Vergara East: How Politics, Education Policy and the Law Are Irrevocably Intertwined

The law suits challenging the New York State tenure law came before a judge in Staten Island; the judge combined the two suits and admitted the UFT as an intervener. Down the road the judge will undoubtedly admit other interveners who have the right to file briefs, and, to a limited extent participate in the argument. The suit will be defended by the Attorney-General of the State of New York under the leadership of Eric Schneiderman.

Once the preliminary motions are out of the way the state will make a motion to dismiss the suit and we will be off and running.

In the ideal world, if there ever was one, the suit will be decided on its merits; however, how do you define “merits”? By “merits” do you mean applying the law and relevant legal precedents? Do you mean putting your finger in the air to judge the political winds? Do you mean applying “common sense” and defending the “rights” of children in the classrooms of “ineffective” teachers?

In the real world I believe politics and the courts intersect.

Was the Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000) decision based on sound legal precedent or political party loyalty?

Remember the Citizens United (2010) decision?

The Supreme Court held in Citizens United that it was unconstitutional to ban free speech through the limitation of independent communications by corporations, associations, and unions …
… the ruling … removes[d] the previous ban on corporations and organizations using their treasury funds for direct advocacy. These groups were freed to expressly endorse or call to vote for or against specific candidates, actions that were previously prohibited

Was the Supreme Court decision, once again, based on sound legal precedents or political party loyalty?

In my mind there is no question that from the lowest courts to the highest court in the land politics enters into the decision-making process. No matter what judges say, or do not say at their confirmation hearings or political campaigns (Supreme Court justices in New York State are elected) their life experiences and political loyalties impact decisions.

In 1803 Chief Justice John Marshall, in Marbury v. Madison, seized power away from the executive and legislative branches, creating the concept of judicial review, granting power to justices to invalidate laws made by the legislative and executive branches.

the Constitution was “the fundamental and paramount law of the nation” and that “an act of the legislature repugnant to the constitution is void.” In other words, when the Constitution–the nation’s highest law–conflicts with an act of the legislature, that act is invalid. This case establishes the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review.

How will the anti-tenure law suit be decided? By that I mean the legal and the political influences.

Forum Shopping:

Why would the litigants file the suit in Staten Island? Probably because Staten Island is more conservative, more Republican, the litigants may feel there is less judicial sympathy for the issue of tenure. Who are the greatest enemies of tenure: Republicans or Democrats? The Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) are strongly opposed to tenure and Davis Boies, one of the lead attorneys for the litigants is also a lifelong liberal Democrat. Staten Island is also the home to many public employees, again, maybe more sympathetic to job protections – ultra liberal Manhattan may have been a better choice to file the suit,

Eric Schneiderman: The Governor in Waiting:

If Governor Cuomo left the Albany mansion the prime candidate-successor would clearly be the Attorney General. In a possible primary election and a November general election Schneiderman would love to have the avid support of the 600,000 member New York State United Teachers, not just a mechanical endorsement but credit for defeating the assault on tenure. Schneiderman has a lot at stake: winning or losing can determine his political future.

Judges and Politics in New York State:

Supreme Court justices in New York State are elected, Appellate and Court of Appeals justices are appointed by the Governor with the consent of the Senate. In New York State “elected” usually means being selected by the geographic party in power and perhaos running in a primary election. Republicans and Democrats in New York State, for the most part, have a cozy relationship, not the acrimony you see at national level. Judges are creatures of the political power structure.

The “Sound Basic Education” Burden

The NYS Constitution states, “the legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.” … usually referred to as “… a sound basic education.” The Campaign for Fiscal Equity (2003) decision found that “a sound basic education” consisted of “the basic literacy, calculating, and verbal skills necessary to enable children to eventually function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury.” Does the current tenure law prevent students from receiving a “sound basic education” as defined by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) decision? The CFE case took a dozen years, and was argued, pro bono, by Simpson Thatcher, of the most prestigious law firms in the city and the question of education funding inequities has been subject to litigation since the seventies. (Levittown v. Nyquist). In my view the current anti-tenure litigation is not ripe ( “a claim is not ripe for adjudication if it rests upon contingent future events that may not occur as anticipated, or indeed may not occur at all.”) it will take years before we know whether the new tenure law achieves its purpose.

