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New York

Why I’m Starting a School: The Personal Answer

I get asked frequently why I’m helping to start a school. I have three different answers to the question, depending on the audience.  All are true, and I’m not sure they’re contradictory. I gave the first answer, the particular one about why Harvest Collegiate High School now, in a post last month. The second answer is more personal. I hated high school. Like many adolescents, I thought I knew better than my teachers and the school. To take one example of my frequent critiques, as a senior I wrote an op-ed in the school newspaper, of which I was the editor-in-chief, criticizing the staff of the school for being distant from their students, only focusing on their content and not the human beings in front of them. I made the radical suggestion that teachers who so choose should be able to go by their first name to signal to students that they were interested in a two-way relationship rather than to simply deliver information to them. My then-English teacher, in whom to this day I find a model of how not to teach, wrote a letter to the editor calling my views “naïve and didactic.” (In hindsight, she might have been right on the latter point.) Two years later, I took a philosophy of education course during my sophomore year at Brown University. There, we read Ted Sizer’s "Horace’s Compromise," in which Sizer argued that American high schools and their students had entered into a tacit agreement to let students get away with not thinking as long as they behaved. Reading about the composite Franklin High School and its English teacher Horace felt familiar. For me, Franklin was my high school, and Horace my favorite teacher there (it would turn out that teacher was a huge fan of Sizer’s work, and tried, but failed, to bring it to my high school because it was blocked by my hated senior English teacher). Sizer captured everything that I saw wrong, and more. And he imagined something better, which his Coalition of Essential Schools helped to bring into fruition in many cases. Here I was, a 20-year-old smartass who finds that not only were my views potentially not naïve and didactic, but that the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education agreed with him and had a solution. I was in.
New York

Exclusive Excerpt: Doug Lemov’s “Practice Perfect”

People get feedback all the time. The kids on your Little League team get it. So do your direct reports, we hope. This means that they probably practice “taking” feedback quite a bit — they learn to get better at nodding with eye contact, making their tone free of defensiveness, and taking notes, even. Recipients may signal that they take feedback seriously, that they value it, but this does not necessarily mean that they use feedback. Nor does it make them better at employing feedback over time. In fact, the opposite may happen. People may practice ways of taking feedback that help them avoid doing anything about it. The three of us have done this ourselves. We might make a show of busily writing down feedback a colleague gives us. The response shows that we appreciate it. There is earnest nodding, but in fact we may already know we will ignore the advice once we leave the room. Or we may intend to use it but end up losing sight of it amidst the wreckage of our tasks list. Or perhaps we try it briefly and tell ourselves we have made enough progress, or that the feedback wouldn’t really work. These responses are common: people rarely practice using feedback. Really it’s just as likely that people get better over time at ignoring or deflecting it since that’s what they often practice doing: “Well, I can’t really do that.” “Oh, thanks, but I’ve tried that.” “Thanks, that’s really helpful.” (No action follows.) Using feedback well is something that responds to practice. People get better at it by doing it. They learn how to adapt someone else’s advice so it fits their own style, for example; or how to focus on two or three key ideas at a time, or to take the risk of trying something that at first will be quite hard. Getting good at using feedback — being coachable — is a skill with far-reaching implications. When people use feedback and improve, and see themselves improve at things, they come to believe in practice and in using feedback. And they’re more likely to remain on an upward developmental curve for another reason. As Joshua Foer describes in his study of memory, Moonwalking with Einstein, people often arrive at an “OK Plateau,” a point at which they stop improving at something despite the fact that they continue to do it regularly. “The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practicing,” he notes, “to force oneself to stay out of autopilot.” The process of intentionally implementing feedback is likely to keep people in a practice state of increased consciousness and thus steeper improvement. Research continually finds that teachers don’t like their professional development very much and don’t think that it helps. The causation runs both ways: training doesn’t help because people don’t trust it, and people don’t trust it because it doesn’t help them very much. If you train people successfully and they feel themselves getting better, however, it’s much more likely they will trust and commit to it.
New York

A Graduate’s Case Against Specialized High Schools

When I was a student studying Japanese at Stuyvesant High School, I remember learning the word for “cram school’: juku. Juku are extracurricular private schools that offer tutorial services for regular subjects in addition to intensive university entrance exam preparation. As a Stuyvesant student, this concept was not unfamiliar to me — spending days, weeks, or even months studying for a single exam that would determine the course of my future. After all, that level of focus was what got many of us into Stuy the first place. At Stuy, students’ study habits really fell into two categories: diligent cramming, or skidding by with whatever means it took to snag a passing grade (granted, there’s passing, and then there’s Stuy passing). My Japanese teacher would deter us from the latter, lazier alternative by snipping off the corners of subpar homework assignments and taping them to the blackboard. “Do not cut corners!” she would chide, and gesture at the little triangles of notebook paper hovering over the chalk as testaments to our indolence. In the wake of a cheating scandal that has propelled my alma mater into the limelight yet again, I can’t help but reflect on the time I spent at the school that boasts an average SAT score in the 96th percentile and makes college feel like a cakewalk by comparison. When Nayeem Ahsan incited his elaborate cheating ring last semester, he knew he was doing a huge disservice to the hundreds of students taking the exam without outside assistance. But by the same token, to the dozens of overachievers juggling theater practice, sports, music lessons, and hours of studying and homework a night, he offered a solution to an otherwise impossible problem — namely, how do you keep your head above water when so many of your classmates are headed for Ivy League acceptance, and your grade point average is calculated to the second decimal? I will not condone cheating. Instead, I would like to paint a picture for the parents of future eight graders who think sending their students into a four-year juku is the only path to success.
New York

