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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Klein Tries to Hide Statistics That His Policies For Gifted and Talented Kids Have Failed

Chancellor Klein Seeks Power To Certify Teachers, Principals
By ELIZABETH GREEN, Staff Reporter of the Sun
June 20, 2008

The state of Florida (Gov. Jeb Bush, picture at right) this week is getting a taste of New York City's efforts to improve public schools — including some new ideas Chancellor Joel Klein is mulling, such as a plan that for the first time would grant the Department of Education authority to certify teachers and principals.

Certification is now done by universities, which act as partners even when it comes to alternative ways to enter the profession, such as Teach For America and the city's Teaching Fellows program.

Mr. Klein spoke about the idea yesterday at a summit organized by a former Florida governor, Jeb Bush, according to his prepared PowerPoint presentation.

Mayor Bloomberg is scheduled to speak at the summit today.

The certification idea was one of six items on a "wish list" Mr. Klein presented, according to his PowerPoint plan. It was listed as a possible pilot project.

The wish list also included an item regarding the schools of education that now determine certification. It said Mr. Klein wants: "Accountability for education schools in raising student achievement."

The list also included items Mr. Klein has long lobbied for, though unsuccessfully, such as the ability to dismiss poorly performing teachers more easily, and the ability to use test score data when evaluating teachers.

The teachers union recently blocked Mr. Klein's ability to use test score data in making tenure decisions, supporting an effort in Albany to ban such practices via state law.

A spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg would not disclose what he plans to say today.

In his flirtation with the national limelight — and a possible presidential run — Mr. Bloomberg has often made education a main subject. In a speech at the Urban League last summer, he excoriated American leaders for "pandering to special interests" rather than fighting for change through programs such as merit-based pay for teachers.

President Bush's education secretary, Margaret Spellings, also spoke yesterday. Her remarks praised a group of people she described as "education reform warriors," including the group Mr. Klein recently launched with Reverend Al Sharpton, the Education Equality Project.

Ms. Spellings also singled out Mr. Klein for individual praise. She used an anecdote of his to argue that education technology needs to be improved.

"Joel Klein told me that every Friday night, his wife, who works for Sony, gets an e-mail telling her which movies led box office sales that week," Ms. Spellings said, according to her prepared remarks.

"Technology exists that provides data in real time. Why are we not using it to personalize instruction for students in the classroom?"

and then, let's look at Mr. Klein's miserable failure of responsibility to the kids in New York:

'Civil Rights' or Good Instruction?
June 20, 2008

Unmarked vans from a private courier service were sent out last week by the Department of Education to deliver the news to lucky families whose children were admitted to the gifted programs around the city. Now comes news that the results undermine the whole rationale of the Bloomberg administration for restructuring the popular programs.

A front-page story in yesterday's Times told the tale. After a second round of restructuring last year failed to increase the numbers of minority children, a third attempt was undertaken this year. Only children scoring in the top 5% of a nationally normed I.Q.-type test were to be admitted to the programs.

So few made the cut that the number was expanded to 10%. But these children, it turns out, come from districts with more white and Asian students, not from districts with large black and Hispanic populations. In three districts, so few qualified that no gifted class can be formed.

Lessons should be learned from Chancellor Klein's endeavor to provide "equity" to the city's gifted and talented programs. After years of effort to undermine existing programs because they were not diverse enough, the "fair" system devised by the Education Department appears to have resulted in even less diverse results. We shouldn't be surprised. Improved results will come not from more manipulation or empty rhetoric, but from more and better instruction.

There has been a lot of talk lately about how the reform of the public schools is somehow a civil rights initiative. This is nothing new; policy wonks have been engaging in similar conversations for years. But this is wrong-headed thinking.

So consumed are we with "narrowing the gap" that the only real strategy put forward by the educational establishment is lowering the bar for everyone. The most mediocre gains are interpreted as great victories. And in some cases attempts to be inclusive and fair end up backfiring in a dramatic way. This apparently is what happened to the gifted program this year.

Here's the long and short of it. Groups don't take tests, individual children do. Strategies to provide equity by pouring undirected funds into schools to "equalize" performance of the subgroups are doomed to failure. Rather we need to appropriately fund each individual child to maximize academic potential regardless of race or economic standing.

