Struggling New York City High Schools: Close Them or Save Them!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has a featured article today focusing on Santiago Taveras, the principal of Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. The article reviews Mr. Taveras’ previous position in the NYC Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, where he was responsible for phasing out struggling schools and replacing them with new schools. These days and under the leadership of Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor, Carmen Farina, Mr. Taveras is doing what he can to save Dewitt Clinton High School from being closed and reopened in a new configuration of small and/or charter schools. The article comments:

“In recent years, Dewitt Clinton has battled low graduation rates, plummeting enrollment and a climate that made many students feel unsafe. During the tenure of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, large, struggling schools like this one were regularly closed and broken up into new, smaller institutions, which the administration favored as a way to shake up the staff and give students more individual attention.

One hundred fifty-seven schools, many of them large, comprehensive high schools like Clinton, were shuttered or scheduled for closing during the Bloomberg years. The public face for many of those closures was Santiago Taveras, who was a deputy chancellor.

“I spent time phasing out schools at the D.O.E., which is fine; I don’t regret any of that,” Mr. Taveras said of his time at the central office of the Education Department. “When I heard de Blasio say he wasn’t going to close schools, I thought, That’s interesting. What are we going to do instead? I want to be a part of that.”

This month, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who previously opposed closing schools except as a last resort, announced his plan for fixing 94 of the city’s most troubled schools by elongating the school day, giving teachers added training and providing extra support for students and their families. Clinton is one of the 94.

DeWitt Clinton turned 117 this year, and its physical presence attests to better times. It is an elegant behemoth of cream-color brick, with a dignified row of oak trees lining its front. The ceilings of some classrooms are more than 12 feet high. It once enrolled close to 5,000 students. And its long, impressive list of alumni includes the author James Baldwin, the Hall of Fame basketball player Nate Archibald, and Ralph Lifshitz. In the 1957 yearbook, one of dozens in Mr. Taveras’s wood-paneled office, Mr. Lifshitz — who became the clothier Ralph Lauren — listed his professional aspiration simply, as “millionaire.” Today, at the school’s elegant front entrance, there is a drab, gray metal detector.

While the school’s struggles have indeed been severe, they have not been going on for very long. Teachers and former Education Department officials said the school and its students did well in the 1990s after a turnaround orchestrated by Principal Norman Wechsler… But dramatic changes in the terrain of the school system over the last dozen years have posed steep challenges for Clinton.

Mr. Bloomberg opened 656 schools, including charter schools, and many education experts deem his aggressive push for small schools a great success. A multiyear study by MDRC, a nonprofit research organization, has found an array of benefits to the approach in New York City, including higher graduation rates, a greater likelihood that students will graduate in four years and go right to college, and increased college enrollment rates.

But as hundreds of small schools opened, principals and teachers at the remaining large schools like Clinton often complained — and statistics often corroborated — that they were getting disproportionately high numbers of the most challenging students.

“It was like a light switch going off — like, oh, my gosh, where did these kids come from?” said Ann Neary, an Advanced Placement literature teacher who has been at Clinton for 10 years. “We have some fabulous students, and that’s why I teach here every day, but we got a lot of kids who couldn’t possibly have graduated in four years, and we were totally happy to teach them and to help them. But then we got slapped on the wrist for students not graduating on time.”

The last two paragraphs accurately depict one of the critical issues of closing schools and reopening smaller and/or charter schools. Students who are not doing well are basically herded into the remaining or other schools because they were not accepted in the new small and/or charter schools thereby creating a cycle of closing schools, creating small schools, herding a disproportionate number of struggling students, and then closing schools. In the final analysis, while some schools do better, the overall system has not done much better.

I am not against small schools but they should not be set up as bastions of selected student populations.  Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Farina are approaching the issue in a way that is equitable for the entire student population not just those who are selected for certain schools whether they be under the aegis of the NYC Department of Education or a charter school organization.


The New Yorker Cover Depicts Racial Divide in Ferguson!

