Monday, October 02, 2006

Edits to my comments on the Carl Icahn Charter School

Jeff Litt, the principal of the Carl Icahn Charter School, had a couple of edits to the email I sent out recently:
We have Saturday Academy for 15 weeks from 9:00am -12:00 noon and ask approximately 1/3 of our students to attend. We also have after-school tutoring 2-3 days per week in ELA and math, as well as preparation for the NYS Social Studies test for targeted children.  Our school year also runs until July 15th.  Teachers receive extra compensation for both Saturday Academy and after-school tutoring.

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Dumbing down democracy

Boy, is this PATHETIC or what?!
As part of a program to strengthen the understanding of America's history and political institutions -- what it calls ``civic literacy" -- ISI commissioned a survey of more than 14,000 randomly selected freshmen and seniors at 50 four-year colleges and universities nationwide. The students were given 60 multiple-choice questions, testing their knowledge of US history, government, foreign affairs, and economics. The results were atrocious.

The average freshman flunked the test, correctly answering only 52 percent of the questions. The average score among seniors was equally pathetic: 53 percent...

``If a nation expects to be ignorant and free," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816, ``it expects what never was and never will be." If he was right, American freedom is headed for a cliff. ISI was startled to find that at almost one-third of the schools surveyed, seniors actually scored lower than freshmen. Either the seniors forgot what they had known when they entered as freshmen, the report concludes, ``or -- more ominously -- were mistaught by their professors." And where was this civic dumbing-down concentrated? Overwhelmingly at the most selective universities among the 50 surveyed, including Yale, Duke, Georgetown, Brown, and Berkeley.

Here's a copy of the ISI's report:

Dumbing down democracy

THE ``FOR DUMMIES" series of self-improvement books, which began with ``DOS for Dummies" in 1991, comprises more than 1,000 titles. You name it, John Wiley & Sons publishes it -- ``Mutual Funds for Dummies," ``Breastfeeding for Dummies," ``Formula One Racing for Dummies," ``John Paul II for Dummies," even ``Parrots for Dummies." And more are always on the way. The publisher ``cranks out 200 new Dummies titles a year," reports The New York Times Book Review. ``At that rate there may soon be more Dummies books out there than dummies to read them."

If only. Unfortunately, the national stockpile of dummies appears to be in no danger of running dry.

The latest evidence of the dummification of American life comes from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a venerable organization that promotes classical values in higher education. As part of a program to strengthen the understanding of America's history and political institutions -- what it calls ``civic literacy" -- ISI commissioned a survey of more than 14,000 randomly selected freshmen and seniors at 50 four-year colleges and universities nationwide. The students were given 60 multiple-choice questions, testing their knowledge of US history, government, foreign affairs, and economics. The results were atrocious.

The average freshman flunked the test, correctly answering only 52 percent of the questions. The average score among seniors was equally pathetic: 53 percent. On a traditional grading scale, scores like those would get an F. Even at the colleges whose students scored highest, the average senior score was below 70 percent -- a D+ at best.

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American Civic Literacy Sample Quiz

Here are five sample questions -- only #2 was at all tough...

American Civic Literacy Sample Quiz *
Test your knowledge by answering the five multiple-choice questions below. You must answer all questions. When you are finished, use the button at the bottom to submit your quiz for scoring.

You will be given a score for the number of questions you answered correctly. For those questions you missed, the appropriate answer will be provided. You will also see the average score for all those taking the quiz for the first time during the current month.

1)   Which of the following are the unalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence?
2)   During which period was the American Constitution amended to guarantee women the right to vote?
3)   In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
4)   Which of the following was an alliance to resist Soviet expansion?
5)   Which of the following is the best measure of production or output of an economy?
(The 19th amendment, giving nationwide suffrage to women, passed Congress in 1919 and was ratified in 1920.)

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All Aboard The Charters?

