Friday, April 1, 2011


We have a new goal. The chancellor of the NYC DOE, Cathie Black, has miraculously discovered that high school graduates should be college ready upon graduation. I wonder what Ms. Black defines as being college ready. All of her references to being college ready refer to the same old clich├ęs about test scores, "teacher effectiveness, teacher evaluations, [and] having the best teachers in every single class."

This is typical of the new regime. Joel Klein. Cathie Black. Michelle Rhee. Arne Duncan.

Does she (or they) tackle the question of what students need to be able to do to be college ready? Does she discuss critical thinking? What about problem solving? Time management? Independence? Of course they need to increase their reading and writing abilities. But does that make them college ready, or simply high school graduates?

When told students were doing a 5 page research paper, Ms. Black was also quoted as saying, "'Hmmm. Didn’t seem to me — now length doesn’t necessarily mean rigor — but it didn’t seem to me as though that was something that would be thought of as a significant research paper."

Is she talking about product or process when she refers to rigor? The most difficult and challenging writing assignment I ever had was in graduate school. We had to discuss how five authors agreed or disagreed about three themes.... all in 5 pages. That was rigorous; not because of its length, but in how it forced us to use precise language. She should know that. She was an English major.

There are many schools in and out of the city that make kids college ready. The private schools and the best public schools do because they don't spend excessive time on test prep. (Exception. Private tutors for SAT, ACT, and AP exams.)

"Black said she knows when that leadership works by looking around a school and seeing whether the principal knows his or her students, and if the teachers appear engaged." To me the most important criterion is whether the students are engaged in rigorous, challenging, and engaging work.

One program that engages high school seniors in over 60 schools across the city and in 4 NYC high schools is WISE. "WISE serves as a bridge for seniors from high school to college, work and lifelong learning. A WISE program enables high school seniors of all ability levels to design an individualized, passion-driven project. Projects can include, but are not limited to, internships, independent research, self-improvement, community service or cultural, artistic and performance-based activities. The topics students can explore in school-based, experiential learning programs are limitless. As a result, students discover in themselves and in one another skills, strengths and talents they had not realized were present.

As part of the process of developing and completing their WISE projects, students select a staff mentor, maintain a reflective and research-supported journal and make a public presentation. During the school day, as well as in the evenings and on weekends, students devote significant time to work on their projects—they research their topics, maintain written daily journals, meet with their mentors to explore and reflect upon project issues, and discuss their topics with one another. Upon completion of the project, each student gives a public presentation assessed by a panel of students, teachers and community members.

Students need to be independent learners and problem solvers to succeed in college and at work. They have to manage time, develop good interpersonal skills, set realistic goals and become self-reliant. WISE students gain these abilities and more in executing their individualized senior experiences, which not only eases their transition to college and work, but also enhances their chances for success.

The WISE experience takes students from the confines of a traditional classroom and invites them into a world full of opportunities to learn from others in stimulating settings. It also fosters students’ independence, as they learn to manage their own time and interact with new people in adult environments.

In order to develop a project, students must be able to reach out and convince a mentor and an outside sponsor to work with them. They need to be mature, responsible individuals.

WISE students have to adapt to a variety of people. They have to learn to navigate new and different environments. Through the rigorous WISE process, students learn how to enter the new world outside of the classroom and the school. They become young adults.

Planning and executing a WISE project can become a subject for a unique and winning college application essay. And for those colleges that demand one, the interview becomes a wonderful opportunity for students to shine by discussing their WISE project. In addition, college admission officers are charged with deciding which of many similar applicants possess the background to enhance the community of a particular institution. A WISE experience gives students a “leg up” in this process. Indeed, when WISE students arrive at college, they are better prepared to be successful students and active campus citizens.

Following a passion allows a student the freedom to explore a major field of study, service opportunities or a career. Thus, a WISE project also gives a student direction for the future and an entry to the benefits of lifelong learning." (

I invite Ms. Black and so called education leaders to talk to WISE students, graduates, and staff to see what true engagement means and how college ready WISE students become.

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