About Andrea’s Blog

Welcome to my periodic musings on the state of American education, business, journalism, the consumer experience, women and food—how it is grown, cooked and eaten. A systems thinker since I wrote my first book, The Man Who Discovered Quality by W. Edwards Deming, most of my ideas and writing are informed by a systems view of the world.

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Unwrapping New York State’s latest common core tests

Once again I am in possession of a bit of educational contraband.

For the second year in a row, I have received a copy of the New York State English Language Arts tests for grades 6 to 8, which were administered in April. (Though, this year, my set appeared incomplete as it contained only books one and two for each grade–not the three books that were included last year and that I was told were given this year. So my analysis here is confined to only two booklets for each grade.)

Anyone who has followed the controversy around the introduction of the New York State’s “common-core aligned” tests, knows that there has been a growing backlash–and not necessarily against the common core itself. Rather, a great many educators object to the quality and the quantity of tests–in addition to six days of “common core” testing, New York kids are now finishing the Measurements of Student Learning (MOSL) tests, the sole purpose of which is to evaluate teachers, as well as field tests for next year’s “common core” tests. In the fall, students as young as kindergarteners endured base-line testing for the MOSL.

Most importantly, educators are outraged by the secrecy in which the tests are cloaked. Under its $32 million contract with Pearson, the publisher and educational-testing giant, the state is barred from making the Pearson-designed tests public;  New York educators are under a gag order prohibiting them from revealing anything about the test.

As of this writing, it is not clear to me why this gag order is not in violation of New York State’s Truth-in-Testing law, which requires disclosure of test questions. If anyone knows the answer, please write in!

Back to the tests themselves. In April, 557 principals across New York State  wrote an open letter to parents outlining their concerns about the latest round of testing.

A similar letter-writing followed the first round of common-core testing last spring.

Elizabeth Phillips, the principal of Public School 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and one of the signatories of this year’s letter, followed up with this critique of the tests in an April New York Times OpEd. It read in part:

“I want to be clear: We were not protesting testing; we were not protesting the Common Core standards. We were protesting the fact that we had just witnessed children being asked to answer questions that had little bearing on their reading ability and yet had huge stakes for students, teachers, principals and schools. (Among other things, test scores help determine teacher and principal evaluations, and in New York City they also have an impact on middle and high school admissions to some schools.) We were protesting the fact that it is our word against the state’s, since we cannot reveal the content of the passages or the questions that were asked.”

Bill Heller, an expert on common core-aligned assessments who defends the common-core standards themselves, agrees that secrecy is a big problem. “It’s unconscionable that they no longer release the tests,” says Heller, a senior education consultant at Teaching Matter who argues that tests need to be linked to formative assessments. “When testing is something that is outside of the arc of student improvement, then it becomes an obstacle to learning and teaching and does more damage then good.”

Formative assessments provide a way to gather feedback “that can be used by the instructor and the students to guide improvements in the ongoing teaching and learning context,” according to Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation. “The goal of formative assessment is to gather feedback.”

In other words, while today’s gotcha accountability regime seems as focused on evaluating teachers and highlighting the flaws in public education as on examining student learning, it almost completely ignores the potential for low-stakes assessments to actually improve teaching and learning.

Then there is the problem of Campbell’s Law, which essentially argues that  the higher the stakes for a measurement, the less accurate it is likely to be. Donald Campbell was an American social psychologist and noted researcher who did pioneering work on social-science methodology.

Also, secrecy prevents the most knowledgeable educators–classroom teachers–from critiquing test questions so that they too can be improved. It is the input from teachers and a continuous iterative improvement process that, according to leading educators in Massachusetts, made that state’s highly regarded curriculum and MCAS test the best in the nation. This is how Massachusetts described that process in 2009, just before the state decided to jettison both curriculum and MCAS in favor of the Common Core State Standards and related new tests:

“The MCAS test development process–from the selection of the learning standards that are included in each test to the development of test items (questions) to the production of test booklets–is designed to ensure that test results are valid and reliable. Items undergo extensive review and field testing before they become common items.

“The item development cycle, from the beginning of item development to the inclusion of an item as a common item on an MCAS test, generally takes two to three years.”

In New York State where the common core-aligned tests were administered for the first time last spring, well before any “common core” curriculum was made available for teachers, the process is not just secretive, but also haphazard. The most fundamental problem with last year’s tests was that they were administered before teachers had any meaningful training in the new standards, and before students had much exposure to them; schools, kids and educators, in short, were being set up for failure.

