Monday, May 26, 2008

Hope in the Unseen; Harlem Success Academy Charter School lottery and the crime of charter caps

Run, don't walk, to read this Op Ed by Tom Friedman in yesterday's NYT: a brilliant, powerful and emotional description of the lottery for the new SEED Charter School in Baltimore (the only charter boarding school I'm aware of):

If you think that parents from the worst inner-city neighborhoods don’t aspire for something better for their kids, a lottery like this will dispel that illusion real fast.

Ms. Lewis said she’s seen people on crack walking their kids to school. “We had parents who came into our office who were clearly strung out,” she added. “They could not read or write, but they got themselves there and said, ‘I need help on this application’ for their son or daughter. Families do want the best for their children. If they have a chance, they don’t want their kids to inherit their problems. ... These aspirations are so underserved.”

Ms. Lewis said that she and her colleagues would meet with parents begging to get their kids in, help them fill out the applications and then, after the parents left, go into their offices, shut the door and cry.

Tony Cherry’s son Noah, an 11-year-old from Baltimore County, was one of the lucky ones whose number got pulled. “His teacher said if he got picked they’re going to have a party for him,” said Mr. Cherry. “This is a good opportunity. It’s going to give him a chance. ... Wish they could take all of them.”

Not everyone selected was in attendance, said Carol Beck, SEED’s director of new schools development. So, on Monday SEED notified those who had won. “We called one school counselor the next day and told her that so-and-so was chosen,” said Ms. Beck, “and she said: ‘Thank you. You have just saved this child’s life.’ ”

There are so many good reasons to finish our nation-building in Iraq and resume our nation-building in America, but none more than this: There’s something wrong when so much of an American child’s future is riding on the bounce of a ping-pong ball.

It's good to see more and more people at the NY Times waking up to what's going on.  When I wrote about the MATCH charter school lottery in Boston a year ago (, I asked why more stories like this weren't on the front page of the NYT -- well, Friedman's about as close to the front page as you can get!
What's going on in WAY too many of our schools, for millions and millions of children, is indeed an absolute crime.
Why aren't stories like THIS on the front page of the New York Times and every other paper in the country?!  Instead, the media seems to prefer to play idiotic games of "gotcha", fixating on irrelvant nonsense like the busses not running smoothly for a week or two. 
And why isn't every American of good conscience screaming bloody murder about this?  A major part of the answer, sadly, is because the victims of this crime are poor and minority.  Rest assured that if well-off white folks had to send their kids to failing schools, they wouldn't be failing for very much longer! 
Yet the civil rights community is basically completely absent.  I'm reminded of what I heard Howard Fuller, a true warrior for children, say: "What good is it to sit at the lunch counter when you can't read the menu?!"
One minor quibble about Friedman's column: he never once uses the word "charter", which reminds me of the Oprah show a couple of years ago (,, and, in which she profiled three amazing schools educating disadvantaged children and never once mentioned that they were all charter schools (see Checker Finn's comments on this:
This is what I wrote about the Harlem Success Academy Charter School lottery a month ago: see below and go to for links to photos and videos from that evening.
May 25, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist

Hope in the Unseen

Every once in a while as a journalist you see a scene that grips you and will not let go, a scene that is at once so uplifting and so cruel it’s difficult to even convey in words. I saw such a scene last weekend at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in Baltimore. It was actually a lottery, but no ordinary lottery. The winners didn’t win cash, but a ticket to a better life. The losers left with their hopes and lottery tickets crumpled.

The event was a lottery to choose the first 80 students who will attend a new public boarding school — the SEED School of Maryland — based in Baltimore. I went along because my wife is on the SEED Foundation board. The foundation opened its first school 10 years ago in Washington, D.C., as the nation’s first college-prep, public, urban boarding school. Baltimore is its second campus. The vast majority of students are African-American, drawn from the most disadvantaged and violent school districts.

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Transcript of Randi on Charlie Rose

Here is a transcript (posted at: I had made of Charlie Rose's interview with Randi Weingarten last week.  Below are some excerpts, including this knee-slapper about how powerless teachers are (coming from the most powerful interest group in the country!): 

Randi Weingarten:      Let me just say one more thing.  Why is it in the United States of America that one of the only industries that have such union density is teachers.  The reason that teachers still have such union density, are so well organized is because they are powerless.


                                    Everything is thrown at them and ultimately what they do is they ask for unionization.


Charlie Rose:              Why are they powerless?


Randi Weingarten:      Because what happens is that we have the fad of the month, we have the reform of the year and what happens is all they want to do is they want to teach kids.

