Monday, October 30, 2006

What we can learn from New Jersey

From NY Times, political pressure to rethink one of the most progressive school funding systems in the country.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

I take comfort in knowing that there are adults that know less history than I do

So, I collected the students' social studies notebooks this week (week 2 of our slavery unit), and of course I had one student who wrote about how Martin Luther King, Jr. freed the slaves. (At least he didn't say that MLK Jr. also ended racism, which some of Chris's kids were known to have said last year.)

That MLK Jr. freed the slaves is, apparently, a very common misconception. Why? Chris says: "it shows how poor the teaching on race issues is. Teachers don't really talk about race in the present, and it creates major problems for talking about the past."

I think that's probably true, but I think there's also a simpler explanation. I was watching my tivoed episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip tonight, and at some point two of the main characters go out to see a black stand-up comedian. They think he's so funny and smart that they hire him on the spot as a writer. Here's an approximate paraphrase of one of his jokes:
"I think about African American slaves, and about how we stacked up against other slaves. Look at the pyramids -- those were built by slaves. No one ever told us we could use geometry!

And those slaves, they got Moses. Now, I'm a big fan of the Emancipation Proclamation and all. But they got a burning bush. We got a memo: 'Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.'"

This coming from what's supposed to be the pinnacle of network TV show writing. If they think MLK freed the slaves, what chance is there for my kids?

Friday, October 20, 2006

Unions and Charters, part 34

I haven't read this study in full yet (and at the rate I'm going I never will), but the abstract makes it look like good reading. Findings included:
  • Each side (often incorrectly) defines the other by views of its most extreme members;
  • Moderate members from each group share many of the same ideas about good schooling, but each side thinks the other insists on something that will interfere with quality teaching;
  • Even though some large urban districts have viewed chartering as a reform tool, the politics of school districts make them unlikely partners in scale-up;
  • Both sides acknowledge the costs of their conflict, but few leaders are willing to take the first step; and
  • Thin evidence about the work life of charter school teachers or how unionized charter schools operate exacerbates conflicting beliefs
I don't know too much about the National Charter School Research Project, and its list of funders shows a sort of right wing pedigree (anyone funded by the Walton Family Foundation makes me suspicious. And that includes the organization I work for ...). All that means is that while research like this is really important, the people described in the study on the union side might be unwilling to take something like this seriously until it comes from within the fold. (From here, perhaps.)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Check out the fall edition of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, which is focusing on evaluating how well privatization has worked for Philly's neediest schools.

The Notebook reports that privatization has not had the effect the Philadelphia School Reform Commission intended when it handed the keys to the worst-performing schools over to a handful of private organizations ranging from for-profit (i.e. Edison) to universities:
This summer’s announcement of 2006 results on the PSSA exam and of whether schools met their performance targets for adequate yearly progress reinforced a prior trend. As measured by test scores, the gap is widening between most District schools and the low-performing schools singled out for reform in 2002 that are now under private management.

The percentage of students scoring proficient or better on both reading and math is now 19 points lower in the privately managed schools than the rest of the District’s schools, compared to 16 points in 2002 (see test score gains).

Implications for New York and this story: Bloomy should be keeping a close eye on Philly. It makes total sense, when you think about the mayor as the very model of a modern neoliberal, that he would want to centralize control over schools and then use that control to hand the keys to private companies. But New Yorkers are very savvy about numbers. Will they be as patient as Philadelphians with private companies who don't perform as promised?

Heckuva job, Brownie

Take a look at this story about this group of parents who are in a dither over a test item on the 2006 ELA test.

Legitimate critique of high-stakes testing? Or a bunch of over-involved parents upset about their kids' not succeeding on a test item? You be the judge.

Something to consider: the 8th graders I work with (among whom the very best readers, admittedly, are not reading at grade level) probably could not answer this question. Analyzing character change over time is something they are only now beginning to study.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Friday, October 06, 2006


Chris promised that I'd have something interesting to say about this, but my brain is fried. It's 6:30 and I'm still at work, and it's been a really long week.

What's really, really exciting, though, is that we're finally starting to plan our first social studies unit. Here's what I'm thinking -- if you have any suggestions, let me know:

So, the eighth grade social studies teachers decided that they would have a yearlong focus on labor, dividing the year into three long units: slavery, industrialization, and 20th century social movements. My thought was that the "essential question" for the year could be "Why do we work?"

For the slavery unit, that could translate into "What were slaves working for?" This is a question that has a lot of answers -- slaves were obviously working because they were forced to, but on a different level they were also working as part of a bigger economic system. On a different level, some slaves were able to work to save up money to buy their own freedom.

To me, the most important things for students to understand about slavery, when looking at it from a labor perspective, are a) that part of what made slavery so bad was that your labor belonged to someone else; b) that slavery was part of a bigger economy that united the North and the South and also reached across the Atlantic; c) that some of the ways slaves resisted oppression was by denying their labor to the slave masters.

How will we know if students understand these things? At the end of the unit, they will have to complete a project in which they pick one individual who we've discussed in the unit, and answer the question, "what was this person working for?" The final product must include a written piece (maybe a narrative?) and some kind of visual (map, illustration, etc).

Now what I have to do is lay out the structure of the unit -- what exactly will we do to get students to the point that they can complete the final project? A lot of resources and ideas come to mind for use in lessons: the cotton gin (maybe a lesson where students look at graphs comparing the number of slaves used in the south before and after the invention of the cotton gin?); work songs; maps of the triangle trade routes; narratives recalling examples of foot-dragging; looking at black soldiers during the Civil War -- how was their labor different?; auction posters; looking at what whites were saying about labor at the time (I've been reading a lot -- too much -- about yeomen farmers recently).

I would love to hear any feedback, suggestions, resources, etc. you may have. It's the first unit I've ever planned that will actually be carried out by students, so don't hold back, please!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Privatizing NYC Public Schools

Julie will have plenty to say about this article in the NY Times today about the possibility of New York hiring private firms to run a number of public schools in the city. It goes without saying of course, but this is neo-liberalism in fine form. I particularly liked this quote from the DOE:

Kristen Kane, Mr. Klein’s chief of staff, said the department considered the groups crucial to the early success of the new schools. “What happens to that success when there is no more private money?” she asked. “Will there be more private money or will we need to explore other ways to continue this partnership if we believe that is a critical success factor?”

Apparently, private money is the only way to have success in low-performing public schools. I agree that the current situation in NYC isn't serving a lot of poor kids and I'm in favor of new soluations, but the idea that education technocrats with no accountability to the public are going to drastically improve things doesn't add up for me. How can Bloomy be the education mayor while he passes off responsibility for improving schools to private firms?