Gotham Gazette

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Citizens Union


Will Third Graders Learn More Now?

A theater adage warns adults they’ll be upstaged if they agree to perform with animals or small children. It has proven true for Diana Lam, the schools’ former Deputy Chancellor.

All eyes are now on the 15,000 third graders potentially affected by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s harsh new school promotion policy. Who can think about Lam, forced out after a report raised questions about her role in helping her husband find work in the schools, when eight-year-olds are in the klieg lights?

But let’s not forget the results Lam promised from the so-called uniform citywide curriculum, of which she was chief architect. It didn’t stop 31,700 third graders from falling into the “promotions-in-doubt” category in January.

Now crates of supplementary reading materials are being shipped to elementary classes for last-minute “interventions,” that the mayor says will shore up many of the stragglers. This is the latest of the one-size-fits-all prescriptions that are supposed to work uniformly well at every school in the city.

In reality, some city schools have the teachers, space and professionalism to use the materials with small groups of no more than seven struggling readers, as their publisher directs. Other schools are understaffed and overwhelmed, still puzzling over Lam’s curriculum as they take delivery of the newest magic bullets.

Bloomberg tacitly recognized these shortcomings recently, when he demanded that the state boost its educational aid to the city by $5.3 billion a year in order to halt the "neglect of our public school children." But, wasting no time waiting for a check that may never arrive, he expects immediate great strides from the victims of that neglect.

At one well-run school, PS 69 in Jackson Heights, counselors were dispatched to third grade classrooms after Mayor Michael Bloomberg replaced dissidents on the Panel for Educational Policy to ram through passage of his new promotion policy. Children scoring far below grade level on reading or math tests later this month will get another chance after summer school – make that “Summer Success Academy” -- or it’s back to third grade with them.

It’s good to know that schools offer counseling, though headed by a mayor who trivialized children’s feelings in saying that those failing on the basis of a single test might "cry a bit."

That tough-love stance dates back to his mayoral campaign, when he said failing kids must learn that free weekends and vacations are a “luxury earned.”

It’s a lesson they’re learning now. As a million other New York schoolchildren enjoy spring break, third graders shaky in reading or math stay in school, attending hastily organized academic boot camps.

However, the mayor softened toward them, even turning spiritual, in his March 19 radio show as he described the child who scores at Level 1 on standardized tests – the bottom rung and now a dealbreaker for promotion -- as a “child who’s been dealt a bad hand by God.”

Certainly some city schoolchildren have been dealt worse schools than others. A flip through the school report cards on the Department of Education web site shows that Level 1 scores are a rare occurrence at some elementary schools but routine at others.

That brings us back to Diana Lam. If her ouster is all but forgotten, how about the uniform citywide curriculum, which was supposed to help all schools teach children to read?

Even supporters of the approach say it isn’t designed for the struggling reader. The method, in use in K-8 classrooms around the city, allots large blocks of time to “independent reading” of classic and popular children’s books. The teacher presents a quick lesson on a topic that, according to standards set by the state, competent readers need to know. In lower grades, this might be identifying main ideas or discussing characters.

Classroom libraries are sorted by reading level, and children are told to read a book coded for their skill levels and respond to the topic under discussion. Thus, a skilled third grade reader might be reading something like “Harry Potter” for characterization while a struggling classmate supposedly does likewise with a book on the first-grade level, something with short chapters and lots of pictures.

Or perhaps, as a teacher in one Crown Heights elementary school packed with Level 1’s suggested, “It works best with children who can already read. The kids who can’t read are just turning the pages.”

Students in grades three to eight also get a daily half-hour dose of word study, the more traditional fare of reading classes, including phonics, vocabulary and spelling. Here Lam’s suggestions stirred the most controversy. She had recommended a program called Month by Month phonics, which has materials for various skill levels and intended for use by an entire class.

Then President George W. Bush’s top reading adviser threatened New York City with the loss of millions in federal education funds on the grounds that Lam’s choice, Month by Month, wasn’t backed by research. Overruling his deputy, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein ordered a federally sanctioned phonics program, Voyager Passport, developed especially for New York City by Voyager Expanded Learning of Dallas.

Now Bloomberg says the city will spend $41 million in immediate aid to flailing third graders.

Apparently, a substantial chunk of that is heading to the company in Dallas. Defending his boss’s policy, Chancellor Klein told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that Voyager Passport was coming to the rescue. The materials also figure prominently in the Department of Education’s 20-page paper on the new promotion policy [In PDF Format] , where they’re described as the most common “intervention” now used in the city’s third grades for substandard readers.

Yet right now, as fresh shipments of Voyager Passport materials arrive in third grade classrooms, it’s still unclear how effective they are. As the Daily News has suggested, their GOP stamp of approval might have more to do with pedigree than pedagogy. Their executives include Jim Nelson, who served as the Texas education commissioner under Gov. George W. Bush.

For Voyager Expanded Learning, founded in 1996, the Passport product is a first foray into materials aimed solely at struggling learners. It has provided summer school materials here for years, said a spokeswoman, Deborah Nugent, but those products were for use by an entire class. She said Passport is meant for use with about a half-dozen students, either pulled out and taken to a supplementary instructor, or working with their teacher in a classroom where other children are busy with separate tasks.

Certain schools here are awash in student teachers, parent volunteers and artists-in-residence who can make such things happen. Others are lurching from day to day.

The Department of Education asked 600 schools what support they provide for their weakest third graders, and 97.5 percent said they use some kind of small group instruction. But that could mean anything at all, including letting some kids gather around a computer; it is hard to imagine a school saying it gave no help at all.

A smaller portion, 72 percent, said they’ve been using Voyager Passport materials. Those were shipped in September, and there are “early indications of promising results,” says the education department’s promotion policy paper, because of 16,978 third enrolled in Voyager Passport programs “almost 30 percent (29.6 percent) did not receive Promotion-in-Doubt letters.”

Which leaves 70 percent that did.

Still, the assistant principal of a Long Island City elementary school said she was happy to see the new Passport shipments. She pointed out that the promotion policy – far from being the take-no-prisoners document that the public imagines – will allow students to be promoted despite Level 1 scores if the school can prove every possible intervention has been tried and will continue.

“After all,” said the assistant principal, “we can’t have fifth graders who shave.”

Marcia Biederman writes about city public schools for InsideSchools.org and contributes regularly to The New York Times.






























Helping Students Before It's Too Late

Adam Sandler, in the 1995 movie Billy Madison, must go back to elementary school as as adult to make up the work he avoided as a child.

The last several days have been difficult ones for the Department of Education, with the abrupt departure of its top educator, Diana Lam. Chancellor Joel Klein's decision to appoint long-time educator Carmen Fariña, the superintendent of school Region 8 in Brooklyn, to replace Lam should calm the storm and get the department back on track. Fariña's direct and immediate knowledge of our city's public schools will provide the consistency that our teachers and students need. No matter how one feels about the many reforms Lam put into place, I think we can all agree that switching gears in the middle of the year would be incredibly disruptive for our schools.

That said, there is a reform that the department needs to seriously rethink before it implements it next month -- the recently proposed third grade promotion policy. You would be hard pressed to find a person in this city without an opinion on the policy. Former Mayor Ed Koch, former U.S. Representative Herman Badillo, and former Schools Chancellor Frank Macchiarola support it. Many academics and advocates fiercely oppose the plan. Others, such as United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, have offered compelling alternative proposals. The Panel for Educational Policy is slated to vote on the policy on March 15.

Out of the cacophony of comments on the issue, there seems to be one thing we can all agree on: We cannot wait until third grade to address students' academic needs.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed third grade promotion policy requires that all students who score a Level 1 (the lowest level, indicating the student falls far short of meeting standards) on either the English/language arts or mathematics third grade tests will be held back. According to the proposed policy, the students will receive extra help during a 16-day summer program and during the following school year in order to get them to grade level. As a mother, former teacher and the chair of the City Council's Education Committee, I am greatly concerned that these interventions are too little, too late. If the mayor is serious about ensuring that all students achieve at grade level -- and I believe he is -- he should invest $80 million to $90 million dollars before they fail the third grade tests not after.

