The Case for Large High Schools!

Dear Commons Community,

Susan Crawford, the director of the Right to Read Project, has an essay in the New York Times SchoolBook website on the benefits of large high schools.  Among other things, the large high schools provide a comprehensive curriculum that allows students to experience courses and subjects which are not available in many small, themed high schools. The concern is that in fostering small high schools, the New York City DOE forces eight graders and their parents  to opt for a themed curriculum when in many cases they are not sure what they want to study or might in fact change  their minds  as they get older.  This is an appropriate argument.  Below is an excerpt from the piece.




With upward of 60 more schools on the New York City Department of Education’s chopping block this spring, and with eighth-grade students about to learn their high school assignments, this is a good time to reflect on whether the school system has reached Alvin Toffler’s point of “overchoice.”

As he described it in his 1970 book “Future Shock,” that is “the point at which the advantages of diversity and individualization are cancelled by the complexity of the buyer’s decision-making process.”

In its push to close comprehensive high schools in particular, and replace them with campuses of multiple, smaller, “themed” high schools, the Education Department is closing down the very “choice” that helps keep many students going to school through their teenage years: the option to pursue an array of courses and after-school activities in line with their interests and abilities. If some of those interests wane, then something of more interest might be right down the hall.

To see the enduring appeal of the comprehensive high school, look no further than Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s own alma mater, Francis Lewis High School in Queens. If every student belongs in some small, themed school, then what drives so many to show up at this beehive of “high-school-edness,” so full of students and activity that it runs on split shifts from dawn til dusk?

If Francis Lewis High School is bursting at the seams, it is at least partially because so many of its peers have been balkanized into boutique “campuses” of schools. It is also because it is a choice that students and their families clearly want, since many of the smaller schools go under-subscribed.

To use business terminology, as the Education Department often does, if “economies of scale” drove the formation of comprehensive high schools throughout the nation over 60 years ago in the first place, then “consumer demand” should surely allow them to remain a “school choice” for New York City students and their families.

On paper it might have seemed like a good idea to break up all of the large high schools into smaller units. This way, the reasoning went, students will have more personal contact with their teachers. Gang activity can be minimized. “School choice” for students and their families can be maximized.

However, many high school students and their families want not just the option to choose among schools, but among courses of study as well. That is what comprehensive high schools offer: not just size, but scope.

Look at how many options we offer among all these small, “themed” schools, the Education Department will counter. Yes, but…. They’re asking students to choose a course of study, even a career path, in the eighth grade!

At my older son’s college, with thousands of students, fully 50 percent of them change their majors. How can we expect eighth graders to know what sorts of jobs they will want to have five to 10 years ahead of time?

Meanwhile, what happens to students who wind up in a school whose theme holds no interest for them? In comprehensive high schools, a change in interests can be accommodated by a visit to the scheduling office. In the small schools, students are disallowed from jumping ship!

In other words, not only are there no alternative courses of study to pursue in these small schools, but students cannot even switch to a school that would interest them.

Even if a high school they want to change to has room for them? Not to worry. An administrator from one of these “campuses” assured me, “we’re starting to share resources across the schools,” meaning options that the individual schools don’t offer.

In other words, they are seeking economies of scale to address academic wants and needs of their students. This of course begs the question: then why break up all of the larger schools in the first place?

Why indeed? To those on the ground throughout this period of “creative destruction,” to use another popular business term, the practice prompts other questions.

To teachers, breaking up the large, comprehensive high schools is throwing many of the most experienced among them into the Absent Teacher Reserve, from which they now wander from school to school as needed. Members of the United Federation of Teachers see this as a means to an Education Department endgame of ending the union.

Meanwhile, what parents don’t want experienced teachers in their children’s classrooms? Advocates cite poor academic performance citywide for our still-unacceptable graduation rate and systemic needs for struggling readers, English language learners and other special-needs students at every grade level.

To parents, the very profusion of high school “choices” has actually narrowed curricular options for their children, eliminating classes from Advanced Placement courses, to art and music, to shop and other “voc-ed” classes.

For students, the proliferation of choices means that many of the schools they prefer are now too small — or too over-crowded — to take them.

So as the Education Department works down students’ lists of choices each year — this year revealing the results on March 1 — too many students end up in schools far down on their lists of 12 schools, and which don’t really interest them.

