Board's Eye View

There is a wonderful moment in Jonathan Mahler's arresting New York Times Magazine story this morning about an inner city public school, when its entrepreneurial principal wanted to start the school day ten minutes earlier than the union contract called for.? Instead of yet another account of union intransigence,?Mahler quotes principal Ramon Gonzalez:

The research says it's better to start your school day later?? But those researchers don't live in my neighborhood.

As Mahler writes, Gonzalez's neighborhood is in the poorest Congressional district in the nation and most of his students live in one of five sprawling nearby housing projects.? Violence is a big part of his students' lives and the reason for starting school earlier is a nod to the realities of the street: he wanted to create more time for tutoring after school so he could get the kids home before dark.?

The?story is deftly reported and admirably written, and the Times should be applauded for allowing Mahler the space to show the nuances of the small victories and major challenges that illustrate some of the?secrets of ?Gonzalez's success; there is no secret sauce,?it seems, other than that of grinding dedication, intense focus on details,?and hard work.? The title of the story is apt: The Fragile Success of School Reform in the Bronx. After seven years under Gonzalez, who opened M.S. 223 in 2003, as?one of Joel Klein's first new schools, ?student proficiency levels in math have jumped 360 percent and in English by 200...

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I was just re-reading sections of The Making of Americans by Don Hirsch, preparing to send out some encouraging words to my local district Board of Ed Curriculum Committee, when a new Rick Hess Straight Up shot across my screen.? Apparently, it's not just the local yokels who don't get the concept of background knowledge.? Et tu, Hess?

Between vague standards ? and standard vagueness in this country ranges from the opacity of White Out to a hole you can drive a truck through (though Fordham's recent report paints a slightly rosier picture) ?? and the tests that everyone wants to write for them is this yawning cavern?where curriculum should be. It is a cup and a lip that has spilled hundreds of thousands of kids onto our streets, including those who are very computer savvy, uneducated. And I'll add my scepticisim to that of Checker about the Finlandization of America that Rick sees in a common curriculum.? He prefers the Balkanization that we've lived with for the last half century?

As I pointed out the other day (Habits of Mindlessness), even Ted Sizer got it. As he wrote in Horace's School:

Good schools are places where one gets the stuff of knowledge?that is, crudely, ?the facts? ?where one learns to use that stuff, and where one gets into the habit of such use.

I'm sorry Sizer is not around to help guide us through the Internet revolution (he died in 2009), but...

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?David Steiner got none of the negative press that Cathleen Black received when he was appointed Commissioner of New York State's Education Department in October of 2009. ?But it seems that the boot that Black got this morning may also have hit Steiner, whose resignation (now set for the end of the year) was announced?this afternoon. ?

In fact, the two education leaders couldn't have been more different. Black was a non-educator; Steiner was the real deal and his appointment?was hailed by educators as a major step forward for New York.? In a few short months, he turned New York State from an also-ran?in the Race to the Top competition to a winner.? As I write in a forthcoming story for Education Next about Steiner, ?Perhaps not since William T. Harris, the 19th century's last U.S. commissioner of education and founder of the first philosophical periodical in America, have we had such a deep and agile mind in such a key position of public school responsibility.? ?

What happened???While the Black exit was predictable ? and predicted, by Mike Petrilli ? Steiner's departure came as a shock to many when New York State Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch announced it today.? The press release reads:

We recruited David because he is one of America's leading education reform visionaries, and as Commissioner he has delivered - leading New York's successful Race to the Top application and guiding this department through an amazing array of reforms.? As he approaches the

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Will you get on or not?? This is the question posed by this morning's page one New York Times story by Trip Gabriel:? More Pupils Are Learning Online, Fueling Debate on Quality.? Gabriel says that some 200,000 kids now attend online schools fulltime and over a million take at least one online course, a nearly 50 percent increase in just three years.

