Wednesday, June 15, 2005


Most of what this article has to say could be boiled down to two words. I have highlighted them. You need to be able to read before you can do anything else.

In September, Guy Tantillo stood before his fifth-grade class at Public School 45 in South Ozone Park, Queens, and warned his students that they were about to begin a school year like no other. "Fourth grade was very difficult, but fifth grade is going to be the biggest challenge in your lives," he told Class 5-212. "What got you through fourth grade is not going to get you through fifth grade." As he recalled that ominous pep talk last week, Mr. Tantillo and the giddy students swirling around him in the schoolyard had every reason to bask in the spring sunshine. At P.S. 45, the number of fifth graders at or above grade level in reading nearly doubled from last year, and it more than doubled in math.

Citywide, the gains on this year's standardized reading and math tests were so outsized - particularly among fifth graders, who improved 19.5 percentage points in reading and 15.2 percentage points in math - that they left some education experts, not to mention Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's political opponents, skeptical. That skepticism was only reinforced by opinion polls and teacher surveys in recent months that found relatively little optimism among parents and educators for Mr. Bloomberg's effort to fix the schools, which they said had mostly caused upheaval. But in interviews at P.S. 45 and other schools across the city with large increases in test scores, principals, parents, superintendents, teachers and students offered this most basic explanation: They worked hard.

Even at these schools, educators and parents said the changes of the past three years had been tumultuous. But they also said the efforts had begun to pay off. Principals and teachers described a relentless focus on literacy and math and a ceaseless scrutinizing of tests, quizzes and writing samples to understand which skills the students had mastered and which lessons had somehow fallen short. Educators also said that the intense pressure, which began just before the start of school with Mayor Bloomberg's announcement that his get-tough promotion rules would be extended to fifth graders, had been felt not just by the students, but throughout the school system and by parents.

At P.S. 45, fifth graders were offered an after-school program, classes on Saturdays and classes during vacations. Teachers sent home monthly progress reports listing test results and detailed assessments of class work and homework, including book reports and other writing assignments. To push every class to keep pace with the citywide reading curriculum, the regional superintendent's office sent P.S. 45 and other schools a detailed calendar, specifying a literary genre to focus on each month, like autobiography or mystery, and weekly skills like making inferences.

The principal and assistant principals met at least weekly with teachers to go over student work and trial tests, and to select specialized programs for them, like intensive phonics. A detailed portfolio was kept on each child and two veteran teachers were designated as intervention specialists who moved from class to class to work one on one with struggling students. A school official telephoned parents regularly to keep attendance high, and the school ran workshops to train parents on how to help their children.

Most important, said the principal, Evelyn Terrell, smaller classes, of 18 to 22 children, allowed for more personal instruction. In previous years, fifth-grade classes had had 30 or more students. From school to school, principals and other officials did not agree on any one primary reason for the gains. In part, the sharp increases reflect the way the tests are presented. The results focus on whether students are above or below grade level rather than on their underlying scores. In recent years, thousands of students had scored just below grade level, and this year many of them finally cleared the line.

But even with this year's unprecedented increases, only half the city's students were proficient in reading and math. In Grades 3 to 8, 51.8 percent performed at or above grade level in reading this year - demonstrating how far Mr. Bloomberg still has to go in his effort to fix the schools.


Lessons from the voucher schools

How is Milwaukee's experiment to expand school choice for low-income students faring 15 years later?

Now 15 years old, Milwaukee's school choice program is very much like a teenager - heartwarmingly good at times, disturbingly bad at others, and the subject of myths, misunderstandings and ignorance, even by the adults entrusted with its welfare. And like a teenager, it remains - for all its familiarity - a bit of a mystery. Few people, even state officials, know what is going on inside all 115 schools in the program. Over the last five months, the Journal Sentinel attempted to visit each school and find out. In visits to 106 schools, the newspaper focused not on politics and court battles, but on the classrooms themselves - the experiences of the nearly 14,000 students now served by choice schools at a cost this year to taxpayers of $83 million.

Fifteen years ago, state government created in Milwaukee the biggest lab in the United States for one of the nation's most provocative education ideas: giving low-income parents the chance to send their children to private schools using "vouchers" to pay school costs. Eight years later, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program expanded dramatically, and religious schools of every kind were made available to those parents. Those visits, along with dozens of interviews with parents, students, teachers, principals, administrators and academics, revealed that many of the popular conceptions and politically motivated depictions of the program are incomplete and, in some cases, flat-out wrong. The Journal Sentinel found that:

* The voucher schools feel, and look, surprisingly like schools in the Milwaukee Public Schools district. Both MPS and the voucher schools are struggling in the same battle to educate low-income, minority students. [i.e. you can't make Asians out of blacks]

* About 10% of the choice schools demonstrate alarming deficiencies. The collapse of four schools and the state's limited ability to take action against others have led to some agreement on the need for increased oversight to help shut down bad schools. [Are we going to shut down bad public schools too?]

* The voucher program has brought some fresh energy to the mission of educating low-income youth in the city by fostering and financially supporting several very strong schools that might not exist otherwise. There are at least as many excellent schools as alarming ones.

