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Who We Are »
Betsy Combier

Help Us to Continue to Help Others »
Email: betsy.combier@gmail.com

 
The E-Accountability Foundation announces the

'A for Accountability' Award

to those who are willing to whistleblow unjust, misleading, or false actions and claims of the politico-educational complex in order to bring about educational reform in favor of children of all races, intellectual ability and economic status. They ask questions that need to be asked, such as "where is the money?" and "Why does it have to be this way?" and they never give up. These people have withstood adversity and have held those who seem not to believe in honesty, integrity and compassion accountable for their actions. The winners of our "A" work to expose wrong-doing not for themselves, but for others - total strangers - for the "Greater Good"of the community and, by their actions, exemplify courage and self-less passion. They are parent advocates. We salute you.

Winners of the "A":

Johnnie Mae Allen
David Possner
Dee Alpert
Aaron Carr
Harris Lirtzman
Hipolito Colon
Larry Fisher
The Giraffe Project and Giraffe Heroes' Program
Jimmy Kilpatrick and George Scott
Zach Kopplin
Matthew LaClair
Wangari Maathai
Erich Martel
Steve Orel, in memoriam, Interversity, and The World of Opportunity
Marla Ruzicka, in Memoriam
Nancy Swan
Bob Witanek
Peyton Wolcott
[ More Details » ]
 
Bloomberg Says He is Doing A Good Job.
Need we say more?
          
Where did we start? Gotham Gazette wrote in 2003:

School Reforms of 2003
by Deborah Apsel, Gotham Gazette
September 09, 2003

Just two days after New York City students went back to school, the state education department announced that about 40 percent of them had started classes in schools that did not meet federal standards. Despite many questions about the validity of the list of 497 "failing schools," it provided Schools Chancellor Joel Klein with a timely argument in favor of the massive changes he is making in public education in the city:

Bloomberg stands by his overhaul
BY DAN JANISON, NY Newsday, June 30, 2004

Mayor Michael Bloomberg contends he's improved city schools, despite scarce evidence of broad academic improvement so far in his stewardship.

The mayor was asked during a news conference yesterday on school security at Franklin K. Lane High School if his education record will be one on which he relishes running for re-election next year.

"I think the mayor should be held accountable for everything that he or she can impact," Bloomberg said. "And nobody's going to ever solve all of society's problems. But ... it [his jurisdiction] certainly includes education right near, at, the top of the list."

Earlier in his term and during his first election campaign, Bloomberg staked a lot rhetorically on his ability to improve the schools, even setting it as a litmus test for his re-election.

Two years ago, the state gave him executive control of the $14-billion school system. He's left it to detractors to recall the stumbles: a fiasco in which two top deputies were forced out, the murkiness of recent test results, purchasing controversies and continual signs of administrative chaos under Chancellor Joel Klein.

"The fact of the matter is, we don't have broken windows and missing floor tiles," the mayor said. "The fact of the matter is we do deliver the books on time. The fact of the matter is we have parent coordinators that in most cases are making a very big difference."

Bloomberg added that "we solved the problem of attracting teachers to our school system." Test scores "are a much longer term thing," he said.

In assessing the Republican mayor's political assets against a Democratic challenger, polls show his police commissioner, Ray Kelly, drawing higher approval ratings than Klein. Sharp decreases in crime statistics have drawn more notice than any positive trends in the school system, which Bloomberg and company attribute to a need to rebuild a system with entrenched woes.
Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.


"A tremendous number of schools aren't making the grade," Peter Kerr, a spokesperson for Klein told the New York Times. "We're talking about hundreds of schools and thousands of families that are dealing with failure."

In an effort to address that, Klein and his team have spent the last 10 months completely overhauling the school system. Under their "Children First" initiative, they have changed the Department of Education's administrative structure, virtually eliminating the 32 community school districts and replacing them with 10 instructional divisions. Entire offices at the Department of Education were shut down in an effort to do away with excess bureaucracy. The mish-mash of disparate curricula that existed has been tossed out in favor of a uniform new curriculum for math and literacy.

