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Making the case for Parochial Schools in the NCLB age

NunNewBedfordGeographyYes, Sister Mary Margaret, there is a place for you and the rest of the “penguins.”

It’s just difficult to see against the tests, the balance sheets, and the armada of charter and magnet schools competing in your home waters.

As much as our public schools take a beating, few institutions have take as severe a scourging as the Catholic Church in the US.

I’m not referring to the sex abuse scandals, which deserve pages of analysis.  The system of Catholic primary and secondary schools in the United States is on an unprecedented retreat.

At the height of the baby boom in the 1960s, roughly 5.2 million students were enrolled at Catholic schools in communities across the country, according to a recent City Journal article by Sean Kennedy, a scholar at the Lexington Institute and co-author of a study on Catholic education.  Today, less than half attend a Catholic institution, only 2 million.  Running without government dollars, per-pupil costs skyrocketed between 1998 and 2010, from $5,600 to $10,800.  Average tuition for incoming ninth graders at Catholic high schools has more than doubled, from $4,300 to $8,800.

The result is a massive pandemic of building closure: between 2000 and 2012, 1,942 schools were either closed or consolidated (combined with other schools).  167 closed or consolidated in 2012 alone.  A recent report by the Archdiocese of New York stated at least 24 local schools will close, affecting over 4,000 students in the area.

How did it happen?  How did arguably the greatest private school system in America take such a beating?

Catholic schools, in a way, are a victim of their own success.

The Catholic parochial school system began in the mid-1800s as a response to the rising public school movement in America.  Early public school systems, in cities and towns, stressed preparation for adult life as farmers and workers—a preparation that included religious instruction.  Public schools encouraged Bible study, particularly the King James Bible used in Protestant churches.  Thus, public education was seen as a vehicle for evangelizing Protestant religious values.

The sea of Catholic immigrants in the mid-1800s, from Ireland and Germany, needed schools that reflected their own values.  Either through the diocese or independently, parochial schools of all levels would spring up right next door to local public schools.  The parochial system would grow to essentially become a mirror of the public school system, with elementary and secondary schools local to each city and town, as well as Catholic schools of higher learning (Boston College, Notre Dame, Holy Cross, Georgetown, etc.) that served as centers of university training for Catholics who still felt discriminated at the Puritan, Presbyterian and Anglican campuses of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia.

Over time, Catholic schools developed a reputation for discipline, spiritual nourishment and academic excellence.  Without government money, these schools provided high-quality, low-cost education for immigrants and their children.  Clergy acting as the faculty kept costs low while instilling rigorous standards of discipline and academic achievement.

When new theories or fads would ravage American public education starting in the 1960’s, Catholic schools were a haven of stability, providing excellence the old-fashioned way: discipline and hard work.

Parochial school would become the true vehicle of upward mobility: many who rose from poverty to positions of power attribute their success to the values and rigor instilled in a Catholic education.

By the 1990’s, however, Catholic schools obtained a serious rival—a rival funded by public dollars.

The rise of No Child Left Behind was parallel to the rise of the charter school movement, schools funded by public monies but operating independently of the public school system.  When parents couldn’t afford rising costs of Catholic school, the charter school became a less-costly alternative.  Many of these charters have adopted norms and values long cultivated in the Catholic school system: high academic expectations, rigorous discipline, school uniforms.

The result is a hemorrhaging of enrollment at an unprecedented scale.  2012 marked the first year that charter school enrollment is higher than in Catholic schools, surging past the 2 million mark.  Currently they account for about 5% of children in public schools, and their numbers continue to rise.

Does this mean the slow death of the Catholic school, though?  Not necessarily.

Competition from charter schools has crippled a longstanding tradition of American education.  The question now is: should it be this way?  Is there a way for Catholic schools to regain lost ground?

Part of the problem is financial.  Catholic schools are playing on an uneven field: charters can, and often do, get continuous funding from public coffers, whilst the local parochial school is kept up largely by the parishioners and the local diocese.  This is a disparity that cannot really be leveled without massive government spending in religious schools—a controversial move on many levels.