New York State is part of PARCC, a consortium that is developing a common core assessment. But it is one of the few states that rushed to implement a common-core based test before PARCC itself is ready to roll out its own assessment in the 2014/2015 school year.

A close reading of this year’s tests reveals that while the 2014 ELA exams appear to be somewhat shorter than last year’s tests, which were criticized for being too long, both years’ tests are dominated  by a focus on non-fiction texts with little content that speaks to the urban experience. Some curriculum materials were available this school year, but schools reported receiving them late–as of December, 2013, many hard copies were still missing.

Among the three grades, this year’s eighth grade test is heavily weighted to science-related readings (5 of 9 texts,) including one about the iceberg that sank the Titanic. The remaining texts include one nonfiction text–an OpEd about the high cost of rescuing hiker–one poem and two fiction texts.

The seventh grade tests are the most evenly distributed among genres with three science-lated texts; three fiction, including an excerpt from Louisa May Alcott’s Jo’s Boys; and two texts relating to history or current events–one of them a first-person travelogue about Tibet.

The sixth grade test is dominated by non-fiction. It includes three science-related and five other non-fiction texts with one poem serving as the sole example of a fiction piece.

The sixth grade nonfiction topics include an excerpt from a memoir about how a sewing machine and electrification changed the life of one American woman. Among the clothes she sewed, the article explains, were matching outfits for a granddaughter and her Barbie doll.

The reference to the Barbie doll, identified in the text as a trademark of the Mattel Corp., is among a few references to products and corporations that have drawn charges that Pearson is engaging in “product placement.” There is no evidence that Pearson has accepted or solicited funding for product placements; but given the high stakes and big-bucks at stake with these tests, educators are right to be wary.

Based on the first two booklets of the middle school tests, they appear to be shorter than last year’s test. For example, the first two booklets of the seventh grade test weighed in at 45 pages and contained nine passages of one-to-two pages each; three short-answer and one longer essay question; and 49 multiple-choice questions.

By contrast, last year’s seventh grade test included the following in three booklets: At 72 pages, it included 14 passages, the vast majority of which are one-to-two pages in length. There were also eight short-answer questions that require writing about one long paragraph each, as well as two essay questions, and over 100 multiple-choice questions.

On the assumption that greater knowledge of the tests, and greater debate about the tests, can only serve to improve them, here’s a recap of the items in Books 1 and 2 of the ELA tests for Grades 6, 7 and 8 along with a few sample questions.

The sample questions I’ve chosen to include here represent a range of different types of questions, including a few that I found excessively complicated. As one educator said to me: If you, with a master’s degree from a respected institution, need to think about a question, it’s probably too much to ask of a sixth grader.

Grade 6, Book One:

“Ring of Horses” by Cindy Seiffert–non-fiction article about carousels

SAMPLE question: Which phrase in the last paragraph of the article best supports the author’s claim that preserving carousels has value?

A “nearly disappeared” (line 44)

B “began to realize” (line 44 and 45)

C “keeping the music” (line 45)

D “back in service” (line 48)

(The questions and lines in parenthesis refer to the paragraph below. Every fifth line is numbered in the test; thus I have repeated the line breaks as they appear on the test so you can count up or down from #45 to find the correct line numbers; thus this paragraph represents 5 lines, from 44 to 48:

These beautiful machines had nearly disappeared when, in the

1970s,  people began to [end of line 44]

45      realize the importance of keeping the magic of the carousel alive

for  future generations.

Enthusiasts formed the National Carousel Association and the

American Carousel Society [end of line 46]

to raise money, restore, and preserve the wooden carousels.

Thanks to their efforts, today [end of line 47]

about 150 antique carousels are back in service [end of line 48]

“Terra-Cotta Soldiers” by Corinne Bobb-Somers–non-fiction…about the necropolis built by an ancient Chinese ruler

“Pick-Up Your Shovel; Grow A Better City” by Ron Finely–non-fiction…on urban gardening

“The Pit Ponies” by Leslie Norris–poem

SAMPLE question: Why are the ponies scared in line 3?

A They are unable to see where they are headed.

B They are unfamiliar with the world above ground.

C They are uncomfortable being around other ponies.

D They are unsure why they are no longer in the mine.

These questions refer to the first stanza of the poem:

They come like ghosts of horses, shyly,

To this summer field, this fresh green,

Which scares them.

“The Sea Turtle’s Built-In Compass” by Sudipta Bardhan-non-fiction… Sea Turtles and how their unique GPS systems help them navigate

“Planes Saving Cranes” by Peg Lopata–non-fiction. On saving the endangered whooping crane…

SAMPLE Question: Read Lines 45 through 47

However, long-term survival could not be assured with only one flock of birds. another flock was introduced in Florida, but this group never learned to migrate.

