How do we End Segregation in the Poorest Cities?

In a report released last month by the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University, researchers urged policymakers to make changes that would address the issue of diversity in early childhood education. The report cited research and studies that suggested a strong correlation between the demographic makeup of preschool classrooms and student achievement; specifically that student achievement tended to suffer in classrooms made up of predominantly low-income, minority students who entered below grade level. These achievement results were not mirrored, however, for low-income, minority students who entered preschool below grade level but were educated in diverse classrooms – such students were able to catch up to their grade-level peers more rapidly.

It is interesting to consider the implications this research may have for school practices of tracking, or academic ability grouping. For context, in a public middle school in New York City, sixth graders will enter on a variety of different reading levels – sometimes ranging all the way from first grade to eleventh grade. Many teachers will argue that teaching a student on a first grade reading level in the same class as one on an eleventh grade reading level is not only challenging, but impossible. These teachers will advocate for leveled cohorts, to concentrate students together who are of similar ability levels, thus making it easier to reach all levels in one lesson. Others will argue, however, (and the research at Teachers College seems to suggest) that mixing the ability levels together in one class will allow lower-skilled students to learn from their higher-skilled peers, thus allowing them to advance more quickly and effectively than they would without peer modeling. Even the National Education Association recognizes this as an ongoing debate.

What is probably even more difficult to correct for than educational philosophy, however, is geographical segregation in our nation’s most economically diverse cities. In New York City, the largest example, cost of living is determined by location – which usually means proximity to the city’s center and accessibility to public transportation. This means that the poorest families are relegated to the outskirts of the city – the neighborhoods that are farthest away from Manhattan. Think the Bronx, Bed Stuy, East New York, Far Rockaway, and the list goes on. Unfortunately, minority status tends to correlate with poverty, so these neighborhoods tend to be pretty homogeneous. So it should come as no surprise that when students attend their neighborhood schools in these areas, the classrooms tend not to be very diverse either.

So while New York City is supposed to be a great melting pot of cultures, many minority children grow up seeing only people who look like them. Ultimately, until we can create diverse neighborhoods, it is not possible to systematically address diversity in schools.




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Teachers Are Superheroes

As teacher appreciation week comes to an end, I hope that we have all taken some appropriate time to reflect on the role teachers have played in our lives. One week is truly not enough to appreciate all they do, but just a drop in the bucket compared to the appreciation they really deserve.

Teachers are the real unsung heroes of today’s society – the guiding light for our nation’s children, faithfully showing them the way toward opportunities for their futures. For those of you who have ever considered how easy and fun it must be to work with kids, have a day that ends at 3pm, and have school breaks and summers off, think again.

A teacher’s job is 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Teachers arrive to school early and stay late preparing lesson plans and grading homework, tests, lab reports, and papers. Elementary school teachers are responsible for five detailed lesson plans per day for a group of 25-30 students, while secondary teachers are usually responsible for 2-3 each day for sometimes upwards of 180 students. And if you’ve never had a stack of 180 papers to grade, you have no idea what you’re missing. Sometimes, the weekend isn’t enough time to get it all done, and teachers go into the next week with stacks of work looming over them.  And that’s just the academic part of their jobs.

Teachers also must serve as disciplinarians, mentors, and counselors for their students. They establish consistent systems of rules and consequences to motivate their students to work hard, and spend time outside the traditional school day working with kids who are struggling, communicating with their families, and creating individualized plans for students to help them to become more successful.

Outside of their work with their assigned students, teachers are often expected to take on additional responsibilities around the school such as coaching a sport, leading a department, designing an after school activity, conducting review sessions on weekends, and planning trips and events. All of these things are expected by parents when choosing which school to send their students to, and there is no other way to include them all without teachers taking on that additional work.

When summer finally arrives, most teachers have copious amounts of curriculum and planning work to prepare for the following school year, and in many cases they get asked to switch courses or grades an develop entirely new curricula. In some school districts and particularly in charter schools, the summer break tends to only be a couple of weeks before teachers are due back for summer training. Furthermore, those who are lucky enough to have a couple of months off from school usually find it necessary to take on additional work to supplement their low salaries. All the while people are telling them how lucky they are to have summer break and an easy schedule.

