Thursday, May 22, 2008

Barack Obama's Education Plan: The Devil is in the Details

As promised I will look more closely at some of the education proposals outlined on Barack Obama’s Web site.

Here is what he says about recruiting, preparing, retaining and rewarding teachers:

• Recruit Teachers: Obama will create new Teacher Service Scholarships that will cover four years of undergraduate or two years of graduate teacher education, including high-quality alternative programs for mid-career recruits in exchange for teaching for at least four years in a high-need field or location.
• Prepare Teachers: Obama will require all schools of education to be accredited. He will also create a voluntary national performance assessment so we can be sure that every new educator is trained and ready to walk into the classroom and start teaching effectively. Obama will also create Teacher Residency Programs that will supply 30,000 exceptionally well-prepared recruits to high-need schools.
• Retain Teachers: To support our teachers, Obama's plan will expand mentoring programs that pair experienced teachers with new recruits. He will also provide incentives to give teachers paid common planning time so they can collaborate to share best practices.
• Reward Teachers: Obama will promote new and innovative ways to increase teacher pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on them. Districts will be able to design programs that reward accomplished educators who serve as a mentor to new teachers with a salary increase. Districts can reward teachers who work in underserved places like rural areas and inner cities. And if teachers consistently excel in the classroom, that work can be valued and rewarded as well.

Vague stuff, but there are some hints at what this all means. For instance, at first, his proposal for recruiting teachers sounds very much like Wendy Kopp’s “Teach for America” (TFA) programs that started in 1990. But unlike that program that recruited teachers from prestigious schools after they had their undergraduate degrees and then provided grants for them to take classes that would allow them to get certified, Obama’s proposal would provide scholarships for students in college who want to pursue teaching careers, with the stipulation that they must teach for four years in a high-need subject or hard-to-staff location.

The test of the program will be measured by the retention rate and effectiveness of these teachers. Many TFA teachers drop out of the program before they finish their commitment. Some jump to KIPP and leave the public school system. Others leave the classroom and work in some kind of education administration positions. Even though the track record is basically a good one, the placement of new teachers in hard-to-staff schools often leads to a hasty departure.

Now as a teacher unionist, I’m running into some problems with the second proposal. What is a “voluntary national performance assessment” and how will that be used? And, since the test is voluntary how will it measure “that every new educator is trained and ready to walk into the classroom and start teaching effectively?” If you’re an educator you know the pitfalls of that kind of thinking. Do we measure the performance of teachers based on student results on standardized tests? Or, does it mean that we give the test to new college grads who volunteer to take it because they want to go into teaching?

Obama has it right on mentoring. One of the key components to retain teachers is based on whether they were mentored by a senior, quality teacher. Also, giving teachers “paid common planning time” so they can share experiences and best practices really works and would go a long way to retain new recruits and educational communities.

When teacher unionists see phrases like “new and innovative ways to increase teacher pay,” “reward accomplished educators,” and reward teachers who “consistently excel in the classroom,” it’s like smelling smoke. It’s instinctual to immediately look for a fire and to be on the alert. But Obama says that these programs should be “developed with teachers, not imposed on them.” So what is there to worry about?

Success in the restaurant business depends on three things: location, location, location. It’s not much different for education, except that the three things are: implementation, implementation, implementation.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Which future for education would you choose?

This is bare bones outline of what the two Democratic candidates vying for the nomination propose on the issue of education and comes directly from their Web sites. The McCain plan for schools, well, you judge for yourself.

Barack Obama:
(Please see details.)

Early Childhood Education:

  • Zero to Five Plan
  • Expand Early Head Start and Head Start
  • Affordable, High-Quality Child Care


  • Reform No Child Left Behind
  • Make Math and Science Education a National Priority
  • Address the Dropout Crisis
  • Expand High-Quality Afterschool Opportunities
  • Expand Summer Learning Opportunities
  • Support College Outreach Programs
  • Support English Language Learners


  • Recruit Teachers
  • Prepare Teachers
  • Retain Teachers
  • Reward Teachers

College Access

  • Create the American Opportunity Tax Credit
  • Simplify the Application Process for Financial Aid.

Hillary Clinton:
(Please see details.)

Early Childhood Education

  • Nurse home visitation programs to help new parents develop parenting skills.
  • Quality child care and Head Start.
  • Pre-kindergarten for all four-year olds.


  • End the unfunded mandate known as No Child Left Behind.
  • Meet the funding promises of IDEA to ensure that children with special needs get the attention and support they deserve.
  • Recruit and retain thousands more outstanding teachers and principals, especially in urban and rural areas.
  • Cut the minority dropout rate in half.
  • Create "Green Schools" in order to reduce energy costs and eliminate environmental hazards that can hinder children's development.
  • Expand early-intervention mentoring programs to help one million at-risk youth aspire for college and job success.
  • Identify at-risk youth early on and provide $1 billion in intensive interventions, such as early college high schools and multiple pathways to graduation, to get them back on track.
  • Double the after school program to ensure that 2 million young people have a safe and stimulating place to go between 3 and 6 p.m.
  • Invest $100 million in a new public/private summer internship program.
  • Provide opportunity for 1.5 million disconnected youth in job programs linked to high-growth economic sectors.

College Access

  • Create a new $3,500 college tax credit.
  • Increase the maximum Pell Grant.
  • Strengthen community colleges through a $500 million investment.
  • Create a graduation fund to increase college graduation rates.
  • Increase to $10,000 the college scholarship for those who participate in AmeriCorps full-time for one year.
  • Get rid of the red tape in financial aid.
  • Hold college costs down and hold colleges accountable for results though an online college cost calculator, a college graduation and employment rate index, and truth in tuition disclosure.
  • Challenge selective colleges to expand access for students from low-income communities.

