Friday, June 11, 2010

Kids Deserve Balance in the Classroom

We as parents have a lot on our minds these days. Too many of us are out of work and struggling to pay the bills. While trying to pay our mortgage and prepare for retirement, we are also trying to save to help our kids go to college. Of course, we are also concerned about the quality of our children's schools, though few have the time to follow closely what goes on in those classrooms each day.

As a father of six—five of whom still attend Attica, Indiana public schools—I know first-hand the difficulty of keeping up with all the responsibilities that parents face. Yet I also know how important it is to remain engaged in our children's schools to make sure that they get the education they need and deserve.

It has been more than a month since Earth Day, and most of our children are finishing their studies for the year. One area that I would encourage all parents to pay extra attention to is what's happening at your school regarding climate change education. Ideally, it is supposed to encourage students to consider the importance of preserving our natural resources. Unfortunately, too often it's used as a platform to push a misleading, ideological brand of environmentalism.

I’m a Ph.D. scientist and work as a Field Research Scientist for a global crop protection company, so I have a special interest in how my kids are taught the subject. To me, teaching science properly means presenting all sides of scientific theories and helping kids develop their own critical thinking skills. Regrettably, it seems that too many in our public education system see their role differently.

I first became concerned about how my children's school was teaching global warming last year when a group of teachers orchestrated a school-wide showing of An Inconvenient Truth during class in celebration of Earth Day. I was alarmed that parents weren't even able to pull their kids from this assignment (fortunately, with some work, I eventually got that policy changed). This was also at least the third time An Inconvenient Truth was shown at our school. Surely teachers could find a better use of our children's valuable learning time.

The problem isn't just that the school shows An Inconvenient Truth, a movie found by a judge to be riddled with serious scientific errors and which grossly exaggerates the potential damage of man-made global warming. It also fails to provide any counterweight to this environmentalist propaganda.

Schools do have options. For more than a year now, I've been trying to get another film, Not Evil, Just Wrong, shown in our school to provide some balance. Not Evil, Just Wrong thoroughly reviews the flawed science of global warming, specifically addressing the many errors and gross exaggerations in An Inconvenient Truth. Our children deserve to hear this information so they don't believe that there's only one truth about this important issue.

Unfortunately, getting balance into my children's school has been an uphill battle. I’ve spoken to teachers, the principal, the superintendent and the school board. I’ve loaned copies of the film so teachers could see it and make an informed decision. Yet only two teachers in the whole school bothered to view the film, and none of them would show it. I made my case publicly during the open session of a school board meeting. The only result was that a group of teachers publicly complained to the board for giving me a hearing.

Most recently, the superintendent declared Not Evil, Just Wrong isn’t suitable because it lacks the endorsement of the National Earth Day Foundation. You can see what I’m up against. This isn’t just ignorance of the science behind climate change, this is an ideological position.

I will continue to fight for our students to be taught rather than indoctrinated. I haven't been able to change the curriculum so far, but I have succeeded in raising awareness of the problem. I would urge other parent to do the same. Ask questions about how global warming is being presented in your school. Find out if movies like An Inconvenient Truth are being used on Earth Day or as pillars of the science curriculum. Make sure that your kids are hearing the other side of the story. We should encourage our schools and teachers to address this imbalance during the summer break.

I realize many of us are busy, but our children's education starts at home. You shouldn't trust that your local school is providing the balanced education your children deserve.


Storming the School Barricades

A new documentary by a 27-year-old filmmaker could change the national debate about public education

'What's funny," says Madeleine Sackler, "is that I'm not really a political person." Yet the petite 27-year-old is the force behind "The Lottery"—an explosive new documentary about the battle over the future of public education opening nationwide this Tuesday.

In the spring of 2008, Ms. Sackler, then a freelance film editor, caught a segment on the local news about New York's biggest lottery. It wasn't the Powerball. It was a chance for 475 lucky kids to get into one of the city's best charter schools (publicly funded schools that aren't subject to union rules).

"I was blown away by the number of parents that were there," Ms. Sackler tells me over coffee on Manhattan's Upper West Side, recalling the thousands of people packed into the Harlem Armory that day for the drawing. "I wanted to know why so many parents were entering their kids into the lottery and what it would mean for them." And so Ms. Sackler did what any aspiring filmmaker would do: She grabbed her camera.

Her initial aim was simple. "Going into the film I was excited just to tell a story," she says. "A vérité film, a really beautiful, independent story about four families that you wouldn't know otherwise" in the months leading up to the lottery for the Harlem Success Academy.

