Log in  |  Search

Supporting each other to strengthen our schools and profession

Calling this a challenging school year would be an understatement. Every educator I speak to is exhausted and more than ready for a well-earned summer break.

Teaching is a difficult job at the best of times — it leaves us physically and emotionally depleted come June. And with our profession and public schools under constant siege, the job has become that much tougher.

So as this school year draws to a close, it’s important to take a step back and reflect on what really matters: You have worked hard, you have been devoted to your students, and you are making a difference in their lives.

None of us do our work in isolation. We are members of a school faculty, of a school community, of a union. These affiliations make us stronger.

As one of the teacher leaders at this year’s UFT Spring Education Conference so aptly put it: When teachers support each other and play to one another’s strengths, together they make that golden teacher. Make sure you take a few moments to think back on all of the support and guidance you received from colleagues over the last 10 months — and thank them.

We are fortunate today to have a friend in the mayor and the schools chancellor. Their belief in collaboration and partnership, in tapping into the expertise that exists in our own school buildings, has helped us move forward. It’s a relief after 20 years of mayors antagonistic toward teachers and public education.

But just as we are making a long-overdue course correction in New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the hedge-fund managers who bankrolled his re-election campaign have taken the baton from Bloomberg and are continuing to rail against public education as long as there are profits to be made and political axes to grind.

So none of the advances we are beginning to make this school year has come easily. They were the product of our hard work and our struggles, in the classroom and in the streets, to fend off the attacks against the students, families and communities we serve.

We are sure to confront new assaults on public schools and our profession in the coming school year. We must counter the misinformation that is being broadcast by making sure that every New Yorker knows the great work that New York City public school educators are doing despite the challenges.

That’s why, even as we continue to battle the governor and his allies at the state level and problematic principals at individual schools, we must always make sure to celebrate the strides we have made to improve New York City’s schools.

We have one of the most important, most rewarding, but also most demanding jobs in the world, and we should be proud of all that we do to protect, nurture and educate our city’s children. Our schools are brimming with the passion that you bring to them and with the love of learning that you spark in your students, and for that I cannot thank you enough.

Now we must make sure the rest of our city sees that passion ­— and the results that it is yielding.

I wish you all a restful and enjoyable summer break.

No more pencils, no more books

Eric Severson is the chapter leader at Clara Barton HS in Brooklyn.

In my first year teaching in the New York City school system, I became well acquainted with one of the most energetic women I have ever met, a Mexican-American elevator operator who operated our school’s antiquated hand-crank lift. She worked two other jobs besides this one and supplemented her income by knitting in every spare moment and enthusiastically selling hats, scarves and mittens to anyone she met. When the United States’ economy crashed in 2008, it was not the Wall Street bankers whose exotic financial instruments led to the crash who lost their jobs, it was working-class school staff and aides who made $13 an hour and were considered “non-essential” because they do not directly teach students.

Teachers in New York largely kept their jobs thanks to union contracts that prevented the Bloomberg administration from adding to already huge class sizes of 34 and avoided salary cuts, although we did not get a new contract and a raise until De Blasio signed one in May 2014 (and we will not receive our retroactive salary in full until 2020). However, everything else that could be was cut to the bone due to shrinking budgets as the economy contracted: Deans in charge of discipline, guidance counselors and money for basic supplies like computers and even copy paper was reduced.

One of the most tangible examples of these budget cuts for us teachers was the drastic reduction in a program called “Teacher’s Choice” in which the city council appropriated funds to allow teachers to purchase whatever supplies they needed for the classroom.  When I started in 2006, this program provided $215 which I could use as I saw fit as long as I kept and turned in the receipts. I used the money to buy class sets of paperback novels and plays to enliven my self-contained class for students with special needs who responded much better to acting out scenes from a play or reading thrilling adventure stories than filling out the boring workbooks that were on the shelves when I arrived. At the height of the Great Recession, this annual fund was completely eliminated one year and revived at a drastically reduced $48 the next. Even today with unemployment at nearly half what it was at the worst of the crisis, the Teacher’s Choice budget is only $70, less than a third what it was when I started in 2006 and even less in inflation-adjusted terms.