Ferguson New Yorker St. Louis Covers December 2014

Dear Commons Community,

The past several days have seen demonstrations and marches from coast to coast over the Ferguson grand jury decision. Yesterday, protesters in New York City and Seattle disrupted shopping in department stores that were open for Black Friday sales. The racial divide that underlies the decision and much of the social fabric of our country has been captured in several images, the most recent one being the December 8, 2014 cover of The New Yorker. As reported in Yahoo News:

“The New Yorker’s Dec. 8 issue features a powerful cover illustration by Bob Staake of St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, shown broken and divided by color — one side black, the other white.

“I wanted to comment on the tragic rift that we’re witnessing,” Staake told the New Yorker, which published the cover on the magazine’s website Wednesday. “I lived in St. Louis for seventeen years before moving to Massachusetts, so watching the news right now breaks my heart. At first glance, one might see a representation of the Gateway Arch as split and divided. But my hope is that the events in Ferguson will provide a bridge and an opportunity for the city, and also for the country, to learn and come together.”

Staake’s illustration is strikingly similar to one R.J. Matson, syndicated editorial cartoonist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, drew in August. “It’s the first time I’m seeing an editorial cartoon by my colleague R.J. Matson that also references a broken Gateway Arch to symbolize Saint Louis,” Staake wrote on Facebook. “When I thought up my idea, I recalled all those famous black and white photos of the incomplete arch being built. To the extent that we both came up with similar ideas, I’m reaching out to him, hoping we can join forces to spread the message of repairing what’s so badly broken in Ferguson.”

In Ferguson and elsewhere!


Thanksgiving Plea from Randi Weingarten: Support President Obama’s Executive Action on Immigration!

Dear Commons Community,

Last week, President Obama’s issued an executive order designed to keep immigrant families together. However, this action is not enough to protect millions of immigrant families. Last year, the U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive reform bill. But more than 500 days later, the House still is refusing to act. The president used his legal authority to protect millions of families from being torn apart. While it’s a great first step, we still need Congress to act on a permanent solution to our broken immigration system. Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, mailed a Thanksgiving plea to support President Obama and to urge Congress to act. Below is her message.



When I think of Thanksgiving, my first thought isn’t turkey, or cranberries or pie—it’s family.   I am the granddaughter of immigrants—America is a nation of immigrants—which is why President Obama’s executive action on immigration is so important to me today. More than anything else, this action is designed to keep families together. Sadly, this action alone is not enough to protect millions of immigrant families.

Last year, the U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive reform bill. But more than 500 days later, the House still is refusing to act. Last week, the president used his legal authority to protect millions of families from being torn apart. While it’s a great first step, we still need Congress to act on a permanent solution to our broken immigration system.

Will you tell Congress to follow the president’s lead and pass a comprehensive immigration bill?  

The president’s action—which showed leadership and courage—will directly help millions of immigrant families stay together. And it will make it easier for educators, healthcare workers, public employees and support staff to lift up the communities we serve.

Last week, millions of kids went to school under a cloud of fear, not knowing if their parents would be there when they returned home. Thanks to this action, those kids will no longer live in fear.

Increased stability in the classroom and at home will help immigrant kids succeed, reduce distractions for the whole classroom, and ease the burden on educators and support staff.

Thanks to the end of the Secure Communities Act, millions of immigrants can report crimes without the fear that they’ll become targets for deportation. This will make our streets safer for everyone, including first responders and other public employees.

Hundreds of thousands of DREAMers will now have a path to college and military service—meaning everyone from high school teachers to guidance counselors to college admissions officers will have clearer guidelines for helping these students achieve their potential.

And thanks to the new legal status, millions will be able to come out of the shadow economy not just through stopping wage suppression, but also by beginning to contribute in a new way. Immigrants will be paying taxes just like you and I, and estimates say this action could add as much as $210 billion to our GDP over the next decade.

The president’s action is a great first step, but we need a comprehensive solution. Ask your members of Congress to pass a bill!