But on the way to making the film she imagined, she "stumbled on this political mayhem—really like a turf war about the future of public education." Or more accurately, she happened upon a raucous protest outside of a failing public school in which Harlem Success, already filled to capacity, had requested space.

"We drove by that protest," Ms. Sackler recalls. "We were on our way to another interview and we jumped out of the van and started filming." There she discovered that the majority of those protesting the proliferation of charter schools were not even from the neighborhood. They'd come from the Bronx and Queens.

"They all said 'We're not allowed to talk to you. We're just here to support the parents.'" But there were only two parents there, says Ms. Sackler, and both were members of Acorn. And so, "after not a lot of digging," she discovered that the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) had paid Acorn, the controversial community organizing group, "half a million dollars for the year." (It cost less to make the film.)

Finding out that the teachers union had hired a rent-a-mob to protest on its behalf was "the turn for us in the process." That story—of self-interested adults trying to deny poor parents choice for their children—provided an answer to Ms. Sackler's fundamental question: "If there are these high-performing schools that are closing the achievement gap, why aren't there more of them?"

The reason is what Eva Moskowitz, founder of the Harlem Success Academy network and a key character in the film, calls the "union-political-educational complex." That's a fancy term for the web of unions and politicians who defend the status quo in order to protect their jobs.

In the course of making "The Lottery," Ms. Sackler got to know the nature of that coalition intimately. "On day one, of course, I was very interested in all sides. I was in no way affiliated." From the beginning, she requested meetings with then UFT President Randi Weingarten, or anyone representing the union position. They refused. Harlem's public schools weren't much more accessible. "It was easier to film in a maximum security prison"—something Ms. Sackler did to interview a parent—"than it was to film in a traditional public school."

Viewers still get a sense of the union's position, but it comes from the mouths of some unsavory New York pols. Take, for example, a scene from the film featuring a City Council hearing on charter school expansion. "The UFT was exposed at this particular City Council hearing," she says, "because they were caught giving out scripted cue cards with specific questions for City Council members to ask charter representatives in the city." Unlike many of the politicians, who came and went from the chamber during the seven-hour hearing, Ms. Sackler remained. And she watched as the scripted questions were repeated and repeated and repeated.

"It was just a colossal waste of time," she says. "And it was incredibly frustrating as a citizen to be sitting there. Out of all the things they could be talking about—like the fact . . . that at the majority of schools in Harlem kids aren't passing the state exams—instead of talking about this stuff, they were cycling through those questions."'

Evasion is one tactic. So is propagating myths about Harlem Success—that it only succeeds because it has smaller class sizes; or that its children's test scores are so high because it gets more money. The truth is that the school gets superior results with the same or slightly bigger class sizes and less state money per pupil. In 2009, 95% of third-graders at Harlem Success passed the state's English Language Arts exam. Only 51% of third graders in P.S. 149, the traditional public school that shares the same building, did. That same year, Harlem Success was No. 1 in math out of 3,500 public schools in New York State.

The unions and the politicians also play on Harlemites' fears by alleging that charters divide the community and are a "tool for gentrification." This canard only holds up if you think uniforms and longer school days are a sign of cultural imperialism.

In a particularly cringe-inducing exchange captured on film, Councilwoman Maria Del Carmen Arroyo of the Bronx accuses Ms. Moskowitz of lying when the charter school leader talks about being a parent in Harlem (the neighborhood where she grew up, where she attended public school, and where she is raising her children, who attend the charter). The subtext, of course, is that Ms. Moskowitz is white and well-off.

This is par for the course, Ms. Sackler tells me. Harlem Success Academy is "protested more than any other charter school in this city—and there are some bad charter schools. So you would wonder why that would be."

Those wondering why need look no further than 2002, the year that Ms. Moskowitz, then a Democratic City Council member, became chair of the city's education committee. "She held a lot of hearings on the union contract—and the custodian contract, and the principal contract," says Ms. Sackler. New Yorkers learned that the teachers' contract is hundreds of pages long and littered with rules mandating every detail of how teachers will spend their workday.

The union was not pleased. So when Evil Moskowitz, as she was dubbed, ran for Manhattan borough president in 2005, the UFT campaigned hard for her opponent, Scott Stringer, who won.

Ms. Moskowitz, who confirmed in an interview that she has mayoral aspirations, was surely disappointed by the defeat. But her loss was Harlemites' gain. As one mother says of Ms. Moskowitz at a town hall meeting in Harlem, "She's our Obama. She brought change to our kids, okay?"

Some parents in the film do not know what exactly a charter school is. And the truth, as the film implicitly points out, is that such technical designations don't much matter. What these parents know is that they desperately want their children to have the best possible education, and to have opportunities that they themselves could only imagine. Winning a spot in Harlem Success Academy—or another high-performing school—is critical to reaching that goal.