So, years after the official end of the great recession, New York City educators and their students are still feeling the hangover effect of draconian budget cuts. Citywide, schools still have excessive class sizes of 34 students to a room, guidance counselors, social workers, art and music teachers and librarians are in short supply and the the new mantras of ‘rigor’ and ‘differentiation’ demand that teachers do more and more with less. The fight to restore equitable funding for New York City’s students has been a long one, but public opinion is on the side of the teachers. The United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s public school teacher union, has asked members and supporters to write and lobby the city council to restore the teacher’s choice budget for the next school year. If you support the people who work tirelessly to build a better future for one million students, I suggest you join this campaign.

Restore Teacher’s Choice

A high school English teacher in Queens builds a library of graphic novels for his struggling readers. A pre-K teacher in the East Village helps her students care for their own caterpillars as they transform into butterflies. And a 3rd-grade teacher in an impoverished section of the Bronx makes sure every student goes home with a notebook and pencil — because, she says, “It’s a little thing for us to give them those supplies, but for them it’s like the biggest thing in the world.”

In classrooms across the city, teachers and students are accomplishing amazing things every day. But they need the supplies — and the funding — to make it happen.

Teachers know best what materials they need for their classrooms and their students. That’s why, more than 25 years ago, the UFT initiated the Teacher’s Choice program. Traditionally funded by the City Council, Teacher’s Choice gives educators the freedom to purchase their own supplies for use in schools.

Because of the recession, Teacher’s Choice was eliminated during the 2011–12 school year. Although funding was restored the following school year, the amount since then has remained a fraction of what it used to be even as our city’s economy has recovered.

Our city now has the most state education aid it has received in eight years. Yet our teachers continue to spend hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets to give their students a high-quality education.

Our teachers and our students deserve better. It’s time for the City Council to restore Teacher’s Choice funding.

Cuomo’s gift to his hedge-fund allies

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has found a new way to help his ultra-wealthy campaign contributors while at the same time hurting public schools.

He is proposing an education tax credit that would richly reward his campaign donors by giving individuals and businesses tax credits equal to 75 percent of their donations to a scholarship fund for private schools. The scholarships can go to students from families who earn up to $250,000.

Tax credits are far more generous than tax deductions because they give a dollar-for-dollar reduction of taxes. That means one of Cuomo’s Wall Street supporters who gives $1.3 million to a private school would have his state taxes reduced by a whopping $1 million.

To make this proposal politically palatable, Cuomo is also offering the tax credits for contributions to public schools or nonprofits that provide education support, such as after-school programs. But the fact that a school must have a foundation to receive contributions reveals that private schools and their donors are the intended beneficiaries.

Public schools can get only up to $20 million in tax credits, while tax credits for private schools may total $70 million.

Our governor owes state public schools more than $5 billion under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement, but has somehow found $150 million a year to subsidize his wealthy donors and private schools.

Most telling is that Cuomo’s proposed tax credit bill bears striking resemblance to model legislation by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing group that wants to destroy public education and whose funders include the Koch family.

Our governor is in step with ALEC’s right-wing ideology against public schools. But he is far out of step with New York State residents, as recent polls show.

The state Legislature must reject this destructive proposal.

Charter booster’s study finds closing schools benefits students

The Fordham Institute, a charter authorizer in Ohio and a charter booster nationally, just put out a study on the value of closing low-performing schools. A Pennsylvania high school English teacher, on his blog “Curmudgucation,”  described it as akin to “a study touting the benefits of cigarette smoking brought to you by your friends at the Tobacco Institute.”

The study shows that students displaced from closing district schools in Ohio between 2006 and 2012 had four-one-hundredths to seven-one-hundredths of one standard deviation more improved test scores after three years than a comparison group.

The authors translate this into 34 to 49 extra days of learning over three years. But F. Howard Nelson, a researcher in the Educational Issues department of the AFT describes those effects as small—“in the neighborhood of one percentile.”

And, he said, researchers don’t generally convert test score gains into days of learning because learning does not progress in equal, count-able days. And “you don’t teach math all day or reading all day,” he notes, so the conversion doesn’t make much sense.

It’s not surprise that Fordham’s findings square with its policy agenda. As a charter authorizer it stood to benefit from the closing of 198 schools in eight Ohio cities, as buildings and students became available (To be fair, 78 of the closed schools were charters). It stands to gain from upending community schools.

The timing of Fordham’s study was excellent. Closing schools has recently become an education cause du jour for the hedge-fund-fueled “reform” movement. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who takes his lead from these reformers, used his budget powers in April to put struggling schools under threat of imminent closure or “receivership” if they don’t shape up. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was forced into a runoff for his re-election bid this year over his unpopular school closings.

