Monday, December 31, 2007


I read an interesting article in the Economist recently. They were comparing school systems in different countries. One of the criteria they used was the differences between the highest and lowest functioning schools. Countries such as Germany and Japan have the highest difference. Poland had one of the lowest. ( This is the link to the Economist article, good reading.)It turned out that Poland has done one of the best jobs in increasing the educational levels of their lowest students without hurting their top students. Homogeneous (I meant to say heterogeneous,an unforgivable error for a science teacher) schools seem to raise the bottom without hurting the top.

This is a hard thing to deal with in NYC and probably most other places. We are in many ways an elitist country. Not as bad as the Japanese but not that far away. I think that the principal of my old school and her security general were of the elite is good school of thinking. My feeling is that it is really hard to figure out who is elite. Kids come to us with many different attitudes and problems. It is our job to believe in all of them.

I was talking to a student the other day. He said he wanted out of the class he was in because the teacher was disrespectful of him. I never saw it, though I think the teacher is frustrated that the class is not learning fast enough. I was thinking about a teacher I supervised she had a large number of complaints from kids who felt that she put them down. So I said to a kid who was complaining about her, "I'm always calling you dumb." and the kid responded to me that that was true, but I didn't mean it. And the truth is I never did mean it. Even the kids the farthest behind had something to offer.

The rumor is that my old school is going to be broken up and the current principal will become principal of one of the small schools. I'm sure she will want to take the elite academy. It will be great to see what happens with that. She used to run this academy on the basis of throwing kids out if they did not perform, and forcing kids to stay who did not want to do the work they were being asked to do. This will not be an option as an autonomous school. Of course if she ends up with the elite kids she won't have to worry about the lower third, unless no one wants to go to her schools and she has to take kids that are not that great.

As I've said in the past, you need to have a certain percentage of overachieving kids to provide a leadership in a school. But a school should teach compassion and concern for others. In this way you encourage kids to help each other. There is nothing more powerful than this.

Bob Durkin

I went to Bob Durkin's funeral last weekend. I have been trying to figure out what he meant to me. I know when I heard that he was dying it really hit me. Part of the reason was that he was only one year older than me. But I think part of the reason was that he was a significant person in my life. I am trying to figure out why.

One of the things Bob did, was he inspired a bunch of people. He also had a bunch of people who couldn't stand him. I was friends with both groups of people.

Bob Durkin never slowed down. It was always full speed ahead with him. He wrote large grants, he courted business partners, and there was a steady stream of visitors to our school. Working for him made you feel as if you were in the center of the education universe. This was an exciting place to be.

On Bob's casket was the sign that was on his desk, "It is all about the kids". I think that this was always true. I know that Bob would go to the crack house in the neighborhood to drag students out. I remember the day when a girls father was getting out of jail. ACS was going to send the kid back to her father, even though he was abusing her. Bob spent the evening on the phone trying to save this girl. I think he would have called the president if he knew his number. He would not give up until he had solved this problem. He really did care deeply about the kids.

I don't think Bob had a happy childhood. I suspect that he found it difficult to have fun with his kids. Every year I would have a fight with Bob over taking kids to Great Adventure for Physics Day. The first year Bob ignored my trip because he was sure that the superintendent wouldn't approve the trip. It was approved after I convinced the superintendent that the Board of Ed. approved of this trip. The next year Bob convinced the superintendent to say no and I appealed. The trip was approved as the Buses were parked outside. Bob was livid. I think that what bothered him the most was the fun aspect of the trip. I think Bob had a hard time with fun.

Bob did things his way. He believed, as I do, that good teachers make a good school. He worked really hard to get rid of bad teachers. He did this before it was something the Board of Ed. approved of. This may have been the beginning of the superintendent hating him. What I think happened sometimes with the superintendent is that Bob was willing to do his job and he wanted the superintendent's office to do its job. All they wanted to do is keep peace. I don't think Bob ever thought of his job as keeping peace.

The UFT hated Bob Durkin. They hated him so much that they probably still hate him. They did everything they could to get rid of him. They hated him because he kept asking teachers to do their jobs. They hated him because he did not believe in the game of shuffling bad teachers around the system. He wanted to get rid of them. Some of their complaints were valid. He was often heavy handed when he didn't have to be. He had some people he hated and he went after them with a vengeance. Some of the people he went after were not bad teachers, they were just not the type of teacher Bob liked. He should have known to back off sometimes. That said, the hatred of the UFT was way beyond rational.

Bob was always in the middle of things. He was a star, but he could have been a superstar. He blew some great chances. He pushed the idea of turning a large high school into houses. He inspired some of the Ap's to think of themselves as mini-principals. People came from overseas to visit us. He could have turned the school into mini schools with bunch of principals with Bob as a quasi-superintendent. I feel that if he had made that move he would have become known all over the country. He could have spent the next few years giving speeches around the country. But he couldn't give up the power. I think he was afraid of not having enough to do or enough control. This may have been his fatal flaw.

Bob was the first principal I knew who understood statistics. He collected them and he used them to make decisions. He was the first person to show me the incredible differences between good and bad teachers. He pulled statistics on how many kids good teachers passed (always more than bad teachers) and how many kids passed Regents tests (always dramatically more than bad teachers).

The bottom line about Bob is that he always felt he could solve the problem of urban education. He believed he could succeed and he inspired people around him to believe they could succeed. He believed kids could succeed and he created a school that encouraged that.

I assume the current principal did not go to the viewing. I am certainly glad I did not see her there. I think it would have been more than I could have borne. I think I need to come back to this again in a month or so.

Sunday, December 30, 2007


I think the part of the principal's memo that disturbed people the most is his comments on how hard the kids lives were. This type of comment always comes across as condescending. I suppose that almost everyone can be looked at as having a hard life. I imagine that the Astors wonder how I can survive on my small salary. They must think I have a hard life.

Of course many of our kids do have awful lives. While poverty does not cause alcoholism, child abuse, or drug addiction it does increase the percentage of families who suffer from these problems. I have known many cases of kids who came from situations that made me wonder how they survived. As educators we need to help kids deal with these problems. Years ago it became obvious that we couldn't teach kids if they were hungry. This is why free lunch and breakfast programs were started. It is just as true that a child from an abusive home or who lives in a different home every month will have trouble learning. We need to do what ever we need to to help them.

Having said all of this. I will also say that we can not excuse kids for having tough lives. Each kid needs to be dealt with as if they are capable of greatness. We must always demand the most from them. I think that on a really basic level kids need to be dealt with this way. They need to feel that we believe in them. For some of them it may be the most important thing we can give them. The chance to be treated like normal kids.

The person you never want to hire as a teacher is the person who tells you they are becoming teacher to help the poor unfortunate kids. These people almost always fail.

One of the interesting things I have observed is that the kids who did well at my school did well in college even though by "objective standards" they probably did not learn as much as a kid in a better high school. Their success had more to do with being successful than it did with how much they learned. Sometimes they had a hard time when they first got to college, but they were always able to work up to what was expected of them. This is one of the reasons I don't believe in "objective standards". I do believe in pushing kids to work harder than they think they can. This is what builds the capacity necessary to succeed in life. When I teach Chemistry I make sure I ask more of the students than they think they can give.

The first year I taught I was in an 8th grade class. I had the highest level class and the lowest level class. My school was in to dividing kids up this way. I remember thinking that I could not tell the difference between the two extremes. Then one day the high level kids were driving me crazy and so I told them that if they thought they could do a better job then they could teach the class. They did and they did do a better job than I was doing. I realized that they were much smarter than I thought. I was the cause of these kids acting dumb, because I did not demand enough.

It is hard to get the level right. All teachers need someone to come into their class and help them figure out the level. I need someone to do this myself. Self fulfilling prophecies are an occupational hazard. So is a rigid belief in thinking you know what a kid should learn. I very strongly feel that the most important thing we do is build capacity to learn. We have no idea what these kids worlds will look like. I'm a wiz at WordPerfect. I know all the shortcuts and F keys. Does anyone care anymore? But I did learn how to read a manual and even more important how to hack my way through a program. This is why I am fairly technologically sophisticated. As a matter of fact it is my ability to hack my way through programs that has helped me the most. My father and probably most of my high school teachers would have been horrified at the concept of just figuring something out by educated trial and error (hacking). This is not how people learned in the 40's, 50's and 60's. But it is an important part of learning today.