"Going into it one of the goals was to expose one myth . . . which is that some parents don't care," says Ms. Sackler. "The reason for telling the parents' stories is that I never thought that was true."

In "The Lottery," we are introduced to Eric Roachford, who, like his father, works as a bus driver. As an MTA employee, Mr. Roachford is a "union man, but at the same time, we want our child to learn." He believes that going to college "is the difference between a job and a career." That's why his wife, Shawna, has taken time off to home school their two young sons.

Nadiyah Horne, a single mother who is also deaf, is raising 5-year-old Ammenah. "If others don't like this school, I don't care," she says, using sign language. "I want my child to get the best education." So does Emil Yoanson, who is raising his son Christian alone, and who prays to God that his name will be drawn.

"Being a single mom is very, very hard" says Laurie Brown-Goodwine, who has applied to several charters for her son, Gregory Jr. Her husband is serving 25 years to life in prison for a third-strike felony.

These are parents who don't have the means to move to a richer neighborhood with better public schools, so instead they have to rely on luck. When demand for a charter school exceeds supply, the random drawing is required by law. Some schools inform parents by mail, but Harlem Success holds a public lottery. "Harlem Success is very explicit about why they do it," Ms. Sackler says. They want to show demand. "I've heard them say to parents 'We hope that you'll come and show that this is something that you want. Because if you don't, we're not going to get more schools.'"

In the film, Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker says he can't go to lotteries anymore because they break his heart. "A child's destiny should not be determined on the pull of a draw." Nothing drives home this point more than seeing the parents and kids, perched at the edge of their chairs, hoping their names flash on the big screen.

Critics of "The Lottery" will probably contend that the absence of anti-charter voices hurts its credibility. But the scene Thursday night at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater, where the film was screened, underscored the film's fundamental point about parents' apolitical dedication to educating their kids. After the documentary played, the film's parents took to the stage to answer questions from the theater's packed audience. Their message: Research options early and ignore labels—all that matters is the school's results. It's the same message, the parents said, that they now regularly share in neighborhood grocery markets and libraries.

Harlem Success, meanwhile, is trying to keep pace with parents' demand. Right now the network has four schools, but in 10 years it hopes to operate 40, with some 20,000 kids enrolled. Even then, there would be more work ahead: This year, some 40,000 New York kids will end up on charter school waiting lists.

"The public education system is at a crossroads," Ms. Sackler says. "Do we want to go back to the time when children are forced to attend their district school no matter how underperforming it is? Or do we want to let parents choose what's best for their kids and provide a lot of options? Sometimes those options might fail. But . . . I don't see how you could choose to settle for what we've been doing for half a century when it's been systemically screwing over the same kids—over and over and over."


What many British "comprehensive" schools produce

The frightening day a woman stood up to thugs in school uniform... while their teacher sat and did nothing

For most of the day, the number 70 bus trundles peacefully through some of the nicest parts of London - from leafy, suburban Ealing, via the million-pound houses of Notting Hill to the elegant stucco terraces of Kensington.

Yesterday, on a sunny, peaceful afternoon, I sat quietly reading a newspaper on this bus, with a variety of ordinary, mostly middle-aged people like me.

Then the doors opened - and all Hell broke loose. A tidal wave of children, fresh out of their local comprehensive, poured onto the bus, jostling and fighting, deliberately pushing passengers aside, pressing the emergency alarms and screaming obscenities.

Girls lolled against doors, chewing gum and swearing loudly. Two of the 'children' - the ringleaders, who looked about 25 but were probably 16 - were as tall as adult men, with dreadlocks, incipient beards and trousers worn to show their underpants topped with an approximation of school uniform.

They swore loudly, especially at the driver when he had the temerity to ask them to stop pressing the alarm, and stared challengingly around the bus, daring any of us to stare back.

We all looked away. A gentle-faced Muslim woman in a headscarf shrank back against the side of the bus, flinching at the vile language.

In front of me sat two small, bespectacled boys wearing neat versions of the same school uniform. They had got on at the previous stop, presumably to avoid sharing a bus stop with this rabble. They stared fixedly at the floor.

I realised, with a sense of shock, that we were all - old and young, male and female - scared stiff of a bunch of kids.

And how they revelled in it. Dripping with a terrifying self-confidence (all those lessons spent raising self-esteem as opposed to teaching, say, history had clearly paid off) and steeped in the toxic culture of 'respect' and entitlement, these kids knew they were the untouchables.

'This is so stressful,' I whispered to the middle-aged Asian man next to me. 'Yes, it is,' one of the small boys said. 'And it is like this every single day.'

