Election Promises and the Myth of “Grade Level”

Last week after Mayor De Blasio sailed into a second term, he made a lot of bold promises to New Yorkers, including repeating a vow to get ALL third grade public school students up to grade level standards.

SIGH.

I just finished my report cards so I can tell you Mayor De Blasio, there will never be a time where ALL NYC third graders will be on grade level. There are nearly 150,000 students with IEPs in NYC and the same number of English Language Learners. The whole point of an IEP (Individual Education Plan) is that it is INDIVIDUALIZED to that student’s abilities and needs, not based on arbitrary standards.  Unless you expel all students with disabilities and ban immigration to NYC, our public schools will always be full of students of all stripes and at all levels.

Giving you the benefit of the doubt, I will assume that you recognize that it would be bad pedagogy to hold students with IEPs and those just starting to learn English to the same standards as general education students. In that case, perhaps you meant to promise that a majority of third graders will reach grade level.

Not likely.

Why?

Well for one thing, not all children learn at the same pace.  Especially for students as young as third grade, even typically developing / gen-ed children may be below or above “grade level” with no cause for alarm. In fact, being on grade level has nothing to do with whether a child is learning, which should be what we prioritize.

Second, does POVERTY and increasing inequality ring a bell?

Because academic performance– particularly test scores– is linked directly to income levels (which also mostly correlate with race). NYC public schools right now are home to hundreds of thousands of students who live in poverty.  Many of these students move frequently, live in unstable conditions and lack support at home or outside school. Not a recipe for academic achievement.

Worse, as you may have noticed, NYC is only becoming more unequal as housing in neighborhood after neighborhood becomes prohibitively expensive. This year, nearly 1 in 7 of the city’s 1 million plus public school students is homeless. That is approximately 100,000 homeless CHILDREN in NYC alone.

In my school, record homelessness means multiple students commute to my school in Brooklyn from shelters in the Bronx. These 7, 8, and 9 year olds have to wake up at 4 in the morning to get to school and then it takes them two hours to get home at the end of a long day. They spend time outside of school doing things like cooking, cleaning and caring for younger siblings. They are often absent or late and when they do make it to school, they are frequently exhausted.

If you want these students to “perform” on grade level, Mr. Mayor, I suggest you set a different goal; Affordable, stable housing for ALL third graders. Then we can talk about academics and I can teach you about child development.

 

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De Blasio and Farina: Stop Worrying About Testing and Coding. Worry About Student Homelessness.

It’s time for NYC to make child homelessness a priority.

There were more than 100,000 homeless children enrolled in NYC public schools in the 2015-2016 school year. That is a small city’s worth of homeless children. And that number is expected to rise.

As a public school teacher, I know first hand the effects of homelessness on children’s well-being and achievement. Homeless students are much more likely to miss numerous school days, making it hard for them to stay on grade level. When they do make it to school, they are often hungry and exhausted- in need of rest and emotional support, not primed for academic challenges. Homeless students also often face long commutes from their shelters to get to school, and are more likely to be late for school. It goes without saying that homeless children also typically lack the support and stability needed to complete homework.

This high rate of homelessness is both unacceptable and unnecessary. New York City is one of the wealthiest cities in the entire world. As the city grows wealthier by the day, there is no reason- beyond skewed priorities– for such a high proportion of child homelessness.

The inequality is staggering. While hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers live in shelters and on the streets, there are empty luxury condos in Manhattan owned by off-shore billionaires, high-rises going up every year, tax credits for developers who build drop-in the bucket numbers of barely affordable apartments and billions of dollars spent on vanity projects like the Hudson Yards path station. On the same block, brownstones sell for three million dollars right next to a bus station that shelters the homeless each night. In my classroom, my homeless students who commute from shelters in the Bronx are expect to perform as well as students who live in multi-million dollar lofts in gentrifying Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, the NYC DOE and State Education department spends an exorbitant amount of money on testing, curriculum development and technology every year. Some of these initiatives are beneficial- but nothing should take precedence over meeting the basic needs of every child. Teaching a child to code doesn’t help them find a place to sleep comfortably at night. Spending millions on new instructional standards and resources is all well and good, but if our students are hungry, scared and tired we might as well throw that money out the window. Similarly, there is no point in pouring money into testing and accountability measures when our students don’t have homes. In an era in which we’re obsessed with data and student achievement, it is astounding to me that we are able to virtually ignore the epidemic of homelessness among NYC school children.

