Tag Archives: New York City Public Schools

How the Race to the Top Evaluations Look So Far in NYC

You don't have to work with machines to be a factory worker.

You don’t have to work with machines to be a factory worker.

The first week of classes in New York City public schools will be in the books by the end of the day today. To say this is not an ordinary year does not really capture the mood. We are entering our first year of a new teacher evaluation system, which has been the cause of much confusion over the past week. On the horizon looms the Common Core in 2014. Both the evaluation and Common Core are still largely question marks whose implications are only starting to be felt now.

To summarize what the new evaluations look like (much more specific stuff can be found here, here and here) the old system of “Satisfactory” and “Unsatisfactory” ratings for teachers is out the window in favor of a four-point scale ranging from “ineffective” to “developing” to “effective” to “highly effective”.

60% of our ratings will be based upon a “scientifically-based” rubric mandated by the federal Race to the Top program, the reason for these evaluations in the first place. In New York City’s case, we are using Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching. The term “Danielson” has become a commonplace shorthand on the lips of everyone in every school building city-wide, carrying with it a pall of fearful uncertainty.

20% of our evaluations will be based upon our students’ performance on state-wide exams. For elementary and middle schools, this means new and more frequent testing of their students at the rate of at least one exam each year. For high school teachers, this means being tied to the Regents exams in various subjects. Even teachers of gym, art, music and other enrichment classes will be tied to Regents exams in other subjects that have very little to do with the content of the courses they teach. For these teachers, the principal will assign the Regents exam to which this 20% of the evaluation will be tied.

The final 20% will be based on how each teacher’s students do on what are called “local measures”.  Each school district around the state got to choose some form of assessment that does not necessarily have to be an exam, although it will certainly be an exam in most cases. In New York City, each school had a choice as to whether they wanted this 20% “local measure” to be some form of DOE-generated and DOE-graded assessment or to simply be the exams used for the 20% state measure counted in a different way (this to be explained below). For both the state and local measures, the absolute score of a teacher’s students on these exams does not matter as much as how much the scores of the students improve over the past year. Improve over what you might ask? On what exams will this and future year’s baseline scores be based? The answer to that question is a bizarre kaleidoscope of exams and quasi-exams, each depending on the grade and/or subject of each teacher’s schedule and roster of students. It is impossible to find anyone who has mastered the permutations of which exams will be used to determine baseline scores for which students in which grades, mostly because it is quite apparent that the state and especially the city do not even know yet.

That means that the way teachers are evaluated here in New York City over the next few years will vary somewhat from school to school. It also means that there are some unsettling question marks surrounding this new evaluation regime. This past summer, each school had to assemble a team of 4 people chosen by the principal and 4 people chosen by the union chapter leader who then would advise the principal on their recommendation(s) on what should count as the school’s 20% “local measure”. As chapter leader at my school I was part of this committee What follows is an account of how this new evaluation process has unfolded in my school since that summer meeting up until now. For such a relatively short amount of time the changes for everyone in our building have been marked and instructive.

Without getting into petty details, our committee of 4 teachers and 4 administrators had a relatively harmonious meeting about local measures. We decided essentially to go with what has been dubbed the “default measure”. That means that all of the scores on all of the assessments used for the state measures at our school will be averaged into one overall score. That overall score will apply to every teacher in the school. The growth of that score over a baseline score (How is this baseline determined? We don’t fully know.) from the previous year will determine our local 20%. Considering the circumstances, I believe this was the best possible choice we could have made for our school, students, teachers and administrators included. This option precludes us from having to give more exams, which I think is its most important virtue. Also, by uniting all teachers under one score it maintains that all-important atmosphere of collaboration vital to any school staff. Instead of teachers being divided by departments, all of us sink or swim as one. Administrators do not have to waste time and resources on organizing more test dates, which includes altering schedules, assigning proctors and everything that comes with ensuring proper testing protocol is followed.