Excerpts from Charlie Rose interview with Randi Weingarten
Here are the highlights (some knee-slappers here, such as how powerless teachers are):
1) On the bill banning using test data in tenure decisions:

Charlie Rose:              Here’s what he [Bloomberg] said about teachers’ unions, which you represent.  Here it is, [Plays Audio] ‘The teachers’ unions – part of the problem or the solution?’ 


                                    ‘I think it’s a mixed bag.  We have over the last six years raised teachers’ salaries 43 percent.  We’ve instituted merit pay.  We’ve gotten rid of a lot of the seniority rules.  The teachers are teaching longer and they’re doing a better job. 


                                    On the other hand, the teachers’ union last week convinced the legislature in the dead of night to insert in the middle of a budget bill where this had nothing to do with budgets, a law that says in New York State we can’t use teachers’ ability to teach as a measure deciding whether or not to give them tenure. 


                                    It’s just unconscionable that this was pushed through our Albany legislature.  So in that case they couldn’t have been more on the wrong side.  Generally however, we have had good relations and they have been a positive force for change.’


                                    So there you go.  Let’s talk about the teachers’ and tests.  It’s at the core of every conversation you ever have –


Randi Weingarten:      Correct.


Charlie Rose:              -- about teachers.  How do you measure their ability in terms of how much you pay them, in terms of tenure, in terms of merit pay – tests?


Randi Weingarten:      First off, one of the things I would just – look, I understand that the Mayor is angry –


Charlie Rose:              About this thing.


Randi Weingarten:      About this thing because they did something that they ought not to have done.  This issue had been resolved a year ago in April.  Having said that –


Charlie Rose:              Who’s they?


Randi Weingarten:      Who is they?


Charlie Rose:              Yeah.


Randi Weingarten:      The Mayor and the Chancellor.  Governor Spitzer resolved this issue last April about how we – because last April, truth be told, we actually all together made the tenure process, which is simply a due – after three years -- teachers have probation for three years – after three years tenure means they can’t get fired without having due process.  That’s all it means.


                                    But let me go directly to this question, which is how do you evaluate teachers.  Ultimately where the Mayor is really wrong and virtually every educator would say that to him is that standardized tests were never intended as a measure of good teachers, good teaching or how teachers teach.


                                    Every expert in the country including the Mayor’s own experts will tell you this.  In fact, even their experts will say that if it’s used it should be used as a little factor.


                                    But there’s a bunch of things, Charlie, and this is where we agree; not disagree.  There’s a bunch of things that you can use and should use in order to make sure that we’re getting great teachers and keeping great teachers and evaluating teachers in terms of how they teach.


Charlie Rose:              Okay.  I didn’t invite you here to compare you with the Mayor, but you work in this system and the Mayor is in charge of this system and the Chancellor is his chief executive officer as Chancellor to do something about the system and I want to explore philosophies.


                                    But you’re saying that all educators you know and all that advise the Mayor don’t believe that standardized tests are a way to test, as used as a measurement for teachers?


Randi Weingarten:      There is no one who thinks right now that you can use standardized tests in this state to isolate the effectiveness of an individual teacher. 


                                    That’s why frankly everyone else in the state, including the school boards, the state school boards, is hailing the compromise that the Governor and the legislature came up with this year because they frontally attacked this issue and said let’s see. 


                                    Let’s give it a real independent look to see if you can use – these are call value added – see if you can use these value added metrics to actually evaluate teachers.


                                    They’re going to form a study commission not in the back room of Tweed, but something very transparent that the legislature and the Governor does. 


                                    So let’s look at it.  Let’s see if it actually works.  But right now there’s not an economist or an educator, even people we fight with, even if you ask the Chancellor can you actually right now using current metrics, can you isolate the effectiveness of an individual teacher.  Their answer would be no.

2) On getting rid of incompetent teachers:

Charlie Rose:              Should teachers be fired if they’re not doing a good job?


Randi Weingarten:      Teachers – I believe that teachers who are not cutting it should have a due process procedure –


Charlie Rose:              Let’s assume due process, but should they be fired if they’re not doing a good job?


Randi Weingarten:      I do not think the school system should have to have incompetent teachers; absolutely right.  And ultimately what we’ve done in terms of this, Charlie, is last year, in terms of 2006, we actually did something called a peer intervention plus process. 


                                    The unions itself offered to police our own profession because fair and reasonable and objective kind of evaluation measurements, it’s really important to get to a place where everybody agrees to what those measurements are and how to do it.


