Category Archives: New York

On Giving Away the Ending

IMG_0879Half way through “Among the Ten Thousand Things,” a superbly written novel of middle-aged infidelity, author Julia Pierpont fast-forwards several decades and reveals what has happened to each of the central characters. This takes place in a 12-page interlude, after which the narrative picks up where it had left off. Justifying this breach of structural convention, Pierpont writes, “The end is never a surprise. People say, Don’t tell me, Don’t spoil it, and then later they say, If I’d only known.”

The drama in the first half of the book concerns whether Deb, a college dance teacher and former professional ballerina, will leave her long-philandering husband, Jack, an artist. Their two children have become aware of Jack’s affair with a young sycophant, something Deb had known about for months, but had convinced herself she could get over. Now she is forced to decide whether teaching her children about the value of commitment and self-worth and dignity is worth disrupting her own comfortable life.

The fast-forward answers the question of whether Deb and Jack stay married. And for me, it presented a problem. After reading it, I lost interest in finishing the book. I put it down and didn’t pick it up again for over a week.

I’m glad I did, because it is a pleasure to read Pierpont. She is strongest and most cutting when in the milieus of Jack and Deb’s work. One of my favorite sequences takes place in the second half of the book, when Jack visits an Arizona college that has commissioned a sculpture from him. Forced to attend a dingy reception in his honor with grad students and faculty, Jack knows, “A reception was an evaluation he hadn’t wanted, his career laid out in rows of weak, sweet supermarket wine, prepoured a third of the way, his worth measured in cheapie plastic cups on a tablecloth made of hospital gown…He neighed every time, on cue.”

Yet the majority of the latter portion of the novel, after the fast-forward, takes place in coastal Rhode Island, where Deb and the children have escaped Jack’s perfidy to a rundown vacation home. Deb is ostensibly deciding whether to stay with Jack, but we, the readers, already know the choice she will make. These scenes, though expertly crafted, were too familiar: teenage Simon’s assignations with a lunch counter waitress, 11-year old Kay’s anger at her warring parents, Deb’s flirtation with her husband’s friend. This is the stuff of ten thousand other bourgeois narratives. I missed the sharpness of the scenes that took place in New York City, shaded by unrealized artistic ambition. In her twenties, Deb had been a corps member with the City Ballet, never ascending to soloist, and had used her first pregnancy as a way to gracefully let go of the career she had prepared for since childhood. Now, teaching a group of Barnard undergraduate dancers, she is wary: “To encourage them would feel like a lie, because really, she didn’t approve, wanted to whisper in their ears: Quit now. Better off spending time in economics or history, pre-med, pre-law, pre-anything. To watch them try depressed her.”

Unlike Deb, Jack seems to be an original and uniquely talented (though not totally successful) artist, which is one reason why Deb fell for him. Her struggle is realizing, as Pierpont memorably puts it, that how good someone is at admirable work does not necessarily correspond with how good they are as a human being — how worth loving and sacrificing for. This tension between admiration and commitment propels the plot, so while I admire Pierpont’s audacity in “giving away” the ending halfway through, I can’t ultimately support it. The book’s strongest themes recede in its second half and give way to a far less fascinating story.

Class Warfare at the Beach?

This Ginia Bellafante column railing against the new gourmet food court at Jacob Riis beach is, in my view, wrongheaded. So what if affluent people enjoy taking the ferry to this public park and purchasing oysters when they get there? The beach is also accessible by subway, public bus, and car. And as Bellafante notes, there is a large area for grilling and picnicking, which is typically filled with black and Latino families. She claims that the split between the food court and the grill area makes this a “segregated” beach, and somehow also manages to blame helicopter parenting: “the constant prodding of children toward achievement, the endless roundelay of enrichments that begins at conception, the eviscerating process of admission to a suitable college when, really, it will all end here, in a hangover on a boat to the beach where the only corrective is more to drink.”