Our committee also had a choice between using a “goal setting” or “growth model” process for our local 20%. In “goal setting”, the DOE issues baseline scores (based on whatever) for every teacher’s students. Then, at the start of the year, each teacher must meet with their administrator to determine how they think their students will do on the local assessment (whatever assessment that was chosen by the committee) given at the end of the year. The over-under of that prediction is essentially what constitutes that “20%”.

We chose the “growth model” formula where the growth in our students’ scores will be compared with the growth of “similar” students’ (demographically speaking, for the most part) scores from around the state. Our students tend to do very well on Regents exams for the most part, so we had the confidence in them to go with this choice. It precludes us from having to guess (and guess blindly in my opinion) how our students might perform on exams 10 months from now.

While a good portion of this past summer was spent discussing exams, the first portion of this school year has been all about “Danielson”. Exams are relatively far in the future (June is always a decade away when you are in September) but Danielson is knocking on our door now. In fact, we have already opened the door and Danielson is hanging up her coat and taking off her shoes to stay for dinner.

To simplify things, the Danielson rubric has 4 “quadrants”. Quadrants 2 and 3 deal with what happens in the classroom and, between them, count for 3/4 of our Danielson rating. Quadrants 1 and 4 deal with what we do outside of the classroom (professional development, preparation, etc.) and count for 1/4 of our Danielson rating between them. Between all four quadrants there are 22 individual points we must hit by the end of the school year. Our administrators will come in, observe us and literally check off which parts of Danielson they saw in our lesson. For those areas that are either unobservable in a classroom (because they fall under quadrants 1 or 4) or that the administrator has yet to check off, we can submit up to 8 “artifacts” a year to our administrators. These artifacts can be lessons, units, exams, certificates of completion for professional development sessions, phone logs for parent calls or basically anything that shows what you do as a teacher. Based upon those artifacts, our administrator might check off more Danielson boxes on our evaluation, or they might not check off any.

It all has the feel of a video game where we are collecting “easter eggs” or completing little missions or jumping to grab coins hidden in bricks. We have to make sure to get all of the coins by the end of the game or we will not be able to save the princess. In this case, the princess is an “effective” rating and losing a life means getting an “ineffective” rating, which puts careers on thin ice no matter how tenured or how great the teacher is.

This has led to an epidemic in my school of what I call “artifact fever”. Teachers are busily making copies, gathering records, exchanging notes and asking each other about what constitutes an appropriate artifact. The more studious teachers have already started handing in artifacts and, in a Danielson rubric posted in their brains, have already started checking off the quadrants they have fulfilled. Some teachers have the beginning of artifact fever, whose initial symptoms include confusion and disorientation at all of the hustle and bustle of their colleagues. The next stage is a feeling of delinquency because they are not gathering artifacts and so they better start soon lest their colleagues beat them in some race that nobody is really having to begin with. There are a few like me who refuse to allow some asinine evaluation system to put a bug in their ear about them being bad teachers unless they get their artifacts in. We will get them in, but we will start to do so only after we get the more important tasks of getting to know our new students and preparing them for the school year out of the way first.

And therein lies the biggest problem with this process. Here is where we see how this new evaluation regime is bad all around. My colleagues are doing what they honestly believe is right, especially since they are starting to feel the first tingles of a career in jeopardy. They might not be explicitly thinking this but lurking behind all of this to-do about artifacts and Danielson is the prospect of being rated “ineffective”, putting them on the path to termination. I would even go so far as to say that most teachers are making an effort to fulfill both Danielson and what they think good teaching is based upon their experience. This assumes on my part that Danielson and good teaching are mutually exclusive, which I firmly believe they are.

These teachers would have been hustling and bustling anyway at this time of year. They would be preparing lessons, homework assignments and decorations to start the school year off on the right foot. Their efforts are being diluted by the advent of this new rubric, this Danielson, that tells them “yes, but you must at least do this.” We grade the first homework assignments of the year while that Danielson voice goes off in our heads saying “it is nice you are grading homework but Danielson says you must at least do this.” So then we run to the store to buy more decorations so our “classroom environment” looks welcoming and educational (because that is what Danielson says) and nothing screams education like a cartoon poster of Winnie the Pooh saying “history is fun”. That of course is an exaggeration but that is more or less the nature of the pull that all NYC teachers must be feeling. Not only must we do what we know is right by our students, we have to make sure Danielson is being fulfilled and that we will achieve all 22 check marks by the end of the year.

