Friday, May 31, 2013

My DOEnut of the Week: "Research Suggests..."

This week's DOEnut comes to me from this Edweek piece celebrating a brand new piece of research revealing that kids learn better, and focus on more relevant information, when they have to explain things. I kid you not. Here is the tweet from EdWeek publicizing the piece:

Cristine Legare, (from the University of Texas at Austin) is about to publish it with UC-Berkely. From the EdWeek piece:
In forthcoming research with UC-Berkeley, Ms. Legare brought in 96 children ages 3 to 5 and set before them a complex toy made up of colorful, interlocking gears with a crank on one end and a propeller on the other.
With half the children, the researchers asked each one, “Can you explain this to me?” With the other half, they simply said, “Oh look, isn’t this interesting?”
The two groups of children focused on different things, researchers found. Children who were asked to observe noticed the colors of the toy, while those asked to explain focused on the chain of gears working on each other to eventually turn the propeller when the child turned the crank at the other end..

Now I'm no researcher. And I'm no scientist. But I am a teacher and as a teacher I can tell you that the following approach is pretty much teaching 101: You don't just get responses. You engage your students and you ask them to explain.  In fact, I've been teaching for a good long while now. During that time, I've visited a lot of classrooms and have seen a great many teachers (some good. Some not so much) doing their thing. I have never once seen a teacher NOT turn a question back on a student so that the student could explain. Any teacher worth his or her salt know; you engage your students with questions and you get them to respond. That's it. That's how the process of teaching (and of learning) work.  My profession is the second oldest in the world. Generations of teachers from Aquinas to Dewey to Freire knew how and when to turn questions right back onto students. They passed process along to future teacher who -surprise surprise- continue to use it even today.

So my question (and the reason this is a DOEnut) is this; why did these people need a study to show what the majority of people in education already know? Maybe the answer to my question is because they wanted the work (after all, every has to get paid, right?) Maybe the answer is that the country just has far fewer experienced teachers today than it did ten years ago. With so many new teachers, there really may be an actual need to explain this. Maybe the professor and UC Berkely just felt the need to prove something in an empirical manner. Maybe their next study will be about how students understand better when a teacher writes something in big letters on a big green panel located in the front of the room.  Or maybe the answer lies somewhere close to our new-found national obsession with the premise that teachers actually don't know what they're doing. If any of these scenarios are even close to being the case, the study is still a DOEnut.

So congratulations to Professor Cristine Legare of University of Texas at  Austin for conducting actual research proving the painfully obvious: That  engaging students with questions makes them understand more stuff. The professor gets a free box of Entenmann's Donuts (postage paid) and can email me with the address whenever she's ready for the delivery.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Let New York City Residents Vote on the NYCDOE Budget

Except for here in the city (and four other places), today is a very big day across the state. Today, school districts across much of the state are having their annual school budget vote.  The five urban school districts (called the "Big Five') don't follow the same budget timeline (which began way back in February) as the rest of the state, but in almost every other area of New York,  residents of communities are going to polls to tell their schools that the district either may, or may not, have the money to fund the programs and initiatives that the districts have requested to be funded for the next academic year (2013-14).

I always thought that the lengthy process of drafting and ratifying a school budget with a school district-wide vote had the ultimate result of increasing the community's interest and participation in what the school district was doing.  And although the districts across the state raise their school money from property taxes (something that isn't really done here in the city), I think the New York City would be better off if it found a way to duplicate this system.

And it actually isn't that difficult to conceptualize. Much of the city's school budget (about $16 billion this year) comes from income taxes. Wouldn't it be great if we had process each year that began in February, passed through several stages in April where the school district (the NYCDOE) had to present their budget in several public forums and ultimately ended with a city-wide vote on the school's budget? As is the case for districts outside of the urban areas, the city's DOE would have to come up with three plans (plan A, B and C) in the event that initial budget didn't pass. Ultimately, every year, the residents of New York City (our school district) would vote up or down on whether or not they wanted to fork over money from their paychecks to fund the city's schools the way the department would want.

I'm sure that eduwonks and policy makers (and unionists) who stumble across this post may have just rolled their eyes at the political choas that that may create.The process, however, would be more democratic and would include many more stakeholders than the process we currently have (not just for funding but for policy and priorities as well). In fact, here are five reasons New York City schools might be better if they participated in the same school budget process (using income taxes instead of payroll taxes) as do other districts throughout the state.