A boy, aged about 13, plonked himself down beside the two small boys. They didn't say a word. Then suddenly one of the ringleaders approached this lad - who was also wearing the uniform - and started slapping him around the head. The boy, confused, put out his hand to stay the blows.

The older boy glared at him. 'Are you touchin' me? Are you disrespecting me? Take your hands off me or I will do something to you,' he hissed.

I felt my heart rate soar. The boy removed his hand quickly, only for the blows to start again. 'Please stop, I don't like it,' he pleaded. 'What are you going to do about it? Are you threatening me?' was the retort.

I turned to the man next to me and said: 'This is awful.' He nodded.

Then things stepped up. The boy who had been hit got up to get off the bus. 'You ain't going nowhere until I say so,' said his tormentor, blocking his way, as the other kids cackled with pleasure at this psychological terrorism. The doors closed.

The same happened at the next stop. Then something in me snapped. I felt sick and angry at myself for being frightened of these yobs. I imagined my own son being bullied and nobody daring to intervene and my mothering instinct took over.

I stood up, rang the bell so the driver would open the doors, looked the boy-as-big-as-a-man in the eye and said, calmly: 'Let him get off the bus now.' He was astounded. Clearly, being spoken to by an adult like this was a new experience.

'Why is you interfering?' he demanded. 'What's it got to do with you? I'm teachin' him a lesson.'

'This is unacceptable,' I said, adrenaline coursing through me. 'It is bullying. I want you to let him off the bus now.'

In the stand-off, the younger boy slipped under his tormentor's arm and scuttled off the bus. The older boy said to me: 'F***ing mind your own business.'

My hands were dripping with sweat. And yet he looked deflated. I sat back down, my heart racing and asked a child what school they went to. He told me.

'What you tellin' her for?' the ringleader demanded. Then, rightly surmising that I planned to complain, he sneered: 'I don't care. I'll tell you the head's name if you like.' Clearly, he was familiar with her office, but, equally clearly, she held no terrors for him.

Eventually, the bus disgorged its yobbish cargo and it was quiet again. A well-dressed woman in her 30s sighed: 'I have to travel on this bus regularly and it happens every time.' 'I can't believe I was the only person to say anything,' I exclaimed.

'I tried once,' she replied. 'With a man who was probably in his 70s and we asked them to stop swearing. They punched him.

'I asked the driver to throw them off the bus, but apparently he's not allowed to do that because they are "just children" and he doesn't call the police because they won't do anything because they are "just children".'

I felt shocked. No wonder these kids felt entitled to do anything they liked. They could do anything they liked.

But there was to be a further shock. I heard one of the well-behaved children address a fellow passenger as 'miss'. A teacher? I stared at her in disbelief. 'Do you know these kids?' I asked. 'Yes, I work at the school,' she said. 'But you didn't do anything,' I stuttered.

I thought of my Seventies and Eighties schooldays and the vigorous response of my old teachers to bad behaviour and quailed at the thought.

But the teacher was unrepentant. 'I will deal with it professionally in the school,' she replied.

To which I said: 'But that doesn't help the kids who are being bullied and the passengers who are being pushed around. Why are you scared to speak to your own pupils?'

She looked huffy and defensive. 'I'm not scared, but it's not professional. I will deal with it professionally tomorrow,' she repeated.

Now, I'm honestly not a teacher basher. I adore my own children's kind and committed teachers at their London state primary school. I certainly don't envy anyone who has to try to teach Shakespeare to quasi-adult thugs like these. It must be the toughest job in the world.

But it cannot make that job any easier if your pupils know you are too craven to ask them to stop bullying each other or intimidating members of the public while they are in school uniform. How can you expect to command the kids' respect in the classroom if they see you sitting silent outside it?

Of course, the teachers aren't to blame. The blame must lie with lazy parents, a culture that venerates foul-mouthed oiks, a music business that promotes the concept of unearned 'respect' in violent lyrics and videos, and adults who are too scared to challenge children's behaviour.

I think we need to start reclaiming our public places, buses, trains and the values of a civilised community.

Later, I looked up the school's Ofsted report and was unsurprised to see it had a 'good' rating and was praised for its excellent 'pastoral care' of pupils. Yet it was clear that bullying was rife. I pitied any conscientious child trying to learn in the shadow of such thugs.

As for me, I hope I will continue to have the courage to stand up to yobs.

And when, in three years' time, I need to choose a secondary school for my son, I shall ignore Ofsted reports and instead travel on the bus that passes the school at 3.30pm. I suspect it gives a rather more accurate picture.


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