NYC Primary Day!! Get Out and Vote!

Bill de Blasio and Cynthia Nixon and women for de Blasio

Photo by Jennifer Lee Photography

Way back in January the Women’s Committee for Bill de Blasio kicked off officially with an event on the Upper West Side.  Bill de Blasio seemed like a long shot – but that was okay because the more people learned about him the more they like him.  

As a public school parent and advocate the possibility of having a fellow public school parent as mayor opens up a totally different discussion around testing, evaluations, and schools as communities.  As a girl who grew up in Park Slope, I’m also happy to have someone who raised their kids and chose to make Park Slope home 20 years ago.  There’s a sensibility there that speaks to a different kind of vision for NYC. 

So, I was seriously thrilled to step in the voting booth today and vote for Bill de Blasio.

And I was also happy to vote for Gale Brewer as Manhattan Borough President.  I’ve seen her first hand over the years tirelessly working for our schools and the whole community as our City Council Member.

And Scott Stringer got my vote for Comptroller.  Scott has also been an incredibly strong advocate for our schools, a stand up guy who literally always stood up for the schools when we needed him to, and always came through when we needed as well.

I’m not writing this post to persuade anyone to vote one way or another, but really because I am so looking forward to the changes that are ahead in NYC.  I happen to think these are the best people to create positive change. And, more importantly, in my first hand experience these candidates are DOERS.

It’s easy to talk.  It’s easy to have ideas.

But really putting in the effort and hard work to get things done – and do it without being dismissive and arrogant – is not easy.  There’s a reason the Mayor of NYC is considered the second hardest elected position in the country.   And I believe Bill de Blasio is up to the challenge.

Lean In, Lean Out: Sheryl Sandberg and Doing the Feminist Hokey Pokey

Lean In book cover

Last week I ordered Sheryl Sandberg‘s book, Lean In.  It wasn’t something I initially thought I would read since my reading time is limited and I really hate to waste it on these kinds of self-helpy memoir books.  But, after two weeks of endless posts, articles, news segments and Facebook updates from people I respected – and some I didn’t – I felt like I couldn’t really participate in a conversation about the Lean In debate without having read the book.

Though that doesn’t seem to have stopped most people.

And now, after reading about half of the book, it has become very clear that most people are taking sides and reposting articles they “agree” with even though they have no clue what is actually in the book.

First, I have only read half the book because I stopped.  I was bored.  Really, really bored.  If you have been paying attention to women’s issues, work/life balance, sexism, gender issues in education, took a women’s history class – anything! – then you will already know the issues laid out in Lean In.  And guess what, despite all the criticism being levied at Sheryl Sandberg for being elitist, having help, etc – she mentions all of it, almost apologizes for it – over and over again.  I don’t understand the anger about this.  She is the COO of one of the most successful technology companies of our time – she has help!  She has a husband who sees himself as a 50/50 partner.  SHOCKER.

And yes she went to Harvard.  Was she a legacy whose father bought her way in?  No, that would be true of some of our past U.S. Presidents, but she got in on merit.  She had a mentor – Larry Summers.  Can you imagine anything worse than a woman who was seen as hard-working and smart enough as to be chosen as a worthy mentee for Larry Summers?  For some people, I guess not.  Everyone I know who went to Harvard ended up with incredible access to high level connections in all areas – finance, the arts, medicine, etc. That is what makes Harvard, Harvard.  My good friend had Spike Lee as his screenwriting teacher – and then as his first boss.  He is now a major TV producer, writer and series creator.  He is crazy smart and talented.  He also had an incredible mentor.  Don’t like it?  Take it up with Harvard.

I have to be honest.  As the co-founder of a tech start-up I was hoping for real nitty-gritty business advice.  I suppose other women are reading this for the miracle solution to work/life balance.  One piece I read in Slate asked Sheryl Sandberg to be more specific about how she does it – how much her husband really helps, nannies – details!   I don’t need to see her monthly calendar to understand it must be crazy complicated, involve nannies, a personal assistant, her husband and more.  I don’t think anyone asked Bill Gates to see his schedule of how he did it, or Jack Welch, or any male CEO.  And trust me, their wives weren’t doing it all.

