Thursday, January 26, 2006

My School , NCLB, & The NYC Department Of Education

Let me state this first. I believe in high-stakes testing and I have no problem using these tests for promotion or identifying student weaknesses. However, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is nothing but a farce because of policies employed by the New York City Department of Education that adversely affects my school. Let me explain.

My school is a large, overcrowded high school with the average class size of 32 students per classroom (The union contract allows for 34 students per classroom). Over the last five years my school both academically and safety-wise had improved, thanks to a zero-tolerance discipline program that suspends students rather than allow them to walk the halls, disrupt the classroom. or bully other students. Then NLCB came along and we had to improve on our baseline standards. No problem, our school was improving academically, safety was not an issue, and gangs in the school were deep underground, so what was the problem? The New York City Department of Education's flawed policy of closing poor performing large schools and make small schools out of them, that's the problem.

In the last three years three large high schools have been converted to small schools with the approximately three thousand excessed students sent to other schools in the borough of Queens. One of the recipients of these students was my school. The students came from underperforming middle schools and were not selected to go to the newly created small schools. Many of these students came with poor work habits, disrespected their teachers and peers, and were at the bottom of the heap in their middle school mandated tests. With the influx of the students overcrowding became worse, fights are on the rise, and academically, the school is floundering.

Why would NYC Department of Education want to push a large, respected high school into the dangerous waters of the NCLB penalties? I can only guess that it is a combination of incompetence, political policy, and apathy.

Incompetence - Many of the the middle-level administrators at the NYC Department of Education have little understanding of how a school operates. They think of the students as cogs in an assembly line. To them, all the cogs are the same aren't they? The teachers are widgets and the principal as the operator. Their only concern is that the school run smoothly. Incompetence is based upon their lack of understanding of what it takes to run a successful school. That is why they cannot understand that students need to be screened to ensure they are ready for high school and that illiterate students entering high school will not graduate, no matter how much they try without intensive one-to-one tutoring in an alternative setting.

Political Policy - Much of the top management at the NYC Department of Education (Tweed)
aren't educators and the few that are have been away from the classroom for decades. Their priorities are small schools and charter schools, where work rules can be relaxed (abused) by the administrators. Further, micromanagement is all the rage at Tweed. Tweed's policy is that the "one-size-fits-all" approach should be imposed on all classes. These non-educators believe that the more innovative a classroom teacher is, the more dangerous that teacher becomes. We all know that teachers are the best evaulators of their students. However, according to Tweed, all students learn the same using the same curriculum and a teacher might find him/her in the "rubber room" if they stray from Tweed's directives.

Apathy - The Tweed policy is that "you can fool some of the people all the time and all the people some of the time" and by the time the general population realizes they have been fooled, it's usually too late to do anything about it. Many parents are fooled by the statistics showing that their children are passing increasingly dumbed down state & city tests. Even some of the city politicians believe that Tweed is succeeding in improving the education of the city students.
Further, Tweed's disrespect for teachers and school administrators is obvious for all to see. Just ask any teacher what they think is wrong with the New York City schools and they will all say Tweed. Finally, our union (UFT) rather then push their "Let Teachers Teach Program" and fight the push to small schools, have remained silent about how to combat Tweed. Apathy breeds disrespect and with apathetic parents, politicians, and the UFT, Tweeds rides roughshot over the system.

It is time that educators stand up and fight for the system and in my case I will start at my school. Fight for what's right.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Why Can"t The Students Learn?

My Assistant Principal came to me and asked me how can we improve test scores in the science department. My simple answer; Get me better students and I will give you better test scores. We both laughed because the answer, while simple, cannot be implemented.

My school is an overcrowded large high school, with large class sizes, many recent immigrants with varying levels of education, and a Regional Office that has no problem dumping excess students from other large schools who became small schools into my school. Further, it seems the Principal refuses to defend the school by allowing the Regional Office to do as they please, even allowing students who were jailed for violent crimes to return to the very school they terrorized in the first place!