Some see the full-speed-ahead approach as the only way to bring reform to an enormous, bureaucratic and complex system. Others say that there has been too much change too quickly, creating disorganization and confusion. Some see the reforms themselves as innovative and ambitious. Others find them untested, poorly designed and just plain wrong.

Revamping The Bureaucracy
The Department of Education recently held a "Parent Academy," a week-long training session for the city's 1,200 new "parent coordinators," one for every school, hired over the summer to boost parent involvement. Many of the new parent coordinators arrived for their training bright-eyed and energized. "What do I do with the courage and excitement I'm feeling right now?" one man said.

But the new coordinators also had plenty of unanswered questions. "It seems that there is a lack of understanding about my position and what it entitles me to do," noted one, echoing the concern of many of her colleagues. Some parent coordinators remained unsure what their budget was, or whether they even had one.

Their confusion is typical. The overhaul has created thousands of new positions even as others were eliminated. The 32 community school districts still technically exist, largely to comply with state law, but their offices have been whittled down from a few dozen administrators to just three employees

The 10 "instructional divisions" each consist of between two and four of the old districts. Until now, parents went to their district office when they had questions that could not be answered at the school level. Now, they go to "learning support centers" -- new offices in the instructional divisions.

But staff at the learning support centers may not have answers to pressing questions about registration, transfers, after-school programs and other key subjects. Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum released a survey that found learning support center workers could not answer common questions. The report found, for example, that in a telephone survey of all ten support centers, none could answer questions about the documentation required to register a child:

June 28, 2004

Gotbaum Releases DOE Report Card
Says School Reforms Need Reforming


Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum today released a report card for the Department of Education's (DOE) first year of reforms. Gotbaum graded the DOE in a number of categories, including "Streamlining Operations," "Student Health," and "Communication Skills." She gave the DOE a C- for its overall performance.

"I commend the Mayor for claiming responsibility for City schools, and I strongly agree that our education system is crying out for a change," Gotbaum said. "But a year has passed, and it's fair to say the reforms need reforming."

"If intentions were all that mattered, this report card might look very different, but grades are based on results. No one expects every problem to be fixed in a single year, but I'm concerned that the actions the Mayor and Chancellor have taken are pushing our schools in the wrong direction. I urge them to drop the quick-fix approach and devise a long-term strategy for reducing class size, improving student performance, and ensuring health and safety."

Gotbaum flunked the DOE for its response to overcrowding at City schools, saying the Chancellor had not even begun to address the looming crisis. She said the DOE also failed to work productively with parents, teachers, principals, and others with a stake in the success of City schools.

"The single biggest reason the reforms aren't working is that the Mayor and Chancellor aren't listening to the people who understand the unique challenges facing New York City schools," Gotbaum said.

She cited the downsizing of the special education system and the new social promotion policy as reforms that had been undertaken hastily and without adequate input from stakeholders. She pointed out that the DOE's approach to special education has led to a massive backlog of students awaiting evaluation and services, and that the Mayor's plan to hold back failing third graders does nothing to improve the quality of education students receive.

In addition, Gotbaum gave the DOE a C for its new school-based parent coordinators and a C+ for its handling of health issues. A survey by her office found that one-third of parent coordinators were friendly and helpful but that the other two-thirds did not answer their phones or return calls. On the health front, she commended the Mayor for making the school breakfast program universal but noted that the DOE had not done a good job of promoting it. She identified the DOE's exclusive, no-bid contract with sugar-filled Snapple and the lack of a plan to meet State guidelines for physical education as additional signs that the DOE has not made student health a high enough priority.

Gotbaum joked that if the Mayor and Chancellor did not work hard over the summer they would have to be held back next school year.

Contact:
Anat Jacobson (212) 669-4743 or (646) 321-4400;
James Vlasto, Communications Director
212-669-4166 or 917-414-2915


Klein has conceded that many people in the system are learning on the job. "The fact that you don't get an answer immediately is not a major issue," said Klein. "The fact that you get an answer is critical."

Rosalyn Inman, a parent coordinator from Brooklyn, echoed Klein's sentiments. "Most of what we are going to need to know," she said, "we will learn as we go."