Teachers should hardly be described as lucky. They give their lives to educating children because they believe they are doing something good for the world, and WE are lucky that so many are willing to take on such important but thankless work.

So it is up to us, this week and always, to make sure our teachers past and present realize that we are grateful. Try reaching out to a teacher in your life today to say “thank you” — you may be the only person who has thanked them in awhile.


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Our Girls Deserve Better: Gender (In)Equity in 2015

As it is the year 2015, the quest for equal rights for men and women has sure come a long way since the women’s suffrage movement that led to the 19th Constitutional Amendment in 1920. Today, our great grandparents would marvel at how far we have come; many women are choosing to wait longer to have children because they are pursuing careers with greater frequency, more of them are pursuing college degrees and higher education, and women are earning higher wages than they ever have before. According to the Center for American Progress, women make up just half of the population but earn nearly 60% of all undergraduate degrees and 60% of all master’s degrees in the United States. They rival their male counterparts in many other measures of education and performance, and make up the majority (59%) of the educated entry-level work force.

However, these statistics don’t capture the full picture. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) reports that in 2013, women earned jut 78 cents for each dollar earned by their male counterparts; and the gender pay gap is worse for women of color. Additional statistics reveal that women are vastly underrepresented in certain areas – science and engineering (14%), Congress (18.5%) and government, and leadership positions across all professions.

At the same time, the American Psychological Association recently shared research on a well-documented trend – girls tend to outperform boys in school, in all subject areas. So if girls perform better in school and go on to earn more of the college degrees than men and even more of the master’s degrees, then why are they so underrepresented in leadership positions in every sector?

One explanation could be motherhood – many highly educated females probably leave the workforce before reaching the highest level in their companies to have children and stay home to care for them. This reason should be respected and celebrated, but cannot possibly account for the vast differences in numbers. For example, if women hold 60% of the master’s degrees, then it is a stark comparison to see that they make up only 14.6% of the executive officers in Fortune 500 companies, 15% of equity partners in the legal field, 9% of managers in IT companies, and so on.

This article in the Washington Post brought forth some interesting points of view on this topic that may shed some light on the discrepancies we are seeing. It turns out men have very different points of view on the characteristics (and possibly ambitions) they would like to see in their wives versus their daughters. When asked about the qualities they would like to see in their wives, men cited things like “sweet” and “attractive,” but for their daughters they used terms like “strong” and “independent.” No one is arguing that men inherently do not want women to be successful in the workplace, but perhaps perceptions like these are still ingrained in our society from a time when women served primarily as caretakers.

That said, the rising generation is our chance to start altering these societal pressures. In schools, we must echo the expectations of the fathers in that article – encouraging our girls to be strong, independent, and intelligent. Our job is to educate them about science, math, technology, and leadership in order to lay the foundation to create options for them in the future. Our girls should grow up thinking that anything is possible – and down the road, we should love and respect them whether they become full-time moms or CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. But we should be satisfied only when we live in a world where each of those options is equally possible for them.

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Lessons For Our Kids on Earth Day 2015

Today is Earth Day – designated as such because it marks the date signifying the beginning of the environmental movement in 1970. Since then, it has become a nationally recognized opportunity to engage in environmentally conscious activities like tree planting, energy conservation, political debates, fundraising, and countless other events designed to pay tribute to our planet.

Classrooms across the country today are likely commemorating this occasion with themed lessons to engage students in discussions about topics ranging from conservation of resources to overpopulation. And President Obama is celebrating with a visit to Florida’s Everglades to highlight some of the environmental destruction being caused as a result of climate change. Many have suggested that this public spectacle may not be a strong political move for the President given recent negative comments by Florida’s Republican governor Rick Scott regarding President Obama’s lack of commitment to the Everglades (after having previously declared a ban on the use of the phrase “climate change” by all state employees).

Many environmental issues – and particularly climate change – have been hotly debated among political parties, and as an environmental science teacher I constantly sought ways to introduce such topics to students in ways that allowed them to evaluate and draw conclusions for themselves. But there are at least a few lessons that transcend party lines that we can hope to impart on our children as we discuss controversial topics with them.