The teacher of one such school, now on the list of 33 that the Education Department wants to close and reopen with half their teachers replaced and a new name, told me that initially his school had students who had applied to it because they wanted to be there. Now, since all students have to apply to high school rather than walk a few blocks to a neighborhood school if they choose to, fully 50 percent of the students in his school don’t want to be there, he said.

Disinterested, disaffected students? No wonder the Education Department is already closing some of its own small schools.

These are just some of many concerns that by now call for a time-out, a moratorium on school closings until all affected parties — administrators, teachers, parents and students — can be a party to decisions for school placements and configurations.

“For there comes a time,” Toffler concludes in his chapter “The Origins of Overchoice” in “Future Shock,” “when choice, rather than freeing the individual, becomes so complex, difficult and costly, that it turns into its opposite… when choice turns into overchoice and freedom into un-freedom.”

Susan Crawford is the director of the Right to Read Project.


Mitt Romney Wins Michigan and Arizona: What’s next?

Dear Commons Community,

Mitt Romney won the Arizona primary handily and edged out Rick Santorum in the Michigan primary.  By doing so, Romney averted a disaster.  However, the question is what has he actually won.  With all of the close primary races and some losses, combined with brutal campaigning on all sides, Maureen Dowd characterizes Mitt Romney as limping across the finish line, “so he can devote his full time and attention to losing to President Obama”.   She also commented that:

“With Sanctorum and… Romney in a race to the bottom, the once ruthless Republican Party seems to have pretty much decided to cave on 2012 and start planning for a post-Obama world.

Not because Obama is so strong; simply because their field is so ridiculously weak and wacky.”

Regardless, people continue to be interested in the Republican presidential primary and will follow the candidates on to Super Tuesday on March 6, 2012, when there will be 437 delegates on the line.  Anything can happen in such a long, drawn out election.



Male-Female College Ratios!

Dear Commons Community,

The college decision is one of the most critical decisions that most young Americans make. Institutional reputation, internships, jobs, scholarships, and the party atmosphere all factor into that decision.    Forbes Magazine is citing US Department of Education data indicating that the  male-female ratio in higher education continues in favor of the females.  Ever since the 1970s, total enrollment figures show that females outnumbered their male counterparts and they have steadily increased their numerical advantage ever since (see chart above). The superiority first came in public universities, but soon private universities saw female enrollment surpass male enrollment.

The article provides the following additional data:

“On a national scale, public universities had the most even division between male and female students, with a male-female ratio of 43.6–56.4. While that difference is substantial, it still is smaller than private not-for-profit institutions (42.5-57.5) or all private schools (40.7-59.3). The nearly 40-60 ratio of private schools was most surprising, though perhaps this is partly due to the fact that most all-female schools are private. Nevertheless, the female domination of higher education prevails across all types of schools. It should also be noted that the national male-female ratio for 18-24 year olds is actually 51-49, meaning there are more (traditionally) college-aged males than females.”

I would offer that this trend relates directly to K-12 indicators such as high school drop-out rates where males outnumber females substantially especially among minority populations.


Rick Santorum on John F. Kennedy!

Dear Commons Community,

I posted about Rick Santorum yesterday and his comment about President Barack Obama being a snob for suggesting that all young people consider a college education.  I did not think I would be posting about him again today but it appears he has a serious problem with President John F. Kennedy.  To quote the New York Times Frank Bruni: 

“He outdid himself over the weekend, for example, by … saying that when he long ago encountered John F. Kennedy’s words on the rightful separation of church and state, he felt like throwing up. I wonder not only about the degree of hyperbole in that memory, but also what Santorum ate just before he acquainted himself with Kennedy’s speech. I think he got a bad clam.”

For the record, Santorum has won three Republican primaries and is the projected leader in Michigan which has its primary today.

Dare I say:  God Saves Us!!!




David Brooks on the Current State of the Republican Party – Rhinos and Opossums!!

Dear Commons Community,

David Brooks does an analysis of the state of the Republican Party in his column today in the New York Times.   He essentially compares the way the Party between the ultra-right (i.e. Tea Party protesters) and the moderates (i.e. mainstream) .  Here are a couple of excerpts:

“The big difference is that the protesters don’t believe in governance. They have zero tolerance for the compromises needed to get legislation passed. They don’t believe in trimming and coalition building. For them, politics is more about earning respect and making a statement than it is about enacting legislation. It’s grievance politics, identity politics…”

“there are mainstream Republicans lamenting how the party has grown more and more insular, more and more rigid. This year, they have an excellent chance to defeat President Obama, yet the wingers have trashed the party’s reputation by swinging from one embarrassing and unelectable option to the next: Bachmann, Trump, Cain, Perry, Gingrich, Santorum…. where have these party leaders been over the past five years, when all the forces that distort the G.O.P. were metastasizing? Where were they during the rise of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck? Where were they when Arizona passed its beyond-the-fringe immigration law? Where were they in the summer of 2011 when the House Republicans rejected even the possibility of budget compromise? They were lying low, hoping the unpleasantness would pass.”