Advocates anticipate that, over time, the kinks will work themselves out. "Change is painful," notes Noreen Connell, executive director of the Educational Priorities Panel. "Might as well get as much as possible done in one, miserable year."

The New Curriculum
The real work of the school system, of course, goes on in the classroom. The standardized curriculum for all but about 200 of the city's so-called "high-performing schools" addresses that.

Until this year, districts and even individual schools selected their own curriculum. The lack of a standard approach posed particular problems for students who frequently transferred. With no clear guide, schools often switched from one curriculum to another, confusing students

Whatever the merits of the programs selected, some advocates say that Klein has taken a huge step forward by standardizing the programs for teaching literacy and math. "Every school was 'reinventing the wheel,' and some failing schools were reinventing the wheel every two years and doing it very poorly," said Noreen Connell. "Now consistency and depth in delivering instruction is a real possibility for most schools."

In literacy - reading and writing - the curriculum teaches children to read by having them read books that interest them. Under this approach, called "balanced literacy," Dick and Jane are out, replaced by classroom libraries where students can select books at their particular reading level.

The math program emphasizes problem solving over memorization and focuses on the way math is used in real life. Students use "manipulatives" such as blocks, rods and games to learn math concepts. For example, rather than being presented with a sheet of problems to learn addition, first graders might play a game with dice.

The new curriculum relies on what are generally viewed as progressive ideas about teaching. The math program, called "Everyday Math," emphasizes "understanding concepts rather than mastery of basic operations," and balanced literacy "focus[es] more on children working among themselves than on direct instruction," James Traub wrote in the New York Times.

Many experts have criticized the choice of the programs, charging that they do not give enough weight to traditional teaching methods. Using such programs in New York City schools could be "a disaster in the making," Sol Stern wrote in City Journal, "not least because the children in the targeted schools are mainly poor and minority - the very population historically most damaged by such methods."

Writing in the New York Sun, Bas Braams of the NYU mathematics department, faulted "Everyday Math" for offering a confusing array of methods for basic arithmetic, jumping around from topic to topic, and for introducing calculators in kindergarten.

More debate swirled around phonics, which teaches kids to read by emphasizing the relationship between letters and their sounds. Conservatives, including many in the Bush Education Department, favor this approach. But rather than endorsing a full-fledged phonics program, Klein and his educational expert, Diana Lam, decided to give students in lower grades a half hour of phonics instruction a day in addition to their other reading and writing work. Critics promptly charged that the program they selected -- "Month by Month Phonics" -- was untested, and, in fact, not focused on traditional phonics methods at all. In the wake of such criticism and threats from the Bush administration not to provide funds for the program, the school system selected a more traditional phonics program to supplement "Month by Month Phonics."

Klein has pointed out that the curriculum he and Lam chose is already being used in some successful city schools. Some of the city's highest performing districts, such as district 26 in Northeastern Queens, use balanced literacy. In March, the New York Times profiled P.S. 172 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a school that was already using both "Everyday Math" and balanced literacy, as well as phonics. The school has good test scores, despite a disadvantaged student body.

In discussing the math curriculum, school principal Jack Spatola said, "The beauty of the program is that it individualizes teaching and learning. That helps kids to understand a process rather than just regurgitating it."

Teacher Training
Beyond the substance of the new curriculum, many principals and experts have expressed doubts about how teachers were trained.

Over the summer, teachers received a compact disc that provided an overview of the new curriculum. And this year school started a few days later than usual to give teachers four days of training about the new programs. To help teachers as they go along, the Department of Education has hired math and literacy coaches for each school using the new programs.

Stephen Porter, the principal of PS/IS 226 in Bensonhurst, thinks the uniform curriculum will improve continuity as students move from grade to grade. But he does not think teachers had enough time to become accustomed to the new programs before putting them into use. While the quality of training was good, teachers need more time to absorb it, he said. "You want [teachers] to really think about it," Porter said. "Right now, it is difficult for them to think, they are working so hard just to keep abreast of what is going on. They are trying to keep a day ahead of the kids."

But Robert Klein, a local instructional supervisor in Queens' Region 4, says that the new programs have gotten off to "a smooth start... Teachers have organized rooms and are using the new strategies."

