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Why I Am Sending My Daughter to P.S. 163

Over the past year there have been several articles analyzing which schools people on both side of the ‘reform’ debate send their children to go to school.  For example, Obama’s kids go to Sidwell Friends.  Duncan sent his kids to the progressive Chicago Lab School.

This information is interesting since it enables us to get an insight about what these politicians really think the purpose of schools is.  Obama even once noted that at his daughter’s school, they don’t focus at all on standardized tests.  This is somewhat ironic considering the importance of standardized tests in his own Race To The Top.

Back in March, the main reformer of them all, 1992 TFA alum, Michelle Rhee, refused to admit that one of her two daughters attended a private school in Tennessee where her ex-husband, Kevin Huffman (also TFA 1992) is the commissioner of education there.  Her spokesperson said, when questioned about this, “It is our policy not to discuss where Michelle’s children attend school out of respect for their privacy.”

For those of you who don’t know, one of Rhee’s big lines in many speeches is “My daughters suck at soccer,” before explaining that our country has been too quick to reward people, like with the soccer ribbons her daughters have, who haven’t earned it.  So for sure her daughters privacy is not completely sacred, at least in this context.

I should also mention that I don’t think that there is any sort of safety threat to the children of a politician or otherwise national figure, knowing where his or her kids go to school.

I’m not so sure that someone who works full time in education policy and who has a lot of influence with the media and with politicians has the right to keep her decisions about where to send her kids to school private.  It’s like if there was a health expert, like Jillian Michaels from The Biggest Loser, and it gets reported that she brings her kids to Burger King every day for lunch and dinner.  If this is her choice, I don’t think that her kids privacy is an issue.  For sure there shouldn’t be pictures in the paper of the kids eating Burger King, or even pictures of the kids at all, but the FACT that the kids eat fast food is relevant and important to know.

A few days after the Rhee story broke, seemingly in retaliation, the New York City tabloids ran stories about how Leonie Haimson, school advocate and founder of ‘Class Size Matters’, decided to send her son to a private school for high school.

The question that these revelations begs is:  Are any or all of these people hypocrites?  I think this question needs to be considered on a case by case basis.

With Rhee, well, I could make the case that she is not a hypocrite for sending one of her daughters to a private school (why not both?).  After all, she has consistently said over the year that the American school system “sucks” so why would she allow her child to go to one.

Likewise with Haimson, I don’t think she is a hypocrite at all.  She believes in the importance of small class size.  She advocates for this constantly.  So for her child she pays to send her child to a high school where he is guaranteed to have a small class size.

For Obama and Duncan, it is a bit more difficult to say they are not hypocrites.  The schools they send their kids to have none of the test prep and teachers teaching to the test to save their jobs of the charter schools that they seem to love so much.  The only resolution is that they might think that a progressive school with plenty of play, art, and music is appropriate for rich kids who are not behind in their skills while poor kids who are behind need a different type of school that focuses on the academic content with double blocks of math and reading and little room for anything inspiring.  If that were the case, they wouldn’t be hypocrites either, just people who think that “those kids” “need” something like a KIPP school in order to catch up.  I’m not sure if that isn’t worse than being a hypocrite.

I don’t know that I’m a prominent enough player in the education wars for any newspaper to write about where my daughter, who is going into kindergarten next year, will go to school.  I’m writing about it, though, to give people an insight into what my decision says about what I value in a school based on my actions and not just my words.

New York Cityhas a very complicated process for selecting a school for your child.  There are charter schools you can apply to, there are public schools that are ‘lottery’ schools even though they are not charters, there are zoned schools, there are district gifted and talented programs, there are city wide gifted and talented schools, and then, well, there’s Hunter.

The Hunter school is the most coveted school in the city.  To get into Hunter your child has to first get evaluated by a child psychiatrist who administers something like an IQ test to the four year old.  The test costs $300 and thousands of people have their kids tested.  About 500 kids make it to the second round by scoring over a cut off score that changes from year to year, but is generally around 150.  Those 500 kids are then subjected to a second round which is called a ‘play date.’  In the play date, thirty kids at a time go to the school and play with each other while people with clipboards observe them and take notes.  After everyone goes through the play dates, Hunter picks twenty five boys and twenty five girls and then has a short wait list.

