New York

To mayor's chagrin, school governance panel recommends checks on his power

Earlier this month, a leading public commission charged with studying school governance in anticipation of the June 2009 sunset of the law granting control of the city's schools to the mayor released its final report, finding that the city should retain mayoral control but that "checks" on the mayor's power should be instituted and that public engagement before major decisions are made should be required. I'm a little late covering the report — from the Public Advocate's Commission on School Governance — but it remains timely. Today, Mayor Bloomberg rails against revisions to mayoral control in a letter to the editor of the Times. And tomorrow, an independent parent group studying mayoral control is holding an event about the history of school governance in New York City. The assembly has said it will begin holding public hearings on mayoral control in January. In a nearly yearlong process before making its recommendations, the 10-member commission solicited expert reports from a number of academics and heard testimony from more than 50 people, from Randi Weingarten to James Merriman of the New York Center for Charter School Excellence to Chancellor Klein himself. Ultimately, the commission identified a "general consensus" that mayoral control is superior to a decentralized system of school governance. But mayoral control in its current form, without any real checks on the mayor's authority, fails "to deliver on its promise of greater public accountability," the report concludes.
New York

Former NYC teachers aim to "revolutionize educational philanthropy"

Two former New York City schoolteachers have taken to heart Teach for America's intention to create innovators who maintain a commitment to educational equity even after they leave the classroom — they've started a nonprofit organization designed to facilitate individual giving to public schools. Jessica Rauch and Eli Savit, who now live in Michigan, recently won $10,000 in start-up funds in the August competition on IdeaBlob.com, which pits new business ideas against each other in public voting. Their initiative, The Generation Project, aims to "revolutionize educational philanthropy" by facilitating connections between schools and individuals who want to donate to them. From 2005 to 2007, Rauch taught English language learners at PS 86 in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx; Savit taught 8th-grade social studies at IS 339 in the South Bronx. "As a new teacher, my time was very limited; between lesson planning, after-school tutoring, and graduate school, I didn't have as much time as I would have liked to find individualized opportunities for all of my students," wrote Rauch in an email to GothamSchools. "Although my administration was great and tried hard to expose students to various enrichment activities, I wished there was an easy way to further expand my students' horizons." For example, Rauch wrote, one of Savit's students who had developed an interest in domestic affairs could have attended a program in Washington, D.C., if Savit could easily have found a way to pay for it. Motivated by their own experiences, Rauch and Savit are working to create a database of prepaid gifts, "shaped by [funders'] own passions and priorities," that schools and teachers can apply to receive. This approach represents an inversion of the one taken by the popular website DonorsChoose.org, where potential donors browse funding requests from teachers who have identified particular needs for their classroom. "DonorsChoose is awesome, but it serves a different role for under-resourced schools than we propose," Rauch wrote.
New York

At PS 8, families cry foul on year's first progress report grade

With their schools' 2007-2008 progress report grades due out next week, principals are likely to spend their weekend planning either a victory celebration or damage control. PS 8 in Brooklyn Heights At PS 8 in Brooklyn Heights, families are trying to figure out what to think about their school's failing grade, especially because it earned a C last year and accolades this summer from Chancellor Klein, who held a conference at the school to announce that the school would expand to meet community demand, the Times reports today. Since the arrival of the current principal, Seth Phillips, in 2003, families in the zone have increasingly decided to stay put and enroll at PS 8 once their children reach school age. But according to the DOE's progress report formula, upper-grade students' test scores did not improve as much last year as they might have (and did at other schools), even though a majority of them scored at grade level or higher on state math and reading tests. Asked about the chancellor's July comments, DOE spokesman David Cantor told the Times, “Now that he has additional information about the school, his view has changed. The most important things about a school are student progress and performance, and in those areas this school isn’t measuring up.” Cantor also said parents and teachers noted "significant concerns" when responding to last year's Learning Environment Survey — but those concerns aren't apparent in the composite survey results, which put PS 8 in the top half of schools citywide in three of the four main categories and well above average on the fourth, "engagement."
New York

NPR: How much homework is too much?

Yesterday, NPR's Day to Day interviewed Harris M. Cooper, a professor at Duke University and author of The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents. How much homework is appropriate? they asked. Cooper provided a simple rule: Essentially what the guideline boils down to is what I refer to as the 10-minute rule, which means 10 minutes per night, per grade: first graders, 10 minutes, second graders, 20 minutes, third graders, 30 minutes, and so on. We do have research that shows that when middle school kids are doing between 60 to 90 minutes of homework a night they’re doing as well as kids who claim to be doing more. If parents feel that their children are getting too much homework, Cooper says, they should begin by observing what really happens during homework time. Are the children focused solely on homework, or are distractions like text-messaging or television getting in the way? He provides tips for talking with teachers about homework, advising parents to take a non-confrontational teamwork approach. Some homework opponents would do away with it altogether. Alfie Kohn argued in The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing and in a 2006 Q&A with Philissa at Insideschools.org that homework "dampen[s] children's curiosity about the world," and that research shows no benefit to homework. One math teacher says on his blog that he doesn't assign homework because his students who need extra practice most are least likely to complete homework. But Cooper makes a case for small amounts of homework: it helps children learn to study on their own and outside the classroom, important preparation for the demands of college, where most learning happens in the dorm room, library, or coffeehouse. As a teacher, I encountered more parents worried that their children weren't doing enough homework than that they were assigned too much.
New York

Should teachers trade tenure for extra pay?

Merit pay, also known as performance pay, keeps turning up on the ed blogs and in the news. How do merit pay plans work? And, coming soon, how does the merit pay debate affect New York City schools? The gist of performance pay is that districts offer teachers increased pay on the basis of student achievement and other measures of success, often in return for weakened job security. Plans vary: some reward individual teachers, others reward schools, some are based largely on test scores, some include peer and administrator evaluations, and some offer pay increases for taking on extra responsibilities such as mentoring new teachers, or for teaching in a high-needs school or subject area. A 2007 New York Times article noted teachers' increasing openness to merit pay programs, especially those involving teacher input and collaboration with their unions. Still, the Times pointed out, many teachers in Texas and Florida rejected merit pay plans, citing concerns about divisiveness, unfairness to teachers of high-needs students, and simplistic evaluations. Educators often say they are insulted by the idea that a little extra cash will increase their motivation to help struggling students. Paul Tough has written extensively about teacher pay-for-performance plans on his Schoolhouse Rock blog at Slate. He launched last week with a look at political pressure on Barack Obama to push increased teacher pay but decreased job security, then spent the rest of the week examining existing performance pay programs. Tough summarized Michelle Rhee's proposed salary plan for DC teachers, which would increase salaries across the board, do away with tenure rights, and create an opt-in performance pay program while phasing out the traditional pay scale. Rhee has warned that if teachers reject her plan, she will turn, instead, to tougher evaluations and licensing requirements, making it easier to fire teachers.