A Good School Washed Away in the Storm

by Robert Pondiscio
November 7th, 2012

P.S. 333, the Goldie Maple School, is a Core Knowledge Official School in New York City.  It started the year with an enrollment of 578 children.  This morning, fewer than 30 showed up for the first scheduled day of class since hurricane Sandy punished the city eight days ago.

The school sits less than two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean in the Arverne section on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, a neighborhood that lay defenseless against the storm.  Hundreds of homes in the Rockaways were damaged or destroyed when a 12-foot storm surge submerged the slender spit of land in seawater and sand.   P.S. 333 was too badly damaged to occupy when New York City schools reopened this week–one of 79 schools in 44 buildings deemed unsafe.  The school’s temporary home, at least this week, is I.S. 126 in Long Island City, a school named after the late teacher’s union leader Albert Shanker, who taught and organized his colleagues there.

A school bus picked up the students for what turned out to be an hour and a half ride to the other side of the borough.  Only a handful made the trip.  P.S. 333’s principal, Angela Logan, was not surprised.  She can’t even estimate how many of her school’s families have left the neighborhood, for now or for good.  “When you look around, you don’t see people outside.  There’s no reason to come outside.  The stores are all gone.  There was a lot of looting and there’s a curfew in place,” she says.

I found Logan and her staff this morning in the third floor library of their temporary home.  They were not teaching.  They were working the phones, trying to find their students. “My teachers are calling right now to find out where are they and if they’re planning on coming to the relocation site.”  But even this temporary home is only temporarily theirs.  “They gave us this site this week,” she said.  “Next week we’re going to be at an elementary school and a middle school.”

It is unclear when their own building will be ready for use again.  The storm surge flooded the school’s basement destroying its boiler.  Water damaged the first floor. Power may be weeks away from being restored.  “The only thing I was told is that the boiler is definitely shot.  They’re thinking about putting a temporary generator and temporary boiler outside so it can power the building.  But they don’t know when they can do that,” Logan says.

P.S. 333 occupies a special place in the universe of Core Knowledge schools and the hearts of our staff.  It was one of the ten New York City pilot schools that road tested the Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program.  I’ve regularly brought visitors who are interested in the curriculum to observe K-2 classes there.  Thanks in part to the stellar results posted by teachers at Goldie Maple, CKLA is now being made available to schools statewide.  Indeed, the pilot was so successful that P.S. 333 continued to use the program even after the demonstration ended.  Their materials are still in the school in undamaged classrooms in the upper floors, but Logan and her staff are not able or even allowed to retrieve them.  “The Department of Ed said we’ll just purchase you new materials.  I guess for them that’s just easier,” she fumed.  “They have no idea we’re a Core Knowledge school.  I don’t need Dr. Seuss books.  I need the Romans and Greek books.”

Even that concern seems small right now.  With the loss of instructional time, the lack of continuity, and the disruption wrought by Sandy, Logan fears it will be a lost school year for many of her children, most of whom can ill afford it.  “How do you hold them accountable to sit there and learn when [the children are thinking] ‘I don’t have a house. When I go back home it’s freezing cold?’ Those kids are going to suffer,” she says.  Even after the all-clear is given and the school safe to occupy, there’s no way to know how many students will return. Some, perhaps most of the low-income families served by Logan’s school, will simply melt into the neighborhoods to which they’ve moved.  The scale of the dislocation is immense:  P.S. 333 is one of 11 schools in the Rockaways put out of commission by Sandy, and the smallest of them.  “No one’s talking about that right now.  What’s the reality for the kids that were on that Peninsula?”  She doesn’t know.

Logan is openly frustrated with city officials trying to give the impression that things are getting back to normal in New York City’s schools.  “You want to make it look good, but you’re not thinking about these kids,” she says.  That said, New York City is relocating more schools than Oklahoma City or Portland, Oregon has in total.

As Logan is speaking, a mother and small child wander toward us from the far end of the unfamiliar hallway that Al Shanker once roamed.  They look lost and bewildered.  “Look at the babies who’ve come,” she says.  “Some parents this morning were worried because their kids didn’t have their school uniforms.  They were washed away.  I’m like, ‘As long as you’re OK and your family’s OK.’  I just feel bad.”  Logan mumbles under her breath. “To think that’s something you’d think about right now.” She’s incredulous.  Close to tears.  “I just don’t know what to say.”

“You try to keep going, you try to move on,” Logan says.  “But this is crazy.”



