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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Andrew Wolf On The Two-Headed Monster Black-Polokow-Suransky,

A Chimera Emerges at the Helm of New York Schools;
Two-Headed Monster Is Apt Metaphor for New Arrangement
By ANDREW WOLF, Special to the Sun, November 28, 2010

Whatever one can say about the state education commissioner, David M. Steiner, Solomon he’s not. He split the baby in half, and he has satisfied no one. But skip that analogy. One would have to go to Greek mythology to look for what he has produced — a two-headed monster, part lioness, part goat, which is known as a chimera and has come to connote an unrealistic dream. Which is apt enough, as the gains are going to prove chimerical.

Cathleen Black may have the waiver needed to get the title of schools chancellor, but she got the less important part of the job. Mayor Bloomberg has suffered his worst political embarrassment since the defeat of his bid for non-partisan elections. As for those who believe that the issue here is substance, they got the short end of the stick.

The way to understand this fiasco is to bear in mind that the most important matter facing the schools is the curriculum. That’s the substance. Who gets to control the schools, how much the teachers are paid, what the ratio is between students and teachers, how long the day is, what the test scores are, these are not the top issues. The top issues are the curriculum, and the methods used to convey it to students. This is instruction, a topic that never was the priority at the Tweed Courthouse.

This is an issue where one needs a real educator, a teacher, someone paying attention to what is being taught. Ms. Black is way out of her depth here. She lacks the credentials to so much as teach a class, which puts her below the qualifications possessed by the actor Tony Danza, who taught but a single class (one fifth the usual class load) in a Philadelphia high school for a year as part of a television reality show. Mr. Danza was required to have an actual licensed educator mentor him for the full year.

If Ms. Black’s mandated deputy, Mr. Polokow-Suransky, is supposed to be the chief educator, shouldn’t he be the chancellor, and shouldn’t the technocrat, Ms. Black, get a title like chief operating officer? Mr. Steiner’s plan has this reversed. Certainly one doesn’t want the educational policy emanating from the administrative office. Are we deciding the way we are teaching children to read or do math to conform to some management imperative?

On top of that, Mr. Polokow-Suransky isn’t much of an educator. His current job at the Department of Education, deputy chancellor for performance and accountability, was previously filled not by an educator but a lawyer. In September, Mr. Polakow-Suransky disclosed the nature of his current work with the Department of Education at a meeting with the president of the Bronx, Ruben Diaz, Jr., and the Bronx member of the Board of Regents, Betty A. Rosa.

Attendees at the meeting were concerned by Mr. Steiner’s admission that his predecessors at the state department of education had been inflating the scores of the tests administered to children in grades three through eight. This was bad news for the city, which saw the “historic gains” boasted of during the mayor’s reelection campaign last year evaporate overnight.

Mr. Polokow-Suransky traveled to the Bronx to explain the situation to an angry Mr. Diaz, who was upset that children in his borough were harder hit than others in the city. Mr. Polokow-Suransky off-handedly admitted that the city was aware of the problems with the test results at least a year before last year’s mayoral election, but did nothing to sound the alarm that something was amiss. Ms. Rosa was outraged.

“Imagine if your bank deposited $100,000 in your account in error,” recounted Ms. Rosa to me, paraphrasing her comments to Mr. Polokow-Suransky. “You may have done nothing wrong, unless you turned around and spent the money you knew wasn't yours. That’s what was done in last year’s mayoral election. The scores that the city knew were inflated were used to give an impression of success that was misleading and even fraudulent. And that was wrong.”

As the city played dumb, Ms. Rosa at least demanded last year that the suspicious test results be withheld. That plea, made before Mr. Steiner’s arrival, fell on deaf ears. The New York Times has noted that 57% of voters who made education their top priority voted to re-elect the mayor, who won by just 5 percentage points. Had just 2.5% known the truth and switched sides, the outcome of the election might have been very different.

So Mr. Polokow-Suransky hasn’t been working with curriculum or instructional techniques and strategies, the jobs of the educational professional. He has been spinning the stats, which remain the biggest question confronting the mayor’s claims on education. And now Mr. Steiner has caved in to the mayor. The brief euphoria in serious education circles, when on Tuesday evening it looked like the state education commissioner would deny Ms. Black her waiver, was just a mirage.

The post of chancellor should go to a person with top education credentials, a distinguished figure up to whom everyone in New York — and the rest of the country — can look as having substance. Instead we have a chancellor with no education credentials who will have by her side a person who has been facilitating the cooking of the books using bogus test scores. What is there in the way of educational substance in his resume to make New Yorkers believe that he will be able to stand up to Ms. Black and the Mayor? As I say, a chimera.

Mr. Wolf is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.

Detroit Schools In A Death Spiral

Detroit schools in final death spiral?

