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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The Success Academy Scam

Success Academy and their wealthy allies would have you believe that all parents are lining up on sidewalks to get their children into a high scoring Success Academy.  SA would also have us believe that their schools are “public schools” that meet the needs of all students.

Having worked at a public school in competition with a nearby Success school for the past 5 years, I know the truth.  It is not parents who are desperate to get their children into Success, but rather, Success is desperate to enroll our students to keep up with their high attrition rates.

Fundamental to how Success operates and “succeeds” is their high student turnover, targeting of students with disabilities, and their ability to hold on to funding for students they no longer serve. Every time SA recruits and enrolls a new student that child’s per pupil funding gets redirected from a public school to Success. If it is a child with a disability, the per pupil funding can be almost double that of a gen-ed student. Once the funding is redirected, if that student un-enrolls and returns to their local public school anytime after October, the funding does not follow that student.

There is growing evidence that many rapidly expanding charter school networks like SA intentionally exclude and fail to meet the needs of students with disabilities. In fact, charter schools in NYC “lose” an average of 6%-11% of their students annually, whereas public schools tend to gain students as children get older. Success Academy is one of many chains that intentionally weeds out lower-performing students early in the school year, retains the per-pupil funding that came with the students they forced out and then leaves seats empty to maintain the illusion of high achievement.

In other words, Success Academy thrives by poaching public school students,  weeding out the low-achievers and then hitting repeat.

I see this process at work every year. Each summer, Success actively poaches our students. Parents have told me that they get calls from Success Academy EVERY DAY, pressuring them to pull their children out of our school. I’ve had parents of 2nd and 3rd graders report being told by SA officials “this is your last chance to get your child into middle school,” “we just have one more seat, this is your last chance.” None of this is true. Because Success Academy Schools typically lose a huge proportion of their students between 3rd and 8th grade, there are almost always open seats in the upper grades. Many of my students who are recruited by Success are thriving in our school- at grade level, happy & well adjusted. The parents that cave to the pressure are not pulling their children out and enrolling them in Success out of desperation; they are victims of emotional manipulation and misinformation.

Meanwhile, some of these students end up back at my public school after a month or two because they and their parents are so miserable at Success Academy.  I hear their parents complain that they got calls from the “charter” every day about misbehaviors as harmless as not sitting up straight, or tapping a pencil on a desk. Most parents don’t have time to show up to school every day and meet with their child’s principal about pencil tapping. So come October or November, parents pull their kids out and re-enroll in their local public school. If a gen-ed student un-enrolls after October, Success retains the funding for the students they have recruited and then lost, while our class sizes balloon to accommodate SA’s left overs, without any extra funding.

More egregiously, every year we enroll new students with disabilities who have been intentionally pushed out of Success. These are kids with ADHD, ADD, Autism and other disabilities. One student told me, “the principal told my mom that it [Success Academy] wasn’t a good fit for me so I came here.” Another student with a learning disability got recruited by Success last summer. He enrolled in August, attended for a few weeks, and then come September was back at our school. Again “it wasn’t a good fit.”

Let’s be clear. If you force (or counsel or pressure) out your children with disabilities, you are NOT a public school. And no matter what Success Academy says, parents in my neighborhood are not desperately seeking an alternative to their zoned school, rather, Success Academy is desperate for our students.

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.

 

The 5 Letter Word that Scares Chuck Schumer

Democrats are in the midst of releasing their “better deal” economic platform this week. With the federal government enveloped in terrifying corruption and chaos, Democrats are perfectly poised to offer a clear, empowering alternative to the GOP’s current “platform” of greed, complicity and division.

And already, I worry that Democrats are letting this golden opportunity slip away, leaving activists like me pessimistic about our chances of restoring democracy and retaking the House of Representatives in 2018.

Case in point: In his op-ed earlier this week, Senator Charles Schumer managed to write an entire article about how Democrats plan to protect American workers without using the word “union” even once. And he’s not alone. Mainline Democratic leadership across the board seems to harbor a pathological fear of the U word- presumably out of fear of alienating their corporate donors. Nancy Pelosi wrote a similar “union” free article. Which leads me, a unionized public school teacher and nearly full time activist, to conclude that they still do not get it.

