nclb and basketball

May 23, 2007

Student-teacher basketball day! It is always — as my dad would say — a hoot and a half. Only three teachers actually participate, but the kids have such a good time, and it’s so rewarding to see them enjoying themselves. I thought the same thing this time last year; student D is super annoying, but it turns out he can dunk like *whoa* and it’s important to remember that he’s more than just the kid who doesn’t read well in my class. If only there were more chances (see also: why small schools are probably  not the Solution To All Our Woes In Education).

Speaking of which, the Secretary of Education was on the  Daily Show last night. She seemed nice. She talked a lot about how NCLB should be renewed and how if she could change anything it would be “low expectations.” Yes, apparently if we just DEMAND that students be able to read, and then test them, they will be able to read! The problem with the students I teach is that no one has ever held them to the standard of reading on grade level. On the one hand, we’re Not Leaving Them Behind, so we’d better not fail them. On the other hand, we can’t let them slide by until they can read. It all makes sense now! No wonder it’s been such a rousing success so far!

this is most illogical

March 7, 2007

About five years ago I tutored in a school in Boston that had a strict “whole math” policy. The kids used textbooks that made no sense to me, and didn’t seem to make much sense to them, either. They were 5th graders, working on fractions and how to multiply them, and the book gave them strips of paper divided into halves, quarters, thirds, etc., and then told the kids to “come up with your own method to solve these problems.”

The students were stymied. I couldn’t help them much, because the homework said things like “Create a cluster to solve this problem,” or “What are two methods you used to solve this, and how did you feel about them?” Finally I snapped and snuck them the standard algorithm; I was yelled at by their regular teacher and told that would “never help them get a deep understanding of math.”

It sure got them the right answers, though.

Apparently NYC is looking into something similar; Mayor Bloomberg gets very excited about this sort of thing. And here, via NYC Educator, is an infuriating video demonstrating how the math curriculum works. (My sister, who won a math award in high school calculus, has been reduced to outraged spluttering; “BUT… MATH HAS RULES… THAT’S WHY IT’S GOOD!”)

ps — I have nothing against a deep understanding of math, or using math in projects to give it more context. But I regularly teach 9th graders who can’t count by tens and don’t know that 18 means a ten and eight ones. I am infuriated by the book’s protestation that they can’t learn the method that I — who always struggled in math — mastered. If you would like to fix math, HIRE BETTER TEACHERS and CREATE SMALLER CLASSES. Grr.


February 9, 2007

Yesterday my school did a mock School Quality Review, and I got to sit in on the whole thing. This is the new thing in the Empowerment Zone in NYC (I still think the “Empowerment Zone” sounds like a place superheroes go to become more awesome), involving outsiders coming in to do a “Quality Review” using five “diagnostic tools” to determine how your school is doing. I sat in on the whole thing — the principal’s presentation, the case studies, the student interviews, the teacher interviews, the classroom visits, even writing the final report. Everything went pretty well; all the stuff the committee came up with was stuff we’d already identified about our school, and it was really interesting to hear what a Big Important Guy thinks when he looks at a classroom.

 Mostly I discovered that sitting in a windowless room all day trying to come up with a synonym for “utilize” makes me want to stab myself in the eye with a fork, and I will never be an administrator.

small schools

February 4, 2007

When I was in graduate school, there was only one criterion for where I would end up working that I was sure about; I wanted to work in a small school. I remember giving a couple of impassioned speeches about it during seminars. I had very, very strong feelings about it.

Having worked in one for two years, the reality is somewhat different than the ideal.

There’s a lot of good in small schools. I know every student in all four grades at my school. I know the entire staff. I know every secretary, I know who will have a band-aid when I slice my finger open putting up bulletin-board paper, and where to steal staples and tape. I love the feeling of community — my school has an amazing staff, and wonderful students.

There’s a lot of not-so-good as well, unfortunately. One of the first things you realize at a small school is the amount of budgeting that goes to support staff. We need an attendance person, deans, the principal’s secretary, a payroll secretary, the AP’s secretary, the parent coordinator… and they take up a huge percentage of the money for the school. Proportionally, we have nearly half as many of them as we have teachers, and our budget goes to them instead of to special-ed teachers, or other hires, because you HAVE to have someone putting out paychecks, right? (Maybe this is just my school, but I think it’s fairly endemic, especially because most small school principals are fairly new to being principals.)

We have a lack of options we can offer our students. First academically; we just don’t have the scheduling or budget to offer any foreign languages beside Spanish. (We used to, but that’s a whole different complaint.) There aren’t enough special education teachers to offer 12-1-1 classes and so we’re always out of compliance. (Again, that’s a whole other rant for someday when I’m employed elsewhere.) We only offer SETSS once a day, so not all our kids who are supposed to have that get it. We often can’t offer honors because there just aren’t enough teachers to go around.

Along the same lines, there are no sports at my school. If you check our official website and DOE listing you’ll see that we offer them, but that really refers to the “big high school” we’re inside, and most of our students don’t participate there. The boys at our school have been asking for a football team for four years, and are no closer to getting one, although we do finally sort of have track. Cheerleading used to be a whole-school activity, but there were inter-school rivalries and all our students dropped out. There are also virutally no clubs, because we don’t have the per-session budget for it. (I run two “unofficial” and unpaid clubs, although they’re more like informal student gatherings.)

Scheduling is a HUGE problem. My school is one of five inside a larger campus, and we share a cafeteria and the gyms. That means that we all have to run on the same schedule every day so that kids can still go to gym — our teachers teach kids from all five schools. We can’t have special our-school-only activities. (This is how we ended up having to give the PSAT to all four grades one day.) Any time we want to use the cafeteria, the gyms, or the auditorium it requires weeks of negotiating between schools. And if you’re a teacher I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that increasing the amount of pettiness and bureaucracy is never a good thing.

There is also a lack of oversight which I suspect would be true at any school in this godforsaken system, particularly now that we’re an empowerment school, but I’m not well enough versed in BOE policy or how anything works to really speak to that. Sometimes our teachers feel very much cut off from the rest of the world and because small schools tend to hire newer teachers, we don’t have a lot of teacher-leaders around to tell us how things are supposed to work. On the upside, we have an incredibly motivated and hard-working staff. On the downside, we seem to be calling the UFT about things all the time, and they’re not usually major; there is simply no one around who knows what to do.

On balance I’ve soured on small schools, although I still like the idea. It seems to be a peculiarity of the education system that they insist on reinventing the wheel over and over and over every few years. Why not break up the big schools into mini schools within the existing system, so that students felt more like they belonged, but teachers still had the resources they need? More like a college system, where students come into the school of arts, the school of science, the school of humanities, but everyone takes core courses together. Or would that make too much sense to be implemented? Lots of our troubles come from the idea that everything has to be done from scratch, but the don’t: there have been some successful schools in the city all along. Why aren’t we basing our curricula and scheduling after those schools and just creating a new inner structure?

Right, because it’s education, and no one’s interested in input from the teachers or students. Oh well.

Rubber Room

December 28, 2006

One of my good (teaching) friends got in trouble his first year and had to spend a couple of weeks in what we here in the city call “The Rubber Room.” That’s where they send teachers while their cases are pending. My friend spent his time there writing a book of really kick-ass poetry. This guy is writing a blog about it.

I can not imagine sitting there for 70+ days. It’s especially horrifying to realize he didn’t have charges brought against him until around day 50. That is a blog from teacher hell, right there. It begs all kinds of questions about policies, both in the Board of Ed and the union, and among principals, none of which I am qualified to answer.

(Link spotted at NYC Educator originally.)