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Matthew Levey is a parent activist and the founder of the
International Charter School of New York
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April 3, 2014
Why I opted my child out—not of tests, but of test prep
A city father says his protest against the influence of testing on the curriculum is to have his third-grader abstain from test prep while still taking this year's state tests.
January 26, 2012
On Small Schools And Teaching Critical Thinking
Critical thinking — “reasonable reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do” — is embraced by education reformers as key to fixing our schools. Having learned that simply graduating from high school does not ensure success, city officials now hope that by implementing the Common Core standards our students will gain this fundamental skill, and their college readiness will soar. I’m one of those New Yorkers lucky enough to send his kids to solid public schools with involved parents and committed teachers. A recent social studies test given at one of my kid’s schools shows how hard it is to teach critical thinking when we adults struggle to model it ourselves. Having studied early colonization in America for about two months, my middle school child came home with a "study sheet" for an upcoming test. The questions and the "right" answers, all bullet points, were listed. “All I have to do is memorize this,” my child explained.
April 14, 2011
The Last Best Hope?
Amidst the shouting, recriminating and celebrating attending Dennis Walcott’s designation as chancellor, even a keen follower of education politics could have missed the news that New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner is stepping down. Steiner cut a low profile in the mass media, so it’s ironic, yet consistent, that his announcement and its implications provoked little discussion in the broader ed reform community. Steiner struck me as a man with a long-term vision of what it means to be educated, something glaringly absent from the reform debate. At a sparsely attended talk on the Upper East Side last October, Steiner asked how we expect to make the long journey to a “better educated” student population without a detailed map for the trip. Last weekend, speaking at a state teachers union event, Steiner reflected on his tenure, pointing out that if we want to develop such a vision “we do not start by yelling at each other.” Unnamed “education insiders” say Steiner’s “superstar” deputy, John King, has the inside track. King’s prior work draws hosannas, but his career doesn’t suggest he’s a visionary in Steiner’s mold. When I heard Steiner speak last fall, we were in the midst of being bombarded with the news that Davis Guggenheim had “cracked the code” in "Waiting for 'Superman.'" I was fighting apocalyptic thoughts after the New York Times profiled a new middle school suggesting that having failed to engage teenagers, our only option is to have them play video games. And we learned that the average Atheist knows way more about the Bible than the average Christian. A friend neatly captured my concerns when he said, “I weep for the Republic.” In an essay accompanying his profile of a Bronx middle school this past weekend, Jonathan Mahler neatly channeled Steiner. We shout that only class size matters or the key is accountability, or we need more school days, or we must focus on teacher quality, or grant more charters. As Henry Longfellow wrote (and Barry Manilow made popular), we’re like ships that pass in the night, “only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.” Our current ‘debate’ is not some Hegelian dialectic leading to a vision for the future; it’s a twisted mashup of Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow, a tale “full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.” Back in October I foolishly hoped Steiner would bring some balance to these debates.
July 21, 2010
Lies, Damned Lies, and (Small Schools) Statistics
A study of the city's small high schools illustrates the challenges of making and assessing policy in the accountability era. An editorial about the study underlines the failures of the fourth estate to exercise critical judgment. The closing of 20 large high schools and creation of 132 small high schools is one of many initiatives Joel Klein has taken to close the achievement gap. The theory is that traditional "comprehensive" high schools, often with 3,000 or more students, are too large to offer the individual attention and accountability that traditionally disadvantaged students need to make it to college. The fight over Jamaica High School this past spring was, in a far less academic sense, a debate whether "big schools" serve our children's needs. Into this fray comes the MDRC, a research group focused on poverty. Their report's headline cuts right to the chase: "Transforming the High School Experience: How New York City's New Small Schools Are Boosting Student Achievement and Graduation Rates." This conclusion is interesting because several prior studies of the effort were not positive. The Gates Foundation, which put close to $2 billion into small schools, was so uncertain of the schools' impact that it stopped funding small schools projects in 2008. But MDRC claims that "SSCs [Small Schools of Choice] increase overall graduation rates by 6.8 percentage points, which is roughly one-third the size of the gap in graduation rates between white students and students of color in New York City."
March 15, 2010
The Role of Curriculum in Education Reform
Despite a growing popular consensus that teacher quality is the most significant factor in academic achievement, as a parent and taxpayer the costs and practicality of this focus concern me. Chancellor Joel Klein focuses keenly on better teacher quality. I agree a strong teacher is crucial, especially for low-income students. But the value of our efforts to identify high-quality instructors and ease the removal of low-quality teachers is questionable. For starters, the value-added measurements at the core of the relevant evaluation systems are nascent at best, as their developers readily admit. The Department of Education has calculated school report cards three different ways in the last three years; this is appropriate flexibility for a new concept, but not indicative of an established metric. Notwithstanding its motives, the teachers union raises a reasonable complaint that valued-added measurements are not ready for prime time. When reformers deny this, their credibility suffers as much as the union's. But still, let's imagine we build the world's best evaluation system.
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