What role do these sentences play in the article?

A They show why teaching the birds to migrate is necessary,

B They explain the limited vision of early conservation programs.

C They show how diminishing habitats affect the number of birds.

D They explain why the migration program has been so successful.

Grade 6, Book 2

“Stitches in Time” by Philip Gulley–non-fiction….A woman and her sewing machine

“Windblown” by Britt Norlander–non-fiction…on the increasing frequency of dust storms and their global impact

“The National Anthem” by Patricia Ryon Quiri–non-fiction…the anthem in context

SAMPLE Question: How does the article change the reader’s understanding of the first stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner”? Provide specific examples of the relationship between the article and the first stanza. Use details from both the first stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the article to support your response.

In your response, be sure to

–explain how the article changes the understanding of the first stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner”

–provide specific examples of the relationship between the article and the first stanza

–use details from both the first stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the article to support your sponse

(NOTE: Quiri’s article provides the historical context for the anthem, including the War of 1812, the burning of Washington, D.C. and the attack on Fort McHenry.

A number of inner-city teachers singled out this question as one with which their students would have difficulty. While acknowledging that kids had probably heard the anthem at some point, perhaps during the broadcast of a ball game, they were completely unfamiliar with the text and its complex 19th century language.)

Grade 7, Book 1

“Coyotes on the Move”–non-fiction…why coyotes are proliferating and moving into urban areas

SAMPLE Question: Read Line 57.

Do not tolerate coyotes that enter your yard.

Which definition best fits “tolerate” as it is used in this sentence?

A encourage by giving food to

B allow the continued presence of

C challenge the aggressive behavior of

D frighten with sudden movements toward

(Note: That sentence is immediately followed by: “Scare them away by yelling, waving your arms, or banging on pots and pans.” Two lines earlier the article says: “DO NOT feed coyotes. Keep all pet food and water inside at night, and secure your garbage cans.)

“The Girl Who Threw Butterflies” by Mick Cochrane–fiction

“Asteroids, Meteoroids, Comets” by Kenenth C. David–non-fiction

Excerpt from “The Car” by Gary Paulsen–fiction

“Jo’s Boys” by Louisa May Alcott–fiction

SAMPLE Question: Read Lines 48 and 49.

“But it’s so much nicer to sweep about in crowns and velvet trains than to wear every-day clothes, and just be myself, though its so easy.”

Which line best expresses how Miss Cameron would respond to Josie’s statement?

A “If you feel this, I can give you no better advice than to go on loving and studying our great master…” (Lines 12 and 13)

B “…a single talent makes a very imperfect character.” (Lines 29 and 30)

C “Now and then genius carries all before it, but not often.” (Lines 33and 34)

D “…mere beauty and rich costumes do not make an actress…” (Line 40)

“On the Roof of the World” by Benjamin Koch–nonfiction, travelogue about Tibet

Grade 7, Book 2

“Telling Plastic to ‘Bag It’” by Patricia Smith with reporting by

WilliamYardley of The New York Times

SAMPLE Question: In lines 52 through 58 of the article, the author explains events surrounding a citywide vote. Based on this information, readers can infer that

A Seattle voters were familiar with high fees

B Economic concerns overrode concerns for the environment

C Seattle city officials knew what the people really wanted

D leaders in the plastics industry were helpful in explaining a complex issue

“Vinnie Ream” by Phillip Hoose—non-fiction

“Our Expedition” by Shaun Tan—non-fiction

Grade 8, Book 1

“What Do Flies Think About?” From Discoveries & Ideas Magazine

SAMPLE Question: the author compares flies to fighter pilots in lines 10 and 11 to show that flies are

A Complicated

B forceful

C skillful

D mysterious

(Note: these are the two sentences that fall wholly or partially within lines 10 and 11– “For a long time, scientists believed the flies turn around in flight much like a fighter pilot performs loops. This would require them to first ‘visualize’ a mental rotation–in other words, to plan the loop beforehand.”)

“Edgar, The Falconer’s Son” by Laura Amy Schlitz—poem

“A Bigfoot by Any Other Name” by Kelly Milner Halls, Rick Spears, and Roxanne Young—non-fiction

SAMPLE Question: How do lines 1 through 3 help to develop a key concept of the article?

