The Death and Life of the Great American School System

The Book of the Week is “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” by Diane Ravitch, published in 2010.

This book appears to argue that the great American school system is moving closer to death.

Ms. Ravitch discusses how testing and accountability have “become the main levers of school reform… In the trade-off, our education system ended up with no curricular goals, low standards and dumbed-down tests.”

With the imposition of more standardized testing than ever before, education has been narrowed to only the subjects on the tests– literacy and mathematics.

The goal of some school districts, in implementing reform, has been to close the racial achievement gap.  For decades, students of certain ethnic groups (such as blacks and Hispanics) have shown lower test scores than their peers (who are whites and Asians).  There may be many causes for this (such as economic and demographic changes, to say nothing of test-question wording), but politicians think they can solve the problem through a formula. Ms. Ravitch provides an anecdotal example of this thinking in San Diego in the late 1990’s.

Teachers were resistant to “get with the program” due to the way in which it was forced upon them.  The outside educational coaches hired to work with the school personnel, were viewed as enforcers, rather than as collaborators.  The teachers were supposed to utter inane phrases, such as “I am a reflective practitioner.”  They were to spend a specific number of minutes on teaching a prescribed subject, and then move to another, even when the changeover was disruptive. Stress-related illnesses among the teachers, skyrocketed.

Ms. Ravitch covers a host of other issues, such as “No Child Left Behind,” controversies over standards, school vouchers, charter schools, use of private monies to fund education, the power of the federal and state governments concerning education, teaching-credentials, and a choice of schools for the students.

Politicians believe they are improving education by providing parents with an array of schools which their children can attend. The thinking is, choice will foster competition in the district.  This is a misguided notion, to say the least.

Ms. Ravitch states, “Julian Betts of U.C. San Diego questioned whether choice was even a successful strategy because his own studies found that choice had little or no effect on student achievement.”

Some charter schools accept students via a lottery system; other schools hand-pick their students. Even when unlucky students or those who require extra help are offered it– through extra school hours or free tutoring– it has been the tutoring companies that have profited handsomely.  There has been no quality-monitoring of the tutoring, so there has been no way to judge for sure whether students have shown any improvement.  One way to see, might be through standardized test scores, but scores’ validity and reliability have been questionable of late, for various reasons.

In many districts, there is grossly unfair funding allocation among schools.  A colossal amount of monies from billionaires (private sources) have been poured into charter schools and education reform initiatives that provide lucky students with special resources, while public schools have had to make do with scant taxpayer dollars and have had to go without, during times of severe budget cuts.

As for accountability, there is none. Ms. Ravitch writes that politicians have collaborated with nonprofit foundations because the latter are contributing megabucks to schools.  Consequently, they have acquired overwhelming power and influence.  “If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office.  The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one… they are bastions of unaccountable power.”

RIP, quality American education.

Colors of the Mountain

The Book of the Week is “Colors of the Mountain” by Da Chen.  This is the autobiography of someone growing up in China during the middle and later years of the Cultural Revolution under Communist dictator Mao Tse Tung.  Since Da, born in 1962, was the youngest of several brothers and sisters at a time when Mao was reversing China’s education policy toward one of competitive college-entrance exams, Da became his family’s only hope for a better life.

The siblings unfortunately, were doomed to a life of backbreaking toil on the farm, under Mao’s reign.  Da, on the other hand, was provided with the opportunity to take three days of the extremely extensive “regurgitation” exams.  He rose to the occasion, studying with his friend for hours and hours every day for months on end.

His friend, who smoked big, fat cigars, was a nonchalant sort under much less pressure. He could afford to goof off. For, the friend’s family owned a lucrative tobacco farm, and failing his exam would mean merely entering the family business, which was not such a bad consequence.  That is what happened to the friend.

Da’s hard work paid off.  He achieved the highest test scores in his region, an exceptional triumph, since he was from a rural area where students received test preparation inferior to that in urban areas.  He had heard that learning English was very important if one wanted to study abroad.  However, it was rumored to be very difficult for Chinese people to learn to pronounce English with an accent that was comprehensible to people in English-speaking countries.  But learning English was important for increasing one’s options for a better life. Da was treated to a tuition-free university education and learned English.  Read the book to learn how he fared thereafter.

Why Can’t U Teach Me 2 Read?