Tenure in New York State and Annual Professional Performance Review:

New York State has totally revised the method of assessing teacher performance as well as dismissing teachers. The State guidance document is 166-pages with scores of links. School districts can prefer charges against teachers who have received “ineffective” ratings for two consecutive years. At this point we have no idea how many teachers fall into the two consecutive ineffective ratings category. For teachers in New York City we will not have data until next year.

In New York City well under 100 teachers were charged with incompetence for the 12-13 school year; however about 40% of teachers had their probation extended and over 40% of teachers leave voluntarily within five years. Perhaps retaining “effective” teachers is more crucial than dismissing “ineffective” teachers.

Reticence of Lower Courts to “Make Law” and the Prerogatives of the Legislative and Executive Branches:

I don’t remember the last time a New York State court ruled a law unconstitutional. Federal judges are appointed for life; they can only be removed, impeached, for misconduct. State judges are elected or on the Appellate level appointed by the governor. Judicial candidates are selected by their political party, very occasionally run in a contested primary, and run on a party line in the November election. If both houses of the legislature and the governor support a bill and convert it to a law it would be a heavy lift for a judge to challenge the legislative and executive branches. Yes, a Republican or a liberal Democratic judge might want to embarrass the Governor, a potential presidential candidate; although it is unlikely.

The anti-tenure gang achieved their purpose – they created a national discussion over tenure and incompetent teachers – they ate up the air – how many print media lines? Op ed articles? How many hours of TV time devoted to the question of tenure? The unions have been trying to turn the conversation to collaborative schools, to community schools with wraparound services, to Universal Pre-Kindergarten, with only limited success. Newspapers are extremely conscious of “clicks per article” and the negative article collects more “clicks” than the “feel good” story. Female teachers having sexual encounters with male students garner far more ink than a student winning a prestigious scholarship.

Edwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law and Catherine Fisk, a professor at UC Irvine School of Law, write,

” …the kinds of reforms that school officials, teachers’ unions, education policy experts and legislatures should design through discussion. It is judicial activism of the worst sort for a trial judge to do so alone.”

I believe the California Vergara decision will be reversed and the New York State anti-decision may be dismissed before trial.

Hopefully we can move forward to debate issues that truly impact teaching and learning.

“I’ll Show You Mine If You Show Me Yours … I Promise Not to Tell Anyone,” (Teacher Evaluation Scores are Released to Teachers/Principals)

Teachers flocked back to school on the Tuesday after Labor Day and aside from greeting colleagues each teacher and principal received their score under the state teacher/principal evaluation plan.

The system, called Advance, is described by the department,

Advance, New York City’s new system of teacher evaluation and development, was designed to provide the City’s teachers with accurate feedback on their performance and the support necessary to improve their practice, with the goal of improved student outcomes to ensure all students graduate college and career ready.

Though Advance was formally established on June 1, 2013 in alignment with the New York State Education Department’s education law 3012-c on teacher and school leader performance reviews, its design was informed by three years of pilot work in New York City’s schools. Advance uses multiple measures – including observations of classroom practice, review of teachers’ artifacts, student outcome data, and student feedback – to provide teachers, school leaders, and families with a more accurate understanding of teacher effectiveness than ever before.

As reported by Chalkbeat,

Ninety-eight percent of teachers statewide received top ratings, “effective” or “highly effective,” on the 60 percent of their evaluations made up primarily of observations, the data shows. Less than 1 percent of teachers earned the lowest rating on their observations.

Nearly nine times as many teachers, or about 4 percent, received low ratings on the 40 percent of their evaluations that use a combination of state and local tests.

Under the former “S” or “U,” satisfactory or unsatisfactory system, 2.7%, of teachers received a “U rating” for the 12-13 school year.

The percent of teachers in New York City rated “unsatisfactory/ineffective” dropped to 1%.for the 2013-14 school year.

There is a new two-level system of appeals of “ineffective” (“U”) ratings in New York City.

There are two different types of appeals in the new evaluation system: chancellor’s appeals and panel appeals. All teachers are entitled to a chancellor’s appeal. After talking to you and reviewing your forms and supporting documentation, the UFT will determine whether your case may be appropriate for a panel appeal.

