where is the activism against the huge amounts of money spent on invalid data and consultants? Where is the activism against test prep and in favor of empowering student learning? Where is the anger? Where is the energy? One would think it is all focused on saving our jobs, but fewer than half the staff comes to union meetings.

I do see some teachers giving up a Saturday to attend an EdCamp to engage without compensation in a self-generated process of developing or honing skills, methods and ideas that can lead to better teaching. EdCamps are fantastic, energizing, reaffirming events for very dedicated teachers and the EdCamp movement is growing exponentially. Excellent, but there is a dirty little secret about EdCamps; fewer than half the teachers who enroll to attend actually show up.

Half

Oddly, that is about the same percentage of teachers who show up at union meetings at my school and about the same percentage of parents who show up for the parent-teacher meetings at my school.

Slightly less than half is what you can believe of what is printed in the newspaper about education and it is about the amount you can believe of what our President promises about education policy.

I’m feeling a little better now.

When I started this essay I was convinced that nothing that happens in education is about the students, but I was wrong.

Slightly less than half of what happens in education is about the students.

Doesn’t that make you feel good, too?

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The End of an Era

04/07/2011
Black

It is over.

It didn’t even last five full months, but it is over.

Kathie Black, the woman Mayor Bloomberg said was the best person to “provide the leadership our school system needs to carry out our reforms,” resigned as schools chancellor today.

Her appointment, despite having no experience in education, was justified by Mayor Bloomberg who, in a letter to the State Commissioner of Education, said her “broad range of experience and skills to solve complex problems in the face of controversy, motivate staff, communicate with and bring together diverse constituents, manage labor relations, use data in decision making, and create and maintain a culture of change and excellence” qualified her for the job.

In fact, he call repeatedly called her the only person he even considered for the job because she was the best candidate.

But Ms. Black never developed credibility with parents, teachers, administrators or any of the other constituencies involved in the NYCDOE. Her popularity plummeted from what never were high levels, but as late as Monday the Mayor said he didn’t care what the polls said because Ms. Black was the best person for the job.

I guess now we’ll get the second best.

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Jumping Through Certification Hoops Should Be For Everyone

01/10/2011
Cathie Black Visits Hillcrest High School, Dec...
Image by lancmanoffice via Flickr

I’ve spent the day learning about the hoops I have to jump through — a 2nd master degree, for one — to be certified as a school librarian. Oh, and I have until August to get 18 of the 36 required credits if I want to be able to do the job I’m doing now next year.

I think our new school’s chancellor should have the same opportunity I have, get half the credits for an education leadership degree to be allowed to continue to do her job past Labor Day.

If I worked at an elementary school it would not be an issue but certified librarians are required at all secondary schools.

That I’ve done more in one month in and for the library, and for the students and teachers who now can use it than the certified librarian (certified in 1956, btw) did in the past six years is apparently not as important as having that piece of paper certifying me.

That I can teach the students and teachers about technology and how to use it effectively and safely where the certified librarian thinks the electric typewriter is a threat to society is not as important as having that certificate.

The "QWERTY" layout of typewriter ke...
Image via Wikipedia

If the certificate is that important for me to have, shouldn’t the school chancellor have one, too?

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Strike Four! You’re In!

11/17/2010
humour: Tux freeing himself from ball and chain.
Image via Wikipedia

Every year the NYC Department of Education issues a booklet delineating the school disciplinary code. Every student and teacher gets one.

In it, there are separate sections for K-5 and 6-8, each with four categories of offense and consequence ranging from mild disruption to bringing a gun to school. The former might earn a phone call home, the latter risks expulsion.

The idea of distributing the code is to show students that their actions have consequences. This works for kids who really don’t need to read the disciplinary code to understand that they need to behave responsibly.

It doesn’t apply to the rest of the school population, especially those students who are the most disruptive.

Take today.

In our 8th grade special education class there are two students who are increasingly problematic.

R is hyperactive and, on good days, just runs around the room refusing to do any work.

L is a very bright boy with a VERY large chip on his shoulder. He is angry, contemptuous, and also refuses to do any work.

These two boys are like this in every class. They’ve always been difficult to motivate, but this year is worse than ever.

R has started making loud, animal like vocalizations while L has become a major bully, threatening violence at the tiniest perceived slight.

The disciplinary code says that when a student is disruptive to the point of interfering with the safe and productive conduct of the class, the student can be removed for the remainder of that period at the teacher’s discretion.

Sounds reasonable, right? So far, so good.

But a student can only be removed four times in a school year.

For the vast majority of students that is more than sufficient. 98% or more of our students are never removed from class for disciplinary reasons.

Then there are kids like L and R.

We make a point of not removing L unless he actually hits someone. R also has to behave in an extreme manner to be removed.  Even so, both maxed-out their removals by the end of the first quarter.

Now, in order for them to be removed they have to be given a principal’s or superintendent’s suspension.  That means at least a week in our detention room or relocation to a ‘suspension school.’

So when L got up in the middle of his first period class today, opened a bag of cookies and started throwing them around the room, there was nothing the teacher could do about it.

And two periods later, when L and R were on the opposite sides of the room throwing wads of paper, pencils and, finally, textbooks at each other, there was nothing I could do.

Danger Placard
Image via Wikipedia

In fact, R made a point of telling me he knew he couldn’t be removed unless he did something extremely dangerous (like a three-pound textbook flying across the room isn’t extremely dangerous).

“I can do anything I want and you can’t do anything about it,” R told me. “I’ve already been removed four times and you can’t get me out of here.”

Now somebody has to get pretty seriously hurt for any of L or R’s actions to have consequences.

They’ve learned they’ve gotten a license to disrupt the learning of every other student in their class as much as they want.

And that may be the only thing they learn at school this year.

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