Many of the students who will score at Level 1 on the third grade tests to be given in a few weeks have been behind from the moment they entered the public school system. Many never had a day of pre-kindergarten. Many have developmental delays or learning disabilities that have gone undetected. It is tragic and unacceptable that only after failing the upcoming tests will these children get the help they need and deserve. We must do better. Our city needs an aggressive early intervention policy. I propose the following three-point plan:

Full Enrollment in Universal Pre-Kindergarten

In February 2003, the City Council Education Committee released a report that found that the city has failed to provide pre-kindergarten services to tens of thousands of eligible New York children. When the report was released, many in the administration lamented that, although the state provides most of the funding for the program, the city could not afford the financial burden of enrolling additional children. From where I stand, we cannot afford NOT to enroll all eligible students in universal pre-kindergarten. From both a budgetary and an educational point of view, the number of students who go without pre-kindergarten education represents bad public policy. Educators far and wide agree that stepping in to help children before they begin regular classes at age five is less expensive, and more effective, than trying to help the youngsters catch up when they are older.

Kindergarten Plus

With or without universal pre-kindergarten, there will still be children who complete a year of kindergarten and are not ready for first grade. Parents and educators have long known that these children would benefit from a second year of kindergarten. In fact, a second year of kindergarten is common at private schools and in a number of school districts throughout the nation. I propose that the Department of Education create Kindergarten Plus, a second year of kindergarten, for those who need an additional year of schooling before moving on to first grade. Because these students are so young, repeating kindergarten will allow them to catch up to their peers academically and developmentally without the stigma and emotional trauma that critics argue will result from the mayor's plan to retain third graders.

Flexible Kindergarten Enrollment Age

Currently, children are required to enter kindergarten at the age of five. If they are six years old when they enter the city's public school system, they must enroll in first grade. Yet, studies have shown that many children, even those who have attended pre-kindergarten, would benefit from starting kindergarten at the age of six rather than five. In private schools, headmasters often delay a child's entry into kindergarten until the age of six because educators deem that such a program will benefit that particular child. This strategy is particularly true for boys, who experience language delays more frequently than girls. We must give parents the discretion to wait until their children are six to enroll them in kindergarten.

In these times of fiscal austerity, we sadly cannot do everything we would like for our city's students. We must make tough choices. By spending our dollars and working to help children as early as possible in their school careers we can address these children's needs before they spend years struggling and falling farther and farther behind.

Eva Moskowitz, the council member from district 4 in Manhatttan, is chair of the council Education Committee.


Technology In The Schools

With broken desks and water fountains, dirty bathrooms and overcrowding, Brooklyn Tech High School does not deserve to be called "high-tech" according to one New York City teen in a multimedia project he created. Instead, it seems more like low dungeon.

New Yorkers may not necessarily agree with this negative assessment of one of the city’s most competitive and tech savvy high schools. However, it is not only students who see a serious problem with the way that technology is currently being used in education -- or more accurately, not used.

New York City Councilmember Gale Brewer sees the Department of Education as lacking vision for integrating technology into the schools. Brewer has made it one of the top missions of her Technology in Government committee to let the public know that much needs to be done.

Right now, there is little consistency from school to school. Some have computers too outdated to use; others are requesting hundreds of new laptops without really knowing what purpose they will serve. Some principals don't even have an idea what technology capabilities exist in their schools.

Some schools have networks that allow everyone to send e-mail to one another while others rely on making photocopies in order to communicate. Many teachers have better access to technology at home than they do at school.

But, using technology in the classroom is not merely a question of buying computers and upgrading infrastructure. It is also about incorporating it into the curriculum and training teachers to use it. This requires completely rethinking some issues (from redesigning the physical classrooms to dramatically improving the curriculum).

Brewer's committee held a roundtable discussion last October in partnership with the Hunter College Graduate Department of Urban Affairs and Planning’s Digital Opportunities Team to identify some of the most innovative uses of technology in education. Since then, the Hunter team has conducted research on 17 of the city’s leading such projects.

These include:

. The results of the study will be published by the committee at the end of March.


While not included in the Hunter team’s research, a non-profit organization called Digital Clubhouse Network deserves recognition for their Digitally Abled Producers Program, which works with students ages twelve to 18 years old. The students learn to tell their personal stories and those of their community by working with adult mentors to make “mini-movies” about their own lives. The three-to-five minute movies, which are like slide-shows, combine voice, images, music and sound effects.

The students learn to use photo and movie software while developing digital literacy, work skills, creativity and self-esteem. "[Through this program] the students get the kind of special attention and individual encouragement that just isn't possible in our overcrowded and under-funded schools," according to Digital Clubhouse Network mentor Craig Lowy, a broadcast designer.

The stories, which were shown at the Soho Apple computer store in January, deal with some difficult themes, including racism, the death of a grandparent, bullying, children with disabilities, drug problems, illiteracy and family problems. For example, in one story, "The Perfect Solution," Damali Driskell told of his isolation as the only black kid at a mostly Jewish private school. They also include that student at Brooklyn Tech detailing the problems with his school.

In February, a number of digital stories produced in this program aired as Public Service Announcements on television channels BET and The N for Black History Month.

The Hunter team’s research and the example of the Digitally Abled Producers Program highlight the reality that non-profit organizations and experimental projects are leading the way in terms of integrating technology into education in New York City. Now it’s time for the Department of Education to learn from these projects in order to develop its own comprehensive vision for technology in the city’s schools. And, they won’t be able to do it alone. The agency will have to work with the Department of Housing, in order to make sure that parents are also benefiting from new technology along with their children, and the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications in order to realize their vision -- once they have one.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.


Adult Education Cuts

 Efigenia Torres got only as far as the fifth grade in her native Dominican Republic, but thanks to free adult education courses offered by the city, she expects to get her high school equivalency certificate soon. The Bronx mother is one of the legions of New Yorkers who have studied English, prepared for a job or learned how to read in church basements, community centers or unoccupied corners of schools.

But these days, Torres is one of the lucky ones, the winner of a grim new local lottery that's leaving other strivers out in the cold. Since September, when the city began closing adult education courses and trimming staff, a door has slammed on other New Yorkers seeking a route out of poverty.

The Office of Adult and Continuing Education began the school year with 575 classes, down from 700 the previous year. Retired teachers were not replaced, others had their hours cut, and counselors lost jobs. In late January, a fresh wave of pink slips brought the total number of positions eliminated to about 135.

The Department of Education described the cuts as a move toward greater efficiency. "We are consolidating because the program was not fully utilized. Teachers were teaching classes with few students," a spokeswoman said. She added that the state has not renewed funding for the program, which was running at a deficit.

Torres has helped organize a new activist group, Students of Adult Literacy United. Soon after forming, the student group quickly found 75 people in just two boroughs, Brooklyn and Queens, who had been shut out of classes and wanted to be put on a waiting list. If the city education department had done similar outreach over the years, it might have achieved the attendance levels needed to assure continued funding.

Adult education in New York has been streamlined according to someone's notion of a business model, and despite a supposed national commitment to job training, the buck is being passed from one level of government to the other.

The Best Kept Secret

That's why Torres joined several hundred students and educators at City Hall Park on a chilly afternoon last month to demand restoration of the classes. Many speakers agreed with the Department of Education that enrollment had been low. But they said the department itself deserved the blame for failing to publicize the program. "Adult education: the best kept secret in town," read one sign at the protest.

The woman carrying that sign was Lucy Zaslow, a retired adult education teacher. She said she could not recall any large-scale effort to recruit students – not a single poster, no radio or TV commercial. "Adults know about us only through word-of-mouth or local recruitment efforts," said Zaslow, "and those efforts have been thwarted now because the staff who conducted them have been laid off."

Others at the rally agreed that the program, four decades old, is now paying the price for years of mismanagement, during which little attention was paid to attendance or marketing, and classes were scheduled without regard to community needs.

Dan Ruderman, a teacher at an adult learning center in Brooklyn's Midwood section said it should have surprised no one that classes held at that location between 2 and 4 p.m. were under enrolled and had to be cancelled: most day students there are parents who need to fetch their children from school around that time.

The Ax

In September, as adult ed staffers were suddenly told to meet daily attendance averages or lose their jobs, teachers armed with rolls of tape and homemade flyers peppered schools, store windows and doctor's offices with announcements of courses. Some even recruited students off the streets, bypassing the testing and counseling procedures typically used to place learners in appropriate courses. With fewer counselors on staff, placement had become difficult anyway.

It was the stuff of which inspirational TV movies are made, except for the depressing ending.

Though some of these hastily improvised campaigns bore fruit - Ruderman said leafleting and schedule changes brought students to his Brooklyn center and spared classes from the ax - in most cases they came too late. Some teachers successfully filled their classes, only to be replaced by other instructors with more seniority. The education department has offered alternate assignments to teachers with certification to teach in the public schools, but some hold only adult education licenses or found the offered positions unacceptable.

The surviving teachers, who are members of the United Federation of Teachers, wonder if they'll eventually be replaced by substitutes or part-timers who wouldn't qualify for health benefits. Currently, the city sets its own licensing requirements for adult education teachers, exceeding the standards of the state, which does not issue certificates for the instruction of adults. But unlicensed subs might be cheaper.