Transparency - Every voting citizen in the city would have access to where each dollar in the city's schools are spent. How much is being spent on no bid contracts this year? On school busing? On classroom supplies and curriculum? We'd all know because the NCYDOE (the most opaque system in the world outside of the US military) would have to submit those spending plans for approval each year.

It would encourage community involvement - The strangest thing happens when you say to a community -any community- 'Hey. We're asking you or your neighbors to pay your share of $16 Billion. Here's our budget plan'. People become interested and involved. In the real world of politics, communities, having a say in how much is spent on things like curriculum and supplies, would find themselves more organized and staking out a position on the budget -the first step in staking out their claim in course of the city's schools.

It will keep the politics local - As local as New York City can get anyway. Something like this would (for the most part) exclude the state government from the process. Currently, the mayor and city council must ask the state government permission to raise the amount of taxes that they do. This means that each and every year, the question of how much NYC spends on schools starts at City Hall, moves up to Albany (where it bangs around for a few months) and comes back down here as a fait accompli. The trouble with this is it doesn't involve actual residents of the city! That's not very democratic at all. A process that leads to a city-wide tax vote would include these people. That means that the politics, though ramped up to a higher level than they are now, would remain here, in the city (where they belong).

The residents of the city will have final say over how a large portion of their city tax dollars are spent -As any resident of any community should. Final say over taxes (any tax) encourages democracy. It reinforces the idea that these are 'our' schools. I don't mean to be redundant here. I just mean to say that members of a community should have final say over their school taxes. It's (I hate to say this) the American way and it should come to New York City.

It would help to provide a counterbalance to mayoral control - As we all search for what that right balance is, we should think about the fact that parents and community members, teachers and principals alike would have a fairly large, though indirect, say over school policy if the mayor has to face a school budget vote once every year. That's how things work out in other areas of the state (where many of  the schools produce better indicators than the city does) and that's how it should be here. Sure. Fine. Let one person run the schools. That person can pick the top brass, set the pace and lay out the agenda. But give the purse strings to the great multitude. Let residents listen to activists and unionists and politicians and other interested people as they discuss whether the school's budget meets the priorities that they are happy with in the weeks leading up to that budget vote. It was Bill Clinton who once said that there was a tool for setting priorities and goals and that that tool was called the budget. Let voters have access to that tool. Let the mayor explain to them year in, year out, the what any real democratic politician should, what his (or her!) priorities are and how the submitted budget meets those priorities.  Let's just see if $800 Million suddenly disappears or if $1 Billion increase on lawyers in the department is ratified.

Sure, it would be messy and dramatic and wrought with peril. But given what we have now, it may be better to embrace Al Smith's idea about how the only cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Congratulations To the UFT for Going to Bat for Francesco Portelos!(?)

Bloggers don't have breaking news. They have these "OMG"moments that they just have to share.

According to Francesco Portelos' Twitter account, the UFT sent a letter to the DOE asking that Portelos be sent back to the classroom. I haven't seen the letter, but if Francesco says so, then it must be true.

They don't really do that too often. That they did is worth a blog post.

It's also worth a thank you! Every time my union goes to bat for a teacher, they go to bat for the rest of us too (that's sort of how things work with unions). Moments like this make me proud to be a member of the UFT.

Francesco's tweet is below.

Francesco Portelos (@MrPortelos) tweeted at 6:53 PM on Tue, May 14, 2013: @nycdoenuts @uft sent letter.

( Get the official Twitter app at

Friday, May 10, 2013

HS Kids Commenting on Christine Rubino's Decision

The Times learning blog has a piece that allows students to offer comments about what repercussions should be faced from inappropriate Facebook comments.  It also asks whether kids feel Rubino should have been fired.

What's interesting is that when you account for kids who assume that Rubino was saavy enough with Facebook back then to realize it was public (my opinion? she wasn't. She had no clue how social media worked and mistakenly thought her comments were private) and account for the kids who felt that this was Christine's general opinion about kids (I don't think it is at all. Word is she loves kids and vented that terrible post after one bad day.), most kids seem rather forgiving of her actions.
Read the comments below, though. They're definitly worth a peruse.