Thus a struggling reader should be enrolled in a program that has been proven through research to make a difference — regardless of the background of the child. Similarly children who are advanced in their academic potential are equally deserving of the appropriate resources to best develop their gifts.

The Department of Education's "fair school funding" initiative, which I am sure Chancellor Klein would describe as central to his "civil rights" agenda, does the opposite, as does the state's toxic "contract for excellence" formulas that are causing so much budget contention now. Once you get into the business of politically negotiating "dollars for equality," no one will ever be satisfied that they are getting enough.

Since Mayor Bloomberg (pictured at right) talked us into giving him control of the schools in 2002, we have seen a 79% increase in spending for education and some 5,000 more teachers put on the payroll even though the schools are serving 60,000 fewer students.

With numbers like that, conventional wisdom would suggest stupendous improvement. But test scores on the most reliable exams (such as the NAEP and SAT) are flat. If we had worked backward and determined the best strategies to meet the needs of our individual students, perhaps we would have a great deal more to show for our investment.

New Yorkers have caught on to the crisis at Tweed. Lost in all the minutiae of the New York Times poll released earlier this week on Mayor Bloomberg's performance is this tidbit: in October, 2005, 19% of voters thought that his performance on education was the best thing Mr. Bloomberg achieved since taking office. Now that number is down to just 5%.

If the mayor and Chancellor Klein think that they will somehow redeem their vision by linking up the Reverend Al Sharpton, things must certainly be worse than even I suspect.

The chancellor co-chairs a new activist group with Rev. Sharpton identifying education as a "civil rights issue" to be "remedied" by structural reform including mayoral control, free market solutions, and limiting the power of teachers' unions.

Mr. Klein can hardly claim to have created a model here in New York worthy of replication nationwide, given our poor results and soaring expenditures. "Why is Joel Klein traveling the country when after six years in office he failed to deliver the goods here in New York?" Herman Badillo asks. Mr. Badillo, who is widely credited with turning around Gotham's public colleges during his tenure as Chair of the Board of Trustees of the City University, suggests a different approach: raising academic standards and level of instruction for all — One City, One Standard.

June 19, 2008
Gifted Programs in the City Are Less Diverse

When New York City set a uniform threshold for admission to public school gifted programs last fall, it was a crucial step in a prolonged effort to equalize access to programs that critics complained were dominated by white middle-class children whose parents knew how to navigate the system.

The move was controversial, with experts warning that standardized tests given to young children were heavily influenced by their upbringing and preschool education, and therefore biased toward the affluent.

Now, an analysis by The New York Times shows that under the new policy, children from the city’s poorest districts were offered a smaller percentage than last year of the entry-grade gifted slots in elementary schools. Children in the city’s wealthiest districts captured a greater share of the slots.

The disparity is so stark that some gifted programs opened by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in an effort to increase opportunities in poor and predominantly minority districts will not fill new classes next year. In three districts, there were too few qualifiers to fill a single class.

The new policy relied on a blunt cutoff score on two standardized tests. According to the analysis, 39.2 percent of the students who made the cutoff live in the four wealthiest districts, covering the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, Staten Island and northeast Queens. That is up from 24.9 percent last year, even though those districts make up 14.2 percent of citywide enrollment in the entry-level grades: kindergarten or first grade, depending on the district.

Students in 14 districts where the poverty rate is more than 75 percent account for more than a third of enrollment but received only 14.6 percent of the offers for spots in gifted programs this year, down from 20.2 percent last year.

The results reflect a head-on collision of two key themes in the Bloomberg administration’s overhaul of the school system. On the one hand, the city has centralized and standardized admissions procedures, including those for pre-kindergarten and high school, to even the playing field and eliminate any advantage held by certain parents.

On the other hand, the administration is intent on ensuring equal access to the system’s most coveted offerings and closing the racial achievement gap, which Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein frequently refers to as a critical front in the civil rights battle.

“Clearly nobody in the Department of Education wanted this to happen, but they should have known that it would,” said James H. Borland, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College who studies gifted education. “The idea that somehow making this totally reliant on tests would be an improvement, it’s mind-boggling.”

