Monthly Archives: January 2012

Renaissance Charter High School’s Principal Responds To My Piece On Andrew Cuomo Video

A few days ago I wrote a piece about the kids of Renaissance Charter High School’s video celebrating Governor Cuomo’s promise to be a lobbyist for kids. Today, Renaissance’s Principal, Nicholas Tishuk, was gracious enough to post a response to that piece in the comments section. Here is his response:

Assailed,

Hello. A quick fact-check might be in order here:
1) The students in the video are in program studying New York State Policies, focusing on education and youth issues. No students were required to participate, they all volunteered.
2) This is the third round of videos these students have created. The first focused on a civil rights practicum last May to Jackson, Mississippi celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides, that we took with a Freedom Rider who works in East Harlem. Innovation chartered a bus invited students from 6 different schools including Boys and Girls HS, University Heights HS, Renaissance Charter, and Beacon students in East Harlem.
3) The previous round was focused on cyberbullying, after they had a chance to meet State Senator Jeff Klein and Pery Aftab, a nationally recognized expert on bullying.
4) This one was made in the lead-up to our practicum where our students will meet their local elected officials in Albany next month. Reading the State of the State speech was a part of their research and the video accurately coveys the students’ enthusiasm for the Governor’s message. You mileage may vary.
5) The school’s curriculum and educational model is steeped in experiential and project based learning. This is a decent example of that in action.

Best,
Nicholas Tishuk
Principal
Renaissance Charter HS for Innovation

Mr. Tishuk is right to defend his school against what he might consider unfair criticism. The part about his response that stands out is this sentence: “Reading the State of the State speech was a part of their research and the video accurately coveys the students’ enthusiasm for the Governor’s message.”

I am really interested in knowing if their enthusiasm is well placed. There is a difference between reading something and reading it critically. As educators, we have a duty to at least to try to be objective. That means presenting our students with many views on the same issue. Do the students realize that every political speech entails rhetoric? If the Governor claims to be a lobbyist for children, does that mean that is actually the case?

In short, there is a fine line between education and indoctrination. As it stands, there is no evidence that the students of Renaissance were encouraged to get behind the rhetoric of Cuomo’s words. There is no evidence that the students are acquainted with the debate on education reform, including the role of charters in these reforms.

It remains to be seen how in depth the educators at Renaissance are encouraging their students to get into the issue. I have invited Mr. Tishuk to respond to this and I have given him the assurance that his views will not be suppressed on this website.

In my mind, this opens up the possibility that charter schools are indoctrinating their students to accept the premise of education reform. If that is case, then that is not just a little scary.

The Propaganda of Small Schools

Don't go beyond that blue wall. That's not your school.

I have never heard of the MDRC until few days ago. It is a think tank with the motto “Building Knowledge to Improve Social Policy.” However, it is tough to see what type of knowledge it is building by publishing a mindlessly laudatory study of New York City’s small high schools entitled “Sustained Positive Effects on Graduation Rates Produced by New York City’s Small Public High Schools of Choice”. The single most important sentence in the 12-page study can be found towards the bottom of page 11: “This policy brief and the study upon which it is based are funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.”

There you go. The fix was in from the start.

Closing New York City’s large comprehensive public high schools in order to replace them with several small schools has been a cornerstone of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s brand of education reform. It states in the introductory paragraph of the study: “Between fall 2002 and fall 2008, the school district closed 23 large failing high schools (with graduation rates below 45 percent), [and] opened 216 new small high schools (with different missions, structures, and student selection criteria)…” Rather than just stating facts, the authors use language (like “large failing high schools”) to soften up the reader to accept the study’s ultimate conclusion: “In summary, the present findings provide highly credible evidence that in a relatively short period of time, with sufficient organization and resources, an existing school district can implement a complex high school reform that markedly improves graduation rates for a large population of low-income, disadvantaged students of color.”

Of course, we did not need a 12-page study printed on glossy paper to tell us that graduation rates in New York City have increased under Bloomberg. What the study does do, amazingly, is attribute these rising rates to the great education provided by the small high schools: “In a large sample, like that used for the MDRC study, lottery winners and lottery losers are the same, on average, in all ways before they enter high school. Consequently, it is valid to attribute any differences in their future academic outcomes to their access to an SSC (“Small Schools of Choice”). Because students who lose an SSC lottery attend over 200 high schools that vary widely in their size, age, structure, academic programs, and effectiveness, the MDRC report judged SSCs against the overall effectiveness of a diverse group of other high schools. The results released in 2010 indicated that, on average, the 105 SSCs studied increased student progress toward graduation during their first three years of high school and increased students’ four-year graduation rates.”

