Category Archives: New York

It Snows, and We Go


Yeahhhhh...no it isn't.

Yeahhhhh…no it isn’t.

This will be a brief little rant before, for the third time in 2014, I venture out into what the mayor of New York calls “hazardous” or “treacherous” travel conditions because my job requires it. See, I’m a teacher, and while all indications are generally that New Yorkers should stay indoors and only head out in emergencies, schools are still open because, as the new adage goes, “Kids have to eat.”

They do, of course. And if I’m a new mayor – Bill de Blasio – or schools chancellor – Carmen Fariña – doesn’t it sound great for me to show how much I care about the students’ wellbeing? Sure it does.

I’m not callous or ignorant enough to argue against this. There truly are kids who rely on school for their most complete meals of the day. But, there are other facts that can’t be ignored:

  • The logic behind warning about hazardous and treacherous travel conditions for “all” New Yorkers extends to our littlest ones, too. They’re walking on sidewalks still covered in ice (since no one seems too worried about enforcing the law about property owners shoveling their sidewalks in an appropriate amount of time). They’re riding buses on slick roads when officials are cautioning people to stay off the streets.
  • Many parents think it’s ridiculous to send their kids out into weather-related danger, so they opt to keep them home. Our snowstorms this year have resulted in roughly 65% student attendance across the city. Most teachers with half a brain know that if more than a third of the class is out, you put a hold on any new lessons.
  • Thousands of teachers are being put in harm’s way, too. I have colleagues who travel 20 miles to get to work. Even for me – I’m only five or six miles from my school – it’s an adventure. The main street by my apartment has not been a priority for plowing in any of the storms this year. It’s a mostly downhill trip from my building to the highway, so for about a mile, I’m crawling along (if I’m not skidding along). Furthermore, teachers who drive and work in dense areas, like I do, are contending with deplorable parking conditions on the streets as it is. There are mounds of snow that turned to mounds of ice and on a day like today, with all the new precipitation, getting out of those spots will be even worse.
  • Full-day storms like that one we’re expecting today, actually don’t just impact the morning commute for students and teachers. They affect the afternoon commute, too – you know, when everything’s even worse. No one ever seems to remember that. (This might explain why after-school programs haven’t been canceled, either).

Anyway, it’s getting late. Normally I wouldn’t be up for another 10 minutes. But, I was up at 4:10 today, expecting to hear that cooler heads prevailed in the Ivory Tower – I mean mayor’s office. I don’t know why I ever thought that.

Safe travels, everyone. Especially the kids.

Thoughts from the Beach


It’s easy to sit on the beach and tell myself it isn’t time to start thinking about the upcoming school year. But watching the waves crash, one’s mind covers many topics. On this particular day, mine has me looking toward September and yet another year brimming with challenge and opportunity.

Perhaps the headline story for those of us who work in New York City is our new Danielson-based teacher evaluation system. It replaces what many observers felt was an arbitrary system that left too much out of the equation and evaluated us solely as satisfactory or unsatisfactory in the classroom. Under the new system, teachers will be evaluated on 22 domains. In addition to instructional practice, there is impact on student learning, professional contributions, and so on.

We mostly agree that this type of system presents a fuller picture of us as professionals. Everyone will be able to present artifacts to support their cases for effective or highly effective ratings. Those who receive ineffective or developing ratings will receive support, but if improvements aren’t made, termination becomes a very real possibility.

In practice, this all seems fair, and it all makes sense. The problem is that everyone is learning on the fly because the process of enacting the system is, as Diane Ravitch often says, akin to building airplanes in the sky. I attended professional development in my school and with the district superintendent. There were a lot of questions but very few answers. This is unsettling.

I have said, though, to people who are worried, that anyone doing their job has little reason to fear the change. If the system plays out as it should, we will be receiving prompt, specific feedback after observations. Anyone who is already reflective will see the benefit of this. Anyone who doesn’t will resist and create difficulties for themselves.

Practically speaking, in a school my size, implementation is going to be a major challenge. For now, though, I’m optimistic.

The next challenge is the one that always faces me: the students. I’ve written on this blog before – and people who know me know this is true – that I always give my incoming students the benefit of a clean slate when they first enter my class.