What we need to say to kids every day is, you can learn, you can figure things out on your own, you can be a valuable member of society. We need to say this every chance we can because there are lots of people saying just the opposite to these kids. Even more important than saying this, we must believe it. To stand in front of a student and tell them that we are proud of them when they did nothing to deserve our pride will destroy credibility, probably for ever.

The picture above was shot on Sixth Avenue and Fourth Street. The reason I took it is that the look is school girl uniform. Do people push school uniforms because they think it will make kids better behaved or is it just one of the great male sexual fantasies. I put my money on the fantasy.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


My wife hates winter. The last week has had bad weather and I can see that she is not happy. The problem is that she doesn't go to Lowe's. This is where the true rhythm of nature is played out. If my wife spent as much time in Lowe's as I do she would see the world differently.

Today I walked into Lowe's and all of the Christmas things were on sale. Most of the isles of Christmas decorations had been eliminated and the merchandise had been consolidated into one isle. In place of Christmas things there were hoes and rakes and barbecues. Lowe's understands that spring will be here soon and we better start getting ready.

The girl above wanted to marry me.

Friday, December 14, 2007

65 %

The big education news here in NYC is the principal who wrote a memo to his staff telling them that if they were not passing 65% of their students that they needed to take into account how difficult the students lives were and to redesign their classes to allow more students to pass.

Everyone seems shocked by this. The interpretation is that he is suggesting that his teachers dumb down the classes. If you are a teacher, than I would hope that you are adjusting your classes to the students in front of you. Good teachers do this all of the time. Bad teachers hide behind a concept that there is an objective level that all classes should be taught at. Certainly if you are a chemistry teacher there is a state curriculum with a certain scope of learning. But the amount of room within this scope is huge.

As a supervisor you often see two different types of teachers. One has "standards" and even if no one in the class understands what they are talking about they plow ahead. This makes them efficient deliverers of information and bad teachers. These are the equivalent of the adult who talks to you about music in such technical terms that you can't follow what they are saying and then sneers at you for being ignorant. If it wasn't that equal amounts of men and women teachers teach this way I would make a comment about the size of their genitals.

The second one adjusts her teaching to reflect the class. The problem this teacher often has is that she keeps adjusting down and the kids get lazier. What supervisors should be doing is walking into the classes and pushing the teachers to demand more. This state of lowered expectations seems to be inevitable. It is hard to get the level right without an impartial observer watching what you are doing.

I've talked a lot about whether we should care about kids home lives, but I will talk some more about this next time.

I was reading a review of the new Coppola movie. It said this move is rated R for language, sexual congress, and metaphysics.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


I have been scanning old pictures and ran across this picture of me. I actually built the set I am sitting in.

I haven't written in a long time because my life seems to be on autopilot and so I don't get as angry. I come to this school everyday and I sit in the server room trying to get server 2003 to work. I have no one to talk to if I can't get something to work. I have to admit that there have been times in which I have felt that I would never solve this program. I would read the same instructions over and over and not understand what they were saying. But I have finally figured it out and I think my server and backup server are up and running the way I want them to be.

This has been an interesting exercise in literacy. The difference between me and many of our semi-literate students is that I keep at it until I figure it out. I feel like giving up, but I don't. Why is this true? I think that whatever is inside me that kept me going is what we need to put inside our students. This is really all they need. The rest is details.

Two funny things since I last wrote. There was a short news article that the first 5 seasons of Sesame Street were on DVD. They came with a warning saying they may not be suitable for children. Apparently Oscar is really grouchy and Cookie Monster eats cookies. Maybe this explains what is wrong with my kids. Do you think I could sue?

The second interesting thing is that Joel Klein sent an email to me and every other teacher in NYC who checks their DoE email. The letter spoke about how some of the recent test results were disappointing but that they were not a good measure of how well the city was doing. This is strange. It is strange because Klein loves testing as an instrument to use in judging individual school performance. It is also strange that he felt it necessary to send a letter to everyone. Of course the problem is that the city and the state have manipulated tests to give them the results they wanted. But you can only do this for so long and then you have no more room. Klein should have been smart enough to get out before he ran out of room.

The next guy should come in, give very hard tests to show how awful the schools are and then spend the next few years manipulating results to show improvement. That's how you "succeed".

Friday, November 9, 2007

Aw C'mon

I have to respond to a comment I received on my last blog. The author says I am being simplistic. I am. I am saying that simple is where you start. The reason my old school received an F is they could never master simple. I now get assigned to other schools and I do not see the types of problems I constantly saw at my old school. Generally these schools have money for supplies. Generally these schools have minimal programming problems.

The author of the comment talked about my department. I did not have a department for 4 years. I had a house, but those in power never seemed to get this. The easiest way to move out of the F world is to move the bottom third of the students. You do this in a house, not in a large school. This is what houses were designed for. To talk about my department a year after I left and 4 years after the school changed is ridiculous.

This is where programming comes in. When the previous APG ran programming there were maybe a dozen kids that did not get classes in there house. In my house there were at best 2 kids who did not take lab with their science teacher and these were seniors. When I left there were large numbers of kids not programmed in house classes and a large number of students mis-programmed for labs, even ninth graders who should be the easiest kids to program. This kills science scores and it kills houses. I do not believe my old school will last much longer, but the principal should be honest and kill houses. The only current reason for the existence of houses is to provide a mechanism to blame AP's for the ills of the school.

The first year I was science AP I made sure that my teachers were appreciated and that they had what they needed to teach. I provided a buffer between them and the administration. My scores went up 30%. This was not that hard considering how low they were. I also realized that that was the easy part. The second increase in scores would come from intense staff development. This is much harder and I failed. A few years after I became science AP we switched to houses. My roll was that of consultant to other houses on science issues.

One of the houses in my school put all their labs at the end of the day. The result was predictable, few passed the labs and most of their kids were ineligible for the Regents. Bad programming has bad consequences.

The grades a school receives is based to a large extent on graduation rate and how well you do with the bottom third of your class. One example of the stupid decisions made by my principal is that I had a double period math class that was designed for the lower third of my kids. The class was held in a room that had math posters all over it. It was 50 feet from my office. The principal decided the class should not be in this room. She moved the first period to a computer room that was totally unsuited for the class. Students could hide behind computers. This class was on a different floor from my office. Then she moved the second period to a room On the other side of the building. The one group she should have been putting resources into, she was taking them away. And of course blaming me for doing a bad job of programming. She was upset that she had to fix my error! She had no problems punishing students for my supposed misdeeds.

The second thing I noticed about these kids was that they were not in school very much. When they did come to school they got in trouble and were suspended. Again, the group we most needed to help we created an environment that worked against these kids. My old school had a huge number of suspensions. My college bound kids were not getting suspended. The kids who probably could have missed school and not been harmed were never suspended. The kids who needed every minute we could give them, they were suspended. The school had chosen to emphasis "safety" over academic success for our most needy students. The school chose to see the problems these kids created as moral failings on their part, rather than the inevitable fall out of academic failure. By suspending so many kids we create more failure and more behavior problems.

I am not on a "high horse". I am a person who fought against this every day I was in the building. I ultimately lost and was banished. But I hope that while I was there I did some good. I have been in the trenches.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Random Education

I saw a woman and her kid on the train the other day. I would guess the kid was in second grade. Mom had the kids math workbook. It had addition problems. The mom was working hard to finish all of the problems before they reached their stop. The kid was doing nothing. How can we get the message across to parents that this is a really bad thing to do. I would assume that the mother would rather do the work than get a call from the teacher yelling at her for not making the kid do his homework. (Another unintended consequence of homework). If the teacher uses this homework to evaluate the kid she/he will of course get a false sense of the students abilities.

So, I see that my old school got an F on its report card. This may be the final nail in the coffin. I don't see how a program, such as the one I used to run can possibly recruit students. I have said before that my definition of a good program is one that has a mix of good students and more challenging students. It is a delicate balance. If you fall below a certain number of good students then you are in trouble. You find that there is no leadership. This is very bad.