* The amount of taxpayer money going to pay for religious education in Milwaukee has no parallel in the last century of American life. About 70% of the students in the program attend religious schools. Religion guides the choices that parents make, and the curriculum that a majority of schools choose, and has led to a network of dozens of independent church schools led by African-American ministers throughout the city. [But I guess Christianity is OK if it is African]

* The choice program regenerated parochial schools in the city, including dozens of Catholic and Lutheran schools, which were experiencing declining enrollment. Overall, it has preserved the status quo in terms of schooling options in the city more than it has offered a range of new, innovative or distinctive schools. [Given the constant attacks on Christianity, it is good that there has been some countervailing influence]

* Parental choice by itself does not assure quality. Some parents pick bad schools - and keep their children in them long after it is clear the schools are failing. This has allowed some of the weakest schools in the program to remain in business. [Ditto for government schools?]

* There is no evidence that voucher schools have "creamed" the best students from Milwaukee Public Schools, an early concern expressed by some critics. Except for the fact that the public schools are obligated to serve all special education students, the kids in the voucher program appear have the same backgrounds - and bring the same problems - as those in the public schools.

* Creating a new school through the choice program is easier than most people expected. Creating a good new school is harder than most thought it would be......

Even major advocates for the program say they did not realize 15 years ago how hard it was to start good schools from scratch. Consider CEO Leadership Academy, a high school finishing its first year. It has strong support from an influential group of ministers. The school has been given expert advice on how to create both educational and business operations; it benefited from financial boosts to get started; and it is housed in a beautiful new wing of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, 2433 W. Roosevelt Drive.

But Denise Pitchford, a former assistant principal in Milwaukee Public Schools who heads the school, says the first year has been a struggle. Many of the school's 60-plus students came to the school years behind in their basic abilities. Catching up became the top priority.

Instead of diving into project-based learning as they had hoped, teachers had to return to the basics. In one English class this last winter, 15 students tried to label different types of sentences as declarative, interrogative, or exclamatory. In a religion class, the teacher reviewed the story of Adam and Eve. Although the academics started slowly, attendance has been strong, at about 96%. "We see sparks," Pitchford sad. "We see kids actually want to be here.".....

Interviews with dozens of parents made it apparent that families pick schools in idiosyncratic, unexpected and misunderstood ways. Above all else, parents appear to be looking for a feeling of community and safety. They might trade off trained teachers for small class sizes. Or geographic proximity for a feeling of intimacy. Or overall academic success for a school their child likes. Some seek a smaller school after struggling against what they perceive as an impersonal bureaucracy at Milwaukee Public Schools. They might desire education in a particular religious community, or simply among people they feel comfortable around.

Nicole Franklin, a parent and teacher at Blyden Delany Academy, an Afrocentric school, said, "When there's a 'situation' it's like a big family here. It really feels good working with people who feel comfortable with you, who are coming from your world."

Often, the families - and some of the school founders themselves - appeared to be motivated more by a dissatisfaction and personal frustration with MPS than anything else. Indeed, the students at the vast majority of these schools are not high achievers from the public schools. Early critics of the program charged that the schools would "cream" the best and brightest from MPS. While a very small number of schools in the choice program draw more motivated students, and choice schools are not obligated to serve special-education students, many of the schools serve large numbers of at-risk students or even specialize in students who have struggled in MPS.....

If any single factor distinguishes the families and parents at the choice schools from those in MPS, it is religion. Students in the choice program pray together in class. They read the Bible, the Qur'an or the Torah. They attend Mass. Most schools report that even students from families outside of their faith accept - and seek out - religion as part of education. "I wanted (my granddaughter) to get a Catholic education," said Dolores Cooper, a Baptist whose granddaughter, also named Dolores, attends Messmer High School. "It teaches values."

At Dr. Brenda Noach Choice School, middle school students recently were watching Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Pastor Charles Ewing, who runs the school's daily operations, explained afterward that the school, and its curriculum, are centered on God.

On one recent Friday afternoon at Salam School, a Muslim school on the city's south side, the students gathered for a schoolwide prayer service. The girls all wore light-blue scarves covering their heads; rows of sneakers lined the walls of the room. Kneeling on carpets spread across the gym floor, the children listened as an imam prayed: "Allah make us better Muslims; Allah make us proud Muslims."

Not only has choice fostered religious start-ups like Ewing's school, it has preserved many of the existing religious schools in the city. Some, such as Messmer High School, where Dolores Cooper's granddaughter attends, have embraced a new mission, educating a largely non-Catholic student body in a Catholic tradition. Others are uncertain whether they will try to retain their identity as parish schools, serving predominantly Catholic pupils, or stake out a new role.

To Kenneth Marton, the principal of Christ Memorial Lutheran school, choice means one thing above all else: "We can continue our mission to bring Jesus Christ, evangelize, work with the students.".....

The biggest impact of choice may be intangible. It opened the door for the spread of other forms of school choice, including charter schools, which have taken innovative paths and have been growing rapidly in enrollment. The voucher movement elicited soul-searching among educators as to the definition, and nature, of a public school.....

More here


For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"

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