Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Black like Me

A few years ago there was a controversial study of heart patients that seemed to indicate that the type of medicine suitable for white patients was different than what was suitable for blacks. Specifically, beta blockers did not work well in many patients with black skin. This disturbed a lot of people. The idea of race based medicine seemed contrary to a lot of what we knew about genetics. In particular the extremely small differences between people based on skin color. No one was comfortable with this.

The other day there was a report that they discovered a genetic variation in people of African descent that accounted for this difference. It was not because of their skin color. It was because of some evolutionary quirk that gave people with this variation a better chance of surviving in Africa. This has always been the argument for why sickle cell exists in people of African descent.

The thing is, this genetic variation exists in only forty percent of people with black skin, and it exists in two percent of people with white skin. Skin color turns out to be predictor but not a perfect predictor. If you were trying to help people with heart problems you could use skin color and play the odds, or you could do a genetic test and really help someone. Don't forget two percent of whites also have this genetic variation. Those white folks are getting short changed if doctors are using skin color to predict who should take take beta blockers.

When you read a lot of education research you see a lot of discussion about why black students don't do as well as white kids. If you are using skin color to make decisions about students you are being lazy and creating a false system. There is no way that the small genetic variation that accounts for skin coloring accounts for intellectual variation.

Educators need to start figuring out what is going on with actual students and stop playing the odds. The odds are bad policy in medicine and in education. It hurts way to many people.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Vision Thing

As I think more about Joel Klein I get more upset. Klein has been a very long running chancellor. The longest I can remember. He has certainly put his mark on the DoE. When he was first appointed there was an issue with him not having an education license. (Notice that the same issue is happening with the search for a new building commissioner.) The mayor got an exception from the state legislature so that Klein could be chancellor. I do not think that the licensing requirements always point you to the best candidate, but I think that the person you choose needs to have a passion for the area and not just be a manager. Bloomberg succeed with his company because he knew what financial people needed. He was a good manager and an expert in his field.

The decision that Klein made early on was to create a group of managers who would approach schools as managers not as educators. The feeling was that schools were poorly managed. People with philosophy's of education were not recruited. The new DoE saw this as some how contrary to good management. Management people tend to like other managers. They want a certain uniformity to how things happen. They are not comfortable with having a group of great school leaders who lead based on the strength of their personality. These leaders are not easy to duplicate. Managers are easy to duplicate. People such as Klein are willing to sacrifice brilliance for easy duplication. They feel this makes a better overall system.

This seems to be the constant problem we all deal with today. It is the problem of the presidential election. Inspiration versus management. It may be that the best approach to the DoE is to find an inspirational leader who is smart enough to hire a good manager as second in command. There are a lot of people working in the schools who are just waiting for this inspirational leader. I hope the next mayor finds him or her.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Joel; Whats Up?

I have never been a Joel Klein hater. I think that there was a lot wrong with the Board Of Education when he took it over and changed it to the DoE. HSST and ARIS are exactly the types of things that should have been done years earlier. They are not perfect. ARIS seems to be a semi-disaster. But it needed to be done.

I have recently been dealing with HR connect. And they are terrific. This is the type of thing that did not exist before Klein. The level of service was not even conceived of before him. Everyone always assumed that things did not work well, and that employees at 65 Court Street would be at best difficult to deal with. HR connect proves this does not have to be.

Last week Klein did something so awful that I have joined the ranks of those thinking it is time for him to go. One of the places I visited when I thought that my school was really going to break into houses, was Urban Academy. Urban Academy is a terrific school, that generally succeeds. The school is housed in the Julia Richmond complex. There are schools in this building that are very different from each other. The complex has figured out how to work. It is a model of how to do this. It is well known, and it should be celebrated for its success. Like all such combinations of competing visions it works based on a delicate compromise.

Hunter college decided it wanted the building and Klein decided to give it to them. He showed no concern for the schools, the students or the vision of this institution. He just saw real estate. It proves that he is a lawyer and not a visionary. It shows that he does not understand, in a fundamental way, what makes education work. For all of the positive managerial things that Klein has done, he is not capable of leading the DoE because he does not really understand education.

