Wednesday, December 18, 2013

An Open Letter Re Education

I sent this today to Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio and a slew of other government and school officials.

Dear Mayor-Elect de Blasio,

I write to you as a parent of two NYC public school children (3rd grade and kindergarten), the daughter of two NYC public school teachers, a proud NYC public school graduate, and a concerned citizen.  My children have had, to date, wonderful teachers.  But the current atmosphere of education “reform” is making it almost impossible for those teachers to do their jobs.  With that in mind, I ask you to take action on the following education issues.

1      There need to be fewer, shorter, better designed tests which count for less in evaluating both our students and our teachers.  Class time devoted to test preparation – for any test – should be reduced and class time devoted to learning, discussion, questioning, and the arts should be restored.

2      The DOE should give schools a set amount of money to purchase any curriculum they choose.  There should not be certain subsidized curricula.  This subsidization results in schools like my daughters’ purchasing substandard curricula such as Pearson’s ReadyGen ELA curriculum.  In addition to being poorly designed, with books that are not age-appropriate, lessons which are too long (90 minutes!) and too boring (how many times can you answer the questions: what did you read, what did you learn, what questions do you have; they read each text three times), as of the middle of this school year, this curriculum is not complete and the schools do not have all their materials in their possession.  It is impossible for teachers to become familiar with the materials, make a considered judgment about them, modify the curriculum as appropriate, and teach without the materials.  But our local school purchased it because it was subsidized and any other choice was too expensive.  This is shameful.

3    Once a school chooses curricula, those curricula should be guides, not scripts and teachers should not suffer negative repercussions if they use their own creativity and expertise to depart from those curricula.  Rather, they should be commended for doing so.  For example, at my daughters’ school, the third grade students are required  to read a book which the third grade teachers think is inappropriate on many levels: reading level, vocabulary, context, content and literary quality.  Who should decide what book my daughter’s class reads?  The answer is obvious: her teacher.  Not Pearson, not the principal, and not me.  The specific book is irrelevant; teachers are being increasingly stripped of their autonomy and flexibility.  No wonder they are demoralized.  They are professionals and we should respect and trust their professional opinion.  Moreover, teachers at my daughters’ school have informed me that they get “in trouble” if they do things like assign homework they created rather than assign the curriculum-created workbook page.  Those modifications should be applauded, not excoriated. 

4      Cancel all contracts with Pearson.  It is hard for me to believe that in light of last spring’s egregious G&T scoring errors (I was one of the parents who brought these to the attention of the DOE.  Any kind of spot-checking by someone able to do 6th grade math should have turned up the errors. Children with 99 on two portions of an exam should not end up with an overall score of 98.) and the recent fine by the State’s Attorney’s Office because its not-for-profit arm participated in the for-profit ventures of its corporate parent (see The New York Times, December 12, 2013,, the DOE does not have legal grounds to cancel Pearson’s contracts.  If it does not, those contracts should not be renewed.  Pearson makes money by selling the poorly designed, developmentally-inappropriate curricula mentioned above, and by selling poorly designed tests.  Pearson earns its position not by competence but via lobbying and campaign contributions (see ).  We should not turn education over to for-profit companies.

5      Reduce class size.  The current cap on class size for grades 1-5 is 32 students.  32!!  My older daughter’s class is approaching that limit, with 30 children.  Any teacher and any parent can tell you that 30 students and 1 teacher is just too many.  Students cannot get individualized attention, and the teacher is overwhelmed with grading tests and homework. 

6      Universal pre-K.  I fully support your proposal to provide truly universal pre-K.

7      Reduce or eliminate charter schools and hold the ones that exist to the same standards as traditional public schools.  Charter schools are destroying neighborhood schools.  The lotteries by which they enlist students are, of course self-selecting, and when students with problems – academic, behavioral, or otherwise – enroll, they are “counseled [that is kicked] out” sending those kids… you guessed it, back to their neighborhood schools.  Charters are “sharing” space with neighborhood schools, kicking those schools out of their own gyms, libraries, and auditoriums.  And yet studies show that charters, on average do no better job of educating our children.  This must stop.  No further charters should be granted and those that exist should not be renewed when they come up for renewal.  Instead, let’s improve all our schools. 

8      Appoint a former NYC public school teacher, and preferably a current or former NYC public school parent, as chancellor. 

9      Change the way teachers are evaluated.  Of course teachers should be evaluated.  But not primarily based on their students’ test scores.  Furthermore, it is ridiculous that principals are made to feel they must find something – anything -- to criticize in a teacher’s lesson, just as teachers feel compelled to give students 3s on their earlier report cards so that when they get 4s at the end of the year they can “show progress.”

1      The cost of hiring substitute teachers should not be borne by individual schools.  The DOE should have a fund to pay for substitute teachers. This should not come out of individual schools’ budgets.  One of the few advantages of having system as large as NYC’s, which otherwise, quite frankly, is unwieldy and whose size is often a disadvantage, is economies of scale: negotiating power for purchases, but also spreading the risk of a school having teachers who are pregnant, who have deaths in the family, and who have appendicitis (all of which happened at our school last year!).  The likelihood is that one school may need more subs one year; fewer the next.  Spread the risk.  Since these burdens currently fall on the school, last year my daughter, then in 2nd grade, ended up spending several days in first grade, with her classmates spread out in other classes throughout the school, some in classes taught in a language they do not speak, because the school ran out of money to pay for subs back in April.

1     There should be a sliding scale of government assistance to schools, not tiers with hard and fast cut-offs.  This is not a “tale of two cities;” it’s a tale of three cities: the poor, the wealthy, and the middle class.  My daughters’ school has a student body which just barely misses the cut-off for Title 1 (i.e., poor) schools and yet does not have a student and parent body that can raise money like truly wealthy schools.  Just as the middle class is being squeezed, so are middle class (or lower middle class) schools – like ours.  I know this is a federal issue, but please, do what you can to create a sliding scale of government assistance, rather than tiers with hard and fast cut-offs.

I am looking forward to a new era in public education under your administration.  Please don’t disappoint me – or my children.

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