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?

Educate to Eradicate Poverty – ONE.org 12 Days of Change Campaign

The education reform debate in the US focuses on testing, achievement measurements, teacher evaluations and data driven discussions that often miss the one major point – our education “problem” is a class and equality problem.  If we dig down deeper into the causes and obstacles facing many of our students poverty is more often than not the deciding factor in whether or not a child will succeed in school.  But, imagine if you had to dig down even deeper than that – to the point where not even having a school or access to education was the issue – and then you start to understand the challenges facing developing nations in Africa.  How can you possibly tackle the greater issue of poverty without taking on the issue of education?

According to ONE, The Advocacy Non-Profit founded by Bono and his wife, education not only provides children and families with a pathway out of poverty, but it can also yield even bigger returns for the world’s poorest countries through its impact on areas such as health and the economy. Educated mothers, for example, are more likely to have smaller families, and have their children immunized and send them to school. Education can also provide families and countries with more economic opportunities and help promote the civic participation that is critical to building democracies.

Less than 1 percent of the US budget goes towards foreign aid.  But look at this infographic, which shows the effect that small amount of money has on an area like education according to the US Aid website:

What ONE small thing can you do today to make change happen?  Watch the video below by ONE member Katie Meyler, about a young African girl named Abigail.  It’s a story about how education is the most powerful change agent there is.  Abigail is now in school and at the top of her class because of More Than Me.  The video was produced by the What Took You So Long foundation.

Watch it and share it – on Facebook, twitter and beyond.

What a Great Teacher Looks Like

It’s June – 3 weeks left to go in the NYC public school year and while there are projects being wrapped up, publishing parties happening, musical performances being staged there is one activity that takes precedence over all others – jockeying for next year’s teacher.  As Co-President of the PA (we have no “T” in our association) I am inundated with emails, parents tapping me on the shoulder or even calling me to ask how they can request a specific teacher for their child next year.  My answer is always, you can’t.  That doesn’t stop the majority of parents from trying.  And I totally get it.  No one wants to feel that they did nothing while everyone around them made their preferences known.  In the midst of the teacher evaluation debate this always makes me shake my head.  Want to know who is an effective teacher?  Ask the principal which teacher every parent is pining for.  Really.

This year one of our teachers won a Blackboard Award for Excellence in Teaching.  She was my daughter’s second grade teacher and I whole-heartedly agree that she is a truly gifted teacher.   And so was my other daughter’s second grade teacher.  One of the benefits and detriments of having twins is experiencing two different teachers in the same grade every year.  The view is particularly interesting with my girls because they are identical twins and have exactly the same academic ability and very similar behavior in class.  We joke every year that we could just have a group parent-teacher conference and save ourselves the scheduling headache.  But my point is that both teachers were very different in style, personality and teaching background – and both were highly effective as the evaluators like to say.  But effective is such a bland, meaningless word.  More than “effective” they were equally engaging, challenging, creative and attuned to the needs of the kids.

I remember my best teachers because they were the ones that sparked my love of learning and opened up new areas of interest or a deeper understanding of subjects that I previously thought I had learned but had only scratched the surface of.  But my list of best teachers is probably different from that of classmates with whom I went through most of my school life.  (as a totally topical aside, Anthony Weiner’s mom was my math teacher twice in middle and high school and she was a total kook and fabulous teacher)  I had an english teacher in middle school who introduced me to Wallace Stevens and William Faulkner and changed my entire view of literature.  There is no doubt in my mind I am a writer today because of his class.  But he was also hated by many students because he was so strict and demanding.  I bet even those haters would give him high marks as an effective teacher since he pushed them so hard.

So what makes a great teacher?  What is it that all of these parents are clamoring for when they wait for hours outside the principal’s door hoping to get in their plea?  First and foremost in my experience is a teacher with a fantastic, well planned, absorbing curriculum that gets the kids thinking, working across mediums and producing something tangible to show and be proud of.  Those coveted teachers have classrooms that run well – there are clear rules, structure and respect.  The kids know what to expect and know what is expected of them.  There is also the magic dust on top of all of that – and that is the sense that this teacher really, truly gets your kid.  When you hear parents talk about these teachers you will often hear them talk with awe about how the teacher understood their child’s strengths, weaknesses, struggles and specific quirks in a way that made them feel like real teaching could and would happen.  I am convinced that in many ways a child’s ability to learn and learn well comes down to this feeling of safety and trust in the classroom.  That sense of security comes from feeling like a teacher is on your side and is invested in you.  Without that everything is an uphill battle.

When I look forward to next year I am just as terrified as all of the other parents – even more so since I need 2 great teachers every year for my girls.  I’m not hoping for the best test prepper.  Actually I would like the teacher who does the least test prep because it’s all coming naturally through the curriculum.  But most of all I want the teacher who is going to look into my daughter’s face and see the eager, passionate learner that lurks behind her big brown eyes and be excited and challenged by it.  It’s a lot to ask for I know, and I’ve been outrageously lucky so far, but to me that genuine love of teaching is what creates the genuine love of learning and that is what school should be all about.

Heading to the Mom Congress on Education & Learning

Sitting on the Amtrak train heading down to DC I’m thinking about what lies ahead at the Mom Congress on Education and Learning.  Sponsored by Parenting Magazine and Georgetown University, the Mom Congress consists of one chosen representative from each state and DC.  I was fortunate enough to be picked to be the New York State representative.   You should check out the bios of these amazing women – I am already in awe of so many of them and I haven’t even met them in person yet.

This has been a crazy week for us in NYC as Cathie Black our latest chancellor resigned – to no surprise to anyone and to cheers in every school in the city.  I personally don’t feel any glee in the announcement.  I think she was set up to fail and a ridiculously arrogant choice and the fact that 3 months have been wasted in the midst of budget cuts and teacher lay off talks is pretty much disgusting all around.  A waste of time, energy and valuable discussion time about our public schools. Continue reading

The Joke that Sorta Made Me Cry

This joke landed in my inbox today as part of an email blast I get from Whitney Tilson, a member of DFER (Democrats for Education Reform.)  I have hugely mixed emotions about DFER and Whitney Tilson that I will get into at another time.  And his inclusion of this joke is one of the reasons my feelings are mixed.  One minute he’s unequivocially bashing Diane Ravitch and the teachers’ union and the next minute he’s quoting this:

A public union employee, a Tea Party activist, and a CEO are sitting at a table with a dozen cookies in the middle of it. The CEO takes 11 of the cookies, turns to the Tea Partier and says, “Watch out for that union guy. He wants a piece of your cookie.”

And that pretty much sums up Wisconsin and everything else that’s upside down and inside out right now.

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.