Now, according to Fordham’s research, closing schools is really for the best, a way to “put bad schools out of their misery.”

Fordham authors Deven Carlson and Stéphane Lavertu, sounding more like a paternalistic schoolmasters than researchers, recommend that policymakers “embrace closures” and not bother with “turnaround” efforts, which are mostly “wishful thinking.” They conclude, “though fraught with controversy and political peril, shuttering bad schools might just be a saving grace for students who need the best education they can get.”

The study also found that displaced students generally attended better schools than the ones they left. This, again, was based strictly on test performance and gain scores based on the tests, and using that measure their new schools were generally still among the weaker ones in the district. (Meanwhile, 41 percent of displaced district students actually wound up in schools that were worse than the ones they left.)

The Consortium on Chicago School Research showed that most students in the first round of closing schools in Chicago moved to schools that were only a little better than the ones they left and they didn’t improve much academically. Only about 20 percent who landed at top district schools after a closing experienced substantial academic improvement.

Other research, referenced by the Fordham writers but not discussed, has found that displaced students only do better if they move to a “dramatically higher-performing” school (Mathematica, RAND and Vanderbilt, 2012); that most students from closing schools transferred to other schools that were academically weak (Chicago Consortium, 2009); that a closing announcement in and of itself pushes student scores down (Ozek, Hansen and Gonzales 2012); and in the case of New Orleans there were actual negative outcomes for students (Nelson, Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) 2013 New Schools for New Orleans Year 2 Report).

The Fordham findings run counter to the other research results. The best you could say is that the research on closing schools is “mixed.”

More important may be how narrowly Fordham looks at the issue. One commenter, responding to a Fordham op-ed in the Wall Street Journal touting the findings, wrote: “”I’d like the Fordham Institute to do a little research for me: name one closing school in this nation that wasn’t filled with a majority of low-income students? Student poverty is the elephant in the room that no policy maker is willing to see.”

Would a district want to close schools based solely on test scores? Small test-score gains may not outweigh the negative effects of shutting down a community institution that students and families look to for hope. As the curmudgeonly blogger (in real life, Peter Greene) wrote, “It’s politically dangerous because people understand that it comes at a huge educational and social cost. It cuts the child loose from a community support system while hollowing out the heart of that community.”

It may not be worth that one percentile blip.

Staying true to myself for my students

Art Bechstein is the pseudonym of a first-year English teacher at a high school in Brooklyn. To submit to the New Teacher Diaries, email edwize@uft.org!

I am a very weird person. It’s OK — I’ve known it for a while now. I can’t contain myself when I get excited, my language is littered with turns-of-phrase and pop culture allusions that very few understand, and I willingly bought a child’s Spiderman backpack for an excursion to the Middle East.

I have spent most of my life figuring out how to be OK with me, but for now, I think I’ve got it.

Being a high school teacher in my mid-twenties, I am only a few years older than my students — and yet somehow I’m the one in charge. In the summer before my first year of teaching, I thought of onscreen teachers like Mr. Feeny in Boy Meets World and Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society — teachers whose pupils looked up to them and whose lives revolved around their teachers like moons around planets. In the classroom, like them, I would be stoic, exciting, engaging and all-knowing.

This all fell apart when my students saw that Spiderman backpack hung on my wall.

I had this conversation at least three times a week for the first two months of school: “Mister, what IS that?”

“It’s a Spiderman backpack.”

“Why do you have it?”

“Because it’s awesome.”

“But it’s for a kid. Do you have a kid?”

“No, it’s mine.”

“What? That’s weird.”

And then, the eye rolls. Epic eye rolls, roller coaster-esque eye rolls, as if their eyeballs would fall out of their heads. Who is this grown man with a kid’s backpack on his wall? And he’s gonna make me read what?

Of course, there was even more about me to activate a teenager’s weirdness detector: the Adventure Time hat hanging from a hook on my desk and Converse sneakers with hand-drawn crisscrosses on the canvas; the loud rock music I blast from my room in the morning; and the way I thread “y’all” through all my speech. Every single time this word popped out of my mouth, a group of girls in my third-period class (and then the entire class) would parrot back drawn-out southern a’s to remind me how out of place I was.