Student Opinion | Should What You Say on Facebook Be Grounds for Getting Fired? -

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Brief History of the New York City Public Schools

and that is a brief history of the New York City public school system (pardon the typos)  

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The DOEnut of the Week!

The moniker, doenut is 'intended to reflect anything that is crazy and silly about the  comings and goings of the New York City Department of Education'. I've been meaning to call out one  for exceptional nuttiness each week and name it the DOEnut of the Week for some time now. I've been patiently waiting for a news story or developing that I felt was good enough to start the whole thing off. This week, I found my first. 

I don't mean to digress, but it was a pretty busy week in the Ed world!! That Cathy Black story came pretty close to be my first. But the revelation of her emails (which really just highlighted the DOE's usual obsession with perception over substance more than anything else)  isn't actually a doenut; it's more like a rare moment of sanity. Look, we all kind of knew what the DOEs priorities were. The emails just proved it.

Mayor Bloomberg's budget address  (where he took no responsibility at all for the past four years of misery) came very close as well. But there isn't anything new about that story. In fact, it's kind of old and tired by now, isn't it? Besides, when a guy as dumb as me is able to call something like that out with a simple tweet: 

it's a pretty good sign that I shouldn't write about it here.

So the one I chose for the week may actually have missed your radar. On Friday morning, the Daily News reported that they had gotten hold of a copy of a top secret Common Core test and had had a chance to review it. That lead to several pieces in Friday's edition about how hard the 5th grade ELA exam was (see here and here ).

The News' attention included this editorial piece, which said that the difficulty of the test was actually a good thing. As the they noted, tougher tests show that there are now higher standards and higher standards (from the Common Core) is something that we all want.
"most of the state’s children are ill prepared for this level of exam. The reason? They’ve never been asked to perform at this level"

I'm all for higher standards in the classroom and, although I have to admit to having a fairly deep ambivalence to the Common Core, I'm not yet prepared to say that the standards are unreasonably high. We need to give children a few years with the Common Core to see whether or not the CCSS help or hurt them (my daughter's Kindergarten curriculum is CC aligned and she seems to be liking it and doing well).

But let's at least be clear about what the CC Standards are: A set of formalized academic skills (representing a higher standard from what we now have) which increase with difficulty and challenge over the time of students' twelve-year public school career. And let's all be sane for just a moment, shall we?  Skills -I mean any skills- are inherently things that are built upon other skills which have already been learned. Think of the truisms about how you can't write until you learn to hold a pencil or how you have to crawl before you walk. Acquiring academic skills work a lot like that. After all, you can't write a 200 page thesis until you learn the alphabet, right? In this light, it may be better to understand the new 5th grade ELA exam as a test that assesses five full years of formalized learning along the Common Core Standards. Six if you count Kindergarten, which is CC aligned as well.

Here's the problem: These children have just started to learn to the Common Core this very year. They haven't had the five years that are required to build the skills which were necessary to actually succeed on this exam. So how is making them sit and take it anyway a good thing?

Imagine being asked to climb a ladder, only the first four rungs had been taken out and you had to begin on the fifth -and that fifth rung was really high. How would you pull yourself up to that level? What steps would you take in order to overcome the difficulty? Would it be fair to insist that you climb the ladder in the first place? Would you be confused?  Well, that's what students, and parents, and teachers, of fifth graders had to face last week. It's not like they were given a chance to climb the first four rungs and the fifth rung was just more challenging to get it. It's more like they had to start from the ground and find a way to get to the fifth rung of the ladder.

This reality -that students hadn't learned to Common Core standards in their previous years of school, but must now shift  right into them is something that has, in the past, been called the Common Core Gap. It refers to how the CC standards are going to implemented for students who will be asked to shift to their higher level mid-education. Overcoming this gap is probably a bit easier for, say, a third graders (who would only have to figure out how to traverse three rungs on the ladder)  than it would for students of higher grades. Imagine being a sixth grader -who had been learning the old fifth grade math last year, but are now, under the new Common Core, expected to jump straight to the level of pre-Alegbra (check out 6.NS.7.a on Kahn Academy). That's the Common Core Gap. In fact, students like my daughter who are now in Kindergarten, will be among the first group of students to have learned the Common Core skills from the beginning and will be the first ones who will not be facing any sort of Common Core Gap.