When I was a kid growing up in the New York area, my middle class white family never went to city beaches. We drove out to Long Island or Connecticut and were surrounded by people much like ourselves. I’m glad New York beach culture has evolved. It would be one thing to call for a Nathan’s hot dog stand at the new food court. Come to think of it, that’s a great idea. But the worst thing for a city is when its more privileged residents abandon its public places: its beaches, its parks, its schools. That is segregation. In 2015 at Jacob Riis park, New Yorkers of every type are enjoying the scenery, sunbathing, and swimming together. That leads to investment in our public sphere. And if quality, fresh food helps draw people, that’s a good thing.

Jacob Riis, School Reformer

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Essex Market School, the East Side. By Jacob Riis, ca. 1888-1895.

I just caught this poignant essay at the New York Times about How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis' 1890 exposé of day-to-day life in New York City tenements. Bill de Blasio mentioned Riis during his inaugural address, and the book — which depicted urban squalor through vivid, flash photography (a new technology at the time) — is credited with sparking the movement toward modern sanitation laws and housing regulations. 

What's less well known is that Riis' exploration of poverty in New York City turned him into an education reformer — one who sounded a whole lot like today's teacher accountability hawks. His follow-up to How the Other Half Lives was a volume called The Children of the Poor. Here's a litte excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Teacher Wars (Doubleday, Sept. 2014), about the familiar arguent Riis made in that book:

Riis acknowledged the systemic constraints on immigrant children’s lives. The United States lacked strong anti-child labor laws and relied mostly on overextended local charities, many with a proselytizing religious mission, to provide the poor with health care and jobs training. There was no public support for sanitary affordable housing and far too little government funding for truant officers who were supposed to encourage child workers to enroll in school. (In New York City, Riis found that a paltry 12 officers were responsible for tracking 50,000 absent children between the ages of 5 and 14, many of them homeless.) Nevertheless, like today’s accountably reformers, Riis considered teachers the determining factor in whether a child escaped poverty. He wrote that schools are “our chief defense against the tenement and the flood of ignorance with which it would swamp us. … it is the personal influence of the teacher that counts for most in dealing with the child. It follows it into the home, and often through life to the second and third generation, smoothing the way of sorrow and hardship with counsel and aid in a hundred ways.” 

Checking in on Bill de Blasio’s Universal Pre-K Ambitions

The signature proposal of Bill de Blasio's mayoral campaign was a promise to raise the wealthy's income taxes to fund universal, free, full-day pre-K for all the city's four-year olds. 

In the new issue of The Nation I report on the political prospects for this abitious plan, and also describe what a gold standard pre-K education looks like. 

Check it out!

Schooled Podcast: How to Choose a School

Check out the latest episdoe of my Slate podcast. This week: 

With more charter schools, magnet schools, and school choice than ever before, many parents face an intimidating set of options when enrolling their kids in kindergarten and beyond, especially in urban areas. What does the "good school" look like, in terms of teaching, curriculum, and student engagement? Why do one-third of all children struggle to learn to read? What should you do if your kid’s teacher is terrible? And are middle-class or affluent kids hurt academically when they attend schools with peers who come from less educationally privileged backgrounds? In this episode, I talk to Peg Tyre, author of The Good School, and Heather Harding, an education researcher at George Washington University. Both guests have enrolled their own children in urban public schools, in New York and Washington, D.C.

 Listen! 

New Episode of Schooled – “Confessions of a Bad Teacher”

Check it out at Slate. I discuss the challenges and opportunities of teaching in high-poverty urban high schools with two teachers. John Owens lasted less than a year after leaving publishing to teach in the South Bronx. Alex Caputo-Pearl, a member of Teach for America's inaugural class, has been working for two decades in Los Angeles public schools, and was dismissed from Crenshaw High School after he led a controversial curriculum reform effort there.

Listen!

TFA Teachers Perform Well in a New Study — But Teacher Experience Still Matters

Before I dive in to Mathematica's new, positive research on Teach for America, a major caveat: Past studies of TFA suggest its recruits are more effective at teaching math than other subjects, and this study looks only at math. Across the board, it is easier for schools and teachers to raise math test scores than literacy scores. That's because most kids encounter math only at school, while in reading and writing, middle-class kids get a huge boost from vocabularly and book-rich home environments.