After school, I would reconsider my classroom presence and entire self. Why don’t my students like who I am? Why do I bother them so much? Am I ready for high school again, a crockpot of judgment and pack mentality? Wasn’t the point of graduating so I didn’t have to go to high school again?

And it all flooded back to me — that fear of being weird. How searing it was as a teenager to be seen as strange or different, how it could be a lot easier to say nothing and blend in than to venture something. And here I was, teaching English, the very stuff that was supposed to make you want to stand out and be different. Why was I afraid to be my strange self?

I knew I had to continue to be me, and to be me as loudly as possible. Sure, I wouldn’t be Mr. Feeny, but I could be something else. If even one student could see me wanting to be me, embracing every weird facet of myself and feel better about themselves, it would be a victory.

I still play loud music, get really excited about books, and keep my Spiderman backpack hanging on the wall. The students are even getting used to me now — they holler “y’all” back to me, but now with smiles. They float in and out of my classroom before and after class and during free periods, poking around my books and recommending music I should play next. One student even dropped off a list of songs she said I should listen to, her handwriting filling the entire page.

The school days pile up, and our relationships continue to grow. The students open up, venture answers and dare to be themselves in the community of our English class. In front of the class, I’m not an imitation of a teacher I saw on TV. I am honest, excitable, open and weird. I am who I am, for myself and for my students.

Cuomo reaps the whirlwind

The anti-testing furor in New York State has reached new heights, thanks in large part to Gov. Cuomo and his total disinterest in what parents and educators say students need.

The number of public school students across the state who opted out of the state’s English language arts tests for grades 3 through 8 has tripled, from about 60,000 last year to organizers’ estimates of as high as 180,000 this year.  The percentage of students refusing the test in New York City, while much smaller than in the surrounding suburbs, was notably larger than last year.

If last year’s pattern holds true, even more students will opt out of this week’s math tests.

The decision to opt out is a parent’s decision to make, child by child.  With about 1 in 7 parents having made that important and personal decision this year, parents have sent a powerful message to the governor about what they think of his zealous embrace of high-stakes testing.

Our governor has been so obsessed with wreaking vengeance on teachers’ unions, who did not endorse him for re-election, and so attentive to the demands of the hedge funders who financed his campaign that he neglected to listen to parents – or even recognize their concerns.

Parents reject the notion that test scores are the be-all and end-all for how to judge students, schools and teachers. They believe that using standardized testing to judge and punish hurts their children by causing undue stress, narrowing the curriculum and increasing the time spent on test prep at the expense of creative teaching and learning.

Standardized testing has a role to spotlight achievement gaps, but when it is becomes a hammer to punish schools and teachers, it does real damage.

Parents have taken a stand. The governor needs to listen.

 

Giving due process its due

A bully principal with a grudge against the UFT gives the school’s chapter leader a rating of Ineffective, reflecting the principal’s animus toward the union, not the teacher’s job performance.

A three-member appeals panel overturns the rating and orders the principal to submit a new rating.

That is due process in action.

The recent ruling in support of Vicky Giasemis, the chapter leader of PS 90 in Coney Island, is also a landmark because it is the first time that a principal’s rating has been overturned under an appeals process that the UFT insisted on as an essential part of any fair and impartial teacher evaluation system.

Under the Bloomberg administration, ratings were rarely overturned. But we fought to ensure that the new evaluation system includes an appeals process with a fair hearing for teachers whose ratings have nothing to do with their work in the classroom.

Giasemis was rated Effective on state and local measures of student learning. Her principal, Greta Hawkins, gave her an Ineffective rating based on measures of teacher practice even though, as an arbitrator found, the principal failed to rate observable components in Giasemis’ classroom in her observation reports.

It is precisely for cases like this that teachers need due process.

A principal may harbor hatred toward the union or nurture a strong dislike of a particular teacher. When those subjective feelings affect that teacher’s evaluation through no fault of the teacher’s, a process must be in place to ensure fairness.

This panel ruling affirms that we have won this important protection for our union’s members.

It’s test-prep season but I have hope

  Ms. R is a 4th-grade teacher in the Bronx.

It’s early spring, but instead of feeling lighthearted and happy, I feel stressed and tired.

Test-prep season is in full swing. This annual ritual of feeling intense pressure to prepare my students for state tests and boost their scores nearly drains me of hope.

But one thing gives me strength – my students.