Mayor De Blasio did the right thing in bringing breakfast to classroom last year and making school lunch free for all children this fall. Children can’t learn when they are hungry. And they can’t achieve their full potential when they don’t have a home to go to at the end of the day. The needs of children should take precedence over the needs of developers, finance and testing companies. 100,000 homeless children should be declared a state of emergency by the DOE, the Mayor and the Governor, not ignored or treated as an inevitability. If Mayor De Blasio and Governor Cuomo truly want to improve educational outcomes for all children, they must make ending child homelessness a priority in the coming year. If we pass the millionaire tax, close the LLC loophole and get our priorities straight we can  tackle the homelessness crisis in our city.  Every child needs and deserves a home. We have the means. We just need the will to change.

 

When Cuomo Pretends He Cares

17353378_10100395925024913_884817314304257965_nLast night I attended Central Synagogues “action” to raise the age of criminal accountability in NY State, featuring several inspiring speakers, and the night’s big draw, Governor Cuomo.  Of course, no questions (and no boos) were allowed during the presentation even though Cuomo shamelessly used the pulpit to veer off topic and champion shutting down “sub-par” public schools.

He also weirdly equated quality of education with how many devices are used in a given classroom and talked about the poor, failing public schools in which first graders don’t have access to “any electronics.” (Definitely an issue adequate funding from HIS OFFICE might address. Also, I’d prefer my first graders use less electronics in schools, not more.)

Since I didn’t get to ask my question, here it is, ready for Cuomo when he decides to actually face his constituents and host a real town hall.

Thank you for appearing in this forum and providing the space to discuss the urgency of raising the age in NY State. Unfortunately, if we really want to address the tragedy of teens and young adults traumatized by the criminal justice system we must face the fact of the school to prison pipeline.

Yet, your record and your proposed executive budget will perpetuate the school to prison pipeline by  failing to allocate the recommended amount of foundation aid due to NYS state schools, thereby continuing to underfund schools in low-income communities, depriving those schools of the resources they need to support all of their students academically and emotionally.  Your budget also aims to do away with the foundation aid formula all together, meaning NYS public schools will never get the 3 billion dollars they are owed to meet the NYS constitutional requirement for equity in education as determined by the 2006 ruling. As a teacher, I know all to well that overcrowded classrooms, lack of supplies and support and a high needs population is a nearly impossible challenge even for the most qualified and experience educators. Funding matters. 

Your proposed budget also lifts the current cap on charter schools in NYC, despite evidence that many charters intentionally weed out students with disabilities and behavioral challenges through suspensions, expulsions and “counseling” at a much higher rate than their public school counterparts. Your proposal also ignores evidence that charter schools are more segregated than public schools and more likely to promote “no-excuses” disciplinary approaches that disproportionately result in expulsions and suspensions of students of color and students with disabilities. For these reasons, both the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have called for a “moratorium” on charter schools. 

Raising the age is essential and I ask that you support Senator Montgomery’s comprehensive plan to do so. But if you want to truly help NYC teenagers stay out of our already over crowded jails, you MUST fully fund public schools and keep the existing cap and funding rates for charter schools in NYC.  Will you commit to doing this? 

I called and left my question as a voicemail today. I encourage you to leave your own message. Tell him to be a real progressive and stand up for public schools. Meanwhile, I’ll keep that question in my pocket for his next appearance.

 

Step It Up, UFT

Today was Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing. But for some reason, today was a day like any other day at school. There was a science experiment. There were math stations. Everyone smiled. No one talked about the hearing. No one marched out of the building. No email from the UFT came to my inbox.

Meanwhile, I haven’t had time to write for weeks because I have been too consumed with calling my Senators and getting every human I interact with to call their Senators every single day to vote against the supremely unqualified billionaire Betsy DeVos.

