Tuesday, April 29, 2008

School Campus Receives a Living Senator’s Name, Much to His Opponent’s Annoyance


It is there in black and white: New York City public schools cannot be named after living people, according to the chancellor’s regulations, the set of rules and policies governing the city’s school system.

But the regulations say nothing about naming entire school campuses — like a cluster of schools offset by lush greenery — for those who are still alive. Or, for that matter, for those who are living, breathing politicians gearing up for contested re-election campaigns.

And so, Monday morning, Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein announced that a campus of schools in eastern Queens — previously known as the Glen Oaks Campus, and once home to the grounds of the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center — would be named after Frank Padavan, a longtime Republican state senator from Queens who is being challenged for re-election by James F. Gennaro, a Democratic city councilman.

Mr. Klein, at a morning news conference on Monday, called the naming a “unique situation,” saying that the campus, which was years in the making and involved, among other things, the transfer of state-owned land to the city, “came into being because of the extraordinary work of Senator Padavan.”

“I’d be happy if other people throughout the city could develop options for us like this, be happy to name campuses,” he said. “I think it sends a signal that when you do unique work you get recognition for it.”

Mr. Klein was also quick to note the distinction between school and campus, saying, “We don’t name buildings.”

But Democratic politicians scoffed at the distinction, calling the naming ceremony a political act intended to give Mr. Padavan an edge in an election in which Republican control of the State Senate is considered critical to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s agenda. Earlier this year, the mayor angered Democratic lawmakers by writing a $500,000 check to the Senate Republicans, even though he has left the Republican Party and is now an independent.

Robert Jackson, chairman of the City Council Education Committee, said that if Mr. Padavan worked hard to create new schools for his constituents, well, that was his job.

“Smells political to me,” Mr. Jackson said. “Just say that you’re doing it for political purposes, in order to support the Republican Party, in order to keep their majority in the State Senate. Just say that.”

Mr. Jackson called the distinction between school and education campus “ridiculous,” saying, “Give me a break.”

Mr. Gennaro said he was “absolutely incredulous” to hear that the campus was being named for his opponent.

“It’s no secret that the mayor is the No. 1 supporter of the Republican majority, which he’s more than free to do with his own money,” Mr. Gennaro said in a telephone interview. “But when he starts naming city infrastructure after sitting elected officials to try to ensure or at least assist the Republican majority, then that is so over the line as to be completely outrageous and totally disgraceful.”

He called the distinction between school and campus “absurd,” saying, “If you’re naming a star, there’s standards, but if you’re naming a whole galaxy that’s O.K.?”

Mr. Padavan said he had worked to create schools on the former grounds of the Creedmoor center since 1998, when he proposed the idea to Rudy Crew, then the schools chancellor. The campus now includes three schools: two kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools called Public School-Intermediate Schools 266 and 208, and a high school, the Queens High School of Teaching, Liberal Arts and the Sciences.

Mr. Padavan described himself as the city’s “go-to guy in Albany” who helped secure billions of dollars for the city schools. Asked whether he thought the campus naming was intended to give the Senate Republicans an edge in the election, he said, “We don’t need an edge.”

“If you traveled around my district, I’d take you to Padavan Field, Padavan Way, Padavan Pavilion and a whole bunch of other places that have my name on them,” he said. “I’m grateful for all these organizations and entities who have put my name up on something that they were grateful to get.”



Saturday, April 26, 2008

Informal Style of Electronic Messages Is Showing Up in Schoolwork, Study Finds

As e-mail messages, text messages and social network postings become nearly ubiquitous in the lives of teenagers, the informality of electronic communications is seeping into their schoolwork, a new study says.

Nearly two-thirds of 700 students surveyed said their e-communication style sometimes bled into school assignments, according to the study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in partnership with the College Board’s National Commission on Writing. About half said they sometimes omitted proper punctuation and capitalization in schoolwork. A quarter said they had used emoticons like smiley faces. About a third said they had used text shortcuts like “LOL” for “laugh out loud.”