Remembering how much I influence my students puts things in perspective. It reminds me that as a teacher, I’m not as helpless as the drive to raise test scores can sometimes makes me feel.

Last Monday, my principal said something like this: “If we focus on getting 3 percent of our pushables, I don’t care which 3 percent, to score a 3 or 4 on the state tests, we will knock down three quality review domains.”

Just in case you are not fully up on this teacher jargon, “pushables” are those students on the brink of reaching the next level. For example, a student who scored a 2.8 is extremely close to reaching a 3.

But do you see the problem indicated by my principal’s statement? It suggests that we focus on any pushables showing steady progress because doing so may help boost their scores, which in turn will improve our school’s quality review score.

I immediately wondered about my English language learners and my students reading far below grade level. Would I have to pause or minimize my efforts with them in order to focus solely on the “pushables”? The answer can seem to be an ugly yes. I’d have to focus more on those students who demonstrate promising achievement on tests.

No, my principal is not a jerk. His statement is the result of the immense pressure placed on administrators and teachers based on unreasonable criteria that force us to treat students as commodities.

Who is putting all of this pressure on us? What credentials do they have as educators? Why does our education system revolve around standardized exams? If our school does well on those quality review domains, what have we really accomplished? Clearly the quality review influences decision-making and the behavior and attitude of the staff. But does the feedback of the reviewers realistically even qualify as valuable insight?

I ranted about all of this to my mentor. His response was: “When you shut that door, it’s just you and the kids. You know what they need and what’s best. Shut your door and do it.”

Teachers are on the front lines with our students. We have say over what the way we teach in our classrooms. Standardized exams and other killjoy practices in education are obstacles that can be overcome through strategic practices.

Our students open themselves in order to learn from us. For their sake, we do our best to make the state tests as painless as possible and to make learning as enjoyable as possible. Yes, we struggle sometimes with this system. But it helps to remember that we matter to our students and we work for them.

Our classrooms have doors. Sometimes by closing a door I am able to open minds.

What I told our lawmakers in Albany

I had the wonderful experience of joining a thousand other educators, parents and public school advocates for the UFT’s lobby day in Albany last week. In one meeting, a legislative staff member seemed visibly moved when I told how disheartening it is to look at my students at LaGuardia HS every day and think that they cannot receive as rich a public education as previous generations. Gov. Cuomo could change that by providing schools the state funds that they are owed.

As the UFT chapter leader at LaGuardia HS, I was with a group from Manhattan high schools on lobby day who met with staff members for a state senator and a state Assembly member, who were both on the floor of the Legislature at the time. We knew we needed to relate to them our firsthand observations and experiences to make the dry data on our schools come alive.

The amount of Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement funds that the state owes our school is about $7.3 million. Imagine what we could do with that money. We could restore positions lost to attrition. We could hire enough teachers to decrease class size and restore electives lost to recent budget cuts. We could have the supplies we need paid out of our school budget rather than from teachers’ own pockets or through websites where we have to plead with donors for funding.

When it was my turn to speak, I said that although LaGuardia HS is not a high-needs school in terms of achievement, we too have suffered cuts to the bone. Not only have we lost academic and studio electives, but core programs that have worked successfully since 1936 are being threatened. Our very capable students are being stressed by having to struggle to do more with less. What wasn’t broken already by funding cuts is on the verge of being broken. We have drama and technical theater teachers who face the impossible choice of maintaining their programs by working way beyond the hours they are paid, or working the hours for which they are paid and eviscerating their programs. Governor Cuomo insults teachers when he implies that we do not care about students, but only about ourselves. Teachers sacrifice each and every day to make a quality education possible for their kids.

This hurts not only our students but also our city and state. By some estimates, about 40 percent of commerce in New York City is directly or indirectly connected to the arts. Our school’s programs are far from peripheral to our city’s economy.

Governor Cuomo, by withholding the Campaign for Fiscal Equity money owed to our schools, is shortchanging schoolchildren who are the future of this city, state and nation. It is the most unpatriotic and shortsighted thing he could do.

Other speakers from our group described the inequities of co-locations in their school buildings. They told of separate but unequal treatment of Success Academy charter school students and public school students in the same building, one with Fresh Direct lunches, new furniture, and the choicest facilities – the other without. They also talked about that Success Academy students being told not to even look at the regular public school children as they pass them in the corridors. This new segregation is not lost on most of the public school children.