Here we go.

The study design: Mathematica compared the performance of 136 TFA math teachers and 153 Teaching Fellows math teachers in 11 unnamed school districts to the performance of "matched" math teachers from other training programs, working within the same school buildings and with similar low-income student populations. Student outcomes were measured using end-of-schoolyear standardized tests. TFAers and Fellows were not compared to one another, in part because they tend to work at different schools.

The big takeaway: TFA math teachers outperformed non-TFA math teachers in their schools by .06 standard deviations in middle school and .13 standard deviations in high school. The talking point will be that this is the equivalent of an additional 2.6 months of learning per schoolyear. But it's important to realize this represents a relatively modest improvement in student achievement. For the average child in this study, who scored in just the 27th percentile in math compared to her peers across the country, having a TFA teacher will help her move up to the 30th percentile–still a long way off from grade-level math proficiency.

Teaching Fellows teachers, who tend to be career-changers, not recent grads, performed similarly to their non-Fellows peers. They were slightly less effective than traditionally-certified teachers, but more effective than teachers who came from non-elite alternative certification routes.

Teacher experience still matters: The bias against first-year teachers is borne out in the data. The students of second-year teachers outperformed the students of first-year teachers by .08 standard deviations–a larger gap than the average one (.07) between the students of TFA and non-TFA teachers. And even though TFA recruits did well in this study, that doesn't mean teachers reach their pinnacle after two years on the job. To the contrary, the researchers found that for teachers with at least five years of experience, each additional year of work was associated with a statistically significant increase of .005 standard deviations in student achievement. Interestingly, during years 2, 3, and 4 of teaching, there is no observable improvement. So this study shows a big leap in effectiveness from year 1 to 2, a flat line for a few years, and then slow and steady improvement year-to-year after year 5.

College selectivity is not a magic cure-all: Are TFA teachers successful because they hail from elite colleges? Maybe not, this study suggests. Teachers here who attended selective institutions did not outperform other teachers, regardless of whether or not they participated in TFA or the Teaching Fellows. That finding is in line with new data from New York City linking student achievement back to the colleges teachers attended. In that study, NYU and Columbia grads were not significantly more effective than graduates of Hofstra or CUNY.

It doesn't matter much what teachers majored in: One of the big critiques of traditional teacher education is that not enough teachers have college degrees in the subjects they teach. But in this study, traditional teachers were actually more likely than TFA or Teaching Fellows teachers to have majored in math. That coursework didn't necessarily help them become better teachers.

And teachers' own test scores are not all that predictive: TFAers and Fellows demonstrated better standardized test scores in math–they scored an average of 17-22 points higher than their counterparts–perhaps because they were much more likley to have attended academically selective colleges, which require good test scores for admission. The relationship between teachers' own test scores and student achievement remains murky, however. The researchers conclude that at the high school level, higher teacher test scores are associated with slightly better student outcomes, but that there is no relationship between teacher and student test scores at the middle school level.

Coursework is distracting: When a teacher is taking night courses–as all first-year TFA teachers do, to meet state certification requirements–student achievement declines. 

So, why are TFA teachers successful? If it isn't college selectivity or their higher test scores in math, what's the theory of change? After observing TFA's summer training institute this July, I'd guess that there are two major factors. First, TFA teachers are incredibly mission-driven and optimistic. They actively choose to teach in low-income schools and they are selected because they believe closing the achievement gap is not only important, but possible. This inspires them to work hard. (Of course, many non-TFA teachers have these characteristics, as well, and also tend to be great at their jobs.) Second, TFA's training emphasizes data tracking of student outcomes and the importance, specifically, of raising standardized test scores. That could lead to the students of TFA teachers getting more test-prep and hearing more messages about why performing well on tests is important.

Update: The researchers tell Dylan Matthews that although they used the results of high-stakes state exams to measure student outcomes in the middle-school grades, at the high school level, the tests they used were completely new to the teachers, so they couldn't have prepared students for them. I'd still make the point that the students of TFA teachers may be more likely to take testing seriously, for the reasons I outline above.

