August 31, 2009

Heterogeneity vs Tracking - Is the pendulum swinging back?

On Sunday Aug. 30th, the New York Daily News published as its lead Op-Ed piece a "critique" of heterogeneous class and a call for a return to tracking of students. In this article Anna Penny, a teacher for all of 3-and-a-half years decries her inability to motivate students in a 12th grade Literature elective. What is the cause? Could it be a society that does not value reading? Could it be class sizes of 30-34 students? Could it be a system that throws new teachers into a class with little or no support?(her principal taught for all of 2-1/2 years before getting his job through the "mis"-Leadership Academy) NO! It is the fact that she had a heterogeneous group of students with a wide range of reading skills.

It is not that I am not sympathetic to Ms. Penny's ordeal. I have taught Chemistry and Physics to heterogeneous groups of students for many years. Believe me, I KNOW what it is like to have students who are ill-prepared and unmotivated. The thing is, there is a history to heterogeneous grouping that is very important to remember. The tracking systems that were being used in the past were inherently racist. Statistics showed that many more black and latino students were being kept out of college-prep and honors tracks than white students. The placement of student was based on the whim of teachers, guidance counselors and administrators or the results of tests that were culturally biased.

I remember my elementary school P.S. 165 in Manhattan. All of the classes were numbered: 5-1, 5-2, 5-3 etc. Everyone knew who the "smart" class was. And guess which class got the extras, like trips or the most experienced and motivated teachers- It wasn't 5-10. So for many years progressive educators, students and families fought to bring and end to tracking. We fought to allow all students the opportunity to take courses that would prepare and allow them to go to college. We fought for heterogeneous classes.

Are heterogeneous classes a panacea? No. They are more work for teachers. It is always easier to teach a more homogeneous group of students especially if they are motivated. But we should not stop heterogeneity because it is hard. We need to fight for ways to make us more effective teachers. We have to fight for the resources that our students really need. So if you have a 12th grade student with a 2nd grade reading level in an elective lit. class (as Ms. Penny claims) the struggle should be for the literacy support that this student obviously needs. Did her school have a pullout literacy program? If not, why not? Was this a full class of 34 students? Why aren't more teachers, parents and students fighting for smaller classes so that we can give all of our students the attention they deserve. For too long we have accepted it when the UFT leadership says that we can't negotiate for smaller classes in the contract. OF COURSE WE CAN! We just can't use it as trade-off to get higher wages.

I'll end with some questions that I hope you respond to.
Why did the NY Daily News give such primo space to this article?
How does this tie in with Obama's "Race to the Top" call for more testing and an end to tenure?
How do we motivate students, parents and teachers to get involved in these struggles?

August 24, 2009

Real, uncensored effect of BloomKlein budget cuts

I teach at new high school. Last year we had 112 students and a budget of $1.2 million. This comes to just over $10,400/student. Our student body is 100% English Language Learners and 100% Title 1 (an indicator of poverty level) although we did not get any Title 1 money last year because we were a new school.

This year we will double our student register to 225, still all ELL and all Title 1. Our budget for this year - $1.6 million including the addition of Title 1 money. This comes to just over $7111/student. This is a cut of 32%!

$7111 per student. The next time you see that campaign ad for Bloomberg that claims he has done great things for education in NYC think of this - our school, with 100%high need students, will get 32% less money than last year. We will get approximately half of what schools in places like Scarsdale NY get. Half the money! Yet, in three years our graduates will have to compete with those from places like Scarsdale for college entry. This is the definition of de facto racism.

It is not hyperbole to say that these budget cuts are racist and anti-working class. They will affect black, latino and poor whites disproportionately. Schools serving these students are already struggling behind those in middle-class or rich areas. Our students need more services. Their families can't afford private tutors or "college admissions coaches".

Top universities get to say that they are not racist, it's just that there are not enough qualified black, latino and poor white applicants. As if all students start from a level playing field. That is the real danger of this kind of racism. No one stands up and talks about "those people". Everyone gets to look like they are only concerned about "merit". And blame gets put on the victims - they're just not good enough. This is the racism that too many people close their eyes to because it is easy to ignore.

August 22, 2009

Why we need healthcare reform

I am not going to give you all of the statistics or generalities that fly around the Internet. I want to deal with this from the personal. As someone once said "the personal is political."

Seven months ago today my mom had a stroke. What happened to her illustrates some of the best and most of the worst in how this system treats patients - and my mom had what is considered a good insurance with Medicare and her union supplement.

When she suffered the stroke she was taken to one of the best stoke centers in the Northeast. She received very good treatment initially and through her stay in ICU at the hospital following surgery. However, onece she left the ICU and began to need extras (like therapy) the hospital moved quickly to discharge her to a rehab center - sending her out with an active MRSA infection.

At the rehab center, again considered one of the best in the Northeast, the doctors and nurses did not want to deal with a patient who was sick. They ignored her symptoms for 48 hours until she went into congestive heart failure. She was taken to a local hospital, almost died and again entered an ICU. Once again she received very good emergency care, but when she began to need "extras" that the hospital could not bill medicare for it was time to send her back to the rehab center.

Once again she was not really ready for rehab, and still more work that the doctors and nurses really wanted to deal with. Another "crisis" happened and mom was sent back to the hospital. Three more weeks in the hospital and on to a second rehab center/nursing home. Here she finally started therapy, but the home was so short staffed that inside of three weeks she BACK in the hospital due to DEHYDRATION!

One week later and it was on to rehab center/nursing home 3. Here she has received excellent therapeutic care, although the nursing staff is over worked (a 25:1 ratio on the sub-acute floor) and her doctor has missed at least one near decent back towards congestive heart failure.

All of this is with a health insurance policy that is considered on the best short of having several million dollars to pay for all of this out pocket. Health insurance does not work in this country. As long as it is profit based hospitals and nursing homes will push patients out before they are well. They will cut staffs in areas that not money generating.

The only way to guarantee health care for all under this capitalist system is with a single payer plan. Anything else will perpetuate "for-profit" health care. In the U.S. that means profits before patients.

Who am I and why am I doing this?

The first part of this question is easy. I am a science teacher in a public high school in the Bronx. I am a truly native New Yorker and a product of the NYC public school system. I am also someone who has been active in progressive/left politics for as long as I can remember (the term used to be "red diaper baby").

The second part is harder. What do I have to add to the vast noise in the bloggesphere? I don't know, but my voice is not there now. The funny thing is the final impetus for me was watching "Julie and Julia". I mean if people can be moved by someone cooking all of Julia Childs recipes in one year then I should be able to reach some people out there.

I will write about what I observe in my life, cause isn't that what this is really all about. I promise NOT to write about my current school, administration, co-workers or students because I really don't want to piss off people I have to work with every day. I also will not write about my wife or our relationship. So if it is personal dirt you want go to TMZ or some other gossip site.