Promising Results from NYC Core Knowledge Pilot

by Robert Pondiscio
March 12th, 2012

There will be lots more to say about this shortly, but the New York Times this morning has word of promising results from a three-year study of the experimental Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program, which has been piloted for the last several years in 10 New York City schools.

“For three years, a pilot program tracked the reading ability of approximately 1,000 students at 20 New York City schools, following them from kindergarten through second grade. Half of the schools adopted a curriculum designed by the education theorist E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s Core Knowledge Foundation. The other 10 used a variety of methods, but most fell under the definition of “balanced literacy,” an approach that was spread citywide by former Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, beginning in 2003.

“The study found that second graders who were taught to read using the Core Knowledge program scored significantly higher on reading comprehension tests than did those in the comparison schools.”

A web page on the Core Knowledge website links to the the NYC Department of Ed’s data, background on the program, a presentation on the research underpinnings and how the curriculum works with Common Core State Standards.

Good Schools Close, Ed Reformers Shrug

by Robert Pondiscio
January 14th, 2011

Imagine the hue and cry–the marches on city hall and the state capitol–if dozens of high-performing charters were forced to close because of budget problems.  The heart-rending profiles of children thrown back into failing schools!  Bill Gates and Oprah demanding we do what’s best for children!  So why the silence and indifference greeting this week’s news that New York City will lose 27 more Catholic schools

The data doesn’t lie: 99 percent NYC’s Catholic school seniors graduate, and 96 percent go to college.  Outcomes to die for.  Over at Flypaper, Daniela Fairchild notes Fordham’s own estimate that “Catholic school closures have cost U.S. taxpayers at least $20 billion” as their students get absorbed back into public schools. But then she blithely dismisses this latest round of closures as proof of the market working its magic.

“In the competitive market, these schools that are slated for closure by the NYC archdiocese have lost. They haven’t found ways to stay afloat, they haven’t adapted to changing market trends, and they haven’t made themselves desirable to parents, students, and supporters. Isn’t it better for the Gotham Catholics to do just what they are doing: consolidate, regroup, and push forth with a leaner—and potentially more productive—force?

In a word, no.  It’s never better to lose capacity in high-performing schools–public, private, or parochial.  What happened to “you do what’s best for kids?” 

In a New York Post op-ed, Timothy McNiff, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New York, points out the obvious.  “It is painfully clear that children in failing public schools desperately need alternatives,” he writes.  “But when families move their children from religious and independent schools to a “tuition-free” charter school, the cost to taxpayers goes from near zero to more than $14,000 a student.”

It is simply not true to say high-performing Catholic elementary schools “haven’t made themselves desirable to parents, students, and supporters.”  Catholic schools used to be tuition-free, but now must charge a few thousand dollars a year.  Those costs may seem modest, but for low-income urban families, it’s prohibitive. 

In many ways, our paternalistic, “no excuses” charters strive to offer what Catholic schools have provided for generations:  a safe, orderly learning environment, caring adults with strong values, and a clear alternative for at-risk kids.  How does it make sense to stand idly by and let good schools close?  Any good school?

Another Magic Bullet Misses the Mark

by Robert Pondiscio
March 31st, 2010

Over at The Answer Sheet, Patricia Duffey, an eighth grade ELA teacher from North Carolina suggests moving the idea of merit pay “from the teacher column into the parent column.”   She floats the idea on the same day that we learn New York City is scuttling a plan aimed at doing precisely that.

“I truly believe that we need to provide more incentive for parents of low-performing students to follow-through in helping their child succeed,” Duffey writes. 

“Teachers are giving, in many cases, more than 100 percent in the classroom, but there truly is no replacement for hard work on the part of all who are invested in education: student-parent-teacher-school administration. I cannot over-emphasize the effect that parental involvement has in student success, and how difficult it is for teachers to bridge that gap when it is missing.”

No argument from me about the importance of parental involvement.  My classroom experience tells me that parental involvment and good results are not axiomatic, but it is the way to bet.   So what about merit pay for parents?  A few years ago New York City launched a privately funded program to pay low-income parents to do things like attend parent-teacher conferences or take kids to for routine medical and dental checkups.  Mayor Bloomberg talked at the time about seeking government funding for the program if it proved successful.

Well, it hasn’t. 

