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A Bloomberg-Era Reform Worth Saving?


In the waning days of the Bloomberg administration, when many of the mayor’s controversial education ideas are once again under attack, one chief target of critics has been the school network structure, which broke up the geographically organized school districts and allowed principals to self-select into one of about 60 support organizations.

These days, just about everyone from the principals’ union (the Council of Supervisors and Administrators) to Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the NY State Board of Regents, to Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio are targeting the networks for elimination. Tisch recently charged that the networks have “basically failed children” who are English Language Learners and have special needs. Last January, de Blasio said: “I am dubious about whether this current network structure can be kept.”

But now, a group of 120 principals has issued a plea, in the form of a letter, in support of the network structure. The letter, which is reproduced below, was sent to Mayor-elect de Blasio, the UFT, the CSA, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and Shael Polakow-Suransky, the Senior Deputy Chancellor last Friday.

It says the networks offer the following supports, which were not “necessarily” provided through other more traditional structures at the Department of Education:

1. The gathering of schools of similar visions or purpose: the internationals, special ed reform focused, collaboratively structured, and schools committed to alternative assessment. This enables these schools to work more closely together and support each other towards better meeting their missions.


2. Shifting the supervisory structure into an advisory and support structure. It makes all the difference in the world that the network leader and team members are not the principals’ rating officer. Our networks have been responsive to us and in many cases network principals have had a say in the selection of network staff.

3. Networks support professional development that better meets the needs of the teachers, administrators, and other support staff in our schools and that allows for cross-pollination across our schools.

4. Because of racial and economic segregation by neighborhood in New York City, geographic districts are often segregated as well. Self-selected networks offer the option of racially and economically diverse schools working together and benefitting greatly from this collaboration.

The networks go to the heart of what might be the most important education initiative of the Bloomberg years: An effort to turn principals into educational leaders by giving them both greater autonomy and support in exchange for increased accountability. Under the network structure, principals were no longer just accountable to superintendents. The networks represented a countervailing power designed to support principals—and, through them, the needs of students in each individual school—by providing information and advice on everything from budgets to professional development. Principals could—and did—vote with their feet if they were unsatisfied with the services they got from their networks.

Continue reading on Andrea Gabor's website

A Signature Bloomberg-Era Education Innovation Is At A Crossroads


NEW YORK — One morning in March, New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott stopped by Global Technology Preparatory, a middle school in East Harlem.

He watched as sixth–graders who had just read Yummy, an acclaimed graphic novel based on the real-life shooting of an 11-year-old Chicago gang member, searched for articles on their laptops to support an essay on whether child perpetrators should be tried as adults.

In another class, a student recited a poem that built on what she had learned in an extended-day apprenticeship.

Walcott also chatted with Valerie Miller, a teacher who has spent years working with foreign-language software that allows kids to study a range of languages.

Global Tech, a school where most kids are poor, black or Latino — and about 40 percent have special-needs certifications — has become a showcase for one of the Bloomberg administration’s signature education initiatives: the so-called innovation zone or iZone.

The premise behind the iZone initiative is that digital technology, projects based on real-world problems and tailored to student interests, as well as new approaches to scheduling both the school day and teachers’ time, will both expand the horizons of the traditional classroom and inspire kids to learn.

The iZone initiative aims to address the disconnect between students’ wired lives and the traditional chalk-and-blackboard classroom that, according to some education-technology experts, makes kids today less receptive to education.

In the waning months of the Bloomberg administration, however, the iZone initiative, and schools like Global Tech — which have benefited from extra funding and support offered through the program — are being buffeted by a series of changes, from budget cuts to city-wide implementation of the Common Core state standards.

And, with a new mayor set to take office in 2014, and likely changes in leadership at the Department of Education, it is unclear whether this Bloomberg legacy will endure.

Some of the changes, such as a new venture-capital-like challenge meant to get schools to compete for what is likely to be a much smaller pot of funding, are just the latest examples of the tumult that has characterized the experiment from the beginning.

As one iZone veteran told the Gotham Gazette on the condition of anonymity, ticking off the four executives who have run the organization in as many years: “The iZone is like the Hudson; it’s constantly flowing, always changing.”

The iZone highlights both the promise and the hype of the kind of outside-the-box thinking that was a hallmark of the Bloomberg years. It also demonstrates how challenging it can be to disseminate even the best ideas within New York City’s large and ever changing public school system.

The iZone began in the 2009/2010 school year with 10 pilot schools. A few of the schools, including Global Tech, showed great promise both in terms of traditional measures — Global Tech received an A and B on its first two graded school report cards, as well as off-the-charts marks for student engagement, academic expectations and attendance. But the majority of the pilot schools dropped out of the experiment.

With those “failures,” the DOE wrote the pilot year out of its history books and began dating the launch of the iZone to the following 2010/2011 school year when it expanded to 81 schools. The iZone initiative today encompasses 250 of the city’s 1,700 public schools.

“It’s been an iterative journey,” says Andrea Coleman, who became CEO of the education department’s Office of Innovation, which runs the iZone, in August. “The personalized learning experience overall has been a huge success for the district.”

Last year, the iZone became a two-tier system with about 200 schools taking part in a limited way via access to education software offerings on the Department of Education’s iLearn portal for interactive learning. Another 50 schools, including Global Tech, are involved with more extensive experiments, such as those involving scheduling, as part of what has become known as iZone360; participating schools also have access to a broader range of supports, including outside consultants.

For New York City’s one million kids, such innovations have the potential to put an end to what Ken Robinson, the British education expert, calls the batch-processing approach to education, in which kids are sorted by their “manufacturing dates,” i.e. by age and not ability or interests.



The iZone has worked best where it has hewed to the vision of personalized learning.

At Global Tech, Carolyn Tarr, a music teacher, uses everything from garage-band software to podcast performances to mini-lessons on rhyme and rhythm, to teach a “challenge-based performance class.”

The two sections of Tarr’s class, which each meet once per week and have about 18 students each, work in small-groups — some formed bands, while others worked solo on slam poetry — in one cacophonous classroom.

For Walcott’s visit, Zoe Cambrelen, an eighth grader who was first inspired to write poetry during a poetry apprenticeship that was part of Global Tech’s after-school program, read, “Fight Like a Girl,” which reads in part:

When they look her up and down and tell her not to hang around, she says, this is my city …
When they come around and try to beat her down, she goes the distance.
And you know why? Because she doesn’t cry. She fights like a girl.

Meanwhile, on the Upper West Side, the West Side Collaborative, a respected, long-established Title 1 school, used its participation in iZone360 to expand experiments in flexible staffing, block scheduling and digital technology — all key iZone initiatives — that it had begun a decade earlier.

This year, for the first time, West Side created so-called “personal learning modules” tailored to the literacy needs of each student.

Working with a team of faculty, Jeanne Rotunda, the school principal, scheduled the entire seventh and eighth grades for a combined literacy period on Mondays and Fridays to work in small groups on discreet skills , which are based on each student’s abilities and are mapped to the common core standards, as well as their preferred learning style and interests. The regular curriculum continues to be taught Tuesday through Thursday.

To help decide which PLM would be most beneficial for each student, and “to establish a baseline for student's mastery of a particular set of Common Core Standards,” West Side teachers developed interactive challenge-based assessments. One of these, the Pacific Trash Vortex, which is based on a Texas-sized mass of garbage in the North Pacific, assembles a series of documents that students need to study, including news stories, lab reports and maps of ocean currents.

Each student is asked to imagine that she is an ecologist/oceanographer who has been hired by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to propose solutions to the United Nations. Students have to explain both the problem and the consequences of the vortex if it isn’t solved, and create a Google presentation on their findings.

“The assessment is rigorous, engaging and authentic, and includes some gaming principles,” said Paul Kehoe, a 32-year-old teacher who helped develop the assessment.

Teachers also surveyed the kids about their interests: sports, say, or art; their preferred learning styles — working in groups, individually or with a teacher; as well as data from their assessments.

By freeing up nine teachers to work with 120-or-so students in the combined grades, the teacher-student ratio for the PLM groups is much lower than it would be in a typical public- school classroom: While the largest group has 25 kids, the rest range in size from nine-to-18.

To support the idea of student-focused learning, West Side has also developed a highly nuanced “outcomes-based” grading system, in which students receive a grade of 1, below grade level, to 5, above grade level, on myriad competencies. Part of the point is to get kids to better understand their strengths and where they need to improve.

During a recent afternoon, students shared their report cards with their parents in student-led conferences.

Natalio Gonzalez, an 8th grader who loves art (especially the work of Brooklyn-born graffiti artist-turned-painter Jean-Michel Basquiat) and was recently accepted at the esteemed LaGaurdia High School, pulled up a multi-page spreadsheet on his MacBook to show his progress.

“My weakest spot is in communication,” explained Natalio, who earned many 4s on his report card, but noted that he got a 3 in communication. He said students set academic goals with their advisors during a once-a-week “base-camp.” One recent goal for Natalio was to do a better job of discerning evidence and using it to make claims in written essays.

Nearby, Niomi Manigault, a seventh grader, was showing her online report to her mom and older sister, explaining she wants to improve her performance in social studies in which she got an 88 on her most recent assessment. She also said she needs help in math.

Judith Manigault, Niomi’s mom, says she is comfortable with the student-led conferences, which have only been in place since last January. “It holds her accountable,” Manigault said. “I'm able to reach out to teachers via email or schedule a phone call” with questions and concerns.

Both West Side Collaborative and Global Tech are one-to-one laptop schools —though West Side’s computer program predates the iZone. What the iZone has brought is both resources — including consultants who are expert at scheduling and technology — and, equally important, says Rotunda: “permission to push further.”

Importantly, both schools also have developed their iZone innovations in collaboration with, and in order to maximize, the expertise of teachers. That is not always the case — either in the iZone or among education policymakers.



The iZone came of age in a climate where education technology has often been used as a Trojan horse for sidelining teachers unions and increasing class size. Conservative activists, led by Terry Moe and John Chubb (Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education), promoted an explicitly anti-union, anti-teacher agenda in which kids would learn via computer with only occasional assistance from “asynchronous” instructors who work out of centralized teacher warehouses.

Joel Klein, the former schools chancellor who now runs Amplify, News Corp.’s education-technology business, had great enthusiasm for the iZone, especially its technology component: He envisioned classes in which Nobel laureates, such as Richard Feynman, would teach large groups of students via video.

