Tag Archives: nyc schools

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.


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?

Let Your Voice Be Heard

This week, I had the opportunity to travel with a colleague – as a representative of my school district – to Albany for the chance to meet with state legislators and share concerns about public schools, students, and public workers.

The negative dialogue about teachers and public worker rights is frequently overwhelming. This blog, and others I read, are outlets for our frustration, but I have often felt we are just preaching to the choir. Most people choose to read what speaks to them – things that validate what they believe. There is value in our community of empathy and common thinking, sure, but usually it’s not each other’s minds we need to work to change.

For this reason, I was grateful to spend time in the offices of three legislators who represent my school district. At times, our value as teachers was affirmed by our hosts’ teary stories about the teacher that impacted their lives the most. At times, we found ourselves stridently articulating our stances on what we feel is best for students, schools, and teachers.

I’m so glad I had a copy of my colleague’s post about the true value a teacher adds. The release of data and the evaluation deal currently being negotiated are of particular interest to me and I assumed responsibility for passionately speaking against the public defamation of teachers on the basis of irrelevant data. I left Donna’s post in the hands of two aides and one senator, urging them to read and share it.

It was empowering to speak with these people. The hope is that they take our concerns to heart act morally to support students and public workers.

Writing and reading blogs is great and valuable, but that practice can only take us so far. We need to be active participants in government outside of voting. We have a voice that should be heard. Moving forward, I plan to make a more concerted effort of articulating my points to elected officials. I hope you’ll o the same.

How Reformers Have Hijacked “Data”

This is my response to the letter I recently received from a colleague, with whom I am exchanging letters on various education-related issues. The original text of her letter can be found on her blog.

Dear Donna,

Long time, no write! I was very happy to read your letter and look forward to using this space to debunking the myth of data that has been perpetrated upon teachers.

There are two types of data.

You have data, which, when properly interpreted and used, encourages individualized, relevant, and urgent teaching. This is the kind of data we should all – reformers, traditionalists, principals, and parents – embrace. Here, “data” is a term that ought to frighten us on the scale of words like “puppy,” “kitten,” and “rainbow.”

The other type of data has become so important, and its use so encouraged, that its status can only be expressed thusly: Data. “Data” sounds like “data” (with the short a or the long a!) and it even looks like “data.” Where Data and data part ways, though, is in their use to students and teachers. It is Data that is undermining teachers like you. In fact, that this four-letter word is allowed to be uttered about and around children as frequently as it is is one of the great annoyances of education reform in this country.

Any dedicated teacher who truly wants to inspire the greatest achievement in her students understands the value of good data. I get this kind of data from quizzes, conversations with students, observations of what they’re saying and doing, homework, and exit slips. When I interpret the data, I am able to determine what my next steps should be for individuals and the whole class. This is what is meant by “data-driven instruction.”

You see how nice it is? Don’t you want to cuddle up with some data and figure out how it’s going to help you better teach your students? Of course, you already do, and you do it reflexively. I know you do because you understand its value. Any teacher who uses data would be considered in tune with student needs and is actively considering every student’s unique situation. This takes skill and dedication and teachers who use data to figure out next steps ought to be celebrated because they are truly tailoring their instruction to meet students where they are.

Data with a capital d serves a whole other purpose and has an entirely different value, neither of which have been determined yet! It seems that Data is mainly used to point out just how awful teachers like you and me are. That’s because Data essentially amounts to student standardized test scores. Unfortunately, too many know-it-alls in the reform dialogue don’t know what to you, me, and most is self-evident: all students are not the same!

Based on the Data on you, a teacher of beginner ESL students brand new to the country, published by New York’s papers, you are one of the worst teachers in the school, if not the city. I suspect if any Data was available on me, a teacher of self-contained special education, I’d be right there with you. The incredible fallacy of Data is that it doesn’t account for student needs and environmental factors the way the data we collect does. So that makes Data a prickly issue for those of us who know the term has been hijacked.

Now we have clarified the differences between “data” and “Data.” For a teacher who wants to encourage the greatest in her students, there are few tools that she has at her disposal that are more important than “data.” Unfortunately, when a reformer says “data,” they really mean, “Data,” and it is their failure to understand the difference that harms students and teachers.

Interpreting data is part of our job, but being chastised for Data shouldn’t be.


My Students Remind Me: I Do a Good Job

Since I started teaching, my mom has come in at the end of every year to make scrapbooks with my students. We take all the pictures from the year and she buys stickers, paper and embellishments and works with the kids to make me a scrapbook. They are truly beautiful and show the abilities of students that otherwise don’t show, but what is best is reading what the kids write to me in the end.

Here are some of the most touching notes I’ve received. I have no doubt your students would say many of the same things about you! (All this despite what politicians would have them believe!)

I would like to thank you for preparing us for 6th grade and thank  you for encouraging us to do anything we can do.

You are so nice.  You helped me with many things I needed help. And you are also funny. You make me laugh a lot.

I will miss you. You helped me improve in my reading. You’re the best. I hope you remember me after many years.

You have been the best teacher and friend. You help us with our problems and you teach us and make sure we understand it. You make us reach our dreams and encourage us.