Brooks concludes with a rhino-opossum comparison:

“The wingers call their Republican opponents RINOs, or Republican In Name Only. But that’s an insult to the rhino, which is a tough, noble beast. If RINOs were like rhinos, they’d stand up to those who seek to destroy them. Actually, what the country needs is some real Rhino Republicans. But the professional Republicans never do that. They’re not rhinos. They’re Opossum Republicans. They tremble for a few seconds then slip into an involuntary coma every time they’re challenged aggressively from the right.”

Brooks has it RIGHT!



Santorum: Obama a “Snob” for Encouraging People to Go to College!

Dear Commons Community,

Rick Santorum labeled President Barack Obama a snob for promoting a college education.  The Washington Post reported:  “Speaking to a tea party group in Michigan on Saturday, former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) accused President Obama of being a “snob” because he wants “everybody in America to go to college…. Not all folks are gifted in the same way,” Santorum told a crowd of more than 1,000 activists at the Americans for Prosperity forum in Troy, Mich. “Some people have incredible gifts with their hands. Some people have incredible gifts and … want to work out there making things. President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.”

The President actually was encouraging all Americans to stay in school and get as much education as possible.   There is absolutely no indication that he was denigrating those who are craftspersons or who otherwise make a living without a college degree.

To me, Santorum continues to implode because of his social conservative views on religion, education, and birth control.  By the way, Santorum graduated from Penn State with a B.A. in 1980, then earned an M.B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh in 1981. In 1986, he earned a J.D. from Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law.


Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee!!

Dear Commons Community,

A New York Times article opens with the question:   What was Arne Duncan doing sharing the stage with Michelle Rhee at a recent education conference?  On the surface, this seems not to be a problem except for the fact that Mr. Duncan is the education secretary.  Ms. Rhee was the chancellor of schools in Washington from 2007 to 2010.  And since last summer, the Office of the Inspector General in Mr. Duncan’s department has been investigating whether Washington school officials cheated to raise test scores during Ms. Rhee’s tenure. The article states that:

“You would think Mr. Duncan would want to keep Ms. Rhee at arm’s length during the investigation. And yet there they were, sitting side by side last month, two of four featured panelists at a conference in Washington about the use of education data.”

Ms. Rhee’s reputation as a national leader of the education reform movement has rested on those test scores, which soared while she was chancellor. Then, last March, USA Today published the results of a yearlong investigation of the Washington schools that found a high rate of erasures on tests as well as suspiciously large gains at 41 schools — one-third of the elementary and middle schools in the district.

The article further commented on the question of whether it really mattered that Secretary Duncan appeared onstage with Ms. Rhee?

“Mr. Duncan doesn’t think so, according to his spokesman, Justin Hamilton. “It’s irresponsible for a New York Times columnist to presume guilt before we have all the facts,” Mr. Hamilton wrote in an e-mail. “Our inspector general is investigating the cheating issue in D.C. public schools, and we should all let the findings speak for themselves.”

The Office of the Inspector General is an independent oversight agency, although the secretary can refer cases for investigation.

Richard L. Hyde is one who believes that Mr. Duncan should keep his distance. Last year, Mr. Hyde directed 60 state agents in a nine-month investigation of cheating in the Atlanta public schools. They identified 178 teachers and principals in nearly half of the city’s schools who cheated — 82 of whom confessed. The case they built is so strong that criminal indictments are expected.”

Appearances!  Appearances!









Maureen Dowd on the Current Crop of Republican Presidential Candidates!

Dear Commons Community,

Maureen Dowd has an eye-popping column today in the New York  Times that takes down the Republican candidates for president.  Here are several of her choice comments:

“Newt Gingrich, a war wimp in Vietnam who supported W.’s trumped-up invasion of Iraq, had the gall to tell a crowd at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., that defeating Obama — “the most dangerous president in modern American history” — was “a duty of national security” because “he is incapable of defending the United States” and because he “wants to unilaterally weaken the United States.”

