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Stephen Lazar is a National Board Certified social studies teacher and dean of academic progress at Harvest Collegiate High School. He is currently working as a writer for the state's Social Studies Toolkit.
March 21, 2011
Turnover – The Biggest Problem We Face: Part 3
I previously wrote about the killer effects that teacher turnover is having on my Bronx school, as well as considering some of the causes…
March 14, 2011
Turnover – The Biggest Problem We Face: Part 2
In my last post, I wrote about the biggest challenge my school, and others like it, face: teacher turnover. I discussed how of the 76 pedagogues who have worked at my school since it opened seven years ago, 36 have left. Not too long ago, that number hit 37. A tremendous amount of our school's human resources are needed to help support and develop the new staff we bring in, thereby taking away resources from students. This begs the question, why are so many people leaving? Common perceptions of urban teaching is that most people who leave go to teach in the suburbs or private schools. This has not been the case at my school; none have left for the suburbs, and only one for a private school. Last week I posted the individual reasons people leave, but this week, I aim to speculate on broader trends that cause people to leave. In many cases, these trends overlap for individual people: Trend 1: Teaching is hard; teaching in the Bronx is really hard Of the 37 who have now left, many were teachers who really struggled in their classrooms. Some of these teachers might have been more successful with suburban students who will do almost anything they're asked, but they struggled with the challenges our Bronx classrooms present. This trend exists in all urban schools, though, and is much discussed, so I will stop there. Trend 2: Starting a new school is a lot of work Teaching is hard work, but creating a new school from scratch is even harder. When a school has only a small handful of teachers in its first years, no one is just a teacher. By my second year at my school, I was our tech guy and a grade team leader. With all the extra work, people burn out quick. Additionally, with so many people with limited experience in their jobs, things rarely work smoothly at first and teachers are required to constantly roll with the punches. It makes for an extremely stressful work environment. Trend 3: New schools get lots of ambitious, young, teachers Given all the extra work that goes into a new school, it should not be surprising that many of the teachers willing to work in these schools are young, ambitious people without families.
March 8, 2011
Turnover – The Biggest Problem We Face: Part 1
At the Education Nation panel I attended last fall, AFT President Randi Weingarten begged the moderator, reporter Steven Brill, to ask me and the other teachers about the biggest problem we faced in our schools. Here is the answer no one else bothered to ask me to share: The biggest problem my school faces in our efforts to reform education is not the students nor their poverty; it is not the union contract, the union, or the administration; it is not too much testing or too little accountability. No, the biggest problem in my school is the turnover of our pedagogical staff. If I could ask the education genie for one wish, it would be a group of teachers who would stay and serve our students for a career. When I interact with teachers at conferences and online, they're shocked to hear my school has such high turnover. They're shocked because we have such a good reputation, or we've had such strong results, or the economy is so bad. And I'm shocked they're shocked. We all know 50 percent of teachers leave teaching within five years. Why would anyone be surprised that this hits the Bronx and other students in most need the most? There are 40 adults who work at my school as teachers, administrators, or in guidance roles. This is only my school's seventh year, and already, 76 different people have filled those positions. Our current staff shares an average of 3.15 years at my school. The average number of years all teachers have spent at the school is a measly 2.84. The data by department follows at the end of this post.* Why do people leave? Of the 36 people who have left my school:
March 4, 2011
More Takeaways From The EWA Seminar On Teaching
Last week, I shared story ideas for journalists generated at the Education Writers Association seminar on “The Promise and Pitfalls of Improving the Teaching Profession” that I attended. Today, I'm sharing three lessons-learned that are still with me two weeks later. For full narrative accounts or summaries of the seminar, see those offered by Stacey Snyder, Ken Bernstein, Mark Anderson, Mark Roberts, and Dan Brown. (Ken's take on things most matches my own.) Here's what I took away from the day-long seminar: There is no reason ever to have a panel on teaching without teachers on the panel. It's simply inexcusable. The clearest moment where there was a need for teachers came during the third panel on professional development, when the panelists were asked about the value of National Board Certification. All three panelists said they didn't know much, but offered the limited anecdotal evidence they knew, and this is where the question died. Yet there were multiple National Board Certified Teachers, myself included, in the room. Why not ask the teachers? Luckily, whenever the journalists had the chance to talk to teachers, be it in the hallways, over lunch, or at the formal roundtables that ended the event, I found I was asked good, tough questions and I was genuinely listened to. I was extremely impressed with nearly every interaction I had with members of the press in the room, even those with whom I'm certain I disagree on every educational issue.