A It emphasizes that many different creatures have been confused with Bigfoot

B It illustrates that people all over the world have believed Bigfoot exists

C It shows that Bigfoot has travelled all over the world.

D It confirms that Bigfoot has remained unidentified.

Lines 1 through 3: Bigfoot. Sasquatch. Yeti. Yeren. Yowie. The names and the details may differ from place to place, but from North America to China to New Zealand, one thing is certain: Something is out there.

“Paying a Stiff Tab to Rescue Hikers” by Karin Klein—non-fiction

“Cleaning Up” by Mark David Whitehead–fiction

“Soccer…For Robots?” By Marcia Abidon Lust—non-fiction

Grade 8, Book 2

“Cowgirl Morning” by Bryn Fleming–fiction“A Planet Without Apes?” By John C. Mitani–non-fiction

“The Calf That Sank the Ship” by Sonja M. Oetzel—non-fiction

SAMPLE Question: The author of this article provides a unique perspective on the “greatest sea disaster of all time.” explain how the unique perspective contributes to the understanding of the events surrounding the disaster. Use details from the article to support your response.


In your response be sure to

–explain the unique perspective in the article

–explain how this unique perspective contributes to the understanding of the events surrounding the disaster

–use details from the article to support your response

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A Demographic Divide In Harlem: The Neediest Kids Go to Public Schools, Not Charters

Last month I published an OpEd in The New York Times, “Charter School Refugees,” which asked: “Is there a point at which fostering charter schools undermines traditional public schools and the children they serve?”

The OpEd looked at Harlem, where nearly a quarter of students are enrolled in charter schools, and the sizable demographic disparities between the students who attend  public schools and charter schools in that neighborhood. I argued that while “high-quality charters can be very effective at improving test scores and graduation rates…they often serve fewer poorer students and children with special needs.”

The OpEd focused on the reasons why “public open-enrollment elementary and middle schools have double, and several have triple, the proportion of special-needs kids of nearby charter schools.”

With the help of my research assistant Emma Kazaryan, I have now compiled the 2012/2013 data, published by the New York City Department of Education,** on each elementary and middle school in East Harlem into easy-to-read charts. (The city’s school map divides the neighborhood into North and South. So, we have done the same, showing the percentages of kids in poverty, with special needs and English language learners with separate charters for East Harlem North and East Harlem South.)

The data shows that the demographic disparities cut across the board. East Harlem public schools not only have disproportionate numbers of special needs kids compared to nearby charter schools…



…the kids in public schools are much poorer than those in neighboring charter schools:

EastHarlemSouthEconomicNeedIndexEastHarlemNorthEconomicNeedIndexAnd East Harlem public schools have much higher percentages of English language learners than do their charter-school counterparts:


Most of the traditional public schools with relatively low levels of poverty and special needs, including Tag Young Scholars and Manhattan East School for Arts and Academics in East Harlem South, are selective schools. Meanwhile, the disproportionate levels of poverty and special needs, as well as the high percentage of English language learners, at most East Harlem public schools are undoubtedly influenced by the landscape in neighboring Central Harlem where more than half the schools are charters.

My Oped was written in response to new New York State legislation, spearheaded by Gov. Cuomo, that virtually guarantees charter schools in New York City access to space, either in already crowded public school buildings or in rented spaces largely paid for by the city. I concluded: “If charter schools are allowed to push out existing public schools, they should, at the very least, be subject to the same accountability measures for enrollment, attrition and disciplinary procedures, to ensure that the neediest students are being treated fairly…We should not allow policy makers to enshrine a two-tier system in which the neediest children are left behind.”


** To see the Progress Report data for each school, click on the area of the map you are interested in–for example, upper Manhattan. Then click on the neighborhood. Then click on the school and select “statistics.”


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Charter School Refugees–A New York Times OpEd

Late last month, the New York State Legislature struck a deal ensuring that charter schools in New York City would have access to space, either in already crowded public school buildings or in rented spaces largely paid for by the city. Over the next few years, charters are expected to serve an increasing proportion of city students. Which brings up the question: Is there a point at which fostering charter schools undermines traditional public schools and the children they serve?

In this OpEd for the New York Times, I explore the experience of Harlem, where nearly a quarter of students are enrolled in charter schools and where here is a marked disparity between the special-needs populations in charter and traditional public schools, according to the city education department’s annual progress reports. In East Harlem, data for the 2012-13 school year shows that most of the public open-enrollment elementary and middle schools have double, and several have triple, the proportion of special-needs kids of nearby charter schools. The charter schools also often serve fewer poorer students.