There are some that might argue that this might make us better teachers. My response to that is you do not know what makes a teacher better. Teaching is an art, not a science and not an assembly line process. New teachers grow and flourish by getting in there and practicing their craft under the guidance of an experienced mentor who knows how to develop that teacher’s natural strengths and use them to help overcome their weaknesses. Experienced teachers grow by guiding younger teachers since it enables them to reflect on their craft and the assumptions they make about it.

But teaching is a dirty word. It is only valid when it is guided by a “framework”, which effectively perverts teaching into pedagogy. It perverts art into pseudo-science. The university education professor’s 100-year crusade to be taken seriously as a person of “science” has resulted in a “rubric”, this Danielson, that crystallizes in laymen’s terms much of the superficial babble that qualifies as “sound pedagogy” in the halls of education colleges nationwide. Sure, one might argue that if it is so superficial then it should not be a problem for a skilled teacher to easily fulfill the Danielson rubric. My response to that is a skilled teacher has deep reasons for doing the things they do and a rubric that does not speak to those reasons is not a rubric for teaching. How can there be such a rubric in the first place?

In the end, what the new evaluations are doing to New York City schools is giving them more work to do on top of the work they have already been doing. It is just that too: work. It is not a journey of professional self-discovery for teachers and administrators. It is a highly pressurized atmosphere which is causing teachers to do things they would not otherwise do mostly for the purpose of getting a few tick marks checked off so they do not end up getting fired. It is an evaluation system that was born in a culture that sees teachers as union thugs and burnouts and school administrators as middle managers whose jobs largely consist of making the little union thug dogs bark. Neither teacher nor administrator are assumed to have much knowledge of what it takes to help children learn. Instead, the experts are faux pedagogues like Charlotte Danielson and the good people at Pearson. Our jobs during the school day are considered to be those of bureaucratic functionaries who must demonstrate the appropriate outward behavior. What lies on the inside in terms of professional depth or experience is irrelevant. Worse, it is unwelcome.

In short, things do not augur well here in New York City schools

Judging the Judgers

By now, most of us have probably seen the video of dean Stephan Hudson in a physical altercation with high school freshmen Kristoff John at George Westinghouse Technical Education High School in Brooklyn. If not, here is the clip that has been shown on the television airwaves here in New York City.

The very first thing that you see, and something that is easily missed, is the student taking a swing at Mr. Hudson.  Mr. Hudson then basically grabs the student by the arm and manhandles him. The mother of Kristoff John is suing the city for $5.5 million. With that kind of lopsided number, I regret not swinging on any of my teachers when I was in high school.

The video looks bad. As a dean of many years, not to mention a man of height and girth, I know that Mr. Hudson was in a nightmare position. A kid swinging on a dean is not the same as a kid swinging on a teacher. Deans are the disciplinarians of the school. They are the ones teachers call on if they are ever assaulted by a student. Once that swing was launched by Kristoff John, Stephan Hudson was in a lose-lose situation. If he lets it slide, he is a wimp. His authority in the eyes of the students, and even the staff, gets taken down a few pegs. That would make his job as dean much more difficult for years to come. There would always be whispers in the hallways of the day Mr. Hudson got “snuffed” by a student and he did not do anything about it. In a school like Westinghouse, it might not be long until another student tries to snuff him again.

His size would make things worse. He would be seen as a big wimp. Why is such a big man so afraid of such a small kid?

On the other hand, if he does retaliate, you get the situation he is in now. The media cries foul. The public only sees a large man roughing up a small kid. What kind of monsters work in  schools these days? Fire him. Did you see the size of him? This teacher is a bully. The current vogue of that word ensures Mr. Hudson will continue to be vilified as such until this situation is resolved.