Susan Ohanian web site

Detroit is dying a death of a thousand cuts. Still, the cuts add up and will someday become the last breath. . . . a product of the cruel mixture of racism and capitalism.
by Rich Gibson, Substance News

The Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) may be on its last legs. This was a once-proud union that fought like hell, alongside other workers, not only for the school worker force, but for kids. Last year, behind the urgings of the DFT President, Keith Johnson and AFT President Randi Weingarten, the DFT bargained what I think is the worst contract in the history of school-based collective bargaining. Substance (subscribe now for lower rates!) ran a piece on that contract (§ion=Article).

Detroit schools lost 1/2 of the student body in the last decade, probably more than that because no statistics coming from any Detroit agency can be trusted. Over the years, the school system, like the entire Detroit public sector (and parts of the private sector — what is left of it) grew riddled with incompetence, corruption and dishonesty, at every level.

That is a product of the cruel mixture of racism and capitalism. Nevertheless, the organized teachers were the last force in the city that could truly fight back. That they failed, almost completely, does not speak well of them, or most teachers in the US either.

As a result of the DFT contract, what are called "neighborhood" schools have collapsed. Already in rapid decay, they appear to be nearly finished off. "Priority schools," are funded, get supplies, cream kids and teachers. Not too many complaints come out of them. In fact, I know quite a few priority teachers who are happier in their jobs than ever before. There is a lesson to them below.

There are more charters than before, but nobody can make a case that they caused the ruin of DPS, nearly in ruins before they arrived.

Detroit Federation of Teachers President Keith Johnson (above, speaking at the 2010 AFT convention) has been accused of supporting the worst union contract in AFT history. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. Detroit is dying a death of a thousand cuts. Still, the cuts add up and will someday become the last breath. With a long history of rebellions and uprisings, that last death could be ugly. With hope in schools evaporating fast, that possibility is greater every day.

There is an election going on in the DFT now. Votes are to be tabulated in about ten days. It's unlikely that the contract can be upended, even if the traitorous leadership of the union is.

Below is a letter from the DFT web site, written by the V.P of the DFT. Nothing in the contract that I know of can protect school workers from the practices the letter describes. Only direct action could. I'll let it stand alone with just one warning: an injury to one really does just go before an injury to all.

Good luck to us, every one

Letter to Dr. Barbara Byrd-Bennett [11.22.10]
[Letter sent today to Dr. Barbara Byrd Bennett, DPS Chief Academic and Accountability Auditor]

Dear Dr. Byrd-Bennett:

We are getting a lot of feedback from teachers concerning the overwhelming amount of testing and progress monitoring they are required to do. While each of the assessments may have merit, taken as a whole they leave too little time for instruction. Teachers throughout the district are asking "When do we have time to teach?"

In addition to the regular curriculum, students are assessed using the Star Math and Star Reading programs. They work on individualized lessons and assessments through Accelerated Math and Accelerated Reading. Three times per year students take a battery of benchmark assessments including up to five Dibels assessments, Burst, and TRC. Throw in quarterly Q tests that take two class periods per day for four days each quarter, and two to three weeks of MEAP testing, and it's no wonder teachers want more time to teach.

In between benchmarks, teachers are asked to print up to 80 pages of Burst lessons every two weeks. These lessons are to be taught to the lowest achieving four to five students in each class for a half hour per day. Some schools don't have enough toner to print these lessons, others don't have enough copiers, and nobody seems to have enough time. One teacher estimates that a quarter of her instructional time is devoted to these assessments and progress monitoring.

On a weekly basis, teachers also are asked to do time-consuming progress monitoring for Dibels and TRC. Much if this work is done with one student at a time. While our teachers are doing their best to keep the rest of the class doing meaningful work, it is not possible to properly monitor and coach the others while you are testing individuals.

Two common themes emerge from discussions with teachers throughout the district. First, these assessments all have some merit individually, but together, they are too much. Second, we as teachers can handle all this, but our students are suffering.

One teacher told me that for one day, she ignored Burst, Dibels, TRC, Accelerated Math and Reading, and all she did was teach. It was the best day the class had all year! The saddest thing is, this didn't happen until the third week of October, and she had to ignore directives to make it happen at all.

To bring more balance to the classroom, we suggest that the district strongly consider the following changes.

1. Eliminate the Q1, Q2, Q3, Q4 benchmark tests. These tests are not aligned with the district's scope and sequence charts. Students are taking tests in November on material that won't be covered until March. As a result, there is no validity to these tests.Our teachers have seen tests designed by and for DPS every few years. From Exit Skills, to ESAT, to MIP, to Q tests, the tests come and go and you would be hard pressed to find a teacher who will claim instruction has improved as a result of any one of these.

2. Allow teachers to use their professional judgment to determine the amount of progress monitoring to do. Progress monitoring in TRC is particularly difficult, since the text in the Palm devices frequently does not match the text in the books students are reading.

3. Discontinue Burst groups. The lower achieving students can be helped in the regular classroom setting.

4. Provide additional personnel to help with assessments. Whether the district allows literacy coaches to do some of the assessments or provides classroom aides to assist with class management, more help is needed to keep all children learning.

We know that standardized testing is here to stay. To improve our scores, we need more instructional time, not more tests.

Sincerely, Mark O'Keefe, DFT Executive Vice President

Rich Gibson, Substance News