Only a bunch of policy wonks, isolated from any reality of what goes on in New York City schools, would say something like all students who apply to the small schools of choice “are the same, on average, in all ways before they enter high school.” I am sure this is news to the parents of these students, who remember giving birth to their children instead of buying them off an assembly line.

But if you can contend that all students are the same, then you can pretend that you have controlled for the human elements of different learning styles, socioeconomic background and home life. If you can pretend in good conscience that you have controlled for these factors, then you can give your flimsy findings an air of scientific respectability.

So what does it do to the validity of this study when Bloomberg’s own sock puppet school Chancellor Dennis Walcott admits that these small schools have not taken in their fair share of students with learning problems and English Language Learners? What does it do to the validity of the study when a man like Walcott, who faithfully toes Bloomberg’s corporate line, pretty much admits that the non-small high schools (i.e. the type that this study would consider “failing”) against which these small schools were compared have been weighed down by a disproportionate number of the most difficult students to educate?

I would have gladly taken the filthy money of the Gates Foundation to conduct my own study on the issue. Since they have not yet offered to avail themselves of my services, I will be the bigger man and publish my study for free. I do not even need 12 pages of glossy paper on which to write it. All I need is this little black space and white font that I pay for out of my own pocket.

Graduation rates are up because standards are down. When you chop one large high school into 5 smaller schools, you must hire 4 new principals. That means a much higher principal-to-teacher ratio than ever before. In short, they are better able to lean on their teachers. Since the careers of these principals depend on the school’s yearly report card, and that report card is heavily contingent upon graduation rates, principals around the city have made it very clear to their teachers that students better pass no matter what. A student did not show up for class all year? No problem. Give them online credit recovery, where they can take basket-weaving 101 and pretend it is a science credit. It does not matter if kids learn anything. All that matters is that the data looks good. If the MDRC was really serious about measuring student success, they would have mentioned that most NYC public high school graduates that go on to college do not make it past their sophomore year. If this is what success looks like, I would hate to see abject failure.

But are not more and more public high school students passing the state Regents exams? Sure they are. That is because of the rampant growth of grade inflation. The biggest blow to Bloomberg’s legacy as the “education mayor” has been the statement of this obvious truth by the people who administer the Regents exams statewide.

To top it all off, as I have pointed out on this blog millions of times, the small high schools are too small to provide art, music, sports, debate, clubs and whole host of enrichment activities only made possible by pooling the resources of a large number of diverse people working cooperatively under the same roof. Instead of bringing the community together, the small schools tear it asunder. Bloomberg has replaced cooperation with competition and the children have suffered because of it.

This MDRC study is just more proof that ideas are up for sale in our day and age. Instead of “Building Knowledge to Improve Social Policy”, their motto should be “Selling Social Policy to the Highest Bidder”.

Marta Valle High School and the Case of the Misspelled Sign

The non-story of the misspelled crossing sign on the street outside of Marta Valle High School has been making its rounds lately. The Department of Transportation painted the words “School Shcool Xing” in the gutter outside of the Lower East Side community school. The mistake went unchallenged for months, leading many to point fingers at the school for not having it corrected.

Why am I writing about this non-story? Because Marta Valle is where I spent the first 6 years of my career.

I still have a special connection to the place. It was a secondary school when I was there, serving grades 7-12. The population was very small, with most of the kids being from the neighborhood. It was a place in constant flux, and probably still is, going through administrators and teachers like Kleenex. The few veteran teachers who I know are still there are particularly dedicated. They would have to be, since there has never been much direction, discipline or support for teachers.

It is a shame that the school is getting this type of negative attention. The kids I taught at Marta Valle had little reason to have any school spirit. It would not be uncommon to hear kids say that the school was “budget” or “fake”. Kids are perceptive and they know when their school is not being given a chance. This story will do nothing to improve the standing of the school in their eyes.

The building looks like a jail. There are gates over the windows and giant metal bars at the front of the school that lock people out during non-school hours. At the same time, the surrounding neighborhood has undergone complete gentrification. Dozens of hipster bars and restaurants opened up during my tenure there, while the rents of the cubbyhole apartments in the area skyrocketed well out of the range of both the families and teachers associated with Marta Valle. Most of the students at Marta Valle are relegated to the housing projects of the Lower East Side: Baruch, Riis, Wald, Rutgers and Smith. Being located in the lap of luxury only serves to highlight to the students how neglected their school really is.

I can imagine the current generation of students at Marta Valle, who are probably the younger siblings of the generation I taught, using all of the hype around this simple mistake as further proof that their school is “budget”. I really do not know who to blame for this error, nor do I know if blame should be ascribed to anybody at all. What I do know is that the media’s mad rush to destroy the image of public schools has led them to run this story. As a result, a few hundred young people who are trapped in poverty on the Lower East Side have been given yet another reason to be alienated from their school. This coming on the heels of the New York Times celebrating a completely vacuous video made by students at the Renaissance Charter High School.