While the new curriculum went into effect very quickly, it will take far longer to see the effect of the reform. "Instructional change is hard," said William Stroud, the principal of the Baccalaureate School for Global Education in Astoria who worked on the new curriculum. "People are looking for a quick fix to the achievement problem. If our expectation is that we are going to see results in one year or two years, we are going to be disappointed. We should expect to see improved student achievement in three to five years."

Given the magnitude of the changes, what was most striking on the first day of school was how much remained the same. Students, many toting new backpacks laden with supplies, struggled to find their classrooms and loudly called out to their friends. Teachers welcomed students as principals tried to deal with the customary confusion of making sure children ended up where they were supposed to. Asked if this year seems different from last, a tenth grader at the Baccalaureate School shrugged her shoulders and offered, "I have a new math teacher."

But the city still has a huge student body with many needs, and a lack of resources. The perennial problem of overcrowding may be even worse than usual this year, prompting the United Federation of Teachers to file grievances charging the classes are so big they violate the teachers' contract. And so, the real test of Children First will be to see whether it can improve performance despite these immense challenges.

Deborah Apsel is a reporter with Inside Schools, a web site published by Advocates for Children.

School Reforms
by Gail Robinson, Gotham Gazette
July 5, 2004

After years of volunteering in her school in Astoria, Anita O'Brien now gets paid to be a school activist. As one of the 1,200 new parent coordinators, parents approach her at school, at meetings and in the neighborhood -- hungry for information and guidance. "They feel very comfortable coming up to me and asking me questions and I always try to get them an answer," the mother of three says.

But for all their efforts, O'Brien and the others do not always have the information. After a year of major changes in New York City schools, many questions remain unanswered.

The biggest one for most New Yorkers: Has the Children First Initiative – which brought the virtual elimination of community school districts, personnel changes, the introduction of a standardized curriculum and a new third grade promotion policy - improved New York's schools?

"Not to sugarcoat this [but] I think that it was by and large an extraordinary year for us," Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said in an interview. "We've executed well -- not perfectly, but well -- and I think we're positioning the system for the long-term transformational change."

"If reading and math scores aren't significantly better, I will look in the mirror and say I've failed," Mayor Michael Bloomberg was quoted as saying when he won control of the school system two years ago. "And I've never failed at anything in my life."

And so far, the mayor sees success here as well. At a press conference last week to trumpet improvements in school safety, he offered a generally upbeat assessment of the year. "The fact of the matter is, we don't have broken windows and missing floor tiles," he said. "The fact of the matter is we do deliver the books on time. The fact of the matter is we have parent coordinators that in most cases are making a very big difference."

But others disagree. At a press conference in late June, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum gave the chancellor a grade of C-, saying his "ambitions have not so far produced positive results." In particular, she faulted the mayor for not doing more to relieve crowding in classrooms and for not seeking advice from parents, teachers and principals.

The City Council, whose speaker Gifford Miller is likely to challenge Bloomberg next year, has been a persistent critic, taking on many of the individual reforms. For example, it has condemned the mayor's policy of holding back third graders who fail a standardized test, questioned the drive toward smaller high schools and criticized the department's capital budget.

The teachers union, which is locked in a contentious contract dispute with the city, has faulted Klein and his top assistants for ignoring the expertise of teachers and interfering too much in the classroom.

Here is some of what Bloomberg and Klein tried to do this year and how they fared.

CURRICULUM
TEST SCORES
THIRD GRADE PROMOTION
BREAKING UP HIGH SCHOOLS
HIGH SCHOOL ADMISSIONS
REORGANIZATION
THE TWEED CULTURE
CURRICULUM

Until September, New York had no uniform education program for its 1.1 million students. Individual community school districts -- and schools -- selected their programs, often changing them from year to year. This confused students and placed a particular burden on low-income youngsters who tend to switch schools more frequently than their more affluent classmates.

In 2003, Klein said that, except for some 200 high performing schools, all schools would adopt uniform curricula for reading and math.