Thanksgiving is a time for family. It is also a time for remembering our own immigrant history, and the kindness that Native Americans showed to early European immigrants at Portsmouth.   This Thanksgiving, millions of modern immigrant families can begin to shed the fear of being torn apart. But we still need a permanent solution—for them and the 7 million immigrants not covered by this action.

I hope you’ll join me and call on Congress to pass comprehensive reform.

Happy Thanksgiving,

Randi Weingarten

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving 2014


Dear Commons Community,

On this day, we give thanks for all we have.

We give thanks for our health.

We give thanks for our families and friends.

Happy Thanksgiving!


President Obama and Arne Duncan Propose New Teacher Education Guidelines!

Dear Commons Community,

President Obama and Arnie Duncan unveiled a proposal yesterday to regulate teacher preparation progams, saying that too many new K-12 educators are not ready for the classroom.

Under the plan, the federal government would require states to issue report cards for teacher preparation programs within their borders, including those at public universities and private colleges, as well as alternative programs such as those run by school districts and nonprofits such as Teach for America.

The rating systems, which would need approval by the Education Department, would for the first time consider how teacher candidates perform after graduation: whether they land jobs in their subject field, how long they stay and how their students perform on standardized tests and other measures of academic achievement. As reported by the Associated Press:

“Under the rules proposed Tuesday, only training programs deemed to be working well would be eligible to receive money from federal TEACH grants given to prospective teachers who agree to teach in disadvantaged schools. Factors considered include a training program’s success in placing its graduates in jobs, and the success of a teacher’s students on standardized tests.

The TEACH grant program pays up to $4,000 a year to students, and about $100 million is awarded nationwide each year.

“New teachers want to do a great job for their kids, but often they struggle at the beginning of their careers and have to figure out too much for themselves,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

Schools complain that linking the performance of graduates and their students to the teacher’s alma mater is unfair, and teachers’ unions say it could potentially make it harder to place teachers in schools in high-poverty areas.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the rules use a “test-and-punish” model instead of offering a sustainable solution that raises the bar for the teaching profession.”

Arnie Duncan continues to push an education agenda which has been one based strictly on “do it my way and I give you money” otherwise you get nothing. Weingarten is absolutely right, Duncan has provided little in the way of sustained solutions only carrots and sticks.



New York Times Editorial on the Meaning of the Ferguson Riots!

Dear Commons Communty,

The New York Times editorial today analyzes the grand jury decision and the process by which county prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, handled the investigation. In the big picture, the editorial quotes President Obama: “We need to recognize that this is not just an issue for Ferguson, this is an issue for America.” The rioting that scarred the streets of St. Louis County — and the outrage that continues to reverberate across the country — underlines this inescapable point. It shows once again that distrust of law enforcement presents a grave danger to the civic fabric of the United States.” On the local side, the editorial concludes that “McCulloch made matters infinitely worse by handling this sensitive investigation in the worst possible way”. The editorial (see full text below) is right on both points.



The Meaning of the Ferguson Riots

New York Times Editorial

November 26, 2015

The St. Louis County grand jury’s decision not to indict the white police officer who in August shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, would have generated widespread anger and disappointment in any case. But the county prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, who is widely viewed in the minority community as being in the pockets of the police, made matters infinitely worse by handling this sensitive investigation in the worst possible way.

First, he refused to step aside in favor of a special prosecutor who could have been appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri. He further undermined public confidence by taking a highly unorthodox approach to the grand jury proceeding. Instead of conducting an investigation and then presenting the case and a recommendation of charges to the grand jury, his office shifted its job to the grand jury. It made no recommendation on whether to indict the officer, Darren Wilson, but left it to the jurors to wade through masses of evidence to determine whether there was probable cause to file charges against Officer Wilson for Mr. Brown’s killing.