This is particularly sad, because we have a mayor who is a great businessman with a limited vision, a chancellor who is a lawyer and understands management, but has no vision and a head of the UFT who is also a lawyer and understands power, but also has no vision. We need at least one of these three key players to have a vision, maybe some day.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


I have been dragging my feet about submitting an online principal's application for the DoE. I finally realized in the middle of the night that rather than write an application designed to get me a job, I should write an application designed to get me a job I would want. I decided to just say what I wanted to say. Here are the questions and my answers.

Question: Please describe one instructional initiative that you undertook that was intended to improve student achievement. Select an initiative where you were responsible for the results and had a significant leadership role. The endeavor could range in scope from a school-wide program to an initiative that you implemented in your classroom. Specifically address:

* The purpose and scale of the initiative
* The steps you took to start and implement the initiative
* Measurable student outcomes that resulted from the initiative
* How, during the course of the initiative, you overcame any unexpected obstacles
* How your leadership skills were further developed
* What you learned through implementing the initiative

In 2001 I was asked to be on the committee that would form small learning communities at Washington Irving High School. The purpose of this initiative was to divide a 2700 student school into small learning communities of approximately 500 students each. The feeling was that students would be held more accountable and that student outcome would improve.

By September 2003 I was the instructional leader of a 500 student community called Yalow house. This community had approximately 100 screened students and 400 unscreened students. Our mission was to increase the scores of our students and to stabilize the attendance data.

The great thing about running a small community is that you can program teachers to do the most good. To this end I put my most successful English teacher in the 11th grade and increased the number of students who passed the ELA regents. I created a strong 9th grade science program with the goal of increasing the number of students passing the Living Environment regents and I worked hard on the 9th to 10th grade math curriculum to increase the student’s success.

The first surprise I had was how difficult it was to program teachers. Programming is the key to a successful school. Developing master schedules is easy if you are not worried about having the right teachers in the right classes. But if you are it becomes very difficult. The mathematics of it is difficult and the politics is even more difficult. You want your best teachers in your toughest classes, but you also have to give them at least one great class that allows them to shine. This also keeps them happy and motivated. What I finally did was to bring in all of the teachers from each department, one department at a time and tell them what classes we needed to offer and then discussing how to break up the load. I found that good teachers were more willing to take on tough classes when saw the issues facing the house at large.

The purpose of our community was to create a school that respected teachers and students. This seems to be contrary to the current thinking of the DoE. What I see all over the city is principals being trained to manipulate teachers and students to achieve a "statistically significant result". I think statistics are important. The goal is not to create a student who loves school and has no skills that will help him/her succeed in collage or work. But the alternative of creating a school with out respect also fails at helping a student achieve his/her maximum potential. I sent a student to collage in Albany who did not think she wanted to go. I had dinner with her a year later and she told me she just came back from South America. She had gone there because she had received a journalism internship to go there. She had also been asked to write a column for the Albany city paper I know that she has succeed partially because I respected her and because I cared about her. If you go through my school you will find that there are those kinds of connections between most students and at least one staff member. Without these connections you are running an education factory, but not a school.

It is hard to measure what we did in Yalow. I recently started connecting with students from 4 or 5 years ago using Facebook. I am connecting with kids, who graduated college, are often going to grad school or have good jobs and generally seem to have blown by all of the immense obstacles put in their way because they were poor and often did not have very supportive families. These kids have succeeded in the ways that ultimately count. They are leading lives of hope. I am most proud of this.

Monday, April 7, 2008


I think I have a different view of Rashomon. I think that the story often defines the past more than the truth. I think many people (particularly PBS intellectuals) find this hard to accept. In the world of photography there are photographs or bodies of work that define a time and a place. For example, turn of the century New York was defined by Steiglitz's photograph of the Flatiron building in winter, Brassai is 1930's Paris, Bill Brandt defined England in the 30's and 40's. Even people who are unfamiliar with these works are still influenced by them because other artists use them.

These are photographs that defined a time. Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan created this view of small town America that does not have a lot to do with reality. But their view has become reality for may people (Is this truthiness).

As a photographer I always was looking for the picture that would define a truth. What I see today when I look at people's pictures on line, now that cameras are digital, is that people will put 80 pictures of a party on line. 80 pictures do not get you closer to the truth, they get you farther away.

Since I started looking at kid's accounts on Facebook I see a lot of this random uploading of pictures. I would love to teach these kids how to edit to define what they want to say. I once had an argument with an English teacher about music. I felt that it was less than literature and he pointed out to me that music was a language as powerful as prose. He changed my mind. The same is true about visual language. Photography seems easy but without editing it is noise.