Some educators -- notably the teachers union -- objected. Opponents grumbled that the Department of Education was dictating what teachers could hang on bulletin boards and how they must arrange the desks. Jill Levy, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents principals, said this was such extreme micromanaging that she termed it "nanomanaging."

"Not everyone learns at the same pace," said Jo Rossicone, outgoing principal of Brooklyn's IS 220, whose student body includes many English language learners. "They don't take into account language challenges." But despite that, Rossicone believes the uniform curricula are a good thing: "I see a focus. I see everyone on the same page," she said.

If liberal educators had their doubts about a uniform curriculum, conservatives objected to the specific programs selected. Bucking what Education Week has described as "a national penchant for a highly structured, skills based approach to reading and mathematics instruction," the Department of Education spurned phonics and math drills. The language curriculum does not stress letter sounds but instead employs popular children's books, literary discussions and writing. The math curriculum is similarly non-traditional.

This approach encountered flack from the U.S. Department of Education, which expressed doubt that the reading curriculum for the youngest students would enable the city to qualify for about $40 million in federal funds. In response, Klein adopted a more traditional commercial reading program for 49 of the city's lowest performing schools.

This did not mollify critics such as Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute. "Many of the programs and methods now being crammed down teachers' throat have no record of success and are particularly ill-suited for disadvantaged minority children," Stern wrote in City Journal last fall.

School officials, of course, disagree. "We did not want to settle for anything but a rich and vigorous curriculum for our students" said Diana Lam, the deputy chancellor who selected the programs before being forced to resign in the nepotism scandal earlier this year.

THE TEST SCORES
Whatever the shortcomings of standardized tests, they have become a kind of shorthand for determining whether what is being done in the classroom works. This year's results produced a mixed verdict.

For the first time since the test was instituted six years ago, fourth grade reading tests scores fell in the city, as more than half the children tested failed to meet state standards. On the other hand, eighth grade scores improved, as did math scores for third, sixth and seventh graders.

While saying a single year's test scores "are not what this is about," Klein said, "It's a favorable picture." Scores rose on six of the tests given, he said, and fell on three.

The mayor's opponents saw things differently. Citing the fourth grade reading scores, Speaker Gifford Miller called upon the Department of Education to consider scrapping the new reading program. And, while math scores rose, opponents of the new curriculum attributed it more to test preparation than to the new approach to teaching mathematics.

THIRD GRADE PROMOTION
Parents, teachers and New York employers have long despaired at the number of students who leave the school system without basic skills. How could a student be promoted year after year and be unable to understand written material or do basic math?

To confront this, in January. Bloomberg announced that he would end what he called "social promotion" for third graders, leaving back children who received the lowest score - a level one out of a possible four -- on standardized reading and math tests.

As third graders crammed for the exams, many educators declared the policy put too much weight on a single test. Others said efforts should instead focus on improving education in lowest grades, by reducing class size. "They are taking no responsibility for how a kid can be in schools for four years and still not know how to read well," said John Beam, executive director of the National Center for Schools and Communities at Fordham University. Klein now says the schools will try to shift more resources to helping their youngest students next year.

The department allowed some exceptions to the policy, giving students a chance to attend summer school and try again, instituting an appeals process and exempting English language learners and special education students. But the opposition persisted until the day the Panel for Educational Policy, the largely toothless successor to the Board of Education, was set to vote on the plan. With his proposal facing defeat, the mayor arranged for the firing of three members of the panel, insuring that his third grade retention plan would be a reality.

And so more than 10,000 of the city's approximately 80,000 third graders now face summer school or repeating third grade -- up from 4,817 third graders left back in June 2003.

The true test of the policy will come as these children move through the school system. Proponents say it will help insure that students do not reach high school unable to read well or do math. "If people tell you that social promotion is not an issue in our school system than they just haven't been in our high schools, " Klein said. Thousands and thousands of kids who are basically not reading and not doing elementary math -- that seems to me to be the current crisis in public education."

But many educators argue that retention will not solve that problem. A paper by the Institute for Education and Social Policy at NYU's Steinhardt School of Education and the Center for Schools and Communities reviewed the findings on retention and concluded that students who are left back do not score better on standardized tests later on but instead are more likely to drop out of schools than other students. New York City has adopted such policies in the past only to drop them several years later.