I really love you a lot because you help me with a lot of things. You’re an awesome teacher and I’ll miss you. Every single little problem I have, you fix it. No teacher has done something like that for me.

Thank you for teaching us right from wrong.

In fifth grade I had Mr. Ray. My only wish is that I could stay. Moving up is really good. All he has taught me is understood.

Mr. Ray you are like a ray that always look in front, never back. Like you look to the good days. Never look to the bad. I want to be like you.

Mr. Ray, you are nice. You won’t even harm a mice. You are very fair. And you always care.

M is for how manly you are. R is how you teach us to respect. R is for how responsible. a is for how absolutely awesome you are. Y is for how you yodel (sing) good.

Mr. Ray is fun, he shines like the sun. Mr. Ray is special to me, can’t you see? He is very sweet, like nobody could be. I will miss you, Mr. Ray and I am here to say, “WE LOVE YOU, MR. RAY!”

It saddens me that I must leave, I thank him for all he helped me achieve.

So there’s that. No numbers, just the opinions of those who really matter: the students.


A Public Hospital’s Saga (and How it Relates to Ed Reform)

On an icy morning, an oil tanker jackknifes on the highway. Drivers on either side have little time to react. The closest cars plow into the tanker. The ones that had some distance swerve to avoid the wreckage, colliding with other cars in adjacent lanes. Several raging fires burn high into the sky, lapping at the overpass where pedestrians are trapped in a ring of flame.

The nearest hospital is municipal, and it boasts a remarkably dedicated team. They haven’t won any awards, nor have their names been printed in the magazine saying their hospital is one of the country’s best. Their funding has been cut drastically over the last several years and they make the most of what they are given. Even though they’re not the top choice, they are the closest choice, and the emergency responders have determined that the vast majority of the victims on the highway need the most immediate hospital care they can get.

The first ambulance arrives carrying the most severely burned victim. Next, a helicopter brings another badly burned victim. The emergency room’s efficiency springs to life. All doctors and nurses overseeing patients who don’t need constant attention are ordered to stand by for more arrivals.

Another ambulance arrives, and then another. Pretty soon, the ER is overwhelmed with screaming, writhing burn victims, some with broken legs or backs. Others are unconscious from the pain. Others are dying as they wait. All demand attention for their needs, and the nurses and doctors, dedicated as they are, do their best to reach every single one. But the victims keep coming.

Realizing that this overwhelming influx of high-needs patients is too much for the staff to handle alone, the hospital administrator begins placing calls for more resources to be sent immediately – supplies, manpower, whatever it takes to save as many lives as possible.

The administrator pleads with the other hospitals, “Please, send anything you can. People are dying. We need help. We can’t do it alone.”

Private Hospital number one responds by saying, “We wish we could, but our patients can’t be inconvenienced by your needs. Sorry.”

Private Hospital number two responds by saying, “You obviously aren’t working hard enough. Stop complaining and do your job.”

Private Hospital number three responds by saying, “It’s exactly reasons like this why your entire staff should be fired!”

And so, without any help from the private hospitals – despite their seemingly endless supply of cash, superior technology, and opportunity to do right by those who need them most – the staff at the municipal hospital do what they’ve always done: their very best.

Thirty-six hours later, things have stabilized, but the staggering toll of being an underfunded, unassisted municipal hospital has taken its toll on the public who relied on it. Out of the 213 people brought in, more than half are dead. Many others are fighting infection and are, without the proper medicines, on the way to death, too.

In fact, by the time, one week later, the state has completed its investigation of the response to the highway fire, all but two victims – the first ones to arrive – are dead.

The recommendation is unequivocal: Phase the hospital out and, eventually, close it. After all, it is reasoned, they lost 211 out of the 213 lives brought to them. The administrator, chief of surgery, his best doctors, and 60% of the nurses are all fired. And besides, their record hasn’t been so good anyway since the new mayor took over.

Nowhere in the report is there mention of the hospital’s attempts at getting support to handle the aftermath of the fire (or their previous attempts at soliciting municipal funds). The media, in their castigation of the municipal hospital, neglect to cover the protesters chanting for increased funding (nor did they ever give serious coverage to previous rallies and petitions). Government officials all laud the phasing out and eventual closure of, “a hospital that is clearly failing our society.”

Would this ever happen to a hospital? Probably not.

But does it happen to schools? All the time.

When Value-Added Means Being De-Valued

Saturday morning, when the cold reality of irresponsible journalism and public defamation smacked colleagues former and present alike in the face, several contacted me to share their disgust, embarrassment, and anger at having their names and faulty data in the newspaper.

A popular sentiment was a lack of desire to remain in the profession. I told each person the same thing: these numbers say nothing about the quality of teacher you are.

Unfortunately, the cavalier attitude of the “journalists” who printed the data and drew conclusions from it – despite the DOE counseling them strongly not to do so – was in a matter of hours able to sow doubt not only in the public’s faith in teachers, but teacher’s own doubts in themselves.

I maintain that the data provided is horribly flawed, and much more so by the inexcusable and unprofessional failures of the news outlets to lend any meaningful context to the scores, such as presenting class breakdowns of the number of students receiving free lunch or the number of English Language Learners (and their profiencies) each teacher tested.

