Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Rhee and Fenty Announce Specialty Schools

There certainly is a lot of bad going on in DCPS-land lately. Huge numbers of firings (some of which seem to have been based on little more than personal dislike of a teacher), budget shortfalls, and delayed DC-CAS scores -- to name only a few. But it's summer, I'm in a good mood, and other bloggers have already covered those things well. So I'm going to post about something good for a change.

Today, Rhee and Fenty announced that 13 DCPS schools would be starting specialized programs -- from music education to science and technology to Chinese language and culture -- in the 2010-2011 school year. The coming year will be spent on the planning and recruiting.

I love so much about this. First, the specialized programs will (for the first time) be available at neighborhood schools that do not require applications or portfolios to enroll. Second, the programs will allow educators to develop curricula that they are passionate about, which will likely lead to happier (and more stable) staffs. Third, and most important, since we all are sure that Chinese and photography aren't going to be assessed on the DC-CAS, this is a clear and incontrovertible statement that DCPS at least recognizes the need to focus more on actual learning and less on test scores. And that's a big deal.

There are some problems here, to be sure. For one, these programs were born of a desire to increase enrollment, and not necessarily to help kids learn. Additionally, the money to fund these programs is only guaranteed for the next three years, after which the schools will have to continue funding them from their own (hopefully larger, due to increased enrollment) budgets. We'll have to see how effective these programs really are. But in the meantime, I'm willing to give the Chancellor's office some credit for carrying out a good idea.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Union Forces NY Schools Fire Teaching Assistants?

I read this article in the NY Times today about schools being forced to fire parent-paid teaching assistants all over the city. This seems like one of the most egregious cases of union idiocy that I've ever seen.

Essentially, top public schools in Manhattan have raised funds from parents to provide teaching aids to over-full classes. The aids are not unionized, and make far less than unionized paraprofessionals. They also seem to have different responsibilities -- they help escort children to the nurse, tie shoes, hand out papers -- than paraprofessionals. The article describes these lower-paid assistants' roles as non-instructional.

The union filed a grievance and got the school system to agree to stop employing these people because they are not union members and because they have not undergone the system-level background checks (the principals were conducting their own hiring and background checks). Here is the quote from a union official: "'It’s hurting our union members, and to some extent it could be hurting kids because we don’t know how qualified they are,' said Ron Davis, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers."

Well this sentence pretty much sums it up. "It's hurting union members, and that's more important than kids or families." Clearly, the union doesn't care about preserving jobs, it cares about preserving union jobs. The union is all for the working man, as long as he pays into union coffers. (Also, "to some extent it could be hurting kids"? That's as damning as he can get? Someone needs to send this guy to debate class, because that's not going to convince anyone of anything.)

The parents are, not surprisingly, outraged:
  • “The reason the teaching assistants are here is because they’ve been stuffing so many kids in these classes,” said Patrick J. Sullivan, co-president of the Parent-Teacher Association at the Lower Lab School (P.S. 77), where parents spend $250,000 a year on the teaching assistants. “Nobody wants to break any rules, but 28 is just too many kids for one teacher.”
  • “How much do parents have to put up with?”
  • “This is not like the movers and shakers of Wall Street; this is a middle-class school,” said Emily Heckman, whose 7-year-old son will be entering second grade. “We’re doing this because we’re stuck — we have kids coming out of the windows.”
Now, clearly there is an equality issue going on here. The more affluent parents can afford to pay the salaries of these assistants, while schools in poor communities have to deal with over-enrollment without the help. But the solution isn't to take resources away from the wealthy schools, it's to bring those resources to the poor schools as well. Additionally, doesn't it make sense to expand the staffs the high-functioning schools and therefore allow more children to attend? Then more kids get a better education.

I don't claim to be some kind of expert in the world of NY schools, and I can admit that I may be missing something. If anyone has some plausible explanation for why the schools should be prohibited from hiring these people, I'd love to hear it. Otherwise, it seems to me that the UFT just cost 290 people their jobs because they weren't getting a piece of the pie.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Maybe firing people doesn't make things better...

Michelle Rhee has talked a lot about how she's cleaned house at 825 and gotten rid of a lot of people who were just wasting time and not really doing their jobs. I had no doubts that there were plenty of people downtown who were incompetent -- my first year of teaching I had to submit four change of address forms before I finally started receiving my paychecks -- and assumed that firing some of that dead weight would improve things. My most recent experiences, however, leave me wondering.

Last summer I went to a training that my principal said would be paid for by DCPS. I filled out the necessary paperwork two months ahead of time, and attended the training in Philadelphia. I returned to school in the fall only to find out that no one at my school had ever done anything with the paperwork. After months of wrangling, and finally emailing the chancellor, I got the forms signed and submitted to 825 in May. Since that time I've waited, emailed, called, offered (threatened?) to come down and sit outside people's offices, and I still don't have the reimbursement check. Everyone I've talked to has been very nice and helpful, but apparently getting DCPS to pay for things requires like 47 signatures, the blood of a virgin, and a jade monkey statue.

All this to say that while I generally agree with Rhee that firing some under-performing people in DCPS will improve education, I don't have much evidence to suggest that firing people at 825 has made things run any more smoothly there.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Green Dot Schools Coming to DC?

I was intrigued by this article in the WaPo today, which says that the founder of Green Dot charter schools, Steve Barr, was in DC to meet with Michelle Rhee to discuss running one or more DCPS High Schools. I've read about Green Dot before (there was a great article in the New Yorker, but you can only see it if you register), but only in the national news, which has a tendency to gloss over some things. It sounds as though this organization has done a great job turning around Locke High School in L.A., but, as the article mentions, the test scores are not yet in.

Green Dot does some interesting stuff. They take over larger failing schools and break them up into smaller and more manageable academies. Its founder, Steve Barr, is by all accounts kind of insane -- he once called the L.A. Union leader a "pig fucker." And yet they work with unionized teachers -- a real rarity among charters.

What really intrigued me is how Green Dot forcibly took over Locke High School -- without approval from the school district. Essentially, as a result of a California law, a school can divorce itself from the district if there is enough support from teachers and community members. This is what happened at Locke. Not bad, if you ask me. Why don't we have a law like that? How many of us wish we could divorce our schools from the preposterous stupidity that is DCPS?

Yes, please.