Chancellor’s appeals

A hearing office from the DOE’s Office of Appeals and Review, the same office that hears U rating appeals, will hear your case. Unlike the U rating appeals process, which can drag on for months, the DOE hearing officer has 30 days to issue a decision in a chancellor’s appeal.

Panel appeals

The union can identify up to 13 percent of all Ineffective ratings each year to challenge on grounds of harassment or reasons not related to job performance.

These cases will be heard by a three-member panel comprised of a person selected by the DOE, a person selected by the UFT, and a neutral arbitrator.

While the number of teacher rated unsatisfactory exceeded 2000 in the 12-13 school year the number of teachers who faced dismissal charges for incompetence was under 100.

It is baffling that the Bloomberg administration did not vigorously pursue charges of imcompetence against teachers, in fact, department lawyers discouraged principals.

The new law (State Education Law 3012c) sets forth a process in which two consecutive ineffective ratings, and, if the year two independent validator agrees, the school district may bring dismissal charges,

If a teacher receives an ineffective rating for a school year in
which the teacher is in year two status and the independent validator
agrees, the district may bring a proceeding pursuant to sections three
thousand twenty and three thousand twenty-a of this article based on a
pattern of ineffective teaching or performance. In such proceeding, the
charges shall allege that the employing board has developed and
substantially implemented a teacher improvement plan in accordance with
subdivision four of this section for the employee following the
evaluation made for the year in which the employee was in year one
status and was rated ineffective. The pattern of ineffective teaching or
performance shall give rise to a rebuttable presumption of incompetence
and if the presumption is not successfully rebutted, the finding, absent
extraordinary circumstances, shall be just cause for removal.

One of the major criticisms of the new system is the instability of the scores. The swings in individual teacher scores can vary significantly from year to year – the bottom line: the 1% of teachers who received “ineffective” ratings in the 12-13 school year may NOT be the same teachers who received an “ineffective” rating for the 13-14 school year.

Since the students change every year and some teachers change grades taught the supposed impact of teachers on students can vary widely. If a teacher receives an “ineffective” rating due to low student scores on state tests a legal challenge may be sustained. Additionally an unanswerable question: is there a consistency in scoring among supervisory observers? Yes, all supervisors in New York City use the Danielson Frameworks; do they see lessons through the same lens? We don’t know.

The core question: does the evaluation score assist the teacher in improving their practice? The answer is a resounding “no.” Hopefully the principal meets with the teacher after every observation and informally during the school year and coaches the teacher; for example. does the lesson foster higher order thinking skills? Do questions move up the ladder from recall to analysis to comparison to inference to evaluation?

However, the grades on student tests scores (20%) and the local measures (20%) are baffling, neither teachers nor supervisors can tell a teacher why they got their grade and how the grade can be used for improvement.

Perhaps the 35% of New York State democratic voters who cast ballots for Zephyr Teachout will impact the Governor’s education policy … perhaps a teacher evaluation plan that both assesses practice and assists teachers in getting better.

Why Did Teachout Lose? Musing on the Realities of Politics and Elections

Let me ask a question: how many readers who were vigorous supporters of Zephyr Teachout donated to her campaign or volunteered a few days to work in her campaign?

You win campaigns with Money (intelligently spent) and Get Out the Vote (GOTV).

Bloomberg in 2009 outspent Bill Thompson many times over and Bill de Blasio in 2013 spent his dollars wisely.

If every teacher who voted for Teachout contributed $100 and three days of volunteer work the election results may have been different.

Who are the electorate in a Democratic primary election? The electorate is prime and super prime voters and issue-oriented voters. Read a superb primer on elections:

On September 3rd I was at a major event – Farina, Mulgrew, Tisch, King and a few others were on a panel – hundreds in the audience. At the reception I was introduced to a State Senatorial candidate, an education advocate, passionate about school issues, endorsed by a range of important names – I thought, “What is he doing at an education panel in Manhattan – why wasn’t he at a bus stop in his district handing at buttons and ‘meeting and greeting’ voters in his district?.” BTW, he lost.