My OpEd argues that if charter schools are allowed to push out existing public schools, they should, at the very least, be subject to the same accountability measures for enrollment, attrition and disciplinary procedures, to ensure that the neediest students are being treated fairly. We should not allow policy makers to enshrine a two-tier system in which the neediest children are left behind.

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The Emotional Life of Children: Reflections Of A New York City Educator

Jeanne Rotunda recently retired as the principal of West Side Collaborative MS250, a respected, innovative middle school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Here are some of her reflections on what it means to be a public school educator. Appropriately, given our data-driven, measurement-obsessed world, she writes about one of the important “unmeasurables”.

Jeanne Rotunda recently retired as principal of a leading New York City middle school

Jeanne Rotunda recently retired as principal of New York City’s West Side Collaborative

The Emotional Life of Children

By Jeanne Rotunda

At a summer workshop several years ago, the participants were asked to write in a few words what, as educators, they were passionate about.  Without hesitation I grabbed a blue marker and wrote “the emotional life of children” on my sketch paper. I ultimately left the workshop with a visual map expressing my values and journey as a school leader.  I have thought about that activity often and recently took the visual map off my office wall as I prepared for retirement after 19 years as the leader of a small Title I middle school.  

So often, when visitors toured our school, they commented on the focus and engagement of our students.  I would share with them that behind so many of the children was a heartbreaking story, regardless of the appearance of calm.  It was a testament to the resilience of the child and the relevance of the learning environment teachers created that a particular student could work in such a thoughtful way.  It was difficult for visitors to imagine that the child they just engaged with was struggling with sometimes overwhelming challenges at home.  

Recently, an eleven year old named David, made a presentation  to fifteen visiting educators, sharing his math activities using teacher-created online systems to show his work, self-assess and manage his progress. The visitors were very impressed.  Was this a screened school that stellar students like David sought out, they wondered?  

 What they didn’t know was that David’s life was in disarray.  Nothing he did seemed to gain his mother’s attention.  He had learned early that the only thing she finally would come to school for was an event so disruptive that she had no choice but to respond.  Neither the accolades from teachers nor his habitual troublemaking, could get a response from her. When we finally could arrange for a meeting, we learned even more.  

David’s home life was dysfunctional in many ways.  His mother was overwhelmed by two older siblings, one who was a substance abuser and behaved irrationally.  The home was filled with anger and the adults and his siblings were not able to manage their emotions.  The housing authorities were threatening the family’s removal from the project if the family couldn’t manage their older daughter and the group of friends she brought around.  They were hanging out in the halls and stairwells, starting trouble.  David’s mother was overwhelmed, obese and despondent.  She was also surprisingly reflective.  At one point I asked David to leave the meeting because I needed to talk to his mother privately.  I wanted her to see how from the moment the meeting started, she had only negative words to say about her son, even when I was praising David.  It was as if she just couldn’t find the space in her weary heart to see what parts of her son’s life were working.  This incredibly smart and desperately sad woman had nothing left to give at this point in her life and this brilliant, charismatic and engaging young man bounced from excellent student to provocateur of fights and outbursts.  This is the challenge so rarely discussed as we hold forth about which standards, which curriculum, which organizational structure will “reform” education.

With the constant focus on testing, the latest standards, data that presume to quantify everything important about a good education, we rarely discuss the important unmeasurables, including the emotional life of children.  Yet, who among us is not aware of how our own childhoods have impacted our adult lives?  Do we not think about how we feel about situations in our lives and try to manage our stress levels?  Aren’t we dealing daily with the complexities of relationships and choices?  How can we expect a child like David to focus his energies fully on learning?  How can we think a child knows how to express feelings appropriately and ask for what he needs when the closest relationships in his life are so damaged?  The trauma of growing up in a home with enormous stress from finances, violence, drugs, and other dysfunctions, cannot be underestimated.  How is it that we rarely create the space and time to truly understand how these complex emotions shape the children we educate and our designs for their learning environments?

Being aware of and responsive to a child’s inner life can be painful for the adults who venture there.  But responding with anything less than a dedication to understand and help the child navigate their young but fragile lives, is to not be fully present to their reality.  Schools that are sensitive to the whole child and build meaningful opportunities to nurture and grow the emotions of children, are schools we should look to for guidance and inspiration.

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Grandmothers as Global Change Agents: How India’s Barefoot College Seeks to Transform the World’s Poorest Villages


Bunker Roy, the founder of India’s Barefoot College, likes to say that he got the best education in the world and it almost destroyed him. But instead of becoming a doctor or an engineer as his parents expected, he moved instead to a remote village in Rajasthan, in arid west India, and founded the Barefoot College, a “university” for poor, mostly illiterate men and women.