There is one way that I think Sheryl Sandberg has been “lucky.”  She is passionate about what she does, where she works and what she wants to do.  This week’s cover story in New York Magazine is all about feminist women Leaning Out.  This is nothing new either.  Some women don’t want to work 80 hours a week, travel non-stop, and devote themselves to a career.  They’d rather be home with their kids, especially early on, and are pretty okay knowing that they may not achieve their initial vision of corporate success.  I had one good friend who ran an equities division of a large investment bank before her daughter was born, and then for the first 3 years of her daughter’s life.  You don’t get more testosterone filled than equities trading.  Then one day when she was running out the door in the morning at 7am her daughter wrapped herself around my friend’s leg wailing and begging her not to go. The way she tells it, she peeled her daughter off of her leg and basically yelled at her out of frustration.  On the subway she felt terrible and had a moment  - an AHA moment I guess Oprah would call it – that her daughter just desperately wanted to be with her, and that she made her daughter feel bad about it.  She was in a position financially to quit her job – and she did.  And she didn’t want to have to apologize for it. She leaned in, then she jumped out.

Someday she may choose to lean back in.

That’s what many well-educated women are doing.  A hokey-pokey of leaning in, then leaning out, then jumping to the right, to the left, maybe falling on our asses, and leaning in again.

I will be giving Lean In to my ten year-old daughters to read.  To me it was all old hat and cliché.  I had my Lean In moments; particularly in college fighting it out as a film major when only 20% of students were female and there were only 2 female professors in the whole department (now the head of the department is a woman.)  I have no problem leaning in – running a company I have no choice but to lean in and sometimes use a megaphone.  But, I already see some of the doubt in my girls.

In preparation for parent teacher conferences one of my daughters had to do a self-evaluation and she wrote that one of the things she had to work on was not calling out.  During the conference her teacher told us that she never called out and wasn’t sure why my daughter wrote that.  Her teacher said she raises her hand, contributes great ideas and is always enthusiastic.  But somehow my daughter has started to feel bad that maybe she talks too much in class.  She just came up with this on her own.  As middle school approaches the last thing I want my daughter to do is start to hang back.

So, for that reason I’m all for leaning in, and Sheryl Sandberg, and Marissa Mayer and Hillary Clinton, and every other high-powered public woman who has to not just lean in but also bear the angry stares of millions of judgemental eyes.  And I hope my girls grab the hands of a couple more girls and pull them into the circle too.  That way their generation of young women can learn to do the dance together.

Putting Education Reform on the Presidential Debate Agenda

Photo Credit: The petition site

Last week a petition went up, sponsored by The Mandell School in NYC, to demand that the Presidential Debate moderators ask questions about the candidates’ plans and ideas for education reform.  It seems like a pretty simple demand – after all, No Child Left Behind was a signature Bush initiative, and Race to the Top has been a major Obama initiative – both of them taking huge policy steps at the Federal level to shape education in what has traditionally been a very local issue.   If this trend continues then it makes sense that the men running for the top leadership position of the country should define where they stand on education.

It’s no longer easy to divide education ideas and programs along partisan lines.   Things like vouchers, charter schools, breaking down of the teachers’ unions, are now fair game on both sides of the aisle.  And the money is flowing from liberal-minded hedge funders as well as conservative think tanks.  Forget everything you know about public education in the 70s and 80s – those battles have been completely upended, and opposing sides may be voting for the same guy come Election Day.

But, we all know Obama’s thoughts on education reform.  You just have to look at Race to the Top and the horrible spread of standardized testing as the only measure of student progress and teacher effectiveness.  I don’t think this was the intention of  Race to the Top, but it has been the consequence.  And to be honest, I don’t think Romney will have anything interesting to say except platitudes about preparing our students for the 21st Century and how every student deserves a great teacher.  There’s not going to be any substantive talk about education either way.

