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".