“I think this is not a worrying issue at all,” said Richard Sterling, emeritus executive director of the National Writing Project, which aims to improve the teaching of writing.

When e-mail shorthand — or for that matter, slang — appears in academic assignments, Professor Sterling said, it is an opportunity for teachers to explain that while such usages are acceptable in some contexts, they do not belong in schoolwork. And as the English language evolves, he said, some e-mail conventions, like starting sentences without a capital letter, may well become accepted practice.

“I think in the future, capitalization will disappear,” said Professor Sterling, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. In fact, he said, when his teenage son asked what the presence of the capital letter added to what the period at the end of the sentence signified, he had no answer.

The study is based on eight focus groups and the survey of 700 nationally representative children, ages 12 to 17, and their parents, conducted in 2007. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus five percentage points.

Schools are grappling with the language of electronic communication. At the Bank Street School for Children in Manhattan, Stanlee Brimberg has set up an electronic message board for his class. On it he posts nightly questions, assigning students to respond to one of the questions and then to respond to another student’s response.

“After the first night, we had to talk about whether they had to write the way they do in class, or whether it could be the way they do online,” said Mr. Brimberg, who is Bank Street’s upper school coordinator. “We decided that their response to the question should be in standard English, proofread, with capital letters, but their response to the other kid could be informal. And that worked.”

Most teenagers do not think of their e-mail messages, text messages and social network postings as “real writing,” the study found.

More than half of the teenagers surveyed had a profile on a social networking site like Facebook or MySpace, 27 percent had an online journal or blog and 11 percent had a personal Web site. Generally, girls dominated the teenage blogosphere and social networks.

Most teenagers write for school nearly every day, the study found, but most assignments are short. And many write outside school, on their own, although that varies significantly by race and sex. Almost half of black teenagers said they wrote a personal journal, compared with 3 in 10 whites. And nearly half of the girls keep a journal, compared with only 3 in 10 boys.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Reframing Bullying in Middle Schools

The following article is dedicated to Dillon who was tragically killed in a car accident last summer.

“Loser” and “Fag” are scribbled on binders littering a classroom. A huddle of “popular” girls glare at the classmate they’ve chosen as outsider of the week. A broad-shouldered 9th grade boy shoves his scrawny, bespectacled friend of yesterday into the stretch of lockers.

Bullying—We know it when we see it. Though we bemoan such behavior, it’s almost as if we expect it from adolescents. Even educators rarely do anything about it. And when such incidents are publicized by the finger-wagging, tongue-clicking media, they implicitly blame the kids. ”Watch out America!” the headlines warn. Adolescents are brutish, evil, aggressive, and immoral.

Or are they?

Perhaps it is time we stopped pointing fingers at adolescents and look instead at the culture that has produced rampant cruelty in many public middle and high schools. Many of our schools are anonymous and uncaring. The average California middle school has over 1000 students, and many exceed 2,000. Classrooms are overcrowded, teachers overworked and underprepared, and buildings are falling apart. Bars on the windows filter the sunlight, metal detectors block the doors, and security guards watch over everything, their walkie-talkies crackling. More time is spent on discipline than on teaching. Those who make a mistake are tossed out, the result of one-strike, zero-tolerance policies intended to make schools safer. When schools operate like prisons, why are we surprised that kids behave like convicts?

We live in an era of educational accountability, when it seems like all that matters to political leaders is test scores and the catch phrase No Child Left Behind. But it just may be that our obsession with deciles and percentiles is getting in the way of the larger, more important goal of education—raising healthy, productive citizens.

Adolescents will not grow up to be caring and compassionate adults of their own volition. Kids are not good or bad. Kids make good or bad decisions. The trick is to teach our children to treat each other with respect. We can do that by infusing decency and compassion into everything we do.