Joseph S. Renzulli, director of the University of Connecticut’s National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, who was a consultant to a city task force on the gifted, said he admired the chancellor’s intentions but felt that children should be judged against others in their neighborhoods, not by a citywide cutoff.

“I’ve discussed this with the chancellor and the chancellor’s people, and it just doesn’t seem to register,” he said. “I want the smartest or most creative kids in Red Hook or the South Bronx.”

Education officials defended their revamping of the system, saying they had introduced fairness and transparency.

“Of course we wanted to have programs in every district for all the students,” said Anna Commitante, who oversees the city’s gifted and talented programs. “We implemented the eligibility criteria, it didn’t shake out that way and now we have to take another look at it.”

Officials said that it was “very likely” that the same policy would apply next year but that they would try to broaden the applicant pool. They said judging students against others in their districts was difficult in a city like New York, where children move frequently.

Education officials noted that last year, they swept away a jumble of locally run admissions systems that befuddled or shut out many parents, and required all applicants to undergo the same two evaluations. But last year, there was no citywide cutoff, so available seats were distributed to the top scorers in each district. Some districts that had many spots or few applicants welcomed children with very low scores.

“We just kept going down the list,” Ms. Commitante said.

School districts nationwide are struggling to make gifted programs more racially and economically diverse.

The Miami-Dade public schools have spent more than $6 million over two years to identify more gifted and advanced students from what officials described as “traditionally under-represented groups.” Some districts are rethinking gifted programs under pressure; last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California threatened to sue the Tustin school district, saying that Latino and black students were “grossly underrepresented” in the programs.

The topic is also luring researchers. A study by Sean F. Reardon, of Stanford University, found that the achievement gap between white and black students grew faster among those who enter kindergarten with high skill levels. At Yale, researchers are devising a test that they hope could identify a more diverse gifted population.

The Times’s analysis did not consider racial or demographic information for individual children who were offered gifted spots, because the Education Department said it was not available. The department also said it did not have comprehensive data about how many students in each district were offered gifted spots in previous years.

For years, middle-class parents in some districts have clung to gifted programs as a refuge from low-performing schools. The racial composition of the programs has been a flashpoint since the 1990s, when complaints by the reform group Acorn and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund prompted a federal civil rights investigation.

In 2005, his re-election year, Mr. Bloomberg vowed to expand gifted programs into neighborhoods that did not have them, and has since opened more than three dozen new programs. There are now 121 elementary school gifted programs citywide.

Still, the chancellor was dissatisfied with the varying admissions criteria. After requiring last year’s applicants to take the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test, or Olsat, a reasoning exam, and be assessed by teachers through the Gifted Rating Scales, Mr. Klein replaced the scales this year with the Bracken School Readiness Assessment, which was considered more objective. He also set a uniform cutoff of the 95th percentile, as measured nationwide, on the combined score. There were so few top scorers that the city lowered the cutoff to the 90th percentile. A higher threshold still applied to three more selective citywide programs.

Citywide, fewer children qualified this year than last. This was disproportionately so in districts with a higher poverty rate, measured by eligibility for free lunch.

In District 6, in Upper Manhattan, where 85.5 percent of students are eligible for free lunch, 160 children were offered slots in gifted kindergarten classes last year. This year, only 50 qualified. Therefore, the district’s share of entry-grade offers declined to 2.2 percent of the city total, from 4.1 percent last year.

“They’re trying to push Hispanic kids and minority kids away from gifted programs,” said Judith Amaro, a parent leader in District 6.

In District 3, which includes the Upper West Side, 310 students qualified for kindergarten gifted slots for next year, down from 440 who were offered slots last year. But this year, District 3 students made up a larger share of city students offered slots — 13.4 percent, up from 11.4 percent last year.

Thousands more children opted for gifted testing this year than last. To further broaden future pools, Mr. Klein had planned to screen all kindergarteners. While the plan has fallen victim to budget cuts, widespread kindergarten testing is so controversial that last week, a group of professors and luminaries — including Deborah Stipek, the dean of Stanford’s School of Education, and former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo — deplored the practice in a letter to the chancellor and mayor.