Dioceses across America are learning to make do with less—a painful lesson in efficiency that will probably be helpful in the end.  Though the closures are painful, the Catholic system as a whole can still be main sustainable for at least the immediate future.

Yet fiscal discipline is only part of the solution.  To really re-establish its foothold on American schooling, the parochial school needs to emphasize those things that charters often get so wrong, and that St. Mary’s and St. Bernard’s get so right.

In terms of morals and ethics, it’s a no-brainer.  Recent scandals aside, at least on paper, the parochial school is a model for moral education, at least through the lens of Catholicism.  Catholic schools have long opened their doors to non-Catholics, as long as they take classes in religion and sit through the obligatory exercises.  Through this osmosis, many non-Catholics can’t help but develop ethically in this environment.  Historically, this deep moral education has also been coupled with a thorough civic education.  Catholic students also tended to be proud American citizens—which upends completely the discriminating notions of a century ago that equated Catholicism with anti-Americanism.

More importantly, though, parochial schools never mess with what works in education.  It’s a lesson we all know too well.

Charter schools, especially the well-known ones, often pride themselves on being up-to-date with the latest educational trends and theories.  Basically, they tie themselves to a philosophy or theoretical framework, drill their teachers and students to death in it, and if it doesn’t work, they find another theory or fad and start the process all over again.

Catholic schools never had to worry about Danielson frameworks, Bloom’s taxonomy, Understanding by Design, Lucy Calkins, Fountas and Pinnell, or any other fly-by-night notions that catch an administrator’s eye like a shiny toy.  They understood long ago that as long as a dedicated staff is backed up by an administration hellbent on discipline and hard work, no theory was really necessary.

Unlike the twits that dictate education policy today, Catholic schools knew for a long time that the school environment matters a whole lot more than any newfangled theory.

Does that mean parochial schools can’t do a better job with English Language Learners or children with special needs?  Absolutely not.  In fact, many of the ding-dong theories we disparage can work for them on a limited basis.  Yet the majority of kids being sent to Catholic school are not being sent there because of Wiggins or Calkins or Fountas & Pinnell—they’re being sent because Sister Mary Margaret will conjure the fires of Hell if little Johnny doesn’t do his work.

In a way, the strict discipline and focus on work in the Catholic school is a lot more nurturing than even the most liberal-minded charters—places where the chanting, the slogans, and the high fives seem so…antiseptic…artificial…

…dare I say…fascist?

Catholic schools have a role as a viable alternative to the public school system.  They provide a discipline and focus that no charter can dream of providing, combined with a moral compass that makes KIPP look like a Dickensian workhouse.

Once they can get their financial house in order, America’s Catholic schools need to focus on how to compete effectively with charters and stake their ground in the 21st century education landscape.

After all, they do answer to a higher power.

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Where Does Journalism End…and Bullying Begin? Teacher Data Reports and the Media

العربية: صورة التطقت عام 2008 لمقر إدارة تعليم...

Tweed Courthouse, headquarters of the NYC Department of Education. Image via Wikipedia

On November 16, 1801, a group of New York politicians led by Alexander Hamilton began a political broadsheet that would eventually become one of the most influential publications in the metro area.

Recently, it decided to cease being a newspaper…and become a tool of propaganda instead.

On Friday, February 24, after a lengthy court battle, the New York City Department of Education was forced to comply with a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request filed by the New York Post, the aforementioned tabloid founded over 210 years ago.  The DOE released the infamous Teacher Data Reports (TDRs)—the rankings of supposed teacher effectiveness based on standardized test scores in English Language Arts and mathematics.

In the days that followed, each of the city’s major media outlets released the teacher scores (with names attached) in varying formats.  Some ranked teachers from highest to lowest percentile.  Others released searchable databases by district, borough and school.  Still others, such as the New York Times, published the data with lengthy addenda explaining that the scores shouldn’t be used to rate or rank teachers, since it was a single indicator based on outdated, faulty data with a ridiculously wide margin of error.

(These explanations, by the way, were provided by the DOE itself, along with a recommendation that the media treat the data fairly as it was intended.)

However, the New York Post, the paper that initiated the FOIL request, didn’t stop at a mere spreadsheet of names and numbers.