With DeVos in power, we are looking at a future where not all children can even go to school. Where private schools are funded by taxpayers and can then exclude minorities and students with disabilities with impunity. Where more and more children go to schools that are not evaluated, non-accredited, that indoctrinate students in intolerance, that don’t teach science, that exploit children for the sake of a profit.Where public schools are shuttered after being deliberately underfunded  again and again. Where for-profit schools funnel our taxpayer dollars into private pockets with no oversight. Where the few high- quality independent charters are pushed out by for-profit corporations that spend money on advertising and recruiting students. Apparently, even where people are free to bring their guns. (If you missed it, Betsy DeVos doesn’t think schools need to be “gun free zones.”)  Public schools have been privatized elsewhere and it always, always fails. We know what a DeVos future holds, and it is millions of children left behind.

DeVos has all but destroyed public education in Michigan, and she has less experience in public education than my 4 year old pre-school students.  This is no joke. This is life or death- not just for  education but for a democratic future.  Without public schools that accept and strive to educate all students, that meet standards, are evaluated regularly and cultivate research based pedagogy, we will lose the only remaining tool we have to “level the playing field.”  Hello oligarchy.

And what I’m wondering is… where the hell is the UFT? Why have I not been called to action? Why aren’t NYC teachers walking out in droves? Why aren’t we in the streets? Why isn’t the UFT holding press conferences, staging protests, mass mailing letters? Why aren’t they raising money for a strike fund? Why is it that all I heard about was a “twitter storm?”

If the UFT won’t step it up and fight hard for NYC public schools, who will?

Guys, this is no time for twitter storms. This is a real life, serious, all out, long term fight. We need to be in the streets. NYC teachers and the UFT- we need to be ready. The vote is next Tuesday. What’s the plan? 

Read This if DeVos Doesn’t Scare You-Yet

 

 

Follow the Money

http://www.alternet.org/education/my-so-called-public-school

This article is a must read.

My school and every school I have worked at in NYC raises supplemental funds (thousands) to be able to pay for field trips, art, music and after school programs. The so-called “best schools” in NY raise millions of dollars so they can hire additional teachers and assistant teachers and pay for special programming. Charter school networks can raise millions to make co-teaching models, tech resources, and school in summer possible. The only schools that don’t have access to this bounty are low and middle income public schools. Some of these schools receive title-1 funding designated toward constrained uses, but even that falls short compared to the hundreds of the thousands of dollars wealthier schools raise through parent foundations and/ or property taxes. Meanwhile school budgets are tied up in testing, expensive consultants, the latest tech, and new curricula thanks to ever shifting education policy that favors testing and tech companies over schools. This is not equitable.

So, who should be held accountable for failing schools? Local and federal governments who pass the buck on funding and scapegoat teachers. Follow the money.

 

Ain’t Misbehaving- Class Size and Problematic Student Behaviors

Yet again, I was reminded this September of how much class size matters.

Last year, the second grade classes I taught each week all had 27-30 students and it felt like every class had numerous children with disruptive behavior challenges- fighting, calling out, pushing, extreme anger and frustration, lack of impulse control, distraction- there were a lot of kids who were neither motivated, nor engaged. I felt like I was constantly redirecting, problem solving and disciplining and it was impossible to make time to meaningfully resolve every issue or address every need.

This August, when I looked at a 3rd grade teacher’s class list, I thought oh man- this is going to be a rough class, because I saw so many of the kids who I had struggled with as second graders.

And then school started. And things were different- with those very same kids that I used to fall asleep worrying about. Suddenly, the behavior problems were gone.  Why?

Now that class only has 16 kids in it.  16. 16  kids who are focused and calm, respectful and excited to learn and share their ideas. No, they are not suddenly perfect kid-bots, thank goodness. They still are quirky, and wiggly but the behavior problems, the serious ones that I devoted huge amounts of time and energy to managing- those  are gone. And its the very same kids. 3 months later. The same teacher. Smaller class.  Hand wringing, constant redirecting gone.  It is dreamy.

What happened?

Well, in a class of 16 every child is getting what they need. No one needs to compete for attention. No one is forgotten. Conflicts get fully resolved. Parents build close relationships with teachers.  Every voice is heard. Students have physical and emotional space- more freedom to be independent and explore.  The room itself is quieter, safer and calmer. Most important, in a small class teachers can quickly build relationships that lay the foundation for meaningful learning and growth.

Imagine if all classes in public schools were this small. Certainly there would still be students who struggle.  But imagine how many of the misbehaviors that we address every day would disappear. How many suspensions and disciplinary actions we might avoid.