Checker Finn with some very insightful thoughts on charter schools.  I think Lesson #5 is particularly important -- and applies to voucher programs as well -- and is not fully appreciated in the school reform movement:
Although school-choice enthusiasts, myself included, insist that parents can be counted on to make wise education choices for their children, the charter-school experience shows that many families lack decent comparative information about their school options and that many are content with such school attributes as safety, convenience, a welcoming atmosphere, and “caring” teachers. In other words, the school’s academic effectiveness doesn’t rank high. Which means many parents enroll their kids in academically mediocre schools, cheerfully keep them there — and oppose all efforts by sponsors and state or local officials to put such schools on probation, close them down, or deny them renewed charters.
All Aboard The Charters?
The state of a movement


Charter schools have taught us much. Since Minnesota enacted America’s first charter law in 1991, 39 states have followed suit and eager school reformers have created some 4,000 of these independent public schools. About 3,600 are still operating today, enrolling approximately a million kids, 2 percent of all U.S. elementary and secondary pupils. More than a dozen cities — including Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee — now have charter sectors that serve at least one in every six children. These numbers rise annually — and would balloon if the market were able to operate freely, unconstrained by legislative compromises, funding and facilities shortfalls, and local pushback from the school establishment and its political allies.

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Smith Wins Minority Leader Contest

This a GREAT news, as Malcolm Smith is a very good guy and one of the biggest champions of charter schools in Albany.  We were worried that when David Patterson, another great friend of charters, gave up the Minority Leader position in the State Senate to become Spitzer's running mate we would lose an important position to someone who wasn't a champion of charter schools, but fortunately this didn't happen.
It appears Smith’s ties to current Senate Minority Leader David Paterson, D-Harlem, the fact that the African-American and Hispanic members wanted to keep the leader’s seat in their hands and dislike of Schneiderman trumped the campaign to paint Smith as too conservative to lead the conference.

Smith Wins Minority Leader Contest

September 30, 2006 at 1:37 pm by Elizabeth Benjamin

State Sen. Neil Breslin, D-Delmar, the only upstate senator in the minority leader’s race, said he received a call last night from the Queens Democratic Chairman, U.S. Rep Joe Crowely, informing him the fight to was over and Sen. Malcolm Smith, D-Queens, had won.

“It’s over,” Breslin said. “I assume they’ll be announcing it shortly.”

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Museum Field Trip Deemed Too Revealing;

Yet another example of nitwit bureaucrats who will soon be forced to eat crow for an asinine decision...
Ms. McGee, 51, a popular art teacher with 28 years in the classroom, is out of a job after leading her fifth-grade classes last April through the Dallas Museum of Art. One of her students saw nude art in the museum, and after the child’s parent complained, the teacher was suspended.

Although the tour had been approved by the principal, and the 89 students were accompanied by 4 other teachers, at least 12 parents and a museum docent, Ms. McGee said, she was called to the principal the next day and “bashed.”

She later received a memorandum in which the principal, Nancy Lawson, wrote: “During a study trip that you planned for fifth graders, students were exposed to nude statues and other nude art representations.”

Museum Field Trip Deemed Too Revealing
Published: September 30, 2006

FRISCO, Tex., Sept. 28 — “Keep the ‘Art’ in ‘Smart’ and ‘Heart,’ ” Sydney McGee had posted on her Web site at Wilma Fisher Elementary School in this moneyed boomtown that is gobbling up the farm fields north of Dallas.

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In Many Public Schools, the Paddle Is No Relic

I had no idea that corporal punishment existed at anymore, much less is so widespread.  There are so many reasons why this is a HORRIBLE idea, but here are my top two:
A) It's unnecessary.  While I have no doubt that beatings can terrify some kids into behaving themselves, what it really represents is a failure to properly manage a school, implement a strong disciplinary system, and build a strong culture rooted in mutual respect.  Beating children strikes me as the antithesis of mutual respect!
B) I don't like the racial elements of this one bit.  Take a look at the map of where corporal punishment is most prevalent -- it's largely the states in which the legacy of slavery and racism (both historical and, I'd wager, today) is, sadly, the strongest.  And who are corporal punishment's biggest proponents?  White evangelicals.  While this article doesn't provide the data, I'm going to make the not-so-bold hypethesis that black male children are far more likely to receive corporal punishment.  Conveniently, the article shows a black principal with a paddle, but what about the far-more-common scenario of a white man beating a black child in the deep South???
In Many Public Schools, the Paddle Is No Relic
Published: September 30, 2006

EVERMAN, Tex. — Anthony Price does not mince words when talking about corporal punishment — which he refers to as taking pops — a practice he recently reinstated at the suburban Fort Worth middle school where he is principal.