Lessons from Bullying

We don’t have to accept bullying as a part of growing up. When the Los Angeles middle school where I work experienced a series of bullying incidents, my colleagues and I decided against simply suspending those responsible. Instead, we decided to take steps to change the school culture. We embraced the problem as a teachable moment. We facilitated a structured, student-centered discussion about their experiences with bullying. We did not view this lesson as an unrelated interruption in the academic schedule. Teaching tolerance, we decided, was as much a part of our mission as algebra or social studies.

We knew we had been successful when Dillon, the coolest boy in the 8th grade, turned to Freddy, a socially awkward, stuttering peer, and said, “When I first got to this school, I was fat and wore thick glasses. All the kids were mean to me, and I used to sit alone at lunch everyday.” Dillon went on to explain that Freddy suggested they to sit together, and it changed his entire middle school experience. Then, in front of incredulous teachers and fellow students, Dillon began to sob. And the room full of middle schoolers we so readily assume are insensitive, sat in a silent, respectful trance.

Later that morning, I witnessed students surround Dillon in support. Some sat next to him. Some stroked his hand or wiped his tears. Some were the very same students involved in the bullying incidents that spurred these conversations in the first place. Brutish or tender—we get the behavior we expect. It’s all in the messages we send, the attitudes we display, and the expectations we communicate. This scene is not pie-in-the-sky idealism. In fact, it’s pragmatic. It’s what you get when you teach kids, deliberately and explicitly, to care.

Later that morning, I witnessed students surround Dillon in support. Some sat next to him. Some stroked his hand or wiped his tears. Some were the very same students involved in the bullying incidents that spurred these conversations in the first place. Brutish or tender—we get the behavior we expect. It’s all in the messages we send, the attitudes we display, and the expectations we communicate. This scene is not pie-in-the-sky idealism. In fact, it’s pragmatic. It’s what you get when you teach kids, deliberately and explicitly, to care.

It’s time we reexamine our national priorities. We are focusing on test scores at the expense of meeting the needs of the whole child. Bullying is just a symptom of a sick school culture. Reading and math are important, no doubt about it. But it’s also possible to teach kids to consider the common good, to act ethically, and to work with their fellow students to make the school community safe and healthy for all. Griping about bullying adolescents is not enough. It’s time for the adults to grow up and act.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Lacking Credits, Some Students Learn a Shortcut

NYC is looking into credit recovery programs and their validity.

This concerns me. This appears to be energy spent in the wrong direction. Rather than forming a team to look into the underlying causes of why little Johnny doesn’t come to school, or why our teaching methods are so disengaging for so many students, a team has been formed to look into why credit has been earned by "at-risk" kids. The team is not out to replicate the process of individualized instruction that facilitated these "at risk" students to the accumulation of credit; instead it's been established to dismantle a perceived "loop-hole" in the system.

Loop-hole in the system??? Are there loop-holes? Yes, there are. Some kids get to go to elite publicly funded schools while others do not, this is a loop-hole. Some students have regular access to current technology while others do not, this is a loop-hole. Some students get to sit in tracked classes surrounded by the brightest minds all day while other sit in overcrowded classes filled with numerous distractors, this is a loop-hole! Some students are exempt for NYS Regents exams while others are not, this is a loop-hole! Some students take three buses to get to school each morning while others have a simple 5 min walk, yes this too is a loop-hole. Some students must walk through sets of metal detectors each morning and remove their belts while others are greeted with a "hello", this is a loop-hole. Some students have a support system at home that values school and encourages learning while unfortunately some do not, this is a loop-hole. Are there loop-holes?

Of all the loop-holes in the system, the one that benefits the neediest is the one that is under scrutiny? Why is this?



Dennis Bunyan showed up for his first-semester senior English class at Wadleigh Secondary School in Harlem so rarely that, as he put it, “I basically didn’t attend.”

But despite his sustained absence, Mr. Bunyan got the credit he needed to graduate last June by completing just three essay assignments, which he said took about 10 hours.