“Joel misses the essence of teacher-student interactions, and the extent to which teachers focus on students’ physical and emotional well-being, in addition to their academic learning,” said Eric Nadelstern, the former New York City deputy schools chancellor and visiting professor of practice at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “Virtual communities don't raise children, people do.”

A subsidiary of Amplify has three current contracts with the DOE, though none for the company's new tablets.

There has been little systematic research inside or outside the iZone on the efficacy of K-12 online education. The number of U.S. students enrolled in online courses surged 47 percent in 2008 to just over one million, up from 700,000 two years earlier, according to two studies conducted by Anthony G. Picciano and Jeff Seaman, in a project funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. However, in the 2008 study, K-12 Online Learning, the authors note that, as of 2007, “no organization-public or private was systematically collecting” data on K-12 online schools.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that technology, in the absence of close teacher-student connections, doesn’t improve outcomes, especially in inner-city schools where most kids can’t count on parents to help them with their work.

Take the iZone’s School of One, which was hailed by Time as one of the 50 best inventions of 2009. School of One uses a computer algorithm to sort kids by ability, generate a daily “playlist” of assignments for each child and grade quizzes. About eight adults supervise a typical jumbo-sized School-of-One classroom where most of the 150 kids work on computers, while a few teachers help smaller groups of students; but since half the adults are student teachers, the actual ratio of certified teachers to students is about 36-to-1. Many see School of One as part of a trend to create “teacher-proof” education.

After the first full year, School of One saw decidedly mixed results. Two of three pilot schools dropped the program and the founder of School of One, Joel Rose, left the DOE. While the School of One continues to operate in a few schools, there is little talk these days about the program’s “miracles.”


As the iZone enters its fifth school year, it faces both strategic and financial challenges.

The iZone’s budget, which includes both public funds and private grants from philanthropies, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was $47 million in the 2012/13 school year. The city learned in December that it had lost a $40 million bid for Race-to-the-Top funding, which was aimed at rewarding schools that promote “personalized learning,” including those in the iZone.

A map of iZone locations (source: NYC OpenData)

New York City also has yet to receive $256 million in Race-to-the-Top grants, which have been withheld by the State until a teacher-evaluation process is in place. In addition, the city lost about $257 million in the 2012/2013 school year for failing to arrive at an agreement with the United Federation of Teachers on a new teacher evaluation system — although a court recently ruled that the state could not withhold the funds to punish the schools.

Meanwhile, the DOE’s $8.282 billion budget allocation from the state for the 2013/2014 school year represents about an 8 percent increase over the 2011/2012 school year.

Some schools — in and outside the iZone — also will benefit from a Microsoft class-action settlement with New York State, which will provide $87 million in the form of technology vouchers that will be reserved for high-poverty schools defined as those where at least 50 percent of the students are enrolled in a free or reduced-price lunch program.

At the same time, iZone schools are girding for a new system of “challenge” grants, which will be “shorter, sharper and more dynamic” than the more open-ended funding that has been provided thus far. The first of about 10 annual challenges will take place in May.

The challenge-grant process reflects the influence of business ideas on the DOE, which has worked with companies like Cisco and Apple since the beginning of the iZone.

For example, challenge-grant recipients are required to use such business-inspired strategies as “hackathons” — in the high-tech world, these are typically intensive one-day to one-week product development jam sessions. One long-time iZone consultant lauded the competitive nature of the challenge grants, saying they would ensure that only the best ideas, and most committed schools, get funding.

But educators are concerned. “School innovation isn’t like software design,” said Nick Siewert, a senior educational consultant at Teaching Matters, a leading nonprofit professional development organization, who works with several iZone schools.

Siewart argues that school improvement isn’t analogous to one-time solutions or product fixes; rather, he says, it’s about iterative learning and follow-through.

Chrystina Russell, the principal of Global Tech, worries that the challenge grant process will pit schools against each other and favor projects that “have immediate returns.”

She is also concerned that established schools, already working on a portfolio of innovations, will get short shrift; she notes that Global Tech has not gotten any new funding yet for technology for the 2013/2014 school year—the first time she has gone into a new school year without such a commitment—and worries that the iZone will stop supporting ongoing experiments in favor of quick fixes.

Nor has the DOE done a good job of disseminating lessons learned in the iZone.

There is relatively little systematic research on the myriad innovations across the iZone, and few mechanisms for sharing the ideas that work, as well as those that don’t.

“We know schools are idiosyncratic places, and finding the right opportunities to scale and diffuse ideas has always been a challenge,” iZone’s Coleman said.

She added that one of the iZone’s goals is to focus on “scale and diffusion” and finding better ways “to maximize ideas across the system.”

One way the iZone is hoping to do that is by expanding a system of principal and teacher-led affinity groups and events in which schools share the know-how they have developed in such areas as outcomes-based grading or fostering greater social-and-emotional awareness among kids.

Also this year, for the first time, schools receive some funding for assisting other schools.

This year, West Side Collaborative is helping East Bronx Academy implement student-led conferences. However, West Side’s Rotunda notes there are limitations on the extent to which schools can learn directly from one another: “People learn through creating — by seeing something in one version and trying to create it for your own world.”

Nor is it clear whether the education department will continue to fund this school-to-school mentoring initiative in the next school year.

Then, too, there is the chicken-and-egg problem.

The most respected iZone schools are ones that are noted for strong leaders who took advantage of myriad education department initiatives, especially the push to grant principals more autonomy and flexibility in exchange for greater accountability.

Even now, some of New York’s most intriguing grassroots efforts aren’t officially part of the iZone at all, but are led by entrepreneurial principals and teachers.

For example, the Staten Island School of Civic Leadership, a new school on Staten Island, uses software programs on the iZone’s iLearn platform to help its most advanced eighth graders take the regents exam in algebra.

But a promising experiment at the school is taking place one grade below, and entirely outside the iZone framework, in a seventh-grade class led by three teachers under what school principal Rose Kerr calls the “triad” system.

She says the model is based on close collaboration among the teachers, block scheduling, intensive multi-disciplinary class projects and digital literacy.

For example, the class recently finished a Declaration of Independence for Staten Island, which began with a unit on the history of American War of Independence, including discussions about taxation without representation. It went on to cover questions about democracy versus autocracy that drew, in part, on readings from MacBeth. And it culminated with the writing of a press release that explains the secession movement and tweeting the plan.

The school received Teaching Matters’ Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize, which recognizes principals who create rigorous and innovative learning environments, for its triad system. (West Side’s Rotunda won the first prize in 2011.)


The Bloomberg years, with their school closings and the battles over punitive teacher evaluations, have often been confrontational and divisive. Yet, the best of New York’s iZone schools have flourished on a culture of collaboration and entrepreneurialism fostered by strong principals and creative teachers who took advantage of a climate that promoted autonomy and accountability.

Now that autonomy is eroding, with a wave of new mandates from Tweed, even as the Common Core assessments and mayoral elections bring more upheaval. Last week, the iZone was abuzz with the news that two respected iZone principals had not received tenure.

Where the Common Core assessments are concerned, which have unsettled schools both inside and outside the iZone, the iZone schools have at least one advantage: Next year the assessments are to be administered online, which might help maintain funding for technology. It will also give schools that have done the upfront work on infrastructure an edge.

The real test for the DOE in the post-Bloomberg era will be whether it can nurture the entrepreneurism of both teachers and principals that have flourished at the best iZone schools, and find a way to spread that culture and the lessons learned throughout the system.

Andrea Gabor is the Bloomberg Chair of Business Journalism at Baruch College/CUNY; she is working on a new book on education reform.


Correction: This is an updated version of the story. A previous version incorrectly identified Richard Feynman as a chemist. He is a physicist. The story also misidentified him by the wrong first name. 

Will A “Bar” Exam for Teachers Improve Student Performance?


NEW YORK — A growing nationwide push for more rigorous teacher-licensing standards sweeping state houses from New York to Washington has reformers on sometimes opposing political sides looking at what was once considered nearly unthinkable: a bar-like exam for educators.

Even the American Federation of Teachers, the powerful union, has taken the old adage that the best defense is a good offense and begun to campaign for such exams as teachers are increasingly blamed for low student achievement. The AFT has also been campaigning for higher standards both for prospective teachers and for teacher-preparation programs.

In so doing, the AFT has found common cause with a number of education reformers with whom it normally doesn’t agree. A new AFT report, “Raising the Bar: Aligning and Elevating Teacher Preparation and the Teaching Profession” has won praise from many quarters, including Arne Duncan. And Joel Klein, the former New York City Schools Chancellor who now heads News Corp.’s education business, floated a similar proposal last November.

New York is among the states  moving toward tougher requirements for entry into teacher-preparation programs — currently, New York has no such minimum requirements — as well as a bar-like exam for graduates. After a panel that he created said it concurred with the AFT’s report recommending a bar-like exam, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, endorsed the idea in his State of the State address on Wednesday, saying that “every teacher” should take such a test and pass it “before we put them in a classroom.”

The New NY Education Reform Commission, convened by Cuomo in April 2012, recommended in a preliminary report that prospective teachers have a minimum 3.0 GPA, as well as an assessment, such as the GRE for graduate programs, or the SAT/ACT for undergraduate programs, but, notably, doesn’t specify a minimum score that candidates must achieve. The report, which points out that the state’s current certification exam has a 99 percent pass rate, also calls for adopting a ‘bar'-like exam that will test new teachers on how well they are prepared to lead classroom instruction.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT and a member of Cuomo’s education commission, said the world’s most lauded education programs in countries like Singapore and Finland also have teacher-education programs with high degrees of quality control.

“Preparation really matters,” she says. “We talk a good game in this country about the importance of teachers, but no place in this chain do we actually treat it as important.”

The AFT report is largely a critique of the nation’s teacher-education system — a hodge-podge of traditional university based education programs, alternative certifications, and online programs — that the report says is “at best confusing and at worst a fragmented and bureaucratic tangle.” The AFT says it wants to develop national consensus on a “mechanism for ensuring high standards,” in large part by improving the connection between teacher-preparation programs and on-the-ground teaching.     

The bar-exam proposal coincides with two competing trends in K-12 education: on the one hand, the proliferation of alternative certifications that aim to attract young people from elite schools and are generally much shorter — and, critics say, more superficial — than many university based programs; and, on the other hand, a growing call for educational rigor in both teacher preparation and licensure requirements.

The proposal also follows a devastating 2006 critique, Educating School Teachers by Arthur Levine, the former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, which took aim at both alternative certifications for doing away with “quality ceilings and floors” and the majority of traditional university based programs, which are “characterized by curricular confusion, a faculty disconnected from practice, low admission and graduation standards … and weak quality control enforcement.”