After releasing its own version of the teacher data—with language so editorialized it hardly passed as hard news—the Post released a story about the alleged parent uproar over a Queens teacher who received the lowest scores in the city.

The story’s lead paragraph read: “The city’s worst teacher has parents at her Queens school looking for a different classroom for their children.”

In that one sentence, the Post lost the last vestige of journalistic integrity.

The controversy over the TDRs embroils teachers, administrators, parents and political leaders.  The arguments range from the valid to the ludicrous.

The data was flawed. 

It’s impossible to rate teachers based on only one indicator in each subject.

The data doesn’t take into account the myriad of extenuating circumstances.

The DOE secretly wanted the scores released. 

The DOE supposedly encouraged media outlets in their FOIL requests and even expedited the process. 

The DOE got into a devil’s compact with the UFT leadership, the mayor, Fox News, the Republican Party, the Tea Party, the Freemasons, Jesuits, the Vatican, the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderburg Group to publicly tear out the entrails of “ineffective” teachers…

(Okay, that last one was far-fetched—but you get the point.)

The actual release of the data is a moot point.  Until a new law or federal court ruling decides otherwise, the scores are out, and will probably be released again in the future (even if the DOE itself stopped collecting such scores).

The real issue, one that has an even farther-reaching implication than the classroom, is how media outlets use that data.  While it is true that the First Amendment gives newspapers quite a bit of leeway, there are definite boundaries that journalists cannot cross.

When a newspaper publishes a story based on a flawed, incorrect and unsubstantiated source, it crosses that boundary.

When a newspaper uses false data to publicly shame an individual, it is not only unethical.  It is slanderous.

The inaccuracy of the TDRs was acknowledged by teachers, administrators, and even the DOE itself.  All parties agreed that the data was imperfect.  What’s more, the data has such a wide margin of error that any percentile derived from it is akin to throwing a dart at a dartboard blindfolded.

Thus, the TDRs are a flawed, inaccurate, and therefore non-credible source—by open admission from the powers that be.

The papers can print the data, as long as their stories about them have multiple sources discussing the data.  So far, all the newspapers covered this base (in the Post’s case, just barely.)

Yet the labeling of teachers in superlatives, as “best” or “worst”, based on TDR data does not pass the journalistic smell test.  Along the same vein as the Queens teacher’s article, the Post also published a piece about teachers with the highest percentiles.  The following was the lead to the story:

“The city’s top-performing teachers have one thing in common: They’re almost all women.”

Not only does this statement say absolutely nothing (considering the vast majority of teachers in the city are women anyway), but it makes a dangerous classification—the same kind of classifying that drove that Queens teacher to a virtual lynch mob by ill-informed parents.

When news stories throw around a value judgment based on one singular measure—a measure that is so ridiculously flawed even its authors disavow it—the journalists behind these stories used what amounts to false, unsubstantiated information. 

It is, in effect, mocking (or exalting) people based on a probable lie.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is the textbook example of slander and libel.

The New York Post’s editorial pages have attacked teachers’ union and teachers for years now.  Yet this frenzied hatred never hit the news headlines as hard as it did this weekend. 

They have used unsubstantiated, inaccurate data to shame teachers, using the unfortunate quotes of ill-informed parents in the process as they whip up support for their negativity.

Worst of all, they have the gall to couch this journalistic lynching as hard news.

The New York Post should stop calling itself a newspaper.  It is now no better than a common propaganda pamphlet that panders to the lowest common denominator.  At times I even agreed with the Post politically—but their tactics disgust me.

Finally, for those whose reputations have been ruined by this pseudo-journalism, there is a weapon far more powerful than any ordnance.  It usually has a suit, a briefcase, and an avalanche of legal motions.

See you in court, Rupert.

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Occupy Wall Street Videos for the Classroom

The Occupy Wall Street protests are obviously on many peoples’ minds lately.  In my scotch fog (more like cheap Bourbon, in my case) not only did I not take into account my lack of activity on this blog, but also my lack of real analysis of these protests.

So here’s some video to share with your students–hopefully with as little editorializing as possible.