“I’m grateful for it, but it also just seems kind of, you know, outrageous,” Mr. Bunyan said. “There’s no way three essays can possibly cover a semester of work.”

Mr. Bunyan was able to graduate through what is known as credit recovery — letting those who lack credits make them up by means other than retaking a class or attending traditional summer school. Although his principal said the makeup assignments were as rigorous as regular course work, Mr. Bunyan’s English teacher, Charan Morris, was so troubled that she boycotted the graduation ceremony, writing in an e-mail message to students that she believed some were “being pushed through the system regardless of whether they have done the work to earn their diploma.”

Throughout the city, an ad hoc system of helping students like Mr. Bunyan over the hump is taking root in public high schools, sometimes over the protests of teachers, who call credit recovery programs a poor substitute for classroom learning and say they ultimately devalue the diploma. In interviews, teachers or principals at more than a dozen schools said the programs ranged from five-day crunch sessions over school breaks, to interactive computer programs culminating in an online test, to independent study packets — and varied in quality.

Top officials with the city’s Education Department say good principals have always found creative ways to help struggling students make up missed work, describing such efforts as a lifeline for students who might otherwise never earn their diplomas. And across the country, school systems confronting abysmal graduation rates are turning to online credit recovery courses, which roughly a third of states have either developed or endorsed in recent years, according to the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University.

Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, in a statement, called credit recovery “a legitimate and important strategy for working with high school students.” He said there was “no indication” that the practice “has been abused more in recent years.”

“If credit recovery is not conducted properly, just as with any other required course, we will take appropriate action,” he added. “We do students no favors by giving them credit they haven’t earned.”

But city officials acknowledged that credit recovery programs are neither centrally monitored nor tracked.

The State Education Department, after seeing a copy of “independent study” guidelines in use at Wadleigh and a number of other schools, said it was examining whether the practice met its standards. State law requires students to earn credits by completing set hours of “seat time” — essentially, showing up for class — and demonstrating subject mastery. To graduate, they must also pass Regents exams.

“We are looking into this situation very carefully,” said Johanna Duncan-Poitier, the senior deputy state education commissioner. “We want to make sure that the student is getting what they deserve.”

Critics say the practice is poised to become more prevalent as principals enjoy greater freedom from supervision at the same time as they are held more accountable for student performance, two hallmarks of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s plan to overhaul city schools. Last fall, schools received letter grades based on student performance, with principals at D or F schools in danger of losing their jobs.

Diane Ravitch, a historian of the city’s public schools who has been a frequent critic of the mayor’s efforts, says the practice of credit recovery could raise questions about the validity of gains in the city’s graduation rate. According to the state, the city had a 50 percent four-year graduation rate in 2006, the most recent year for which data was available, up from 44 percent in 2004.
“I think when it’s used correctly, it might be a good thing,” Ms. Ravitch said of credit recovery, “but when used incorrectly it’s a way of gaming the system.”

But Mr. Klein said there was “no basis to suggest that improper credit recovery has affected graduation rates.” Saying that 39,000 students received Regents or local diplomas last year, 8,000 more than in 2002, when the mayor took control of the schools, he added, “A few anecdotes don’t materially affect this rise.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said that the union had received “enough complaints about it that we are really concerned,” but that without hard numbers on the prevalence of credit recovery, she could not say whether the graduation rate was suspect.

“It clearly raises questions about the graduation statistics, but I can’t tell you right now as I sit here how widespread it is,” she said. “I don’t know if it raises questions about a statistically significant number of kids.”

Elizabeth Dougherty, a social studies teacher and teachers’ union chapter chairwoman at the Pelham Preparatory Academy, a small public school in the Bronx, said her school offered several credit recovery programs. “The pressure is so overwhelming now for graduation rates,” she said. “The principals are getting pressure, and the pressure gets put on the teachers.”

One Manhattan principal who has worked in the school system for more than a decade and, like many educators, requested anonymity for fear of retribution by the department, said: “I think that credit recovery and the related topic independent study is in lots of ways the dirty little secret of high schools. There’s very little oversight and there are very few standards.”