Do your research. With each contentious topic, there are misconceptions. Climate change is one example, where even prominent political figures are still in denial about the scientific evidence at hand, but there are countless others our kids will encounter throughout their lifetimes. So the key lesson for them here is to investigate everything to the best of their ability, and to never let one person’s opinion pass for evidence.

Keep an open mind. Sometimes, the information we think qualifies as evidence ends up being refuted by a body of information that is uncovered at a later time. And sometimes, there is enough evidence to support multiple theories of how an event of the past took place, and not enough evidence to actually prove one of them is correct. As scholars, our kids need to understand this and be open to hearing the ideas of others and genuinely taking them into consideration.

Don’t let anyone tell you that your beliefs aren’t important. In some cases, scientific evidence isn’t the only thing that matters when determining someone’s beliefs. It can certainly be confusing, for instance, when such evidence tends to refute an important religious belief that one has been taught to hold dear. It is important to remember that each person’s set of experiences is valuable, and that each of us is entitled to our own thoughts and opinions about the world, but to do this in tandem with keeping an open mind. Healthy debate is productive, but criticizing others for their beliefs is not.

Care for yourself, others, and our planet. No matter what your thoughts are on the science of climate change and the evidence that links it to human behavior, it would be remiss to deny that caring for our planet is important. The technology and innovations of the past several decades have fundamentally changed our relationship with our environment and its natural resources, and we need to understand that the way we handle them now will have profound implications for our future.

So as you consider today how to recognize the importance of Earth Day, remember the lessons above. None of them is topic specific, but all have the possibility of driving our children to a more critical understanding of how to approach the world. For no matter our environmental beliefs, we can all agree on the importance of preparing our kids for the future.

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Are We Over-Testing Our Kids?

Today, as thousands of students across NYC sit for the third day of the Common Core English Language Arts assessment, teachers are entering the time of the year when they get a chance to reflect and refine their practices. And many of them are saying loud and clear that we are over-testing our kids.

The teachers at P.S. 167 Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School – for example – published a bold commentary earlier this month detailing the increased number of tests students have been required to take, describing the measures they have taken to limit the number of tests for their kids, and encouraging parents to participate in the growing “opt out movement.”

The Brooklyn New School, a high-performing elementary school in Brooklyn, is one example where a large portion of the community has chosen to opt out of testing this year; many parents believe that the burden of six days of testing is not offset by the benefit of utilizing the test results to capture student progress. According to the New York Times, many of these parents actually called potential middle schools to ensure that opting out of the test would not limit their students’ chances of being accepted.

These parents are certainly not wrong that six days of testing can be grueling for elementary and middle school students; and to make matters worse, the tests have begun just one school day after returning from spring break – a combination that already sets students up to be tired and ill-prepared. Additionally, it is no lie that these six days of testing come on top of various other mandated tests as well as whatever testing days schools choose to include in their calendars as preparation throughout the year – in many cases amounting to more than 25 days of testing.

However, fueling this growing opposition to standardized testing now will not serve our students well in the long-term. By allowing them to opt-out of their 4th grade test, we are sending them a very clear message that testing (especially standardized) does not matter and isn’t important. And unfortunately that is just not true. Standardized testing will continue to be a part of our children’s lives long after they complete their grades 3-8 Common Core NY State tests. They will need to pass several rigorous Regents exams to graduate from high school, and perform well on the ACT or SAT to be accepted into college. Even after that, there will be more testing if they choose to pursue a graduate degree; and even more in some cases to utilize those degrees in practice.

So while standardized tests are time consuming, and may not always be an accurate snapshot of student growth and achievement, they are still the most commonly used metric of aptitude in our country at every academic level. So if what we really want is a more comprehensive way of measuring student success, boycotting the current measure certainly doesn’t achieve that. So perhaps we should put down the phones and protest signs and get to work creating it. And let’s leave the kids out of it for now – they need to stay focused on those tests!

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Columbia University Class Confessions: Not A Prank

The talk of the social media arena this week is the recent launch of Columbia University Class Confessions, an anonymous Facebook page created by the university’s First-Generation Low-Income Partnership (FLIP) as a space for first-generation and low-income students to discuss issues related to the socioeconomic disparities they experience as students at Columbia. The site claims to have modeled its page after similar pages at Stanford and the University of Chicago, and also includes a link to the newly inspired Brown University version. While this type of “confessions” page is not a new concept, this one in particular is receiving quite a bit of attention due to the very personal and intense nature of some of the posts as they relate to inequities; topics range from struggles to pay for food or find employment to depression, abuse, and homelessness.