While 40 percent of Barefoot College students are men, the majority are women–primarily grandmothers—whom Roy considers “the ideal change agents in a traditional rural society” because they will take their knowledge back to their local villages and teach the young, rather than seek opportunities for themselves in cities.

“One lesson we learned in India was men are untrainable,” quips Roy. “Men are restless, men are ambitious…Why? Because they want to leave the village and go to a city looking for a job. So we came up with a great solution—train grandmothers.”

Founded in 1972, the Barefoot College builds on Gandhi’s philosophy and lifestyle of simplicity, self-sufficiency and egalitarianism. Gandhi argued that the solutions to the problems that face India are to be found in its villages. Similarly, the Barefoot College seeks to identify the knowledge and wisdom of villagers that can be tapped for their own development; only when that know-how is insufficient do you bring in knowledge from the outside.

One key example of how the college taps “village wisdom” is its approach to developing reliable sources of drinking water. At first, the college promoted the drilling of wells in desert villages, which required relatively expensive hand pumps and, over time, drilling ever deeper wells. Eventually, Roy consulted village elders who suggested an alternative that had been used in Rajasthan for hundreds of years—collecting rainwater. The barefoot college now promotes the development of rooftop systems for collecting rainwater.

I recently visited the Barefoot College’s twin campuses in the village of Tilonia as part of a two week tour of Rajasthan–my first trip to India. As a longtime student of the top-down, hierarchical culture that characterizes many American institutions—from corporations to schools—I was intrigued by the Barefoot College’s emphasis on bottoms-up solutions. I was also taken with its focus on both the grandmother-as-change agent and the wisdom of elders. (After all, in the U.S., experience is not always valued–in business, politics or education where K-12 “school reform” often means staffing schools entirely with 20-somethings, from the principal’s office down to the classroom.)

To get to the Barefoot College, our group traveled an hour and a half from Jaipur, the last several miles down a rutted dirt road amid wheat and mustard fields. We found an 80,000 square-foot campus of neat single-level buildings built around tree-shaded courtyards. The tree-lined roads and pathways of the campus are almost completely devoid of the refuse that mars almost all of India’s towns, roads, waterways and even many of its most beautiful monuments. The campus was built–and continues to be upgraded–by mostly illiterate architects and engineers who have installed a fully sustainable solar-based electricity grid capable of powering, among other things, over 500 lights, fans and at least 30 computers.

constructing cookers

parabolic cookers2

At the college, we found a beehive of activity, much of it centered around electricity generation.  A key idea behind the sustainable electrification program, is to make villages completely independent in meeting their electrical needs, including installation, maintenance and repair. Villages that have invited Barefoot College to provide electrification agree to pay a modest monthly fee to support maintenance and repair, in addition to selecting a local resident—usually a grandmother—who will spend six months at the college receiving training.

The Barefoot College has electrified 600 villages in India alone, according to Roy, as well as about 25 other countries, including Afghanistan.

Another important ancillary business involves building solar cookers that are stunningly elegant in their simplicity. Roughly half of the world’s population relies on coal and biomass fuels, including dung, for home cooking and heating. Yet, methane emissions (from dung, for example) are the second largest cause of climate change after carbon dioxide, according to the Global Alliance of Clean Cook stoves.

dung cooker                             A dung-heated cooker in another Indian village

By contrast, the cookers built at Tilonia–large hula hoops of thin, hammered metal piping, which frame convex quilts of cheap commercial, sun-and-heat-absorbing mirrors wired together and connected to a box lined with an aluminum-foil-like material—are completely green. The cookers heat up to over 350 degrees farenheit.

The college provides training in virtually all the skills needed for village self-sufficiency. Our group met students of dentistry and acupuncture (who treated the chronic knee pain of one member of our group.) Students also are trained in midwifery, water testing and weaving. Recently, the Barefoot College has begun to train handicapped women in building educational toys and manufacturing sanitary napkins.


Civic engagement, empowerment and good citizenship–including environmental care—also are a major focus of the Barefoot College. Its communications department includes puppeteers, snake charmers and musicians who build on the ancient Rajasthani art of puppet making. While traditional Rajasthani puppet shows tell chivalric tales, the Barefoot College uses paper mâché puppets (made of “recycled World Bank reports,” says Roy) to stage humorous educational skits aimed at teaching villagers about their rights, as well as new social ideas.