I hope all of the local newspapers and television stations that have been chuckling over this story for the past few days are satisfied. When any of them want to do a real story, I will be here waiting to regale them with the tales of abject poverty and alienation that constitute this little-known pocket of Lower Manhattan.

Take Action: Sign the Petition to Get Rid of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education

Picture from New York City Public School Parents website: http://nycpublicschoolparents.blogspot.com/2011/02/arne-duncan-dumb-and-dumber.html

With the backlash against SOPA, we see how effective online activism can be.

Sign the petition here.

Full text of the petition. (Original Link)

Dear President Obama,

We, the undersigned, a cross section of the nation’s teachers and their supporters, wish to express our extreme displeasure with the policies implemented during your administration by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Although many of us campaigned enthusiastically for you in 2008, it is unlikely that you will receive continued support unless the following three dimensions of your administration’s education initiatives are changed:

  1. The exclusion of teachers from policy discussions in the US Department of Education and from Education Summits called under your leadership.
  2. The use of rhetoric which blames failing schools on “bad teachers” rather than poverty and neighborhood distress.
  3. The use of federal funds to compel states and municipalities to use student test scores in the evaluation of teachers and as the basis for closing low performing schools.

Because of these policies, teachers throughout the nation have become discouraged and demoralized, undermining your own stated goals of improving teacher quality, upgrading the nation’s educational performance, and encouraging creative pedagogy rather than “teaching to the test.”

We therefore submit the following measures to put your administration’s education policy back on the right track and to bring teachers in as full partners in this effort:

  1. The removal of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education and his replacement by a lifetime educator who has the confidence of the nation’s teachers.
  2. The incorporation of parents, teachers, and school administrators in all policy discussion taking place in your administration, inside and outside the Department of Education.
  3. An immediate end to the use of incentives or penalties to compel states and municipalities to use student test scores as a basis for evaluating teachers, preferring charter schools to existing public schools, and requiring closure of low performing schools.
  4. Create a National Commission, in which teachers and parent representatives play a primary role, which explores how to best improve the quality of America’s schools.

We believe such policies will create an outpouring of good will on the part of teachers, parents and students which will promote creative teaching and educational innovation, leading to far greater improvements in the nation’s schools than policies which encourage a proliferation of student testing could ever hope to do.

Sincerely,

The Undersigned

Obama’s War on Knowledge

Obama reveals his plans to destroy all learning.

One of my favorite blogs is On The Edge. Susan, who is the author, usually chooses the right stance over the popular one. Yesterday, she posted an article about Obama’s plan for higher education reform. It is essentially Race to the Top for universities, where federal funding will be tied to whether or not universities will be able to lower tuition. This means, of course, slashing pay for professors and the proliferation of online courses as a way to cut costs. The article paints a grim picture of universities ending up totally beholden to private interests. Susan ends her post with a chilling comment, “watch them try to do away with tenure on the college level.”

Teachers, whether in grade school or university, are the guardians of knowledge for the young. Oftentimes, they are the only pipeline youth have into the world of important ideas. The standardized testing craze in public schools has already been taking knowledge out of the hands of teachers and putting it into the hands of private testing companies, which are usually owned by even bigger corporations like News Corp. What this will amount to, once education deform has thoroughly ravaged public education, is a very narrow elite deciding what is important for people to know and what is not. This is the same story with the media, where a handful of corporations decide what gets aired and what remains invisible. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which by no means has been defeated, promises to be a major first step in allowing corporations say in what remains on the internet and what gets disappeared.

Taken together, public schools, the media and the internet pretty much account for all of the ways people interact with the wider world. Our entire matrix of knowledge is shaped by these things. Those whose only knowledge of the world is gleaned from their public school education are usually not informed at all, especially since the relevance of that education wanes as people get older. Those that bury their heads in the television for news usually come away with a shallow understanding of what is happening, leaving them with little but flimsy talking points. The internet might be the best place of all for news, but it is only useful if the person doing the surfing is able to discern the small amount of good information from the vast amount of garbage. Although all of these things are either under attack or totally beholden to corporate interests, there was always a silver lining in the background: the college professor.

Even if every other source of knowledge has been bastardized by corporate interests, college professors hold out the hope of intellectual integrity. This does not mean that every professor is a bastion of reliability. Anyone who has seen the movie Inside Job knows that many professors are for sale and will hide behind the supposed intellectual rigor of their work in order to push a corporate agenda. Yet, on the whole, college professors at least have a pretense to rigor and a desire to help their fields of study evolve through solid research and analysis. Through journal articles and popular books, professors filter their findings down to the population at large. History professors provide a public service by researching recent history, interpreting their findings and shedding light on the politics of today. It is tenure that gives professors the freedom to value truth over fads. Unlike public school teachers, professors are not so pliable to outside interests, especially the interests of the rich and powerful. In certain cases, professors are able to speak truth to power in a way few others can.