The question of quality is, indeed, the issue that educators and policymakers should be focused on here. And Gabriel is off to a promising start with an anecdote about an online student who went to Wikipedia to answer a question about social Darwinism for an English class. ?He copied the language, spell-checked it and e-mailed it to his teacher,? reports Gabriel.

That kind of quality control challenge is only the tip of the iceberg. ?Gabriel leads his story describing this same student's study of Jack London, ?in a high school classroom packed with computers.? The kid scans a ?brief biography? of London and that's it:

But the curriculum did not require him, as it had generations of English students, to wade through a tattered copy of Call of the Wild or To Build a Fire.

Unfortunately, this is where Mr. Gabriel falls into the weeds ? and he never gets out. Rather, he falls in just after these promising anecdotes: curriculum is not mentioned again in the story.? In fact, I would bet Mr. Gabriel good money that generations of English students in thousands...

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This is either a cautionary tale about trusting education bureaucracies, a lesson in Internet lethargy, or simply the complaint of a crochety (former) journalist. Various news reports today discuss the release of a 114-page report, at a Monday meeting, by the New York Board of Regents 63-member Task Force on Teacher and Principal Effectiveness (Ithaca Journal, Daily News, Times Union). ?This is a pretty big deal in New York -- as the size of the task force would suggest -- so, I went to the New York State Education Department's web page to take a look for myself ? and found nothing. In fact, the last ?news release? from NYSED was from February 17!***

In fact, from what one can surmise from the news stories, yesterday's Task Force report is not a lot different?from one issued in January ? just a lot longer -- and they all point toward a briar patch of monumental complexity. Writes Scott Waldman in the TU:

Twenty percent of an educator's evaluation will be based on student academic progress on state standardized assessments, 20 percent on locally selected measures of student achievement and 60 percent on other measures of teacher and principal effectiveness. Those measures must be collectively?bargained.

To be continued.? ?

?--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

***Ah, the power of Flypaper.? The press release is up and the Task Force report available--here....

One of the nation's leading education economists, Eric Hanushek has a must-read story in Education Next, just released today, ?Valuing Teachers: How much is a good teacher worth??? And if you don't have time to read the full story, at least see Eric's summary of it. He applies some basic economic analysis to the ?conventional wisdom that teachers are the most important ingredient in an effective school.??

And, in the process, he reminds us that it should also be conventional wisdom ?that teachers are the most important ingredient in an ineffective school.? Indeed, often lost in the national demonizing teacher debate is the simple fact that ?there are large differences in teacher quality, and these differences are felt in very tangible ways by students and by U.S. society.?

Hanushek analyzed the financial impact of differences in student achievement and then matched that up with the students' teachers. He says it's ?fairly straightforward set of calculations.? ?And, he concludes,

[T]he numbers are astounding.? A teacher at the 85th percentile can, in comparison to an average teacher, raise the present value of each student's lifetime earnings by over $20,000?implying that such a teacher with a class of 20 students generates over $400,000 in economic benefits, compared to an average teacher, for each year that she gets such achievement gains.? Gains go up and down with how good the teacher is and with how many students she has.? And the gains are symmetrical in comparison to the average teacher

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I cried. It was only Babes in Arms, but the kids sang and danced as if on Broadway?and some of them actually had Broadway genes in their vocal chords and gambly arms and legs.? A lazy Sunday afternoon and I caught the last performance of the high school play.? Not being a theater person, I am always amazed by these productions, since they always seem to hang by a slender thread, plagued by scratchy mics, falling props and costumes, and, of course, forgotten lines. ?But the kids'?efforts, backed by dozens of adults in the wings,?working the lights and the sound system,?playing in the orchestra, ?were so innocent and energetic that Yes, you couldn't help but get a little emotional.