Whatever the educational effects, the mayor seems to have reaped political benefits from the controversy. A poll found that New Yorkers backed the mayor's policy by a two-to-one margin.

BREAKING UP THE HIGH SCHOOLS
While New York boasts some of the nation's top high schools, it also has many high schools where most students fail to meet basic standards for graduation. At Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx, for example, only 15 percent of students passed the required English Regents test.

To address the problem, the Department Education has begun breaking up large struggling high schools into smaller schools. Roosevelt High School is being phased out, to be replaced by four schools. Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High School, a distinguished school that had fallen on hard times, is now three high schools. Altogether the city opened 42 small high schools last September and expects to open 41 more high schools as well as 15 small combined junior/senior high schools in September.

This is part of a national trend fueled by money from the federal government's Smaller Learning Communities Program and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has given New York $79 million to promote small schools.

But now signs are emerging of a small schools backlash. Critics argue that the schools do not always deliver on their promise. The City Council education committee reported that students in small schools do not perform as well on Regents tests as similar students at regular schools.

As might be expected in New York, school officials must struggle to find places to put the new schools. They often squeeze the new programs into already crowded schools making the congestion worse. Staff and students at the old, big school then complain the new school gets preferential treatment.

HIGH SCHOOL ADMISSIONS
With such great disparities between the ciyt's good high schools and bad ones, the high school application process resembles a winner take all lottery. This year, the Department of Education revamped the procedure, modeling it on the application process for medical residency programs. Students listed up to 12 schools in order of preference and were matched with the school highest on their list that would accept them. But unlike in previous years, students were no longer automatically admitted to their local -- or "zoned -- high school.

At the end of the initial application round, some 14,000 students had not been admitted to any of the schools on their list. The Department of Education provided them with lists of schools that still had openings, many of them new schools or low-performing ones.

Observers chalked the problem up to the general shortage of decent high schools in the city. But in June it was discovered that the new policy had left some seats at top high schools unfilled. This outraged parents whose children narrowly missed acceptance.

Klein insisted the process still represented an improvement over the scramble in previous years, but Miller called for the education department to come up with a new way to match students and schools.

REORGANIZATION
As Bloomberg focused on education, he took aim at a bureaucracy, which, he repeatedly charged, was more interested in protecting its own than educating young people. To shake up that structure, Bloomberg and Klein all but eliminated the 32 community school districts, replacing them with 10 instructional divisions. The city sold the old school headquarters at 110 Livingston Street in downtown Brooklyn and moved a pared down bureaucracy to the Tweed courthouse next door to City Hall.

But the new organization and the turmoil created some problems. Some critics say the department has lost institutional memory and expertise. According to Levy, principals between ages 55 and 60 are leaving in unprecedented numbers. The New York Sun reported that as many as a third of the 113 new local instructional superintendents that Klein hired last year are quitting, frustrated by the demands of the job.

Some operations got lost in the organizational shuffle. The education department eliminated the bureaucracy that reviewed student suspensions, creating a huge backlog in the disciplinary process. This, more than any increase in school crime, gave rise to last winter's school security crisis.

Similar problems plagued special education, which Klein also reorganized. By last winter the New York Times and the public advocate's office reported the system was in disarray, with students languishing in inappropriate settings while awaiting evaluation. Klein has since announced steps to address the problem.

But the confusion went beyond those two programs. Administrators at a leading Manhattan high school told parents last fall that they really did not know who in the Department of Education was responsible for the school.

"With the old Board of Education, people were downright nasty," recalled Brooklyn parent Carmen Colon. "Now they smile and can't help you."

The parent coordinator program was instituted partly to help parents negotiate the bureaucracy, and many consider it a success. "The hiring of parent coordinators has been one of the most positive aspects of the Children First initiative," said Digna Sanchez, president of Learning Leaders, a volunteer program.

But some parents are less impressed. "Parent coordinators are simply middlemen who do nothing but deflect the parents away from the administration,"

 
© 2003 The E-Accountability Foundation