Two long time incumbents under indictment were running for re-election. In Queens Leroy Comrie – a term limited City Councilman defeated the incumbent – Malcolm Smith – who is awaiting trial. Across the border in Brooklyn Del Smitherman, endorsed by Cuomo, de Blasio and the two biggest unions (1199 and 32BJ) lost to the incumbent – John Sampson. In fact, the union endorsed did not do well in the hotly contested elections.

High profile endorsements as well as endorsements by unions help, but by no means guarantees an election.

You win elections because:

• name recognition – you spend your time attending community meetings, civic and block associations, planning boards, senior citizens centers, religious organizations, ethnic or home country organizations, chatting, answering a few questions …

A candidate popular with the “progressives,” the Working Families Party lost, the supporters whined, “the machine” beat us…

Actually the folks who know how to win elections beat the guys and gals weren’t willing to do the grunt work – licking envelopes and knocking on doors.

• The power of local politics – endorsements closest to home: letters from a block association endorsing your candidacy because you got a stop light on the corner of the school block, from the cricket team to members thanking you for getting the parks department to establish a cricket field, offering free flu shots in your office, a legal services clinic for immigrants, a Medicare informational meeting, etc. “All politics is local.”

• Building consensus one voter at a time and the pulse of the electorate – what are the local interests? Supporting the Dream Act, limiting “stop and frisk,” supporting Israel, supporting medical marijuana, choosing to support policy issues that reflect the electorate in your district.

If the 35% of primary voters who bubbled in Teachout on the ballot also supported with their pocketbooks and time we may have seen the politicl upset of the young century.

Cuomo versus Teachout: Do You Know Anyone Who’s Voting for Andrew Cuomo?

If you’re reading this blog you might not know anyone who is voting for Andrew Cuomo.

Teachers abhor the Governor.

The 2% property tax cap has both led to an endless succession of budget cuts in the low wealth districts and made it extremely difficult to negotiate contracts around the state. The teacher evaluation law was driven by Cuomo, the rejection of the de Blasio plan to establish a tax base for the pre-k initiative and his recent unabashed support of charter schools over the objection of the New York City mayor has angered teachers.

The enormous drop in the Common Core state tests angered parents across the state.

The New York Times did not make an endorsement; neither did the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the powerful 600,000 member union.

Yet pollsters brush Teachout aside.

Capital New York writes,

The consensus estimate among Albany’s political professionals seems to be that Teachout will win around 20 percent of the vote, plus or minus five points. There has always been liberal dissatisfaction with Cuomo—the governor casts himself as a Solomonic centrist who can get things done in once-chaotic Albany—which, generically, is worth about a quarter of the electorate.

After some prompts, a private poll taken by the Working. Families Party to judge support for a Teachout stand-in—a fictional candidate named Teresa Woodstock—gauged support for a left-flank Cuomo challenger at 23 percent. But that was before Teachout herself began to run for anything.

The governor’s campaign is now trying to set a higher mark for Teachout. A Cuomo official told the Buffalo News earlier this week that “any protest candidate is going to get in the low- to mid-high 20s,” and the paper reported “Cuomo operatives were suggesting Teachout could get as much as 30 percent of the vote.”

The Times Union agrees,

Political handicappers, however, predict she’ll garner between 20 and 30 percent of the vote
Against Cuomo, Teachout has “the potential not to beat him, not to even come close, but to embarrass him,” said Mickey Carroll, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll…

Larry Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies, backed that up. “Twenty or 30 percent wouldn’t be shocking, but it also wouldn’t mean anything,” he said. ” … So few people will be involved in this election that, short of an outright upset, it will tell you very little about her strength and very little about (Cuomo’s) weaknesses.”

The Working Families Party (WFP) in New York State is in reality the far left wing of the Democratic Party. The WFC is funded by labor unions, primarily 1199 (hospital and health care workers) and 32 BJ (workers in apartment buildings – janitors, etc.). In local elections, both primaries and in general elections the WFP both endorse candidates and provides boots on the ground. Zephyr Teachout was seeking the WFP endorsement – she would have led a third party slate in the general, the November election. Cuomo, and the unions, twisted arms to defeat Teachout at the WFP convention – she did get 42% of the delegates. She then sought to oppose Cuomo in the Democratic primary on September 9th. Surprisingly she collected the requisite number of petition signature and survived challenges by Cuomo’s legal team.