The YouTube channel OccupyTVNY provides a pretty good snapshot of the various protests in New York, where the movement began (obviously…does anyone really want to occupy Wall Street in the middle of Montana?).  Furthermore, the Manchester Guardian’s Teacher Network provides a cool set of stats and classroom resources for teachers covering the protests.

Given the Guardian’s slant, its pretty even handed.

I’ll be giving my own take on these protests shortly.  If you read my reports on the Save Our Schools March in July, you probably get a sense of where I’m going with this.

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Will 9/11 Become Just Another Holiday?

I once heard a comedian on cable say that in a few years, people will celebrate 9/11 with parades and barbecues.

I really wish it wasn’t true…even if history bears out his theory.

Like all civilizations, American society has, at least for itself, a very acute sense of amnesia.  No, there weren’t always sales and days off during Veterans Day, Memorial Day and the like.  There was a time when these days actually meant what they were supposed to mean: days of remembrance for those who served and died for their country.

Yet along the way, the original purposes of these days has tended to fade, and in the vacuum comes the parades, the holidays, the outings to the shore, the midnight blockbuster sales and the 24-hour oldies nostalgia countdowns on the radio.

More than ever, they are days that delineate less about sacrifice, and more about our excesses.

September 11, a day that brings little joy to anyone, shouldn’t suffer the same fate.  Yet at one time, Memorial Day and Veterans Day (or Armistice Day, in its original form) wasn’t that joyful either…and look where they ended up.

Today, I made it a point to not watch anything related to 9/11.  It was not out of disrespect–my own story of that day is very personal and painful.  It certainly was not out of creating a false holiday for barbecues and such.

I was afraid–deeply afraid–that the events of that day, raw as they were, would somehow morph into the nostalgia that provides a veneer to other holidays cheapened by merriment and shopping sprees.

Yes, the wounds are only ten years old.  Yet the memory of the American people is short and selective.  It shouldn’t be.

This day is not like any other day.  Nor should it be like any other HOLIDAY either.

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A Letter to Secretary Arne Duncan Re: the 2010 NAEP Civics Report Card

Seal of the United States Department of Education

Image via Wikipedia

Dear Secretary Duncan,

(Again, is Arne okay? We tend to be informal here at the Neighborhood, so we hope you don’t mind.)

How’s it going, big guy? Still keeping up that jump shot? I’m just assuming since you seem to be more of a perimeter player than someone who dominates the paint…

…which is a lot like your current job as Secretary of Education (just kidding, I think).

Anyway, I’d like to start out by offering condolences. It wasn’t easy being taken to the woodshed for your alleged insincerity on Teacher Appreciation Day—especially from my friend Sabrina Stevens Shupe. I know, I know: your press flunky felt that the “broader teaching community” was in agreement with you. Yet the overwhelming evidence Sabrina and others brought—of glad-handing, double-talk, duplicity and outright hypocrisy—has got the intellectual feel of a few rounds with Mike Tyson in his prime.

Nobody likes an ass-kicking, Arne, but it builds character…at least that’s what I tell kids just before they get their butts whupped again.

Now to the crux of the matter, and I’m afraid it isn’t pleasant. You see, last time we spoke, the New York State Board of Regents was destroying social studies assessment in the state while you fiddled with the Race to the Top money. In the end, you ended up giving them the dough—for making New Yorkers dumber citizens.

It’s a brilliant move, if you were an authoritarian despot that depended on mindless sheep to vote for you in sham elections. Way to make our state look more like a banana republic, Arne.

New York is now not alone. Other states, in their zeal to give you your annual tribute in reading and math data, have either pared down history, geography, economics and government curricula, removed requirements, and even trashed state assessments altogether in social studies. According to a recent study in Education Week, “…the number of states that test elementary social studies declined from 30 to 12 over the last ten years. By the 2009–10 school year, about half the states had developed grade- or course-specific standards across all grade spans in English/language arts (27 states) and mathematics (26). Slightly fewer have such detailed standards in social studies/history and science (23 and 22, respectively).”