Both the federal and state governments have moved recently to step up requirements for licensing teachers, arguing that highly qualified teachers deliver better services. Don't adults deserve the same?

An Opportunity Hard To Find

A number of Latinos and African-Americans at the rally described the cuts as yet another blow to their communities.

A middle-aged woman addressed the crowd in Spanish, begging the city not to eliminate English as a Second Language Classes. "We need English to help our children and grandchildren in school," she said.

In theory, the city agrees with her. The education department's web site describes adult education as an "integral part" of the education department's parent initiatives and its commitment to family literacy.

Yet it would take an Information Technology whiz, or a scavenger hunt, to find listings of adult education classes and locations on the Department of Education web site. Clicking the heading marked "Parents" on the home page won't take you there. Instead, the page for the Office of Adult and Continuing Education is linked to information about alternative high schools -- not a likely place for grownups to look.

Decisions like this at the top are costly to those on the bottom.

And as Torres said about her Latin community, "We didn't come here to clean houses and buildings. We want opportunity."

Marcia Biederman writes about city public schools for InsideSchools.org and contributes regularly to The New York Times.

Urban Issues: Education

Higher Education
No Child Left Behind

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John Edwards

Edwards proposes paying the college tuition for recent graduates who agree to teach for five years in low scoring urban schools. Edwards also wants to give one year of free college tuition in return for 10 hours of community service a week.

Edwards would reform the No Child Left Behind program, which requires standards of academic achievement. Schools that do not perform are placed on a "schools in need of improvement" list and students are entitled to transfer to a better school. If a school appears on the list for two years, low-income students are entitled to free tutoring services. Edwards would provide more money to meet the requirements. He would also expand after-school programs and offer preschool to 1 million children. He plans to double the federal government’s $3 billion program that trains educators for school districts with a shortage of teachers.

Edwards opposes vouchers for private schools.

John Kerry

Kerry proposes several programs to help pay for college. His Ready for College program would triple the tax credit to $4,000 for college tuition. He also supports a program that would provide full college tuition in exchange for two years of community service.

Kerry would reform the No Child Left Behind program, which requires standards of academic achievement. Schools that do not perform are placed on a "schools in need of improvement" list and students are entitled to transfer to a better school. If a school appears on the list for two years, low-income students are entitled to free tutoring services. Edwards proposes an Education Trust Fund that would guarantee funding to meet the requirements.

Kerry opposes vouchers for private schools.

Dennis Kucinich

Kucinich would provide a tuition-free college education for 12 million public students who currently pay $4,000 a year.

Kucinich would reform the No Child Left Behind program, which requires standards of academic achievement. Schools that do not perform are placed on a "schools in need of improvement" list and students are entitled to transfer to a better school. If a school appears on the list for two years, low-income students are entitled to free tutoring services. He would provide more money to meet the requirements. Kucinich would expand pre-kindergarten to include 3-year-olds. He calls for smaller classes, higher teacher salaries, and better, more practical job training for those not going to college.

Kucinich opposes vouchers for private schools.

Al Sharpton

Sharpton advocates for equality in public education for all students. He supports amending the U.S. Constitution to make equal education a right.

Sharpton opposes the No Child Left Behind program, which requires standards of academic achievement. He says it does not adequately address the individual needs of children.

Sharpton opposes vouchers for private school students.

George W. Bush

Since taking office, President Bush approved tax exemptions for parents with children in college. He promises to continue to support these in the future.

In 2001, Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law, which requires standards of academic achievement. Schools that do not perform are placed on a "schools in need of improvement" list and students are entitled to transfer to a better school. If a school appears on the list for two years, low-income students are entitled to free tutoring services. Critics say that the federal government has not provided enough funding to implement the program. Mayor Bloomberg estimated that New York City would need $400 million a year.

Bush supports taxpayer financed vouchers for private schools.

• • • • • • •
Back to Urban Issues Main Page
• • • • • • •


• Higher Education, Lower Budget
• No Child Left Behind
• No Child Left Behind and New York City
• School Vouchers


Ending Social Promotion, Once Again

Last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein announced a new initiative to end "social promotion" in public school. Speaking at the New York Urban League's annual Dr. Martin Luther King symposium, the chancellor offered the following assessment of current practice in the school system:

"No one wants to hold students behind. So large numbers of students are promoted even though those students are not prepared for the next grade. The result is that many students are passed through the system from one grade to another without the necessary preparation and skills. These students typically fall further and further behind until they ultimately leave school unprepared."

That assessment makes a lot of common sense. Who could be in favor of pushing students ahead without the skills needed to succeed in the following grade?

The question that goes unstated by advocates of ending social promotion is whether social promotion is the cause of school failure or merely a symptom of a larger set of problems facing the schools. Experience in New York City and other large school systems suggest the latter. Previous attempts, here and elsewhere, to end social promotion have yielded marginal results at best and have served to divert attention and resources from more systemic approaches to school reform.

What is the school system's current policy on student promotion and retention, and exactly how pervasive is social promotion? Herman Badillo, the former chairman of CUNY, has been the city's strongest proponent of ending social promotion, a position he has promoted consistently since his days as Deputy Mayor in the Koch administration in the late 1970s. He frequently cites the city schools' 90 to 95 percent promotion rate and contrasts it with statistics showing that fewer than half the students have passed their reading or math tests. Yet, despite these statistics, it is also true that upon entry into the ninth grade in high school, some 25 percent of all students are over-age for their grade, suggesting that they have been held back at least once in their school career. These two observations are not inconsistent. The system's written policy calls for promotion and retention decisions to be made using multiple criteria, including test scores, class work and attendance. However, the unwritten policy of teachers and principals has been to limit retention of a particular student to perhaps once in elementary school and once in middle school.

So, it is not entirely true that New York City's educators have been unwilling to hold anyone back. What they have been unwilling to do is to place large numbers of 15-year-olds in the seventh grade or 11 year olds in the third grade. That reticence seems to have some logic.

What is it that the mayor and chancellor are proposing to do and how successful have similar efforts been in the past? The new initiative will focus on the end of the third grade. Students who do not score at least a level two on the third grade reading test and math test (there are four levels, and level 3 is considered passing) will not be promoted to the fourth grade. Students will be given another chance to take the tests at the end of the summer, and if they attain level two at that point, they will be promoted to grade four. If they do not, they will repeat third grade.

The administration is pledging that students in danger of failing to meet the promotional standard will be given extra help prior to the end of grade three. Summer school will be offered to both third graders who have scored below the promotional criteria as well as to second graders who are lagging behind. Class size in summer school will be limited to 15 students. Over the course of the third grade, low achieving students will "receive instruction in small groups two or three times a week either before or after school -- and sometimes on vacation days and on weekends."

The administration is budgeting $25 million to pay for these services, but the true cost may be much greater. High school principals are being warned that summer school programs for high school students may be cut back in order to divert resources to the grade three program.

Despite all of these efforts, some students will inevitably fail to meet the standard and will be retained in grade. The ultimate success of those students will be the yardstick by which this new policy is judged.

In 1981, the New York City School system instituted a policy very similar to the one being proposed by Klein and Bloomberg. Termed the "Promotional Gates Program," it required fourth and seventh graders to attain a certain score on their reading and math tests before they could be promoted to grades five or eight. Then, as now, students were offered a chance at summer school and an opportunity to retake their tests at the end of August, and earn their way into the next grade. Then, as now, resources were directed towards those students who were held back in the hope of getting them to the desired level of achievement.

I worked for the school system then, and was given the job of evaluating the outcomes of the Promotional Gates Program. Our team of researchers gathered data, tracked the test scores of students in the program, and then reported the results to the public. As we were employees of the system, a team of outside researchers headed by Dr. Ernest House was hired to look over our shoulders and comment on the accuracy of our reports. Based on the city's experience with ending social promotion, Dr. House ( in PDF format) has become a strong critic of the notion that doing so will be beneficial at raising student achievement.

It's not that the Promotional Gated Program was a complete failure. In fact, in its first year, we reported that the students who had been retained as a result of the policy were making some progress toward higher achievement. That progress was modest at best, and in time it became clear that these students were doing little better than students who had been promoted in earlier years despite having low test scores. At the end of the first full year of program implementation, some 5,000 students who had finished their second year in grade four or seven still failed to attain the standard needed for promotion and were therefore slated to spend a third year in the same grade. This struck many educators as absurd. Some of these students finally made it out of fourth or seventh grade, but some drifted into special education placement, where they may have belonged all along. The Gates program continued on through much of the 1980s, but it had never been popular with educators, and what little support it did have, eroded as the years passed.