At the same time, an influential 2007 McKinsey  & Co. report, which claimed that the nation recruits many of its teachers from the bottom third of college graduating classes, unsettled education policy experts, even though the claim is based on somewhat misleading data.

By proposing a bar-like exam, the AFT believes that it will force changes throughout the teacher-preparation pipeline, much the way the Flexner Report did for medical schools a century ago. The Flexner Report prompted states to write more rigorous licensing tests even as medical schools revamped their training programs and toughened entry requirements. One upshot was that by 1935, half the medical schools in operation at the turn-of-the-20th century had closed (and inroads made by women were reversed as most medical schools became all-male institutions.)

The AFT may also be gambling that more rigorous licensing standards will serve as a stumbling block for alternative certification programs, such as Teach for America, a key source of teachers for nonunion charter schools. While Abraham Lincoln famously qualified for the bar without going to law school, over the years, the increased rigor of the bar has made three years of law school a virtual requirement for aspiring lawyers.

The idea is also part of a growing push to reverse a trend — often the result of past and current political battles — that many educators say has dumbed down state and local licensing requirements. For example, in New York City, in the 1990s, the controversial Board of Examiners, which was initially established in the late 19th century to ensure that teaching jobs were based on merit, and not patronage, was eliminated in the aftermath of a lawsuit charging that the tests made it difficult for minorities to pass.

Today “it’s the right-wing reformers who are lowering standards,” says Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education and leading critic of the corporate education-reform movement, noting that Tony Bennett’s final act after losing his re-election bid, last November, as Indiana superintendent of public instruction — he was recently appointed education commissioner in Florida — was to weaken the state’s requirements for new teachers.

In particular, Bennett pushed through the state’s so-called adjunct teacher permit, which allows an applicant with just a BA degree and a 3.0 GPA, and who can pass a subject test, to teach for five years without any other training or student-teaching experience.

Bennett has defended the changes as expanding opportunities for teaching in Indiana’s classrooms. “The more opportunities we have with the ability to bring talent into Indiana classrooms, talent into Indiana school buildings, talent into Indiana school corporations, I think that’s good public policy,” he told reporters, according to Indiana’s State Impact news website.

Meanwhile, licensing rules in most states do little more than “screen out the bottom few who can’t master the English language or are badly schooled,” says Eric Nadelstern, the former New York City deputy schools chancellor and visiting professor of practice at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

The state that has pushed hardest to boost teacher requirements may be Massachusetts. After the Commonwealth created its much-lauded curriculum framework in the 1990s, it also revamped the state’s licensing regulations and tests. The new curriculum “would have amounted to little more than black and white noise without an academically stronger corps of teachers to teach to them,” writes Sandra Stotsky, who holds the “21st century chair in teacher quality” at the University of Arkansas and served as senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Education, with responsibility for revising the state's teacher licensing regulations and tests.

Since 2005, Massachusetts has ranked at the top of National Assessment of Educational Progress scores in fourth and eighth grade reading and math, as well the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study scores in science and math in 2007 and 2011 (the state participated as an independent country).

Tougher tests will almost certainly result in many more failures among test takers. When Massachusetts instituted new licensing rules requiring prospective teachers to pass a new elementary math test, 75 percent of applicants failed in 2009, the first year the test was administered, according to Stotsky.

Many educators worry that the unintended consequences of a teacher’s “bar exam” could be to weed out many of the people they want in the classroom. “The only thing I'm certain a bar exam will do is keep out minorities,”says Chrystina Russell, the principal of a highly rated public middle school in Harlem who strives to make sure that her teaching staff resembles her black and Latino student body. Adds Nadelstern: “I don’t trust the testing industry to put together a test that is inclusive on the basis of gender, sexual persuasion or race.”

One reason that they see such an exam as disadvantaging people of color is that native speakers of Spanish and vernacular African-American dialects are at a disadvantage on written tests based on standard English because they often come from communities that are much more homogonous both ethnically and linguistically than those in which other immigrant groups live, according to Nadelstern, who adds: Speaking Yiddish didn’t get you very far if you grew up in an Irish, Italian and Jewish neighborhood.

The AFT counters that it has modeled its proposal on the so-called edTPA, formerly the Teacher Performance Assessment, which, instead of the prevailing multiple-choice  tests and written essays, emphasizes a detailed “review of a teacher candidate's authentic teaching materials,” including video clips of instruction, lesson plans, student work samples and analyses of student learning. The aim of edTPA tests, which are subject-specific, is to evaluate how a prospective teacher actually teaches a given subject to real students, rather than her theoretical knowledge of teaching.

So far seven states, including Illinois, Washington and Minnesota, have adopted the edTPA, which was developed by Stanford University and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education; test administration and scoring are being coordinated by Pearson, the education company. New York State is adopting edTPA beginning in 2014.

The edTPA assessment is not without controversy. Last year, students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, one of 200 colleges in close to two dozen states where the new assessments were being piloted, refused to participate, saying the requirement that students submit 20-minute videos of their teaching practice was too onerous. They also questioned whether the test evaluators, who are being paid $75 to review each assessment, will put in the two to two-and-a-half hours necessary to do a thorough job. While Pearson helps to recruit scorers, Stanford notes that the scorers are experienced teachers who have been specially trained to evaluate the assessments.

Taking the edTPA will cost prospective teachers $300, about double what licensure tests cost today, but still far less than other licensing tests, such as those for nursing or the law.

Such controversy may be why the AFT, rather than adopting the edTPA outright, has asked The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which established the standards for so-called master teachers, to convene a gathering of educators and other “stakeholders” to design a multi-dimensional entry bar that could well include edTPA, minimum GPAs for teacher-prep candidates, as well as new student-teaching requirements.

With many states already signed up for edTPA, there is a danger that the AFT’s  “bar exam” could result in yet another addition to the national licensure smorgasbord — rather than a national consensus.

“There is a tension here with the AFT’s desire to get to a single national system,” concedes Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford Univ., and a contributor to edTPA’s development. “How to get there is not immediately clear. We already have a patchwork. It’s conceivable that you could end up with more than one addition to the current schema.”

The biggest problem with the AFT’s proposal may not be getting consensus — but getting it too quickly. The rush to jump on the next big thing, no matter how dubious the evidence, may be the biggest Achilles heel of the education reform movement. EdTPA’s predecessor, a performance-assessment test known as PACT that has been used in California for several years, has shown promise. Yet it will be a few years — when student achievement data are available for the teachers who participated in the edTPA pilots — before strong conclusions can be drawn on whether the assessments can weed out bad apples and select for teachers who consistently improve student achievement.

But that hasn’t stopped numerous states from jumping on the edTPA bandwagon. Similarly, even though the Massachusetts curriculum framework propelled student achievement in the Commonwealth to the top of national and international rankings, the state effectively jettisoned that framework for the untested Common Core; Massachusetts has also embraced edTPA.

As for whether a “bar” exam will help get teachers, and the teaching profession, more respect: That might be an even bigger hurdle.


Andrea Gabor is the Bloomberg Professor of Business Journalism at Baruch College/CUNY and the author of several books, including The Capitalist Philosophers


Council wants to know whether kids are getting enough physical ed

wellness c

A winning design from the DOE's 2012 school wellness poster contest.

NEW YORK — A group of City Council members is trying to change the conversation about the obesity epidemic from soda to the lack of physical education in public schools.

In a letter sent earlier today to Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, the group of 34 led by Melissa Mark-Viverito and Letitia James, called for increased physical activity in the public schools, citing reports that they are not meeting state standards.

They also requested information on how much time children spend in physical education classes.

"With all of the public discussion about the mayor’s proposed ban on the sale of large sugar-sweetened beverages, we cannot neglect the critical role that physical activity plays in reducing obesity," they said in a statement.

The city's Department of Education responded by saying it had created an office dedicated to overseeing physical education, health education and wellness in 2003.

“We are helping schools provide a high-quality physical education, and through the obesity task force, we will be expanding fitness and wellness programs," said Deidrea Miller, a DOE spokeswoman.

The obesity task force was convened in January, with commissioners from major agencies, to find innovative policies to reduce the rates of New Yorkers who were obese or overweight. Among the proposals, the DOE said it would increase funding for health intiatives; create "wellness coordinators" to advise schools; and work to develop the connection between health and nutrition in cafeterias.

The proposed ban on the sale of sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces at any food establishment that receives a health department inspection also came out of discussions by the task force.

The proposal has won praise from public health experts, and ridicule from comedians.

The Bloomberg-appointed Board of Health will vote on whether to pass the new soda regulation in September.

See the letter below:

When Making a Great Teacher is a Team Effort

Photo by Andrea Gabor

Just a few years ago, while teaching at a middle school in the Bronx, David Baiz was given an unsatisfactory rating and targeted for elimination.

So when New York City published its Teacher Data Reports last week, Baiz, who now teaches at a middle school in Harlem, had reason to be, at the very least, relieved. He was ranked in the 91st percentile, or above average.

But Baiz, 29, knows that neither rating was accurate or useful. The TDRs violate basic rules of statistics because they assume that students are assigned to class rooms on a random basis, which is not the case. They also are riddled with data errors: In the case of Baiz’s ratings—he has received two TDRs in his teaching career—while both pegged him as “above average”, they both included likely errors in the value-added portion of his rating, the wrong number of students in his classes and a high likelihood that some of the students included in his assessment may never have been in his class.

Baiz’s unsatisfactory evaluation, on the other hand, captured his inexperience as a first-year teacher, as well as the effects of a family crisis that impaired his performance; however, the rating did nothing to assess—or foster-- his considerable potential.


These days no one who knows Baiz, a math teacher at Global Technology Preparatory in Harlem, would dispute that when education reformers talk about wanting to put a high-quality teacher in every classroom, they are talking about teachers like him. In the three years since he “escaped” the Bronx and joined Global Tech, Baiz has emerged as something of a model teacher. Visitors from around the country have flocked to his classroom to see his innovative approach to mixing online tools and old-fashioned instruction. He has helped win the school thousands of dollars in grants. He won a prestigious Math for America fellowship that comes with a $15,000-per-year stipend. He also was selected as one of six New York City teachers to be part of the Digital Teacher Corps, a Ford Foundation-funded collaboration among educators, technologists, and designers to develop interactive digital learning tools aimed at improving student engagement and achievement. And his colleagues have voted him as their union representative.