I feel that the F came because of a lack of leadership in the school. This doesn't mean that all of the teachers are wonderful, but so many of the not good teachers were hired by the current leaders that they must be blamed. Running a school is easy, you hire great teachers, you support them and you leave them alone. My old principal hires teachers out of desperation, and then often hires nice middle class kids who can't teach or she hires someone because they are all that is available that day and she would rather have a body in a classroom then wait for a good teacher.

Resources in my old school went first to security and then to classrooms. Always a bad decision. Supplies were hard to come by, coverages for trips or staff development were discouraged, and most importantly the programming was abysmal. I found the programming one of the most discouraging aspects. Each student is unique. How you program them is critical to their success in school. If you force the student to fit the school and not the school to fit the student you are creating a situation that keeps students from doing their best and therefore gives you an F.

How does she survive?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

I know that one of my faults or "charming quirks" is that I get upset about too many issues. I fight over things that I know I will loose. I should keep quiet until I have a chance of winning. Effective politicians do this and do it without loosing their integrity, though sometimes they do.

I always remember Everett Dirkson, a politician who I did not agree with. But when it came time to deal with Richard Nixon he said, enough, the constitution matters and he was one of the most vocal prosecutors in the Senate. He played realpolitik most of his career and then when it counted he drew a line and stood up for principles.

In the Sixties the two biggest things going on were the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. Unions choose to support the war and they chose to effectively deny civil rights. The antiwar movement was to a great extent an issue of style. A generation was saying that they did not buy America no matter what. This generation grew up with a basic anti-union attitude. An attitude that is still hurting the unions today. Particularly when they go to organize white collar workers.

The Civil Right movement was even more serious. It was obvious that blacks had been seriously discriminated against in obtaining good paying union jobs in America. The unions took the position that it was not their problem and that seniority was the most important factor. They denied that they needed to do anything to address past abuses of a large number of people. They wanted jobs for those who had them and for their children. This was a great moral turning point for trade unions and they failed. I think that ultimately this hurt the union movement. When unions started they had the moral high ground. They were helping workers get a fair deal. In the 60's they lost this and I don't think that they have ever recovered. Their leaders took the popular route with their members. This helped define the mid-west today and hasten the movement of people out of the area and to the coasts.

In the 30's unions worked hard to provide workers with good working conditions. In 68 and 69 when I went on strike for the UFT I did it for more money and for better working conditions. The UFT promised they would work to provide me with a work place that treated me like a professional. In the end the UFT settled for more money and for gutting the civil rights inspired community control of the schools. The UFT obtained a great deal of power. The workers only received more money. The state of the UFT today is reflective of these decisions. We are well paid and are treated like crap. We have almost no relationship with the communities we work in. The UFT treats us like crap and so they don't really get why we are upset when administrators treat us like crap. The UFT powers make very large amounts of money.

Today I was getting off the subway and a very stunning woman passed me on her way to the train. I usually don't see anyone on the train, but I noticed her. While I was going up the steps I heard a commotion. I kept going up and as I got to the top I turned around and saw this stunning woman coming up the stairs yelling and screaming about something that was not clear. It reminded me of the concept that if you see someone who you think might be better than the woman you have forget it. You would probably just trade for something that was even crazier. Might as well stay with the craziness you know.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Midwest

My daughter is currently living in Michigan and counting the days until she can move to the east. What got me thinking about this was the current issue of the Atlantic. There were two articles that particularly caught my eye. One was on Reinhold Niebuhr and the other was on Saul Bellow. It turns out that Niebuhr got his start in Detroit. Of course Belows is from Chicago. Both these guys were great thinkers. They did there most important work before 1970. I left Michigan in 1969. Not that I am at all equal to Niebuhr or Bellow. But the dates are significant.

In 1962 a bunch of people who would soon become my friends got together in Port Huron Michigan. They wrote a document that is still interesting today. If you have never read it take a look at the Port Huron Statement. The people I knew at the University of Michigan were often the kids of union organizers, one kids father had fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The dads were generally doing well but when we needed bail money to get us out of jail after some protest they could usually be counted on to help out. They were generally proud of their kid's activism. This was the exciting intellectual world of the Mid-West.

While Michigan was never New York, it was something. So was St. Louis and Cleveland and Buffalo and Minneapolis . People lived there with great ideas. The union movement attracted large numbers of intellectuals who felt that they could change the world. In fact they really did change the world but they never went far enough. They settled for high wages and no change in the basic structure of industry. They came to do good and stayed to do well.(Sounds a little like the UFT and Albert Shanker)

So when I got to college a lot of their kids decided it was time to change the world. I imagine that we did change the world, just not as much as we wanted to. In the end we were not that much different than the union organizer fathers of so many of the SDS kids.

What is most sad about all of this is the fact that the middle of the country seems to have lost its intellectual core. Today when you think of most of these places you think of reactionary thinking. People who are anti homosexuality, abortion, immigration, evolution and almost every thing else.

The middle of the United States once elected a socialist to congress, they founded the Grange and the Farm Workers Party. The mid west was home to the Cleveland Symphony and the Detroit Opera. Artists did not leave as soon as they could. Is this still true? Actually I know that it is still true to some extent. There are still small theater groups in Buffalo and Minneapolis and I am sure lots of other cities. There are lots of smart people out their but they are slowly but surely being pushed out.

I think the current immigration debate is a symptom of something that has been building for a long time. The desire of too many of the Mid Western politicians to push everyone but their constituency out. Often people with different ideas were are part of this unwanted group. The reason the coasts have done so well is that these unwanted people have moved there and many of them turned out to have something good to offer. Taking in the unwanted is what places like New York have always been good at. The problem is, can this country prosper with this type of division? It is sad that Michigan is going to loose a liberal voice.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Rules and Regulations

Years ago I remember reading a book called Hawaii. This was a fictionalized account of the founding of Hawaii. One of the things that happened was that when the missionaries arrived they realized that the Hawaiian people were have too much intercourse. They did not like this. They wanted to push the idea of marriage and of course the missionary position. They thought that they might create a law that forbid all the types of congress that they did not approve of. They realized that if they did this that this would just give the Hawaiians ideas on things to do that they had not thought of. So this is the law they came up with:

any other species of lewdness be committed, such as is not mentioned in this law, the judge shall consider it well, according to the best of his knowledge, he shall pass sentence in accordance with the general spirit of the law. Thus shall he punish that crime
In other words, we aren't going to tell you what is bad, but don't do it.

The SEC years ago decided that if they specified all of the illegal things that banks and stock brokers should not do that they would provide a gold mine for lawyers looking for loopholes. For instance there is a section of the tax code that says you should not do any financial maneuver just to avoid taxes. This is much better than telling you what you can't specifically do. It relies on the reasonable interpretation of good behavior.

I have been reminded of this with all the controversy surrounding the memos written in a Queens high school about what to do in case of an emergency. It would seem that the part that is missing is to do what makes sense in the situation. If you are looking to create a series of rules to govern behavior, sometimes less is more.

Of course you need guidelines in any organization. You need to tell people the clear chain of command, but then you have to trust people to do the right thing if the chain doesn't make sense. The memo should have started by saying that everyone was expected to do what is appropriate if they feel someone is in danger and then go on to describe what to do if they are not. All these explicit memos do is feed into the control mentality that too often governs schools while avoiding making people responsible for their own actions.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Do they always win?

About 6 months ago I decided that it was time to get on with my life. I signed an agreement that I did not love, but which at the time looked like it was the best I was going to do. The idea was that I could move on. Not true. I forgot, and apparently so did my lawyer that bureaucrats can almost always win.

In terms of my "career" with the DoE I was left with the prospect of finding a new job. I did not object to that. Clearly I should have done this years ago. I logged on to the DoE web site and noticed immediately that the majority of available Assistant Principal jobs were for AP organization (APO). This is not a surprise. Small schools usually only have one AP. The old model of subject matter AP's is quickly disappearing in NYC. The problem is that in NYC you need what is called a certificate of eligibility(COE). This is a concept that makes sense for subject matter AP's, you should know something about a subject if you are going to be an AP of that subject, but for an APO this seems kind of silly. There are no extraordinary qualifications for this job. You just have to do what the principal needs you to do. Usually this has to do with money but not always.