The program was finally ended during the administration of Chancellor Fernandez when school system researchers conducted a follow-up study to find out what eventually happened to the original group of students who had been held back in grade in 1981. Sadly, the researchers found that these students eventually dropped out of high school in much greater numbers than a similar group of students who had been promoted "socially."

Proponents of ending social promotion argue that these evaluations were too limited because they focused only on the students who had been held back and did not consider the impact that the promotional standards had as a motivational tool for both students and teachers. This argument holds that the real success of promotional standards is found in the experience of students who ratcheted up their efforts and met the promotional standard without ever having been held back. It was true in New York City in the early 1980s that fewer students failed to meet the standards with each passing year, but there was and is no way to determine if that was an impact of the Promotional Gates or simply an outcome of a general rise in test scores that occurred in the city in those years. That general rise came crashing down when the city instituted a new test in later years, suggesting that something akin to "grade inflation" was behind the increase in achievement.

Observers of the public schools in Chicago have taken note of the potential motivational impact of student retention policy on overall student achievement. That city instituted an end to social promotion in 1997, and researchers have noted both good and bad news in terms of student outcomes. According to their findings, retained students are doing neither better nor worse than students who had previously been socially promoted. At the same time, the Chicago analysts have found that fewer and fewer students are failing to meet the promotional standards each year. Researchers have interviewed students in Chicago, who report that the threat of retention is a powerful motivator. On the other hand, some observers have argued that the rise in test scores and in the number of students meeting promotional standards in Chicago is another case of score inflation on a test series that has been in use for a number of years.

What is clear from both the Chicago case and the New York City Promotional Gates Program of the 1980s is that there is little reason to believe that the act of making a student repeat a grade is going to be beneficial to that student. In the decades following the implementation of Promotional Gates in New York City, the city school system became much more forthcoming about the fact that many schools in New York City were failing schools. In our own evaluation of the Gates program, we found that what mattered in large measure was not the retention policy, but the quality of the school itself.

The Klein administration argues that its attempt to end social promotion is bound up in a whole set of reforms designed to improve the city's many failing schools. If those larger reforms are successful, and all schools in the city have sufficient numbers of well trained teachers, are led by highly qualified principals and offer no excuses for student failure, then it is likely that few students will be affected by the latest end to social promotion. If those larger reforms fall short, however, it will likely make no difference if students are retained or socially promoted. A second or third year in grade in a badly run school is no cure.

Raymond Domanico is an education advisor to the Industrial Areas Foundation-Metro NY



















School Security

Students leave Washington Irving High School under the gaze of the famous New Yorker for whom their school is named, the author of Rip Van Winkle. But Rip might be amazed at what has happened to the school, which is now patrolled by more than a dozen police officers and security guards. On a recent afternoon, police cars, police trucks, even police sports utility vehicles lined the street outside the school.

"Everywhere you go you see a cop," said student Monica McAllister on the sidewalk.

"It's like a prison," added Diabe Diaman, a classmate.

A police officer called out from his car, "let's go, ladies and gentlemen," and then sounded his siren.

The massive police presence at Washington Irving is repeated at the 11 other public schools that were deemed this month the most dangerous in the city. (see box). Flooding these dozen schools with police is just one part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's major new campaign. "We brought down crime in the city; everybody said it couldn't be done," Bloomberg said at a press conference. "There's no reason why we can't bring down crime in the schools."

No one disputes the need for safer schools. "The question is, does having police in class make schools safer?" says Jill Chaifetz, executive director of Advocates for Children, a non-profit group that works on education issues. "There's no indication that it does."


By most accounts, violence and crime in schools have actually declined in recent years -- both nationally and even locally. Serious crimes have gone down in NYC public schools by 23 percent in the last two years, and though it has crept back up a bit since July, Bloomberg says "we are not having a crime wave in the schools."

School Rules

The discipline code for New York City schools, distributed to all students, is a 26-page book ranking infractions from level 1 (not wearing a school uniform, if one is required, or being late) to level 5 (selling illegal drugs or using a firearm in school).

Offenders face a range of penalties from a reprimand to suspension. A principal may suspend a student for no longer than five days. A regional superintended may suspend a student for up to a year and can even expel a general education (i.e. not special education) student who has turned 17.

Any student facing suspension of more than five days is entitled to a hearing. Advocates for Children offers a number of manuals for parents of students facing suspension.

All suspended students must receive some kind of instruction. For short-term suspensions, this can be provided in the school either during the normal school day or after school. Students who are chronically disruptive can be assigned to New Beginning Centers. So-called SOS - for Second Opportunity Schools - serve students with long-term suspensions usually for being violent. School officials say that such programs are designed to prepare a child for returning to regular classes.

But some question this optimistic picture. "No matter what the Education Department is saying, there is a growing problem in school violence," said City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, who is a likely mayoral candidate.

Clearly problems exist. Assaults on teachers rose from 105 in the 2001-2002 school year to 149 in 2002-2003, according to the United Federation of Teachers, and have risen another 40 percent since September.

Under the promise of anonymity, principals and others complained in a survey by Congressman Anthony Weiner's office this fall that school officials were slow to approve requests to suspend students. Because of the delays, a student who had committed a serious offense could remain in school for up to three weeks before being punished.

Delays have been blamed on the mayor's reorganization of the city school system. Officials in the five high school district offices used to process requested suspensions within 48 hours. But Bloomberg got rid of those offices, and the centralized office assigned to review suspensions seemed unable to handle them promptly.

Meanwhile, newspapers have fueled the sense of urgency by focusing on individual horror stories: A pregnant woman suffered serious injuries when she was struck by a chair dropped or thrown from an upper story window at Washington Irving. A 16-year-old student at Beach Channel High School in Rockaway smashed his former girlfriend's head into a glass trophy case. A ninth-grader tried to bring a loaded semiautomatic handgun into Adlai E. Stevenson High School in the Bronx.

Even a few incidents such as these affect education, distracting teachers and frightening staff and students alike. And many incidents that fall short of crime - verbal harassment, for instance, or shoving - can intimidate other students.

Disorderly schools cost money - as much as $240 million a year, Marc Epstein, a dean of students at Jamaica High School, wrote in the New York Post. To arrive at that number, Epstein estimates that literally hundreds of deans in city high school and middle schools spend most, if not all, their time on discipline and safety.


School violence has challenged New York City mayors at least since the Lindsay administration. In 1969, the situation at Franklin K. Lane was so extreme that the city shut down the school temporarily. Today, Lane is on the list of 12 dangerous schools.

During his tenure, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to address the problem by putting school security agents under the supervision of the New York police department. Two years ago, after two students were shot and seriously wounded at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Manhattan on the birthday of the civil rights leader, the school chancellor, Harold Levy promised to improve security.

The most recent school safety plan borrows terminology and techniques from the efforts of the last 12 years to bring down street crime.

Bloomberg says his plan will:

  • Identify particularly dangerous schools - so far, 10 high schools and two middle schools. According to statistics released by the mayor's office, these 12 schools together accounted for 13 percent of all serious crime in New York City's more than 1,200 public schools. The police department will assign approximately 150 additional officers to the schools, and teams of police and Department of Education officials will evaluate attendance, safety and discipline. Calling these "Impact Schools," the mayor said he was modeling the plan on Operation Impact, which, he said, brought down crime by deploying additional police to specific locations in the city where there had been a high incidence of crime.

  • Use the city's computerized crime tracking COMPSTAT system to identify dangerous schools.

  • Crack down on minor offenses, such as cursing and insulting other students. Taking a page from the broken windows approach to fighting crime, which holds that "quality -of-life" offenses set the stage for more serious infractions, the mayor says that disruptive students "can create an atmosphere conducive to more serious incidents."

  • Focus on habitual troublemakers. Students with at least two suspensions in two years could be immediately removed from school, even for a non-violent offense, such as smoking, cursing or being disruptive on a school bus. Here, the mayor is using the model of Operation Spotlight, which targets people who repeatedly commit minor crimes. "Just as 'Operation Spotlight' has resulted in the quick removal of chronic miscreants from our streets," said the mayor, "Spotlight students will be quickly removed from our schools."

  • Create more centers for suspended students. This would include centers in school for students suspended for a matter of days and so-called "New Beginnings" schools for chronically troublesome students. The program also calls for putting more students in the SOS, for second-opportunity schools, that serve students under long-term suspension, usually for violent offenses.

  • Streamline the suspension process. The mayor promised that all suspensions will once again be reviewed within five days.

  • Have principals take increased responsibility for making their buildings safe.