Here’s what I would like to hear from the candidates – and not in a debate forum where the clock is ticking and the press is eagerly awaiting a zinger.  I would like Obama to talk about why he chose Sidwell Friends for his daughters – a private school free from testing, free to create interesting, project based curriculum, free to limit their class size, but not at all free in terms of tuition.  I would like Romney to talk about the heavily subsidized BYU, where the Mormon belief in a good education is put to work in terms of making the school very affordable thanks to the Church. And, since he  went to a very fancy private school – Cranbrook, where my husband also was lucky enough to attend – I’d like to know what he felt he got out of his education, what he valued from it, other than bullying kids with long hair.

As I usher my daughters through the  NYC Public Middle School application process this fall, I am more and more aware that our system that has too few seats, a crazy admission policy that varies from school to school, an obscene reliance on test scores that puts pressure on kids as young as 8, and no real data showing that any of this is good for kids in the long run or will produce more creative, smarter adults, I have to wonder – what could any politician tell me about education reform that I don’t already know or that I would believe?

It Only Takes One Mom…

You may have heard about the ONE Moms campaign that had a group of mom bloggers traveling to Africa to connect mom to mom with women across the world.  The campaign is all about raising awareness and ultimately driving action to help women and children in poverty get access to healthcare, education and to raise the standard of living.  I was very fortunate to be asked to be part of the campaign back here in NYC.  Many of us gathered on what was probably the hottest day of the summer to film this PSA.  The ONE Moms team was amazing and I’m really proud of the work they are doing.  Check out the PSA and get involved by clicking here.

On October 25th ONE will host an online Day of Advocacy on October 25 to ask for a broader focus on global HIV/AIDS.  I will update this post as soon as I know the page where moms can automatically update their Twitter feed to tweet a message at the White House or update their facebook status.

No More Paper! No More Books! No More Teachers…

It’s the annual song of the last day of school right?  Only this time it’s not about summer it’s about the budget!  Yesterday we were informed by our NYC Schools budget liaison that paper is not a necessity in the classroom.  He didn’t really mean that of course but he couldn’t say what the DOE really means which is lose some teachers, create bigger class sizes to the union max (32 kids in grades 1-5) and then you will have money left over for…paper!

This is the position we find ourselves in now, caught in the middle between the mayor’s fight over LIFO (Last In First Out) and the reality of educating our kids.  Are there teachers we all know should go and I’d gladly trade in for a ream of paper?  Yes.  Can we? No.  But is that the kids’ fault or the parents’ fault?  No.  And parents don’t want to be in that fight pitting us against teachers.  That is a battle that needs to be fought at the political and union level.  Using the budget to force an issue that only hurts the kids in the classrooms is cruel.

This year NYC schools will begin to adopt the Common Core Standards.  This will be a slow process and having looked at the Common Core, well, obsessed over the Common Core, for the last 6 months, I can’t even imagine how a teacher could begin to teach in a completely new way and have a bigger class size than ever before.  And then don’t forget at least 20% but possibly up to 40 % of their evaluation will be based on the standardized tests that will begin to integrate the Common Core Standards goals.  How would you like someone to increase your workload by a third, give you an entirely new methodology and goal, and then provide no supplies to carry out your job but base 40% of your performance review on how the people you are responsible for perform?  That’s crazy but it is what we are asking of our teachers.

We all know many of the teachers aren’t going to make it under this system.  Some of them have deserved to go for a very long time, but many are just finding their way and will be crushed under this implementation.  There has to be a better way.  Our kids can’t be the ones who suffer because the politicians are trying to prove a point.  We can’t have kids without paper.  We can’t run a school without paper. And we all know there are schools where the parents will be able to pick up the slack, to a point.  And there are those that cannot.  But in the wealthiest nation in the world, in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, despite the recession, to have schools choosing between a teacher or paper should be an embarrassment of epic proportions.  Is this what we want to show the world?  Are we really going to talk about raising standards when parents are running around buying soap and paper towels for the bathrooms?  This is shameful.  And we all know the money is somewhere.

When I attended the Mom Congress in DC and met Secretary Duncan he looked at me like I was crazy when I told him the parents at our school paid for the teacher professional development.  “Do you know how much money the federal government spends on PD for teachers?” he asked.  “Well, where is it? ” I asked back.  I never got that answer.

I wonder what he’d say if I asked him where the money is for paper?