For example, in one skit, a menacing over-sized puppet head of a policeman arrests a villager, and explains, mockingly, that a fine will cost 1,000 rupees with a receipt, but just 100 rupees without one; transparency and fighting local corruption are key aims of the college’s educational efforts. A kindly, wise farmer-puppet, meanwhile, imparts useful information about farming techniques and the dangers of global warming. Then there is Moofat, “Mr. Outspoken,” who raises controversial issues, such as domestic violence and the importance of sending children to school.

puppet police2

The puppet shows also are used to make villagers aware of the minimum wage—$2.18 and $3.40 per day, depending on the region in India. In one instance, the Barefoot College helped villagers bring a case against the Indian government, which resulted in a precedent -setting Supreme Court case in support of the minimum wage.

In keeping with Gandhian principals of austerity, most of the people who work and teach at the Barefoot College make little more than minimum wage.

Participative democracy is another core value. Villages that apply for help from the Barefoot College are expected to form committees to brainstorm solutions to local problems (women are expected to make up one-half of the members of the local councils.) The women who train at the Barefoot College are often selected by these village committees.

The college defies many local traditions and respects neither religious nor caste barriers. Initially, says Roy, the college faced some resistance when Dalits, so-called untouchables, were assigned cooking tasks. But Roy insisted they overcome their reluctance.

Pragmatism also informs many of the college’s programs. For example, recognizing the realities of village life, the college has developed a “night school” educational system for children who work, for example, as shepherds in traditional villages and who would, otherwise, not be educated at all. Electrification, of course, is a key requirement for the night schools.

Some 215 students work and learn at Tilonia’s two campuses, which are situated about 1.5 kilometers apart. Most of the women are between 35 and 55–officially the maximum age allowed by the Indian government. (The women who come to Tilonia for training from outside India–mostly Africa–come via a government-sponsored Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme of the External Affairs Ministry.)  As a practical matter, since many students, who come from as far away as Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone, don’t know their ages, a number of the women are older. Instructional videos and sign language help bridge the language barrier among the students who hail from a dozen countries.


This student from the Comoros Islands is studying electrification

I couldn’t help wondering about the challenges faced by women who return to their villages with their new-found knowledge and self-confidence. Since they usually arrive home several weeks before the electrification equipment that they are in charge of assembling, they face much skepticism at first, concedes to Meagan Fallone, who heads global strategy and development for the college. Though, Fallone insists, that skepticism evaporates as soon as they get their first projects up and running.

While the Barefoot College has won global recognition—Bunker Roy received the Clinton Global Citizen Award for 2013–it operates on a relative shoestring. The college’s assets totaled $3.4 million in fiscal 2012.

Interestingly, while the Barefoot College receives funding from a range of international organizations, it says it does not seek funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Among the college’s “non-negotiables”, says Fallone: She won’t divert funds for the costly grant-writing process necessary for securing Gates funding. Nor does the college believe in Gates-style “measurement of deliverables.” It would be “absurd for us to reorganize ourselves to fall into their complicated reporting requirements,” says Fallone. Instead, she says, Barefoot College dispatches volunteers to villages around the world to assess their impact.

I am hoping to learn more about how the Barefoot College assesses its impact.

I’m also curious to learn more about the extent to which the Barefoot College provides a rebuttal to the top-down solutions imposed on schools, families and educators by American education reformers. Instead, the Barefoot College is based on faith in the “competence of ordinary people” to help solve their own problems.

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What A New IBO Study on Special-Needs Kids in NYC Says About Charter v. Public School Comparisons

A new study by the New York City Independent Budget Office offers fresh insight into thorny questions about charter school demographics and performance. The study compares student attrition rates at charter schools with nearby traditional public schools and finds that charter schools not only enroll relatively low numbers of special-needs students, over three-quarters of the special-needs kids who do enroll at a charter school in kindergarten have left by the third grade.

Across almost all demographic groups, kids enrolled at charter schools are less likely to leave during their first three years of schooling than are kids at traditional public schools, with one key exception: Students with special needs “leave charter schools at a much higher rate than either general education students in charter schools or special education students in traditional public schools,” the study found.

While 70 percent of the students who enrolled in a charter school in kindergarten were still at the same school in third grade; only 20 percent of special needs students from the same cohort remained at the same charter school for three years. By contrast, 61 percent of all students in nearby traditional public schools attended the same school three years after kindergarten; and 50 percent of special-needs students remained at the same public school for their first three years.