Some politicians and educators hailed the mayor's program. "It's a good plan," said City Councilmember Peter Vallone. "It shows what happens when the mayor and [police commissioner] Ray Kelly get together. They come up with some good ideas."

But others had doubts.

"If it's done well, students will feel more safe," said Richard Arum, an associate professor at New York University's Steinhardt School of Education and the author of a book on school discipline. "If it's done in an authoritarian way, it will alienate more kids."

The Dangerous Schools

The 12 schools listed as being the most dangerous in the city and receiving extra police are:

Adlai E. Stevenson High School
Christopher Columbus High School
Evander Childs High School
Intermediate School 222
Junior High School 22

Canarsie High School
Franklin K. Lane High School
Sheepshead Bay High School
South Shore High School Thomas Jefferson High School

Washington Irving High School

Far Rockaway High School

"Many of the 12 schools on the mayor's list already feel like minimum-security prisons, with metal detectors at the entrance and security officers with billy clubs and squawking walkie-talkies," Clara Hemphill, editor of Inside Schools, wrote after the mayor's announcement.

Even students in generally safe schools gripe about what they see as abuses by guards -- being questioned in the halls, not being allowed to hang out near the school building when classes end for the day, and being treated rudely. This is nothing especially new -- two years ago at relatively safe Midwood High School, a boy approached the security desk asking if he could speak to someone about how to enroll in the Brooklyn school, only to be told brusquely that he had to leave immediately: "People in there have better things to do than to talk to you," a guard said. But more and more students seem to be complaining about the security procedures. Metal detectors at some schools and the checking of identification create long delays, forcing them to arrive very early at school.

For adults, though, the question usually comes down to whether all these measures will make schools safer. By focusing on 12 buildings, the mayor's plan does not cover enough schools, says Eva Moskowitz, chair of the City Council Education Committee. "What about school number 13?" she asked. "If you have ten fewer incidents, you get no police presence."

To address problems at every school, Vallone, who chairs the council's Public Safety Committee, has proposed a bill to place security cameras at all entrances to all schools. "I have not spoken to anyone who does not think cameras in schools are a good idea," he said. Many, including people in the administration, do object to the projected cost, which Vallone estimates at $100 million.

Other proposals call for improving conditions for the 4,000 school security officers. Although the police department supervises school security, the officers are not members of the New York City Police Department. At a recent rally sponsored by Teamsters Union Local 237, which represents the officers, speakers complained of poor equipment, low pay - it peaks at about $28,000 a year regardless of seniority and the officers have not had a raise in three years - and few, if any, opportunities for advancement.

"It's a rewarding job," says office Joanne Johnson, but it's also difficult and dangerous. The officers, she says, are fighting for more money, for better equipment and for more respect, particularly from the police department. "They look at us like they wouldn't do what we do."


What becomes of the disruptive and particularly the violent student forced to leave school? "Will suspensions help?" asks Jay Gottlieb, a professor at the Steinhardt School. "Yes, but not the kids who are suspended."

National experts agree. Suspension "contributes to the achievement gap and starts the chain of events that leads to kids dropping out," David Richart, the author of a Kentucky study on suspension told NEA Today.

Over the years, city schools have launched a number of programs for disruptive students. One, the so-called "600" schools, was closed by court order because the overwhelming majority of students in them were black and Hispanic boys. Others still exist, although with new names.

Concerns still exist over the makeup of the student body at the special programs. More than 90 percent of students at Second Opportunity students last June were black or Hispanic, compared to 73 percent of the general school population, according to Advocate for Children. Over 70 percent were male, and 43 percent were receiving special education.

Joseph Collins is director of education for The Door, a Second Opportunity School, run by University Settlement. His program serves students who have been suspended for a year. It provides an academic program as well as counseling and less traditional approaches, such as music and art therapy - all aimed at preparing youngsters to return to a regular school. Because the program is new, few statistics exist on its success, but, Collins says, "kids are coming here every hour, every day all year so we must be doing something right." On an average day 75 percent of students attend.


Whatever the merits of such programs, it would be better to keep kids from getting into trouble in the first place. Beyond increasing security, what can - and should - be done?

Some problems, such as an era in which there is less adult supervision in general, fall beyond the reach of school officials, says Arum. But other problems can be addressed.

Teachers need more training in how to control classes, says Jay Gottlieb "Many kids don't know the appropriate way to behave in the classroom," he says. "It really has to be taught to kids, and it's not." Such instruction he says must take place in elementary school and requires the commitment of principal.

Others say discipline problems reflect basic problems in city schools, particularly high schools. Certainly the 12 "Impact" schools are not paragons of academic excellence. Students at Washington Irving fault the quality of teaching they receive. Only 55 percent of students there graduate in four years, and just half pass their English Regents. Other schools show even more dire results. At Adlai E. Stevenson, for example, only 37.1 percent graduated in four years and a mere 21 percent passed their English Regents.

And other problems confront these schools. Sheepshead Bay High School is "so sprawling and confusing that even the principal has difficulty finding her way around," says the Inside Schools web site. "Corridors are so crowded during class changes that kids complain the human gridlock makes them late to class."

"Almost every one of the high schools on the list is severely overcrowded," says Jill Chaifetz noting that one, Christopher Columbus, has so many students that it is on triple session. Chaifetz says smaller classes and smaller schools would make for safer classes and safer schools.

Many students, says Arum, have no interest in traditional academics. To make the curriculum "more relevant and engaging" to such students, he says, schools should bring back vocation education. "The purpose of vocational education," he says, is not so much to prepare students for particular jobs as "to get people to interact with school in positive ways."

Like Arum, Collins says that high school education must change to keep students from ending up in programs like his. "The system needs an overhaul," he says. "The culture of kids today is very different from five years ago and you need to address that." As an example, he says that The Door has a recording studio and uses many youngsters' enthusiasm for hip-hop to get them to become engaged and work on language.

In this era of standardized testing, uniform curriculums and little money, the chances for many of these changes seem remote. And many would argue that nothing will work unless students feel safe and secure in their classes and corridors. The mayor seems determined to do just that. "If I have to put a police officer next to every kid, we will," he said.

New York's Children Left Behind?

Two years ago this month, on January 8, 2002, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, an extensive revision of the federal education law. The Act proposed to improve the academic achievement of all students. It pledged additional funding for quality teaching, proven instructional methods, choices for parents of students in low performing schools, and stronger accountability for achievement, including closing achievement gaps among different groups of students.

No Child Left Behind Act, which passed Congress with broad bipartisan support, is the latest reauthorization of the federal law on elementary and secondary education. First enacted in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty," the law encompasses Title I, the federal government's largest program of school aid for disadvantaged students. (For a full description of the law's requirements see my November 2002 column, "No Child Left Behind.")

Though over half of New York City's public school students are poor, the federal government currently provides only about 10 percent of New York City's education budget. The rest comes from state and city funding. No Child Left Behind has brought some additional funding to the New York City schools, but it has itself never been fully funded. According to Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-New York: District 9), this year New York City will receive $400 million less than it was promised in No Child Left Behind. In an already resource-starved system, this disparity has led many parents, educators, advocates, and elected officials to believe that the new law demands changes without offering the means to implement them.

In the meantime, schools and districts must meet "annual yearly progress" targets for the school as a whole, as well as for separate demographic subgroups of students. Schools receiving federal poverty funding (called Title I schools) face consequences that escalate for each year of failure to meet these targets. These consequences range from providing alternatives, including transfers and tutoring, for students in failing schools to taking over or closing schools.

In January 2003, New York was among the first states to receive approval for its plan to meet the law's new accountability provisions, thanks to a strong state accountability system already in place. Over the past year, the New York City Department of Education has worked with the state education department, and with districts and schools, to fulfill such key provisions of No Child Left Behind as disseminating information about school performance, recruiting and hiring highly qualified teachers, and notifying hundreds of thousands of parents about their new options.

According to Ira Schwartz, a state education department official who monitors the city's compliance with No Child Left Behind, the New York City Department of Education has devoted considerable resources and made a good faith effort. But, Schwartz says, for large urban systems with high percentages of low income students, it is a hard law to implement. On a national scale, he believes, New York City would grade high compared with other large urban systems.

This year, for the first time, schools are being held accountable for the achievement of students of different races, students with disabilities, students with limited English proficiency, and low-income students. Schools have to report separate test score data for each of these subgroups and are not considered successful unless all groups meet test score targets. This information will appear on next year's school report cards.

In September, in compliance with No Child Left Behind, the state education department announced this year's list of "schools in need of improvement." The list includes schools that have missed their progress targets for two consecutive years or more. Of the 527 schools on the list, 347 are in New York City. Another 123 city schools that receive no federal poverty funding are listed as "requiring academic progress" because they failed to meet test score targets.