“David is skilled; he’s always moving forward,” says Chrystina Russell, Global Tech’s principal. Virtually every day “he gives 125 percent.”

But Baiz would be the first to admit that his story isn’t about star power. Indeed, Baiz’s experience is a case study in the importance of collaboration and team work in achieving constant improvement both in teaching and in the overall results for kids. It is also an object lesson in how both TDRs and traditional teacher evaluations can serve to undermine those goals.


Indeed, a recent study by Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, Collaborating on School Reform, shows that contrary to popular practice and the dictates of many corporate education reformers, the secret to long-term improvement for teachers, schools and students is “substantive collaboration” at all levels—from the classroom to administration to unions. Developing quality teachers, says Saul Rubinstein, an associate professor at Rutgers and one of the authors of the study is about “mentoring, sharing instructional practice, collaborating.” The problem with traditional accountability measures, such as TDRs and punitive performance appraisals, is that they “de-professionalize teaching,” says Rubinstein. The best systems are those that “help teachers succeed.”

Or, as W. Edwards Deming, the quality guru once said, putting the blame for poor performance squarely at the feet of management: There are only two reasons for having deadwood—either you hired deadwood or you hired live wood and you killed it.

Baiz’s story begins at MS 004 in the Bronx—a school from which Global Tech recruited several teachers. Baiz, then-23, was assigned to teach both seventh- and eighth-grade math—an overwhelming assignment for a first-year teacher because it required getting to know two different cohorts of students and to develop two different lesson plans. Weeks into the start of his job, Baiz’s 16-year-old sister was in a catastrophic car accident. Baiz, feeling that “his family needed him,” began making trips back home to Ohio. He was deeply depressed both by what had happened to his sister--she continues to suffer from severe brain injury--and what he and colleagues have describe as a hostile atmosphere at MS 004.

Baiz admits that he was frequently absent that year for which he may have deserved to get a “U” rating.

What happened next is what made the difference not only to keeping Baiz in the teaching profession and helping him excel, but also in building a collaborative school that has fostered a culture of improvement for both teachers and kids. A handful of his more experienced colleagues who had observed Baiz, both in the class room and giving math presentations to the faculty, saw his potential and made a case for keeping him at the school; but Baiz was convinced that his days were numbered. For one thing, the assistant principal who remained determined to get rid of him, was promoted to principal. “He had a hostile administration looking to get rid of him,” says Jackie Pryce-Harvey, a veteran special-education teacher who also worked at MS 004 at the time. “He didn’t stand a chance.”

A Fresh Start

At about the same time, Pryce-Harvey was in the process of persuading her friend, Chrystina Russell, to start a new school, which would eventually become Global Tech. Pryce-Harvey, now Global Tech’s assistant-principal-in-training, recruited Baiz to start working on the planning process. Soon a team of teachers was gathering at Pryce-Harvey’s Harlem brownstone for regular Sunday brunches and, without pay or even the certainty that they would be hired, laying the groundwork for the new school. Russell and her kitchen cabinet poured over budgets and resumes; they developed curricula and a technology strategy for Global Tech, which is a one-to-one laptop school; and they fine-tuned criteria for recruiting teachers.

At Global Tech, which is about to graduate its first eighth-grade class, team-work and collaboration is at the crux of Russell’s efforts to create a holistic system intended to provide support, in ways large and small, for its students, the majority of whom are poor — Global Tech is a universal Title Ischool — and almost all of whom are black or Latino. Baiz teamed up with Valerie Miller, the language teacher who is experimenting with the best ways to use online foreign-language tools, and got a $10,000 grant to develop digital portfolios for the kids. To conserve funds at the school, Russell’s team decided not to hire a dedicated technologist; instead, for the first two years, Baiz agreed to serve as unofficial tech guru working with several teachers to hone their technology skills. Global Tech teachers mentor the teachers-in-training who work for Citizens Schools, the after-school program that Russell sponsors at Global Tech to make sure that kids are off the street until at least 6 p.m. and get homework help and some enrichment. Teachers also collaborate to support the 28 percent of Global Tech students certified as needing special education; Global Tech has moved almost all of them into so-called CTT (Collaborative Team Teaching) classes, where teams of teachers work on everything from students’ special educational needs to helping them with organization skills. The clear expectation is that by the time students graduate eighth grade, most would be able to function in a regular class.

And the teachers routinely work together on initiatives aimed at helping the kids beyond core academics. These include the Saturday test-prep classes the school holds in the weeks before standardized tests, as well as taking the eighth graders to high-school open houses on the weekends, because many of their parents are unable—due to language problems or other issues—to help their children with the high-school application process.

Making the Grade

The results have been impressive. In math, the school ranks in the 84th percentile among all city middle schools. Close to 60 percent of Global Tech students achieved a 3 or 4 in math, the two top levels. And Global Tech, received an A on its latest annual progress report and ranks in the 95 percentile of New York City middle schools. Moreover, virtually everyone loves the school; on its most recent Learning Environment Survey, Global Tech scored well over 90 percent on almost every measure of parent, teacher and student satisfaction. In addition, all Global Tech students who completed the high-school application process have been accepted to a high school, many to their first-choice school.

By contrast, MS 004, Baiz’s alma mater, did far worse on its most recent report card. In math, it ranked in the 58th percentile among city middle schools. Only 44 percent of students achieved a 3 or 4 in math. And the school got a C on its report card. While parent satisfaction at the school was high—over 90 percent in all categories, teacher satisfaction ranged from 46 percent to 83 percent; in response to the statement, “School leaders invite teachers to play a meaningful role in setting goals and making important decisions”, only 64 percent of MS 004 teachers agreed.

Start at the Top

How did the difference in management culture between the two schools impact Baiz? “It’s so much easier to meet the needs of my students,” says Baiz of his experience at Global Tech. The school, he says “is more open to experimentation—it’s more willing to bring in technology and new ideas. I don’t have to worry about watching my back. I don’t have to worry about documenting every little thing. I feel less stress on the job. I don’t have a pit in my stomach every morning. It’s a collaborative relationship.”

Meanwhile, Russell focuses on constantly improving the performance of her teachers. She embraces the Kim Marshall-method of mini-observations, visiting classrooms frequently and giving teachers quick feedback on what they are doing well and where they need to improve. The number-one to-do for Baiz: Improve the pacing of his classes so he doesn’t have to rush at the end, which is hardest on the special education students. As part of the formal teacher-evaluation process, she has teachers observe and critique each other; at periodic meetings, teachers present lesson plans and teaching strategies and discuss ways to improve their practice.

Nor does Global Tech’s approach go easy on teachers who don’t perform up to par. A year ago Russell gave one of her teachers an “Unsatisfactory” because she was habitually tardy, often raised her voice with the kids and didn’t seem comfortable teaching social studies. But Russell didn’t write her off; as she has done with a few other teachers who have struggled, Russell helped the teacher improve her performance. For one thing, when one of the kids told Russell that after attending a Saturday test-prep class with the u-rated teacher, he finally understood what a thesis statement was, Russell sat in on her next test-prep session. Russell was so impressed by what she saw that, for the following year, Russell scheduled the teacher to teach ELA, the subject in which she is certified.

The results, says Russell, have been transformational. She has discovered that the once u-rated teacher had a gift for teaching ELA. “She blows me away; she is doing a phenomenal job,” says Russell who lauds the teacher both for masterful teaching techniques that have helped her students grasp the subject, and for “building great relationships” with the kids.

Russell also views her job as one of protecting her teachers from the constantly shifting mandates of the education bureaucracy. ”So you get your central mandates of whatever stuff you have to do for the year, plus the principal is going to decide whatever thing they're going to do. So teachers just never are shielded from the newest thing is.”

While Global Tech has had the luxury of hand-picking its teachers, evidence suggests that a collaborative and consistent approach to management can achieve similar results in larger long-standing schools and school-districts. Collaboration and consistency are the key themes of the Rutgers study.

Success Story

Similarly, one of the most impressive turnarounds in the country was accomplished at Brockton High, the largest high school in MA, which, like Global Tech, teaches students who are poor, African-American or Latino. Significantly, the transformation was accomplished by the very same teachers who worked at the school when it was failing. Under the leadership of a veteran Brockton history teacher, who became the school’s principal almost a decade ago, Brockton has developed an inclusive teacher-driven approach to improvement and an obsessive focus on literacy that is now over 12-years old. In 1998—75 percent of Brockton’s students failed the state tests in math and 44 percent failed English. On the most recent tests, in 2011, 87 percent of students passed math and 94 percent passed English. Today close to 90 percent of Brockton’s graduates are college bound, estimates Susan Szachowicz, the principal. And, for seven years, Brockton High has been designated a “model school” by the International Center for Leadership in Education.

At Global Tech, where the faculty is much younger, Russell has instituted a long-term career planning process in which she encourages teachers to set out their long-term goals. “If I expect them to move the kids forward,” says Russell. “ I have to be willing to move them forward.”

Today, several Global Tech teachers, including Baiz and Jhonary Bridgemohan, an ELA teacher and another MS 004 alum, have enrolled in principal training programs. As Russell sees it, she is helping teachers reach their potential and making sure they stay in the system. She is also helping to train her own successor, in case she ever leaves or is fired (the pressures on principals, these days, are akin to those of teachers); Russell says Baiz, whom she “pegged as a potential principal” from the start, is at the top of that list.

As for those TDRs: Bridgemohan, Baiz’s long-time colleague who sometimes rubs parents the wrong way because of her no-nonsense approach to discipline and academics, wonders why the TDRs were released just before parent-teacher conferences. But for her and Baiz—Bridgemohan was also rated “above average”--she says: “It sure made those conferences easier.” Bridgemohan adds, wryly, that she couldn’t imagine what it would have been like to meet with the parents if the numbers hadn’t looked good.

Quinn Seperates Herself From Bloomberg on Education

quinnsotcity lg
Photo by William Alatriste

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn focused on education and jobs in her State of the City speech, which was widely seen as an outline of her mayoral campaign.

Quinn was a close ally of Mayor Bloomberg in the past and in January, she was one the only one of the four prospective mayoral candidates who did not criticize his education policy on which he stakes his legacy.

But on Thursday, she sought to distance herself from the mayor by outlining her plan for integrating teachers, community agencies and parents to provide a single experience for a child "a single journey from cradle to career." A pilot program will soon launch in District 30 in Queens.

She also wants to make kindergarten mandatory, extend loans to parents to help them pay for child support authorize $71 million more in funding to the CUNY system and increase after-school programs, which are usually high on Bloomberg's budgetary chopping block.