Teachout’s problem is a lack of dollars – I’ve received five mailing from Cuomo and three robo calls, one robo call from Teachout. The sages expect the usual low turnout in primary elections – maybe 500- 750,000 of the five million plus possible voters. Upstate Teachout is virtually invisible, and, many Democrats are right of center and support the property tax cap.

I was at a teacher meeting a few weeks ago and the teachers were enthusiastically supporting Teachout – I asked my normal baseline question: are you a registered democrat? The young teacher informed me anyone can vote in a primary – it was useless to argue – he was convinced – and what could an old guy like me know? Of course New York State law requires primary voters to be registered in their party a year before the date of the primary.

Andrew Cuomo is the anti-politician – his website, each and every day, lists “The Governor will be in New York City (or Albany) with no public schedule.” He never gives interviews, he gives highly scripted speeches and he’s despised by members of the state legislature. He rules Albany with an iron hand. He is a social liberal and an economic conservative, sort of. Every policy he supports or opposes seems to be poll driven, to be driven by a careful look at the route to the democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

Don’t scoff.

If Hillary decides not to run, who would be the democratic candidate? Is Elizabeth Warren too far to the left? Is Jerry Brown too old? Is there a Clinton-like democrat hiding in the South or the Midwest? A Governor? How about a socially liberal, economic conservative? And, Zephyr Teachout may be standing in the way of a run for the presidency.

Does Teachout have a chance?

It’s up to you … it’s up to the voters … and if enough teachers, parents and WFPer loyalists trek to the polls … who knows?

And, besides, Zephyr Teachout is a great name. and Teachout would reinvigorate the democratic party.

Vocational Ed (CTE) Requires the Same Skills as College Readiness: Jobs in the 21st Century are High-Skilled or “Do You Want Fries with That?”

I’m sure you’ve heard someone say,

“S/he’s not ‘college material,’ maybe they’d do well in a vocational ed program.”

Three or four decades ago that comment might make sense, after all semi-skilled union jobs were plentiful, High schools divided students into the regents track and the local diploma track: the Regents Competency Exam was a low skill test which was the path to graduation for most kids. As the world changed the union jobs moved off shore and the job-skills gap widened, the local diploma was a path to nowhere. The workplace consisted of jobs that required a college degree or high skills, or, minimum wage service industry jobs.

In the mid-nineties the members of the Board of Regents took a brave step – in the face of enormous criticism they began the process to phase out the local diploma and create a regents-only path to graduation. In the phase-in period the regents passing score was reduced from 65 to 55 and the plan was to increase the passing score to 65 one subject at a time – it took twelve years.

While the Regents were raising standards the commissioner was lowering standards – from 2006 to 2010 state tests scores increased precipitously. Newly selected Chancellor Tisch and newly hired Commissioner David Steiner blew the whistle – a new test was created and the scores dropped by 20 points.

The push-pull between the Regents and the Commissioner raising standards and local school officials finding ways to dance around the “rules” became commonplace. Kids who couldn’t pass courses were allowed to complete an online course that might take a few hours, the six-hour/two day English Regents exam was reduced to one day and the passing rate soared, on numerous occasions regents exams were scaled to increase passing rates.

The Regents and the Commissioner want to increase standards, produce kids who are more capable of entering the more demanding workforce and local superintendents fearing drops in test scores and graduation rates could jeopardize their jobs, advocate ways to get around or change the rules

Unfortunately the illusion that kids with academic difficulties will thrive in a vocational education setting continues. (Vocational Education, aka “Voc Ed,” is now referred to as “Career and Technical Education,” aka as CTE). In fact, one could argue that college is the default for kids who can’t make it in a CTE program. The current high school diploma requires students to pass 44 credits and five regents exams – for a diploma with CTE endorsement – an additional 10-12 credits in a specific CTE area.

There are three types of CTE programs:

The BOCES Model:

The student attends his or her regular district high school and takes the CTE courses at a regional BOCES site – the district pays the BOCES a set amount for each student. This is the “standard model” outside of New York City. In these trying financial times low wealth districts do not want to incur additional costs and the CTE option is frequently not encouraged.