The inception of FLIP is part of a growing trend of grassroots efforts at some of the nation’s most selective schools to recognize the challenges faced by first-generation and low-income students, and to create supportive outlets for those who experience them. In a recent “first-gen” dinner co-hosted by faculty members at Princeton University, students had the opportunity to share stories and make connections based on their experiences – some discussed their parents’ inability to visit them in college, while others talked about their feelings of being ill-prepared for such a rigorous institution. Some creative Princeton students have even worked to develop the Princeton Hidden Minority Council, aimed at creating a community for students who identify as first-generation or low-income in a place where they often feel like a “hidden” or overlooked minority.

This recent outpouring of commentary on the low-income and first-generation experience seems to have been inspired in part by the 1vyG conference, held at Brown University in March to connect hundreds of first-generation Ivy League students with the mission of creating communities of support and advocating for change. The organization claims to be aimed at “strengthening and empowering the first-generation college student network,” and the conference featured keynote addresses by Co-Founder of QuestBridge Anna McCullough and Executive Director of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative Eric Waldo.

According to the research published by 1vyG, nearly 50% of the college-going population is first-generation (the first in their family to attend college), and roughly 24% identify as both first-generation and low-income. This means that if our country hopes to operate a leading educational system that offers equitable access for students of all backgrounds, colleges and universities are going to have to drastically re-think the way they support this growing group of students. So while the “confessions” page may have started as an outlet for discussion of students’ struggles, it stands to rapidly become a platform for radical change.

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What Is A True 21st Century Education?

Education reform in the United States – and particularly the improvement of the U.S. education system as it compares to those of other countries – has been a priority in our country for decades. On the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), American students posted average results – falling behind ten competing cities and countries in all three areas of Math, Reading, and Science. Educators and politicians alike will agree that average results will not prepare our kids for 21st century jobs and will not support a competitive position for the United States in the current economy.

So what will? Reform efforts over the past few decades have tried some marginally new strategies with steady but slow results. The inception of Teach for America (TFA) paved the way for alternative certification programs as pathways to attract new teachers to classrooms in large numbers; and similar, but localized, programs have appeared in many major urban regions. TFA continues to expand to new areas, particularly rural ones, despite a drop in application numbers this year. And although some folks get fired up about the two-year commitment contributing to the problem of teacher turnover, TFA undeniably sends thousands of teachers into classrooms each year who would not have been there otherwise, making it difficult to deny the impact of such a major pipeline.

In addition to (or perhaps in conjunction with) the efforts of Teach for America and other similar programs to increase the number of teachers entering the profession, the arrival of charter schools into the educational landscape has opened the doors for experimentation at the individual school level. Thought to be originally conceived by Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, charter schools were intended to serve as educational laboratories where expert teachers could experiment with proven techniques that could then be translated to large-scale success in other schools. However, part of the deal for a charter school to receive such freedom is that it comes with increased accountability for student outcomes; and not all charters have been holding up their end of the bargain.

Some of our international counterparts think that reform efforts may need to be a bit more drastic if we want to see transformational results for kids. In Finland, for instance, schools will be altogether doing away with individual subjects by the year 2020. On the surface this approach may seem radical, but a closer look reveals that thoughtful integration of subject matter as it relates to the real world may truly be modern in its design and push our students to the type of critical thinking we are always seeking to achieve.

As reformers in Finland see it, subjects are not mastered separately, and jobs don’t require workers to perform solitary tasks in the same way they did decades ago. Instead, our students need to be prepared to understand the relationships between several fields of study at once – for instance, a European Union class in Finland may cover topics in the disciplines of geography, history, economics, and language. This type of approach is usually seen in individual projects or collaborations, but will now be an entirely new way of thinking about school curriculum.

So as the United States considers the international competition our students will continue to face for jobs and opportunities, perhaps we should also consider what it would be like to do away with the Mathematics and Geography textbooks in favor of an interdisciplinary approach. It may actually be the closest thing we’ve seen yet to a true 21st century education.


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