The Book of the Week is “Why Can’t U Teach Me 2 Read?” by Beth Fertig, published in 2009.  In this book, the author followed the lives of three learning-disabled adult students for approximately two years in New York City, in their belated attempts to learn to read.

For various reasons, all stayed illiterate through grade school and continued living with their parents thereafter.  This blogger opines that mentioning their ethnic group would bias readers, so it will not be mentioned.  However, suffice to say, their home environments were rife with television rather than books, and their parents came from large, low-income families.

Ms. Fertig pointed out that most literate people take reading for granted; “Yamilka,” “Alejandro” and “Antonio” had trouble with the simple verbal activities of daily living, such as reading a subway map or directional signs, purchasing items in a store and reading labels on medicine bottles.  This greatly hindered their ability to work at a job, and certainly, to drive.

Post-high-school age, they discovered they could enlist the help of the non-profit organization, Advocates for Children to sue the school system so that they could be awarded free tutoring by private companies (which would normally cost $80 to $100 per hour) to teach them to read.  The three students won their cases; meaning, for instance, they could get 1,500 hours of tutoring within a two-year period, compliments of New York taxpayers.

Yamilka was a 23-year old female who required speech and language therapy.  She had poor short-term memory and trouble with neural processing the sounds of spoken words.

Antonio’s social skills were inferior to his classmates’ and he was easily distracted. Nevertheless, he attempted to return to the high school he had quit, after legal negotiations with the principal.  His classes included the lowest level math, photography, history and reading classes for the learning disabled for his age.

Antonio told the author, “Seeing other kids being successful in class makes me jealous.” This may have been why he had a poor attendance record. The principal expressed his disgust with Antonio when he told the author that a disproportionate amount of time had been wasted on Antonio, as it could have been spent on another, more responsible, harder worker of the school’s 350 special education students.  Antonio “… didn’t know how to reconcile his conflicting desires for a paycheck and more education.”  He delayed collecting the documentation required for acquiring a state ID so he could get a job.

Alejandro did his tutoring. However, his reading and math skills were below the level required to pass the GED, so he also attended no-charge pre-GED classes at a community college in the Bronx.

Read the book to learn what happened to Yamilka, Antonio and Alejandro by the time the book went to press.

Stand for the Best

The Book of the Week is “Stand for the Best” by Thomas M. Bloch, published in 2008.  Thomas M. Bloch is the son of the founder of H&R Block (“Block” in the tax-advisor chain is spelled with a “k” so people do not mispronounce the name). Bloch made a career change in mid-life, becoming a teacher.

Bloch taught at a Catholic school, then co-founded a charter school in a low-income area of Kansas City, with a super-rich friend of his. He approves of private money donations to schools, but admits he is an idealist when it comes to closing the racial achievement gap. The school founders experienced a long, frustrating learning curve, although they thought they knew what they were getting into.

They started with middle-school students, but learned that starting with the early grades and adding older students later, would have been a better approach.  For, students’ problems multiply as time goes on.  In an urban area, in addition to a high dropout rate, gangs, drugs, and disruptive behavior, there may be multiple ethnic groups who must get acculturated.

Bloch relates the quote, “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”  This is not just the lament of a modern teacher, but of an Assyrian sufficiently educated to write on a clay tablet, living in 2800 B.C., proving once again, that there is nothing new under the sun.

A Smile as Big as the Moon

The Book of the Week is “A Smile as Big as the Moon” by Mike Kersjes, published in 2003.  This book tells the story of a Midwestern special education class that got to go to “space camp” at NASA’s facility in Alabama. Each week, the camp engaged students from several schools nationwide in a competition in which the students played the role of astronauts.

The students in the special education class had various problems such as Tourette’s syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, learning disabilities, etc.  However, their teacher wanted to prove to them and the world that they could function just as well as students in regular classes.  They practiced long and hard for weeks prior to the competition.  The teacher was also coach of the high school’s football team.  He was instrumental in instilling confidence in and encouraging teamwork among the kids.  Read the book to find out what happened.

Bonus Post

I am pleased to announce that my book: “The Education and Deconstruction of Mr. Bloomberg, How the Mayor’s Education and Real Estate Development Policies Affected New Yorkers 2002-2009 Inclusive” is available through the following online channels:

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Please visit

http://educationanddeconstruction.com/?p=143

to read an excerpt.

Thank you.