One speaker also described how a community school program is a better answer to serving high-needs students and their community. His school offers social services, medical services, and adult education classes as a way to help the whole community. Parents are also able to take ESL classes in the evening so that they are better able help their children with their studies.

Eva Moskowitz closed her schools on the same day as our lobby day to send her teachers and students to Albany en masse. They wore red hats and red T-shirts. They had their own marshals to direct people in their group. Some of us spoke with the young marshals. They were neither teachers nor parents but work in the Success Academy network. The Success Academy children were used as props in a photo-op. Our students were in class.

Paula Washington is a music teacher and the UFT chapter leader at La Guardia High School of Music and Arts and Performing Arts.

How a short story inspired my teaching

K.M. Jones is a second-year English teacher in Brooklyn.

“Perhaps Sedgewick Bell’s life would have turned out more nobly if I had understood his motivations right away and treated him differently at the start. But such are the pointless speculations of a teacher.” —Mr. Hundert in Ethan Canin’s “The Palace Thief”

After struggling with students’ behavior in my middle school classroom last year, I feared an uprising of students critical of my failings as a teacher. I imagined students collectively shouting, “I hate you!” and questioning my judgment. So when I first read the story “The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin, I was hesitant to expose my students to the story, which is about a teacher who failed to help his student become a better person. Would this story bring on the criticism I feared?

To my surprise, when I did teach it, the students cared less about the teacher’s development and were instead drawn to the antagonist Sedgewick Bell, a troublemaker who cheats his way to success. One student’s reaction to Sedgewick really stuck with me. While the majority of the class deemed Sedgewick a bad character, my student D. continually stood up for him. “He was cheating to make his father proud, right?” the student said to me one day after class. “Wouldn’t his dad be mad if he didn’t succeed? So I think it was the right thing for him to do.” Interestingly enough, this student had a very strict father and a problem with rampant cheating.

The story communicates the messages that history repeats itself and that one can’t change another person’s character or even one’s own. But the movie adaptation gives the teacher a second chance. In the movie interpretation, the teacher’s positive moral development leads him to let go of his failure with his one corrupted student and focus on all the other lives he has changed and will change in the future. In a nutshell, the movie tells us: You can’t change every life, but through your own personal growth, you can have an effect on many.

It may seem that these two messages are polar opposites. However, the difference between character change being possible or impossible is surprisingly subtle: it’s the difference between enforcing behavior and developing character.

Let me tell you more of my story.

Last year, I felt like I couldn’t reach my students on a moral level at all. Our middle school was struggling with funding and needed to score well on the state standardized tests. Instead of teaching literature like I wanted to, I taught excerpts from CodeX textbooks. Instead of writing my own curriculum and letting my students’ needs inform the lessons I chose to teach, there was a schoolwide mandate for teachers to teach the same standard every day. I didn’t have time to answer any of my students’ moral or behavioral questions; I had to lay down rules and stick to them relentlessly just to get through the prescribed materials.

By March, we had been doing just test prep for two straight months, and my students’ frustrations boiled over into disgust — toward English as a subject, me, all their teachers and to the school itself. Even my students who were voracious readers at home were resistant to the curriculum, refusing to engage and tossing verbal hate bombs. Because of the systematic pressure on English to be skill-oriented, it seemed to me that helping them with their emotional and moral development was next to impossible. I started thinking about changing my career, like an embittered co-worker did when she quit halfway through the year.

This year, however, because of a new principal who has a positive stance on literature and the absence of high-stakes testing for 10th-graders, my faith in English as an avenue for emotional maturity is renewed. Instead of enforcing behavioral rules so I can teach skills for a test, I’m teaching critical, moral thinking through the lens of literature. My student D., who fought so passionately for Sedgewick’s moral uprightness despite his cheating, later confided in me, “I’d like a teacher like Sedgewick’s teacher who keeps pushing me to succeed, no matter what I do. That might actually make me do my work.” Through critical character study and personal character application, he was able to identify and articulate what he himself needs in real life to become a better student.

Due to my own ineptitude in the face of systematic pressures, I have not helped every student I’ve taught to become a more thoughtful and moral person. However, if teaching “The Palace Thief” has taught me anything, my past failures do not need to define my future. I may not have reached every student, but I have at least reached one. And that’s a good start.

New teachers swell the ranks

The city Department of Education brought in 5,000-plus new teachers last year, confirming a definite uptick in hiring since the economic downturn five years ago. Who are all these new educators? And how long might they be expected to stay?