The White House Education Roundtable – And me!

While I haven’t had time to recap all of the amazing panels and workshops I attended at Mom Congress, I thought I’d skip forward to my last day in DC where I was invited to go to the White House and meet with Education and policy officials along with a dozen other parent education advocates to talk about our schools and the issues surrounding them.

One of the most amazing parts of Mom Congress was meeting women from all 50 states – tiny rural school districts, segregated suburban districts, urban districts and everything in between.  At the end of the day almost everyone’s problems came from one big source: lack of funding.  At the roundtable this was again a theme.  Whether it was trying to implement bullying programs or wellness initiatives, STEM and gifted curriculum, or down to the very basics of feeding and clothing homeless and foster school children so they could attend school every day – these parents are working their hardest to make things happen but constantly butt up against issues of money and engagement.  Having the opportunity to discuss these issues with White House staff was truly amazing.

As part of Champions for Change we then made videos talking about how parents can get involved and make a difference in their schools.  You can see everyone at the Whitehouse.gov site.  Here I am shooting my mouth off about parental engagement and how parents should learn to be a thorn in the side of every politician.  (Geez, I wish my grandma had been there to tell me to brush my hair!)

Here’s my full-page on the White House site:  Rebecca Levey

If you want to tell your politicians to stop cutting the education budget start here:

Vote Smart!

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5 Women I Want My Daughters to Know About

This month’s Yahoo! Mother Board topic is a celebration of Women’s History Month.  I know that my daughters will learn about a multitude of great women in their school years, but these are women that don’t make the classroom  – even Margaret Sanger unfortunately.  If you have a woman who you want to make sure your daughters and/or sons will know about let me know in the comments!

  1. My Great-Aunt Sara:  My grandmother’s sister was substantially older than my grandmother, was born back in Russia under cloudy circumstances that no one ever really clarified (did her mother marry a bigamist or have an affair?) and came to America at the age of 2 with her single mother.  She kept my great-grandmother’s maiden name even after my great-grandmother remarried and gave birth to my grandmother.  None of that could have been easy in early 20th century America.  She was a fierce feminist – becoming a nurse and starting the nursing program at Sinai Hospital in Detroit.  She is the one who bought me shirt that said, “A woman’s place is in the House…and the Senate.”  She collected Susan B. Anthony dollars and gave them to me.  She taught me basic skills like how to tie my shoes and whistle and more esoteric skills like dreaming big and standing up for myself.  She was a feminist before there was a word for it and made sure the next generation took pride in that tradition.
  2. My Sister In-Law:  This is a tough one.  My eldest sister in-law had a heart attack over 10 years ago at 32 years old and has been in a semi-conscious state ever since.  While she is still alive she is certainly not the woman she was, and it’s important to me that my daughters think of her at her most vital.  She was the first person on the dance floor and the last to get off.  She was the kind of person who sent you notes in the mail just because and took two hours to run 10 minute errands since she had to talk and catch up with every store owner and clerk she encountered.  She was an insanely warm and joyful mom and woman and I see glimpses of her in my daughters with their same zany joie de vivre and passion for putting on a party.
  3. Lucille Ball: To be funny is one thing.  To be funny, smart and willing to make a fool of yourself is something rare, especially in a woman.  Lucille Ball wasn’t just a star she was the first woman to head a major television production studio a feat not really duplicated until Oprah.  And most importantly she was an awesomely hard worker.  She was in films for 20 years before launching I Love Lucy and never stopped working until she died.  She had talent but she also had tenacity and that’s the bigger lesson.
  4. Margaret Sanger: She believed in her cause, she knew women needed control over their own bodies and she never backed down even when she was thrown in jail.  She founded Planned Parenthood.  Standing up for what you believe in and knowing that woman have a right to decide when and how to have a family are two of the most valuable things I want my daughters to feel.  The fact that women had to fight so vehemently to change laws over their own bodies is not something I want my girls to ever take for granted.
  5. Themselves: This is sort of a strange one right?  But of all the women in the world I want my daughters to know about I feel most strongly that they should trust and know their own selves.  They need to listen to the voice inside them that tells them what’s right and what’s wrong.  They should never compromise in their beliefs and standards, they should stand up for what they believe and they should strive to be their best.  Then they can grow up to be women who others ought to know.