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Visit to the Carl Icahn Charter School and one teacher's typical story

I visited the Carl Icahn Charter School last week, which just reported the highest % of kids reading at grade level of any charter school in the state (above 80% in all but one grade level).  It started 5 years ago with K-2 and now has roughly 280 students in grades K-7, which will grow to K-8 next year (unclear if it will grow to high school afterward).  It's located off the Cross Bronx Expressway and, as one would expect, the demographics are roughly 80% black and 20% Hispanic, the great majority of which are low income.  The school spends about $12,000/child (a bit higher than the roughly $11,000 avg. for NYC), with the extra money going to additional teachers, bringing the average class size down to 18.  More info is at
It was quite different in many ways from KIPP, North Star, etc., yet it's achieving at the same remarkable level, so it just goes to show that there are many ways to skin this cat.  The core is the same, however:
a) There's great leadership.  The principal, Jeffrey Litt, is a long-time veteran of the NYC public school system, where he was a real innovator and renegade. 
b) The principal recruits top-notch teachers and then supports in every way so they can be highly effective.
c) There is regular (roughly monthly) internal testing so teachers can know whether students are learning the material and make appropriate adjustments.
d) There's a strong culture, with a major focus on order/discipline.
e) There are high expectations -- every child is expected to go to college.
But outside these core similarities, I observed some differences:
a) Nearly every charter school I've seen has a young leader (usually a TFA alum), whereas Litt is a grizzled veteran.
b) There's only a slightly extended school day -- 8:30-4 -- and no Saturdays or summer school (though maybe school started a week early in August?).
c) There are no TFA teachers on staff -- most of the teachers appear to have been recruiting from the NYC public schools (see below for one teacher's story).
d) There were few posters with slogans on the wall ("Work Hard.  Be Nice.", "Climbing the Mountain to College", etc.).
e) I didn't observe any of the teaching techniques that involved all the students chanting vocabulary words, doing multiplication with "oom-pop-drop" and the like.
I highlight these differences not to make any judgments, but rather to show that schools can be highly successful with many different approaches, as long as the core fundamentals are in place, namely high-quality leadership and teachers, who build a strong culture and community.
I spoke with one of the teachers and had quite an interesting conversation:
Me: Where did you teach before here?
Her: A PS XX (I forget the number).
Me: What was the school like?
Her: (She described your usual failing inner-city school.)
Me: How do you like teaching here?
Her: Oh my goodness!  I feel like I've died and gone to heaven!  Seriously!
Me: What are the differences between your old school and here?
Her: (Laughs) Everything!
Me: Like what are the major things?
Her: There's respect here: the principal and teachers respect each other, the students and teachers respect each other...
Me: But these are the same students as in your old school?
Her: Yes, but the teachers aren't the same.
Me: If you were made principal of your old school and could keep only the teachers there that you wanted to keep, what percentage of them would you keep?
Her: Not very many.  All of the good teachers had left so the remaining ones were mostly rookies.
Me: Why did all of the good teachers leave?
Her: The principal.  She was very cold and mean, marching down the hallways with her arms crossed and a glare on her face.
Me: Doesn't everyone know she's a lousy principal?
Her: Of course.  She's been this way for a LONG time.
Me: Well why isn't she fired?
Her: (Looks at me like I'm the most naive, clueless fool on the planet and finally says,) There's no-one to replace her.
Me: Surely there must be some dynamic, up-and-coming assistant principals?
Her: It's just not done.  She's a veteran and would organize parents to protest and make a huge fuss if you tried to fire her.
This, my friends, captures the fundamental problem with our public schools: FAR too many principals and teachers who EVERYONE knows are horribly incompetent are left alone to commit educational malpractice, year in and year out, AND NOBODY DOES ANYTHING!!!!!  WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?!?!?!!?!!?

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