Don't forget race and class: Of TFA's 2012 class of recruits, 62 percent are white. But the TFA sample in this study was a whopping 89 percent white, while the demographics of the non-TFA comparison teachers were starkly different: only 30 percent white. The student population, meanwhile, was 80 percent low-income children of color. As I research my book, sources across the country are telling me, anecdotally, that urban districts are losing teachers of color, especially African American teachers. Given what we know about the importance of race-similar role-models for minority students, and how this, too, can affect achievement and school culture, it's important to gather more information on how well districts and teacher training programs are doing at putting teachers of color in front of students of color. 

In New York’s Mayoral Race, Who Will the Teachers’ Union Endorse?

Update 2, 5:50 pm: The UFT has endorsed Bill Thompson.

Update 1, 5 p.m: The UFT executive board has recommended Bill Thompson for mayor. Now the 3,400 Delegate Assembly will vote.

This evening, the United Federation of Teachers, the nation's largest teachers' union, will endorse a candidate for mayor of New York City. Most close observers believe the pick will be either Bill Thompson or Bill de Blasio. Thompson is the former city controllor and former head of the now defunct Board of Education, which was abolished when Mike Bloomberg gained mayoral control of the city's schools. In 2009, Thompson shocked New York politicos when he came within just a few points of defeating Mayor Mike Bloomberg in his bid for a third term. Yesterday, Thompson was endorsed by the principals' union, and he had already won the support of Randi Weingarten, the president of the national American Federation of Teachers, to which the city UFT belongs. Bill de Blasio is the current city public advocate and a former member of a Brooklyn community school district board — another body abolished by mayoral control. He is running generally to the left of the rest of the field, and has already received a major union endorsement from SEIU 1199. (The candidate with a modest lead in the polls, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, has been booed at UFT events, and is seen as overly aligned with union foe Bloomberg.)

On education, Thompson and de Blasio have staked out many similar positions. Both are in favor of continuing mayoral control, but with checks and balances from a more independent Panel for Education Policy. Both are skeptical of standardized testing and are in favor of "moratoriums" on school closings and charter school co-locations within public school buildings. Both have said they would end the Bloombergian practice of appointing school chancellors who built their reputations in fields other than education. Both say they might continue the experiment in weighing student test scores in teachers' evaluations, but in reality, this is not a city-level issue; New York State's new teacher evaluation law, crafted in response to President Obama's Race to the Top competition, requires that student data be included. Thompson's campaign chairwoman is Merryl Tisch, a state education official who strongly supports Race to the Top. 

The candidates' divergences on education policy are ideologically idiosyncratic. De Blasio says generously endowed charter school networks, like Eva Moskowitz's Success Academies, should pay rent if they use space in public school buildings, a position in line with a failed lawsuit filed in 2011 by a group of parent activists who often ally with the teachers' union. Thompson opposes rent for charter schools. But de Blasio also supports ending seniority-based teacher layoffs. Here, he is agreeing with the education reform movement embodied by Mayor Bloomberg and often opposed by the union. Thompson's position on seniority remains unclear. 

To my mind, the major education policy difference between Thompson and de Blasio is that de Blasio supports raising taxes on city residents who earn more than $500,000 annually — from 3.86 to 4.3 percent – which could theoretically provide a way to fund the many education extras he is proposing, such as universal pre-K, community and health services within public school buildings, and more arts education. Thompson, on the other hand, has said, "Let me be blunt, so there’s no misunderstanding: I’m not raising taxes."

You'd think this would swing the UFT endorsement toward de Blasio, but that may not be the case. For one thing, only Albany has the power to raise taxes, and there is scant evidence that Republicans and moderates there would be willing to take the lead of a progressive Democratic mayor on this issue. Last week I interviewed Peter Goodman, a veteran UFT teacher, organizer, and staffer, who remains active in the union's retiree chapter. Within the UFT, there is a concern that should de Blasio win the Democratic nomination, it could strike so much fear in the city's tax-averse corporate elite that "they would pump money" toward the campaign of Joe Lhota, the leading Republican, Goodman said. Union leaders are also cogniszant of the coalition-building that could come from allying with a strong, black Democratic mayor. "Having an African American candidate is a good idea," said Goodman, who was a strike leader in 1967 and 1968, when the city schools convulsed with conflict between union teachers and black and Latino activists and civil rights groups, who supported more parent control over schools. 

