Fanfare for A New Partner

Apologies for the terrible pun but ICS is once again excited about a curriculum partnership.

This time it’s Copland House, the musical foundation established by one of America’s most innovative composers, Aaron Copland.

Born above a store on Washington and Dean, to non-English speaking, first-generation immigrants, Copland went on to graduate from Boys High School on Marcy Avenue befor heading off to Paris to study music under Nadia Boulanger.

He returned a changed man, and in subsequent decades changed American music in ways we can still see.  We hope that the experience of a child of Lithuanian shop keepers growing up to travel to Mexico, befriend Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and write music like El Salón México will inspire ICS students to dream big dreams too.

ICS is honored to have them as partners in developing a program that fosters our students creativity, historical knowledge and appreciation of music.  Details below.

ICS - support letter

Smart Technology, Redux

In February a Brooklyn Dad who writes about technology asked me what role technology would play at ICS.  I gave him the short answer I had prepared at the time, but he pointed out it contained some contradictions and wasn’t so clear.

I went back to the drawing board, and wrote this blog entry. In essence, I said, we’ll use technology where it helps our kids to learn, or our teachers to teach. But we won’t fetishize it for its own sake.

As we continued to develop the ideas behind ICS I met with a former colleague and mom who recently launched a pre-k reading app for the iPad from her offices in Metrotech. (Yet more proof, if you needed it, of how the creative center is shifting to Brooklyn).  Thinking of influential local people and industries she said, “You’ve got to talk to MakerBot.”

This idea, tossed off among many over a coffee, led to several conversations, and the partnership agreement we just signed this week.

As I’ve been telling audiences across Brooklyn this week, the idea of a local company, founded by an elementary school art teacher, helping ICS to infuse technology into our art, math and science lessons, and supporting our teachers to deepen their own craft, is exactly what I had in mind, way back in February.

And the serendipity behind this just has me beaming.  Bre’s letter is below.

Screen shot 2013-10-11 at 10.39.01 PM

Treating Teachers Right

At ICS your children’s emotional and academic growth are among our most important priorities.  To ensure your children are being served well, we have to be just as concerned with our teachers.  Yet the reform debate often leaves teachers feeling attacked or blamed.

Elementary-school-teacher-with-her-studentsHarvard economics professor Roland Fryer said “There’s a lot of rhetoric that if you just [fire] the teachers you can open up a magical drawer of effective teachers, pull them out and stick them in.”  Fryer noted,  “I have not been able to find that magic drawer.”

As the husband of a high school teacher, I know there’s no magic, just a lot of hard work. And that if our faculty and administration do not hang together, we will most assuredly hang separately.

This weekend the Times profiled a new evaluation program in Chicago that combines principal observations and student achievement to help boost teachers’ impact. Many instructors have greeted it with cautious optimism.  But as the researchers hired to assess the program observed,  “if there is not a level of trust and transparency across all sectors of the district, the positive sentiments toward using this system to improve practice could be replaced by contention and disengagement.”

One critical task confronting me and the Board of ICS after we receive our charter is to hire a principal who merits our teachers’ trust. As with Dr. Fryer’s observations about teachers, the magic drawer of high quality principals is even harder to find.

As I have been getting to know the community and meeting parents, I’ve been lucky to be introduced to many great educators in Brooklyn.  But it will take a lot of work to find the person who can be transparent and trustworthy, inspire our staff to believe change is possible, and make the tough calls when necessary.

Another (simplifying) assumption that crops up often in ed reform debates is that if we would just implement ‘best practices’ all our teachers and classrooms would improve.  Professor Dan Willingham, who serves as an advisor to the ICS Board, knows it is never quite that easy. Discussing a new math curriculum that has had some promising results in Tampa, Dan told me “the long history of education innovations is that things go great in the experiment, and then when scaled up, they don’t work as well.”

Atul Gawande, the Boston doctor who writes for the New Yorker asked why this is. Why does an innovation like anesthesia for surgery spread nearly universally within nine months of its discovery in 1846 while an equally valuable discovery – washing hands to prevent disease transmission – takes a generation to earn surgeons’ widespread adherence?