The same applies for this year’s group, even though some of what I witnessed last year from them behaviorally and academically is a bit worrisome. Don’t get me wrong. I can handle behaviors, but the expectations are so high – Common Core and whatnot – that based on what I know about these kids academically, I am in for an exceptionally trying – but I hope, ultimately rewarding – year.

Everyone will progress, and regardless of what drum-beating non-educators think of that, that has to be our goal. I always aim for the standardized tests to be a footnote to the year, but so much has changed now that I may have to, as well. All that means is being extra creative about giving them some kind of confidence that they can accomplish what is basically impossible. Just like I can’t be expected to outrun an Olympic sprinter, kids on kindergarten reading levels with disabilities can’t be expected to ace tests that are, to begin with, above their grade level.

And now I’m ranting. So it’s probably best for me to finish this post and go back to looking at the ocean. Enjoy the summer while it lasts, friends.

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Sandy Closes Schools, Sandy Opens Schools


Most teacher folk I know are outraged that, as a result of the five days NYC schools were closed due to Hurricane Sandy and the need to meet a minimum number of attendance days (per New York State law), three days (plus a half-day) that would have previously been non-attendance days have been switched. In other words: kids will be in for four days they normally wouldn’t have.

I can definitely see both sides of the issue here, but I want to go over some of the many factors that exist.

Before I do, though, I must give credit to Arthur Goldstein, who wrote this excellent letter to UFT President Michael Mulgrew. I draw plenty of inspiration from his words as I share my thoughts on the situation.

Some arguments and some points:

This isn’t fair. That’s what some said to me when they found out. In a sense, it’s perfectly fair. During the week of the Sandy closures, I sat in my warm apartment watching the news, thanking my lucky stars I wasn’t affected. Sure, it was a tense week, as I was out of contact with many people who I knew were in trouble, but materially, physically, and emotionally, I lost nothing. For me, it was really a “week off,” though like I said, hardly a vacation. In this spirit, it’s no skin off my back to go to to work on those days.

The other side of this, though, is all those NYC DOE employees who were affected by Sandy. I’d be interested to know just how many total employees live in the Rockaways, lower Manhattan, Staten Island, Long Beach, or on the south shore of Long Island, all areas that were badly hit. Unlike me, these people didn’t have the luxury of relaxing inside as the storm and its aftereffects raged. No, they spent their week doing all different kinds of things: witnessing their homes burn down; being caught in neck-deep flood waters; shivering in homes without gas, electric, or heat; sleeping in shelters; watching sewage come up through their sinks; and much, much worse.

For them, Sandy week was not a week off. It was a week from hell. Many of my colleagues who felt the worst effects still managed to make it to work everyday, even though they were displaced from their homes. They shouldn’t have to work the extra days. They never got the time off I did.

So, what are you doing this February break? In my youth, the mid-winter recess meant we were going to Florida for our annual visit to the grandparents’ house and all the fun that entailed. Many students look forward to the break as I did because it means a trip somewhere. Now, despite the Mayor believing that many parents rely on schools to keep their kids under watch, don’t think for a second that if families already have vacation plans, they won’t be keeping them. I actually think we’ll see a large dip in attendance February 20-22: days that were previously part of the break but are now attendance days.

But I have all this paper work to do. June 4 was to be a clerical half-day, so that our morning could be spent teaching and our afternoon be spent completing report cards and cumulative records in preparation for the end of the year, which also brings with it reorganization of classes and record exchange. The time allotted for this work is precious. In my school, we basically all sit in our rooms in silence and get it done. And it’s wonderful.

This June 4, kids will be with us all day, meaning one less 3.5 hour block to do extremely important work against a deadline. My only guess is that on Brooklyn-Queens Day, which is a non-attendance day for students, we will be given time to complete records, only under more pressure because it’s later in the week.

Like I said, I see all sides of this issue. In a perfect world, my dear colleagues in school and out who suffered the worst – people who lost homes or are continuing to gut and rebuild – would not be required to work these three-plus extra days because they never had a day off anyway. But where do you draw the line? How do you determine who fits the criteria?