Under ordinary circumstances, grand jury hearings can be concluded within days. The proceeding in this case lasted an astonishing three months. And since grand jury proceedings are held in secret, the drawn-out process fanned suspicions that Mr. McCulloch was deliberately carrying on a trial out of public view, for the express purpose of exonerating Officer Wilson.

If all this weren’t bad enough, Mr. McCulloch took a reckless approach to announcing the grand jury’s finding. After delaying the announcement all day, he finally made it late in the evening, when darkness had placed law enforcement agencies at a serious disadvantage as they tried to control the angry crowds that had been drawn into the streets by news that the verdict was coming. Mr. McCulloch’s announcement sounded more like a defense of Officer Wilson than a neutral summary of the facts that had led the grand jury to its conclusion.

For the black community of Ferguson, the killing of Michael Brown was the last straw in a long train of abuses that they have suffered daily at the hands of the local police. News accounts have strongly suggested, for example, that the police in St. Louis County’s many municipalities systematically target poor and minority citizens for street and traffic stops — partly to generate fines — which has the effect of both bankrupting and criminalizing whole communities.

In this context, the police are justifiably seen as an alien, occupying force that is synonymous with state-sponsored abuse.

The case resonated across the country — in New York City, Chicago and Oakland — because the killing of young black men by police is a common feature of African-American life and a source of dread for black parents from coast to coast. This point was underscored last month in a grim report by ProPublica, showing that young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk — 21 times greater — of being shot dead by police than young white men. These statistics reflect the fact that many police officers see black men as expendable figures on the urban landscape, not quite human beings.

We get a flavor of this in Officer Wilson’s grand jury testimony, when he describes Michael Brown, as he was being shot, as a soulless behemoth who was “almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.”

President Barack Obama was on the mark last night when he said, “We need to recognize that this is not just an issue for Ferguson, this is an issue for America.” The rioting that scarred the streets of St. Louis County — and the outrage that continues to reverberate across the country — underlines this inescapable point. It shows once again that distrust of law enforcement presents a grave danger to the civic fabric of the United States.


Video Interview with Hunter R. Rawlings III, President of Association of American Universities, Warns of Ideologically-Motivated and Corporate-Minded Trustees!

Dear Commons Community,

In a brief interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities, says that ideologically motivated and corporate-minded trustees pose a great threat to public colleges. Mr. Rawlings, who leads a group of elite research universities, was highly critical of a recent effort to fire William C. Powers Jr., president of the University of Texas at Austin. In 2012, Mr. Rawlings also admonished University of Virginia board members for forcing out Teresa A. Sullivan as president, only to reinstate her under public pressure. Both cases, Mr. Rawlings says, point toward a troubling trend that has created instability at some of the nation’s top academic institutions.

Dr. Rawlings raises one of the critical issues facing American public higher education today.



The Innovators by Walter Isaaacson: Great Read for the Technology Crowd!

Dear Commons Community,

I have just finished Walter Isaacson’s book, The Innovators:  How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2014).  I found it a fine read with many interesting tidbits on the major figures of the digital movement.  A New York Times book review by Brendan Koerner, a contributing editor at Wired, is well done and balanced.  Koerner concluded:

“The book evinces a genuine affection for its subjects that makes it tough to resist. Isaacson confesses early on that he was once “an electronics geek who loved Heathkits and ham radios,” and that background seems to have given him keen insight into how youthful passion transforms into professional obsession. His book is thus most memorable not for its intricate accounts of astounding breakthroughs and the business dramas that followed, but rather for the quieter moments in which we realize that the most primal drive for innovators is a need to feel childlike joy.”

I would add that I found a number of gems in this work. First, Isaacson treats many of the movers and shakers such as John Von Newman, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs fairly while providing insights into their idiosyncrasies and character flaws.

Second, Isaacson gives due credit to the women who were intimately involved with the development of computing programming such as Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, and Grace Hopper.

Lastly, I liked revisiting the agonies and  ecstasies of the early days (for me the 1960s – 1970s) of computer development.   Isaacson describes small issues like the difficulty of handling “floating-point” numbers with some of the early programming languages as well as big issues such as the importance of packet-switching for the development of the Internet.