Take this paragraph from Schumer’s op-ed:

There used to be a basic bargain in this country that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could own a home, afford a car, put your kids through college and take a modest vacation every year while putting enough away for a comfortable retirement. In the second half of the 20th century, millions of Americans achieved this solid middle-class lifestyle. I should know — I grew up in that America.

But things have changed.

One would think that Senator Schumer knows what largely made that “basic bargain” possible: Unions. Yet the U word is nowhere to be found in this “better deal.”

(To be clear, I understand, as I hope Senator Schumer does too- that the bargain existed for primarily white men and that a better social contract would be first and foremost inclusive )  

Think of all those coal and manufacturing jobs that middle America, Donald Trump, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and just about everyone longs for- the only reason those were good jobs is because of collective bargaining and union power. The reason the abused factory workers of the turn of the century became the stable suburban middle class families of the 40s and 50s? Unions.

I oversimplify a bit, and admit I am not a labor historian.  But it is no coincidence that America was most equal when its’ unions were most powerful and pervasive. If Chuck Schumer and his cohorts really want to offer American workers a “better deal, they should start by restoring the “U” word to prominence, empowering unions and championing the organizing efforts of non-protected workers in the service, contract and domestic work industries.

As Nick Hanauer, Seattle based entrepreneur and living wage supporter, wrote in his brilliant article, “To My Fellow Plutocrats, We Can Cure Trumpism,”:

“There is no earthly reason why an entry-level job at low-wage employers like Walmart or McDonalds could not pay $15 or even $20 per hour with full benefits, the way an old factory job used to. There is nothing “unskilled” about a barista or a home health care worker, and no economic principle that prevents these workers from earning a living wage. The only difference between today’s service workers and yesterday’s manufacturing workers is that most service workers have no union, and thus have no power.”

Both public and private sector unions have been under attack by Democrats and Republicans for the last 40 years with union membership declining across the country. Republican controlled state governments have passed “right to work” laws to make it harder for workers to organize and remain in the middle class. Public school teachers- who remain one of the few remaining strong union forces in this country- have been viciously attacked and undermined by everyone and their grandmother in the last 20 years- from Arne Duncan, to Andrew Cuomo, Mike Bloomberg, George W. Bush, and yes, even Barack Obama.

If Democrats really want to put forth a positive, populist economic message that will truly benefit American workers, they need to do much more than restore common sense anti-trust laws and take on drug companies- or even raise the minimum wage.

To truly protect American workers- and I believe to win in 2018- Democrats must empower ALL workers- whether domestic employees, service workers, the growing corps of renewable energy laborers , contract workers and freelancers-  to negotiate for fair salaries, quality benefits, paid leave policies and job security while challenging the avarice of CEO’s that want to keep profits out of the hands of their employees. The way to do this is to stop ignoring and undermining union power, and reclaim the mantle of labor as a party. Get organized Democrats. The U word is back in style.

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.

 

This is Not Normal- And the Kids Know it

This is not normal. Deep down, we all know it’s not normal- down to my 4 year old pre-k students. So please stop telling me it will be okay. Stop telling me to calm down.

A destructive, vengeful, unqualified sociopath is about to become the most powerful man in the world and his every act confirms his intent to destroy the institutions that safeguard our democracy- from a free press, to a just judiciary, to our electoral process, to civil rights, to public schools, to national security, to our health and to the safety of our planet. Armed vigilantes are raiding pizza stores, hate crimes are spreading like wildfire, (not to mention the wildfires that are spreading due to drought) white supremacists and conspiracy theorists are primed to have the presidents’ ear, and the man himself refuses to attend national security briefings and instead is intent on getting rich off public office, rewarding corrupt cronies and gas-lighting a nation via twitter.  This is the guy who’s getting nuclear weapons and unprecedented executive power.  This is not normal and it will only be okay if we all fight like hell to make it ok.

90% of 10,000 teachers say the tone has changed in their classrooms since the election- with new fears, cruelties and tension permeating classroom culture. I feel it too. There is more anxiety, more distraction. My students talk about Trump every day. Every day. On a field trip to a museum in Manhattan yesterday one 6 year old said, “Oh I hope we’re not going near Trump tower, are we going to be near Trump tower? I hope not, that’s bad luck.” Kid is 6 and riding a bus over the Queensborough bridge freaks him out because of the proximity to Trump Tower.  Not normal.