I don’t believe kids should be kept out of school, but I also don’t believe this is as cut and dry as the law says. This storm is unprecedented in our history, so exceptions and nuance must apply.

I have no simple solution, only these thoughts. What real ideas and solutions do you propose?

After Sandy, A School Community Comes Together for Its Own


It’s amazing the way people come together for good when the chips are truly down. Community is, indeed, an incredible force.

Having now distributed the cash we collected for staff members affected by Hurricane Sandy – people who lost so so much – I am able to look back at the whirlwind experience it was to collect the donations and give them out.

I was knocked speechless when I took the first donation: a crisp $100 bill. Donations continued to come in on a steady basis with people showing similar generosity. Some asked sheepishly what others were giving, and expressed disappointment that they couldn’t give more than they did. My answer was the same each time: “This is a beautiful donation.” And they all were.

We had a group of folks we planned to give the money to. It was all supposed to be a surprise, but eventually word got around to me that some people on the list were planning to decline the money. They felt there was no reason for them to accept it when others were dealing with much more than they were.

As incredible as it was for colleagues to come up to me all week with envelopes of cash and checks, I was perhaps most moved by the gestures of those who said, “Others need it more than me.” And try as I did to convince them that people wanted them to have it, they wouldn’t budge. They passed on their cut so that others could get more. It’s hard for me to even express how touched I was by that. To be sure, when they first told me they wouldn’t take the money, I was disappointed and bordering on indignant, but the more I thought about it, I totally understood why. Needless to say, I gained plenty of respect for them.

I’m proud to say we raised more than $3,000 from the staff. The recipients were overwhelmed with gratitude and shock when I presented them their portions. You always wish you can do more, but my colleagues should be proud for having done what they did. We all hope it helps people start moving forward.

Related: Sandy Left Tons of Destruction. Now What Can I Do About It?

Back to Work on Friday. But How?


I will give Mayor Mike Bloomberg points for the way he has handled Sandy. Apart from bookending the storm with a panned decision not to evacuate zone A earlier (CBS’ weather guys were killing that decision) and ending yesterday’s press conference with a testy exchange, Bloomberg showed some smart leadership qualities. Sunday night, once he realized how bad things were going to be, he wised up, ordered evacuations, closed schools, and clearly gave New Yorkers information.

Day after day, we have marveled at the fact that the schools remain closed. It is probably unprecedented in our city’s history to have five days of closings due to natural disaster. But with so many people stranded by a crippled transportation system or dealing with flood damage to homes and cars, it kind of makes sense.

What makes less sense – and it may become clearer how it will work as today goes on – is the expectation that all staff members of DOE schools are expected to report for work tomorrow. You have to understand, if you’re not following the storm aftermath, that huge swaths of the subway system are shut down. Railroad service has not been fully restored, either. Gas lines are stretching for four hours in places. If it sounds like a horror movie, it could be.

I know several people who won’t be able to get to work tomorrow. They live on Long Island, in Connecticut, and in New Jersey. Their cars are totaled by floods and they won’t have the opportunity to rent one by tomorrow. They live in areas inaccessible by public transportation at this point.

The question is whether they’ll be penalized a day for not being able to make it to work. Unless the mayor plans to send a helicopter to these people, what are they supposed to do?

Dear Parents – A Principal Tells it Like it Is


Here is a phenomenal back to school e-mail sent by a principal willing to put his neck out in order to speak the truth! His courage is admirable and his honesty is necessary.

September 4, 2012

Dear Parents,

On behalf of the teachers and staff of the Wantagh Elementary School, I would like to welcome you back to school. I anticipate that the 2012-13 academic year will prove to be an exciting year.

We are all enthusiastic about the arrival of our new superintendent, Mr. D’Angelo, and the promise of a fresh vision for the academic well-being of our school district. Also, Mrs. Chowske will be joining our WES staff, functioning as our school’s Elementary Supervisor [aka, Assistant Principal]. The future is bright as we move forward with the implementation of our Writers’ Workshop program expanding into our fourth grade and kindergarten. This year we will also initiate a new K-5 math program called enVisionMATH. This program not only meets the national Common Core standards for Math but does so with enhanced technological experiences for our children.