For most AP's the process for getting a COE to be an APO is you pay the board ten dollars and you make sure your fingerprints are up to date and you don't owe child support. But this is not how it works if you are me.

In early July I applied for the proper COE to be an APO. But I didn't get it. What I got was a letter asking me to come to 65 Court St. I did, and they told me that because of my record of evil doings they would have to investigate me. Would I like to add anything in my own defense. I did and then I heard nothing. It is now October 15 and I have still not heard anything from them. As far as I know my application is just sitting on someones desk. By not acting on it they have essentially stopped me from getting work.

This is what bureaucracies are good at. They are good at doing nothing and by doing nothing hurting people. This is why they win. Doing nothing is usually a more powerful act then doing something.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

It's a nasty group of people

Two interesting and I feel related articles appeared on October 10. The first was in the Times. If you are interested in the whole article it is at This article was by Samuel Freedman, a guy I exchanged emails with last year. He is the Times' education writer. Some how or other he managed to spend three hours in my old rubber room on 7th Avenue. It has gotten worse. teachers are no longer allowed even the small amount of dignity they used to have. Here is the quote from the Times;

The room in question was about 1,100 square feet and on blueprints submitted to the Fire Department was designed to hold 26 people. On this day, it contained upward of 75. It had no windows, no land phone, no Internet access, no wall decorations, not even a clock. Any personal belongings left overnight were removed by custodians.

This is like it was last year, but know listen to this;
Still, the stultifying atmosphere of that rubber room is not simply the opinion of its unwilling, disgruntled residents. I spent several hours there last week observing the listless routine, and what I saw confirmed the complaints I had heard privately from teachers before my unannounced visit.

Until this year, teachers could at least keep some personal items: a seat cushion, a tin of tea. A teacher with a damaged leg who needs a support dog was permitted to sit at a table just outside the rubber room. A physical education teacher even held fitness classes in the hallway.

All that has ended. The department supplied new chairs and tables at the outset of this academic year, but also stopped allowing any of the personal touches.

The room has always been punitive, but now it is a nightmare. The bureaucrats at the DoE think that this is great. They assume that you must be scum if you are there, they never allow the possibility that the scum might be the principal who sent you there.

The second article was in the Daily News. Here it is in its entirety;
A Manhattan gym teacher facing 27 counts of misconduct allegedly threatened to kill the arbitrator presiding over his case, authorities said.

Theodore Smith, 46, who taught at the Museum School in Manhattan, allegedly said he was going to "kill that f---ing arbitrator" and "break him in half," according to a report by Special Schools Investigator Richard Condon.

The Education Department will continue to seek Smith's termination, a spokeswoman said.

What is amazing about this is that if you asked the DoE to comment on an ongoing investigation they would tell you that they could not, that there were confidentiality issues involved, even if the teacher being investigated was willing to wave his/her rights. But on the day that the Times breaks a story on the rubber room suddenly the DoE releases this story. That hardly seems a coincidence. As a matter of fact the release of this item would seem to violate the DoE's policy. Maybe somebody should investigate them. At the very least this guys union should file a suit against the DoE for giving out this information.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

My mind

One quick comment on my last post. We seem to live in an era of privatization. Here in NYC the mayor believes in privatizing and so does Joel Klein. There is this mantra that private is better. I think that the Iraq war is the first privatized war. I think that history will show that it was one of the most inefficient corrupt wars ever conducted. I would hope that private contractors will eventually be held accountable. We also are faced with making some serious decisions regarding health care. No candidate seems to want to propose a government run health care system. This is despite the fact that the feds spend 3% of medicare money on administration and the private sector spends 15%. Privatization can work sometimes, but I think we need to be careful when we assume it is always better.

I am reading this book entitled "I am a Strange Loop" by Douglas Hofstadter. The book is about the mind and in particular what I means. Hofstadter wrote the book after his wife died suddenly. I think he is arguing against what he calls the Cartesian version of I. That is you are who you are only in terms of what body you are in and where that body is located. He makes an argument that all of the I's in the world are somehow connected. Therefore the I that was his wife lives on in some small way inside him and his kids. He sees the I as something that exists beyond the physical and chemical makeup of an individual.

I am not really going to go into explaining what was in this book, because I know that I often read books and then distort them to fit into something inside me. I am not a good reporter of books. I use books to change my thinking but not always in the way that an author intended. I am "famous" in my family for doing this.

This is the point I want to make about this book. I am who I am because of the books I have read, the people I have loved and the experiences I have had. But I do not feel that I retain any of this. I feel that I have taken all of this in and so modified it and distorted it as to make it unrecognizable.

Hofestader really wants to feel that the I that was his wife became a part of him, he wants to feel that he knew her in a profound way. I look at the people I know really well, my wife, my kids and I feel that in a really serious way I have no idea who they are. I have gotten better at guessing what they are thinking or what they want or like, but this is just a skill I have acquired. This skill is similar to getting better at hitting a baseball. When you are little you miss all of the time, but if you practice you learn to make small adjustment that allow you to occasionally hit the ball. You are never able to hit it every time and you are never really aware of where the ball is. You just become better at reacting and reading visual cues.

Of course the study of I can also be the study of the soul. If you are religious this is the easy term. Hofstadter uses another term élan mental which I like a lot. While I believe in élan mental I do not believe that it survives or is transfered in any meaningful way. My father was a major figure in my life. But even thought he affected me and even though some outside people might say I have some of his habits or thought processes I do not believe that any of his soul still exists.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Talk Back

I have received two comments that I think deserve a response. The first one spoke of how wonderful the UFT was. I have been a chapter chair and I will say categorically that the UFT is not a democratic organization. When I was chapter chair the representative from the Manhattan High Schools was not part of the ruling Unity party. This apparently bothered the UFT leadership so much that they changed the way people vote. They used an old trick used by segregationists in the 60's. If you were afraid that a minority group would elect representatives you switched to an at-large system. If you had 10 house representatives and 20% of your population was black you changed the way voting was done to have the representatives elected at large. This almost assured that all of the representatives were white.

The UFT used to have proportional representation, but it changed the ballot so that people now vote on a party. it may still be possible to split a vote, but it is very difficult. The end result is that all of the elected officials are now Unity members. I think that this is actually bad management. I think that you need someone in your organization that has an opposing view. If you don't have this person than you loose touch with your members.

The CSA doesn't change because the majority of its members don't think that the CSA is relevant to them. They don't believe that there is any power in this group so why bother spending any time thinking about who to vote for. The young principals don't care about the CSA at all, they probably see the CSA as something that gets in their way. If the CSA doesn't deal with this quickly they will become even more irrelevant than they already are. By sending the same tired old people around to talk to new principals they are assuring themselves of continued irrelevance.

The second comment I received was someone asking my if I thought the DoE owed me something. This is of course one of the large divides between Joel Klein and the unions. The unions argue that we sacrificed low pay for stability. I'm not sure that is as true today as it used to be. The unions also bring up issues of academic freedom in protecting us, but I don't think there are people in New York City being fired for teaching evolution or even communism.

So, what is wrong with just firing someone. Why couldn't my principal just tell me she didn't like me and that I needed to leave. Actually she probably could have done this, and while I might not have listened to her, I might have.

I think we have to look at teachers and administrators as civil servants. I know that this term has bad connotations today, but you need to examine why civil service was created. At one time every change in administration meant that everyone was fired and replaced with people loyal to the new administration. This created chaos and meant that jobs were filled with people who either had no experience or who were to dumb for the job. Government could not function this way and therefore the civil service was created.

The DoE is attempting to create a situation in which civil service protection does not apply. This will ultimately cause a system filled with connected people who are not good at their jobs. It will also destroy the sense of continuity and family that good schools have. This is already evident in the constant shuffling of principals, if you add AP's to the mix I do not believe that you will help schools.

I don't think that anyone owes me something. I just feel that the politics behind what has happened to me and other AP's is destructive to the schools. Being good at your job should not be the main reason for firing someone. Civil Service rules keep this from happening.

