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.

Just Do It

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 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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