One significant issue as we move into this new school year is that we will, at times, find it difficult if not impossible to teach authentic application of concepts and skills with an eye towards relevancy. What we will be teaching students is to be effective test takers; a skill that does not necessarily translate into critical thinking – a skill set that is necessary at the college level and beyond. This will inevitably conflict with authentic educational practice – true teaching.

Unfortunately, if educators want to survive in the new, Albany-created bureaucratic mess that is standardized assessments to measure teacher performance, paramount to anything else, we must focus on getting kids ready for the state assessments. This is what happens when non-educators like our governor and state legislators, textbook publishing companies (who create the assessments for our state and reap millions of our tax dollars by doing so), our NYS Board of Regents, and a state teachers’ union president get involved in creating what they perceive as desirable educational outcomes and decide how to achieve and measure them. Where were the opinions of teachers, principals, and superintendents? None were asked to participate in the establishment of our new state assessment parameters. Today, statisticians are making educational decisions in New York State that will impact your children for years to come.

Standardized assessment has grown exponentially. For example, last year New York State fourth graders, who are nine or ten years old, were subjected to roughly 675 minutes (over 11 hours) of state assessments which does not include state field testing. This year there will be a state mandated pre-test in September and a second mandated pre-test in January for allkindergarten through fifth grade students in school. In April, kindergarten through fifth grade students will take the last test [assessment] for the year.

Excessive testing is unhealthy. When I went to school I was never over-tested and subsequently labeled with an insidious number that ranked or placed me at a Level 1, Level 2, Level 3 or Level 4 as we do today. Do you want your child to know their assigned ‘Level’? What would the impact be on their self-esteem and self-worth at such a young age?

Of additional concern to me is the relationship between children and their teacher as we move into an era where teacher job status is based upon student assessment scores. Guess what, some children will become more desirable than others to have in class! And, conversely, others will be less desirable. There, I wrote it! That concept is blasphemy in our school where teachers live to prepare children to be productive learners and members of society. Teachers state-wide are worried that their relationship with students might change when they are evaluated based upon their students’ test scores. Teachers want to educate students, not test prep them for job security.

Additionally, what should be shocking to you as a parent is that state and national databases are being created in order to analyze and store students’ test scores – your child’s assessment results and your child’s school attendance! Do you realize that the state has mandated that classroom teachers must take attendance during every math, ELA, social studies and science lesson – everyone, every day for the entire school year! Those records are sent to the state and become statistically part of the teacher evaluation process. It will no longer be enough that your child ‘was in school.’ Rather, if he or she was at a band lesson or out of the room for extra help in reading and a math lesson was taking place in class, he or she will be noted as absent from that instruction. That will be factored into the teacher evaluation. Thinking of taking your child to Disney World for a week during the school year or leaving a day or two early for a long weekend skiing? Think again! Those absences will be recorded as illegal, missed seat time and sent to the state – as mandated by the state.

This is all part of the massive, multi-million tax-payer dollar teacher evaluation processes started by our Commissioner of Education, our governor, and our state legislators and fully supported by statisticians employed by the state and assessment-making companies. No one in Albany is selecting to see the end of the journey; that 98 percent of the students graduating from Wantagh Schools go on to two- and four-year colleges. Their myopic view is focused on the ‘parts’, not the whole. Who will eventually suffer? Your children!

The balance must now be struck between maintaining the special nature of an elementary school setting and the cold and calculating final analysis rendered by statistics. The use of assessment data to drive instruction is a tenet of good educational practices. The use of assessment data to render a yearly prognostication of teacher competency is ridiculous.

You have the greatest impact on your child’s school performance. Each teacher only has your children for 180 days per year and for less than six hours per day [minus lunch and recess times, art, music, and physical education classes]. It is our expectation that as partners in your child’s education, you will be doing your part as well. As part of any evaluation of student performance, Albany must simultaneously be asking parents the following questions:

Does your child read at home each day for at least twenty minutes?

Do you read to your child every day?

Are math facts gone over daily until they are known automatically?