Monday, September 17, 2007

CSA Forever

Alice Roosevelt's grave -Greenwood Cementary

The person who is supposed to be my union rep stopped by today. I know that there are a bunch of people in my district and she should not have to remember everyone's story, but I am in a rather unique situation and I have been asking the union for help for the past year. You would think she would remember something about my situation. She knew nothing at all. She talked to the principal behind closed doors for ten minutes and then she asked me how I was doing. She knew nothing about me or my situation. Evey question I asked was answered by saying email Bob. Of course I have done this almost every day since the end of August.

Unions were created to help their members. Somewhere along the line they seemed to have lost sight of this function. Service is not something they seem to care about. They run all these seminars that give the appearance helping their members. They are just noise. The seminars exist to tell you things you could figure out on your own if someone would take the time to write them down clearly.

My union feels that any problem I present to them is not worthy of service. Most of the people say they will look into my problem and then they stop returning your calls. If I was managing the type of problems Bob is supposed to deal with I would have a list of when I inquired about the problem. If I did not hear back from the DoE in a certain period of time I would call again. I would certainly get back to the member periodically to tell him what was going on. I would at least have a secretary email him and say the problem is still being worked on.

Of course the problem is that unions in the DoE are monopolies. I can't take my business elsewhere. This would be OK, because all governments are essentially monopolies but unions are also structured in such a way that there is no opposition and almost no chance to elect opposition members to the union governing body. This takes away the one thing going for democratic institutions. The throw the rascals out ability that usually exists.

We have a new leader of the CSA, it is time for him to clean house.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Quality Review

This weekend I managed to wander on to the DoE web site. I followed the links to my old school and then I looked under the category "statistics". This led me to something called the school quality report. I have to say I was amazed by what I saw. Statistically you see a school that has not really gotten better for the last three years and you see the following statement under what the school does best:

The principal, who has good capacity to effect change leads and manages a complex organization well, so that it functions effectively on a day to day basis and is improving the quality of its work with students.

What! How did they figure out the principal has a good capacity to effect change. Who did they talk to?

The next bullet said:" The school has taken great strides in recent years to implement an effective discipline code, so that students are safe, secure and able to learn."

Now I see how it is going. The principal is great, the AP security is great. I wonder who else is great?

Guidance and counseling are efficiently managed and, through strengthening links with the school discipline code, are increasingly targeted and focused on students with the greatest needs.

I guess the AP of guidance is really great.

I wonder what this school needs to do to improve. These three people are great I wonder if some people are not so great?

What the school needs to improve
Continue to develop the capacity of the school's cabinet both individually and collectively, to ensure that the school's goals and objectives are met.

Wow! There it is. The source of all of this school's difficulties. It is the lack of capacity in the rest of the cabinet. Take a look at the summary. This says it all.
Overall Evaluation
This is a proficient school.
Significant steps have been taken over the last few years to establish an environment in which students feel safe and secure. This is helping to lay the foundations for continued improvements in the students' academic as well as personal development and in their attendance. Improved links between the school's discipline and guidance and counseling systems are producing a more rounded view of students and enabling more focused packages for their support.

The principal works hard to maintain the balance between the benefits of small learning communities in terms of the knowledge of individual students and the problems that arise with scheduling and the curriculum that can be offered. The impact and effectiveness of this work, however, are being limited by variations in the quality of implementation. The principal has recognized that the key task for individual members of the school's cabinet is to ensure the effectiveness of their teams, both individually and collectively. The principal's task is to ensure the same for each member of the cabinet.

What the DoE evaluator is saying is that the principal the AP security and the AP guidance are doing a great job and their work is being "limited" by the "quality of implementation". I suppose I was one of those people limiting the quality of implementation, I suppose all the other AP's are limiting the quality of implementation.
How come the evaluator doesn't talk about the fact that the other AP's spend at least 50% of their time trying to undo the damage done by the AP security and the poor scheduling done by the AP guidance with the full cooperation of the principal. As a matter of fact, did this evaluator even go above the second floor. Did the evaluator even talk to anyone else in the building.

I hate not having my teachers and my kids around me. I hate doing no significant work for over a year, but I do not hate working for a woman who constantly feels that everyone is letting her down. I do not hate sitting in endless cabinet meetings with no leadership. If I was still an AP at this school I would certainly be very annoyed by this quality review. Come on Ms Principal, take some responsibility for the school.

Friday, September 7, 2007

I ain't going to school with them folks.

I see in the paper today that schools in the US have never been so segregated. We know this in NYC because we have all seen it. The city created a bunch of specialized schools throughout the system that allowed middle class parents to send their kids to "good" schools. Of course the affect was to segregate the schools.

In my neighborhood there were always big hustles going on to get kids into non-zoned schools. I did it and so did many other parents. Before these specialized schools were created there was much middle class flight. Some parents left the city, some parents went to parochial schools and some parents chose private schools ($20,000/ year)

I remember a family that I was friendly with. Their boys played with my son. As soon as the oldest kid became 5 they sold their house and moved to the suburbs. This was a common New York story for those people who could afford it. This is not how you build a strong city.

What happened was the city, in order to stop white flight, allowed parents to manipulate the system and allowed schools to become increasingly segregated. The emphasis that Bloomburg placed on education was very smart. The people you want in the city are people who care about sending their kids to good schools. The problem is how to do this without creating a de facto segregated system.

My kids went to public school in New York City. I thought this was important, but I did figure out how to get my kids into the best possible schools for them. I did not want my kids in schools where no one cared about knowledge, or kids did not allow anyone to see that they were curious about the world.

The house I ran seemed to always have more white kids than the school at large. Still, they were a minority. I was always faced with the issues of tracking students. We had three cohorts and even if you did not believe in tracking the cohorts would still be tracked by the third year. They would track because one group would be taking things such as physics and math B and this would create a schedule that forced them to be together in English and social studies.

One of the things we did was to take kids that seemed to be working hard and showed curiosity and a desire to do well and move them into our honors track. We never looked at their reading or math levels. We made judgment calls about them based on who they were. What I think we were doing subconsciously is tracking kids by desire.

This was an interesting way to track because it gave you all of the good things about heterogeneous classes. The best thing I saw was good kids helping kids who were having trouble. This bred compassion and it also reinforced learning among the better students. Teaching someone else is the best way to learn.

It may be that if we change admissions standards for elite schools to account for desire than we may see these schools become more integrated. Minority kids have a real disadvantage on standardized tests. Their vocabulary is not even close to my own kids' vocabulary.

I am not sure how to test for this desire. Teacher recommendations are only good if you know the teacher. Teachers tend to recommend kids who gave them no trouble. What I think you need to find is kids who are curious. You want to find kids who have the resiliency to not know something and to work to figure it out. Give me a class full of those kids and I don't care what their color or grade level is I can do great things with them.

I have added a new link to a science teacher's blog who is at the beginning of being forced out of her school. I don't know her but the process is informative. It can happen to anyone. Asking any teacher, but particularly a science teacher to travel is such bad policy that I have no comment.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Joel Klein wants to fire me.

Last year the DoE decided to get rid of district 79 schools. They were going to close some of the programs and merge some of the programs into other schools. To do this they decided to fire all of the teachers and make them reapply for their jobs. In the process of doing this a bunch of teachers did not find new jobs. The union contract would not allow these teachers to be fired so they are now replacing per-diem substitutes in many schools. When asked about these teachers the chancellor replied that if he had his way he would fire all of these teachers.

At this point in time there are a bunch of assistant principals who do not have assignments. The new contract does not allow these APs to be fired. I know that Joel Klein's desire is that we all be fired. He can not do this at this time.

I remember reading an interview with someone from Ohio who was having his house foreclosed. He had worked in an auto factory and then the factory had closed down. He was talking about how he had done everything that was asked of him in life, worked hard, married, bought a house, had kids etc. and then the job just left him. Joel wouldn't have any sympathy for this guy. Joel would only care about the auto company being profitable.

The DoE is full of people who are not great at their jobs. I would guess that Bloomberg L.P also has a bunch of people who are not good at their jobs. The world we live in today seems to feel that these people should be cut loose. Unions are a good thing because they keep bosses from doing this.