"If you look at Tweed," Goodman said, the headquarters of the Department of Education, "and who works there, they are very white. And I think things like that, you have to be very sensitive to. To ignore it is at your own peril, and I think this [Bloomberg administration] leadership has done that. To me, that’s one of the great failings. This is an enormously multi-ethnic city and demographics are destiny."

Civil rights organizations are split in their approach to teachers' unions. The NAACP, for example, has joined the UFT in suing New York City to stop school closures and charter school expansions in low-income neighborhoods. From Washington, however, national civil rights-oriented advocacy groups, like Education Trust and the Children's Defense Fund, have been more supportive of charter schools and the push for teacher accountability. 

New York's mayoral election will have big implications for school reform nationwide. Have parent activist opponents of standardized testing and charter schools — who generally support "millionaire's taxes" to fund community schools — organized themselves into a force strong enough to sway a major union endorsement toward a left candidate like Bill de Blasio? Or will pragmatism prevail? The shape of the race will be clearer after tonight's UFT endorsement. 

For more: Read Philissa Cramer on the union's endorsement process.

Cracks in the Common Core Coalition: On the Right, Left, and Now in the Center, Too

In a speech in Manhattan this morning, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten called for a "moratorium" on high stakes attached to Common Core tests. She complained that in New York state, students sat for new tests this spring, before schools received promised new curriculum materials from the city and state, which are expected to come in the fall. A multi-state survey of AFT members found that most believe they have not received adequate professional development or instructional materials aligned to the new standards.

Weingarten said Common Core-driven tests like the ones rolled out this month in New York, created by the Pearson company, should not yet count toward student graduation requirements, and that students' scores on these exams should not yet be weighed as part of their teachers' evaluations. (In New York, students' state test scores are set to count for 20 percent of a teacher's rating.) And she noted that while the federal government has spent $350 million to help fund the development of Common Core tests, it has not devoted any specific funding streams to teacher training on how to use the new standards in the classroom. She said:

I am proposing that states and districts work with educators to develop clear tasks and a clear timeline to put in place the crucial elements of Common Core implementation. And until then, the tests should be decoupled from decisions that could unfairly hurt students, schools and teachers.

When scores drop as sharply as they’re expected to, it will send an inexcusable message to parents: Your child is far from meeting the standards. And she needs to meet the standards to get into college. But we don’t have a plan, and nobody’s accountable for getting her there. Except for the teacher, who hasn’t been trained. And you can just imagine how that teacher feels. …

Let me be clear about what this moratorium is and isn’t: We aren’t saying students shouldn’t be assessed. We aren’t saying teachers shouldn’t be evaluated. We’re not saying that there shouldn’t be standardized tests. We’re talking about a moratorium on consequences in these transitional years.

We're currently seeing cracks in the incredibly broad coalition — made up of teachers' unions, test manufacturers, the vast majority of states, and standards and accountability hawks — that originally came together in 2009 to design the Common Core. The Common Core has always been controversial on the margins. On the left, activist parents charge that standardized testing degrades the curriculum. On the right, opposition from senators like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, as well as from Republican state legislators, has centered around a sort of purposeful misreading of the federal government's involvement in the Core. While it's true the Obama administration, through Race to the Top, provided financial incentives to states that adoped the Core, the Department of Education had nothing to do with writing the standards themselves, a process initiated by the National Governors' Association and a group of state school superintendents. Those folks hired the consulting group Student Achievement Partners to write the standards, and in doing so, SAP consulted with the unions, teachers, academic experts, and testing companies. Much of the funding came from private philanthropy. 