“Santorum, whose name aptly comes from the same Latin root as sanctimonious, went on Glenn Beck’s Web-based show with his family and offered this lunacy: “I understand why Barack Obama wants to send every kid to college,” because colleges are “indoctrination mills” that “harm” the country. He evidently wants home university schooling, which will cut down on keggers.   His wife, Karen, suggested that her husband’s success is “God’s will” and that he wants “to make the culture a better culture, more pleasing to God.”

“Their jitters increased exponentially as they watched Mitt belly-flop in his hometown on Friday, giving a dreadful rehash of his economic ideas in a virtually empty Ford Field in Detroit, babbling again about the “right height” of Michigan trees and blurting out that Ann “drives a couple of Cadillacs.”

Ms. Dowd’s conclusion:

“The Republicans… are a last-gasp party, living posthumously, fighting battles on sex, race, immigration and public education long ago won by the other side.”

You have got to love her!!




A Look at Bell Labs – True Innovation!

Dear Commons Community,

Jon Gertner, author of the forthcoming  The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, has an article in today’s New York Times.  He covers the spirit of one of America’s corporate jewels that has contributed much to our social and economic fabric.  Bell Labs for most of the 20th century was synonymous with new ideas and new industries.  The solar cell, fiber optic cable, and communications satellites were among its firsts.   Gertner juxtaposes Bell Labs with the technology companies in Silicon Valley, the Googles, and the Facebooks.  For example:

“In his recent letter to potential shareholders of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg noted that one of his firm’s mottoes was “move fast and break things.” Bell Labs’ might just as well have been “move deliberately and build things.” This sounds like the quaint pursuit of men who carried around slide rules and went to bed by 10 o’clock. But it was not.

Consider what Bell Labs achieved. For a long stretch of the 20th century, it was the most innovative scientific organization in the world. On any list of its inventions, the most notable is probably the transistor, invented in 1947, which is now the building block of all digital products and contemporary life.”

Perhaps the most intriguing observation/commentary is the answer to the question:

How can we explain how one relatively small group of scientists and engineers, working at Bell Labs in New Jersey over a relatively short span of time, come out with such an astonishing cluster of new technologies and ideas? They invented the future, which is what we now happen to call the present. And it was not by chance or serendipity. They knew something. But what?

Gertner’s answer:

“At Bell Labs, the man most responsible for the culture of creativity was Mervin Kelly. Probably Mr. Kelly’s name does not ring a bell. Born in rural Missouri to a working-class family and then educated as a physicist at the University of Chicago, he went on to join the research corps at AT&T. Between 1925 and 1959, Mr. Kelly was employed at Bell Labs, rising from researcher to chairman of the board. In 1950, he traveled around Europe, delivering a presentation that explained to audiences how his laboratory worked.

His fundamental belief was that an “institute of creative technology” like his own needed a “critical mass” of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas. But innovation required much more than that. Mr. Kelly was convinced that physical proximity was everything; phone calls alone wouldn’t do. Quite intentionally, Bell Labs housed thinkers and doers under one roof. Purposefully mixed together on the transistor project were physicists, metallurgists and electrical engineers; side by side were specialists in theory, experimentation and manufacturing. Like an able concert hall conductor, he sought a harmony, and sometimes a tension, between scientific disciplines; between researchers and developers; and between soloists and groups.”

This article is a well-worth read.  Thank you Mr. Gertner!




Release of Teachers Ratings Widely Denounced!

Dear Commons Community,

One day after the public release of teachers ratings, there has been wide denunciation from many individuals.  The New York Times reported that  “the word of the day was shame, both on the press and on the city’s Education Department for pursuing and suing for the data’s release, and on behalf of teachers, many of whom view this as public humiliation.”   Notable individuals who commented included:

“The Bloomberg Administration is making a grave mistake by releasing personal teacher ratings,” said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, a likely candidate for mayor, in a statement. “It would be irresponsible for any news outlet to print this data or represent it as an accurate portrayal of what really happens in the classroom.”

Chancellor of the Board of Regents Merryl Tisch said “I really think publishing the names of teachers and their rankings on one metric of any type of teacher performance is not going to result in the improvements that we want,” she said. “And it will demonize teachers and it’s going to make it more difficult to retain the best and brightest in the classroom.”

Even schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott advised caution and said he had mixed feelings about the reports and worried how they would be interpreted by parents and reporters, he said the department had to comply with the court’s decision ordering the release of the information with names attached.