In sum, I highly recommend it.


For-Profit Colleges Reeling from Enrollment Woes May Have Bottomed-Out!

For-Profit Earnings 2014

Dear Commons Community,

For-profit colleges have had several very difficult years in terms of student enrollments and earnings. Dozens of colleges saw double-digit drops in enrollment, and in 2012 a U.S. Senate committee released a damning report on the for-profit-college sector, concluding that some colleges had dropout rates above 50 percent and that the industry was spending more on marketing than it was on instruction. However, new enrollment data suggest things may soon be looking up for the sector. Analysts’ projections suggest the industry is close to “bottoming out” and could once again see student growth. As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“To get an idea of what’s coming next, The Chronicle analyzed earnings reports and analyst projections for 14 publicly traded higher-education institutions, which together make up about half of the sector’s enrollment of two million students. The analysis found that, though enrollment dropped again in 2014, the forecast is for a smaller decline in 2015 and then enrollment increases thereafter. Indeed, several companies that were posting double-digit enrollment losses for the last four years are expected to post gains in 2015.”

The article specifically comments on the Apollo Group (Universitty of Phoenix) likening it to the 800-pound gorilla in the room:

“Even though some for-profit colleges are projected to have upticks in enrollment next year, the industry’s leader, the Apollo Education Group—the operator of the University of Phoenix—is projected by BMO to post enrollment losses in each quarter next year.

“Apollo, until recently, was declining at double digits, now it’s single digits, which is close to the industry trend,” Mr. Silber said. “It’s the 800-pound gorilla in the industry, and it will take a little time to catch up.”

The for-profit colleges have a place in American higher-education. It is unfortunate that several of them had substituted profit motives over the needs of their students. It remains to be seen how it works out for them.



Inside Higher Education’s Latest Survey of Faculty Attitudes to Online and Blended Learning Just Released!

Inside Education 2014 Blended Learning I

Inside Education 2014 Blended Learning

Inside Education 2014 Blended Learning II

Click to enlarge.

Dear Commons Community,

Inside Higher Education annually commissions Gallup to conduct an opinion survey of college faculty and technology administrators. In the latest study, Gallup surveyed 2,799 faculty members and 288 academic technology administrators this past summer on a number of issues related to online learning. A copy of the report can be downloaded here. Highlights as summarized by Inside Higher Education include:

  • Virtually all faculty members and technology administrators say meaningful student-teacher interaction is a hallmark of a quality online education, and that it is missing from most online courses.
  • A majority of faculty members with online teaching experience still say those courses produce results inferior to in-person courses.
  • Faculty members are overwhelmingly opposed to their institutions hiring outside “enablers” to manage any part of online course operation, even for marketing purposes.
  • Humanities instructors are most likely to say they have benefited from the digital humanities — but also that those digital techniques have been oversold.

“Only about one-quarter of faculty respondents (26 percent) say online courses can produce results equal to in-person courses. While that represents a slight increase from last year’s survey, when only one in five said so, that top-line number fails to communicate that most faculty members maintain serious doubts about being able to interact or indeed teach students in online courses.

The doubt extends across age groups and most academic disciplines. Tenured faculty members may be the most critical of online courses, with an outright majority (52 percent) saying online courses produce results inferior to in-person courses, but that does not necessarily mean opposition rises steadily with age. Faculty respondents younger than 40, for example, are more critical of online courses (38 percent) than are those between the ages of 50 and 59 (34 percent).”

Several of the other findings also point to positive attitudes and experiences with blended courses.   For example, the percentage (50% – see Table 11) of faculty who had taught a blended course versus the percentage (33% – see Table 9) who  had taught a fully online course indicate  that blended courses are continuing to move well into the mainstream of American higher education.  Furthermore, Table 17 indicates that the vast majority (75-80%) of the faculty are moving to blended courses for sound pedagogical reasons.