Survivorship Bias And The Hidden Costs Of Backfill

Out of 90 charter schools that administered the New York State standardized tests in both 2011 and 2012, Harlem Link had the eighth-highest average increase in English language arts and math scores. This score improvement was amazing, fantastic, even inspiring. And misleading — because of a small, relatively unknown factor called "survivorship bias." Survivorship bias is a statistical term for an indication that there is some hidden factor that excludes certain members of a data set over time — namely, part of a sample that was there at the beginning is no longer there at the end and does not count in the final analysis. The smaller subset of those who “survive” over time might be better off than the original whole group simply because of who stayed and who left, not any value added over time. Simply put, every year, at every school, some students leave, and their departure changes the profile of who takes the test from year to year. Sometimes high-scoring students depart. At other times, low-scoring students depart. If schools continuously enroll new students (and some don’t), the same factor impacts the student population for these incoming students. At the end of this piece I chart a hypothetical situation in which survivorship bias shows how a school can appear to improve while not actually adding any value simply by not adding new students year after year. In large systems, there is so much mobility that these student profiles tend to cancel each other out because of scale. For example, the student population appears relatively stable from year to year in the third grade in Community School District 3, where 1,342 students in 30 schools took the state English Language Arts exam in 2012. But in small student populations like the one at Harlem Link, where only 52 third-grade students took the 2012 exam, a few students entering or leaving the school with certain test scores can make a big difference. When the state department of education releases test scores each year, however, it does not provide this or any other contextual background information alongside the scores. I believe that this process penalizes, in the public eye, schools that continue to enroll students to replace those that depart.
New York

Reanimating Ötzi The Iceman In Forensics Class

Kelly Houston teaches juniors and seniors at Brooklyn's School for Democracy and Leadership. She and other recipients of grants from the Fund for Teachers are sharing the stories of their summer fellowships, which took them to far-flung places. A memorial to Ötzi the Iceman stands close to where his body was found in the Alps in 1991. Forensics is a relatively new science course with limited curriculum available.  For the last three years, I have been teaching a course I developed from scratch, and I am always looking for new and interesting ways to engage students. This summer, my search took me to Ötzi the Iceman, one of the most significant discoveries in forensic science. Ötzi the Iceman comes from a distant and mysterious past. Twenty years ago, he was pulled out of the Alpine glacial ice in almost perfect condition, complete with clothes, tools, and visible tattoos. And there are unanswered questions surrounding his death, which took place thousands of years ago. He was originally thought to have been a lost herder that took a fatal wrong turn in the snowy Alps. But recent evidence points to a more sinister explanation, making Ötzi the earliest human for whom we have direct evidence of a possible murder. Ötzi’s story encompasses what forensics is all about – using the scientific method to interpret and weigh the relative importance of the evidence found on a subject and drawing conclusions about the cause of death. I wanted to bring him to my students. So with the support of the Fund for Teachers, I visited Ötzi himself in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy. Vital to processing a (possible) crime is to document the scene of the death: For me, this meant visiting Tisenjoch pass, along the Italian-Austrian border in the Alps. I was able to hike to where Ötzi died and was discovered with two mountain guides. The hike consisted of a six-mile round-trip hike from Vernagt village in the Schnalstal valley to the pass between Finail and Similaun peak.
New York

Why I’m Starting a School: The Particular Answer

I get asked frequently why I’m helping to start a school. I have three different answers to the question, depending on the audience. All are true, and I’m not sure they’re contradictory. The first story is the particular one. The personal one and the political one will follow.   I left Bronx Lab School at the end of the 2010-2011 school year. After 13 interviews, half of which led to offers, I joined the Academy for Young Writers, and two months into the year, I was the happiest I had been professionally for a long while. In October, our principal told us the school was offered the chance to move from our crumbling Williamsburg building, which would see a new school added to it the following year, to a brand-new, state-of-the-art building. Not only that, the school would expand to be a 6-12 school, something long hoped for. The rub: The new school would be in East New York. While this would improve the commute for most of our students, it meant my 20-minute bike ride would turn into more than an hour commuting by subway and bus. I told my principal that if the school moved, I wouldn’t actively seek out a new job for the fall, but if the right opportunity fell into my lap, I wouldn’t hesitate to move on. In early January, a friend told me she knew someone great who had just been approved by the Department of Education to open a new school. When I emailed Kate Burch to find more about her school, I was skeptical. Having joined Bronx Lab in its second year and experienced the challenges of growing and sustaining a school, I swore I would only join a school in its infancy if the conditions were otherwise perfect. Yet Kate’s plan for Harvest Collegiate High School was perfect — and perfect for me.
New York