My zoned public school is P.S. 163.  I live in an area of Manhattan that has a mix of different socioeconomic groups.  A few blocks south of me there are some very rich people.  A few blocks north there is a housing project.  I know that if P.S. 163 doesn’t have the best test scores in the city, it is not a reflection on the quality of the teachers.  And the progress reports, which I know are really meaningless too, as they try to measure the ‘growth’ of the students were, over the past three years a C in 2010, a C in 2011, and a B in 2012.  Parents are generally happy with the school.  The teachers care, the school environment is nurturing, and the principal is enthusiastic.  Without any any action on my part, my daughter would be admitted to the general education program of that school, which we would be happy with, though with gifted and talented programs we could be eligible for, including one in our zoned school, it was worth a shot to go through the New York City ‘choice’ process.

‘Reformers’ always say that the quality of the teacher is the most important in-school factor for academic achievement.  When ‘reformers’ are asked about the importance of class size they say something like “Would you rather have your child with a great teacher in a class size of 40 or a bad teacher in a class size of 20?” supposedly proving that teacher quality is more important than class size.  Never do they ask if you would rather your child have an average teacher in a class of 20 or a ‘great’ teacher in a class of 40, for which I know I’d go with the small class size.

Well, as a parent I can tell you that I don’t think that the quality of the teacher is the most important in-school factor.  The most important in-school factor is, without a doubt, the ‘peer group.’  So if you ask me if I’d rather have my child with a ‘great’ teacher in a class where all the other students are three years behind my child in ability or a ‘bad’ teacher in a class where all the kids in my child’s class are, like her, above grade level, well I’d go with the ‘bad’ teacher then.  Having been a teacher for fifteen years I know how tough differentiation is.  Teachers, even ‘great’ ones, generally teach to the middle and then throw together some enrichment for the high performers and modify the assignments for the low performers.

By ‘peer group,’ I should make clear, I am not saying that I want my daughter to be in class with only white middle to upper class kids.  Actually, I would not like that at all.  I’d want my daughter, ideally, in an ethnically diverse class where all the students are functioning above grade level.  I do know that there are problems with having too homogeneous, even academically, a population.  There is a lot to be said for the other types of intelligences which might be under represented in a fully gifted and talented (as determined by a standardized test) class.  Still, weighing out all the options, a gifted and talented class would be the one that, from my perspective, where the pros most outweigh the very real cons.

My wife and I decided to have our daughter go through the Hunter application process, which began in the fall.  This was not, let me emphasize again, because I thought that the teachers at Hunter were any more talented than the teachers at P.S. 163.  It had everything to do with having her in a class where she would likely be somewhere in the middle rather than one where she might be way ahead of everyone else.  Incidentally, at this point I just assumed, like most people do about their children, that she was ‘gifted.’  She can already read Dr. Seuss books from cover to cover with rhythm.  The only thing that she is developmentally behind on is blowing her nose.  I have tried everything in my power as a teacher to break down the process of nose blowing into about 17 steps which can be practiced independently, and she seems to be many years away from getting this important life skill.

‘Reformers’ have been recently responding to critics who say that high stakes testing is causing teachers to teach to the test, by saying that ‘research shows’ that teaching to the test does not actually work.  Of course this isn’t true.  The ‘test’ as, at least, most of them currently are, is something that can be gamed by appropriate test prep.  I know this which was why I shelled out several thousand dollars to a New York City company called ‘Bright Kids’ which helps prepare your child for the New York City gifted and talented test.  As a side effect of this preparation, it would get my daughter comfortable for the Hunter test, as well.  ‘Officially’ the Hunter test is supposed to be something you cannot prepare for and the testers are supposed to disqualify you if they sense that the child has been prepped for the test, but that was a chance we felt we had to take as, like the nuclear arms race, the other people, our competition, were surely taking this risk too, and if my daughter is indeed gifted there is no reason she should lose her place to a non-gifted kid who took lessons.  Then again, maybe my daughter is that non-gifted kid who took lessons and is taking a truly gifted kid’s spot …

So, me, Mr. anti-standardized tests, brought my 4 year old daughter every Saturday over the summer where she practiced doing analogies (with pictures) and also pattern finding, among other things that appear on these tests.  They gave us books for us to work with her at home with and I broke out the books just once and when I saw how difficult some of the patterns were and how she wasn’t really developmentally ready to notice that picture 2 was a rotated and mirror image of picture 1, I put the books away and never worked with her again on this.  It would have to be all on Bright Kids and whatever natural ability my daughter had.

She took the test and we got a letter that her score was a 151 which would have been over the cutoff for previous years, but the cutoff for this year would be announced later.  We were thrilled that the cutoff was a 149 so we made it to the second round — the play date.

Now you can buy anything in New York City so of course Bright Kids offered to sell us a simulated play date lesson.  We declined this, you will all be happy to know.