"Would you create a dozen separate agencies to oversee different parts of a child’s life? Would you have government officials working in a vacuum?" Quinn asked. "Or would you build a system that recognizes and respects the role the whole community plays in educating our kids?"

Bloomberg clashed repeatedly against the large United Federation of Teachers union over closing schools, firing teachers and making tenure harder to get. He also rearranged education administration in the city to resemble corporate leadership, giving great leeway to the School Chancellors to act as they saw fit. As he leaves his post, the education question will be on the minds of teachers and parents.

In contrast with Bloomberg's top down style of governing, Quinn tried to cast herself as a receptive grass roots organizer who works with everyone.

“Now more than ever, we need to tap into the power of our communities,” said Quinn.

Quinn’s likeliest opponents are Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and City Comptroller John Liu.

The speaker avoided criticizing anyone despite her statements a week ago taking Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly to task for the department's stop and frisk practices, which, critics say, disproportionately target minorities.

During her speech, she praised Kelly for making the city safer and also touted the Youth SHIELD program under which community leaders would coordinate with the task force on gun control to fix up areas which invite crime. The program will run with the help of the council's Task Force to Combat Gun Violence headed by councilman Jumaane Williams, a frequent Kelly critic.

Quinn also dedicated a large part of her speech to jobs. Even though New York City did better than the country in regaining jobs lost during the recession, employment remains a major concern for many New Yorkers. Income inequality is especially visible in New York City, home of Wall Street and birthplace of the Occupy movement, which Quinn referenced multiple times in her earlier fall speeches. She offered several ideas, both large and small.

Following Fashion Week's example, the speaker said that she is working on a Design Week that would showcase the work of the city’s 40,000 designers of all stripes, to attract visitors and employers. She also talked about investment in tech companies in DUMBO, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Downtown Brooklyn.

On a more local scale, Quinn said that the city will work with Kickstarter, an online fundraising platform to help raise capital for small businesses. Through Kickstarter, people can describe their project and solicit donations from the internet at large until they can meet their goal. Most Kickstarter projects are small but recently, an independent game production firm managed to raise $1.74 million.

The speaker praised Assemblyman Keith Wright’s and State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousin’s 2011 bills that would prevent employers from discriminating against unemployed jobseekers and said that she would work to duplicate the process in the city. “We won’t wait for Albany,” she said.

Quinn also said that she’s looking out for freelancers, who comprise 30 percent of the workforce, by helping the Freelancers Union open a clinic to offer cheap treatments to members.

Taking a page from her past as a housing advocate, Quinn said that she wants to extend the duration of house affordability from 30 years to 60 and then, indefinitely. She also promised to crack down on bad landlords, prevent them from flipping properties and making them fix the source of any apartment problem.

She also addressed homelessness, an area in which Mayor Bloomberg does not have high marks among homeless advocacy groups. Quinn proposed shifting resources towards subsidized housing units for homeless families which cost $800 per month compared to the $3,000 it takes to keep that family in a shelter.

Throughout her speech, Quinn repeatedly emphasized her focus on communities, sometimes with sentimental imagery of immigrant women pulling together and thriving. She positioned herself as an inclusive, bottom-up leader.

Quinn's rivals were generally positive about her speech with De Blasio saying that she had some good ideas. Stringer said she had a "solid" speech while Liu said the speech was "comprehensive and cogently delivered."

De Blasio and Liu are due offer their own state of the city addresses this week.

Quinn Separates Herself From Bloomberg on Education

Photo by William Alatriste

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn focused on education and jobs in her State of the City speech, which was widely seen as an outline of her mayoral campaign.

Quinn was a close ally of Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the past and in January, she was one the only one of the four prospective mayoral candidates who did not criticize his education policy on which he stakes his legacy.

Separation on Education

But on Thursday, she sought to distance herself from the mayor by outlining her plan for integrating teachers, community agencies and parents to provide a single experience for a child "a single journey from cradle to career." A pilot program will soon launch in District 30 in Queens.

She also wants to make kindergarten mandatory, extend loans to parents to help them pay for child support authorize $71 million more in funding to the CUNY system and increase after-school programs, which are usually high on Bloomberg's budgetary chopping block.

"Would you create a dozen separate agencies to oversee different parts of a child's life? Would you have government officials working in a vacuum?" Quinn asked. "Or would you build a system that recognizes and respects the role the whole community plays in educating our kids?"

Bloomberg clashed repeatedly against the large United Federation of Teachers union over closing schools, firing teachers and making tenure harder to get. He also rearranged education administration in the city to resemble corporate leadership, giving great leeway to the School Chancellors to act as they saw fit. As he leaves his post, the education question will be on the minds of teachers and parents.

In contrast with Bloomberg's top down style of governing, Quinn tried to cast herself as a receptive grass roots organizer who works with everyone.

'Now more than ever, we need to tap into the power of our communities,' said Quinn.

Quinn's likeliest opponents are Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and City Comptroller http://www.gothamgazette.com/campaigns/whosrunning.php?t=indiv&id=127">John Liu.

On the NYPD

The speaker avoided criticizing anyone despite her statements a week ago taking Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly to task for the department's stop and frisk practices, which, critics say, disproportionately target minorities.

During her speech, she praised Kelly for making the city safer and also touted the Youth SHIELD program under which community leaders would coordinate with the task force on gun control to fix up areas which invite crime. The program will run with the help of the council's Task Force to Combat Gun Violence headed by councilman Jumaane Williams, a frequent Kelly critic.


Quinn also dedicated a large part of her speech to jobs. Even though New York City did better than the country in regaining jobs lost during the recession, employment remains a major concern for many New Yorkers. Income inequality is especially visible in New York City, home of Wall Street and birthplace of the Occupy movement, which Quinn referenced multiple times in her earlier fall speeches. She offered several ideas, both large and small.

Following Fashion Week's example, the speaker said that she is working on a Design Week that would showcase the work of the city's 40,000 designers of all stripes, to attract visitors and employers. She also talked about investment in tech companies in DUMBO, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Downtown Brooklyn.

On a more local scale, Quinn said that the city will work with Kickstarter, an online fundraising platform to help raise capital for small businesses. Through Kickstarter, people can describe their project and solicit donations from the internet at large until they can meet their goal. Most Kickstarter projects are small but recently, an independent game production firm managed to raise $1.74 million.

The speaker praised Assemblyman Keith Wright's and State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousin's 2011 bills that would prevent employers from discriminating against unemployed job seekers and said that she would work to duplicate the process in the city. 'We won't wait for Albany,' she said.

Quinn also said that she's looking out for freelancers, who comprise 30 percent of the workforce, by helping the Freelancers Union open a clinic to offer cheap treatments to members.

Taking a page from her past as a housing advocate, Quinn said that she wants to extend the duration of house affordability from 30 years to 60 and then, indefinitely. She also promised to crack down on bad landlords, prevent them from flipping properties and making them fix the source of any apartment problem.

She also addressed homelessness, an area in which Bloomberg does not have high marks among homeless advocacy groups. Quinn proposed shifting resources towards subsidized housing units for homeless families which cost $800 per month compared to the $3,000 it takes to keep that family in a shelter.

Throughout her speech, Quinn repeatedly emphasized her focus on communities, sometimes with sentimental imagery of immigrant women pulling together and thriving. She positioned herself as an inclusive, bottom-up leader.

Quinn's rivals were generally positive about her speech with De Blasio saying that she had some good ideas. Stringer said she had a "solid" speech while Liu said the speech was "comprehensive and cogently delivered."

De Blasio and Liu are due offer their own state of the city addresses this week.

With More School Closings, Debate About Policy Continues

Norman Thomas High School
Norman Thomas High School managed to avoid being closed last year but is on the Department of Education's current list of failing schools.

It does not take a crystal ball to know that many unhappy and angry people will gather in the auditorium of Brooklyn Tech this Tuesday and Thursday evening. Nor does a person need extraordinary powers to predict that most will leave disappointed, if not furious.

On those two nights the Panel for Educational Policy, the powerless body that replaced the former city Board of Education, will hear public comment and then vote on proposals to close some 24 schools across the city, all schools the Department of Education has determined fail its students and are so far gone they cannot be saved.

The votes on Monday and Wednesday represent the latest round in the Bloomberg's administration's drive to close poorly performing schools -- many of them traditional large high schools but middle and elementary schools as well -- and replace them, some with smaller schools, including a number of charter schools. Although the city started shutting schools years ago, the agreements over the efficacy of the policy in general and the closing of some specific schools has not abated. Like so much in education debates today, the dispute encompasses an array of issues including how to help the city's most disadvantaged students and the role of charter schools.

Troubled Schools

No one denies that the schools on the phase-out list have problems. They tend to have low test scores and poorer attendance and lower graduation rates than most city schools -- even similar schools.

The Department of Education believes closing a school and starting a new one in its stead can change the building's culture. Education officials also have concluded that many city teenagers fare better in smaller schools and so have shut large high schools to make room for the new schools, many of which have only a few hundred, as opposed to a few thousand, students and focus on a theme, such as arts or the environment.

Of course, the effort does not always succeed. In fact a few of the small schools turned up on this year's closure list. In general, though, schools Chancellor Cathie Black said in a recent appearance on Inside City Hall, the policy works. "When we re-do the whole structure -- the physical outside stays the same, new schools go inside -- this group of kids and this group of kids are performing better -- 20 and 30 percentage points better. Nothing has been changed on the outside except for the level of commitment and teaching and effectiveness that's going to hopefully impact that child in a positive way," Black explained.

P.S. 260 Breuckelen School ( Brooklyn)

P.S. 332 Charles H. Houston School (Brooklyn)

M.S. 571 Bergen Upper School (Brooklyn)

Frederick Douglass Academy III (Bronx). This proposal would close only the mddle school grades. The school would continue as a high school, with grades 9 through 12.

John F. Kennedy High School (Bronx)

Christopher Columbus High School

Global Enterprise High School (Bronx)

P.S. 102 Jospeh O. Loretan School (Bronx)

Performance Conservatory High School (Bronx)

Norman Thomas High School (Manhattan)

Beach Channel High School (Queens)

Jamaica High School (Queens)

The hearing at P.S. 30 on whether to close the school was canceled because of snow. As a result, the panel's vote on that has not yet been scheduled. The panel does not have to vote on the proposed closing of Ross Globalin Manhattan -- actually a revocation of its charter -- because it is a charter school.