Under the parent choice provisions of No Child Left Behind, when a Title I school has been placed on the "schools in need of improvement" list, its students are entitled to transfer to a better school. After a second year on the list, its low-income students are entitled to free tutoring services. In principle, these options should offer students in low performing schools an important lifeline. In practice, as we shall see, it is not so simple.

In New York City, schools throughout the system are overcrowded. Schools in need of improvement are often found in neighborhoods where many of the schools are low performing. In the first year of the law, students entitled to a choice of schools were only offered options within their community school district, which meant that students in some districts were given very few and very poor options. Later, under pressure from parents and advocates, this policy was revised, and this year students were offered eight choices from schools throughout the city.

Still, only about 8,500 of the approximately 250,000 eligible students were able to exercise their option to move. Some parents found that the schools they were offered for transfer appeared no better than the schools they were entitled to leave. Moreover, many school options were far from students' homes.

New York City Council Member Eva Moskowitz, chair of the Council Education Committee, believes that the Department of Education must work much harder to provide fair access to the important right to school choice. "Middle class families have always had access to choice," she says, "but it is new to poor families. As a result, their children have been trapped for years on end in locally zoned schools that are failing. No Child Left Behind has the potential to say that they don't have to wait years for reform; they can go to a better school right now."

Because this idea is so "revolutionary" for poor people, Moskowitz believes that the Department of Education must conduct vast communications and public relations efforts to ensure that they know and exercise this right. She also called on the city to institute a "sibling policy" to make school transfers more family-friendly. But the city rejected the idea, so families with more than one child in a failing school will continue to receive two different lists of school choices.

Many high performing schools are already at or above capacity. This year, the transferring students increased overcrowding in a number of schools. Other large school systems, like Chicago, granted only a fraction of the transfers requested to avoid overcrowding. The Department of Education is reportedly looking for alternatives to mass transfers.

Under No Child Left Behind, low-income students from schools that stay on the failing list (In PDF Format) for a second year are also entitled to "supplementary educational services," extra academic help that can include private one-on-one tutoring. These free services may either be provided by the school district or by a community-based organization or private company.

Last year, of over 200,000 students eligible, only some 30,000 signed up for free tutoring. According to a report by Advocates of Children of New York, English language learners and students with disabilities were even less likely to get services than other students because of the city's poor communication with parents and tutoring providers, short deadlines for registration, and a lack of appropriate services available. Of the students who received tutoring, nearly all got services from the school system itself.

This year, Advocates for Children of New York and its allies, like City Council Member Moskowitz, called for changes so that families knew about their children's right to extra academic help, had sufficient time to register for tutoring, as well as got choices among providers so students were not simply required to spend more time at their failing schools.

This fall, the Department of Education improved its outreach to parents, relaxed enrollment deadlines, and announced that 40,000 students had enrolled for services. Advocates point out that this still only amounts to 19 percent of those eligible for free tutoring services and urge expanded measures for continued improvement.

While the New York City Department of Education struggles to comply with the many provisions of No Child Left Behind, critics of the law complain that its requirements create a distraction from the real challenges the city's school system faces. The new federal law may have created some new opportunities for a relatively small number of the city's l.l million public school students, but most of its requirements do little to address the city's underlying problems of chronic underfunding, an inability to attract and retain good teachers and principals, overcrowded and unsuitable facilities, and a lack of services and support for the many students with broader educational needs.

Representative Weiner, for one, believes that No Child Left Behind has left the city's schools worse off than before. "The law visited all these new regulatory requirements on the city schools and didn't give them the resources to accommodate the change," he says. "No Child Left Behind is really just an elaborate regulatory Kabuki dance to cover the fact that the New York City schools have been shortchanged."

Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and Director of Policy Development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition working to reform New York State's education finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York City. The views expressed are her own.





















School Contracts: Do They Serve The Students?

Last month, the education committee of the New York City Council held a controversial series of hearings examining school system labor agreements, the contracts whose little-known details, or "work rules," govern much of the day-to-day workings of the city's public schools. The hearings aimed to inform the public about the city's contracts with the major unions that represent school custodians, teachers, and administrators and to explore whether some aspects of these contracts created barriers to improving instruction.

All three union contracts for school employees have expired and must be renegotiated.

Education committee chair Eva Moskowitz, the council member who spearheaded the unprecedented hearings, told reporters that union officials and others had pressured her to cancel them. She persisted because she believed that was her duty to turn attention to what she called the "elephant in the room," contract rules that serve the adults in the schools rather than the children.

Testimony from the Department of Education and school personnel claimed that good schools flourished in spite of the contracts, not because of them. Witnesses, some of whom testified on tape rather than in person, with voices disguised, said that a number of aspects of the contracts were problematic.

The custodians' contract contains a number of seemingly arbitrary divisions of responsibilities that create inefficiencies and long waits for maintenance and repairs. For example, custodians are only permitted to paint school walls to a height of ten feet. Above ten feet is someone else's responsibility. Custodians are responsible for changing light bulbs, but ordering new bulbs is someone else's responsibility. The hearings also revealed provisions in the custodians' contract that offer possible financials incentives for doing less improvement work, as well as provisions that limit accountability of custodians to their school's principal.

The teachers' contract makes it hard to remove poorly performing teachers. Though the last contract agreement streamlined the official dismissal process, principals and others testified that amassing the evidence necessary to initiate that process takes years. The teacher salary structure set up by the contract makes it impossible for the school system to offer higher pay to attract teachers in shortage areas, such as math and science. The contract also allows teachers with seniority to transfer to fill vacancies in schools anywhere in the city without screening or approval from the school. Furthermore, the receiving principal may not even see the teacher's file from the old school. This has two consequences: experienced teachers gravitate toward higher performing schools, and poorly performing teachers can be pressured to move on rather than risk an unsatisfactory rating. In addition, the contract agreement known as Circular 6 prohibits teachers from conducting homerooms and from monitoring halls or lunchrooms.

The contract that governs supervisors and administrators has similarly troublesome transfer policies. Dan Weisberg, the executive director of labor policy for the Department of Education, testified that the administrators' contract made it nearly impossible to fire incompetent principals and assistant principals. He also said that seniority rules made it difficult for the city to manage administrators effectively.

Labor officials criticized the new policies of Chancellor Klein's Children First initiative, as well as chaos and confusion surrounding its implementation this fall. They complained that the new policies micromanaged schools and classrooms, tying teachers' and principals' hands. United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said that new classroom rules were forcing teachers to become "robots." Council of Supervisors and Administrators president Jill Levy called Children First a "reign of terror."

Weingarten and Levy also criticized the mayor and the chancellor for attacking contract provisions but refusing to come to the bargaining table to negotiate a new contract. The UFT has specifically accused the Department of Education and its chancellor of "poisoning the atmosphere for good-faith bargaining in an attempt to divert attention from their failure to implement their new educational policies and blame the union and the contract for those failures."

Both union heads accused the council hearings of maligning committed, hardworking school personnel.

Throughout the hearings, city council members repeatedly reminded education officials that the city had agreed to each provision it was now complaining about. They urged school officials to act quickly to remedy the problems they saw.

Following the hearings, a number of city politicians, including City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, called on Mayor Bloomberg to renew efforts to negotiate new contracts with the unions. The teachers union has filed a formal complaint against the Department of Education for refusing to negotiate.

Study Quantifies Impact of Teacher Transfer Policy

A new analysis of the allocation of teachers in the city schools shows once more that schools with the neediest students are routinely staffed with the most inexperienced teachers. The report, issued by the Industrial Areas Foundation, Metro New York, demonstrates that this practice amounts to a significant resource disparity between poor and middle-to-upper-class schools within the city. It holds both the teachers' contract and school system budgeting policies to blame.

Under the terms of the teachers' contract, the most senior teacher who applies to fill a position must be hired. Over time, senior teachers gravitate toward the wealthier, higher-achieving districts. The school system reinforces this trend with its formula for allocating money to districts. Instead of allocating districts a certain amount to pay for teachers, it allocates teacher positions, "holding the districts harmless for differences in teacher salaries."

One possible solution, according to the report, would be to allocate to districts the average teacher salary for each teacher. This would give high-performing districts a financial incentive to hire a mix of experienced and new teachers. Plus, poorer districts that could not attract enough experienced teachers would have the option of hiring more teachers and reducing the teacher-pupil ratio.

Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and Director of Policy Development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition working to reform New York State's education finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York City. The views expressed are her own.

