Attrition rates are an important indicator of how well kids will perform in school. Children who stay at the same school—whether charter or traditional public—do better on standardized tests than kids who switch schools. “The achievement gap between stayers and movers was considerably larger for those who left charter schools and the gap was larger in math than in reading,” the study found.

Equally important, the study suggests important questions about how the performance of traditional public schools are impacted not only by having disproportionately high numbers of special-needs kids, but also high numbers of special-needs transfer students—including those who started school at charters—who, according to the IBO study, are doubly disadvantaged: first because they have special needs, second because they have switched schools.

Consider what Stanford University’s oft-quoted CREDO study of charter school performance in New York City says about the performance of charter schools relative to traditional public schools and what it omits. When the CREDO study was published last February, headlines trumpted the study’s finding that, in reading, 22 percent of New York City charters “outpace the learning impacts”of traditional public schools, and 63 percent did so in math. By contrast, 14 percent of charters did significantly worse than traditional publics in math, and one-quarter of charters did significantly worse in reading, according to the study. [CREDO also made cautious—and much qualified—comparisons between the performance of special needs students at charter schools and traditional publics.]

But in evaluating the “learning-impacts” of charters and traditional publics, the CREDO study does not seem to take into account the significant discrepancy in the special-needs populations of different kinds of schools. While CREDO estimates that only 12 percent of charter school students are classified with special needs, 17 percent of traditional public school students have such designations. [Carol Burris, a respected Principal at a school in Rockville Center, L.I. finds other problems with the CREDO study here.]

Indeed, the CREDO numbers don’t tell the whole story. In Harlem, which has close to one-quarter of the city’s charter school students, and where charter schools showed some of the biggest learning gains, according to CREDO, the city’s public schools appear to have a disproportionate number of special-needs students. For example, Global Technology Preparatory, a Harlem middle school, opened four-years agowith a special needs population of about 30 percent. The schools special-needs population is now about 40 percent. The school, which was founded by educators who had a strong commitment to “mainstreaming” special-needs kids, takes kids who transfer in from nearby charters, including many kids with “IEPs” (individualized education programs). The school prides itself on integrating kids via so-called “inclusion” classes, which are taught by one general-education and one special-education teacher. Shael Polakow-Suransky, the city’s chief academic officer, has called so-called “self-contained” classes, which segregate special-needs kids from the general-ed population “an academic death sentence.”

Research has shown that kids in inclusion classes are much more likely to graduate than those in segregated classrooms, without adversely impacting general-education kids. Moreover, African-American boys are often over-identified as special needs because of behavioral problems, not because of learning disabilities. Some city educators argue that it is precisely kids with behavioral problems who are least likely to succeed in the no-excuses culture of charter schools.

Global Tech’s approach presaged special-education reforms in New York City, which were initiated about two years ago and intended to integrate more special-needs kids into regular public-school classrooms and to allow all but the most severely impaired children to enroll in neighborhood schools.  Having developed a reputation for being “good at” educating special needs students, says David Baiz, Global Tech’s new interim-acting principal who was also a founding teacher at the schools, Global Tech gets referrals from parents and even Department of Education headquarters.

Global Tech has won cudos for its innovative teaching methods. But when it comes to standardized tests, the measure used by most studies, including CREDO and IBO, public schools like Global Tech almost certainly can’t compare to schools with significantly lower special-needs populations. The IBO study helps explain why.

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When Schools Get Caught in the Red Tape of Education Mandates

As cities and states across the country scramble to adopt the latest education-reform remedies, including the Common Core State Standards and new evaluation systems that are intended to hold educators accountable for the performance of their students, schools everywhere are reeling.

The mandates are driven by strong federal incentives, especially Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s competitive grant program. A dozen states received Race to the Top grants to adopt the new teacher-evaluation systems, and the program provided incentives for the 45 states that adopted the Common Core.

Either mandate alone would be a heavy lift, education experts say. A recent government study, “States Implementing Teacher and Principal Evaluation Systems Despite Challenges,” found numerous problems with how teacher evaluations are working on the ground. Among the concerns were “ensuring that principals conducted evaluations consistently.” The report, released in September, also cited the challenge states were having in “prioritizing evaluation reform amid multiple educational initiatives.”

In this story, “Schools caught in red tape generated by new education mandates” for Al Jazeera America, I explore the impact that mandates are having on public schools, including two high-performing schools—one in New York City and one in Massachusetts—that have thrived on grassroots improvement efforts. These two schools suggest that some of the best “education reform” is happening at the grassroots level. They also raise the question: Does education need more grand ideas (and mandates) or practical ways to disseminate and grow what’s already happening in pockets around the country?

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