When did it become trendy for a value-added measure to result in a teacher having their own value subtracted? I make no bones about standing by my colleagues in and out of school who are being painted as poor teachers and having their own sense of worth de-valued when something false is presented as truth.

An Absence of Journalistic Integrity: Data Without Context

It’s finally hitting the fan.

I am sitting here, watching with ever-intensifying disgust, as reporters from the NY Times, Schoolbook and WNYC tweet out teacher data reports of their choosing. They are doing what we’ve all been cautioned not to: interpret the data as sound and meaningful and as the only measure of a teacher’s value.

I’m going to take the high road and not use any names. Suffice it to say, though, the line separating sensationalism from journalism has been badly blurred. How else do you explain a tweet linking to a school that is being phased out and has “below average” teachers? Within three minutes, using records easily searchable online, I discovered that 99% of the students there receive free lunch. The context makes those numbers a bit more meaningful, no? Amazing what a little (and I mean little) research can do for a story.

Maybe I should have stuck with journalism.

I feel for my colleagues, both in my school and out, whose names are linked now to numbers that tell nothing about the true challenges and triumphs of their work.

What can provide a more accurate picture of why numbers are what they are? Anecdotes and discussions with people in the schools or numbers compiled on a web site from those sitting in the ivory tower of “journalism?”

Schoolbook is asking for teachers to go ahead and defend themselves in an attempt to let teachers clear their names by lending context to the numbers. They’ve approached me for my input (although I do not have a report).

Here’s my input regardless: The numbers are already out there. From here on, it’s all going to be damage control. Releasing the numbers and names without the stories was irresponsible, unethical, and potentially devastating to careers and livelihoods. Teachers will now be forced to play catch up. If numbers don’t lie, as so many people believe, then each data report should be accompanied by demographic breakdowns by school and by teacher (students receiving special education services, number of English Language Learners, number of students receiving free lunch, etc.) But no – that would mean the numbers would have to wait. Couldn’t have that happen, could we?

Masquerading the numbers as news is unfair. Journalists are supposed to be objective. Pushing ahead with a story before responsibly compiling relevant data with the opinions and concerns of those being persecuted is just plain wrong.

Where Are We Headed?

I try to keep it optimistic here, I really do. Maybe you’ll find some tones of optimism as you read, but I confess at the outset that I sit down to write today feeling very pessimistic.

The other day, I read something that disheartened and frightened me. It was Diane Ravitch’s lucid and scathing critique of the deal struck between New York State and the unions on new teacher evaluations. As Ravitch, Carol Burris, and others have pointed out, it is a scary thing when a new evaluation system can only use 40% of student progress – but is designed, as Ravitch writes, in a way that “actually counts for 100 percent.”

Fuzzy math, you say. I urge you to read both the Burris and Ravitch pieces, linked above, for better explanations, but this is essentially how it works:

  • There are three criteria in the evaluation, in which a teacher can be rated ineffective, developing, effective, or highly effective.
  • One of those criteria is student performance (as based on state and local assessments), which, theoretically, accounts for 40 % of the evaluation.
  • The other two criteria are not important for this discussion because, per the state and union agreement, via Ravitch, “Teachers rated ineffective on student performance…must be rated ineffective overall.” That means that regardless of your ratings in the other criteria (even if both are highly effective), if your students don’t do well enough on the tests, there is no way of being labeled as anything but ineffective. Two straight years of ineffective ratings and you are relieved of your employment.

Can you see why such an arrangement is so troubling to so many?

Both Burris and Ravitch wrote that such a system is going to eliminate truly wonderful teachers, either automatically based on their ratings or because of the increasing lack of autonomy and need to raise test scores at all costs (ie. the conditions will become too overwhelming). It has basically become a choice: test scores or your job.

After reading Burris’ piece, I sent a tweet to Randi Weingarten, former UFT President and current AFT President, saying the following:

To which she responded:

Maybe so, but it seems to me the writing is on the wall. Until I see something saying otherwise, I have to assume that English Language Learners and students with IEPs will be held to the same assessments and standards as everyone else, and therefore, so will their teachers.

Well, guess what? That’d be me.

It is silly for anyone to assume my students will make progress at a rate equal to their general ed peers. It is the nature of their disabilities to require more time to progress – and that progress often isn’t linear. It’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole – you can will it as much as possible but until that hole is changed to meet the needs of the peg, it just won’t happen.

Teachers of students with disabilities and ELLs are being asked, then, to do the impossible. Only thing is, if anyone says this, they’re written off as a poor teacher. Baloney.

We are moving toward a very scary time to be a teacher, and, how ironic, New York finds itself drawn into the storm. The horizon seems very dark.

I fear for what school is becoming, what my job is becoming, and what my career may turn out to be. I still believe resolutely that I affect my students’ lives in positive ways, and I am proud of the progress many of them have made this year (because, despite what others may say, it is significant to get a kid off a kindergarten reading level and onto first grade even if they’re nine years old).

I worry, though, that none of it’s going to be good enough.

And then what happens?