Ms. Moffett’s First Year

The Book of the Week is “Ms. Moffett’s First Year”, by Abby Goodnough, published in 2006. This book raised many controversial education issues, ranging from special education to the curriculum, to the extent to which a teacher should have a relationship with a student.

The story focuses on one Fellow’s trials and tribulations in her first year of teaching. It was the first year of the Fellowship Program (the 2000-2001 academic year), which offered a tuition-free master’s degree (night school), with limitations and restrictions for those accepted. Established teachers were resentful of this perk that new teachers got. Some were still paying off their student loans.

The 40-something Ms. Moffett quit her job as a legal secretary to seek fulfillment changing young lives as a Fellow. She was assigned a class of about 20 first graders at P.S. 92 in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a depressed immigrant neighborhood.

There had been federally mandated teaching reforms instituted that year. States received education grant money for buying into various teaching methods, such as “Success For All”. New York liked that method because it had worked for other school districts, and it was tailored for inexperienced teachers. Success For All provided the teacher with a script she was to read verbatim, and the same textbooks for all the city’s schools. The teacher had a pre-fabricated lesson she need not lift a finger planning for.

Throughout the year, several different school administrators observed Ms. Moffett’s teaching. Sometimes she was given contradictory information about what to do in certain situations. In one incident, one student had a strong urge to continue writing a composition when the schedule called for a different subject to be taught.

One administrator criticized Ms. Moffett for letting that student continue to write, and said she should force the student to stop writing– assert her authority. Another administrator told Ms. Moffett it was okay to allow the student to continue writing, as it was so difficult to get students to focus on a particular activity, and this might boost the student’s self esteem.

Ms. Moffett often fell behind the strict schedule dictated by educrats, trying to get the students to behave. Unluckily, she was assigned more unruly students than was usual for a class such as hers. There were about 4 or 5 who could not sit still, had the attention span of flies, and could not learn.

For the first month of school, one student’s parent had to stay in the classroom, lest the student throw a temper tantrum if the parent left her. A few of the kids truly needed special education. However, it was extremely expensive to create a special education class just for these students. Keeping them in a regular class was also expensive– in terms of teaching time taken away from the other students.

Ms. Moffett put in requests to have these students tested for learning disabilities, but her requests were ignored. Instead, by the middle of the year, the students had either moved away, or been transferred to other classes or other schools. Ms. Moffett then got three new students in exchange, who could learn and were well-behaved. This changed the whole dynamic of the classroom. The learning environment was much improved.

School administrators severely criticized Ms. Moffett’s ways in their evaluations, fearing a cutoff of funding from the State Education Department if the school did not follow the standards and practices set by the Department. On the day Department inspectors were to visit P.S. 92, the administrators went into Ms. Moffett’s classroom and pressured her to re-decorate the classroom bulletin boards with student work that would be acceptable to the inspectors. Sometimes teachers even doctored students’ work to make it appear that the students were learning more than they really were.

Deprivation was a major characteristic of many of the students’ home lives. They didn’t get enough attention, enough to eat, enough care in general. Ms. Moffett, an idealist, had a strong desire to help improve the quality of the children’s lives. She did so with one particular child. The school strongly advised against getting involved with children outside of school, not just because there were liability issues.  It was unfair to favor one child, when so many others were just as needy of individual attention and did not get it.

Ms. Moffett survived her first year teaching. Despite all of the negative feedback she received from her evaluators, and all the stress she had to endure, she realized that teaching was fulfilling to her. Read the book to find out what happened.

Who’s Teaching Your Children?

The Book of the Week is “Who’s Teaching Your Children?” by Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles, published in 2003.

This book describes the ominous future of education in the United States.  There is a dire teacher shortage which is slated only to get worse.  A vicious cycle accounts for this trend.  The authors ask, is it not a contradiction that parents demand quality teachers in their children’s schools but discourage their children from becoming teachers?

A large percentage of graduates who enter the teaching profession are not good students.  The ones who are, take more lucrative, rewarding jobs.  The teachers-to-be receive poor training.  For the most part, during their careers, they are underpaid and underappreciated.  No wonder the good students enter fields other than education.

Many teacher-training schools are for-profit institutions that need to fill seats to stay in business.  Therefore, in order to attract customers (graduates) they need to make obtaining teaching certification sufficiently easy.  “Grade inflation” (awarding higher grades than customers truly deserve in order to pass some customers who would otherwise fail) is one way they do so.