Writing of a project to reduce infant mortality in developing countries, Gawande notes:

Voluminous evidence shows that it is far better to place the [newborn] child on the mother’s chest or belly, skin to skin, so that the mother’s body can regulate the baby’s until it is ready to take over. Among small or premature babies, kangaroo care (as it is known) cuts mortality rates by a third.

So why hadn’t the nurse swaddled the two together? She was a skilled and self-assured woman …. Resources clearly weren’t the issue—kangaroo care costs nothing. Had she heard of it? Oh, yes, she said. She’d taken a skilled-birth-attendant class that taught it. Had she forgotten about it? No. She had actually offered to put the baby skin to skin with the mother, and showed me where she’d noted this in the record.

“The mother didn’t want it,” she explained. “She said she was too cold.”

Gawande and his team knew best practices training wouldn’t change this dynamic. Carrots? Sticks?  They too tend not to work, not for long in any case. “To create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms and barriers to change,” he writes. “You have to understand what’s getting in their way.”

As his team spread out to villages to offer training it was hard. But slowly, behaviors changed. To find out what worked Gawande interviewed a trainee afterwards:

“Why did you listen to [the trainer]?” I asked. “She had only a fraction of your experience.”

In the beginning, she didn’t, the nurse admitted. “The first day she came, I felt the workload on my head was increasing.” From the second time, however, the nurse began feeling better about the visits. She even began looking forward to them.

“Why?” I asked.

All the nurse could think to say was “She was nice.”

“She was nice?”

“She smiled a lot.”

“That was it?”

“It wasn’t like talking to someone who was trying to find mistakes,” she said. “It was like talking to a friend.”

We’re unlikely to find silver bullets  as effective as anesthesia or hand-washing in building our community of strong, caring teachers at ICS.  But hiring leaders who understand the importance of trust, who can be nice but firm, and guide teachers towards practical improvement seems like a good place to start.

Testing Knowledge, Not Anxiety

A version of this post appears on the WNYC SchoolBook Blog.

In early August we learned many New York City kids bombed this year’s elementary and middle school tests. Aligned to the new and more challenging Common Core learning standards, the percentage of children judged proficient fell by about half.

We were warned as early as last year this would happen. In 2010 just 21 percent of children who were judged ‘proficient’ and made it to New York City high schools were minimally prepared for college. (see graph below) So there was a clear disconnect between the old tests and reality.

Graduation RatesBut with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education legacy under scrutiny, the spin on the results was tornado-like. Apart from mayoral candidates, we heard from our children’s school, State Education Commissioner John King, and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott. Because my wife teaches, we also got a note from U.F.T. president Michael Mulgrew.

With politicians so eager to explain the scores to us I found it ironic that parents could not see their kid’s results until August 26th.  It was like hearing: “There’s been a 15-car pile up with a school bus at the corner of Flatbush and Dekalb. Your kid might be involved. We’ll get back to you in three weeks.”

It’s no wonder parents felt left out of the discussion. If you have children in grades 3 through 8, here are some guidelines I hope will help you make sense of things once the results are released.

How Test Results Are Reported

Despite what you’ve heard, standardized tests have a role to play in education. Test results are part of the data that allow administrators to judge how well instruction is working and can also provide feedback on different groups of students and their achievement over time.

The purpose of the state Math and English (ELA) exams is to judge if students have met New York’s proficiency threshold – what many call “passing” the test. Education experts determine the passing score based on their best judgment; while it’s not arbitrary, there’s no formula or rule.

The number of correct answers is your child’s raw score. But as test questions are worth different amounts, eight correct answers out of 10 does not mean she got an 80 percent.  To represent this, the raw score is converted to a scale score that runs from 0 to 400. The state sets “cut scores,” the scores that correspond to the 1,2,3 & 4 ratings parents recognize.  Cut scores vary by grade and subject but 320 was a passing score for most grades this year.