The Stand-Alone Model:

Scattered around the state we can find CTE schools – unfortunately the thirty or so CTE high schools in New York City have been reduced sharply as school after school was closed for poor performance. The department did open a school for the construction trades a few years ago, and, a few of the new small high schools claim CTE status (one for film making, another for media and advertising), the total number of CTE seats, both in New York City and around the state have declined sharply, primarily due to the cost of the creation and maintenance of the CTE programs.

The Strand Model:

Large high school might have a CTE strand in the school, for example Park West High School, a 2000 plus seat comprehensive high school had a 60-student elevator repair program in the school. As the large high schools closed the strands disappeared.

Both New York City and the state make it extremely difficult to begin a CTE strand within a school. A few years ago I worked with a few small schools exploring the possibility – the city appeared clueless and the state rigid. A principal related to me he wanted to start an engineering strand in his school – he spoke with state ed – since his proposed course of study included physics and calculus the state told the principal those courses were not appropriate for an engineering CTE strand. Yes, I am just as baffled.

The state is making every effort to ease the path for CTE students – a few months ago the regulations were changed to allow for “integrated credits,” perhaps combining an engineering class and a math class and the kid would receive dual credits.

The Chancellor just announced a proposal referred to as 4 + 1, instead of the five required regents exams a student could take four regents exams and, if I understand the proposal, substitute a CTE certification for the fifth regents. (See Chalkbeat article here).

With proper safeguards “Multiple Pathways to Graduation” makes sense – in addition the state should explore increasing the portfolio option – especially for categories of student Students With Disabilities.

The Commissioner constantly references “college and career ready,” and the state defines “college ready” as grades of 75 on the English Regents and 80 on the Algebra 1 Regents – how does the state define “career ready”?

It doesn’t.

David T. Conley is the recognized expert, writes,

In 2005, Professor David T. Conley of the University of Oregon published a groundbreaking book: College Knowledge: What It Really Takes for Students to Succeed and What We Can Do to Get Them Ready. At the time, plenty of people were talking about the importance of getting more low-income and minority students through high school and college. The tech boom and global competition increased the demand for more highly skilled workers, and scholars also noticed that adults in the lowest-income neighborhoods had not benefited significantly from the Clinton-era jobs boom. Any effort to improve the lives of the next generation would require an improved high school degree and higher-quality college or training.

Conley’s book offered an important new perspective: kids needed to be prepared academically (e.g., have solid writing, math and analytical skills), socially (e.g., able to manage their time and hold their own in a competitive class) and culturally (e.g., able to resist outside attractions or demands and willing to study for long hours),

Success in college could offer a leap in economic status for many students. Even if students weren’t interested in college, he noted, college preparatory skills and habits were important for landing a good, living-wage job out of high school.

At a presentation to the members of the Board of Regents two students made presentations – they were in a CTE Welding program – welding (???) – Why are we teaching kids a nineteenth century skill?

I was speaking to the president of a construction trades union – he was skilled in the same trade as his father and grandfather – he lamented that his son would not follow in his footsteps. He explained that building materials were pre-cut and pre-drilled to exact standards by robotic machines in factories overseas and building was now more like a giant Lego set – with many fewer employees, and fewer union jobs.

According to Governor Cuomo the future of upstate New York are high tech companies – are we graduating kids with the skills to be employed in these high tech companies?

The answer is a resounding, No!

The math skills necessary for a high tech company? Algebra 2

The students we’re are targeting as potential employees are having trouble passing Algebra 1.

Career and Technical Education is not for an “escape” for kids who are struggling in academic classes.

Are we teaching “coding” in elementary schools?

How many computer science certified teachers are we producing? None – because the certification area does not exist.

How many colleges have elementary school teacher preparation programs with mathematics concentrations?

Do our current curricula emphasize “analytical skills”?

Are the Common Core tests encouraging teachers to teach “College and Career Readiness” skills or does test prep engulf all?

The 4 + 1 proposal, if it isn’t used as a ploy to get around regents exams, is benign, more important, is the state both encouraging and assisting schools and school districts to establish relevant CTE programs, not acting as a gatekeeper and discouraging moving into the 21st century.