For more on the schools slated for closing go here and here

Opponents of the closings, including the United Federation of Teachers, say the administration has burdened the schools on the closing list with some of the system's most difficult students -- the homeless, English language learners, student who have been left back one or more times and so on -- setting the schools up to fail. In addition, they charge, the new schools may not accept the kind of students who now attend classes at places like John F, Kennedy High School or Norman Thomas High School.

Many critics also see a hidden agenda. With publicly funded, privately run charter schools set for many of the buildings now occupied by endangered schools, they charge the school closings represent part of a larger strategy to privatize public education. The administration, though, counters that charters are public schools and provide choice to the parent who need them most -- the kinds of parents whose children now attend the schools the city wants to close.

This Year's Round

Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew, an outspoken opponent of many school closures, has noted that the city has been shutting down bad school for at least 25 years. But during the Bloomberg administration, it became a cornerstone of city policy, with the chancellor -- as Mulgrew put it at a recent forum --- "trumpeting" the closing of schools.

Under Bloomberg, the city has shut more than 90 school and opened 335 schools, many small, both conventional schools and charters. And over time, the closings have become more, rather than less controversial, possibly because the schools shut in the policy's early stages were widely seen as awful. With fewer truly appalling schools left -- and with the city even shutting schools with decent ratings on their progress reports or report cards -- the schools on the closing lists are more likely to have loyal supporters.

Not all do. Last year when the city proposed shutting Kappa IIno one appeared at the hearing to defend it. This year there again seems little , if any, opposition to the move even though Kappa II will not even have the luxury of being phased out over a few years. If the panel approves, it will simply be shut.

By 2009, the closing policy had grown so controversial that it was one of the few aspects of mayoral control the state legislature decided to tweak when it renewed the school governance law. Under the new rules, the education department must prepare an impact statement on each proposed closure and hold public discussions on its plans. In addition the Panel on Educational Policy must approve any shutdown, phasing out or significant change in the use of a school building.

Last year, the city did not seem to take these requirements particularly seriously -- to its eventual regret. The teachers union and the NAACP filed suit, charging the administration had not complied with the state law. The courts agreed, infuriating the mayor and stopping some 19 closures in their tracks.

Undaunted, the city came back in December with 25 proposed phase-outs and closures, including one charter school, Ross Global) . Four schools slated for closing last year got a reprieve: Choir Academy of Harlem’s high school grades, Maxwell Career and Technical High School, the Middle School for Academic and Social Excellence, and Business, Computer Applications, and Entrepreneurship High School. Fifteen, though, were back on the list along with 10 new ones (see list above right).

To stay in the law's good graces, the Department of Education has offered a stream of paper to back up its plans and held hearing at schools, where, in contrast to their largely stone faced silence (with occasional glances at their Blackberries) in past hearings, school officials actually interact with and respond to members of the public.

That though, has not silenced the debate.

Helping Those Who Need Most

Last year when the Panel on Educational Policy held its meeting on closing schools, the crowd fell silent when, Rebecca Freeman, a senior at Paul Robeson High School, came to the microphone holding her baby daughter and urged the panel to keep her school open. Bridling at charges that Robeson fails its student. Freeman declared, "I am not a failure and I will never be a failure. … And neither will my daughter."

Freeman attended a special program for students with children at Robeson. The school in Crown Heights, many speakers said, tried to help a very difficult student body.

Many other schools on the closing list could echo that claim. A report issued last week by the Independent Budget Office compared the schools on the closing list with city schools as whole and found, for example, that the high schools slated for closing had a far greater percentage of special ed students -- 18 percent compared with a citywide average of 12 percent -- and slightly more English language learners. While 52 percent of high school students citywide are considered low income, 63 percent of those in the endangered schools are. More than twice as high a percentage came in over age at the schools on the closing list, and they had lower scores on their eighth grade tests.

The differences for elementary schools were far less pronounced.

The city has said that, in deciding whether to close a school, it compares that school to other schools with similar student populations. Critics question that.

The critics also say the closings have a domino effect, putting previously well-functioning high schools at risk as the most challenging students from schools being shut go, not to the small themed high school now occupying the building, but to large high schools that essentially accept anyone. And so Beach Channel High School's fate, many believe, was sealed when the Department of Education shut nearby Far Rockaway High School.

Under Bloomberg, closing schools, "has become an educational shell game that defers instructional problems until they reappear elsewhere, to be met again with a similar reaction," David Bloomfield, head of the education department at the College of Staten Island has written

Meanwhile, the better students at the struggling schools may leave, preferring the smaller more selective schools now available to them. Last year, Christine Rowland, a teacher at Christopher Columbus and advocate for that school, said that Columbus' top students tended to enroll in new programs set up in and around that school. This left Columbus, she said, having to deal with classes that are "more challenging both academically and behaviorally."

Some warn, this year closings could topple more dominoes.. As large schools throughout the Bronx close, Mulgrew said last week, Dewitt Clinton High School has seen its special education population go up by some 37 percent and the number of homeless students double. "If the Department of Education does not intervene and help this school and support them in their challenges," it will be on a future closure list, he said.

Preventing Failure

The teachers and parents who come to the microphones at the public hearings often argue that the city should have done more to help the schools, rather than shut them down. The city counters that it tried but that in these cases, efforts to improve the school simply did not work.

While parents and teachers maintain the schools slated for closure have been starved of resources, the Independent Budget Office report tends to refute that. It found the closing schools -- at all levels -- had slightly more staff for each student than the city average and that, at the high school level, those teachers were a bit more likely to be "highly qualified' or to have graduate degrees.

At some of the schools, though, anecdotal evidence suggest the department could have done more to help. The most extreme case cited by some elected officials, as well as parents, is P.S. 114 in Canarsie. Certainly the school is hardly a model of academic excellence, with only a third of its students meeting standards on state tests and with parents and teachers giving it failing grades.

Many in the school though have told reporters and city official that the fault lies with the former principal Maria Penaherra, who according to an education department investigation, committed "serious misconduct," including faking financial documents and using school funds to pay for traffic tickets. She finally was removed, NY1 reported, "because one day when she failed to show up to work, a carbon monoxide alarm went off and students were kept in class. This, because the school had no safety plan and she had left no one in charge. She also left the school $180,000 in debt."

By then, though, the damage had been done, prompting the education department to propose closing it. But may supporters of the school question whether that is the proper response. "The solution is to fix it, not avoid it," the area's City Council member, Lew Fidler, has said. P.S. 114 "had been a terrific school in the past," he continued, "until it was shot in both feet by a DOE principal. This school should succeed. I know this city's agenda is charter schools -- but they sent one principal in to wreck it, one to chronicle it and one to close it."

To add to parents' dismay, P.S. 114's building, under the city's plans, will be occupied by a charter school -- one too small to accommodate all the kids who now go to P.S. 114.

The Charter Solution

The conflict over charter schools underlies much of the debate over the school closures. Not all of the phased out schools will be replaced by charters -- some will be home to regular public schools, and the plans for some have not yet been determined, or at least disclosed -- but charters will replace some of them, including P.S. 332 and M.S. 571, both in Brooklyn.

The challenge facing the city is clear: It supports charter schools but has problems finding space for them, a difficulty exacerbated by the high cost of real estate in New York and restrictions preventing charters from using public money to build facilities. To solve that dilemma, the city has put charters in regular public school buildings -- a practice that continues to cause battles among parents in some parts of the city -- and placed charters in phased out schools.

Two charters, created by New Visions, will move into the John F. Kennedy High School building in the Bronx, as that school begins its phase out. Community residents learned of this through a leak to the New York Times, even as city officials had been telling the area's elected officials they had not finalized plans for Kennedy. When the plan appeared in the Times, education department spokespeople dismissed it as just a draft. Now, though, New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science and New Visions Charter High School for Humanities seem set to open at Kennedy in September.

The maneuvering irritated even those who see reasons for closing Kennedy, such as Marvin Shelton, president of the District 10 Community Education Council. He told Manhattan Time News, department officials "just seem to shoot themselves in the foot … It may be a great product [coming in], but why do it this way?"

City Warns Against For-Profit Adult Education Scams

know before you owe
Photo provided by Office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg

In a stagnant economy and a competitive job market, the prevailing wisdom tells unemployed workers to return to school to obtain new skills.

But in recent years, many New Yorkers have been punished for doing just that; namely, some of the over 130,000 who enroll in for-profit schools in the city each year.

A city government campaign called "Know Before You Enroll," sponsored by the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Department of Education, and Mayor's Office of Adult Education, aims to warn New Yorkers against the dangers of some such schools.

"I signed up for nursing school and paid $6,000," says 'Paula from Brooklyn' in one of the ads from this campaign, which is featured in subway cars, bus shelters, and newspapers throughout the city. "Ten months later, I found out the school wasn't licensed and the Attorney General shut it down. My dream is shattered and I'm in debt."

Just feet from these campaign posters appear ads for the very schools the city seeks to warn against. Combination GED and associate degree programs, unlicensed and unaccredited schools, and vocational courses that offer "guaranteed job placement."

Sign of the Times

For-profit schools in New York City cost attendees an average of $4,700, according to a survey by the Better Business Bureau.

But even though they're more expensive than their public counterparts, these for-profit or "proprietary" schools have become more popular in recent years.

“Unfortunately, difficult economic times sometimes draw out those who would take advantage of vulnerable New Yorkers,” said Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Jonathan Mintz.

Those vulnerable populations include low-income communities where language or literacy barriers obscure the processes associated with enrolling in school, Mintz said.

That is what happened to Garvin, a 26-year-old Brooklyn resident who attended a two-year Associate’s degree program that advertised on television. Only after completing that degree, to the tune of $25,000, did Garvin find out that his credits wouldn't transfer to the City University of New York, where he planned to finish his undergraduate education. To obtain his bachelor's degree, Garvin would have to start college all over again.

It's a Spectrum

Schools like Garvin's Associate's program are deliberately misleading, and survive by preying on unsuspecting students.

But not all for-profit schools are predatory, Commissioner Mintz is careful to note. Defenders of for-profit schools praise their equal-opportunity accessibility; since many have little or no academic criteria for acceptance, they offer options for students who might not otherwise qualify for any sort of higher education.

"These schools exist on a spectrum," Mintz said. At one end of that spectrum, he believes, decent for-profit schools operate with proper accreditation, and bestow degrees and certificates of value. At the other, schools operate in a realm that is plainly illegal.

The programs in the middle of this spectrum pose the greatest challenge to regulators and students, he said.

