First Person

A Bill of Goods

Bill Gates is amazed at what he sees happening at KIPP charter schools. Bill has no idea those same things happen at Francis Lewis High School, and countless other public schools, each and every day. Because Bill believes in the very same “reforms” that have caused Francis Lewis, my school, to balloon to 250 percent capacity, he surreptitiously funded the Learn NY campaign to preserve mayoral control (in practice, mayoral dictatorship). So I don’t trust him, and I don’t think he knows much about education, despite the millions he throws around imposing his pet projects on us. Still, I withheld judgment when he sent his new program to my school. I did not participate, but I said nothing to those who chose otherwise.

The Measures of Effective Teaching program, sponsored by the Gates Foundation, is now at my school and many others across the city. Teachers were told this study would show what worked and did not work in the classroom. They hoped it would give them ideas on how to reach their students more effectively. How long should you pause after posing a question? Did certain seat arrangements promote more interaction? Is group work always more effective than lecturing?

A young woman from the program came to our school and told our teachers that the study was actually examining newer ways to observe teachers. Traditionally, said she, there’ve been only a few ways to accomplish this. The most popular is the traditional observation, in which a supervisor sits in the classroom and writes up the results. She also cited peer observation, and the notion of test scores being used to determine whether or not lessons are effective.

However, she said, this new study had an entirely new element — the panoramic camera. This camera, specially designed, could observe not only the teacher, but also the students. Are they engaged? Do they understand? Are they texting their girlfriends during the final exam? Should we grant tenure to the teacher in question? Perhaps the camera could tell all, if only they could get it to work properly (there have been issues, and they’re apparently working on a newer version).

Three participants told me that learning about the panoramic camera caused them to question the sincerity of the program’s sponsors. Why would program officials say they were measuring classroom techniques if in fact they were working new ways to observe us? Was this observation or surveillance? And didn’t the cameras smack a little of Big Brother?

One of the participants contacted a higher-up at the program, who said the young woman was entirely wrong. In fact, this person said, the camera was simply a tool. The program simply aimed to evaluate a series of rubrics for effective teaching. Actually the program was planning to give a test at the end of the study to determine which high scores, if any, aligned with which rubrics. If any rubrics stood out, they would therefore be valid and could be used to measure effective teaching elsewhere.

One participant said this might be worthy of support, but nonetheless, it was not what the literature and representatives had said the program would be. Perhaps this was not “Measures of Effective Teaching,” but rather “Measures of Measures of Effective Teaching.”

We’re still awaiting a written response from the Gates Foundation. But if what our teacher was told is true, that would represent a clear bait-and-switch. Personally, I doubt the validity of magic formulas. The studies that support them this year will inevitably be supplanted by studies supporting something else next year. Such infallible studies tend to be discarded and replaced on a rapid and predictable basis. Gates thought small schools were the magic bullet, and he was wrong. I doubt his search for a magic formula for teachers will prove any more fruitful.

Closer to home, a handful of Francis Lewis participants at are considering dropping out of the study, despite the attractive $1,500 stipend attached to it. One teacher told me the literature said only researchers would watch the observation films, yet showed me a participation slip for students saying school administrators would have access. Why tell teachers one thing and students another?

In any case, participating teachers feel misled. Personally, I can’t blame them at all. How can you work with people who say one thing and do something else entirely? How can you have faith in an organization in which the right hand doesn’t seem to know what the left hand is doing?

Bill’s 1,500 bucks could buy me that iMac I’ve been thinking about. 

But I can wait.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.