Obesity And The Schools

Walking home from school, fifth-grader Angel Rivera, who is stout and shorter by a head than the three girls he was with, volunteered that he likes the fruit punch best of the drinks in the new Snapple vending machine in his school, P.S. 134, on the Lower East Side. It's the sweetest, he says, and he needs his sugar.

Until this semester, he wouldn't have been able to get it. There weren't any vending machines in P.S. 134, or in most of the elementary schools in New York City. That is changing now that the city has a deal giving Snapple exclusive rights to sell juice and water in the city's public schools.

Giving Angel access to such a sweet beverage during the school day may not be in his best interests. Even though the Snapple in schools - unlike the Snapple in the corner grocery store - is all fruit juice and vitamin-fortified, it still packs more calories than soda. Angel isn't worried about calories. But health and education officials are.

On the opposite end of Manhattan, in Washington Heights, a girl visits her pediatrician, Dr. Paula Elbirt. The girl is eight years old, and weighs 200 pounds. She has what used to be called adult-onset diabetes. "They don't call it 'adult onset' anymore because children are getting it," said Elbirt. "They just call it Type II diabetes now." It's one of a host of health problems that are a direct result of a nationwide epidemic of obesity.

New York City public schoolchildren are particularly hard-hit by this epidemic, according to a study by the New York City Department of Health: 24 percent of those aged six to 11 are obese, compared to 15 percent nationally.

If the school system, with its 1.1 million students, had nothing else to worry about, maybe it could focus more on helping heavy children. But the schools are seriously overcrowded and understaffed. There are too few resources to promote quality education, never mind healthy weight. Still, school officials say they are taking action. Officials tout:
• healthier, lower-fat lunches being served this year
• a new free breakfast program
• new physical education programs
• snack machines stripped of junk food

and that lucrative contract with Snapple to sell juice rather than soda.

On the other hand, critics say, some school policies actually exacerbate the problems:
• Many playgrounds in overcrowded schools are clogged with trailers containing extra classrooms, leaving little space for exercise.
• Many schools don't have gym classes, nor enough personnel to supervise recess.

And then there's that lucrative contract with Snapple.


Most observers offer the obvious explanations for the high rates of childhood obesity: Too many kids sit around watching television and eating fast foods.

"It used to be that exercise was cheap"--more workers did manual labor as part of their jobs--"and food was expensive," says Dr. Elbirt, medical director of the Children's Aid Society. "Now exercise is expensive and food is cheap. You can buy a lot of junk food that is very filling."

That doesn't explain why New York City public school children have higher weights than the national average. One reason is that obesity tends to afflict low-income households, and that describes the majority of students in NYC public schools; 75 percent of them qualify for free or reduced-rate lunches. (Many affluent NYC children go to private schools, which weren't surveyed.)

One of the major problems for low-income children is hunger and, paradoxically, families who experience periodic hunger--when small paychecks or food stamps run out--have high rates of obesity. They fill up on high-fat, high-calorie (but lower-nutrient) food when they can. Nutritionists call the phenomenon food insecurity. Ironically, says nutritionist Fern Gale Estrow, "malnourishment and obesity may go hand in hand."


Measuring Obesity

To determine if an adult is obese, health officials use a formula called Body Mass Index that factors in height and weight. The levels indicating obesity are the same for men and women of all ages. But these change for children as they age--and they are also different for boys and girls, reports the Centers for Disease Control, which uses a series of charts to show the differences. For instance, the charts show that the average 10-year-old boy is 4 foot, 8 inches tall and weighs about 70 pounds. At 100 pounds, he is considered obese.

The Centers for Disease Control provide separate worksheets to determine Body Mass Index for boys (in pdf format) and girls (in pdf format).

Since overweight children tend to turn into overweight adults, the charts can be useful for determining whether a child is at risk.

The Centers for Disease Control do not define children as obese in their charts, but as overweight. "Obesity usually indicates a longer-term condition. We don't want to classify children early on as obese. There's a lot of stigma attached," says Diane Thompson, who helped to develop the charts. The American Obesity Association and the New York City Health Department in its survey of New York City public schoolchildren use the same charts, but they do use the term obese to describe the most overweight children.

Lack of exercise is also more of a problem in poor neighborhoods, too. Safety concerns might keep children inside--and inactive--outside of school hours.

The survey of New York City children found that Hispanics had the highest rate of obesity--31 percent. The rate among black children was 23 percent, while it was 16 percent among whites and 14 percent among Asians.

In Hispanic and black communities, studies show higher social acceptance of heavy people than in white communities. Scientists point out that many Hispanics carry genes that help them to store fat and use calories efficiently. That adaptation came about during centuries of rural life with uncertain food supplies. Today, the constant availability of food has tuned their "thrifty gene" from a survival mechanism into a predisposition to overweight.

Given this array of causes and effects in New York, nobody lays the epidemic of obesity entirely at the feet of the school system. Still, charges City Councilmember Eva Moskowitz, head of the council's education committee, "the schools have been unhelpful in addressing the problem."


The Department of Education sees it differently, pointing in particular to the new school lunches. Marty Oestreicher, head of the Office of School Support Services, says the cafeterias maintain standards above those recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture, which funds school lunches.

This school year, the menus look the same as they did before, but there's less fat, no more than 30 percent of the calories offered per day. The cafeterias also serve fresh or frozen (rather than canned) fruits and vegetables five days a week, up from three days a week last year. Including lunches and the new free breakfast program, the schools serve 800,000 meals a day. The only trouble is the taste. "It's not particularly appetizing, though it's scientifically nutritious," says Moskowitz.

Carmen Santana, the parent of a 7th grader at IS 119 in Queens, agrees. She sampled a New York City school lunch a couple of weeks ago. It was "some kind of compressed hamburger" and the roll "tasted fermented." Last summer, when she tried a breakfast, she got a battered box of Cheerios, chocolate milk to put on it, and a muffin. "It's institutional, like mini-prisons. It's horrible, it's insulting," said Santana, who is a board member on the Commission on the Public Health System in New York City.

Her son, Cameron Gonzalez, usually throws away most of his lunch, he says, and his friends skip lunch altogether.

There is at least anecdotal evidence that this is widespread. It's hard to know what the kids are getting from the school lunches nutritionally because there is no formal measurement of what gets eaten and what gets thrown out. Oestreicher says he gets information about the most popular foods anecdotally from the food managers and kitchen staff, and by visiting school cafeterias himself around the city. "Today I had the chicken parmigiana, fish nuggets and macaroni. I was looking around and the kids were eating it."

But pediatrician Paula Elbirt has also visited school cafeterias, and she sees students throwing away a lot of food: "The kids are throwing away the apple and the banana. They're eating the hamburger and the bun--or just the bun with lots of ketchup on it."

Kelsie Jameson, a fifth grader at P.S. 134, is indignant about some of what is offered: "I'll eat vegetables--but cold broccoli?" she says. A few times she's got fruit she couldn't identify. That would be a throwaway.


To the Department of Education, its deal with Snapple giving the beverage-maker the exclusive right to put vending machines in the schools has at least two benefits - it will bring in revenue, and, educators hope, it will foster healthier habits.

Before Snapple, each school made its own deal for vending machines. In some cases, the machines held drinks that weren't up to United States Department of Agriculture requirements for schools, says Oestreicher. "The only way to control the situation was to have a central contract." The sponsorship will mean at least $3 million a year.

And the new vending machines--Oestreicher estimates that 1,400 have been installed so far and another 300 are on order--sell only juice and water. (School officials said they did not know how many of these machines were going into elementary schools, as opposed to high schools or middle schools -- an odd admission of ignorance, considering that one of the points of the contract was to give officials more control.)

But critics knock the Snapple deal for the very reasons that education officials tout it. Several public officials question the contract, Assemblyman Steve Sanders saying the lack of competitive bidding makes it "smack of a sweetheart deal," and City Comptroller William Thompson calling on the Department of Education to cancel the contract. Ellen Raider, a member of the People's Coalition to Take Back the Schools, objects to "the commercialization of the kids' minds by having product ads all over the place."

Others object on nutritional grounds. Though the Snapple juices do have added vitamins and nutrients, they are reportedly even more calorie-laden than Coca-Cola

Nutritionist Estrow would rather see juices than soda in the schools, but she worries. "Children won't know the difference between Snapple in the school, which is juice, and Snapple outside, which is sugar water." (Commercial Snapple fruit drinks do contain 5 percent to 10 percent juice, but not 100 percent, as the school vending contract requires.)

Even pure fruit juice is not great for kids if they drink more than 8 to 12 ounces a day, says Estrow. "Why are we encouraging our kids to drink juice? Why not eat fruit?"