Some highlights from the UFT’s February 2015 report on attrition and experience:

The DOE expanded teacher hiring for the fourth year in a row in the 2013-14 school year. Almost 5,500 new teachers signed on, more than double the number brought on during the economic downturn of 2009-10.

The increased hiring represents a growing of the teacher workforce as attrition has been about stable. The number of teachers rose to 75,229 as of November 2014. When counting all pedagogues — including guidance counselors, social workers, psychologists, lab specialists, and secretaries — the number is about 84,000. (Paraprofessionals are not included in pedagogue counts.)

Attrition among existing teachers was, meanwhile, lower or stable except for what was probably a temporary rise in retirements.

Newer teachers are a growing share of the workforce. Teachers with zero to five years’ experience now make up nearly one quarter (24 percent) of all teachers, up from 20 percent just two years ago.

However, there continues to be churn, as 35 percent of new teachers leave the system within their first five years. Over the last several years, teachers in high schools have represented a disproportionately large share of new teacher attrition.

Following the recent pattern of hires, one-third (34 percent) of last year’s new hires came in as special education teachers — 1,875 in all. The second largest license group was 700 elementary school classroom teachers, followed by 400 middle and high school math teachers. The system also hired 67 art teachers and 266 speech teachers.

About 7 percent of all pedagogues — 5,635 in all — left the system last year. The reasons were varied, including retirement, resignation or failure to meet various state or city requirements. This compares with a pedagogue departure rate of about 10 percent a decade ago.

Read the full report »

Charter schools fail to serve all students

Last week, the Independent Budget Office (IBO) published an update to its 2014 charter school report saying that students at charter schools generally transfer out at about the same or even lower rate as students at public schools. This includes students in subgroups, such as special education students and English language learners.[i]

Which naturally begs the question: how many ELL and special education students were actually enrolled in these schools to begin with?

The answer is − not a lot.

In the schools that IBO took a look at, for example, ELL students were more likely to attend public schools than charters by a factor of more than four. For high-need special education students the factor was seven. And when the IBO took a look at all special education students in their sample, the data still showed a large gap: the public schools served about 35% more special education than the charter schools to which they were compared.

In fact, the IBO report is entirely consistent with the analysis released by the UFT last week. The UFT and IBO reports looked at different groups of students, which makes the similarity of their findings all the more striking. Both found that the public schools served about 35 percent more special education students. The data in the UFT and IBO reports on special education students in self-contained classes is virtually identical. And all the analyses found that ELL students are underserved by charters.

Kindergarten

Same Building

District Averages

subset of all charters compared to 3 nearby schools (Kindergarten only)

All charters (except high schools) that share a building with a public school with overlapping grades

All elementary/ and k-8 charters coompared to their district averages

charter public charter public charter public

% ELL

4%

18%

5%

12%

6%

13%

% Special Ed

9%

13%

16%

25%

14%

21%

% High Need Special Ed.

1%

7%

1%

9%

1%

7%

% Temporary Housing

Not available

not available

8%

22%

8%

14%

As the column headers in this chart indicate, the UFT and IBO looked at different information. Specifically, the IBO report looked at a subset of charters and compared them to three schools nearby. And, they only focused on the kindergarten demographics.

The UFT, meanwhile, looked at students in elementary and K-8 schools and did two comparisons. It compared every elementary and K-8 charter to the district average. And the UFT did a same-building analysis,comparing the demographics of charter and public school that are in the same building and have overlapping grades. The UFT included middle schools when they were co-located with either other middle schools or K-8 schools.

Plus the UFT, unlike the IBO, included students in temporary housing. This includes students who face the huge challenges that come with living in a shelter or hotel or awaiting foster-care placement.

Charters will argue, of course, that at least some of these numbers don’t matter. The law doesn’t require them to serve kids in temporary housing, for instance, even if public schools in the very same building work with these kids at triple the rate. And as far as special education, charters do take (some) kids with IEPs, don’t they?  And, so what if they don’t really work with the severely disabled, highest-need special education students? After all, that’s not required by law.

But that would be an odd excuse coming from a community that is so hot to change current education laws and raise the charter cap. I mean, if you are going to solve the civil rights issue of our time (as the charters often claim it is their destiny to do), then you must begin by helping the students with the greatest challenges, the students most at risk of falling behind. Our highest-need special education students are precisely the ones with the kinds of learning and emotional disabilities that drive the achievement gap in the first place.

