not a parable

The school closure protest and the championship chess team

 

 

 

 

 

The two events were so unrelated that one might expect them to appear together in a story on the state’s English language arts exam.

This afternoon, critics of the city’s school closure policies gathered for a protest on one side of the Department of Education, while just meters away inside City Hall, Mayor Bloomberg was congratulating I.S. 318’s chess team on their underdog win at last week’s National High School Championships.

The protest outside the Department of Education’s headquarters drew about 40 teachers and students, including many from schools that face a closure vote next week.

Turnout was denser inside City Hall, as Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott crowded in for a photo shoot with the I.S. 318 students, who returned from the tournament just in time for the start of annual state tests.

Banter between the students and the officials soon turned to this week’s tests. Several of the students are in eighth-grade and described for the mayor their confusion upon being asked to answer questions about a story called “The Pineapple and the Hare.” The story, an adaptation of a story by the absurdist children’s author Daniel Pinkwater, had flummoxed the students, who said they were not sure how to answer a question about why the pineapple was eaten.

The story has confused students across the city and elsewhere, when it has appeared on other states’ exams, according to parent activist Leonie Haimson, who compiled criticism of the test passage dating back several years on the NYC Public School Parents blog today.

On his website today, Pinkwater offered an explanation for how his story, “The Rabbit and the Eggplant,” wound up in a different form on state tests year after year.

“There are these companies that make up tests and various reading materials, and sell them to state departments of education for vast sums of money,” he wrote. “One of the things they do is purchase rights from authors to use excerpts from books. For these they pay the authors non-vast sums of money. Then they edit the passages according to … I have no idea what perceived requirements.”

The state is in the process of toughening exams to reflect new standards and seeking a different company to produce the tests. City officials said the looming changes would insulate students against similar test passages in the future.

“We strongly support the state’s commitment to improving its tests over time, and we expect to see much more rigor and complex reading passages on next year’s tests,” said Chancellor Dennis Walcott in a statement.

Back at the closure protest, union politics, not pineapples, were front and center. Nick Licarri, who retired after Norman Thomas High School phased out, blamed the UFT’s leadership for not mobilizing its members against school closures. “It’s unfortunate that there are not thousands of people at this demonstration,” he said.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew has railed against turnaround, and union officials have spoken up at individual schools’ closure hearings in recent weeks, as well. But the union did not sign on to today’s demonstration and has not announced plans for a protest at next week’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting. At the February meeting where the panel voted to close or shrink 23 schools, the union’s protest was derailed by competing demonstrations — including one led by the Occupy the DOE movement — in a scenario the union might be hesitant to repeat.

Anti-Bloomberg rhetoric was fierce. But Kevin Kearns, a teacher at Lehman High School, said he agreed with the mayor on at least one point.

“I would agree that they make it up as they go along in many ways,” he said, referring to Bloomberg’s comment from earlier this week about why rumors of 75 school closures next year should not be believed.

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.