Unswayed by the criticism, the Department of Education plans to secure Snapple-like sponsorships for snack vending machines. Though there are not yet system-wide contracts that would bring in sponsorship revenues, the machines now in schools are supposed to maintain nutritional standards adopted in June--no chocolate candy, jellied candy, or gum. Baked potato chips rather than fried are allowed, as are pretzels.


Good nutrition goes just part of the way to keep New York schoolchildren growing taller rather than wider. They have to get moving, too. That is hard in New York City. With overcrowding, many schools lack the facilities to fulfill the state requirements for physical education--every day through third grade, three times a week for 4th to 6th graders, and two to three times a week for grades 7 to 12.

There is no "consistent physical education program" in 41 percent of New York's public elementary schools, reported the New York Times Magazine recently.

One reason for the lack of physical activity in the city's 673 elementary schools, according to a study by State Assemblyman Jeff Klein's oversight committee, is that many of them do not have functioning playgrounds; that space is filled with "temporary" trailers for extra classrooms needed for these overcrowded schools. Some of the trailers have been there for as long as eight years.

A bill Klein introduced in the Assembly requires that any loss of playground space be compensated with comparable space elsewhere. "It's a very simple concept. If you take away space, you have to give it back." Klein would like to see Snapple revenues funding the playground space.

In the meantime, nearby parks could theoretically substitute for the school playground space. But Cecilia Blewer, who is president of her daughter's school, P.S. 163, says because of the layoffs of paraprofessionals and teacher's aides, there isn't anyone to accompany the children: "I have this school a block and a half from Central Park. We don't have the personnel to take the kids to the park. We can't get there. You see the private school kids in the park."

The lack of personnel means that even in those schools where students have a place to play, recess is a time of chaos, not necessarily of physical activity. "You have maybe 200 kids being supervised by three adults," Blewer said.

Mindful of the problems, the Department of Education has just launched a centralized effort to revamp the physical education program, headed by Lori Benson in a newly created position, the Director of Fitness and Physical Development. Benson, who has been a New York City teacher, a "Fit for Life" coordinator and Deputy Director of Public School Athletic Leagues, is rolling out the new program in Southern Queens and Northwest Brooklyn.

The program is filled with upbeat acronyms: The core is called CHAMPS--Cooperative, Healthy, Active, Motivated, Positive Students. The first portion is called PROJECT F.I.T.--Fitness Integrating Technology.

Benson realizes she has to be creative to overcome some of the conditions. In schools that don't have a gym--or where the gym has been taken over for classrooms or lunchrooms--the program will work with "non-traditional facilities," says Benson. "A lot of times there's a smaller multipurpose room, the stage of an auditorium, even the aisles of the auditorium could be used to set up fitness circuits. It's something we have to be creative as possible about."

She also has to be creative about organizing after-school programs including a citywide intramural program for middle schools. She's starting nearly from scratch and without money. "There are a lot of after-school programs, but they're sporadic," she says.


A "recess enhancement program" aims to jump into the breach of playground anarchy. Chris Capobianco, a former Peace Corps volunteer, is the recess enhancement coordinator for Asphalt Green, a sports and fitness nonprofit organization on the Upper East Side. Through a federal grant, staff members regularly visit 21 schools in Manhattan and Queens. Half are in Harlem.

They train student leaders to work with kids in their own age group with cooperative games and lessons about sportsmanship and teamwork. One game, Alaskan kickball, incorporates each child on every play.

But many who work with children believe that school programs are not enough, nor even afterschool programs. It is far better to reach children before they even start school. "If you wait until you establish eating habits, the kind of expectations as to what a meal is, you're too late," says Dr. Elbirt. That is why the Children's Aid Society last month launched an early obesity prevention program for Headstart pre-schoolers and their parents at two community public schools in Washington Heights.

Very young children will reach for the apple or string bean that older children shun, says Dr. Elbirt. Familiarity breeds fondness. If the fresh fruits and vegetables aren't available in the neighborhood, though, the children and their parents won't develop the habit of eating them. The staff at the Children's Aid Society talks area stores into carrying fruits and vegetables. With the parents, they also encourage walking for exercise. "If they live in an unsafe neighborhood, they're not going to walk. We've identified a little park for them to walk in, right along the FDR drive."

Another early education program, Cookshop, a Community Food Resource Center project at P.S. 261 in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, shows young children and their parents how to cook and eat New York-grown produce.

Programs like Cookshop and the one run by the Children's Aid Society show what kinds of partnerships could be created in the schools to slow the growth of children's girth. Foundation and government grants and charitable donations fund these efforts. Regular funding for widespread prevention and education programs is not likely. In the overcrowded, underfunded public schools, for the moment, modest efforts to improve health will have to do.



• Action for Healthy Kids
• Cutbacks of School Physical Education Programs (2000) (Gotham Gazette)
• Epidemic of Fat Children (Gotham Gazette)
• School Reforms 2003 (Gotham Gazette)
• Diabetes (Gotham Gazette)
• The Underside of Bloomberg's School Reform (Village Voice)
• Advocates for Children



After School Programs

The afterschool program at my daughter’s school, PS 261 in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, is one of the school's strongest selling points. At 3:00 p.m. on Thursdays, when her kindergarten class ends, her teacher walks her down the hall to her creative drama class, which is taught by a professional actress. It was a hard choice, given that my daughter also wanted to take tap dancing and I wanted her to learn Spanish. When she gets a little older she can get homework help, learn to play chess, or cook with the owner of one of Brooklyn’s best restaurants. Almost all of the two dozen classes offered daily are taught by the school’s teachers or other professionals in their fields.

A third of the 780 students in the school attend the program, which costs $12 a day; families get a discount for more than one child in the program. But since there’s almost no scholarship money available and half the school is eligible for free lunch, it seems likely that many families simply can’t afford the cost.

So what do kids do from 3:00 p.m. until their parents return from work? “There are a million kids in New York City public schools and a million individual solutions,” says Susan Holman, a PS 261 parent and the treasurer of its after school program. “People use nannies, grandparents, older siblings, college students, swapping with friends, taking kids to work with you. It’s an incredible patchwork, and the reason it is that there’s no consistent coherent approach.”

While the lack of centralized data or funding makes it difficult to find how many children are in after school programs in New York City, an estimated 215,000 children in New York City ages 6 to 13 come home from school without a family member to watch them, according to the advocacy group Citizen Action of New York.

After school programs are often created locally, from within a school’s parent body or out of a partnership between an individual school and a community-based organization, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs or the YM and YWCAs, which often receive public funds.

It’s impossible to keep track of every after school program in the city--although the Partnership for Afterschool Education makes a good stab at it through its extensive guide. So it’s difficult to know if programs will have the funds to return the next year and it’s unpredictable which school gets a program and which neighborhood has none.

What is clear is that many programs are threatened. Because of a budget battle in Albany over funding for after-school, 14 programs in New York City serving 2,175 students have been eliminated entirely and 27 have had their funding reduced by a quarter or more.In addition to the state, funding for afterschool programs can also come from the federal government, which just approved $1 billion nationwide, primarily to pay for its 21st Century Community Learning Centers. But the New York City Department of Education also funds afterschool programs through its Office of Youth Development and School and Community Services, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed cutting $10.5 million from New York City’s after school programs last year. In response, the Open Society Institute, which created the Afterschool Corporation in 1998, gave $20 million to New York City to support after school programs it runs for city schools. The donation inspired the mayor to reinstate the cut funds, which combined with the Soros money is dispersed by the Afterschool Corporation in the form of grants to local programs.

Study after study shows that structured after school programs, from tap dancing and chess for elementary school kids to homework help and substance abuse prevention for teenagers, improve children’s experience in school--their attendance, their attitude, even their academic performance and graduation rate. A California study showed the reading and math scores of children in after school programs improved at twice the rate of all students nationwide, for instance.

Children who are set loose at the end of the school day have been shown to be more likely to smoke, use drugs and alcohol, be truant from school and have poor grades, according to the After-School Corporation. Juvenile violence and crime jump after school lets out; teenagers with nowhere to go are 37 percent more likely to become parents.

And taxpayers are in favor of it. A new poll released late last month by the Afterschool Alliance found that voters in general are overwhelmingly willing to use taxpayer money and even pay more in taxes to fund after school programs.

“The days of school getting out early so the students could go home to milk the cows are long past, but our policies still reflect those origins,” says PS 261’s Susan Holman. “Clearly our school calendar does not match the reality of today’s working conditions.”

Sasha Nyary, formerly on the staff of Life Magazine, edits the newsletter of The Fifth Avenue Committee, a community-based organization.


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