                                    But we’ve been able to do it in this city and we’ve been able to do it in other places around the nation as well.  One of the things that we try to do and all of us very proudly did this in 2006, we said let’s have a peer review process so that if a supervisor says a person isn’t cutting it, even if the person has tenure, then what we’re going to do is bring somebody independent in to see and then –


Charlie Rose:              But who would that independent person be? 


Randi Weingarten:      We’ve agreed to it.  It’s being implemented in the city school system right now.  And then that person actually goes and testifies at the due process hearing.  So ultimately there is no one that – teachers themselves don’t want to be teaching side-by-side with somebody incompetent.

3) On the DOE's ability to fire teachers:

Randi Weingarten:      It’s frankly a lot of this, in terms of evaluation, the city school system has huge power right now to fire virtually anybody in the first three years of service and so a lot of –


Charlie Rose:              Before they get tenure.


Randi Weingarten:      The difference between the first three years of service and after tenure is that you have a hearing.  That’s really the only difference.  But they have a lot of power and ultimately what happens is –


Charlie Rose:              They have a lot of power meaning the school system.


Randi Weingarten:      The school system could fire somebody like this in the first three years of service.  So when the Mayor says that he wants to tie tenure or the acquisition of tenure to test scores that have never been used for this purpose, I’m saying to myself what happened to the principal’s institute, what happened to evaluations and things like that. 

4) You shouldn't criticize teachers unless you've been one:

Randi Weingarten:      The folks who quickly give a bromide about what teachers should do and shouldn’t do and what unions should do and shouldn’t do, I often just simply say to them I want you to teach one period a week, every week, teach with me. 


                                    I’d love to go back to teaching.  Clara Barton was one of my favorite teaching jobs ever.  Just go and teach one period a week before you start talking about what teachers do or don’t do or teacher unions do or don’t do.  In New York City teachers work incredibly hard. 


                                    Most teachers put in not just what they do in class, but hours and hours and hours a day.  I think the last survey we took teachers work an average of ten hours a day.  I told you the story about my mother –

5) On how powerless teachers are (I kid you not!):

Randi Weingarten:      Either way is going to require more teacher contact time.  When you are a high school teacher, for example, frankly a high school teacher has 150 kids a day or 170 children a day.  And every high school teacher I know and every elementary and middle school teacher I know goes home with a stack of papers every single day.


                                    So this kind of nonsense about we’re not accountable, we’re not – we don’t care about kids, it’s just – it’s so disconcerting to teachers and to their union.


                                    Let me just say one more thing.  Why is it in the United States of America that one of the only industries that have such union density is teachers.  The reason that teachers still have such union density, are so well organized is because they are powerless.


                                    Everything is thrown at them and ultimately what they do is they ask for unionization.


Charlie Rose:              Why are they powerless?


Randi Weingarten:      Because what happens is that we have the fad of the month, we have the reform of the year and what happens is all they want to do is they want to teach kids.

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Mr. Bush and the G.I. Bill

A spot-on NYT editorial:

So lavish with other people’s sacrifices, so reckless in pouring the national treasure into the sandy pit of Iraq, Mr. Bush remains as cheap as ever when it comes to helping people at home.

Thankfully, the new G.I. Bill has strong bipartisan support in Congress. The House passed it by a veto-proof margin this month, and last week the Senate followed suit, approving it as part of a military financing bill for Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Senate version was drafted by two Vietnam veterans, Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, and Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska. They argue that benefits paid under the existing G.I. Bill have fallen far behind the rising costs of college.

Their bill would pay full tuition and other expenses at a four-year public university for veterans who served in the military for at least three years since 9/11.

At that level, the new G.I. Bill would be as generous as the one enacted for the veterans of World War II, which soon became known as one of the most successful benefits programs — one of the soundest investments in human potential — in the nation’s history.

Mr. Bush — and, to his great discredit, Senator John McCain — have argued against a better G.I. Bill, for the worst reasons. They would prefer that college benefits for service members remain just mediocre enough that people in uniform are more likely to stay put.

May 26, 2008

Mr. Bush and the G.I. Bill

President Bush opposes a new G.I. Bill of Rights. He worries that if the traditional path to college for service members since World War II is improved and expanded for the post-9/11 generation, too many people will take it.

He is wrong, but at least he is consistent. Having saddled the military with a botched, unwinnable war, having squandered soldiers’ lives and failed them in so many ways, the commander in chief now resists giving the troops a chance at better futures out of uniform. He does this on the ground that the bill is too generous and may discourage re-enlistment, further weakening the military he has done so much to break.