The program to “encourage good behavior and self-sufficiency has so far had only modest effects on their lives and economic situation,” the New York Times reports today. ”While payments to the families will end in August, researchers will continue to monitor them for three more years, to see if any behavior encouraged by the initial payments will continue. A final report will be issued in 2013.”

“You always hope that you’ve come across a magic silver bullet and you never do,” Bloomberg said.  Truer words…

Ed Reform’s Redheaded Stepchild

by Robert Pondiscio
March 16th, 2010

Over at Gotham Schools, New York City parent and occasional Core Knowledge Blog commenter Matthew Levey points out an inconvenient truth about teacher quality as an reform lever:  the numbers are fanciful.  He imagines an educational utopia in the Big Apple, where the perfect teacher assessment tool has been invented, the state assembly “rescinds the tenure provisions of the Taylor law, and the UFT cooperates.”  Even in this best of all imagined worlds, it’s still not enough. 

New York City alone would need to recruit and hire 27,000 superb teachers by Year Three for teacher quality to work as a reform lever, raising logistical problems we’re not ready to solve, he says. 

“Knowledgable reformers know we cannot build and maintain an army of superteachers ready for 10- or 20-year careers in Red Hook, Mott Haven and Washington Heights. While teacher quality is important, can the city responsibly assume that it will be able to develop effective tools, win (or roll) over the unions and fix today’s Albany disaster?

Curriculum reform, Levey concludes, must play an equal role in reform efforts. In New York City, he writes, curriculum can be developed and replicated at almost no marginal cost, “earning a far greater return on investment than merit bonuses for every qualifying teacher or hiring 10,000 high-quality teachers.”  Where teacher quality is a long-term, expensive, and politically difficult fix, he notes, curriculum is “fast, cheap, and also effective.” 

“Teacher quality advocates may ask:  ‘How does a good curriculum help a poor teacher?”  I would rephrase the question: “Does a good curriculum make a poor teacher worse?” Lesson planning, delivery of instruction and classroom management — how to teach — are daunting enough without having to develop good content every week. A solid, coherent curriculum improves the odds for new or struggling teacher, and allows master teachers to focus on their kids’ needs or mentoring colleagues.”

Levey doesn’t mention it, but it’s difficult to imagine why our best and brightest would agree to take up the chalk to begin with at pay levels far below other professions, at a time when the President thinks firing entire staffs of schools is a good idea, and ill-informed ed reform Aldo Raines are braying for teachers’ scalps.  In short, we’re making the teaching profession ever less compelling, which doesn’t inspire confidence that our army of superteachers can be mustered without an absurdly large infusion of public money (another nonstarter).   Levey concludes his analysis with a call for New York City to use its enormous leverage to lead the charge on curriculum reform.  “The content we want our kids to learn is the fraternal twin of teacher quality,” he writes “and it is high time we stopped treating it like a redheaded stepchild.”

A Promising Start for Core Knowledge Early Literacy Program

by Robert Pondiscio
September 23rd, 2009

One year after announcing a pilot program to test a new Core Knowledge Early Literacy program in ten New York City Schools, Joel Klein Tuesday announced very strong early results.  As a news release from the New York City Department of Ed puts it: 

The progress of students in the ten participating schools was more than five times greater than the also-significant performance of students at ten peer schools with comparable student populations, and was reflected among students at all levels of literacy.  Additionally, teachers surveyed as part of the pilot rated the program highly, and nine of the ten participating schools have selected to use the Core Knowledge program with their new kindergarten classes in addition to continuing the program with their first graders, who remain in the pilot.

Speaking at a press conference at a South Bronx elementary school — one of the pilot schools – E.D. Hirsch noted thatwhile the initial results were gratifying, the bigger payoff could come later, since the program is designed to build broad background knowledge across the curriculum, which pays off in improved reading comprehension in the years ahead:

Kindergarten is just a start.  There is always the danger of fade out in later years, as we know from Headstart research.  Elsewhere in the nation, and right here in New York, schools have made noticeable progress in raising reading scores in the early grades according to NAEP, the Nations Report Card.   These improvements reflect better teaching of decoding.   But the improvements in scores are still confined to the early grades.   Verbal scores in the later grades of NAEP have stayed unacceptably low.   Yet these later verbal scores are the ones that predict a student’s ultimate success in life.     