In some cases the student enters our school in their freshmen year as functional illiterates. How any school system allows this is beyond belief. These children should be flagged well before they enter high school and they should be put into an alternate setting with intensive reading and writing programs in a small class environment until they are certified as ready for high school. Recent immigrants with high school age children present a special problem, especially, if their native language is not english. Too many of these children find their way into my science class with no skills and are very frustrated at their inability to move ahead.

Many teens who are not academically prepared for high school may take out their frustrations by bullying other student, join gangs, and find themselves dropping out of school and/or going to jail. The result is an unsafe school that starts to spiral downward and will not stop until, under NCLB the good students will leave the school. Finally, the school closes down, or is broken into smaller schools and what was once a good school is no more.

It is easy for me to blame the parent, the middle school, the Department of Education, or the child advocates who protect the rights of the child at the expense of the student body. However, the real blame lies with the politicans who approve rules that makes it next to impossible for schools to throw out discipline problems, turn a blind eye to social promotion, and restricts teachers in how they handle their classroom (micromanagment).

How do we ensure the student has a chance to graduate? By intervening at the first indication that the child is falling behind. First, small classes so all the children have a maximum opportunity to learn the basics. Second, one-to-one tutoring with teachers specially trained to work with these children. Third, zero tolerance of destructive behavior, suspending and removing the child to an alternative setting. This lets the other students know that the school is a building of learning. Finally, letting teachers teach in a way that works for both the teacher and the student. The "one-size-fits-all" top-down approach does not and will never work when a teacher cannot teach what's best for the class.

Why can't students learn? Because the teacher does not have or is allowed to use the tools that are needed for the child to graduate and be a productive member of society.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Public vs. Charter Schools, is 20-20 Right? Wrong!

I watched Friday's 20/20 propoganda program how the public schools cheat our children and can only laugh how one-sided John Stossel's piece was. If you didn't know better, you would believe that our public schools are not educating our children and why would anybody want to go to a public school? However, there are some facts that were omitted by Stossel.

First, charter schools have not demostrated that they improve student achievement over the neighbourhood public school in the long term.

Second, charter schools usually emphizise academics at the expense of a well-rounded education such as physical education, arts, and music. Many charter schools have no gyms and studies have found that physical education is important for a child's development.

Third, charter schools have a longer day, and even saturday school. Teacher burnout is the dirty little secret in charter schools as the charter schools use young, enthusiastic, and usually uncertified teachers for a couple of years until they either leave the profession or go to the public school once they become certified.

Fourth, charter schools will throw out students who violate their discipline code. These students are usually associated with low test scores and failing grades.

Finally, many charter schools limit the size of their classes. One charter middle school looked like they had 12 students to a class in the 20/20 program.

I also found it interesting that many charter schools, to cut costs, have their students picking up garbage, serving meals, and during other clerical/janitorial jobs.

I do agree that the Kipps charter schools appear to have made significant gains over the public school. However, that is primarily due to their acceptance program that ensures that the parent contribute to their child's education by fundraising and volunteering their time at the school. Parent involvement is the key to a child's academic success.

If public schools can kick out discipline problems, have smaller class sizes, and select students, based upon parent involvement, the charter school has would disappear since they could not compete on a level playing field.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Where's Our Dues Going To?

As teachers we pay quite hefty dues to our teaching organizations with the expectation that the money will go to education related causes. However, Fox News (Fair & Balanced?) stated that the NEA gave 65 million dollars to non-educational organizations. While I don't always believe the media, the NEA admitted that they did donate the money. Who are some of these worthy organizations?


* Gun Control Lobby

* Gay & Lesbian Organizations

* National Women's Law Center

Regardless of how you feel about these and other organizations, teacher money should only be given to organizations that are educationally related and help support teacher working conditions. I personally resent that my dues go to any organization that does not advance an education agenda.