John McCain:
(Please see details.)

McCain’s plan is short on details and pushes the slogan "Excellence, Choice, and Competition." Here is a quote emphasizing what he will do " parents and children at the center of the education process, empowering parents by greatly expanding the ability of parents to choose among schools for their children. He believes all federal financial support must be predicated on providing parents the ability to move their children, and the dollars associated with them, from failing schools."

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Vision Required to Preserve Ridgewood Reservoir

Seventy concerned citizens, community activists and local politicos turned out on May 15 to show support for the preservation of the Ridgewood Reservoir as a natural urban oasis on the border of Queens and Brooklyn.

The group voiced concern about the city’s proposed plans to cut down trees, breach the walls of the dam and to build artificial-turf covered ball fields that would destroy what is considered a unique natural habitat. The area contains a succession forest with many native plants, freshwater wetlands and critical habitat for native birds, mammals and amphibians.

The Ridgewood Reservoir Education and Preservation Project (RREPP), a group of community members and nature enthusiasts, opposes the plan and is promoting the concept of creating an environmental learning center on the site. The group feels that the development plans could jeopardize some endangered or threatened plant species and several bird species that are declining or rare that were spotted during recent bird surveys.

Naturalist Robert Jett gave the group a short summary about the local flora and fauna and pointed out that 142 different species of birds were found in the area, as was a thriving population of Italian Wall Lizards. One of the problems pointed to was that an invasive species of vine called Kudzu has choked off many of the edges of forested areas and will have to be removed or controlled.

Neglect of the area has led to invasions of another kind. Some local residents race their ATV’s through the area and pose hazards to joggers and walkers. In addition, this is a favorite site for paintball warriors who come into the park to enact their mock-combat war games. However, those problems would subside if there was adequate staffing, consistent maintenance and wider use by the public.

After the tour, Queens Borough Commissioner of Parks Dorothy Lewandowski talked to the group gathered in the parking lot on Vermont Place about the city’s preliminary plan for Ridgewood Reservoir and said that there will be public hearings that will give the community an opportunity to voice its concerns.

City Councilman Joseph Addabbo, community activist David M. Quintana and State Assemblyman Darryl C. Towns, who were among the organizers of the demonstration, agree that the reservoir provides the city with a unique opportunity to establish a recreation and education resource in the community. After all, most of the work has already been done by nature.

It will take a little vision and a small investment to make this a reality.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

"Are wired kids well served by schools?"

That's what Stefanie Olsen asks in her News Blog on CNet where she reports that according to some researchers from the University of Southern California and University of California at Berkeley teachers and schools have very little influence on the development of the tech skills of their students.

One group survey by a team sponsored by Dale Dougherty, founding editor and publisher of Make and Craft magazines found that only 15 percent of programmers said that they learned to write code in school.

According to the piece, wired kids find school boring and are put off by the culture of delayed gratification fostered by school systems. While, by using technology they can publish their thoughts on blogs, their videos on You Tube and build their own personal web pages on MySpace or FaceBook. They are not doing this in preparation to apply to college or to find a job once they graduate. Instead they are socializing and seeking immediate recognition from their peers. In other words, kids get to be the producers as well as the evaluators of their work, while they are also establishing social networks.

Olsen reports that a Pew study found that as many as 83 percent of all kids play video games, and 53 percent of kids create media online.

In fact, the findings go further:
* 39% of online teens share their own artistic creations online, such as artwork, photos, stories, or videos, up from 33% in 2004.
* 33% create or work on webpages or blogs for others, including those for groups they belong to, friends, or school assignments, basically unchanged from 2004 (32%).
* 28% have created their own online journal or blog, up from 19% in 2004.
* 27% maintain their own personal webpage, up from 22% in 2004.
* 26% remix content they find online into their own creations, up from 19% in 2004. See Pew Study

In fact, according to PEW, 64 percent of wired teens answered "yes" to at least one of those content creation activities.

So are the schools and teachers being left behind in this technology revolution? What if any role should schools have in this sea change? Or, are teachers and schools irrelevant in teaching technology?

Moral dilemmas.

Recently, I was assigned by a local weekly newspaper to capture images of a car that crashed through a store front and FDNY thought the damage threatened the integrity of the structure.

I arrived at the scene ten minutes after I got the call from the editor, but emergency crews had already removed the car from the front of the building. So I missed the shot of the car penetrating the storefront. However, I got some decent shots that somehow told the story well enough that the editors used one of the images.

Fortunately, no one, not even the driver was seriously hurt, but it occurred to me that it would make a great image, if the building would collapse in front of my eyes. So after I got the obligatory shots, I posted my self in what I considered a good spot to capture the collapse.

The Department of Buildings inspector arrived and after surveying the situation said that the building remained structurally sound.

So here is the quandary for photojournalists: (This was my fourth photojournalism assignment, so I'm a newbie.)
Do you feel guilty because you sometime wish that you can witness the worse scenario for the sake of the image, instead of being thankful that no one was hurt and the damage was all repairable?

Even though this assignment in no way approaches the severity of major disasters, I was thinking of those photographers who go into war zones or neighborhoods that suffered devastation from hurricanes or those who were around to photograph the WTC attack and continued to photograph even though there was so much suffering and destruction around them.

What do they feel when they document these events?