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Do the right things

An interesting, in-depth article in the Financial Times about the Opportunity NYC program, which pays welfare recipients up to $5,000/year for doing various things that will help them escape poverty.  There are some parallels with the REACH program:

The New York programme is small: only 2,500 families, chosen from six impoverished neighbourhoods including Harlem and parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx, are participating. The performance of these families - whose household incomes may fall well below the federal poverty level or as much as 30 per cent above it - will be measured against a control group of 2,500. Gibbs's team identified 60 behaviours it would reward with cash, from a $25 payment to be made when parents attend meetings with teachers to $600 for students who perform well in important exams. In all, a family can earn up to $5,000 a year, with big rewards for taking health tests and working for at least 30 hours a week.

Although the details may be different from those in the developing world, the goal is the same: to encourage behaviours that will help break cycles of entrenched poverty. Americans with a high-school diploma cut their chance of living in poverty by half. In New York, the graduation rate has been rising - but only about half of students graduate on time.


Do the right things

By Christopher Grimes, Financial Times, 5/24/08

On a bright, cold March afternoon, the sidewalks of East New York are bustling with mothers leading their children home from school. A pair of New York City beat cops stand outside a dingy pizzeria, giving them a view of the public housing projects across Sutter Avenue. In the distance, a silver train catches the brilliant sunshine as it hurtles away on elevated tracks, bound for Manhattan, 15 stops away.

The sense of orderly urban bustle is reassuring to the first-time visitor to this Brooklyn neighbourhood with an enduring reputation as one of New York's toughest. Poverty here is deep and difficult to escape. A handful of people, such as Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein, have managed to leave its housing projects behind - but many more cannot. The past decade's dizzying gentrification of many of New York City's once-rough neighbourhoods - from 125th Street in Harlem to the old piers of Brooklyn's Red Hook - has passed E.N.Y. by.

And yet over the past year, this place has become the setting for one of the most closely watched anti-poverty programmes in the developed world. The idea, which has the support of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg (but is not yet city policy), is as simple as it is controversial. Nearly 500 families here, and 2,000 more in other poor neighbourhoods in the city, are being paid "conditional cash transfers" for performing tasks that might help them escape poverty. Children are paid for good school attendance and improving test scores. Parents are paid bonuses for working at least 30 hours a week, taking job training courses or taking their children to see the doctor. Payments that encourage people to invest in their future wellbeing have been used successfully in developing countries from Mexico to Turkey. But the method has never been employed to fight entrenched poverty in a rich country. Many doubt that it will work.

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High School's Worst Year?

An article in the WSJ on Saturday about the stresses elite students feel in their junior year of high school.  We certainly saw this among students in the REACH program, but sadly the students profiled in this article are the tiny minority.  The vast majority of American high school students aren't under enough stress -- their schools set low expectations, they coast along, drop out, etc.  For more on The Homework Myth, see my two slides posted at:
Jennifer Glickman, a 17-year-old high school junior, gets so stressed some days from overwork and lack of sleep that she feels sick to her stomach and gets painful headaches.

A straight-A student, she recently announced at a college preparatory meeting with her mother and guidance counselor that she doesn't want to apply to Princeton and the other Ivy League schools that her counselor thinks she could get into.

"My mom wants me to look at Ivy League schools, but my high school years have been so stressful that I don't want to deal with that in college," says Ms. Glickman. "I don't want it to be such a competitive atmosphere. I don't want to put myself in this situation again."

High school has long been enshrined in popular culture -- from the musical "Grease" to television shows like "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Friday Night Lights" -- as a time of classes, sports and overwrought adolescent drama. But these days, junior year is the worst year in high school for many ambitious students aiming for elite and increasingly selective colleges -- a crucible of academic pressure.

Almost two-thirds of middle- and upper-middle-income high school students in the San Francisco Bay Area told researchers that they were "often or always" stressed by schoolwork, according to a series of surveys of 2,700 students conducted last year by Stanford University researchers.

More than half the students reported that they had dropped an activity or hobby they enjoyed because schoolwork took too much time. More than three-quarters reported experiencing one or more stress-related physical problems in the month prior to the survey, with more than 50% reporting headaches, difficulty sleeping, or exhaustion. About 9% said they had illegally used prescription drugs like Adderall or Ritalin to stay up and study; 25% said they used stimulants like Red Bull or No-Doz.

High School's Worst Year?
For Ambitious Teens, 11th Grade
Becomes a Marathon of Tests,
Stress and Sleepless Nights
May 24, 2008

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