As usual, things are not as simple as people are making them, including Ben Chapman of the Daily News, who has never been known to be very thorough or fair in his reporting. This is what he wrote for his June 28th article:

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott was “disturbed” by video of a hulking teacher pummeling a scrawny student at a Brooklyn school and will seek the teacher’s firing, a spokeswoman said.

Chapman uses words like “pummeling”, “beating” and “thumping” throughout his piece. One wonders if he knows what these words mean, especially when used in concert. If Mr. Hudson had balled up his fists and repeatedly punched Kristoff John, then those words would certainly be warranted. But Mr. Hudson was not beating or pummeling the scrawny kid. He certainly was manhandling and grabbing him.

My question is what would Chapman, Walcott and the rest of the outraged public want Mr. Hudson to do instead? Should he have taken the punch, given the kid a pat on the back, and sent him off to class? Should he have not defended himself at all and called school safety to put the kid in cuffs? How many more times would he have been punched by the time school safety got there?

The fact is, owing to the size difference between the two of them, Mr. Hudson doing anything physical in retaliation could only end in him being vilified. I know this not only from my days as a dean, but from my days as a city kid in the schoolyard. If a kid half my size punched me in the face and I did not do anything, I am a wimp (or “herb” as they used to call it). If I had pummeled him with my fists and feet, I would be a bully. All the girls in the schoolyard would have ran over to hold the poor kid’s head as he laid looking up at the sky.

It is a lose-lose situation. With chancellors like Walcott and reporters like Chapman, the “lose” for Mr. Hudson would surely be his career.

The job of a dean is 99.9 percent mental and .1 percent physical. Most of the time, looking scary, being assertive and having a loud mouth is enough to get respect as an authority figure. I added humor to the mix when I was a dean, so thankfully I never had a kid who wanted to punch me in the face. Yet, if you are a dean long enough in a school like Westinghouse, it will just be a matter of time before that .1% of the job calls. Maybe a student pushes you or swings at you. In my case, it was students swinging on school safety, teachers or other deans that necessitated me getting physical to subdue a student. It is not a good position to be in. If the kid gets bruised or hurt, you can have a lawsuit and investigation on your hands.

Unfortunately, that is the hell in which Mr. Hudson currently finds himself. I cannot judge his actions because I do not know what I would have done if I were in his shoes. I wish him the best in navigating the mine field to come.

On the other hand, I find it quite easy to judge those who choose to judge Mr. Hudson. For Ben Chapman, it is business as usual. It is misleading language meant to embellish, all in the service of bashing teachers. The article he put his name on months ago about “perv” teachers bordered on pure smut, making the National Enquirer look like the New Yorker. Careful and accurate language in reporting mean nothing when the goal is to bash teachers and sell copy. It is not like the job of reporters is to investigate and report the truth or anything.

For Dennis Walcott, it is the same Puritanical schoolmarm act that has defined his entire tenure as chancellor. Just as always, he tightens his lips, furrows his brow and speaks in severe and unforgiving language about firing teachers for transgressions against the bounds of decency, real or imagined. In this, of course, he is merely doing the bidding of Pharaoh Bloomberg, the man he unquestioningly serves.

For the mother of Kristoff John, it is the “oh, my poor baby” act. On the one hand, I start to sympathize with what goes through her mind when she sees her son being manhandled by a burly man. Then, I remember that her son had taken a healthy swing right at that burly man’s head. The sympathy quickly fades. As a man, I would have told my son not to start fights he could not finish. As a human being, I would have taught my son to respect all human beings, whether they are in authority or not, whether he likes them or not. Maybe Kristoff John’s mother has tried to teach her son these lessons, but they are obviously not getting through. The lesson she is teaching him now is that it is ok to swing on people as long as there is a big pot of gold on the other side of that swing.

And for the general public, easily lobotomized by the misleading and fluffy writing of Ben Chapman or the knee-jerk television reports about a large man manhandling a scrawny teenager, one healthy reminder might be in order: this took place in a New York City public high school. While most of them are not hellholes, a very slim minority are actually non-violent and easy-going. The fact is, there is a lot of violence and tempers and jealousy and emotions from the classrooms all the way up to the principal’s office. And, yes, teachers get hit, pushed, spit on, harassed and more on a daily basis. Most schools do not have police officers. The only disciplinarians on site are the school safety agents and deans, who are normally overwhelmed. In a school like Westinghouse, there are only a handful of these disciplinarians for nearly 1,000 students. These factors should be considered before people judge the actions of Stephan Hudson.

