Category Archives: Education

The Antidote to Anti-Teacher Films

The film considered by some to be the anti-Waiting for Superman is now widely available for viewing online, on television, and on DVD. The documentary American Teacher, released last year under the auspices of The Teacher Salary Project, is a straightforward look at the rewards and challenges of teaching across the country and promotes no particular political agenda—a criticism leveled against the earlier film.

American Teacher is written by Dave Eggers—who kick-started a national tutoring and writing program for children—directed by Vanessa Roth, and narrated by actor Matt Damon.

Five teachers from four different regions of the country tell their personal stories. They work long hours for not enough pay. They often have to pay out of their own pockets for school supplies. One is working a second job to earn enough to support his family. One pregnant young teacher, unsure whether she would return to the classroom after the birth of her baby, is back after a six-week leave and is stressed about time away from her family and finding an empty room where she can express her milk. Another teacher, a dedicated leader in his school, eventually leaves to join his family’s real estate business. It simply pays better for a lot less work.


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Because—you know—nobody cares more for New York public school children than hedge fund managers, an executive for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., and a divisive former Washington D.C. schools superintendent

Now that the nation has seen how an influx of cash from rich, well-connected conservatives can impact the outcome of a local political campaign (the defeat of the recall vote of Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker, a huge blow to organized labor), it is time for New Yorkers to gear up for the 2013 mayoral election, in which the outcome will decide the city’s education policy for the next four, eight, or  12 (?) years.

Assuming Michael Bloomberg doesn’t find a way to run for a fourth consecutive term of office, next year’s race will be an opportunity to take the city’s schools in a new direction, or to continue with the current “reform” measures, designed to render the teacher’s union less powerful and to reap benefits for the private sector.

Pursuing the latter alternative is StudentsFirstNY, founded in April as a spinoff of former D.C. schools superintendent Michelle Rhee’s national organization, StudentsFirst. She, along with Joel Klein, executive vice president of the News Corporation and former New York City schools chancellor, Eva S. Moskowitz, founder and chief executive of Success Charter Network and a former city councilwoman, and Edward Koch, partner at Bryan Cave LLP and former New York City mayor, are among those listed on StudentsFirstNY’s board. Topping that list—perhaps in more ways than one—is  billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones, chairman and C.E.O. of Tudor Investment Corporation and founder of the Robin Hood Foundation. He is number 330 on Forbes list of top billionaires in the world.

A reference to Rhee’s taping her students’ mouths shut during her first year of teaching (See We Don’t Need Another Hero 10/15/2010)  Source: Living Behind the Gates (

In 2013, expect to hear more calls for charter school expansion (as the city continues to shut down failing public schools) and support for efforts to roll back teacher tenure and seniority rights. To be sure, StudentsFirstNY, with its huge war chest, will be sending out the message to vote for candidates who are in line with these positions.

A countervailing force began coalescing in May among the city’s unions, including the United Federation of Teachers, to thwart StudentsFirstNY. Dubbed New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, the organization is getting its game face ready for the elections next year. “New Yorkers for Great Public Schools refuses to let the education of the next generation be sold to the highest bidder,” it says on its Web site.

Summer Reading: The lessons of Wisconsin

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Advice to Cathleen Black? Get a Public Education!


Cathleen Black, New York City’s former schools chancellor did the honorable thing this week by resigning. When she took over the position from Joel Klein last November, there was an outcry from parents, teachers and others in the education community concerning her qualifications. After all, she had no previous experience in education, not to mention in public schools. She went to private schools, as did her children. Basically, the nation’s largest public school system was going to be run by someone learning on the job.

A recent poll showed that New Yorkers had little confidence in her ability to run the school system, giving her a 17 percent job-approval rating. And no matter how smart or how effective a business manager she is (Black was a successful magazine publisher for more than 30 years), she would never be able to implement NYC school policy without the support of its key constituents.

So, resigning (at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s urging) was the correct move on her part and shows good judgment rather than failure. Even she, herself, admitted she was unprepared. But her involvement in public education doesn’t have to end with the chancellorship. If she really cares, she now has the time to familiarize herself with the complexities of delivering education to an ever-growing, culturally diverse public school population. She can start with taking some education courses and actually spending time teaching in a classroom—she’s not too old! She could volunteer to tutor students after school. Or teach a high school course on running a magazine.

I welcome suggestions from readers on how Cathie Black might earn her chops in the field of public education. Please post them here!

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We Don’t Need Another Hero

I didn’t get an invitation to a free screening of Waiting for Superman. So, money being tight, I haven’t seen it yet. Recently a friend treated me to a movie, and Waiting for Superman and the bank-heist action thriller The Town were showing at the same multiplex. Given a choice between a movie starring Harlem Children’s Zone’s Geoffrey Canada and D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and one starring Ben Affleck and Jon Hamm, I chose the latter. Come on, who wouldn’t?


The media blitz surrounding the release of Waiting for Superman in late September was hard to escape, though. NBC kicked off a week of nightly education news coverage with a town hall meeting, timed to the movie’s release. Oprah hailed it as “the movie that could revolutionize America’s schools,” and Rhee as a “one-woman tornado at the center of a Washington, D.C. storm.” I feel that I’ve read enough reviews, news and commentary to know what it’s about, but I will reserve judgment until I’ve seen it for myself.

In the meantime, as I mentioned in my last post, D.C.’s education-reform mayor Adrian Fenty was defeated in the Democratic primary, and, as expected, Rhee turned in her resignation on October 13. Who knows where she will turn up next, but she is another example of the kinds of policy wonks with little or no experience in the classroom who think they know better than veteran teachers how to educate the nation’s children.