Test StructureAs seen in the figure, perhaps a half to a third of the questions on a typical test are pretty basic, to identify struggling students. Another third might be of medium difficulty, and perhaps 5-10 percent are hard enough to challenge the highest achievers. The test also included experimental questions. These are not graded so they don’t offer guidance about your child or her school.

In prior years the entire range of “exceeds proficiency” was made up of just three questions- hardly a way to assess excellence.  This year a scale score of 340, just below the cutoff for level 4 (exceeds proficiency) in 3rd grade math, was statistically indistinguishable from a 341, which is above the cutoff.

Similarly, for the child scoring a 313, just one more correct answer would move him to the ‘proficient’ group from ‘below proficient’. That one question difference doesn’t signal a true difference in his ability; it’s just an artifact of the test design.

New York City confuses matters further by transforming those 1-4 scores out to two decimal places. So a scale score like 313 becomes a 2.88; 320 is a 3.00.

One More Data Point, Among Many

So if your child was tested, the first step is to stay calm. The results do not indicate your child has not become a lot less, or more, competent in just one year, no matter what the score says. His teachers and principal remain the best source of information about how he is doing at school.

But don’t expect to have a detailed conversation in the schoolyard on the first day of school. Make an appointment for October, when they have had a chance to see how your child is doing in class. Ask about what he does well, and where he struggles.

Reading scores remain weaker than math scores, across the board.  Conveniently, it’s the area where parents can have the greatest influence. Turn off the TV, confiscate the smart phone, and ensure your child has a few good books to read. And ask your local librarian for ideas if you are coming up dry.

Another way to help them learn is to praise your child for her effort, not for being ‘smart.’  Cognitive psychologists say that kids who learn that results come from hard work, not lucky genes, overcome setbacks more easily and achieve better grades.

Lastly, get them to bed early. Sleep is critical to children’s health and growth. Research shows it’s also when their brain consolidates and organizes all the information we are expecting them to master.

And what does all this mean for ICS? In April I shared my plan for testing:

doing what we know is right: teaching a love of learning, the joy in figuring things out, and the pride that comes from being able to share knowledge with others.

If we get that right, the tests will take care of themselves.

The Next Mayor

Amidst these scorching hot days it’s hard to focus on anything more than finding shade, a cool drink or a working air conditioner.

But here in Gotham we’re less than two months away from selecting Democratic and Republican candidates for mayor.  In November we’ll have a couple of independents to chose from as well.  Brooklyn’s 35th and 36th City Council district races are also quite active.

Polls indicate education is a top issue for voters – and at $25 billion a year it should be.  The next largest expense – the police department – doesn’t even cost $5 billion. Yet nearly 60% of us are unhappy with the state of education.

As a future school leader I hope to build a community where students learn to analyze the key issues on which their elected officials must act.  My essay on the WNYC Schoolbook blog  suggests candidates looking to replace Mayor Bloomberg could find tips for their education policy in a rather unexpected place.

Check it out and let me know what you think.

Telling Truth from Fiction

We frequently express a concern that children should be taught to think critically. During his junior year in college Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “ Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”  This was critical, King said, if students were to be saved “from the morass of propaganda.”

Sixty-six years later, these concerns remain. Advising the graduates of Pitzer College, in June, former presidential speechwriter Jon Lovett noted, more pungently than King:

One of the greatest threats we face is, simply put, bullshit. We are drowning in it. We are drowning in partisan rhetoric that is just true enough not to be a lie; in industry-sponsored research; in social media’s imitation of human connection; …. It infects every facet of public life, corrupting our discourse, … lowering our standards for the truth.

At the core of our relentless focus on a coherent, sequenced curriculum that builds children’s background knowledge is our desire to teach kids to think critically.  To be able to marshal facts and advocate for themselves but also to detect BS and call it when they see it. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynahan (an alum of Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem) famously wrote “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

Academic research – ably summarized by ICS friend and senior advisor Dan Willingham – shows that “factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes operate.”

But developing our children’s knowledge base is not our end goal. Yes, they need to sort fact from fiction, but many issues are not neatly divisible into true and false. In 1936 F Scott Fitzgerald wrote that

the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. 