"In the middle, you have schools that are licensed but aren't delivering what they're promising, aren't delivering value," Mintz said. "What they're doing is taking yet more dollars from people who are trying to better their situations."

The problem is, there's a pretty huge middle. To address the glut of these legal-but-not-quite-legitimate schools, the "Know Before You Enroll" campaign has set up a hotline to cull complaints from New Yorkers about specific schools and training programs. The city will forward those complaints on to the state Department of Education and the office of the Attorney General.


Any action taken against these predatory schools would fall to state agencies; when it comes to their regulation, the city has no authority. The same goes for reform. Stricter policies around licensing and accreditation, loans, and consumer protection, all rely on the legislature up in Albany.

In the meantime, the state has the power to shut down schools found operating without licenses. But that doesn't mean they always do. Like any state agency, the Department of Education, the State Board of Regents, and the attorney general's office all have to prioritize. This campaign may not top their lists.

But for what its worth, the city plans to help them raise some funds. "We're working with the state, helping secure them resources so they can investigate," said Tara Colton, the Executive Director of the Mayor's Office of Adult Education.

And for its own part, the City went the educational route, borrowing a page from its adversary's own playbook and plastering the subways with anecdotal posters that advertise a better, smarter way.

Education and Budgeting

The campaign's main thrust boils down to a list of tips. In addition to the advice to be suspicious of employment guarantees, these include the classics: avoid unlicensed schools; do your research; don't sign up on the spot.

As for the unlucky New Yorkers who have already been prey to these "predatory" schools, there's a service for them too. The city offers free one-on-one financial counseling.

"They'll get on the phone with creditors and negotiate payment plans," said a spokesperson for the Department of Consumer Affairs.

So far, she said, those counselors have saved their clients over $6.5 million.

Cuomo Tries Out a New Role -- the Education Governor

participatory budgeting
Photo provided by the Office of the Governor

As someone who has famously proclaimed, "I am the government," Gov. Andrew Cuomo must find the governor's limited role in the state's schools particularly galling. So, for the last two weeks, Cuomo has made it clear he no longer will stand on the sidelines while others run education here.

In his State of the State speech and in comments on Martin Luther King Day, Cuomo plunged into the school wars and poised himself to take on the state's teachers unions. He is expected to continue this campaign in his budget address today.

If the governor, who has a relatively skimpy record on education, gets more involved in schools, what exactly will he do? Who will benefit? And who will lose?

Losing Millions

The governor heralded his entrance into education disputes in his State of the State speech two weeks ago. In that address, he announced he would appoint an education commission and that he would serve as a lobbyist for the state's children who, he declared have no one representing them.

Because of the timing, most attention focused on what Cuomo and his commission might do on teacher evaluations. The day before, State Education Commissioner John King had announced he would suspend federal funding for failing schools for districts that had not reached agreement on a new teacher evaluation system. This could cost New York City, one of the 10 districts affected, $60 million for 33 schools.

The U.S. Department of Education tightened the noose last week when it announced New York could lose its federal Race to the Top money because it lags behind in complying with the terms of its grant. " It faulted the state for lack of progress in instituting new methods for teacher evaluation and for delays in upgrading its data systems. These shortcomings, federal officials told Cuomo, mean the state could lose $1 billion in Race to the Top and other federal money.

As part of its application for the federal program, New York agreed to revise the way it evaluates teachers and to consider test scores in making its determinations. Under a bill passed in 2010, though, changes in the individual districts are subject to collective bargaining. That has proved to be a stumbling block. In New York City, negotiations appear to have broken down completely.

A week after Cuomo's speech, Mayor Michael Bloomberg all but threw down the gauntlet in his State of the City speech, which focused on education. In that address -- and in a letter to the state education department -- the administration claimed it could remove teachers at failing schools -- whatever the union might or might not say. Bloomberg also staked out other stands sharply at variance with those of the teacher's union, calling for merit pay, an increase in charter schools and shutting down more schools he considers failing.

Daring Cuomo to follow suit, New York Post publisher Rupert Murdoch took to Twitter to call Bloomberg's plans "bold … [and] terrific. How will chicken Cuomo respond?"

Cuomo has started to give his answer. In a statement last week, he called for districts and unions "to expedite their negotiations." And he assailed the legislation that made the evaluation subject to collective bargaining, saying that law "protected the teachers union at the expense of the students and instituted a system that was destined to fail."

Money Talks

On Martin Luther King Day, Cuomo said he was not gong to let the state lose its federal aid. "No evaluation system is in place because the bureaucracy doesn't want one," he said, adding, "We will put an evaluation system in place that represents the students first."

And today, according to some press accounts, he will get more concrete and tie a promised 4 percent increase in state aid to adoption of the teacher evaluation system put forth by the state Board of Regents last year. Fred Dicker of the Post reported that a "source" told him, "All the systems, including the New York City schools, will have until Dec. 31 of this year to adopt the teacher-evaluation systems or lose the money."

That system, which gave increased weight to test scores, was challenged successfully in court by New York State United Teachers.

In response a spokesman for New York State United Teachers, Carl Korn, has said, while the union is prepared to work with the governor and legislature on the issue, "the answer is not to start from scratch or to tie education funding to the teacher-principal evaluation process but to work collaboratively with the legislature and governor to try to move the process along."

Regents Rule

No doubt the impasse over evaluations -- which could cost the state money and prestige -- angered Cuomo. He is not the first governor, though, to seek a greater role in education. "Governors have traditionally looked to wrench some of the power away from a historically and constitutionally independent education department, and whether that's the right thing or the wrong thing to do, Governor Cuomo sees the same need," Richard Ianuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers, said recently.

Under state law, the legislature appoints the state Board of Regents, which sets policy (testing, graduation requirements, standards, curriculum). The board names a commissioner of education to carry out those policies.

Whatever its merits might be, no other state has this system, according to a survey by the Education Commission of the States, a national group. In 36 states, the governor appoints the members of the state board of education (what we call the Board of Regents here), the chief state education officer or both. South Carolina is the only other state in which the legislature appoints the board, but the chief schools official is elected -- not appointed.

Overall, New York's system also is less democratic than those in much of the country. Residents of 22 states get to choose either the board or the person who runs the schools.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer, for one, tried to weigh in on schools by creating the post of senior education policy adviser -- dubbed "education czar" by some -- and filling it with Manuel Rivera, the Rochester schools superintendent who had been National Superintendent of the Year in 2006. In a kind of foreshadowing of the stand Cuomo would take five years later, Spitzer's office said at the time that his education policy would include "implementing sweeping reforms designed to improve accountability." Unlike Cuomo's plan, though, it also called for increased funding.

Spitzer's effort faded when he resigned.

The Record So Far

Up until now, Cuomo has not focused on education. Even in his State of State speech, he devoted only a few lines to education. "We must make our schools accountable for the results they achieve and the dollars they spend," his written remarks said. From there Cuomo went on to call for "major reform in two areas": teacher evaluation and management efficiency."

In his 2010 campaign book, the New NY Agenda, Cuomo called for making schools more efficient -- notably by removing unfunded mandates, requirements the state puts on district but does not pay them to meet -- and for an increase in charter schools.

During his first year in office his efforts on education concentrated on funding. He and the legislature agreed to a cap on increases in the property taxes that fund public schools in much of the state. While Senate Republicans had pushed for this -- many of them represent suburban districts where property taxes have risen sharply -- teachers groups and many school boards worried it would force districts to cut programs and teaching staff. The cap will have little effect in the city, however.

Most significantly, Cuomo sharply reduced state education spending in his first budget. Rather than refiguring the state's education formula to spare its highest need districts, including New York City, Cuomo let the cuts take effect across the board. Critics charged this meant they had a greater impact in needy areas than affluent ones.

"We took a huge step backward in last year's budget. Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education recently told AP. "The poorest districts lost not just the money but they lost the most in their classrooms."

While the Cuomo and Bloomberg administrations bickered for months over how much the cut meant to the city -- and whether it would force the city to lay off teachers -- the loss certainly was in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

This year, Cuomo has said he will increase school funding by some $800 million statewide. It remains unclear how that money will be allocated.

In November, though, the governor announced that a far smaller pot of money -- $75 million over three years -- would go to schools that applied for it. In a move modeled on Race to the Top, he said the winning districts would be those that have "demonstrated the most success in increasing student performance, narrowing the achievement gap, and increasing academic performance among students with the greatest educational needs" or that "exhibit the greatest potential for continued improvements in student performance." (For one writer's explanation of how this might work, go here.)

The possible tying of all aid to the new evaluation system of course, enormously ups this ante.

The Second Man

As the debate over funding and evaluation continues, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver will certainly play a key part.

The current system for naming the Board of Regents gives him enormous sway over the state's schools. Silver has support from the teachers union -- in 2008 he held his primary election victory celebration at the union's lower Manhattan headquarters. He also is seen as a champion of groups allied with the union, notably the Alliance for Quality Education, which enjoys funding from the union and has emerged as a particular target of Cuomo's.

If the evaluation issues becomes enmeshed in next year's budget, Silver could be torn between the popular governor -- and the push for an on-time budget -- and his allies in the teachers union. The fact that this is an election year could complicate matters for Silver -- and for many state senators from both parties who enjoy the union's support and campaign contributions.

Not surprisingly, Silver has been cool to Cuomo's entering the education fray. In a radio interview, Silver said he did was "not sure" he saw the need for the commission to intervene in the evaluation dispute. “John King, the commissioner, and the entire Board of Regents have been very focused on these issues and have been working hard to bring resolution about,” Silver said.

On the more general issue of students needing a lobbyist, Silver told a rally called by the alliance, "The most powerful lobbying group for our students is their parents. … When it comes to our state government, no group of leaders has been a more effective lobbying group for the children in our classrooms and for young children needing early education than … the members of the majority of the New York State Assembly."

A number of groups joined Silver to rebut the notion that no one speaks for students. "Teachers, in partnership with parents, have always been lobbyists for what children need," New York State United Teachers said in a statement.

The Students' Voice?

The New York State Schools Boards Association also has expressed skepticism. "How he [Cuomo] is going to be a lobbyist for children remains to be seen," said Timothy Kremer, executive director of the association. "I think we do a pretty good job of this."

"The shocking thing is that no where in that long speech did he say the word 'parent'," Mona Davids of the New York City Parents Union told Gotham Gazette. "We are our children's lobbyists, we are our children's advocates."

Under the current system she said, parents do not have a voice. The Board of Regents, according to Davids, makes "things very difficult for the parent."