We need to ask ourselves- by having large classes in early childhood are we the ones creating so called “behavior problem kids”? How often do people say of misbehavior- oh he is just trying to get attention. She just wants attention.  As if that is not a valid need for a child to have. All children want and need attention! And love! And recognition! And a sense of significance!  And it is really hard to get those things in a class of thirty other 7 year olds.

This is why my friends who teach in private schools have 15 students and 2 teachers in a class. Because class size really does matter and everyone who has ever tried to teach a roomful of 32 children understands that beyond a doubt.

If only the DOE and powers above would invest in teachers instead of blowing money on testing, consultants and developmentally inappropriate and soon to be obsolete technology. If only this one small class wasn’t a fluke and classes of 32 became a thing of the past- especially in early childhood. Because every year as my classes shrink or expand, I see how much class size really does matter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank You David Denby/ How I Stopped Worrying and Solved the Teacher Shortage

At the start of another school year, in which I am yet again thinking this is my last year in the classroom because I just don’t know if I can keep doing this crazy job, thank you David Denby for writing the article that says everything.

Here’s my favorite part:

If we seriously want to improve the over-all quality of teachers, we have to draw on more than idealism (in some cases) or desperation (in other cases). We have to make teaching the way to a decent middle-class life. And that means treating public-school teachers with the respect offered to good private-school teachers—treating them as distinguished members of the community, or at least as life-on-the-line public servants, like members of the military.

We also have to face the real problem, which, again, is persistent poverty. If we really want to improve scores and high-school-graduation rates and college readiness and the rest, we have to commit resources to helping poor parents raise their children by providing nutrition and health services, parenting support, a supply of books, and so on. We have to commit to universal pre-K and much more. And we have to stop blaming teachers for all of the ills and injustices of American society.

Yes please! Because it is seriously dispiriting to feel the weight of all the ills and injustices of American society on your shoulders when almost everything you’re held responsible for is completely out of your control. And yes, poverty (and inequitably funded schools) is the crisis in education, not teachers.

But there’s just one more thing. Yes, we need and crave respect- and with that increased autonomy in our classrooms and schools. But I think many teachers are craving something else- something that is fast disappearing from too many classrooms. What is it? Well for me its something that captures a healthy deference toward what it means to be a child. Joy. We need to bring joy back into the classroom.

Teaching should be just a little bit fun. It should be just a little bit happy. A little bit silly. And infused with love. And yes, I am an adult and I know jobs are not about fun, or love or happiness, but in the age of tech companies encouraging employees to skateboard through the office and be best friends with everyone how ironic is it that the professionals who actually work with children, children who have an evolutionary drive to play- those professionals are sentenced to mindless hours of punishing, scripted work as we watch recess, PE, art, science, games, and songs disappear more and more each year.

I became a teacher because I love children and I love learning. I’m not in it for the glory or the riches. (I can barely afford my rent)  And no I’m not a union shill just in it for the sweet health benefits (they stink) and pension (not counting on it existing in 20 years).  No, I became a teacher because I love – I mean really love kids. I love how quirky and bizarre they are, I love how hilarious they are, I love how eager they are to learn and explore, how loving they can be, the sense of wonder they bring to any new experience and I love sharing my own awe and delight in learning with them. I love the way that even children who have survived trauma too scary to describe can light up with a smile at the smallest provocation.

More respect and higher pay would be great, don’t get me wrong.  But what makes teaching actually worth it is so much more intangible than that. It’s joy. Love.  It’s seeing children excited and delighted, it’s the kids who invite you to sleep overs at their house because they don’t want to miss you over the weekend, it’s the random stories kids tell you about their imaginary pets, it’s finding out that your students are obsessed with bugs and watching them jump up and down when you release butterflies, it’s hearing kids cheer because today they get to write whatever they want, it’s finally, finally teaching something that isn’t scripted, and, above all, it’s about forging relationships with your most difficult students and then crying in June when you have to say goodbye to them.

Childhood should be happy and full of love, not a sisyphean slog. The same goes for teaching.  If we want people to commit to many years of real teaching- developmentally appropriate, thoughtful, serious teaching, we need to bring joy back into the classroom and into the profession. Let kids be kids and let teachers be people who love kids. Teacher shortage solved.