Is there a quiet location in the house for homework time and do you check your child’s homework each night?

Is your child sent to school ready for the day with a good breakfast following at least eight hours of sleep?

Are after school activities monitored so that your child is not ‘overbooked’ and their stamina compromised?

Is your child in school daily [except when they are sick] and not taken out of school for any reason other than illness?

We will continue to have field trips, assemblies, and special school events but some events will be curtailed or rescheduled with an eye toward prudent times during the school year to maximize student seat time. However, it is unmistakable that we have entered into a new era of educational practice with higher stakes than ever before.

I look forward to working with you and your child as we start our new school year because….together we make a difference.

Thank you.

Don Sternberg, Ed.D.

Principal

Fuzzy Math


Yesterday, two-thirds of the students in my school began taking the NYS English proficiency standardized exam. It was another chance for my students to try their damnedest to do their best, regardless of their inability to read above a certain level or keep pace with an insanely fast recording (which they were required to listen to for the whole test). In other words: they’d have done swimmingly in any other format.

Anyway, even before the test started, there was angst and anger. One of my students was nearly despondent to learn there was yet another three-day test to take (as third graders have already completed three days of ELA and three of math).

He reasoned thusly: “We already took 6 tests and now you’re telling me we have to take 9 tests? I don’t like taking tests. This is not fair.”

The best I could do was empathize and offer a sharpened pencil as a conciliatory move. Why would I argue with a 9-year old?

Field Tests Should Be Taken Out in a Field and…


I heard an enticing nugget today. After they finish the English proficiency exams (which are three days this week), the lucky little kiddies who attend elementary school in NYC still can’t move their desks out of rows or put down their number 2 pencils. Field tests are next.

A field test sounds like something scientific, educational, and even fun. “I wonder if this rocket I built will actually launch. I’ll take it to a field and test it.” “I wonder if this seed can grow in different types of soil. I’ll plant it in a field and test it.” “I wonder what the average temperature is here over 60 days. I’ll use a thermometer in the field and test it.”

In reality, though, there’s nothing fun or educational about a field test. A field test is much less meaningful than The Test. It is administered for the purpose of seeing what questions work on kids and what questions don’t. Field tests are hardly scientific. After all, what kid will truly put forth his best effort on another standardized test with a month to go, especially knowing The Test is over?

And why is it necessary to subject the kids to more of the same? My kids have a mural and a scrapbook to complete by the end of the year, but precious time will be lost to a field test.

Field tests serve one purpose, far as I can tell: to frustrate the kids. On the ELA and math tests, the questions colleagues and I figured were field questions were concepts we hadn’t yet taught and/or were significantly above grade level. Therefore, try  though they might have to answer them the best they could, kids were, invariably, agitated by searching their brains for an answer their brains didn’t have.

Why must we continue to sacrifice valuable educational time to serve the demands of non-educators who aren’t adding anything worthwhile to the causes we champion? It’s another example of school gone bad. As always, the main victims are the children.

A Letter Worth Reading and Sharing


The Answer Sheet is one of my go to spots for release from the education reform insanity. Valerie Strauss features a lot of sensical posts there, and I urge you to read it.

I am cross-posting a brilliant letter she shared today, written by a NY principal to State Education Commissioner John King, in which a series of exceptionally passionate points are made against the recent math test taken in grades 3 through 5. Each concern was one felt at my school, and no doubt, around the city and state.

Dear Commissioner King,

I implore you to initiate a thorough review of this year’s NYS Math Assessments in grades three through five. I have been an elementary principal for twelve years, and are quite honestly horrified by the content, format, language and presentation of this year’s exams. In addition, the scoring and reporting procedures and insistence that test items remain permanently undisclosed to the public suggest that the process is both unreliable and artificial.