February 28, 2011
Bloomberg’s Classless Welcome Back from Break: A Letter
Dear Mr. Mayor, I just wanted to thank you for the welcome back to school you had waiting for me in the papers (and on GothamSchools) today. I'm assuming, though, that before that, you'd want to know how my vacation was? Like many teachers, for me last week wasn't a vacation at all. I spent the week preparing to teach a new unit on revolutions in global history. I have taught this unit before, but the events in the Middle East are far too relevant to ignore, so I spent hours finding just the right video clips and news articles to show my students that people do have power to change their lives and environments. As I finished up yesterday evening, I was more excited to teach today than I had been in a long time, even though the first day back from break is always one of the most challenging. But you see, here's the rub: I am not thinking about teaching today anymore. I'm not really thinking much about my students, either. I'm trying to figure out who the five teachers are at my school are who could be laid off. Our first-year history and math teachers are obvious, but I'm not sure who the other three are. We have Spanish, English, and health teachers who are new to our school, but I can't remember how many years they have in the system. We have a third-year history teacher who is on the border; could he be in danger? Or maybe it's the fourth-year P.E. teacher who is about to become a first-time father this month? The doubt is all I can focus on right now. And if that's all I'm thinking about this morning, I can only imagine what it's like for the seven of them. I can't imagine they will be able to focus on their students this morning, either. You see, Mr. Mayor, I am not writing you to defend seniority rights (even though I do now and have always supported them, even when they could have cost me my job last year). I am not writing you about the new layoff law before the state assembly (even though it is convoluted and ridiculous). I am writing you, Mr. Mayor, to ask you a few questions:
February 23, 2011
But Will They Stay? One More Urgent Idea for Journalists
Two local news stories last weekend busted out a tired story line to support the attack on city teachers’ seniority rights. Carl Campanile wrote in…
February 22, 2011
Stories That Need To Be Told
I spent last Friday at the Carnegie Corporation of New York along with a handful of other teacher bloggers and a number of education journalists for an Education Writers Association seminar on "The Promise and Pitfalls of Improving the Teaching Profession." I hope to write more about the experience soon, but despite some major flaws in the setup of the event, I walked away with an overwhelming sense of excitement. This was in part from having met some wonderful, like-minded educators, but it was also because of the many wonderful conversations I had with journalists from around the country who are genuinely interested in getting better at their jobs, asking tough questions, and then actually listening to what the teachers have to say. In talking with some of the journalists during and after the conference, many said that they didn't come away with many story ideas, so I thought I would take the time to give some suggestions here for some good, meaty education stories that are out there for which I have not seen much reporting. I shared the idea with my colleagues in attendance, some of whom beat me to the punch. I've linked to their posts below. National Stories Why would anyone want to be a teacher?: I can’t remember how many times on Friday when, after describing one of the many challenges we face, a reporter asked me why anyone in his or her right mind would choose to become a teacher these days. There are a number of great pieces to be written looking for the answers. Parental Views of Good Teaching: There is much conversation and debate around evaluating teaching performance, but I would love to read a piece about what parents want for their students at different levels. This could be a great series: How does this change from early years through high school? Does this vary by class, race, ethnicity?
January 28, 2011
Authentic Accountability: Roundtable Portfolio Presentations
Along with the rest of my history department, I had the great pleasure to spend my Tuesday at East Side Community High School in Manhattan as a guest evaluator of their students’ semester-ending roundtable presentations. While my students at Bronx Lab and students at many other New York high schools spent the day taking a three-hour Living Environment Regents exam — which emphasizes memorization of a breadth of factual content — students at East Side, thanks to a state waiver exempting them from most Regents exams, spent the day in deep thought and reflection, applying and showing off what they had learned this semester. We learned much to take back to our school, but what I saw also has much larger implications for the current local and national educational discourse. I participated in two 90-minute-long sessions, one for an 11th-grade English class, and the other for a 12th-grade AP English class. While there were a range of skill levels and fluency in English amongst the students I interacted with, all six were impressive in their presentations and reflectiveness. Each student chose one piece of writing to share, along with a cover letter which summarized their learning. The seniors also held a debate in which they each had to argue, using the lens of a school of literary theory, which character from a text they read most challenged the status quo. In my group, students used the lens of feminist theory to articulate which character most undermined and transcended the patriarchy in their societies.
