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Inspiration and Perspiration


Graduations are sacred events in American society. They mark an important transition, and graduates and their loved ones are justifiably proud of their accomplishments. For this reason, it’s a very tricky thing to comment on news stories connected to graduations. One doesn’t want to appear to be denigrating the achievements of the graduating students, many who have overcome substantial odds to obtain a diploma.

Over the past week, Joel Klein, Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, has been making the rounds at the graduation ceremonies of some of the small high schools in NYC. Regular readers of this blog know that eduwonkette has been sharply critical of some of the “turnaround” myths constructed about these small schools, pointing out that they enrolled students who were better off academically than the students in the large high schools they replaced. At my urging, she held off on posting about the Chancellor’s e-mail to teachers about the graduation ceremonies at Bronx Lab School, one of the small schools which replaced the larger Evander Childs high school, about which she has posted repeatedly.

Jenny Medina files a story in today’s New York Times on the graduation at the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice in Brooklyn. Much of the piece describes the extraordinary time and effort put in by the staff in order to achieve a graduation rate of 93% among the senior class. The principal, who is leaving for another position, describes herself as “exhausted,” and expressed concern that her staff could not maintain the intensity required to do their jobs well.

”You are taking a bunch of hyper, type A perfectionist people and giving them a herculean task,” she said. “People have to work much too hard to do what we are doing. People cannot work at this level all their lives and nobody is prepared to do something at a level of mediocrity.”

Ms. Medina writes that the Chancellor “seemed unconcerned that so many of the teachers at small schools were working such long hours.”

”'When people are part of the world of changing things for children, they don’t view it as work,' he said, pointing to members of his own staff who log 14-hour days.”

An uncharitable critic (that would be me) might note that one of the reasons that the Chancellor’s staff must work 14-hour days is to clean up after his many missteps and mistakes. Such a critic might also point out that the average salary of the members of the Chancellor’s staff is $113,000, whereas the average salary among the teachers at the Urban Assembly school for FY 07 was $49,000.

But let’s take the Chancellor at his word. If you’re changing the world for kids, why would only 14 hours a day be enough? Why not 19 hours a day? Don’t the Chancellor and his staff really care about changing things for children?

We need to disrupt this ridiculous myth that expects superhuman effort from educators in order to achieve success for kids. Almost all of the teachers I know work very hard, and struggle to maintain a balance between their professional responsibilities to the children they teach and building and maintaining a life outside of their work. We don’t need cartoon-like superhero educators; we need a system that supports teachers to work hard and honestly at their craft, without the risk of burnout after a couple of years.



One of the things I have been struggling with recently is the new system for students applying to high schools. I met with a bunch of my former students recently and while many of them "chose" the schools they will be attending in the fall none of them seemed to know enough about these schools. One of my former students (who has a keen sense of intellect and true curiosity to learn) is going to be attending a vocational high school because she "accidently" put it down first and they obviously wanted her since she is on grade level in both subjects. Another is attending a new small school that appealed to her because it focuses on the performing arts. When I read a review of the school on inside schools it was overwhelmingly negative and the graduation rate presented was very low. I am pretty sure this student and her parents did not read this review or have a sense of the school beyond the blurb written about it in the high school book given to students in 7th grade. There is only one guidance counselor in my former school and I am sure she spends most of her time making sure the students understand how to fill out their application forms and then ensuring that they actually hand this paper work in. But it deeply saddens me that this process which is supposed to be about "choosing" the right school for you (and your child) is not better facillitated. Has any focus been given to this process and whether it actually results in positive reactions from students and parents?

Thank you for always providing informative commentary on this issue.


Every single failing High School and/or Middle School story I see or read contains the phrase "started below grade level". While I admire the superhuman effort these teachers put in, I have to wonder if their efforts wouldn't be more productive if it was directed at fixing elementary school education.

Except for the "reading wars" and the "math wars", Elementary education takes second fiddle to the more glamorous failings of upper schools.