Kids entering kindergarten today will graduate college, if college is still relevant, and find categories of jobs that have not yet been created.

Remember Moore’s Law?(

What the First Grade Says About the Rest of Your Life, and How We Change Destiny

Teachers are flooding back to school today: a new contract, a new chancellor, no new school closings, and no ill-conceived new ideas, and, yes, there are grades aside from pre-kindergarten, the one very high profile new initiative.

For the first time in a dozen years we have a mayor and a chancellor who understand the “tale of two cities,” many families in New York City as well as around the state who live in poverty while others bask in luxury.

In the press release that accompanied the release of the state test scores Commissioner King wrote,

“Although there is some correlation between 2014 math and ELA performance and poverty, there are many examples of schools outperforming demographically similar peer schools.”

(See for a list of higher achieving schools and higher growth schools at both higher and lower levels of wealth.)

A quick scan shows us that many of the low wealth/higher achieving schools are screened schools, i.e., principals choose their students. It would make much sense to use “zip code by poverty” than Title 1 eligibility.

There is no question that occasionally a high poverty school “beats the odds,” and, the Education Trust has written extensively about the qualities of these schools (“Yes We Can: Dispelling Myths About Race and Education in America, September 2006″).

If we analyze how the “beat the odds” schools differ from other high poverty schools:

School Leadership: There are endless college programs that grant school leadership certificates – unfortunately the candidates are not exemplary – even the highly touted New York City Leadership Academy does not uniformly produce highly successful principals. School leadership determines school quality and the evidence of the qualities of highly effective school leaders is still elusive. Nature or nurture? Are highly effective principals the result of excellent training programs or inherent qualities? A leadership gene? Growing up in a household that fostered qualities that lead to the qualities of effective leadership?

Teaching-learning synergy: We measure the quality of the teacher and we measure student outcomes, it is still difficult to understand why some teachers are simply more successful than other teachers. The Gates Measures of Effective Teaching Study videotaped thousands of lessons without identifying that “certain something” that could be replicated classroom to classroom.

Reflective teaching: Teachers who regularly ask themselves, from lesson to lesson, from day to day, what was effective, what was not, how can I change the elements of my lesson to make them more effective? Mike Schmoker calls these “checks for understanding,” teachers who do not wait for kids to change, teachers who realize that teaching impacts learning and, unchanged teaching practice that do not change outcomes must be altered.

The union and the contract as partners, not obstacles: In an increasing number of schools the school leadership includes the UFT chapter leader; in some the school leader and the union leadership are at odds. In some schools union chapters use the contract clauses to allow for flexibility in others the contract is used to prevent school leadership initiatives.

True collegiality and collaboration: .Some principals are actually instructional leaders, they lead professional development, they teach demonstration lessons and they have earned the respect of the staff and the student body; however, too few principals possess the skills to actually lead.

With all of these elements the progress may not reflect in dramatically higher test scores. The progress may be measured in fewer suspensions, better attendance and less lateness, more students doing homework, more students engaged in lessons, moving from high level one to low level two is progress.

Yes, there are outliers, there are a few schools with that special combination of school leadership and staff, a combination that is exceptionally difficult to replicate, a combination that may make progress, progress that may not result in a majority of students on level three or higher.

For too many kids in spite of the yeoman efforts of school leaders and teachers geography is destiny.

The Washington Post reports on the end of a twenty-five year study

For 25 years, the authors of The Long Shadow tracked the life progress of a group of almost 800 predominantly low-income Baltimore school children … The authors’ fine-grained analysis confirms that the children who lived in more cohesive neighborhoods, had stronger families, and attended better schools tended to maintain a higher economic status later in life. Combining original interviews with Baltimore families, teachers, and other community members with the empirical data gathered from the authors’ groundbreaking research, The Long Shadow unravels the complex connections between socioeconomic origins and socioeconomic destinations to reveal a startling and much-needed examination of who succeeds and why.

The Russell Sage Foundation writes,

“We like to think that education is an equalizer — that through it, children may receive the tools to become entrepreneurs when their parents were unemployed, lawyers when their single moms had 10th-grade educations. But [the researchers] kept coming back to one data point: the 4 percent of disadvantaged children who earned college degrees by age 28 … education did not appear to provide a dependable path to stable jobs and good incomes for the worst off.