December 13, 2010
The most jarring experience I have on a regular basis is the 70-minute trip I take once a month from my school in the North Bronx down to the UFT headquarters in Downtown Manhattan. I start on the fourth floor of my school, go down a stairwell that, by the end of the day, is often filled with food, condoms, or fresh graffiti, and head out to Gun Hill Road. Across the street, I see an entire city block of shops that have been boarded up for the five years I've been working there, walk about 10 minutes past litter-filled gutters, past the YB gang that stands daily at the corner of Gun Hill and White Plains to terrorize our students, and board the 2 train. I emerge from the train nearly an hour later at the Wall Street stop. I walk half a block, only to be met by the stare of George Washington in front of the neo-classical Federal Hall where he was inaugurated, take a left to pass the New York Stock Exchange, move past the tourists, and a few blocks later arrive at the teachers union headquarters, located in a towering office building.
December 8, 2010
Savage Inequalities, Redux
Yesterday was not a good day for my students. Here's the day a hypothetical junior might have had: The student wakes up at 6 a.m. to be the first in his family to hit the bathroom. With six people sharing one stall, the student knows that if he is not the first, he will be late for school. He rushes to get out before his older sister starts banging on the door and yelling at him. Out with plenty of time, he sits down for breakfast, only to be interrupted by his grandmother asking him to help get his little siblings ready for school. He does this with a sigh of resignation, knowing that he'll be cutting it close now to get to school on time, but at least knowing he can get breakfast there. He rushes out the door to make sure he catches the first of two buses that will take him to the subway that will take him to school. Despite wind chills in the teens, the student is wearing a hand-me-down jacket that hardly even stops the wind, let alone keep him warm. The student gets off the train at 8:15, and is greeted on the street by a dozen or so members of the YB gang that is there every morning on the corner. He is momentarily thankful for his lousy jacket, because he knows that he won't be the target of harassment or mugging, at least not this cold morning. The student stops at the corner store to pay a dollar to check the cell phone that his grandmother insists he carries with him, but which he can't bring into school. He arrives at the school building at 8:30, 15 minutes before the start of first period, where he spends the next 10 minutes waiting outside to get through the schools's metal detectors. When he starts loosing feeling in his limbs, he thinks having a nice coat might be worth the risk. He is next in line for scanning at 8:40, just enough time to grab breakfast and make it to class on time, when the girl in front of him sets off the metal detector. Turns out it was just all her hairpins, but the delay in the line forces the student to choose between getting breakfast and being on time for class. Despite the growling in his stomach, he chooses to make it to class on time.
October 21, 2010
My Blood, My Sweat, and My Test Scores
As you might know, this week the city said it would release 12,000 teachers' names alongside their students' test scores on state reading and math tests in grades 3-8. I teach high school, so I am not directly affected, but here are my students' Regents test scores from my four years teaching in NYC, anyway. I put them out there in solidarity with my brothers and sisters in teaching who are about the be put under the microscope. You can have the scores, just please remember they are almost meaningless. They tell you about 5 percent of what I do. Here's what they don't tell you: They don't tell you that last year I taught 100 percent of our juniors who are special education students and/or English Language Learners, even though I only taught 50 percent of our juniors. They also don't tell you I requested these most challenging students. They don't tell you that last year I taught our 15 seniors most in danger of not graduating for two periods. In that time, I prepped them for Regents exams in English, global studies, and U.S. history, and I also helped them earn credits in a wide variety of areas. They don't tell you that that I spent six weeks in the middle of the year teaching my students how to do college-level research. I estimate this costs my students an average of 5-10 points on the Regents exam. They don't tell you that when you ask my students who are now in college why they are succeeding when most of their urban public school peers are dropping out, they name that research project as one of their top three reasons nearly every time.
