Vox populi

Comments of the week: Educators probe new city testing data

This week was all about test scores for many of our commenters, who followed along with us as the state released the results of this year’s third through eighth grade exams, and city officials put their spin on them.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the public’s main takeaway from the scores should be that charter schools are making strides, and in many cases outperforming the district schools.

We took a closer look at the charter school gains, but some of our readers said people should be careful about making direct comparisons between charter and district schools, because in some cases they serve different populations of students.

One commenter said the mayor should not be celebrating the gains, because the schools still have a long way to go:

I was more struck by the fact that only half the kids in charter schools are reading and writing at grade level. What ever happened to the theory that it was mainly “union rules” that were holding kids back? Why are charter schools failing to educate nearly half their students even though they’re mostly union free and, more importantly, what can be done for the students who are not succeeding in charter or public schools?

Some parents provided a lens into how some charter schools achieved their gains:

I am a parent of a child that goes to AF Bushwick Middle school and I would like to say that during the 2011-2012 school year all of the parent and teachers had several meeting to discuss what they can change. [My child took practice tests] in Reading, Writing, Math, Science and Social Studies at least 2 months before the test.  They also offer after school and Saturday class to help children that they feel are falling behind.

We all remember the impact a special teacher had on us; a teacher who refused to let us fall through the cracks; who pushed us and believed in us when we doubted ourselves; who sparked in us a lifelong curiosity and passion for learning. My daughter goes to Icahn Charter school 4 and I can tell that the great teachers that they have were the key for the school success.

In response to that comment, another reader noted that Icahn Charter Schools perform at the top of the list, and suggested they could be viewed as a model network that has been successful but stayed out of the public political fray:

Without spending millions on outreach, they end up with enrollments that are very similar to their home districts in terms of the percentages of at-risk kids that they serve. They have extremely low student attrition rates and/or they backfill their classes to replace the kids who do leave. Their students test as well as anyone’s.

And a few commenters said upcoming changes to the state exams made the city’s overall incremental gains less meaningful to outside observers:

The narrative of, “None of these scores really will mean anything a year from now since they are throwing out the state tests and starting over with Common Core” seems to be lost on the media.

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”