Mónica Ortiz-Ureña, the principal of Evander Childs High School in the Bronx, a large school scheduled to close in June after years of poor performance, said its credit recovery programs were developed after the city cut its centrally run summer and evening schools. She said many teachers did not like the practice, which at her school includes online programs in which students complete some work at home and some at school, because “they feel that you’re taking away their jobs.”

“I think credit recovery, as long as it’s done properly and is done according to state law, I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for students who have experienced failure before to experience success,” she said.

At Franklin K. Lane, a large high school in Brooklyn, an advertisement for credit recovery programs offered last year urged students: “If you failed a class, don’t despair ... turnaround your 55 into a 65 in 6 weeks!!! Ask your teacher for details!!!”

Adam Bergstein, a teacher who is head of the school’s union chapter, said the six-week program, which consisted of six classes, had troubled teachers.

“A 55 could be indicative of anything from a 1 to literally a 55 average,” he said. “It’s not a mere nudge ahead; it could be an astronomical leap.”

“It undermines the whole concept of teaching and grading,” Mr. Bergstein continued.

At Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, a February memorandum from two assistant principals described “our first five-day Intensive Program for Credit Recovery” for English classes, consisting of “two days of full instruction from 9-2 p.m. and three days of classroom instruction and field trip experiences.”

Credit recovery programs generally take place on school grounds; teachers who lead them can receive overtime pay.

At Wings Academy in the Bronx, several teachers, all of whom requested anonymity, said credit recovery programs shortchanged students because they may never acquire the discipline and work habits to succeed beyond high school. The programs include crunch sessions after classes end for the semester and independent study packets.

At the Felisa Rincón de Gautier Institute for Law and Public Policy, also in the Bronx, Natasha Ramos, a top student, said she was dismayed by a new “term extension program,” in which seniors could make up missing credits during the week when classes stop for Regents exams.
“I didn’t think that that was fair to the kids who had to go to class during the whole semester,” she said. “It takes away from an actual learning environment.”

A teacher at another Bronx school, who did not want the name of his school published for fear of retribution, said a program there let students earn a year’s worth of science credits by responding to 19 questions on 5 topics. “Research and list all the global environmental issues that science focuses on,” read one, under the “environmental studies” category. “What are some ways that you, as an individual, can help?” read another.

Ms. Morris, the teacher who boycotted the Wadleigh graduation, declined to comment; her e-mail message was provided by a recipient. Wadleigh’s former principal, Karen Watts, was rewarded in January for the school’s performance by being named the city’s first “executive principal.” She was reassigned to a troubled school, in exchange for a $25,000 yearly bonus.
In an interview, Ms. Watts said she believed that no more than five of the more than 100 graduates last June had benefited from the credit-recovery work packets, which were meant to take 54 hours and were “just as rigorous as courses they would have taken sitting in the classroom every day with a teacher, or even more rigorous.” She said she believed she had been following “standard practice.”

Same article different opinion.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Legislators Balk at Tying Teacher Tenure to Student Tests

ALBANY — In the latest rebuke to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s agenda, state lawmakers have decided to bar student test scores from being considered when teacher tenure determinations are made.

Legislators said the move was the final detail negotiated as part of the budget, which they expect to complete on Wednesday. It was a setback to efforts by the mayor and former Gov. Eliot Spitzer to hold teachers accountable by using student performance data, and a boon for the teachers’ unions, which hold enormous influence over the political process in the capital.

The new language being prepared for the state law says that for the next two years student scores will not be considered in decisions on teachers’ tenure; in the meantime, a commission is to be created to study the issue.

The move was denounced Tuesday night by the Bloomberg administration.

“I am dismayed that the State Legislature would even consider tying the hands of principals and school districts as they decide who gets lifetime job security,” said Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein. “This is unconscionable. Lawmakers should do all they can to ensure every student has a good teacher. I urge our lawmakers to vote no tomorrow. Our children deserve better.”