October 14, 2010
Light Up the Bat Signal Over the Suburbs
Let's be honest, when people talk about the so-called "crisis in American education," as most recently brought to the public eye through Education Nation, what people are really talking about is a crisis in urban education. The majority of Americans live in the suburbs, and most are quite content with the education their children receive. Despite all its problems, the one thing I will grant "Waiting for 'Superman'" without reservation is that it challenges the notion that suburban schools serve all of their students well. So while Geoffrey Canada waits for Superman to save our cities, we need a "Commissioner Gordon" to light up the bat signal over the suburbs, because if there is a crisis in education, it extends to all public schools that fail to be the equalizing mechanism democracy requires. I started my career teaching in one of Washington, D.C.,'s more privileged suburbs. I took a job there because I was excited by the opportunity to teach a school with a truly diverse population both in terms of race and class. About a third of my students were living in McMansions, and a third lived in working-class apartments. A third of my students had parents in active military service. The school was also split fairly evenly among white, black, and Latino students, with a number of South and Southeastern Asian students as well. Having student-taught in both urban and suburban parts of Rhode Island, I thought this D.C.-area school would be a good place to start my career. What I found there should be the starting point of a national crisis.
October 1, 2010
Everything That is Right With Public Education
Monday night, I tweeted: SLazarOtC: The last time I cried was 9/11. Ending a day of teaching by coming to #educationnation panel on Good Apples brought me close. What a waste. On Tuesday night, the tears did come, but they were tears of joy, triumph, and pride. I could not have hoped for a better catharsis following my experience at NBC's Education Nation. That night, my school held an event that I've never heard of happening anywhere else: a graduation ceremony for the 10 students who did not graduate on time with their classmates in June, but finished up over the summer. It was obviously an emotional night for the students and their families, but it also served a direct rebuttal against nearly every critique I heard of unionized urban public education at Education Nation over the previous few days.
September 28, 2010
“Waiting for ‘Superman'”: Not All Horrible
I had a great start to my "Waiting for 'Superman'" review worked out in my head. I would talk about how the last time I saw a movie that I hated more was "The Passion of the Christ." And I was going to compare how in both cases, people who were not experts on their subject took advantage of their fame and financial backing in order to poorly redefine the conversation on an important subject. But whereas when I saw "Passion: I found it worse than its detractors claimed, I cannot say the same for "Waiting for 'Superman'". Well-informed educators should see the movie (ideally without paying for it), and come to their own conclusions about it. However, the film is a very dangerous thing for those who are not on the front lines — it is largely myopic and uncritical, presenting a two-thirds distorted view of public education. What "Superman" Gets Right The film asks the right questions, and it gets two key answers correct: great teachers are what makes a difference, and all students can learn regardless of their background. If I had to pick a litmus test for new teachers, these two beliefs would be it. The most pleasant surprise in the film was it's critique of so-called "good" suburban schools. "Superman" correctly points out that these schools only look good because of the top 25 percent of students who are tracked into honors and AP courses. Many, if not most, suburban schools are not adding any value to the students they serve, but merely passing them along on the path they were already on. I will write a full post soon talking about my experiences in these schools. It points out that only 1 in 5 charter schools gets great results.
September 24, 2010
The Conversation Needs to Change
I am going to be on stage with Brian Williams this Sunday at noon as part of NBC's "Education Nation" Teacher Town Hall. The week-long Education Nation event, coming on the back of the release of "Waiting for 'Superman'" and Oprah's two education specials this week, has received a lot of negative pushback from educators and parents who feel that their voices are being left out of the conversation. When I was approached, I knew I could not miss the chance to talk about great teaching before a national audience, and I hope I will have the chance to do so, because the current national conversation over education needs to change. The first change we need is to get over the public vs. charter school debate. It makes no sense to be pro- or anti-charter; the only question that should matter is whether a school is helping students to learn. Until we focus on how to improve all schools, be them public or charter, nothing will change. There is nothing about being a charter that tells us anything about whether or not a school is effective. There are good and bad charter schools, just as there are good and bad public schools. Let's stop wasting our breath over this debate. The next change we need is a shift from talking about testing and accountability towards talking about curriculum and learning.
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