The authors present a scenario of their imagination, named, “The Millennium School.”  It is an elementary school that doubles as a teacher-training school, with a structure completely different from the usual American school’s.  It would be a small school with small classes, consisting of chief instructors “who supervise professional teachers, who supervise the teachers and associate teachers, who participate in supervising interns and instructional aides.”

Everyone on the team would be accountable for each child’s success or failure. The personnel would conduct classes and hold meetings as teams.  The school would be linked to a college, which would allow the teacher-trainees to fulfill the student-teaching component of their training, in teams.

I think the authors make exaggerated claims of such a school’s possible success, although it is a nice idea.  I like the team-teaching part.  However, the whole point is that power is distributed among many educators– they are supposed to cooperate, share ideas, and be rewarded with higher pay, more responsibilities and supervisory duties when they display an interest in advancing their careers. However, to me, this smacks of a corporate ladder.  Human nature is such that the ladder would spur competition rather than cooperation.  That would defeat the whole goal.

In addition, a school is a different sort of entity because it is funded by taxpayers. The kinds of operations a private company might fund for itself would not be possible for a school, due to a limited budget. There is an exception to this situation– in certain areas of this country, schools receive private monies from wealthy donors, making distribution of resources hugely uneven among schools.  As for the well-endowed schools, the funders are not educators, so they may have misguided notions of where to spend their money.  The money might go toward additional standardized testing, resources that reward corporate partners and activities relating to public relations, rather than toward real improvement in education quality.

Further, the government supervises the school, so there are politics from above and within.  The authors acknowledge the Millennium School model would necessarily be more expensive, but they argue that this model would eliminate many non-teaching positions, such as “curriculum coordinators, staff developers, teaching coaches,” etc. The resulting reduced payroll expenses would compensate for the raises received by the teachers and supervisors.

I think raises in pay would be extremely controversial– who would receive how much.  Theoretically, employees who acquired additional experience would deserve more pay.  However, the expedient way to measure the increase in education quality due to that increased experience, would probably be through standardized tests– another extremely controversial aspect of teaching.

I would suggest that various criteria be used to determine additional compensation for supervisors and teachers, that could include tests, as well as qualitative evaluations of supervisors, completed by teachers and trainees, and interviews with students.  Although I give them an “A” for effort, the authors present too simplified a model of the ideal school.

This is an informative, yet depressing book.

BONUS POST

I am pleased to announce that my book:

“The Education and Deconstruction of Mr. Bloomberg, How the Mayor’s Education and Real Estate Development Policies Affected New Yorkers 2002-2009 Inclusive”

is out.

Please find below, the first page of the Table of Contents and a page of the Introduction. [Please excuse the wonky formatting]

Copyright © 2016 by Sally A. Friedman

CONTENTS

Introduction ……………………………………………………………………………….. 7

SECTION I

1 Education—Overview ……………………………………………………………….. 15

2 Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein …………………………………………………. 17

3 The Education Budget ……………………………………………………………… 21

4 Student Subgroups …………………………………………………………………. 42

5 What Did Your School Get? ………………………………………………………. 52

6 Propaganda ……………………………………………………………………………. 57

7 Reducing Class Sizes ……………………………………………………………….. 65

8 Small Schools …………………………………………………………………………. 73

9 Testing, Testing. One million. Two million. Testing, Testing. …………. 78

10 Unsafe At Any Rate . . . ………………………………………………………….. 87

11 Charter Schools and Culturally-Themed Schools………………………… 95

12 School Construction ……………………………………………………………… 109

13 Mayoral Control ……………………………………………………………………. 114

SECTION II

1 Rezoning and ULURP …………………………………………………………….. 121

2 Zoning Meetings ……………………………………………………………………. 127

3 Construction Woes …………………………………………………………………. 133

4 Self-Certification ……………………………………………………………………. 145

5 Deutsche Bank Building ………………………………………………………….. 148

6 Other Deadly Mishaps …………………………………………………………….. 153

7 Enforcement ………………………………………………………………………….. 160

8 Mr. Bloomberg’s Stadiums ……………………………………………………….. 167

9 Other Parks Projects ……………………………………………………………….. 176

10 Other Law-Skirting Projects ……………………………………………………. 182

11 Other Brooklyn Projects …………………………………………………………. 187

12 Atlantic Yards ………………………………………………………………………. 191

* * *

INTRODUCTION, p. 11

…making himself available to parents. The mayor performed the important tasks of negotiating with the unions, securing funding from the higher powers and making public relations appearances when there was good news to report.