Doing away with tenure for college professors will mean the total commodification of knowledge. There will be literally no way the average person can interact with the world around them without it being filtered through a corporate reality first. Hopefully, college professors across the country can overcome their traditional lack of stomach for pitched political battle and defend what promises to be the final frontier of free expression and the pursuit of truth.

Maybe they can start by becoming more involved in the debate over education reform. The ones not for sale need to shout louder and farther than the economists and education researchers who have whored themselves out to the corporate elite a long time ago.

The Ron Paul Dilemma

It is stuff like this that gives Ron Paul so many young supporters.

It is convenient to believe that marijuana draws the young to Ron Paul. However, the unjust wars of the United States has much more resonance.

The strange thing is that Ron Paul can say something as sensible as this while still attracting a large following from the internet tin foil hat crowd who believe George Bush orchestrated 9/11. I suppose that is because of his anti-government paranoia.

The fact that so many 9/11 conspiracy hacks were old right-wingers has always given credence to the idea that the entire “9/11 Truth” movement is an arm of the Republican Party. With their complete misapplication and ignorance of American history, not to mention their completely wack-a-doodle view of the world, they discredit any meaningful criticism of the imperial wars of the United States.

And that is the Ron Paul dilemma. He will say something as safe and sensible as this for a national audience, then later he will give a nod to the internet conspiracy community with his attacks on the Fed and international banking. Do not be surprised if that is why the Republican Party keeps him around. Because him and his followers are considered clinically insane by thinking Americans, his criticism of the wars are easily disregarded by the public at large.

I believe the final word has yet to be written as to the real role of the 9/11 Truth movement in killing the nascent anti-war protests that developed at the start of our invasion of Iraq. Ron Paul might be the Rosetta stone for this final word.

 

Renaissance Charter High School Requires Their Students To Shill For Governor Cuomo

9th and 10th graders at Renaissance Charter High School made the following video as an assignment. They did such a good job that it received a mention in the New York Times.

I suppose this is an example of the innovative teaching that goes on in charter schools. Of course, it is easy for students to make something like this when the school has proper video equipment. As you watch the video, ask yourself what the students might have actually learned from this project. Yes, maybe they got experience being in front of a camera. They also probably got a taste for what it means to be behind the camera. Finally, they most likely used editing equipment to take all of their raw footage and weave it into a comprehensive piece.

Public school children are perfectly capable of doing the same thing; all they need is the equipment. Of course, in the age of budget cuts that starve public schools, it is unlikely many of them would even have this equipment.

The students did a good job on the video. It is not their fault that their teachers required them to shill for Governor Cuomo. While some teachers might be impressed with something like this, I do not see the educational value at all. The only thing the students of Renaissance Charter High School learned from this video is how propaganda works.

The media does the same thing as the students in the video. They take the words of someone in authority, like a governor or tycoon, and broadcast it far and wide. If Cuomo says he is a lobbyist for students, then the media reports him as being a lobbyist for students. If President Bush says Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, then the media will replay that line over and over until 300 million Americans believe it.

The teachers who gave this assignment were obviously not interested in developing critical thinking in their students. That would entail the students doing some investigative work, like why Andrew Cuomo would say such a thing in his State of the State speech (did they even learn what the State of the State is? Do they know what a lobbyist is?) Maybe it has something to do with being bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch. Or perhaps it has something to do with an opportunistic politician who wants to ride the wave of teacher bashing that pervades the country. Whatever it is, the kids at Renaissance will never know.

And this is why the public should not buy this claptrap that charter schools are somehow innovative laboratories of pedagogy. As far as this assignment was concerned, it was a net loss for the students. Sure, they might have gotten some experience in making a video. Yet, they carried out an exercise in media propaganda without knowing it. They will now think that all it takes to be on television is to become a mouthpiece for the rich and powerful. They have learned that political rhetoric is fact and the media’s job is to parrot this rhetoric far and wide.

Welcome to the world of education reform, where students are taught not to question the world around them. Welcome to Renaissance Charter High School, where students are given a top-flight education in shilling.

What I wonder is, does the staff at Renaissance see anything wrong with requiring students to mindlessly repeat what essentially amounts to a political stance? Do they see anything wrong with making an issue that has more than one side seem as if there is only one side?

Probably not. Something tells me that the teachers there are young and underpaid, without the skill or the knowledge to create activities that require actual thought on the part of their students.