The development was another sign that the fledgling administration of Gov. David A. Paterson, a Democrat, could be a rocky one for the mayor. The new governor was unable to rally support for the mayor’s congestion pricing plan, which would have charged drivers to enter Manhattan below 60th Street. While Mr. Paterson supported the measure, he could not persuade Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver or other Assembly Democrats to bring the measure to the floor, and it was pronounced dead without a vote on Monday.

The mayor and his staff members were seething when it became known on Tuesday that the teacher accountability measure in state law was being revised. Lawmakers and legislative aides said they expected to return to work Wednesday morning and vote on the final piece of the budget — education financing and taxes — and it was the tenure issue, they said, that held it up.

“That is the last piece,” Mr. Silver said. “And I think there’s, you know, some good compromise language we’re considering right now.” He added, “I think everybody will be comfortable with it.”

He did not discuss details of the compromise, but a draft of the relevant portion of the budget obtained by The New York Times changes language added to state law last year while Mr. Spitzer was governor.

That section said teachers would be evaluated for tenure based on, among other things, an “evaluation of the extent to which the teacher successfully utilized analysis of available student performance data.”

The newer language says that “the teacher shall not be granted or denied tenure based on student performance data.”

The matter is to be turned over to a study commission for further review.

“They’re just reviewing final language on the tenure bill, new language that the school boards have signed off on,” said John McArdle, a spokesman for the Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno, the state’s top Republican. “I think it works. Once that’s resolved, they’ll print the bills.”

Pressure from unions weighed heavily in the process, and particularly with Senate Republicans.

“From very early on, the Assembly and the governor understood what was at issue here,” said Richard C. Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers. “It may have taken us a little bit longer to get the Senate to understand, but I think they do.”

He added, “Student assessments are designed to assess students, not teachers.”

Though the bills were still being drafted, the last unresolved pieces of the state’s budget seemed in place by Tuesday night. Legislative officials said that agreements had been reached about increases to various state taxes and fees, one of the issues that had stymied budget negotiations over the last several weeks.

Overall, officials said, spending of all funds in the roughly $122 billion budget would increase by 4.9 percent, nearly twice the rate of inflation, assuming that the final budget materializes as expected Wednesday morning. While the increase would be less than what Mr. Spitzer originally proposed in January, many budget critics and the governor himself have said the budget is bloated.

The state’s $1.50 cigarette tax will go up $1.25 more, but many of the taxes and fees that were first proposed by Mr. Spitzer will not be included. The proposal to quadruple the state’s motor vehicle insurance fee to $20 has been dropped, as has the plan mockingly called the “crack tax,” which would have taxed drug dealers on drugs confiscated by the authorities, and a plan to eliminate the tax cap on fuel purchases.

In a victory for Senate Republicans, some of the tax increases will expire after three years, Mr. McArdle said. Mr. Paterson had fought to make the new tax and fee increases permanent because he said the state’s debt rating with credit agencies would suffer if they were only temporary.

The likelihood that coming financial estimates from the state comptroller will show a further deterioration of the state’s financial picture put more pressure on the Legislature to avoid last-minute spending increases.

On April 15, the comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, is to update state revenue collections through the end of March, and most experts predict a drop from previous revenue estimates.

Moreover, in the next day or two, the comptroller will also issue a separate report detailing actual revenues and spending over the last fiscal year, a measure of how closely the state followed its own financial plan. If actual spending was lower than planned, as has been the case previously, that would in effect magnify proposed spending increases for the coming fiscal year, putting further pressure on budget negotiators to avoid last-minute spending increases.

“I do think that the revenue picture is deteriorating, and it’s going to be very important to keep an eye on those revenue updates,” said Elizabeth Lynam, the deputy research director for the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit group that favors fiscal discipline.

Nicholas Confessore and Trymaine Lee contributed reporting.