I liken it to spending billions on the rebuilding of New Orleans when it would of only taken millions to prevent the levies from failing in the first place.

To eduwonkette and that last paragraph in particular: AMEN!

To rory: I thought your comment was particularly interesting because in higher ed, we spend a lot of time talking about how under-prepared students are when they get to college and lament the failure of K-12 schools. I have to wonder if elementary teachers lament that parents do not do more to prepare their kids before they enter kindergarten. I think the prevention versus cure analogy is a good one but then one has to wonder when 'prevention' really begins.

There is ample evidence that schools can bring most Title 1 students up to an end of third grade level by the end of third grade regardless of how poor their pre-school preparation was. The fact that most schools fail to achieve this, is a sad testament to the ability of many schools.

"I think the prevention versus cure analogy is a good one but then one has to wonder when 'prevention' really begins."

The education system can only control what happens in schools and classrooms. Prevention starts in Kindergarten (or maybe pre-school if you’re lucky).

As far as students starting school, our system should be based on the premise that we start from ground zero. Any good business management course teaches us that standards should be reasonable and achievable.

Simply put, it is either possible or impossible to have the vast majority of 1st graders (excluding special needs and ESL students) performing at grade level by the end of 1st grade. I believe it's possible with the proper instruction, standards and curriculum.

Thanks for your kind words about teachers. I guess the teachers who work 19 hour days don't have to run to second and third jobs, as I've had to do for most of my career.

The teacher as superhero myth needs to be busted. Teaching is highly demanding. In order to maintain high levels of performance, teachers need extremely good boundaries and balanced interests. Teacher burn out is a huge concern, impacting not only individual student achievement, but also exponentially impacting the systemic interrelations of work and community. A good work ethic is admirable; a puritanical one is martyr-like, and a recipe for poor instruction. Quality self-care is one important indicator of a teacher who is handling her/his professional responsibilties well. It is critically important that teachers model the importance of balance by starting with themselves. In my opinion, not until we teachers learn to say no and mean it, will our vocation begin to be perceived as the true profession it is. We have a long way to go on this one!

I agree that teachers often work way beyond their official "work hours" - which is the force behind "work to the rule" strikes that teachers have used across the country. In what other profession is it called a "strike" when employees fulfill 100% of their contract hours?

Just goes to show that schools routinely expect teachers to work many hours beyond their contract - and then op ed pieces have the gall to laugh off teachers as working "9-3 with summers off"! Burns me up...

Thanks for quoting the Times story. I wonder how many small schools have teachers working at burn-out pace, and will require an unrealistically high regular resupply of high-energy teachers?

What a sad story - this school was held up in the press as a model of what small schools can achieve. I once applied there and was contacted for an interview but decided to decline. As a parent of young children, I sensed that it wasn't the place for people like me. And, by the way, it's not just the small school teachers who are putting in 60 or more hours a week during the early years.

Why does it seem that teacher turnover data in NYC is so hard to find, or am I not looking in the right places? It's certainly not an issue that's well covered.


I've been trying to get school by school turnover numbers published... no luck so far.

I did get a correspondent to send me numbers for a train wreck of a small school, Eximius.

The Chancellor's staff should try putting in 14 hour days by including teaching 5 classes a day and all the attendent paper work. I have an idea. Let each member of the staff swap places with teachers for a week and let them work only 8-10 hours in a school setting while the teachers work at Tweed for 14 hours. Let's see who is more tired at the end of a day.

You're right about Eximius being a train-wreck Norm. Turnover is crazy at this school. I can't get the numbers either, but I will soon.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • anonymous ex-eximius teacher: You're right about Eximius being a train-wreck Norm. Turnover is read more
  • Norm: The Chancellor's staff should try putting in 14 hour days read more
  • Jonathan: Mike, I've been trying to get school by school turnover read more
  • Mike: What a sad story - this school was held up read more
  • Jonathan: Thanks for quoting the Times story. I wonder how many read more




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