The story is different for children from upper-income families, who supplement classroom learning with homework help, museum trips and college expectations. [the researchers] found one exception: Low-income white boys attained some of the lowest levels of education. But they earned the highest incomes among the urban disadvantaged.”

Let me repeat: only 4% of the disadvantaged children earned college degrees by the age of 28 – among the “urban disadvantaged” white males earned the highest incomes.

Race and class, not education, was the determinant as far as stable jobs and good income are concerned.

We have a mayor, a chancellor and some members of the Regents who understand that education, teaching and learning, cannot be separated from the realities of day to day life. The governor and the legislature and mayors have to work to lessen the “tale of two cities,” the electeds must create jobs and affordable housing and health care.

How about equalizing the district to district disparity in funding? How about encouraging policies that integrate instead of segregating schools? How about understanding that the teacher evaluation process (APPR) is fatally flawed? And, how about creating a testing system that is useful to parents and teachers instead of responding to federal mandates?

Perhaps in a school year without the acrimony of the last decade we can begin to both acknowledge the need for working on the economic inequities and creating more effective schools.

Bad Dreams, Nightmares, Nausea as the First Day of School Approaches for Teachers

Mother: “Johnny, wake up, you’ll be late to school.”
Johnny: “I don’t want to go – the kids hate me, the teachers hate me.”
Mother: “you have to go – you’re the principal.

What happened to the summer? It seemed like yesterday that teachers were poised on the last day of school. For some, a few days off and teaching summer school – gotta pay off those student loans or pay for the wedding. For others back to school yourself to finish up the college credits needed for certification, and, a few flying off to faraway places – to hike the Himalayas or bike across Europe or taking an intensive Spanish class in Central America.

Eight short weeks later the days are getting shorter and the anxiety begins.

“The last few nights I woke up in a cold sweat – what a vivid dream! I had the lowest teacher evaluation score in the school and the other teachers were laughing at me.”

Another teacher, “I keep stressing out about how my kids did on the state tests – I’ve avoided calling my principal – I’m so nervous and it’s driving me nuts.”

A teacher tells me she wants to file a grievance -the principal changed her room. “I’ve been in the room for six years – it’s my room – s/he can’t do that!!”

As the clock ticks down teachers, all teachers, from the first year rookies to the veterans, the pulse beats more quickly, the stomach churns, you try and think of everything – you want that opening day to be perfect.

Many elementary school teachers were in this week working on their rooms – getting ready for the all- important first day. Other schools are spending a day at a staff retreat – working on curriculum maps.

Principals have been in since Monday – dealing with endless e-requests for this or that “compliance” document.

A principal: “The first email I opened was from a math teacher – she apologized for the late notice – she was leaving for another job – I wished her well, and have been scrambling to find a replacement.” Another principal recounted a call from a probation officer – two kids were being released from incarceration and assigned to his school – he was less than joyful.

Teaching is moments of exaltation and moments of misery.

It’s hard to describe that feeling when a tyke wraps his arms around you and whispers, “I love you.” That moment when the light bulb goes off – the kid’s face lights up as he grasps the concept.

A day later a kid cries all day – a parent left, or, his family had to move, again. Her clothes are scruffy and dirty every day – how do you bring in clothes without embarrassing her or her family?

Each teacher is a tiny peg in the 1.1 million student system – the “powers that be” are interested in the mega-scene – those test scores and graduation rates – as a teacher you are singularly focused on the smiling faces each and every day, as a principal you are part psychologist, part social worker, part coach and part disciplinarian – leading a school community and protecting the staff from the frequent insanities of the Tweed plutocracy.

If you read the press you wonder if the New York City school system is only Universal Pre-K, if you’re in the trenches, it’s the first year without a mayor and chancellor trashing the union and the profession – no “dumb” ideas – a chancellor who actually likes teachers.

We’ll be getting off to a good start … can the system keep up the momentum? … can the chancellor and the union keep working together? can the education community find better school assessment metrics? and, the bottom line: will the “new relationship” lead to better results?