I am not sure that this is a good way to run the world. I have fired people and pushed people out. Generally I did this to people who wanted to manipulate the system and refused to try to do good work. I had two lab assistants who complained every time I asked them to do anything and who only did the minimum all the time. These were not good workers. I do wonder what happened to them, but I do not feel sorry for them. I have also allowed people who are not good at what they do to continue working for me because they seemed to care a lot about their job. I am sure this is a weakness on my part.

I don't really get people who don't try. It may be that in some cases they are just in the wrong place or working for the wrong person.

Because I got in trouble when I went to apply for a new certificate to become an AP organization my application was sent to investigation. The reason I applied for the APO license is that the majority of jobs available call for this license. I did this in July and I have not heard anything from the DoE. In other words the DoE wants to fire me because I can not find a job on my own, but the DoE has made it impossible for me to find a job on my own. This is a real catch 65.

Of course I let the union know about this right away. Of course the union did nothing as usual. I think I don't understand what they are supposed to do.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

My Summer

Yesterday I put a picture on my page. This shot was taken in Canada from a moving car. It is one of the few good pictures I took this summer. I went to upper Michigan and I went Cleveland and Virgina. I just didn't seem to do as much good photography as I did last year. I have been wondering why.

Last year I was in the west and the west is always inspiring. I don't think this totally explains my lack of output. I think that part of my problem was not going off by myself. Usually I get up early and go out by myself. This year all of my vacation time was with people. I did not have very much time by myself.

I'm reading the biography of Teddy Roosevelt. He was a social guy. He had to be to become president. Roosevelt also owned a ranch in North Dakota and he spent months alone at this ranch, particularly after his first wife died. As I was reading this I realized that I needed some of this. I think spending 3 months a year in the Dakota's is not something I need. When I go to Las Vegas I usually get up at 7 and R gets up at 11. this gives me 4 hours by myself. This gives me a great opportunity to wander around take picture or just do nothing.

I am good at doing nothing by myself when I am home, but somehow this does not lead to creativity. I may actually be grasping at straws but this summer was not very creative for me and I want to figure out how to change this.

I went to Greenwood Cemetery yesterday to visit Alice Roosevelt's grave. I found the family plot but I could not read most of the head stones. This very rich, very powerful family had a modest plot and used stone that did not survive even 100 years. I wandered around with my camera and saw very few good photo opportunities.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Blue Wednesday

I have been sitting in a school for the past few days. Because I am an AP I started on Monday. I have helped fix the office and get things working, but there is really nothing serious I can do because I am here only because no one knows where I should be. I could be gone tomorrow.

This has left me a little down but then I started thinking about all the people I left in the rubber room. I can not imagine what it would be like if I was a teacher sitting at home today knowing that tomorrow I would be going back to that awful place. When you first go there you are in shock and usually surprised so you have not had time to think about it. The first few weeks you are involved in trying to figure out how to get out of there. It is only latter that the depression sets in. By that point you are getting used to it. People can get used to anything. If you ever read "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" you can see how someone can adjust.

If I had all of the summer off, and you was able to lead my life with dignity and now it is Wednesday and I know tomorrow I will be once again thrown into that awful place I am not sure what I would feel like. I suppose I would start feeling bad at least a week ahead of Thursday. I know I did not have a great weekend mentally knowing that I was in limbo.

If any of my fellow prisoners are reading this I want to say that I feel for you. I am not sure if you can ever really recover from last year. I do not feel that this type of trial makes you a better person. I do hope that you will find the strength to survive.

One of the participants in the Abu Ghraib jail just finished his trial. He was acquitted of impropriety at the jail, but he was found guilty of talking about it. In other words you can torture prisoners contrary to the Geneva Convention but don't talk about it. An important message to get out to the troops. We wouldn't want someone to talk and possibly blame the generals for this stuff.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

SHH! It's a secret

The Daily News has run a series of articles about a judge in the Bronx named Marian Shelton. Judge Shelton is being investigated for misconduct. The judge took the unusual step of publicizing the charges against her. I am sure that this is driving a lot of people crazy. This all sounds familiar.

The judge is probably not a saint. It sounds like she made some statements that were not always well thought out. I am sure she is not alone in this. As you read the case it does become apparent that people are after her. Her strategy is partially to go public with the charges. Exactly what I did.

The federal government uses national security as an excuse for secrecy all of the time. What is interesting is that every time they lose a freedom of information suit it is apparent that most of the secrets the government keeps are designed to cover up the governments failings and have very little to do with national security.

I keep asking myself if this type of behavior is unique to government or if it exist in all large industries. Con Ed wants to send their own inspectors to look at the steam pipe explosion site. Are they there looking for the truth or are they there to cover up the truth, particularly if the truth is not favorable to Con Ed.

There was a funny report out of London that 40% of married women have lied to their husbands about how much an article of clothing cost. This is a funny story, but it may expose a basic human trait to spin the truth.

Husbands and wives can deal with each other as they see fit. Governments and corporations need to constantly resist the desire to classify actions as secrets. When they give in to this desire they are badly serving society and often badly serving themselves. Mattel may try to keep the lead paint issue secret, but they know that if it gets out they can risk the whole business. Secrecy has a price for them that may be greater than honesty. This is not true of government or public utilities. It is important that we hold officials accountable. Honesty and openness really do matter.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Carl Rove

I see that Carl Rove has resigned. I guess that Carl was the master at telling lies and therefore convincing a proportion of the population that the lies were true. I think something like 40% of America still thinks that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. I suppose in some small way that this happened to me. The principal was able to file charges against me that were lies. The lies were thrown out of court, but a certain percentage of the population believe them and never let go of their belief.

I was reminded of this recently when someone commented on my blog about me being investigated for fixing Regents grades. This never happened, but I suppose it is the lie that matters not the truth. I sometimes feel that I am a boy scout when it comes to things like changing grades or lying about other people. I find it hard to even imagine doing this. I am always shocked when I hear of others doing things like this. It just seems like something you should not do. It would never even think of changing a Regents grade. I suppose I talk about grades because I would rather change the system than change a student's grade.

My argument with grades is with the attempt to make them precise. Regents' grades are given in discreet numerical units. The problem is that people see this as an accurate measure of a student's abilities. Even the people designing the test would not claim that this was so. I doubt if these grades are repeatable closer than 5 or 10 points. In other words if you gave a student 2 chemistry Regents would they score the exact same score or would they just get in the same range.

If I get on a scale this morning and I weigh myself I will get a clear number. If I go to the doctor an hour from now and weigh myself again I will probably get the same number (assuming the two scales are working). This happens because scales are scientific instruments capable of accurately measuring a persons weight. Regents do not work that way and never will. Regents only give you a range. (For my science readers I realize that the two scales will never read exactly the same number. Even scales have errors)

When we tell a student they received a 72 on a regents we seem to be making a statement that is not true. There is probably no difference between a 72 and a 77. We need to stop pretending that teaching is an exact science. This is why I feel that we should go to a system of letter grades. It will change the way we think about kids intellectual abilities. We should be grouping kids into much broader categories.

Teachers have always used class participation as a factor in grading. This is a huge factor in creating grade inaccuracy. If we are making a statement about a kids ability to succeed in life or to do something brilliant you can find that almost all research shows that we consistently miss the most brilliant students. This happens partially because of this class participation component. Class participation usually means who fits the teachers model of a good student. This model rarely has anything to do with what really brilliant kids do.

The bottom line is have grades helped students realize what their abilities are or have they hurt kids by either giving them a false sense of how good they are or by convincing them that they are failures when they are not.

The image on the top was taken with a camera I just built. The camera takes stereo digital images. If you want to see it in stereo and you look at it while crossing your eyes so that your right eye looks at the left image and your left eye the right image you will see it in 3-D.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Grade Change - Part 2

The second issue in the August first Times’ article was the fact that the principal had given the student a second math test which she passed and then changed the grade to allow the student to graduate. The article quoted the mother as saying something about not being able to afford a second prom. The affect was to trivialize the real concerns that many parent feel about their children’s educations. I think this was a cheap shot.