The fruit of this labor is the recent results in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)’ 2010 Civics Report Card—results deemed “pathetic” by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

I needn’t rehash the results for you, Arne, but just to highlight the bullet points: Less than 50% of eighth graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights. Only 10% understood how the three branches of the federal government balance national power—the old “checks and balances” system. Only 25% of high school seniors were able to identify an effect of US foreign policy on other nations. The same percentage could name a power granted to Congress by the Constitution.

In all, only 20% of eighth graders—and only 25% of high school seniors—demonstrate a proficiency in the workings of their representative democracy.

Now, there are some people who will tell you that the results are skewed and not reliable.

There are others who do not deem this to be a crisis at all.

Frankly, Arne, these people are either committed to destroying our republic or waist-high in their own bullshit.

(Don’t tell me you’re offended by foul language…you played basketball in AUSTRALIA, for God’s sake! That’s like writing an encyclopedia of barracks humor.)

Now, the numbers for fourth- and eighth- graders, while abysmal, can be corrected in time with little collateral damage. But 25% proficiency in high school seniors should make any true-blue American brown their shorts.

You see, Arne, 100% of them are the legal voting age of 18. Yet only 25% knew what the hell they’re doing in the voting booth. That doesn’t frighten you? Doesn’t it astound you that in a few years, as the electorate gets younger, their knowledge of representative democracy diminishes just as fast…

…and yet we still expect them to participate in our democracy?

How about you give Father O’Malley the key to the boy’s orphanage, or my drunk uncle the keys to the Cadillac while you’re at it…because the education establishment’s outright disdain and neglect for social studies is just as irresponsible.

How many times to we have to repeat it, Arne? We live in a representative democracy that requires an active, informed and educated citizenry to run effectively. Speaking for my fellow teachers, it is our job to train young people to be fully active in their democracy, in all areas.

That includes a thorough knowledge of their history, their geography, and the diverse cultural heritage of our nation.

That includes a thorough understanding of the development, foundations, ideologies, functions and opportunities of our democratic republic.

That includes a thorough analysis of goods, services, inputs, outputs, needs, wants, theories, models and institutions that define us as an economic entity.

That includes a thorough understanding of a citizen’s role in a democracy: to vote, to petition, to complain, to foment dissent, to attack unjust policies, and to change politics and government itself through the electoral process or even direct action.

By the way, these things are not taught in that educational paradise you love called China. It’s because China is a dictatorship. A quasi-“Communist” dictatorship, to be sure, but a dictatorship nonetheless.

My students can have all the science, math and reading knowledge they can muster. What good is it in a dictatorship where dissent is silenced and citizens have little basic rights? Is that what you want to create in this country, Arne? A population of ignorant sedated blobs just educated enough to read the propaganda slogans?

Arne, I don’t want my students to be like the Chinese. If I did, I’d have moved there a long time ago. I don’t make data points in ELA, Math or any other subject. I don’t make goal setters, essential-question verbalizers, educational inputs, lifelong learners, lifelong objective makers, coherent planners, or jargon-based drones worthy of a “quality review” like widgets on an assembly line.

My job, Arne, is to make Americans.

The disciplines of the social studies involve every subject, every skill, every concept and idea embodied in the more “accepted” subjects of reading, math and science. They need to be nurtured, assessed and empowered as a separate subject in curricula throughout the nation. Otherwise, we can just pack up the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence and call it a night.

Arne, please help us in training the next generation of American citizens, leaders and politicians. Stop the rot now. Reverse the gutting of social studies by making them just as important as reading, math and science in data, in scores, in reports and especially in funding. Keep social studies on the pantheon of American education. Make sure our country has an informed, active citizenry for years to come.

The very life of the United States depends on it.

Thanks, as always for your time.

With warm regards,

Mr. D and the good folks at Mr. D’s Neighborhood

PS: If you choose to ignore this, the actions (or inactions) of your office could merit a call to the Department of Homeland Security as a potential “enemy of the state.” Not acting on this crisis is tantamount to high treason. You’ve been warned.

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This Day in History 5/2: Nazis fall in Berlin and Italy

Red Army soldiers at a hotel near the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Thus stars must have aligned perfectly, as the day in which Osama bin Laden was announced dead marks the anniversary of another milestone in the fight against oppression and terror.