The photograph is by Bill Brandt, an amazing artist.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


I'm read this interesting book by Gunter Grass. It is called "Pealing the Onion". The book is about Grass' past. The idea is that looking at the past is like peeling an onion, where do you stop to get at the truth. The book is filled with lots of stories that may or may not be true, but that add up to who you are. When I talk to Alex about our first trip to Disney World, he doesn't really remember it. He has seen the photographs, but this is not enough. Disney World is part of his truth but not really a part of his personal story.

I have been scanning a lot of old pictures of my family into my computer. I am going to make a short video of my family history. Some pictures I look at and the scene is vivid. I remember the little girl who wanted to be my wife. She lived on the steep hill (not that steep when I saw it as an adult). I remember the back porch of our house, I remember sledding and riding my large tricycle very fast down the sidewalk until I hit a crack and went flying, cutting myself in many places.(Not the first time and certainly not the last time I did something like this.)

Of course not having clear memories of being 5 is not surprising. The problem is that I try to remember my years in San Francisco, and they are not that clear. I was 22 when I moved there. I am even having a difficult time creating a clear picture of my first marriage.

Maybe the idea is not to care about the facts of your past, the only thing that really matters is the story you tell yourself and others. This is really what defines you.

There used to be a group of photographers called the f64 group. These guys believed that photographs needed to tell the truth and not be manipulated. If they had a beautiful picture of a beach and there was a piece of garbage on the beach, they would never move it, because that would be dishonest. F64 is an f stop that gives you the greatest amount of depth of field. Everything is sharp. The photographer is not manipulating your attention by making some things in focus and some not.

Sounds good until you realize that the photographer pointed the camera at what he/she wanted to see, so that was dishonest. The aspect ratio was defined by the film manufacturer, so in this they were being manipulated by corporate America.

Today the argument is about Photoshop. Are you being dishonest when you manipulate a picture. I have seen many Photoshoped pictures that I thought were dishonest. They were manipulated to make a point about a subject with out regard to the subject. I took a photograph of two girls on the beach in Coney Island. There was a fire plug in the middle of the photo. I removed it. I also enhanced the colors to make them brighter. I do not consider this to be dishonest. I was trying to capture what Coney Island felt like that day and the mood of the girls. The colors as shot were not necessarily more correct. They were just a digital representation of what was there, not the truth of what colors were there. I was not trying to make a statement about girls on the beach. I saw two girls and I wanted to try and tell their story. Filtered through me of course. But I was trying to tell their story, not mine.

What can someone do. Give up on truth, because it doesn't really exist. That seems like a bad idea. Authors who make up parts of their autobiographies are reviled. We do not want people to go out of their way to lie to us. What happens if I tell you my life story and parts of it I believe in, but turn out not to be true. Maybe the little 5 year old girl did not want to marry me. Maybe I wasn't that great of a football player in high school. If you are a public figure every time you make a statement someone is checking out if it is factually correct. It makes it difficult to have your own personal story.

I am definitely not talking about people who create a myth around themselves for their own self aggrandizement. These are the people we are all mad at when they are exposed. My image of what I did in San Francisco forty years ago is part of my story. I am sometimes disturbed that I don't remember it with enough detail. But I am also willing to accept the fact that it is my story. What I remember defines me. Truth does not.

I am reposting the picture I am talking about.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The House that Ruth Built

This is a picture of the House that Ruth Built. I have been there and it looks nothing like what is today called Yankee Stadium. Look out in right field. You will see a very short line (294 ft.) and a low right field fence. This is why it was the house that Ruth built. It was designed for a left handed pull hitter like Ruth and latter Roger Maris. Anyone who hits straight away was almost never going to get a home run. Center field was a very long way away (not to mention the monuments that were in play). One of the great things about going to Yankee stadium was being friends with someone in the box office who would get you seats that were not behind a poll. Of course when you got there they always were behind a poll (pole), but at least you felt the upper deck was not going to fall on top of you.

I saw both Mantle and Maris play. Roger Maris hit a lot of home runs that went 3 or 4 rows back over that low 294 foot wall. I do not think he would have hit 61 in the current Yankee stadium. Lucky for him he was playing in the "House That Ruth Built".