Election results should not make roomfuls of 9 year olds cry, but this year’s did. Presidents shouldn’t terrify children, but this one does. Cabinet appointments shouldn’t worry elementary schoolers, but these do.  I’m talking about 10 year olds actually discussing cabinet appointments in worried tones during lunch.

The kids know. They know something is at stake beyond the grown-up world of politics- something essential to their safety and future. They know this is the life or death of our institutions- our schools, our social services, our constitutional rights and the urgent movement for our planet. The kids know that this is not normal. They know that we should all be terrified and that pretending will not make it okay. That nothing will make it okay unless every progressive, every moderate, every apolitical go about my business type, every worker, every leader, every thinking conservative and for God’s sake already- every Democrat official, stands up and fights back.  Kid’s know how urgent this is. And they are counting on us, the grown ups, to make this right.

 

Trump Vs. Democracy and Education

Donald Trump is threatening to destroy public education and American Democracy. If you don’t see that- it’s time to wake up and check your sources.

I have spent over three years writing about the impacts of Ed Reform in the classroom. But with Trump-Pence in the white house, John King looks like a sweet angel. This new presidency threatens to destabilize our democracy, civic institutions, and the rights of all Americans.

All signs point to the rise of a dictator- the press is already being silenced and discredited, our president elect is an impulsive, reactive tyrant who has no regard for knowledge, science or reality, hate crimes are flaring up across the country unchecked and public education could be completely destroyed.

Education has long been regarded as a cornerstone of democracy- the goal being to learn to question, think critically and cultivate a sense of responsibility to others and to society. But Trump is doing everything he can to discredit those who think critically- journalists, educators, instituions of learning, everything he can to undermine our sources of knowledge and information in both his treatment of the press and his views on public education.

Trump and his cronies are spreading lies to discredit news sources, higher education, and the truth.Without a free press, and without trusting sources of information and institutions of higher learning we will lose our tenous grip on democracy. As educators, we know the difference between opinion and fact and we teach our students to always find sources and provide evidence for their claims. Meanwhile, as president elect, Trump has already backpedaled on countless promises, he has lied and complained about the press on twitter, limited press access and threatens to stock his cabinet full of ignorant, corrupt crazies who think facts are debatable. Including Ben Carson. And if Ben Carson has his way with our public schools, democracy will die.

Trump himself has referred to public schools as “monopolies” that need to be broken up, (meanwhile he has vested business interests in the dakota access pipeline and wants his kids to get security clearance) and Ben Carson has said that the best school is homeschool. Yes that’s right. Home school. AKA no school. Our new possible secretary of education doesn’t really believe in schools.

Not to mention- he thinks the world is 7000 years old, he doesn’t believe in climate change, he has no experience whatsoever in education  and worst of all he wants to defund colleges and universities that are “too liberal.” Meaning he wants to use the education department to silence enemies. This is fascism.  All teachers- no matter who you voted for- need to stand up against Trump, Carson and  for our schools. Democracy depends on public education and science, civility and respect are the cornerstones of a democratic education. Democracy is depending on us.

We teach our children to give evidence to support their claims and we need to hold ourselves and the president elect to the same standards. Read more than one newspaper. Check your sources. Watch more than one news show. Ask yourself- am I really going to accept at face value what a billionaire pseudo populist who has been charged with fraud, rape and discrimination says? Is Ben Carson qualified to hold any position in government at all?

Stop believing everything you read on the internet and stop buying into the attacks on journalism and the press. There are many creditable news sources out there. Find them. Read AP and Reuters. American teachers- remember what we teach our students. Find multiple sources of evidence for your claims. Know the difference between fact and opinion. Be kind. The earth is 4.5 billion years old. Stand up against Donald Trump and his cabinet of horrors.

Here are my sources.

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/egads-ben-carson-dept-education

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/bernie-sanders-could-replace-president-trump-with-little_us_5829f25fe4b02b1f5257a6b7

http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/heres-big-trump-media-story

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/15/us/politics/donald-trump-holdings-conflict-of-interest.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=b-lede-package-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0

http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/ultimate-inside-job-donald-trumps-transition-team-sordid-new-swamp-lobbyists-donors

https://newrepublic.com/minutes/138669/brace-yourselves-education-secretary-ben-carson

http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/ben-carson-has-odd-plan-the-dept-education

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/11/11/us/politics/what-trump-wants-to-change.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=b-lede-package-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news