On May 2, 1945, the Red Army finally announces the capture of the German capital of Berlin.  With the Soviet flag flying over the Reichstag, the German parliament building, the European theater of World War II was effectively over.

At the same time, in the Italian front, German general Heinrich von Vietinghoff signs the documents of surrender, as German forces give up all of Italy to the Allies.  Benito MussoliniHitler‘s busom buddy, was shot and strung up a few days previously on April 28, and Hitler would meet his own inglorious end on the 30th.

Like Osama bin Laden, their deaths were long overdue.  Furthermore, the world is a better place without them.  Their deaths were met with little saddness: just as today, crowds gathered in London, Times Square, Moscow and other cities to celebrate the end of lives that did far more harm than any good.

My grandmother had a soft spot for Mussolini.  Good thing she’s not around to hear this: Il Duce was as big a piece of crap as Der Fuhrer, Comrade Stalin, and the turbaned maniac we just double-tapped.  We’re a better country–nee, a better planet–without these people.

Good riddance.

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Say it Ain’t So, Cathie! The 100 Days of Chancellor Cathie Black

Cathie Black Enters Tweed

“But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?” ~ from Edward II, by Christopher Marlowe

As swiftly as it came, the reign of Cathie the First came crashing down today–and there’s plenty of blame to spread around.

At 11:30 am, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that Cathie Black had resigned as New York City Schools Chancellor, to be replaced by longtime Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott.  According to the Mayor, the split was amicable, in that both agreed that they needed a new direction.  Yet privately, most believe that Bloomberg showed Cathie the door.

So what happened?  Obviously, Cathie never bothered to read the suggestions we gave her when she started.  She never had the support of the teaching corps, who saw her as a meddling interloper and empty vessel.  Furthermore, she never even tried to wade into the treacherous waters of negotiation and budget battles.

It was just that much easier to slug down appletinis with Graydon Carter and Anna Wintour under a tent during Fashion Week.

What followed through the next 100 days was an unqualified embarrassment.  A recent Marist poll showed an abysmal 17% approval rating.  After numerous faux pas and a series of bumbling media fiascos, the rats began to abandon the ship.  One by one the Deputy Chancellors, a veritable Praetorian Guard that shielded Black from the gathering storm, either resigned or were replaced.

It was only a matter of time.

So who was to blame for this 100-day nightmare?  Mayor Bloomberg, for one.  At least he cowboyed up and accepted “full responsibility.”   Like so many education reform bozos, Bloomberg thought that skirting certification and appointment protocols would produce a suitable Chancellor, only to fizzle in a sea of media flops and epileptic leadership.

The other ne’er do wells shouldn’t get a pass, though.   Joel Klein also gets some blame, since his insistence pushed Cathie Black into the Mayor’s eye, especially while he basked in Rupert Murdoch’s glow.  The City Council, who have been impotent for over a decade now, proved its rubber-stamp quality through a feeble attempt to block Black’s appointment.

Yet even the shenanigans of Bloomberg, et. al. would have gone for nought if it weren’t for the connivance of the New York State Education Department–acting with the blessing of the New York Board of Regents.  Predating our constitution, New York‘s education establishment was once one of the noblest, most august institutions of education in America.  That changed when the Education Commissioner, David Steiner, worked with Bloomberg to get Black a waiver from certification–since she had no qualifications whatsoever.

Our once great granite rock of education had become a filthy loofah, used by politicians and billionaire scum to scrape their underlings clean of hypocrisy and criminality.  Even though Commissioner Steiner’s job is now in jeopardy, Governor Cuomo should make a bold, radical decision and fire the entire Board of Regents in one blow.  Only thus would we have anything close to our education department’s former glory.

The Neighborhood’s last words are for our new Chancellor, Dennis Walcott.  You’ve been involved in public education for a fair amount of your life.  We look forward to working with you for the education of our students.  Please take a look at our suggestions we gave to Cathie–just avoid the sarcastic remarks.

Those remarks aren’t meant for you–yet.  You’ve been warned.

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