What's more problematic to implementation are the differences emerging between strong supporters of the Core on the center-right and center-left. Since states, districts, and schools have a lot of flexibility in how they implement the standards — what specific novels to assign, which math textbooks to use — standardized testing was always meant to be the main way teachers would be pressured to adopt the Core faithfully. Weingarten is urging a slower approach to accountability, asking that teachers and students have time to adjust to the higher expectations over the course of multiple years. But other Common Core fans, like Jeb Bush, gladly accept the very prospect Weingarten resists: that many, many more children will "fail" Core-aligned tests. As I noted last week, both Bush and one of the Core's leading architects, David Coleman, told me last year that until students, parents, and teachers realize where they stand against these higher expectations, as measured by tests, it will be impossible to move the country forward on school improvement more broadly.

This repesents a deep divide. Will disappointing, high-stakes results on Common Core tests scare us into meaningful school reform? Or should the process be slower, more holistic, and less high pressure? 

A third possibility — and probably the most likely one, judging from the history of American education reform — is that states will set cut scores for passing these tests lower, in order to insulate more students from accountability. Meanwhile, teachers will continue to implement the Core in an uneven way, adjusting to the materials and professional development they have personally received, which varies greatly from school to school.

Test Resentment and the Politics of the Common Core

There is a growing national movement to opt one's children out of public school standardized tests, and much of its energy is flowing out of New York state, which this week debuted Common Core-aligned exams in English, created by the Pearson corporation. These tests ask much more challenging free response and essay questions than students are accustomed to, and were rolled out before many schools and teachers received all the new curriculum materials and professional development opportunities promised as part of the the Common Core movement toward higher, nationally-shared academic standards. 

New York media is filled with disgruntled parents and teachers complaining that kids simply weren't ready for these changes, and that the tests caused anxiety and fear. But the decision to move quickly was a deliberate one on the part of state policy-makers; since the exams are tied to teacher evaluations and high school graduation requirements, rolling them out sends a strong message that officials expect instruction to improve now. The risk is that the Common Core movement will lose political support as families and schools receive low test scores, and that states like New York will grade the exams on such a steep curve that their purpose–raising expectations–will be watered down. I wrote about these risks last year in my Atlantic profile of David Coleman, one of the Core's architects, and now the president of the College Board:

Perhaps the deepest political obstacle to raising academic standards for all students is that, at least initially, large majorities of those students will likely fail. Most experts believe that faithfully testing the Common Core standards would result in only a small minority of American children being declared “on track” for college or a career. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a critic of teachers unions and supporter of online learning, is a hero in many education-reform circles. He is also one of the Common Core’s most vocal Republican champions. Like the pundits who argue that banks should have been allowed to fail in 2008, as a cautionary tale for world markets, Bush believes that many children, teachers, and schools may have to be declared “failing” before the public understands the urgency of school reform.

“The big fight will be coming in 2014, when we begin to implement and assess these standards,” Bush told me. “If a third are ready, what will the response of states be then? Will they do what they historically have done, which is to pull back and say ‘Oh my God, that’s not fair, excuse, excuse, excuse’? Or will they accept responsibility to say ‘That’s the fact, that’s where we are now. Maybe 40 percent of our kids are ready if we benchmark them against the world’?”

Bush’s tough-love position is easy for a former politician to take, but less so for a current elected official. After all, no governor or legislator wants to preside over plummeting test scores. Pressure to roll back the Common Core or to relax the tests may be intense.

Coleman admits that the Core will probably lead to “a short-term reduction in [test] scores,” but he seems to have made peace with this reality as a necessary hardship on the road to his academic utopia.

States have a history of lowering cut scores or making tests easier when large numbers of students–especially middle-class, suburban students–fail. In fact, it happened just last spring in Jeb Bush's Florida, which had created new, more challenging writing tests. Right now, states like New York and Illinois are in a period of education policy idealism, raising standards and warning that achievement scores might decrease. But we don't yet know how much fortitude politicians associated with education reform, like Gov. Andrew Cuomo, will have when they are confronted with growing parental protest and potentially plummeting scores.