I also have a son who was one and a half while this was going on.  Until he turned two, a few months ago, he was not a very good sleeper.  Most nights he’d wake up around 2 AM and in doing so, would wake up my daughter — they share a room.  Don’t ask what a 3 bedroom apartment would cost to rent in New York City!  In order to give my daughter the best chance to be alert and well rested for this play date, the plan was for me to take my son to sleep over at my father’s apartment — he and my stepmother were out of town.  So I get the portable crib and my son and take a cab out to his apartment around 7:30 PM the night before the second round Hunter test.  We get to my father’s building and get in the elevator.  I make sure that my sons hands are away from the elevator door when they close.  The elevator goes up and the bell rings that we are on our floor.  I grab our stuff and then, as the door starts to slide open, my son puts his hand on the door and his hand slides with the door and, I never knew this was even possible, slid right into the slot wedged between the door and the wall.  His hand is stuck and he is screaming and this all happens so fast I don’t even know what to do, but I make the — possibly unwise — decision to yank his hand out of the wall.  He is screaming and I bring him into the apartment and call the doctor and they say I may need to take him to the emergency room.  He may have broken some of his fingers.  He seems to have some movement, though, and they say that it will be OK if I just bring him in the next day, assuming that he is not in so much pain.  So this poor guy nearly lost some fingers just so his sister would have a chance to go to Hunter.  (It turned out that my Son’s fingers were OK, miraculously, the doctor told us the next day.)

My daughter did the play date and when we asked her about it she told us that one of the things they asked her was to count as high as she could.  She said she counted to 20.  When I asked her why she didn’t keep going — she could count to at least 30, I knew — she said that they stopped her at 20.  A friend of ours, though, said her kid counted to 50.  We were in trouble!  A week later we got the word that we were not offered a place at Hunter or on the waiting list.  Whether is was the counting to 20 or something else, we don’t know, and never will.  Maybe they figured out that we prepped her for the first round test.  Maybe they tested to see if she could blow her nose.

Our next step, then, was to take the gifted and talented test for the programs in the New York City public schools a few weeks later.  If you can score over the 90th percentile on that, you can apply to be in one of the G & T programs in your district.  If you score over the 96th percentile you can also apply to one of the three city-wide G & T programs including the ‘gold star’ called Anderson.  Even though you qualify for these programs with a 90 or a 97, in previous years there were so many students scoring in the 99th percentile that all the spots in the citywide and the local G & T programs went to students who got 99s, and even they had to compete against each other in a lottery.

So my daughter took a couple of brush up lessons at Bright Kids before the G & T test which she took in January, though we wouldn’t get results until May.

Around this time we also entered a lottery for a spot in a public K-8 school in our district called ‘Manhattan School For Children.’  We visited this school and liked what we saw.  From what we had heard they offer spots to the people who win their lottery and then they have an inexplicably short wait list.  Then, after the G & T results come back, some people who won the MSC lottery will decline their spots opening up to the wait list.  But since the wait list is quite short — not everyone who applied and didn’t make it in on the first round makes it onto the wait list, once it is used up the school can basically choose who they want from their ‘VIP’ list.  So you want to show your face at their fundraiser and be sure to have some face time with their admissions person, which we did.

The amazing thing about Manhattan School For Children is that despite huge number of well to do families vying to get their kids into it, when you look at their progress report you find that, at least according to the DOE, it is one of the worst schools in the city.

In 2012, out of 160 K-8 schools, Manhattan School For Children ranked 158th.  In other words, only two K-8 schools in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, or Staten Island, were worse.

But when you look at their progress report, you see something unusual:


Despite their F in progress, which actually makes the THE lowest rated K-8 school on the progress component of the report (which is 60% of the whole score), and the fact that they were 158th out of 160 K-8 schools in their overall score, they did not get an overall score of an ‘F’, but of a ‘C’!

But their 29.3 overall score is below the 29.9 cutoff for an F.  So I compared to the other schools in this range:

For some reason they were given a ‘C’ and if you look back up at at the overall score, you can see in the small print the provision “Schools with average English and Math performance in the top third citywide cannot receive a grade lower than a C.”  Keep in mind that getting an ‘F’ can get you shut down, so this is pretty lucky that they have this provision.

So the fact that I was trying to get my daughter into this school, going to a fundraiser and bidding $100 in the silent auction for two tickets to Pippin! (someone outbid me, thankfully!), talking to parents who already had kids there about strategies to ‘harass’ and ‘stalk’ the admissions officer to get on their VIP list, really shows how little I think of the so-called ‘progress’ reports.

A bit of irony is that if my daughter would have made it into this school (she didn’t win the lottery or make the wait list and we have not ‘stalked’ the admissions person to get on the VIP list.), I could very well have been working a bake sale fundraiser standing next to none other than Wendy Kopp.  (It is publicly known that her children go there as she has said it in public interviews including this one.)