The poor design of this year’s NY Math Assessments demonstrates complete disregard for the cognitive and emotional development of elementary children. Specifically, third, fourth and fifth grade test booklets have contained:

*Unfamiliar, untaught material

*Deliberately misleading questions & answer choices

*Ambiguous, poorly worded questions & answer choices

*Inconsistent directions

*Misplaced answer lines

*Omitted directional cues

*Multiple answers that could be correct

*Inappropriately sized work spaces

*Extended multiple steps (as many as 5 or 6) in single problems

*Incomplete/missing information

*Reading levels that are above grade

 

Each of these items has significantly impacted student performance on these tests. They have caused confusion, anxiety, miscalculations, distraction, misuse of time, and fatigue. Compounding these factors is the inordinate length of these exams, which is beyond the stamina and attention span of eight to ten year olds.

The embedded field test questions on this year’s NYS Assessments have had a particularly negative impact on the performance of our students. As the requirements for next year under the Common Core State Standards are very different from the expectations for this year, I assume that all of the unfamiliar topics are field test questions. These questions (which are very identifiable to adults familiar with the differences between current standards and the CCSS) are based on material to which children have had no exposure, thus rendering them useless as field test items. “Common Core questions” accounted for approximately 12% of the third grade, 8% of the fourth grade, and nearly 17% of the fifth grade questions. It is inconceivable as to why such a large portion of the tests should have been devoted to questions that obviously can provide no helpful information, since the topics are not currently required in NYS curriculum. (If these were not field test questions, then the test design poses an even greater problem, as the developers were not adequately familiar with current NYS Standards.) These questions caused additional anxiety for students who were already functioning under stressful conditions. Children, at all grades and ability levels, spend excessive amounts of time on these questions and became confused and agitated by their inability to answer them. Some of our brightest children reported to teachers after each day of the test that the questions made them feel stupid.

At the other end of the spectrum, the tests have been an emotional and physical assault on our special needs students and English language learners. Many of these children generally experience greater success in mathematics than reading, as they are knowledgeable and confident regarding the content and concepts. The reading levels, vocabulary and language structures made it impossible for them to access the tests and demonstrate their mathematical knowledge. In room after room, children could be seen twenty minutes into the test with their heads on their desks or staring blankly into space. When teachers checked on them, they simply said, “It’s too confusing,” or “I can’t do this,” and hopelessly gave up. Nearly half of my special education students cried at some point during these exams. It is unacceptable for eight, nine and ten year olds to be subjected to this kind of torment.

What is even more detrimental is that neither these children — nor their parents or teachers — will ever have access to their test booklets in order to understand how or why the child arrived at an incorrect answer. No benefit is extended to the child from all of these hours of testing if there is no thoughtful, comprehensive feedback. Likewise, I am unable to provide you and your department with clarification and examples regarding my initial list of concerns, as I am not permitted to speak about the content of the exams, or retain a test booklet for commentary. I find it disingenuous that you want teachers and principals to receive feedback, but want none yourself. It would seem that those of us who have spent our lives doing this work would have much insight to offer you.

I would hope that, as Commissioner of the New York State Education Department, you would aspire to an assessment system of which you can be proud. This is not that system. If you were to sit down and take each of these exams, I think you would be embarrassed that your department subjected children to them. I would expect that you, too, would see the flaws in these tests and want better for the students of New York State. This is not a testing system that should be used to evaluate students’ abilities, and certainly not a system that can determine teacher effectiveness.

I thank you for your careful consideration of my concerns, and would be happy to clarify them for you or answer any questions that you might have. Please do not hesitate to contact me.

 

Sharon Emick Fougner

Principal

 

Pc: Members of Board of Regents, NYSED

What Does a Know-it-All Know, Anyway?


I’ve heard people suggest that, since I’m a special education teacher, I am also a saint. People have told me, “Those kids need someone like you,” and, “They need a good male role model.”

Of course, none of these people are political types or billionaires. The way these influencers see it, I’m exactly the kind of teacher my kids don’t need because I don’t add enough value. Full disclosure: I typed that sentence with a smirk on my face.

Instead of honoring my commitment to teaching a high-needs cohort (or the commitment of others who teach special ed, ESL, or in high poverty areas), the know-it-alls use the choice I’ve made to label me a poor teacher. It is both upsetting and laughably idiotic that they have perversely twisted the notion of good teaching so that the teachers who take on the hardest assignments are made to look like the worst teachers.

Which shows you just how little these know-it-alls know.