Those are the students who we should look to and say 'suck it up it's more challenging'. Not these children who, half way through their education, were expected to somehow jump up to the fifth rung of the Common Core ladder and succeed on a test which Aaron Pallas described as being on a sixth grade level and Diane Ravitch described as being on an eighth. That's not fair to them.

I mean forget the principals and forget the teachers and parents for a just a quick second; giving this test to fifth graders just wasn't fair to children.

So, while making students suddenly switch to the much higher Common Core standards at the start of fifth grade is a doenut, and while making them take a test that pretends they have been learning these incremental skills for several years when they have not is definitely a doenut , the DOEnut of the Week goes to the Daily News: For taking the position that being unfair to this group of children by having them take a test they were never given a chance to prepare for is somehow a good thing. Sorry guys. A step in the right direction doesn't automatically make it a good step

But Congratulations!! You just won a box of Entenmanns' Donuts! Let me me know where I can send them.

Pretty Cool Piece Over On Ednotes

This brief but really amazing piece from Ednotes is well worth the read. The last line is pretty powerful

 If you are out there and anonymous and fear the consequences, it may be time to move to the next step.
If you're reading my blog, then you've probably already seen the piece. I'm dropping this line to make sure you go back and watch the video.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

When They Fired George Washington

Yeah. You were suckered into clicking because I found this political cartoon and wanted to share it. Sorry.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Few Things About May Day You May Not Have Known

 NPR mentioned May Day in their afternoon news brief today. They mentioned the thousands of people who went on a one day strike in Istanbul and the thousands of people who did so in Havana, then mentioned the thousands of people who did so (wait for it) all across the (entire) United States! All Things Considered had a piece about how May Day is losing its significance (yikes!). That led me to decide to just throw a few (small) things out about May Day that you may not have known. Take them for what they're worth.

It's not a Communist or Socialist thing. I'm not a communist or a socialist and I love May Day. It is 'celebrated' (he-he) world wide as a one day worker strike, but it hasn't been  popular here in the US for some time now. The strike was intended to earn the eight hour work day for, you know, workers. It was originally the 1889 proposal of an American (Samuel Gompers who lead the AFL*), that started the whole May Day thing off. That's the year he wrote to the socialists in Paris wanting an eight-hour work day and together, they decided that the only way to get one was for the whole world to stop working. They chose May 1, 1890. There has been a one day strike (celebrating workers' rights) each year since.

 (Fun Fact: The UFT is an AFL-CIO affiliate).

Red is the chosen color for May Day. But that's not because of Communism or anything. It's because, traditionally, red symbolizes relationships among people (in this case, the perpetual relationship among workers of the, you know, whole entire world).

Now I know what you're thinking. You're thinking 'Na, they wear red because of Communism. It's all about Communists and stuff!'. Nope. Red is the symbol of relationships. That's why it's red on 2-14 and not blue or green or black and that's why I, as a filthy Capitalist, proudly wear the color of red with my union caucus, MORE , because the color (as well as the caucus) is built upon the relationships among workers to win and defend the rights of workers (speaking of which, I never got my shirt guys. I kind of need that).

Many people associate the day with the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago (that incident occurred on May 4th, during an attempt to take an eight-hour work day). Although that's not exactly an accurate association, I'll choose to mention it here because Haymarket is in Chicago and Chicago is where teachers have started to turn things around with regard to the reform movement.

That's right, the only strong, aggressive union representing teachers today is in Chicago; the CTU. (And, not for nothin', but their chosen color?  Red. #justsaying).

So if you think that May Day is some type of left-wing, commie or 'pinko' or, I don't know, Social Justice thing, you're actually wrong (oh, so wrong!). Now I understand where you would be confused. May Day features a whole mess of people from all over the world flying red flags (the one with Che at the top of this post is my favorite!). But it's not about that at all.

This is a day about workers' rights. It's a day for the little guy (millions and millions of little guys!). It's a trade unionists' kind of day. It's  a day to come together in protection for and on defense of the rights of people -in the workplace.

You know, folks like teachers.

(Update) *You know, the best moments in the labor history came when a leader somehow managed to thread the needle between the larger 'leftist' agenda and the much more pragmatic 'workers rights' agenda. Gompers started May Day to achieve an eight-hour day (clearly a workers' rights issue if ever there was one). But when he wanted it organized, it was the international socialists in Paris (folks who were clearly interested in a better world overall) who he reached out to. Just a thought.