The deputy chancellor of New York City who is in charge of closing schools is a TFA alum named Marc Sternberg.  He has shut down dozens of schools (and tried to close down even more) over the past few years.  He was recently a keynote speaker at a big TFA fundraiser so they must be OK with shutting down ‘failing’ schools.  Imagine, though, if that provision that bumped MSC from an F to a C were not in place?  Sternberg would be licking his chops to shut down this ‘failing’ school with the kids of Wendy and her husband who is one of the top people of KIPP.  Maybe then TFA would come out against school closing based on bogus metrics.  This is, to say the least, ironic.

TFA would claim they are neutral on school closings, but I don’t think it is possible.  You either are disgusted by them and speak out against them, particularly if you are a political powerhouse like TFA, or you are not.  Their silence on this issue, to me, is a full endorsement of this weapon of school reform.  After all, TFA alums who are chancellors and state education comissioners are some of the biggest supporters of school closings, other TFA alums benefit when the schools are closed and they get to swoop in and occupy those schools with their own charter schools.  Also, the main supporters of TFA are also supporters of school closings.  I do wonder, though, how Wendy would feel if the ‘failing’ (at least in terms of the bogus NYC progress reports) school that her kids attend were to be shut down and replaced with a ‘no excuses’ charter.

Now this does not make Wendy and her husband hypocrites for sending their kids to an F rated school, based on test gains, while promoting charter schools that are fixated on test scores and much more rigid than the progressive MSC.  It could be just that they think that for poor kids a school like a KIPP is needed.  To tell you the truth, I do think that a school that works for one population might not work for another — but I still don’t think that the ‘no excuses’ charters are the good alternative.

Back to the story:  So the G & T results come back about a month ago and my daughter, it said, got a 98th percentile.  This was awful news.  In our district, about 25% of the kids score in the 99th percentile so with that 98 we would have no chance at Anderson, and nearly no chance at our local G & T program at our zoned school P.S. 163.  But when I looked more carefully at her score report I noticed something unusual.  Over the past few years the G & T test was heavily verbal and they found that the results were skewed giving white kids higher scores.  About 40% of white kids were gifted according to the old test, while only 5% of black kids, or something like that.  So this year they had two tests, a verbal and a non-verbal.  The non-verbal was worth 65% and the verbal was worth 35%.  This would get a more balanced group of gifted kids, the theory went.  That didn’t happen.  It actually got even more skewed toward white kids, maybe because of test prep companies, or maybe because the DOE, once again, didn’t do their research.  So the thing I noticed that puzzled me was that my daughter had gotten a 99 on each of the subtests, but a 98 combined score.  It didn’t make sense.

Fortunately this happened to several other parents and one reported it and it resulted in the tests being rescored and with that our daughter had a 99 combined score.  So now were had a small chance at Anderson, around a 5% chance, and a pretty good chance at our local G & T.  (You rank the schools and then they have a lottery — it is very complicated.)  To add another complication into the mix I learned that there was a rule where if a student in a G & T program has a younger sibling, if that sibling gets a 90% then the sibling gets to take a spot in that program before any of the 99s get to pick.  There was a chance that even with our 99, we would be shut out completely — something that actually happens a lot of people each year.  Well, we must have drawn a decent lottery number because although we did not get into Anderson, we did get a spot at our local G & T program at P.S. 163.

I went to visit the school recently and thought it was great.  I saw the G & T class and was pleased to see it quite diverse.  I also looked at a great dual language program they have and also their regular general education classes looked great too.  I’m looking forward to being an active parent — I hope they don’t get common core crazy since I’ll have some ‘suggestions’ if they do!

The looming question now is:  Am I a hypocrite?  Here I want my daughter to be in a ‘peer group’ with kids, like her, who come to kindergarten already able to read while I seem to have a problem with charter schools excluding the toughest to educate kids and then kicking out the few that make it through their initial defenses, thus creating a peer group of motivated low-income students with motivated parents.  The truth is, though, that I wouldn’t have such a problem with charters creating this enhanced peer group if they would not lie about doing more with the ‘same kids’ as the nearby ‘failing’ school.  What this has caused is those ‘failing’ schools getting starved of resources, their schools shut down, and their teachers fired.  All because they did not try to game the system.

So that’s my saga — my quest to get my daughter with the most appropriate peer group for her, the most important in-school factor, in this parent’s opinion.

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Gary Rubinstein

Gary Rubinstein is a high school math teacher. He is the recipient of the 2005 Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship. ...