Unfortunately, this is where we are in 2012. A student assaults a teacher and stands to make a payday out of it. The teacher stands to get fired. These pieces should not fit together, yet they make perfect sense given the state of teaching in the United States today.

Bloomberg’s Destruction Of Poor Communities Continues

It is the 11th hour for churches in New York City who use public schools on Sunday. Thanks to Mayor Bloomberg and his sock puppets in the Department of Education, this is the last day congregations will be able to hold service in public school buildings. It is tough to find any in-depth reporting on this issue, religion not necessarily being a hot-button topic in the big city.

From the scraps of information that are out there, it seems the DOE based its decision on the separation between church and state. Being an agnostic, it is an issue that would normally elicit little reaction from me. Being a history teacher, I know the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment prohibits government from encouraging particular religious sects over others. However, something tells me there is more than meets the eye in the DOE’s ruling.

The first clue comes from city Councilman Fernando Cabrera who states “Minorities make up the congregations of many of the churches being evicted…They’re staples in our community and they provide a volunteer base that the city can never pay for.” Many of these churches are small congregations located in the Bronx and Washington Heights, places where the local church may be the only force for community organization. They rent spaces in schools because they are relatively cheap in a city where even the smallest space can be prohibitively expensive. In many cases, the DOE’s eviction notice is tantamount to the destruction of these congregations.

If churches are paying for these spaces, does this mean the government is encouraging the establishment of particular religious sects? If these spaces are being used on Sunday mornings, when staff and students are not in attendance, is there a danger of proselytizing or indoctrination on government property? In other words, does the use of school buildings by these religious groups really violate the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment? It seems an argument can be made that it does not.

On the other hand, if these were fundamentalist sects somewhere in the Sunbelt who were facing eviction, I would probably not bat an eyelash. Yet, those sects seem to have enough funds to rent out stadiums, organize Jesus camps and buy television time. In fact, they have been buying airtime ever since the days the airwaves were still owned by the government. How was that not a violation of non-establishment? It was the Evangelical groups of the Sunbelt that led the religious revival that peaked in the 1990s, giving birth to the era of the “culture wars” that culminated in the impeachment of President Clinton.

So perhaps the DOE is trying to unblur the lines separating church and state. The culture wars are behind us, the Conservative Revolution is in retreat and Bloomberg is doing his part to roll back the religious awakening that took place with the help of the state over the past 20 or so years. It is a politically safe thing for him to do in such a secular city as New York. He will not have to worry about thousands of angry Christians camped out in front of Gracie Mansion.

Despite all of these possible recommendations in favor of eviction, I am still not buying it. If Bloomberg has proven consistent in one area, it is in his willingness to destroy inner city communities. His DOE is poised to close down another 23 inner city schools, no doubt with the intention of replacing them with his beloved small school model featuring no enrichment activities and inexperienced teachers. He has allowed his friends like Eva Moskowitz to set up shop in public school buildings, taking millions of taxpayer dollars away from public schools in order to help pay for her nearly $400,000 yearly salary and glossy fliers advertising her Success Academies. In short, he has done everything in his power to rip the heart out of any vehicle of community-building people in the inner city might have.

And this, I believe, is the real reason for Bloomberg’s and DOE’s newfound constitutional scruples. Evicting these religious groups is a safe and effective way to continue his war on poor communities. It is part of the crescendo of a mayoral administration that has seen gentrification and displacement as suitable policies for poor neighborhoods. The tiny enclaves of community that exist for the urban poor, like schools and churches, have been ravaged by an out of touch mayor that has made screwing poor people the one consistent part of his legacy.

After all, if the mayor had any constitutional scruples at all, the New York City Police Department would have never had a “stop and frisk” policy in the first place.

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.