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Tracking the city’s education policy promises

In the Atlantic's profile of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he touted a system for tracking how well elected officials fulfill their campaign promises by the end of their terms. Then he said the news media don’t do enough of this:

And the thing that I find the most frustrating is that the Fourth Estate never picks up on it. They’ll write a story about those things that you said were a dumb idea, or those things that didn’t work, and never give you any credit for the other things. And never hold other elected officials to task. 

Recently, GothamSchools did just that with Bloomberg’s school policies for the 2011-2012 academic year. We looked at every policy promise made by Bloomberg or top Department of Education officials in the past year and wrote about how much had been accomplished, started, tabled, and pushed aside. Here are parts 1, 2, and 3.

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One morning in a OneGoal class at a Chicago high school I watched as the school’s college counselor ran through a list of increasingly obscure scholarships.

"Is anyone here Greek?" she asked. Twenty-five black and Latino faces looked back at her skeptically. "Do we have any multiracial students?" she asked hopefully.

"Yeah," replied one impeccably dressed African American boy, deadpan. "South Side black and West Side black."

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— from Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed.

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"One of the first projects they do in math is measure the school. It causes them to go all over the building, so the first day in September, one out of three kids in every ninth grade class will know where the next room is. We want to alleviate a lot of that fear of the unknown."

—Phil Weinberg, the principal of Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology.

Like many city principals, he tries to offer a summer program to incoming ninth graders to give them a jump start on the transition from middle to high school. But funding the program is always a struggle, and only about a third of his incoming class can participate. 

(Source: gothamschools.org)

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Exploring ways to write about classroom instruction

I wrote a story on small changes to New York State’s mathematics teaching and learning standards, and it quickly became one of our most viewed stories ever.

This was a big surprise. The story is not especially sexy or political, but it is one of just a few journalistic looks at a national education policy that impacts teachers in almost every state: the adoption of the Common Core Standards. The lede and nut graphs are below:

This year, Jackie Xuereb is teaching her sixth grade math students how to add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators. But next year, new standards will call for students to know that information before they enter her class.

Xuereb, a sixth grade math teacher at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, is among the city math teachers preparing to swap the state’s learning standards for the Common Core this fall. And like many, she is struggling to keep the two sets of standards straight as the new standards move some topics an entire grade-level earlier than in the past.

"A lot of what used to be sixth grade standards are now taught in fifth grade," Xuereb said. "I feel that I’m going to have to be really mindful and cognizant of this in my planning for next year. The kids are going to have these huge gaps."

New York City piloted the Common Core standards in 100 schools last year and asked all teachers to practice working with them this year. Next year, every teacher in every elementary and middle school will be expected to teach to the new standards, and state tests will be based on them.

Department of Education officials have argued that a full-steam-ahead approach is required because moving slowly would deprive students of the Common Core’s long-overdue rigor. But some say that this approach will pose a special challenge for math teachers, particularly in the middle school years, as students begin learning advanced concepts that build on each other sequentially.

(Read the rest here)

Since becoming an education reporters, I’ve found one of the toughest parts of the job is writing about classroom instruction. I’m not trained to observe teachers or judge their methods and I’ve never taught, so I’m trying to find creative ways to tell readers, many of whom are teachers, what others are doing in the classroom.

Here’s another recent attempt—a “live-blog” of an eighth grade math class, with corresponding commentary from the teacher, who recapped the lesson with me after class.

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Story: Facing outcry from educators, Kenneth Cole to remove billboard

I’m happy if the stories I write help readers think differently or more deeply about a subject—whether it’s a school, a neighborhood or a policy issue. But usually the impact is invisible.

Less so with the piece I wrote last week about a clothing billboard ad near Harlem. The response to the billboard, and my story, from hundreds of educators, union leaders and advocates prompted the clothing company to remove the ad

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Story: In pursuit of college readiness, a course about “Assimilation”

Mitch Kurz is a math teacher and a college counselor, but the lessons he teaches don’t fall neatly into either subject area.

He and I spoke recently for a story I wrote for GothamSchools about the college readiness class he teaches at a small, South Bronx public school:

"On a recent winter morning, Kurz asked students in his college readiness class to describe their dreams. On the board, he wrote, “What do your dreams mean?” followed by “Sigmund Freud” and a list of vocabulary words more typical of a Psychology 101 class: id, ego, superego.

Most of Kurz’s two dozen South Bronx juniors and seniors had not heard of these concepts before. But after a semester learning a hodgepodge of lessons from Kurz meant to ease the transition to college — covering everything from the dreidel game, to basic French, to the elevator pitch — students say they come into class expecting the unfamiliar.

The class, which Kurz calls “Assimilation,” is meant to ease the transition to college for students at the Bronx Center for Science and Math, a small school with many poor students who would be the first in their families to attend college. The school emphatically urges all graduates to enroll in college, and the vast majority do — but they suffer the same academic and financial challenges that low-income, first-generation students often face. Nationally, 89 percent of those students who enter college leave without a degree within six years.”