If you look at this kid you can see that she spent 5 years in high school. Her attendance seemed to have been spotty, but she did stay with it even after her cohort had graduated. The kid clearly had problems in math. This is too bad. We should make sure that kids leave high school with enough math skills to survive. I see people in stores all the time getting into arguments with cashiers because they can’t follow what is happening and they feel cheated. This is a sad way to lead your life. You are either being cheated or you think you are being cheated.

A kid who has failed many courses and has taken five years to finish high school is not going to get into Harvard, they are not going to become doctors or pilots or pharmacists. They may work in a restaurant, or in a grocery store. When we give them a high school diploma signed by the principal and bearing the seal of the New York State Board of Regents we are not saying anything more than that they have survived high school. This is an achievement, but it is not that strong of a statement about their intellectual ability. Any college or employer is going to ask how they did in high school. This girl’s transcript is not going to say that she did well.

When we refuse to give a kid like this a diploma we are being arrogant about what high school is. We are putting a barrier in her way to starting her life that has no meaning. Why would we want to do this? Are we really afraid that someone will misinterpret this document? Do we think that some employer will call us up and yell at us for giving a girl a high school diploma even though she is not very good at algebra? The world understands what a high school diploma is worth. It says something about a kid’s ability not to give up. This is really all it says.

I love teaching high school because I can facilitate the transition of a kid from lost to having a direction. It is the direction that is the most important thing. I send the kids out into the world with the statement that this kid does not give up. When they get their first job they will impress their boss or not. If they go to college they will thrive or not. They will start creating the transcript of their life. This will be more important than the high school diploma. High school can be very important, not the diploma. Give the kid a break, let her get on with her life. Mr. Math Teacher, you were being a jerk.

I guess the point is to not think of grades as an objective measurement of students, they are not, but to think of them as a statement about the student’s readiness to move on. It would be great if we could personally testify to each student’s abilities like they do in elite private schools. I doubt if that type of grading will ever be practical in a large urban school system.

On a personal note; I received a 98 on my Algebra Regents because I did not check a problem even though the directions said to show the work and show that I had checked my work. I did not forget to check my work. I though it was stupid to check it. The problem was easy and I knew I had gotten it correct. Checking it would have involved adding 3 numbers together backwards from the way I had done it in the original problem. I thought this was stupid and chose not to do it.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Grades part 1

On August first the Times education section ran an article on a math teacher who had had his grades changed by his principal. He had failed a fifth year senior and he was upset that the grades had been changed. Usually I support teachers that do things like this, but I don’t think I support this guy. Of course I do not know the whole story. I do know the principal and she probably handled the situation badly.

The math teacher and the Times made a big deal over the fact that 45 is the lowest grade you can give someone. They should get over it. No one seems to be upset that you get a 200 on the SAT’s for spelling your name correctly. Why should they be upset that 45 is the starting grade? In college you can only get an A, B, C, D and fail. This doesn’t bother anyone. I suspect that the people complaining weren’t complaining about the fact that the average grade in a college is no longer a C. It was when I went to college. 45 is just a number. It has significance in the New York City system only in that it indicates a student who not only failed, but also missed a lot of school. It is not an average. Teachers need to stop thinking of it this way.

The problem is that many teachers feel that they can create an objective way to measure students. Math and science people are particularly susceptible to this kind of thinking, but I have seen English teachers who work that way also. What happens is that a teacher creates an elaborate system of homework, attendance, tests and class participation. Each activity is scored and then weighted. The numbers are then added up and a concise numerical grade is given. This allows for the possibility that a student could have an average of 30 or 10 or 87. This would seem like science, but in truth it is bad science.

You need to answer the basic question about grades. What do they mean? What do they measure? On a very basic level when an institution gives a student a grade it is saying that the student has achieved a certain intellectual level. At this moment I am on my way to Albany to help write the Regents Exams. Students take a Regents and get a precise grade. I remember that I received a 98 on the Algebra Regents. It is amazing that I remember this because it was 46 years ago. Does my 98 means that I was not as smart as someone who got a 100 but smarter than someone who received a 95. Of course not. It does mean that. I forgot to check one problem and my teacher took off 2 points. This is not a precise measure of my intellect. Certainly I knew more algebra than someone who received a 65, but the student who receives a 95 was at least my equal and may have actually known more of the whole curriculum than I did.

I think that New York City might be better served if we switched to a straight letter grade system. I would encourage teachers to think of student in a more holistic way. Putting a number on something does not make it a measurement of anything significant. Numbers are just numbers.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Candy Bars

I was on the train yesterday and a kid gets on and announces that he is selling candy bars. He says that he could be robbing people but he thought selling candy bars was better. Of course the implication was that if selling candy bars didn't go well he would start robbing people. If I asked you to identify this kids race do you think you could?

Of course you could, only a black kid would use this line. Do black kids actually feel this way or are they just using a public perception. Either way this is a bad thing. We need to move beyond this. I didn't buy any candy.

I got a comment about my last blog that was interesting. First of all Macinac is in Michigan, not upstate New York. I suspect the folks in Michigan hate New Yorkers almost as much as those in upstate NY, but I find it hard to believe that someone would know I was a New Yorker and purposely have their dog take a dump in front of me. It wouldn't work anyways because like all New Yorkers I walk around looking at my feet.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Dogs will be dogs

I went Macinac Island last week. Two things happened that I found strange and disturbing. (My wife thinks I’m getting crazy.) The first happened before we got to the island. We were waiting in line for the ferry and the line was kind of long. It went up one side of the dock and then it turned. We were standing right past where it made a U and there were about 20 people behind us. One of the ferry company employees asked us to move the line and make it straight instead of a U. A request that has happened to me in the past. No big deal.

Most of us started moving in an orderly fashion, keeping the integrity and order of the line. The 3 people behind me decided to cut the corner and end up in front of me. I told them that I thought it was not nice to cut in front of us. One of them looked at me and smiled and didn’t move. I repeated that it seemed that they were being selfish by cutting in front of us. They ignored me. I then did nothing. I did not pull out my gun because I do not own a gun. Actually as a city person I expect people to respect lines.

Many country folks (these guys looked like country folk) probably feel that lines are kept in order in New York City by an unwritten threat of violence. I do not think that this is really true. I think that people in New York have learned how to live with other people. This means how to stand in a line.

The second thing happened while we were on the Island. Macinac is this cool place that has no cars. Everyone travels by bike or horse and buggy as well as walking. The downtown is kind of crowded and very touristy. I was walking down the sidewalk and this nice middle class white lady with grey hair was walking her small poodle down the middle of the sidewalk. The poodle decided that it was time to take a dump, and so it did in the middle of the sidewalk. The woman tugged the dog’s collar and continued to walk, leaving behind a small pile of dog feces.

All of us New Yorkers have seen this type of behavior in tourists in our city. People stand in front of subway doors; they block intersections and many other behaviors that break the public order. I think that this is part of the split that has happened in America. There are people who can live with others and there are those who do not know how to do this. I don’t think this is a moral failing on their part. I think they have just not evolved. They think that cities are moral cesspools. We are actually much better at living with other and not doing unto others than the country folk.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Rock and Roll

R and I went to Cleveland the other day. We went to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This is a really cool museum. Once again we are faced with the concept of people in their 50's confronting their rock and roll past. Rock has always been raunchy and sexual. People who went to rock concerts did not wear pinafores. So how does one approach the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

What we saw was families of tourists dressed in tourist clothes walking around looking at the exhibits like it was Cooperstown. Except it wasn't. Here is my imaginary overheard conversation. Mom, Dad, Bud and Kitten are walking around the museum. Dad and Kitten wander over to the Madonna costume exhibit. Dad says: "Look Kitten, that's the exact same bra that Madonna wore on her 'Like a Virgin' tour. The one with the pointy tits. It's amazing to be in the presence of such history." Meanwhile mom and Bud are walking down the history of rock and roll display cases. They pass the Beatles, Van Halen and then they finally get to CBGB's exhibit. Mom turns to Bud: "You know Bud, I used to go to CBGB's all the time when I was young. My favorite group was the 'Sex Pistols"'. One night Sid Vicious invited my back stage. What an amazing night. Boy was I sore the next day."