Why Aren’t Parents Rioting in the Streets?

PREPARATION: Education Budget Cuts Protest

Image by infomatique via Flickr

This is the question an educator asked me yesterday.  A private school educator in New York City.  We were among over 200 people invited to Barry Diller’s IAC headquarters in Chelsea to have lunch and listen to the presentation for a brand new private school in Manhattan called Avenues The World Schools.  I wasn’t invited to this lunch as an NYC blogger, I was invited as the Co-President of the Parents’ Association of my daughters’ NYC public school and went there with my Co-President.  To be honest, it’s hard to explain this sort of event to people who have never been to a NYC media and money filled event.  This was not red carpet, this was not celebrity – this was the kind of thing that reminds you where the real power lies in this world.  Money.  Bankers, publishers and mostly bankers.  I haven’t been to something like this in more than 10 years – since I worked for a billionaire family here in NYC.  It made me sad.

That sounds weird right?  Here I was at an event where some of the top educators in NYC were pitching their new school.  I happened to be sitting at the table with the new head of their lower school and their head of the entire school.  These are serious people who have spent their life in education – in private, uber-privileged education.  Joel Klein, our ex-Chancellor was there and all I could think was he’s got some nerve.  You see, part of this school’s pitch was to show the incredible growing demographic of children under 5 in the city and the dynamic increase in the number of families staying in the city rather than leaving when school-age hits.  The irony to watching these men use these numbers to sell their school hit my co-president and me in the face.  For the last 4 years public school parents have been trying desperately for the Department of Education (DOE) to recognize this fact but they staunchly denied it.  As schools have become overcrowded and people are now waitlisted for their PUBLIC school the DOE has shrugged and said you can always take your 5 year old on the subway to another school.  Those numbers this school was using to show the need for more seats in Manhattan?  Those were our numbers – the ones we culled independently of the DOE – the ones that they finally admitted were true after years of arguing.  And there was Joel Klein smiling away in the front as these numbers flashed on the screen.

So after they show us the 30% increase in school age child growth what do you think their answer is?  Let’s create a school where the tuition will be $50,000 for kindergarten (yes you read that right.)  A for-profit school costing 100s of millions of dollars.  I won’t go into the curriculum goals or the giant presentation of what the building will look like when it’s completely renovated, etc.  The whole thing just left me sick.  And sad.  I keep coming back to the fact that it made me sad.  When I saw that educator I spoke about in the beginning I knew she’d have a good perspective on the school.  She herself had been involved in the creation of a new private school in Manhattan a few years back – and she still heads a large private preschool group.  We talked about how all schools have these goals and lofty ambitions but at the end of the day any new school is going to take whomever can write a check.  What I wasn’t prepared for her to say was “I don’t understand why parents aren’t rioting in the streets.”  And she meant it.  And she was right.

The same day I went to this event to see the future school which will educate the most privileged children in NYC who already have every advantage imaginable Governor Cuomo announced the steepest cuts to education EVER in New York State.  Most of it cutting the city’s education aid.  I sat in a room full of people eating petit fours and drinking wine who all earnestly talked about the dire state of education and how our children are falling behind in the world – so they were building a school that would service those for whom none of this was true.  And at the same time I thought about the teacher lay offs, crumbling buildings, slashed arts programs and lack of basic supplies that were about to become even more entrenched realities.  The NYC public school system has 1.2 million children in it.  That means there are at least 1.8 million parents I’m thinking who should storm Bloomberg’s office and Cuomo’s office and the White House and demand better.

But here’s the one thing that got me most of all.  In that beautifully windowed room, with gorgeous centerpieces and ladies in Armani and men who have been running the world forever there was a lot of passion about education.  There really was.  That is what made me sad.  Imagine if these resources and talents – and money – were being put towards public education.  Not for charter schools, not for tiny little programs – but a serious discussion about what it’s going to take to change our school system.   And I’m not going to talk here about unions – I know.  Trust me I know.  I used to joke about imagining a city where private school was not an option – how quickly the schools would change if those with the most power to change them had to be part of the system.  Now I’m not joking.  The inequality is so gross and glaring and this event just focused that to such a sharp degree that I almost feel like it’s hopeless.  Think I’m exaggerating?  Look at Egypt this week – now read this article in Think Progress about the greater income inequality in the US.  Then ask yourself – WHY aren’t parents rioting in the streets?