Increasing students’ likelihood of graduating from college has emerged as a major frontier in education policy. The city’s approach is to toughen high school preparation so students have a better shot of handling the rigor of college-level work. Others, such as the KIPP network of charter schools, believe the problem lies more in students’ capacity to handle challenges and have developed programs to bolster traits such as resilience and “grit” that seem correlated with college success.

At Kurz’s school, academic standards are important, and so is character. But Kurz adds an additional approach.

Read More

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Story: Software-themed school aims to replicate Stuy curriculum for all

Computers are cool now, right? This is what the venture capitalist Fred Wilson asked me this last week, when I interviewed him about his ambitious plans to recreate the rigorous Stuyvesant High School computer science curriculum in a new, software engineering-themed public school opening this fall. Unlike Stuy, which is a hyper competitive specialized school, the Academy for Software Engineering will be “limited unscreened” which is basically education jargon for “open to any student, regardless of their academic performance.”

In Room 307 of Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School, 23 students spent a recent afternoon copying tables and number trees representing a mathematical problem-solving technique used in graphic design computer software.

The students, who all won admission to Stuyvesant by posting top scores on an entrance exam, listened raptly as their teacher, Mike Zamansky, walked them through the complex algorithm behind “seam-carving,” a process used in resizing images. Then Zamansky checked to make sure they understood.

“No problem? Seems reasonable? or ‘Huh’?” he asked, offering students the chance to signal by a show of thumbs whether they understood or needed more help. No one pointed a thumb down.

Zamansky has been teaching computer science since 1995, through a program he designed for students to follow from sophomore to senior year. Stuyvesant’s program is the only rigorous computer science sequence in the city’s public schools and one of the few in the country.

Now it is the inspiration behind a new city high school that aims to change that.

Founded by an influential venture capitalist with deep ties to the technology industry and a young principal fresh from the city’s training program, the Academy for Software Engineering will be the city’s first school to focus on software engineering. The goal is to extend the approach of Zamansky’s classes — which teach problem-solving, network communications, and programming language literacy — to any student in the city, even if they can’t make the cut for Stuyvesant or don’t even have a computer at home.

Read the rest here.

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Experimenting with Storify as archive for live-tweets

This afternoon I created a Storify account for GothamSchools to archive my live-tweets from the March 1 Panel for Educational Policy meeting. I embedded it on the GS website, and here after the jump.

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How does the shape of a polygon change as one of its angles widens? What is an “acute angle”? Do you need help using a protractor?

These are questions Aisha Chappell wishes she could individually ask each of her 33 tenth-grade geometry students when they split into small groups to perform a hands-on project about angles and symmetry.

In the past, it would have been a challenge for Chappell to circle her classroom at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School and address each of her students’ needs during individual or group work time. But this year Chappell has three teaching assistants to navigate the room with her. Read More…

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To shake middle schools from mediocrity, the city is turning to school reform strategies it considers tried and true.

In the next two years, the Department of Education will close low-performing middle schools, open brand-new ones, add more charter schools, and push more teachers and principals through in-house leadership programs, Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced today in a 30-minute policy speech, the first of his six-month tenure. Read More…

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As a Bronx elementary school principal, Drema Brown routinely encountered students who were struggling to complete schoolwork without adequate health care, a stable address, or even electricity.

Challenges like those held Brown back from boosting academic achievement. Even worse, she said, she couldn’t solve the problems wrought by poverty, either.

“I might take it for granted that I can just take my daughter to an eye doctor’s appointment and I have insurance that is going to get her that $300, $400 pair of glasses. But sometimes in a school something as simple as that could languish for an entire school year,” said Brown, who headed P.S. 230 in the South Bronx’s District 9 from 2003 to 2007.

Now a top official at the Children’s Aid Society, the 158-year-old social services provider, Brown is leading an experiment in integrating health and social services into a school setting. Children’s Aid is set to open its charter school in the Morrisania section of the Bronx next fall. The Board of Regents formally approved the school’s charter earlier today. Read more…

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An official for the union that represents most of the hundreds of city school staff facing layoffs this fall said the cuts would amount to mere “chump change” for the Department of Education.

The vast majority of the employees are part-time and earn between $12 and $27 thousands per year with their pensions, including benefits, according to Santos Crespo, president of Local 372 for District Council-37, which represents the workers. He made the comments this evening on WBAI, 99.5 FM Radio. Read More…

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Parents rushing to find spots for their children in city schools at the eleventh hour can expect to confront a thick bureaucracy, strict paperwork requirements, and long waits.

On a recent afternoon at a Department of Education enrollment center in Manhattan, the waiting room was crowded with harried parents juggling toddlers or trying to squeeze an enrollment consultation into a lunch break; large families of recent immigrants from China, the Dominican Republic, and Bosnia; and students seeking to reenroll after leaving the system.

Khemenec Pantin, the receptionist, is patient with all of them. “You need two proofs of address and a passport or birth certificate,” he rattles off in one breath as families approach his desk. … Go to GothamSchools to read more.

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A top Department of Education official butted heads with a parent this morning over the credibility of parent advocates, suggesting that advocacy groups do not reflect the views of “real parents.”

The dispute took place during this morning’s “On Education” panel, which GothamSchools co-hosted …

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