You see the problem. The museum is a legitimate museum of the history or Rock. The problem is how can you make it work for the family group. You can't.

Cleveland is a cute city. They are trying really hard to re-make the downtown area. They are converting some great old buildings into condos, and opening clubs and upscale restaurants. Of all the mid size cities I have been in Cleveland seems to be doing the best. I don't know it it will work. If it doesn't work in Cleveland, if the young keep leaving, then it may not work anywhere.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Can't We All Just Get Along

I worked in the building I am currently in about 10 years ago.I was fed up with teaching and I saw a job in a foundation doing technology education. I applied and got the job. It started on July 1 so I could start and then decide latter if I wanted to go back to teaching or not.

This job had some strange draw backs right from the start. These guys were outside staff developers with almost no classroom experience. This meant that they felt they knew more about teaching than any teacher did.

I am kind of a local merchant booster, the first day I stopped at this funky coffee shop near the school and bought a cup of coffee. The coffee sucked, so the next day I went across the street to Starbucks and bought my coffee. (I love good coffee.) When I got into the office I could see that everyone looked at me askance. I was trafficking with the mega-enemy.

The foundation mostly ran on Mac's with one PC. I had never used a Mac. This was OK with everyone because they found PC's difficult to use and the fact that I wasn't good on a Mac did make them all feel good. The problem was that after about three days I had figured out how the Mac worked and was having no problems. This did not make people feel good.

By the beginning of August it was obvious that this gig was not going to work. I went to the director and told her that I thought things weren't going well and that I felt I should leave in two weeks. She told me that she was so unhappy with me that she was willing to pay me for two weeks if I would just leave. I have to say I was sort of shocked. I had never had anyone dislike me that much. I never saw myself as polarizing like that.

I guess I'm wrong.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Customer Service

I read two interesting articles lately. They both came from Washington, DC. The first one was an announcement that the mayor had taken over the school system, fired the chancellor and installed a woman who had years of business experience but essentially no experience in education. This woman was recommended by Joel Klein.

The second article was on research done on the voucher program that exists to some extent in D.C. The researchers had discovered that the parents of students who had received vouchers reported that they were very satisfied with their children's school. They felt their child was safer and was learning more. The children according to the researcher were not in fact learning more, and the kids themselves did not feel safer.

I think that these two articles are related. First of all they tap into a great deal of dissatisfaction with the educational system. Politicians have been saying that the solution to education is to privatize it or at least use private techniques to gain control. What they have realized is that there are large numbers of people who are not satisfied with the schools. This is particularly true in cities. The voucher research generally proved that parents who perceived they had a choice were more satisfied.

The school I am currently in has a very vocal, very active PA. Students need to apply to the school to attend. My guess is that parents are generally satisfied with the school because they feel they have a voice. They are the kind of people who are used to being listened to and the principals need to listen even when it is not pleasant. This school has good customer relations.

My last school probably falls into the category of schools in which parents are not satisfied. I am actually not completely blaming them for this. For one thing the parents come in with the feeling that no one will listen to them so they don't really try. The system has spent years essentially telling them that they don't matter. In general the school system has treated them badly. The schools have done a bad job of explaining what was going on in the schools. When we change how we teach kids we rarely talk to parents about it. Most of our contact with parents is to tell them how bad their kid is. We rarely have an honest conversation with them about the issues surrounding their children. Open school night is filled with discussions about how much homework a kid did, or how they did on tests. It is not a discussion on what there kids need to work on, what there deficits are, what their strengths are.

I sat in a meeting once in which the mother of a student accused of some offense was defending her daughter. After the meeting the teacher mentioned to me that she was surprised that the mother would defend her kid. I told her that I thought that that was the mother's job. NYC teachers are not used to dealing with middle class parents with middle class attitudes. We are very poor at customer relations. If we were running a business we would no longer be in business. It would not matter if we had a good or a bad product. Our perception is so bad no one would believe us if we were doing a good job. Ford recently did a survey in which it discovered that people thought the Ford Focus was a great car. Those who compared felt it was better than a Toyota. The same people also said they wouldn't but the Ford. Ford knows it has years of doing badly to make up before people will trust it. Educators have the same problem.

Todays Quiz: What shirt am I wearing in the above picture?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Astrology is good enough for Me.

Principals are not really held accountable for science scores in their schools. It sort of counts, but not as much as math and English. If they personally don't think much of science then basically the science department is screwed. The only thing that saves it is the state mandates. I received a call from one of my old science teachers who is no longer at my old school. She seemed very dissatisfied because her principal had eliminated labs and gone to a 5 day a week science schedule. This is of course borderline illegal.

I think science pisses off principals for a number of reasons. 1)It costs money for supplies, some of the supplies are even icky. 2)Science teachers laugh at people throwing around terms such as "reptilian behavior" that have almost no basis in research. 3)Science students often fail because they do not have enough lab minutes and are therefore banned from the Regents. 4)Science is perceived as being hard. 5)High school science meets 6 times a week, this messes up the nice neat boxes that make principals and programmers happy.

The part of all of this that I find the most disturbing is the elimination of lab periods. The state says that all students need 1200 minutes of labs before they take the regents. The separate lab period provided our students with more than 1200 minutes. Those students who were absent on a few lab days could still pass lab. The motivation for eliminating these labs is programming. The idea that programs should fit into these nice square boxes is the product of people who are not good with numbers or patterns. Exactly the same people who were probably never good at science. Decisions about programs are made for administrative purposes and not student needs. This is sad.

The other thing about labs is that science needs to be hands on. Teaching theory without doing experiments short changes students. In my last school we had 43 minute lab periods. Most of the time the labs were far away from the class, the students were often not the same as those in the class. This was devastating to the science program. Teachers often did cookbook labs, not discovery labs. The past few years it was hard to get anyone to listen to my complaints about this. Bad scheduling changed from being the exception to being the norm.

When you think of it, the idea that knowledge can be divided into little discreet units of 43 or 45 minutes is absurd. The idea that if teaching math five days a week is a good idea than teaching Spanish five days a week must also be a good idea is equally as absurd. Some principals just want the programming to be easy so they can concentrate on instruction. This is a bad idea. Programming often defines instruction. To think otherwise is wrong. You can not ignore programming in a high school.

Good teachers are always number one, but they are followed by good programming. Programming is the way you support teachers and students.

Old folks

My kids gave R and me a weekend at a B&B in Massachusetts and tickets to a Stevie Nicks concert. Stevie Nicks was a young kid when she sang with Fleetwood Mack in 1971. This means she is no longer young, though she looks pretty good. She was born in 1948.

The tickets we had were in the front row of a section. In front of us was a walk way. This was great because it allowed us to watch people walking by. Stevie Nicks fans run from late 20's to people who grew up with her. Those people are getting old. This brings up the issue of what to wear to a rock concert when you are an old fart.

For me and most men this wasn't a big deal. When we were 21 we went to rock concerts in jeans and T-shirts. I looked good in jeans and I could wear a tight T-shirt easily. Sometimes I wore a blue work shirt. The uniform for us political people. Today most of us old guys came in jeans and a loose fitting shirt. In my case the old guy uniform, a Tommy Bahama shirt. This is not a big change from the 70's.

If you are a woman this is a much harder problem. Going bra-less with a flimsy top and a short skirt is not a good option for most women over 50. The 70's tops are very popular now but only if you are under 30. Some women showed up in their lavender polyester pants, some got crazy in flowered Chico pants. Both solutions are sad in my opinion.

R chose to wear a modest length skirt and a black top with long flowing sleeves. This seemed to be a popular solution. We saw one women in fishnets and what looked like an Elvira skirt. Not a bad look. There was a women in a low cut red one piece that came straight out of Fredericks of Hollywood. The back came down low enough to catch a little butt cleavage. Not a pretty sight. But she was high on something. A good rock and roll look. A significant number of people were having difficulty walking, but not as big a number as in the 70's.

My parents never went to a rock and roll concert in their lives. My mother did not need rock and roll clothes. But 50 and 60 year old women do go to rock concerts. The women's magazines need to address this burning issue of what to wear. It's only rock and roll but what you wear still matters.