But I started to get really teary?thinking of the next day's board meeting ?budget workshop,? the last of a series of painful meetings in which we public servant powerbrokers stare into the?sights of the budget howitzer and start firing, so to speak.??There, a few feet in front of me,?playing the French Horn in the orchestra was a young Intermediate school music teacher.? With a proposal on our plate to cut 12 percent of our teaching staff, his chances of surviving the knife were slim.

But it's not just him or even LIFO. It's where music and art seem to be?in the ?educational pecking order.? For many reasons our little school community, with dismal proficiency scores in STEM subjects, prized art and music.??And?these?intimate and personal?expressions of community values,?and priorities, on...

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Teachers rallied at the State Capitol in Albany last night, in a last-ditch effort to get the legislature and governor to restore funds to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's?deficit slashing budget proposal. It doesn't seem to have worked.? The legislature worked into the night and passed ?the $132.5 billion proposal, closing a $10 billion deficit without raising taxes (the much ridiculed Empire State solons held firm on not imposing a ?millionaires tax?) and cutting state aid to education by a whopping $1.2 billion.

These are certainly tough times, but E.J. McMahon at the Empire Center takes off the gloves with a post this morning that offers a different perspective on the ?It's about the kids? argument made by many of the protesters who crowded into the Capitol. ??Not,? says McMahon in his short post. ?And he takes out after one teacher from a nearby school district who was at the rally and was quoted ?quoted in the Albany Times?as?saying "It's about the kids." ?

Actually, it's about teacher pay increases. It seems that nearly half those threatened jobs in Rotterdam-Mohonasen could be saved if the district's unions would accept a wage freeze recently requested by district officials.

McMahon then uses the considerable database his organization (a subsidiary of the Manhattan Institute) has amassed on public service employee salaries and their union contracts to reveal that the teacher was paid $92,522 in 2010, ?a nice increase from her $85,042 salary the previous year.? The raise...

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As I was writing up the account of my recent board meeting, I had to keep pinching myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming. ?And just at that moment, it seemed, there came a flurry of emails from a listserve I am a member of --? to remind me that I am not alone in my experience of the world of local school governance.

The Irvington Parents Forum, which was started in 2006 by Catherine Johnson, co-author, with Temple Grandin, of Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior,?for parents in this upscale Westchester town who wanted to discuss?issues in their schools.? Irvington?is about the same size as my district, but with a considerably different demographic.

It is refreshing to know that the professional class is as ornery as the working class; that a district that has lots of local money (i.e.?Irvington gets little state aid) has governance challenges similar to our district, which?has very little local money. This doesn't mean there aren't major differences in educational outcomes -- and?folks in Irvington are surely more comfortable at the keyboard than in my district (where I have an education listserve that is almost inactive): the Irvington forum now has 312 members and they've generated an impressive 5,691 (as of this writing) messages over the last five-and-a-half years. The writing is?often witty and wise, sometimes angry, and relatively uncensored (though anonymous posts are frowned on and Johnson is a dedicated moderator).? She is...

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It was standing room only yet again at Monday night's meeting of the board of education, of which I am a member, in our 2000-student upstate New York school district; nearly 200 people were jammed into the high school cafeteria when I arrived.? This was not good. As a member of the board, you always survey the crowd (which is normally a group of 15 to 20 die-hards and union reps, maybe a reporter or two, and a couple people with ?issues?) and, depending on who is there ? and how many -- you can usually tell how the meeting will go. A big crowd is usually a harbinger of some drama.? Monday night did not disappoint.??

There were several dozen teachers (wearing their black union t-shirts), several dozen students, several dozen parents, and assorted knots of district employees and ordinary citizens. Our security guard, who does not normally come to meetings, smiled at me from the back of the room.? I knew just about everyone and I knew they were not there for the Board of Cooperative Education Services report or for the Walking School Bus program PowerPoint.

In fact, because it's a small town, I knew that most of the people were there for an item that was not even on the Agenda: ?the board's decision the previous week not to allow the varsity baseball team to play its home games at a nifty new stadium, owned by the town, just down the road. ?For some...

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