On The Meaning Of High School Philosophy Instruction

When I joined the faculty of Columbia Secondary School as a curriculum adviser last year, I had no inkling that I would eventually become the school’s high school philosophy teacher. This is an honor and an intellectual treat. I want to share my thoughts about what it means to teach philosophy at the high school level, what sort of curriculum we have, and what I am doing with it. Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering is a selective 6–12 public school (currently 6–11) located in Harlem. The principal, Miriam Nightengale, has worked to build a strong curriculum and a lively school culture. The teachers are immensely dedicated, not only to the classroom, but to the school community; as a part-time teacher, I am humbled by their relentlessness and cheer. The students, who come from many ethnic and cultural backgrounds, have thoughtfulness and inquisitiveness in common. All students take philosophy every year. I wrote the high school philosophy curriculum last spring and will be fleshing it out as the year progresses. The ninth-graders study rhetoric and logic; the 10th-graders, ethics and aesthetics; and the 11th-graders, political philosophy. The philosophical texts range from ancient to modern; the 10th-graders, for instance, are currently reading the Book of Job; later in the unit, they will read Martin Buber’s "I and Thou." The 11th-graders began with Sophocles and Plato, will soon read Aristophanes’ "The Clouds," and will end the year with Hannah Arendt, George Orwell, and Eugene Ionesco. I work from the conviction that these texts — and the lessons surrounding them — will give students perspective on their own philosophical questions and lives. The first challenge is to make sense of the texts. Often we have to take time with a single sentence, working through it and figuring out what it means. That can bring out surprising insights.
New York

Getting Beyond The New GED With Adult Academies

Two decades ago, when I was working in the Division of Adult and Continuing Education at CUNY’s Central Office, we initiated a comprehensive redesign of our GED preparation programs to ensure that coursework included substantial reading, writing, and math work, rather than skill-focused exam prep. Students were encouraged to prepare themselves to obtain a high score on the test rather than just to pass, because even then we understood that in measuring high school “graduation equivalency,” the GED was not testing whether students were college-ready. But the GED Testing Service maintained that an equivalency diploma opened doors to postsecondary study then and for 20 more years. Then, in 2010, the organization that had been responsible for the development of the GED for more than half a century, the American Council on Education, announced that it would pursue the development of a fundamentally different exam that would be more explicitly linked to assessments of college readiness. The decision was not surprising, because it followed a 2009 research report from the GED Testing Service that indicated that the door-opening had not amounted to much. Tracking the postsecondary outcomes of a random sample of 1,000 individuals who had completed the GED test in 2003, researchers found that just 307 had enrolled in at least one postsecondary institution by fall 2008; 77 percent of them dropped out after one semester; and only 17 earned a postsecondary credential by 2008. The doors the GED purported to open seemed to be shut. The next announcement from the GED Testing Service, however, was a dramatic surprise. ACE announced that it had forged a public/private partnership with Pearson, the publishing company, to develop the new exam. Although not highlighted in the initial announcement, it has since become clear that the price of the partnership will be a heavy one for test-takers in states that charge fees for the exams or for public education agencies in states, such as New York, that make the exam available free of charge. Current estimates are that each exam will cost about $120 — double the current price. Worries about the additional costs have led New York and a number of other states to launch efforts intended to find an alternative to the new GED tests. I would like to propose a more radical alternative.
New York

A Chapter Leader’s Appeal For Solidarity With Chicago

John Elfrank-Dana, the UFT chapter leader at Murry Bergtraum High School, sent this letter to the teachers at his school on Wednesday. When I was in the hotel management business there was a strike. The union representative at the hotel, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, told me I’d better hope the workers win the strike. Puzzled, I thought, Why would a manager want the workers to win the strike? He then explained that the company would have to at least match the benefits they get for me for him as well. Of course; it was so obvious once he explained that. It’s why non-union hotels provide equal benefits to their employees: the fear that a union would come in if they didn’t. It’s at that point I saw how unions raise the bar for everyone. That bumper sticker, "Unions: The people who brought you the weekend," rings true. However, I get the impression many of us think what we take for granted — weekends off, 40 hour work week, health benefits, paid sick leave/vacation, rights against discrimination, etc. — were handed down to us from the ancient Greeks. But these rights are less than a century old, and they are challenged at every corner, i.e. fewer paid sick days, more free coverages, streamlined firing process, larger class sizes, more classes, are some of the stakes for us in education. Anyone in education more than five years away from retirement needs to watch what is going on in Chicago, if for no other reason than to plan their next career change. For, if the Chicago Teachers Union loses this strike, the stakes for all of us in education could be dire. It’s not about the money.