This post was republished, with permission, in the Washington Post. They made me sound a little nicer.  Thanks.

I also have a problem with people telling parents HOW they should be involved.  Check out this post about Thomas Friedman’s misguided op-ed for more.

Parental Involvement in Schools – How Thomas Friedman Missed the Point

This past week Thomas Friedman wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times, U.S.G and P.T.A, about parental involvement making a difference in student achievement.  When I first read the article I yawned.  Tell me something I don’t know.  Kids do better when parents are involved?  Of course.  Kids do better when parents lay down boundaries, set expectations and create study spaces and structure?  Obviously.  None of this is new or interesting to me.  I’m not sure what his point was other than to say American parents have become lazy while first generation parents are way more effective at encouraging and pushing their children to excel.  Again – snore.  What was actually interesting to me in this article was how off the mark and off point it really was when trying to talk about the role of the P.T.A.

As Co-President of the Parents Association of my daughters’ large NYC public elementary school I have seen the benefits and limits of parental participation.  As budget cuts have slashed every cent of our school budget down to the very core – teachers and staff only – parents have had to pick up the slack to pay for everything from paper and supplies to substitute teachers to professional development for teachers.  Our parents are in our school everyday – helping in classrooms, overseeing a new healthy school lunch program, raising money, coordinating assemblies, dealing with overcrowding and rezoning issues – the extent of the involvement goes way beyond the normal into areas that used be covered by actual Department of Education employees but now have to be done purely by volunteers.  Yet, with all of this involvement the one thing Thomas Friedman harps on is perhaps the hardest to achieve – the extension of the school into the home rather than the other way around – and this cannot fully lie at the feet of parents.

Parents can only be as effective as a school lets them be.  A parent cannot help with homework if they themselves do not understand it.  Parents cannot help a child reach academic goals if those goals have not been clearly defined by administration and teachers.  Parents cannot be the regulators of technology in the home unless they have a thorough understanding of how that technology needs to be used for classwork vs. fun.  All of these aspects of helping a child succeed take some teaching from school to parent.  If schools truly want a partnership with parents then they have to be willing to put in the time and thought to let parents know what is expected of them, and the tools to make it happen.

Yes, there has to be some parental responsibility.  I am constantly working and talking with other bloggers about social media and technology in our children’s lives.  I often find myself repeating the same mantra, “Parenting doesn’t stop at the screen.”  So no your kids shouldn’t have their cellphones near them when they work at home, and there are endless ways to track your child’s online activity.  But, in my mind, while parents need to be pushing their kids to excel academically they also need to do something bigger – VOTE.  Vote for candidates that actually have a plan for education, not just charter school mania and Race To the Top.  Show up – at parent teacher conferences, at PTA meetings, at community board meetings – and make your voice heard.

Hold people accountable.  Your kids are a good place to start but don’t stop there. Hold administration and teachers accountable for providing clear and consistent academic goals and curriculum information (we’re still working on this at our school).  And hold yourself accountable for providing a space where your child can do their work, for making it clear that you expect your child to do their best, and to impart to your kids that school is important and that learning is something that never ends.   But, most of all, hold your elected officials accountable for funding schools properly, for giving teachers professional development funding instead of just putting all the money into evaluation systems and for giving our kids and parents the resources to learn at school and at home.

That’s the true power of PTAs – banding parents together to create a deafening voice that cannot be ignored.  Thomas Friedman may be sounding the bell of laziness and apathy (which is ironic since every other day we are told there is an epidemic of helicopter parents) but everyday I see the tremendous efforts of parents to enrich our school, thank and encourage our teachers and make public officials take schools seriously.  I don’t think we need the Education Secretary to tell parents how to get involved, I think we need the Education Secretary to look at successful PTAs and learn from us instead.