“Testing young children for gifted classes most likely will increase inequities,” read the letter, “and undermine educational opportunities for all children.”

March 22, 2006
Lightning Rod for Fury Over Schools' Gifted Programs

Anna Commitante's office chair at the city Department of Education's headquarters is positioned next to an arched window with a view of yellow daffodils in bloom and Broadway just beyond. Her work space is a cramped cubicle, but this being the Tweed Courthouse — an ornate gem with landmark status — it is also rather pleasant.

Nothing about the space hints that at this moment Ms. Commitante sits amid a maelstrom in public education. But as the official in charge of citywide gifted programs, which have just undergone significant change to the annoyance of many parents who preferred things the old way, she is on the receiving end of countless angry e-mail messages, letters and phone calls.

With a steady tone and the no-nonsense approach of a former principal, which she is, Ms. Commitante said she tries to answer every one, even if it's "to just listen."

"I fully understand how it's difficult for parents to get used to a new system," she said. "I do my best to be very clear about why we made the changes. The system is fairer now."

The upset over the perpetually controversial gifted programs started in November, when education officials announced a new admissions policy for hundreds of classes across the city, with a standard application process to replace the hodgepodge of methods that had been used to select children.

Instead of being subjected to a single I.Q. test, children would now be screened using multiple measures, like creativity and inquisitiveness, to give a more comprehensive reading of which children exhibited "gifted behaviors," officials said.

The move was intended to cast a wider net and open the admissions process in a system in which educators in some pockets of the city had traditionally done whatever they wanted in selecting children for the special classes.

And officials found that they were hard pressed to describe what happened in many of these classes to make them gifted and talented. To critics, the classes were nothing more than an easy way to separate children by social or economic status or race.

"Now if we identify a child for a gifted and talented class, hopefully we're doing it for the right reasons — we're providing curriculum modifications," Ms. Commitante said this week over coffee near her downtown office. "I don't know to what degree that was happening. The classes were in place. Whether there was real work going on in terms of meeting children's needs, I don't know. Half the time we couldn't figure out what the admissions process was."

Before the recent changes, some schools with gifted programs, particularly on the Upper West Side, gave preferences to families who lived nearby and to siblings of children already enrolled.

Parents there have complained bitterly that they did not have enough of a voice in the new decision-making, that the new policies risk splitting families among schools, and that simply put, there are not enough decent options for public education outside of the gifted classes, which do not receive extra financing, but often have the most qualified teachers.

Some of the most biting comments have been reserved for Ms. Commitante, who says she occasionally gets thank-you notes, too.

Ms. Commitante, who is 53 and an Italian immigrant, may have a soft spot for children at risk of being overlooked. She was only 6 years old when her family left a small island, Ischia, in the Bay of Naples for Brooklyn. No one in the family knew a word of English and, in fact, her parents never learned, she said. But the Commitante children, after initially being placed in classes for slow learners in public schools in Carroll Gardens, eventually excelled.

"For the first year of school, that was the class I was in, the very bottom, because I couldn't speak English," she said. "Even at that young age I figured out that that was not the place to be."

After college and graduate school at Hunter College, where she studied fine arts, Ms. Commitante began working as a substitute public school teacher, earned the credits she needed to work full-time in the field of gifted education, and then took over a classroom at Public School 29 in Cobble Hill. She also married and had two sons, who attended public schools.

After teaching for about 13 years, Ms. Commitante became a staff development coach focusing on English and reading, and then, in 2000 — achieving one of her dreams — principal of Middle School 443, the New Voices School, in Brooklyn.

But by October 2004, she had been asked to join the administrators at Tweed as the principal of the new City Hall Academy and head of citywide gifted and enrichment programs. One of the first big initiatives she took part in was a committee to dissect what was going on in the myriad gifted programs around the city, where white students were predominant even though they were a minority in the school system.

"Let's face it, giftedness exists in all ethnic groups across all economic strata — I refuse to believe anything different," she said.

As a mother, Ms. Commitante said, she understands the singular drive to secure the best opportunity for one's child, at whatever cost.

"But the Department of Education can't think that way," she said. "We have to think systemwide, broadly, about what is the best thing for all the children. And I think we did that."

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