So by building their background knowledge, ICS will develop your children’s sense of discernment. When we teach them to calculate the average rate of satisfaction with a product, we want them to grasp that this means half of the people had a better experience, and half suffered a worse one.  When we discuss that proof of the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient creator is limited, we want them to also understand that for many people in the world, and even in their classroom, God is very real. And we want them to appreciate that in the myth of Pandora, after all the evils escaped her box, hope still remained.

This April I visited an installation by New York-based graphic artist Barbara Kruger at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington. She summed up the goals of an ICS education even more pithily.  Maybe she’ll let us put in on the wall in our school?

Belief + Doubt = Sanity

No SPED limits

Our commitment to a diverse student body at ICS includes serving children with academic and physical disabilities at the same high-level that we serve non-disabled children.

Children with disabilities are quite often as intellectually capable as other kids. Blake Charlton, a San Francisco doctor and author, did not read independently until he was 13. In a recent essay he explained that dyslexia presented him plenty of challenges, but points to research suggesting dyslexia gave him strengths that should have been celebrated as well.

The ICS Way

speed_limitOur approach will be led by an on-staff special education coordinator. Particularly with younger children, distinguishing a true disability from a developmental delay can be tricky, and we want  to counsel families wisely. To address children’s needs one classroom per grade will be led by two teachers, one trained in special education, known as Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT).  Other children might receive specific supports, such as speech therapy, a few times each week.  And at the core of what we do at ICS, our academic approach, especially our coherent sequenced curricula in math and literature and history, will put children with learning disabilities on the path to success.

To strengthen my own understanding of the issues I spent a day last week on a study tour of Lab Middle School, in Chelsea. They serve about 70 students with disabilities, and although their instructional approaches vary based on the student’s needs their commitment to high academic expectations does not.

What We Can All Learn

ICS will serve special needs children because it is the right thing to do. Encouraging them to attend and setting conditions for their success speaks to our values as an inclusive community–and our expectations for our children as they develop into active participants in their world.  It’s in young kids developing nature that they can (at times) be cruel; by modeling equitable treatment we hope to maximize the impact of the “better angels of our nature.”

Vivian PaleyVivian Paley, who taught kindergarten at Chicago’s Lab School for many years, developed another way to build healthy communities. When she explained to her class the new rule, “you can’t say, ‘you can’t play,” the children were incredulous.

As she told Ira Glass, “they could not see how such a plan would work.  They understood the language, but their fear that they would not be able to handle it, that play would be spoiled was very apparent.”  Nonetheless she put the rule into effect.

“Within a week ,” Paley said, “it was as if this was always the way life would be.” Speaking of an Alpha girl and skeptic, ‘Lisa’, Paley said “years later, whenever Lisa met me in the hallway, she would stop and ask me ‘how is the rule doing?’ and give me an example of how she was trying to follow it.“ When Paley saw Lisa in the supermarket with her mom, Lisa told her “It’s still really hard for me but I know I can do it and I always try.”

An experienced school leader told me the larger challenge to achieving Paley’s vision is the adults – getting the teaching staff to believe it can be done.  My wife, a teacher herself, said “You’re trying to create a Utopia.”  “Yes,” I replied.

At his school, Charlton, the doctor I mentioned above, recalled that

Notable put-downs heard outside my special-ed classroom included “dimwinky,” “retardochuckles” and “the meat in the sandwich of stupid.” The last of which, if you think about it, is a seriously impressive use of metaphor for a 7-year-old. 

Having graduated Yale, Stanford Medical School and published two books, he can look back on elementary school with perspective. But we can imagine how those same words felt to Charlton as a second grader.

Angelo, one of Vivian Paley’s kindergarteners, summed up what being excluded is like. “I think that’s pretty sad. People that is alone, they has water in their eyes.”

We know our kids will cry sometimes. At ICS our goal is to minimize the times when the cause is being excluded for being different. And maximize the times we cry with joy, celebrating our children’s real accomplishments and distinctive abilities.