The program consists of two strands: a phonics-heavy decoding strand, and a “listening and learning” strand to build content knowledge.  “Assuming that we will get funding to develop materials for the later grades,” Hirsch noted, “I am predicting that even more dramatic results will show up further on. Instead of the current flat or even declining verbal scores among middle and high school students we will see in students who follow a program like this significantly higher scores, and we will see a narrowing of the language gap between races and ethnic groups. ”

More coverage of the pilot program results can be found here and here.

No Room at the Inn

by Robert Pondiscio
May 11th, 2009

No real surprise, given the parlous state of the economy and employment, but NYC’s Department of Education has ordered principals to fill teaching vacancies with internal candidates only.   The news has left would-be teachers, including those hired by Teach for America and the New York City Teaching Fellows scrambling for jobs, reports the New York Times.   The city will hire about half its usual number of educators from TFA and the Fellows program. 

New York schools–especially struggling schools–looking for new teachers will likely have to fish in the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) pool, which consists of educators who are unemployed but still on the City’s payroll.  In most cases, ATR teachers were working at schools that were shuttered or downsized. However, Gotham Schools notes a report by The New Teacher Project, which found that “teachers in the pool were six times as likely to have been rated unsatisfactory by a principal as teachers who hold positions.”

No matter how you slice it, the hiring pool from which principals can hire has just become reed-thin.  “The fact remains that, if the city weren’t forced to pay ATR members indefinitely, perhaps a substantial percentage of teachers could still be new hires (or, maybe, the freeze wouldn’t have happened at all),” writes the New Republic’s Seyward Darby “In good economic times or bad, on financial, pedagogical, and political levels, the ATR is simply unsustainable.”


“The Sudden Charm of Public School”

by Robert Pondiscio
April 7th, 2009

You’re sending little Tyler and Emily to public school?  How cutting edge!

The New York Times, its radar ever attuned to the lifestyles of privileged Manhattanites, reports that the economic downturn is prompting many families to consider actually subjecting their progeny to public school.   In a classic example of the kind of story that serves merely to remind most Americans why they can’t stand New Yorkers, the paper refuses to report it straight.  Instead, it’s a trend piece.  “In these financially fragile times,” says the Times, ”the new bragging rights begin with a P.S. The rush is on to live near the best.”

For some young families who bought during the housing boom, having it all meant an affordable brood-sized apartment in possession of a good public school zone. But other parents in pursuit of real estate never even thought about schools. They assumed they would send their children to private school, often because they too had followed that route.  That was before the economic crisis. Now, as many would-be private school parents scramble for a good public school, there is a despairing recognition that in this respect, geography is destiny: With odds of being accepted into a popular school in another zone slimmer than ever, they either live in a neighborhood with a decent elementary or they don’t.

Shocking, right?  What follows is a series of anecdotes of New Yorkers weighing their options–from moving to committing fraud–to get their children into the “right” school.  “I will certainly consider some alternative way to game the system by gaining a different address,” says one anonymous parent.  “This is my child, who is a really smart kid, and he’s not going to my crummy zoned school. That’s just not going to happen.”

The paper even discovers a couple who have decided to buy $1 million apartment solely because of its zoned school even though they don’t have children yet.  I know, I know. Millions of couples plan their home purchses around schools.  But this is different.  This couple are Manhattan lawyers!  Oh,  I forgot the best part.  This article about education ran in the Times’ Real Estate section. 

I live in Manhattan.  Please accept my apologies on behalf of my city and it’s paper of record.

Ivy League Arrogance

by Robert Pondiscio
October 30th, 2008

High above Cayuga’s waters. And everyone else. 

A court has ruled that a New York City teacher  who called his class a “filthy animals who belonged in a f—ing zoo” cannot get his job back.  Steven Clarke, a newly hired probationary teacher allegedly said in front of his class at the Global Enterprise Academy in the Bronx “my parents did not sacrifice for me to go to Cornell so I could take care of a bunch of animals.”

I’m guessing they didn’t send him to Cornell to become an arrogant lout, either.

Bloomberg Era Mayor May Not Be Over

by Robert Pondiscio
October 2nd, 2008

New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg plans to seek a third term.  One small problem, however, is that he’s term-limited to two terms.  But he’s proposing an extension of those limits by a City Council vote.  The impact for school reform is significant, since keeping the City’s sprawling school system under mayoral control is one of Bloomberg’s major issues.  A third term for Bloomberg would also presumably extend the record-setting run of Joel Klein, who has enjoyed the longest run of any NYC schools chancellor.  Klein has previously said he’s open to staying on as chancellor under Bloomberg’s successor.