And, she noted, that while Cuomo said teachers and bus drivers had lobbyists, he did not mention hedge fund managers, representatives of testing and technology companies, and privatization advocates, all of whom have weighed in on education and who have lobbyists. Instead, she said, he singled out "working class people" such as bus drivers.

King, who could find the commission infringing on his turf has told reporters he has "no problem" with it. "There's plenty of work to do to raise student achievement. We're happy to have additional advice and input," King said

Waiting for Details

The final verdict, of course, will hinge on who Cuomo names to the commission and what type of commission he establishes. On this the administration remains tight-lipped. A number of people contacted said they had not received any indication from the governor of what he might do.

Kremer said the commission could help if it is "populated by people who are smart" and who will take an honest, objective look at what resources districts need, at performance measures and at some of the state's mandate that affect local districts. He also would like to see it "come up with ways to engage parents and communities."

Some predict Cuomo will look beyond the usual suspects for commission members. "It will be something that's quite national, people from outside New York," an anonymous source speculated to GothamSchools.

While Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said he wanted a commission that is "actually going to look at the research," on the other side of the ideological fence, Elizabeth Ling of Democrats for Education Reform told GothamSchools Cuomo "should select people who can move his agenda forward to make real progress on behalf of students, and not the hacks who have only thrown up roadblocks time and again."

Bob Lowry of the New York State Council of School Superintendents has said the governor should not dismiss insiders. "You also need to have people who know what things work now and what things don’t work now," he has said.

Education Governor, Education Mayor

In their public responses this month, Bloomberg and Cuomo have generally praised the other's statement on education.

"Both the mayor and I agree that this starts with implementing a teacher evaluation system that holds teachers accountable for their performance

Asked about the governor's commission, Bloomberg said, "We could do a better job in New York City, and they certainly can do a better job in the rest of New York state. The state, taken as a whole, is not where we want to be. The country taken as a whole … is nowhere near where we want to be, and the governor’s focus on education is spot-on. That’s exactly what he should do, and any help he can give us we’d be happy to take the help."

Cuomo's language on Martin Luther King Day was reminiscent of comments Bloomberg has made in the past on education. Like Bloomberg, Cuomo invoked civil rights when speaking about schools.

“The great equalizer that was supposed to be the public education system can now be the great discriminator," the governor declared, "because if you happen to go to public school in a failing public school, you may never catch up. You may be left behind and never catch up."

He also vowed to put in place an evaluations system that represents the students first,” echoing Bloomberg who has called his agenda for public schools"Children First."

Supportive words aside, Cuomo and Bloomberg clashed repeatedly over education last year, notably on funding and on the mayor's effort to end last in, first out, which requires that seniority determines which teachers get laid off, with the most recently hired teachers the first to go. Altering that system requires state approval.

David Seifman of the Post has written that the single biggest cause of the yawning rift between Cuomo and Bloomberg was the dispute over teacher layoffs. According to Seifman, "The feeling among Cuomo loyalists is that the governor … was blindsided when the mayor asked him to obliterate the law in the face of fierce union opposition. ... The feeling among Bloomberg loyalists is that LIFO would be a distant memory by now if Cuomo did the right thing."

The issue this time around could again be whether Cuomo will take the fight against the union as far as Bloomberg would like -- and whether Cuomo has other targets as well.

While Bloomberg generally limit his brickbats to the unions, Cuomo has targeted what he calls "the education bureaucracy" -- including superintendents, principal, teachers -- and maybe bus drivers. It is too early to know whether that difference in rhetoric is just that -- rhetoric.

The issue of getting results commensurate with money spent could also prove problematic for the mayor. Education spending has increased substantially under Bloomberg -- from about $12.7 billion in 2002-2003 to an anticipated $19.5 billion in 2012, excluding pensions and fringes. The mayor would no doubt say this has brought major results -- he most frequently cites an increase in graduation rates, but critics point to indicators that would say otherwise, including relatively flat test scores and the small percentage of city graduates who are prepared to do college level work.

As he has in the past, Bloomberg once again sees his education goals and his fight against the teachers union in Albany's hands. With the mayor's power fading as his time in office draws to a close, he has reason to hope -- and now, maybe even expect -- that this time Cuomo will be on his side. The teachers union must hope with equal fervor that he won't be.

Gail Robinson, the former editor of Gotham Gazette, writes on education and other policy issues.

Parental Involvement is Formula for Success in Brooklyn Schools

Photo by Emilie Eagan
Brooklyn Technical High School.

In recent years, Clinton Hill and Fort Greene schools have undergone the sort of transformation that eludes frustrated educators nationwide

Area parents of an older generation made escaping the local schools into an art. Some opted for private or parochial schools; some pursued charter schools with open-district lottery admissions; and some relocated to Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights when their children came of school age. Many more relied on a time-honored tradition: forging apartment leases to assume addresses in other zones.

But now, just a few years later, parents from around the district and outside it flock to Clinton Hill and Fort Greene schools. In fact, parents now forge documents to get in to this newly desirable zone.

Steady Improvement

P.S. 11, an elementary school on Waverly Avenue, exemplifies the area’s transformation. Once troubled by low test scores, poor attendance, and chronic tardiness, the school has improved in all of those areas.

Its enrollment has grown from 488 students to 602 since 2006, and its attendance rate has risen from 91.8% to 96% in the same time. Meanwhile, its academic rating based on Department of Education metrics has risen from 6.8 to 8.1.

An important element of this turnaround, parents say, is their own commitment to the school’s success.

Parental Participation

Sheri Holman, a mother of three and a member of the P.T.A., considers herself a participant in P.S. 11’s transformation. She was among the first in a new group of parents who chose to stay within the zone, and commit to the local school.

“We figured, we owned property there, so if we didn’t step up, who did we expect to do it?” Holman said.

But for many of her peers, sending the children to the local school still represented a leap of faith.

“At that time, it was nerve-wracking,” Holman said. “They knew the schools in Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights, but P.S. 11 hadn’t proven itself yet.”

To prove itself, the school would have to rely on a specific pattern of parent involvement, according to Dr. Jennifer Stillman, a graduate of Columbia University’s Teacher’s College whose research coveres gentrifying school districts like Holman’s.

This pattern is one that Stillman observed in every neighborhood that has integrated whiter, wealthier parents into schools that were traditionally poorer and low performing.

Changing Neighborhoods

The gentrification in Clinton Hill and Fort Greene is well documented. The median household income has increased by over $20,000 between 1990 and 2009, and the population of whites has almost doubled in the decade since 1990, according to Census numbers.

Clinton Hill’s crop of new parents is also highly educated, and they place a high premium on their children’s academic experience. Almost a third have bachelor’s degrees, twice as many as did in 1990. A quarter of them have a graduate or professional degree, compared with just one out of ten in 1990.

Parents like Holman, who took a leap of faith right into struggling schools, are what Stillman calls “the innovators,” the first parents to buck their peer group’s tendency to leave the zone to find good schools. The “early adopters,” are the next wave; they join in and provide momentum. A third wave — "what Stillman calls “the early majority”- holds off until success is apparent, and then provides critical mass.

Stillman’s research found that the successful integration — "racial, economic, and cultural" — of this new parent group into the existing schools and is key to a school managing the kind of “turnaround” many parents seek.

“There is a key moment in a school that successfully integrates, where the early majority decides to stay,” Stillman said. In unsuccessful examples, she said, the early majority leaves for a variety of reasons, most often because they realize that the school hasn’t changed quite as radically as they thought.

While cultural changes like policies allowing parents to walk their children to class each are seen as a serious accomplishment in the eyes of the innovators, they are not enough to satisfy the early majority. This wave may expect more dramatic “progressive” measures like cross-curricular and experiential learning taking the place of the traditional curriculum.


In the case of P.S. 11, the “innovators” and “early adopters” made a few early changes that proved crucial to attracting others. One, they say, was replacing Linda Nelson, an unpopular principal who parents described as divisive, defensive, and fundamentally opposed to parent involvement.

“We mounted a really active letter-writing campaign, and there was a lot of pressure from the parent organization to replace her,” said Holman. “It got really ugly, and a lot of parents left because they thought, — ˜I can’t deal with this.’”

The principal soon retired, and parents suspected that their campaign forced her out. When new principal Alonta Wrighton arrived, they said, it made a world of difference. The new parents were able to implement new, school-wide enrichment programs, and raise funds to support them.

In doing so, the social capital of those new parents would prove invaluable to generating revenue for the school’s enrichment.

One parent was a grant writer, and used her expertise to help raise the money that would fund P.S. 11’s new enrichment programs. Several parents who are authors contributed their works, and their connections, to the school’s annual book fair fundraiser.

And when it came to making time to volunteer, it didn’t hurt that many of the new parents enjoyed flexible work hours. Self-employed adults, who often work from home, are now 14.6% of the neighborhood, up from 5.4% in 1990, according to Census figures.

"A lot of those parents are from the creative class, which means they freelance," said Tamara Brown, a Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and the author of Raising Brooklyn: Nannies, Childcare and Caribbeans Creating Community, published in January. "They might work for a few months heavily and then they’re off."

"It's totally a class issue, because the parents who stay at home can be more engaged," said Kiini Salaam, a parent who was generally pleased with P.S. 11 while her daughter attended the school. "For schools in neighborhoods where there’s not a lot of resources, it’s not gonna be one in two parents who can come in and help out."

Offering a variety of ways to get involved was important to increasing parental involvement, especially among those who worked full-time or more. The PTA sent surveys to parents’ homes to how they could best get involved, making sure to include a range of options that included things that could be handled online from anywhere, said Vanessa Barnett, the school’s PTA president.

Reaping the Rewards

The strategy paid off. Parental involvement soared.

"Even in March, which is sort of an off month, we now have 50 to 75 parents coming to PTA events," Barnett said. "Before, we had a hard time even getting a quorum of 20 people."

It didn’t take long, either. Among parents dizzy with the anxiety of choices that may affect the rest of their children’s lives, word quickly spreads when a school seems to be getting it right.

"Parents who don’t have access to a lot of options think, —˜here’s a public school that’s on the rise, getting better every year,’” said Sheri Holman. “There are so few schools like that, that they become very sought-after really, really quickly."

But while parent involvement was what turned P.S. 11 around, Vanessa Barnett claims that that involvement did not rely on a privileged class.

"Your passion for your kids and your desire to make an impact cuts across all lines," she said. “We couldn’t do it without some people having connections or some knowledge of the way events work, but you don’t need an MBA for that."

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