I have observed that there were three recurring themes in Mr. Bloomberg’s modus operandi in both Education and Real Estate Development:

Theme 1: He was overly optimistic. As his various education initiatives and construction projects progressed, he routinely threw around and changed numbers on standardized test scores, graduation rates, school openings, school crime rates, construction costs, creation of jobs and affordable housing units, among others, and sometimes even distorted facts outright.

Theme 2: Time after time, Mr. Bloomberg asked for input from the community, or purported to, on new school openings and on construction of schools and other projects, but usually ended up hiring his cronies and ignored the community’s wishes.

Theme 3: He took advantage of legal loopholes or skirted around the law to forge ahead with his agendum.

His agendum was to acquire power. Why else did he take control of the schools and overturn term limits? It was not for the money. In November 2009, Mr. Bloomberg won his third-term election bid by a narrow margin, mostly because he was still viewed as a stronger candidate than the opposing one. His power and popularity were waning, however, rocked by various investigations in recent years, including a slush-fund scandal, and corruption and sloppiness in construction that led to fatal accidents, that resulted in the termination of decades-long unethical practices. Further, he was accused of being involved in various conflicts of interest and of being hypocritical on environmental and health issues.

Two farmyard clichés and one generic cliché also aptly describe many occurrences during the Bloomberg administration between 2002 and 2009:

Cliché 1: “Just another case of the fox guarding the henhouse”

Cliché 2: “Closing the barn door after the horses have already fled”

Cliché 3: “Do as I say, not as I do”

The above themes and clichés are so common in my text, that I refer to their generic names; i.e., I will use the blog style, for example, “File under Theme 1” or “File under Cliché 2” when providing evidence of same. Enjoy.


Copyright © 2016 by Sally A. Friedman

Saving Schools

The Book of the Week is “Saving Schools” by Paul E. Peterson, published in 2010.  This book tells the history of education in the United States.  It presents some inconvenient facts many politicians and even education “professionals” do not want to acknowledge.

Sociologist James Coleman did extensive longitudinal studies on thousands of students in the early 1960’s.  He found that “within regions and types of communities (urban, suburban and rural), expenditures per pupil were about the same in black and white schools… students did not learn more just because more money was spent on their education.” Students’ reading ability was not affected by the following factors:  class sizes, teachers’ credentials, textbook newness, number of books in the school library, or any other “material resource of a school.” It was affected by the students’ home lives. Another interesting finding was that low-income African-Americans read better when placed in classes with higher-income Caucasians, but the latter did not do worse when placed in classes with the former.

During the era of desegregation of the schools, Caucasian families moved from cities to suburbs at a higher rate than did African-American families.  Suburban schools therefore became more segregated, and thus there occurred less integration than otherwise in all kinds of communities overall.

One of LBJ’s anti-poverty programs gave billions of federal dollars to schools to provide intensive tutoring to disadvantaged African American students.  Unfortunately, this singled the students out, and made them targets for bullying.  Besides, the tutors “often had less training” than regular classroom teachers.  Research has yet to prove that the tutoring was significantly helpful.

Some education reformers have called for hiring of teachers who lack a master’s degree, as extra schooling is no guarantee of better teaching. Teachers earned master’s degrees in droves in the 20th century only because they were paid more for earning one. Teacher-training schools and unions have vehemently opposed removing this teaching credential.

“…relative to other employees who hold college degrees, teachers today are not as well paid as they were in 1960.”

In 2008, federal education officials and a team at UCLA proposed national education standards.  However, the portrayal of the United States in historical accounts, and the selectivity of curricular contents turned out to be too controversial.

The book also exposes the flaws of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” law.  It covers the pros and cons of school vouchers, and the system that has been widely implemented as an alternative to vouchers – charter schools.

The author obviously favors the use of technology with regard to education.  For, the table of contents bears the headings for parts 1, 2 and 3:  “The Rise,” “The Decline” and “Signs of Resurrection.”  The third part contains a chapter on technology.

The author speculates that the future of education will involve online learning for all students, even declaring: “Each student, each household, each family will pick and choose among the endless variety of options entrepreneurs can produce.”  The use of the word “entrepreneurs” is disturbing when used in the context of education.  The author makes other assertions with which I do not agree, but he does provide extensive documentation on matters of “fact.”