And the vulnerable kids in temporary housing? True – these kids are not explicitly covered now by laws governing enrollment requirements. But they ought to be.

Right now, the policies guiding charter schools are driven by outdated information about student needs and academic achievement, ideas from the dawn of the data era.   We know much more about students now, and we know that there are degrees of special needs, degrees of poverty, and a range of challenge within the ELL community (a group of students for which we still do not have information that reliably captures student need).

Given the current love in education circles of using data to drive decisions, isn’t it time to ensure that our charter laws around enrollment align with what data shows about the kids we teach?

[i] The IBO report does not consider the percent of its students in temporary housing.  Without taking that factor into account, the report may actually tell us very little about relative rates of student attrition.

Celebrate the legacy of Pura Belpré

Pura Belpré was an author, storyteller and a pioneer in bilingual education who brought Puerto Rican folktales alive in legendary performances with puppets that captivated children.

Now teachers can learn more about Belpré and bilingual education in an open house just for educators at La Casa Azul Bookstore, 143 E. 103rd St. in Manhattan.  The event will be held Thursday, Feb. 5, 4:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. Admission is free, but you must register via email: schools.lacasaazul@gmail.com. Educators with a valid school ID will receive 20% off all book purchases.

Dr. Vanessa Pérez, Associate Professor of Bilingual Education in the Department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College, CUNY and Galia Sandy, School Programs Coordinator at La Casa Azul, will lead a discussion on what bilingual literacy looks like in the classroom today.

Belpré, who died in 1982, was the first Puerto Rican librarian when she was hired by the New York Public Library in 1921, and over the next 40 years she dedicated herself to expanding educational opportunities for Spanish-speaking children and their parents. The Pura Belpré Award, established in 1996 by the American Library Association, is given each year to a children’s work by a Latino writer that best portrays the Latino cultural experience.

La Casa Azul is celebrating Belpré’s life with two additional events:

Friday, Feb. 6, 6:00pm – 8:00pm, the bookstore will screen a documentary about the life of Pura Belpré followed by a Q&A. Light refreshments will be served. There is a $5 fee.

Saturday, Feb. 7, 11:00 a.m. – 1 p.m. is Pura Belpré Family Day, which will feature a re-enactment of Belpré’s legendary “Bilingual Story Hour” with Teatro SEA, the Latino Children’s Theater, combining

storytelling with puppets to act out Pérez & Martina, Juan Bobo, The Three Magi, and many more.

Perfect for families with children ages 3-10. Tickets: $10 per person, advance ticket purchase strongly suggested. Free for children ages 0-2.

You can read more about Belpré in The Stories I Read to the Children: The Life and Writing of Pura Belpré, the legendary storyteller, children’s author, and New York Public Librarian by Lisa Sanchez Gonzalez (New York : Hunter College, 2013).

When students miss school for family trips

Should a child miss school for a family vacation? It’s a tough question that Jessica Lahey explored in a recent New York Times column.

I’m a parent and a teacher, so I’m of two minds on this issue,” Lahey writes. “I have taken my children out of school for family events and other trips we deemed valuable enough to warrant a school absence. On the other hand, I am also an educator, and I have seen the havoc these absences can wreak on students and their teachers. It takes a lot of time to pre-plan for student absences, to package work that will approximate missed lessons, chase children down for that work, and invest extra one-on-one time in makeup sessions.”

Some teachers told Lahey that the such absences require them to prepare materials before the student goes away, or help the student catch up on his or her return. One educator told Lahey that technology could lessen the disruption: “Tech is not a replacement for teachers in those family trips, but it does become an extended connection for the student,” he wrote.

Lahey quotes some common sense from an Ontario psychologist who came up with the mnemonic FLAG – for frequency, length, ability and grade – to guide parent and teachers on this issue:

How frequent are the vacation absences? Parents send the wrong signal about their commitment to education if they remove the child from class too often.

How long is the absence? Too many days away might produce a learning setback for some children that they will struggle to overcome.

Does the child have the ability to catch up? Depending on the child’s temperament, the absence may produce anxiety about missing class lessons.

Missing several days in 3rd grade is very different from missing several days in high school. Take into account the child’s grade.

Striking the right balance between family time and the classroom can be tricky. Tell us your thoughts.