Rhee taught in a predominantly black Baltimore elementary school for all of three years as a fast-track recruit for Teach for America before starting the New Teacher Project, her base for advocating  nationwide education reform. Her first year as a teacher was disastrous, which is not unusual; many new teachers struggle through their first year. But listening to her gleefully telling tales of taping pupils’ mouths shut to keep them quiet makes one wonder whether she should have been sent to the rubber room with the other “bad” teachers that she was so eager to fire.


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In the News…

For more commentary on hedge funds and charter schools, read Margaret Kimberley’s blog entry in the current issue of Kimberley writes about how hedge fund investors are bankrolling insurgent candidates in local elections to challenge anti-charter school incumbents.

In one local primary, however, a charter-school proponent was defeated after one term in office. Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty lost to City Council Chairman Vincent Gray in what could be seen as a vote of no-confidence for the educational policies of the mayor and his controversial, anti-union schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee. Will she be getting the pink slip? Stay tuned…


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Are “Bad Teachers” Impossible to Fire?

A recurring argument among education critics is that “bad teachers” are like bad pennies: you can’t get rid of them. They can’t be fired because they are protected by rules of tenure, written into their union contracts. I found an article on Education World that was written a few years ago, but still resonates today.

The author asked a teacher friend, “Isn’t it true that the real problem with getting rid of…bad teachers is not the umbrella of tenure, but the unwillingness of administrators to take the steps necessary to get rid of them?”

The friend replied, “First of all…contrary to popular opinion, there are very few hopelessly ‘bad’ tenured teachers in our classrooms. Most bad teachers don’t remain in the classroom long enough to become tenured; they move on to other fields—or to other areas of education—where they can be successful. There are unskilled teachers, of course. There are tired teachers; there are inexperienced teachers; there are veteran teachers overwhelmed by the new challenges presented by today’s students. But there are very few truly ‘bad’ teachers.” The friend added, “What too many of us fail to recognize, however, is that the way to get rid of bad teachers is not to fire them. It’s to help them become good teachers.” Great advice!

Education World® : School Issues and Education News: The Myth of Tenure and the Terrible Teacher.


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The Incredible Shrinking Schools

On my summer reading list this year have been numerous articles about schools, particularly New York City Schools. I was not surprised when reports came out in June about a study showing that small, themed high schools in New York were outperforming larger, traditional high schools—a boon for Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein.

The study was conducted by MDRC, a nonpartisan research group, and paid for by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on small-school projects across the country). The study examined the graduation rates of 21,000 students at both small and large schools and found that, at an average of 69 percent, graduation rates among the students who attended small schools were 7 percent higher than graduation rates for students at large schools. For Bloomberg and Klein, who began breaking up large schools with thousands of students into schools with a maximum of 500 students in 2002, the news was validation that their program was succeeding. New York’s failing high schools had been graduating students at a dismal rate of less than 50 percent for years.

I taught in a small, media-themed high school that had been carved out of a large high school in the Bronx. I must say, when I went into teaching five years ago, I found the idea of small schools appealing. With no more than 500 students, teachers and students got to know each other better. In the early days (my school had not yet graduated its first class of seniors in 2005), there was a sense that everyone was chipping in to achieve a single goal, kind of like a start-up in the corporate world. I was thrilled that I, a journalist, would be teaching in a media-themed school.

But after two years (I left teaching in 2007), it became evident there were some downsides to small schools. The first had to do with lack of space. Smaller schools did not necessarily mean smaller classes. I remember having class rosters that at the beginning of the semester exceeded 34 students —the limit agreed upon in the teachers’ union contract with the city (see the United Federation of Teachers’ FAQ on class size limits). Students were literally sitting on top of one another. Usually it would take several weeks for the numbers to be reduced through reassignment and chronic student absences.

Also lacking at the school where I taught—and other schools in the building, or “campus”—were the kinds of classes and extracurricular activities that are considered dispensable these days, the activities that round out a young person’s education and foster school spirit, such as foreign languages (other than Spanish), band or orchestra, or a regularly published school newspaper. Enterprising teachers did the best that they could—one year an English teacher taught music at my school. However, there did not seem to be enough funds in these small school budgets to offer much outside of the core courses and the “electives” (not chosen by the students, but the schools’ administrators) related to the schools’ themes.

It was a bit surprising—and disappointing—to learn that not all the students at a “themed” school were at that school because of any particular interest in the theme, whether it be law, health, theater, or media. Many of the students at my school told me they had no interest at all in media or journalism, but were there because they did not get accepted to any of their preferred schools or because they were sent there by the regional office.

Whatever the promise of small schools may be, it is clear that the program is suffering growing pains, and I think it is way too early for Bloomberg and Klein to declare victory. One gnawing problem with small high schools is that they have not adequately served the needs of English Language Learners (ELLs). A June, 2009 report by Advocates for Children of New York and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund cited the fact that initially, new small schools were allowed to exclude ELLs, and many smalls school still do not provide the programs they need. As large schools close, there are fewer and fewer options for ELLs. Although small schools are no longer exempt from admitting ELLs, with new immigrants continually pouring into the public school system, this is a challenge small schools will be facing for years to come.

As with charter schools, the small school initiative has taken off in school districts across the nation, and as with charter schools, the results have been mixed. Check out a study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, published this year. It concluded that graduation rates among the first cohort of students to attend Chicago’s new small schools for four years were better than the graduation rates of similar students at traditional schools. “However, … academic achievement, as measured by test scores was consistently low,” no better or worse than that of similar students at traditional public schools.


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