A Busload of Faith

Religion forms a large part of the American experience. Public schools may lean on the first amendment to duck teaching about faith, but belief and dissent are at the core of the nation’s foundation. In the depths of his 1990s dispair, New York rock icon Lou Reed sang, “You need a busload of faith to get by.”

For some, however, religious faith is not a part of their identity. Not that they would explicitly discriminate against believers. Maybe they just find the supernatural less relevant to their lives. God seems a bit ‘old school,’ and believers a bit curious.

We must guard against this bias, especially at an intentionally diverse school like ICS. Nearly 90% of Americans believe in God and statistically that means many of our families.

In 2015 I told The New York Times a complicated story about the tension between belief and doubt. In the article it was reduced to “Matthew Levey thinks he’s doing God’s work.”

Recently I was asked if charter schools that espouse a classical curriculum are part of a effort to indoctrinate students. And, given my newspaper statement, did my own religious beliefs align with this plan?

I was taken aback and did not respond particularly well.

The simple answer is that I’m not privy to plans to inculcate religion at any charter school in New York. Classical or otherwise. To my knowledge no New York charters have violated the 1st Amendment or New York laws regarding religion. Certainly not ICS.

Like yours, my religious beliefs are personal. But tolerance is critical, and not optional.

ICS espouses a coherent, content rich curriculum that challenges and informs. Our first graders compare and contrast the beliefs of Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Aztecs, and Mayans. Second graders study Buddhism and Hindu gods. Our third graders learn about Roman gods.

An education that puts facts first might find it challenging to teach about faith. Yet religion is critical to our history and must be taught, dispassionately. After all, it is a fact that Christians accept Jesus as their Savior, but Jews do not. Massachusetts Puritans disagreed with Pennsylvania Quakers, yet they found common ground to found a nation. Sikhs wear turbans; that does not make them Muslims. Factual knowledge of others’ beliefs can help heal our divisions.

Teaching about religion allows to us examine an inherently human phenomenon: the vexing, fascinating, ubiquitous fact of faith. Some argue that faith without factual foundation is just like today’s mulish insistence on one’s own political narrative. But there’s an important distinction: religious faith exists in absence of facts, not in contravention of them. Science has chipped away at religion, but believers still believe. There is room for subjectivity, and a case for contemplation. These topics need not compete with math and science.

That’s a hard concept for kids, or adults. Which is why the certainty of belief is so comforting. Psychology teaches us that whether it’s politics, religion, film, or sports belief is wrapped up in self-identity. Ask our Mayor, a faithful member of the Red Sox Nation, surviving among 8 million unenlightened Yankees fans.

Rather than ducking religious history – both the good and the bad – we must teach it, to build empathy, a critical predicate for the kind of understanding so sorely missing from our national debate.

*   *   *

In 2002 reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and killed by terrorists who justified murder with a warped view of religion. Honoring his memory, Bret Stevens asked us “to believe in an epistemology that can distinguish between truth and falsity, facts and opinions, evidence and wishes.” To fulfill this request we must respect both facts and beliefs, and teach kids to know the difference.

As Stevens concluded, “Danny Pearl died for this. We are being asked to do much less. We have no excuse not to do it.”

How Are We Doing?

Apart from renovating the new space at 9 Hanover, hiring additional staff, planning professional development, ordering supplies, meeting with real estate developers, and running summer school, it has been relaxing here at ICS this past month.


While we miss your kids, the truth is we are taking care of much essential work while the building is less crowded.

Among that is analyzing the data on your children’s academic progress in the past few years and identifying opportunities to strengthen our practices. You’ll remember that about 40 of our 3rd graders took exams in math and English in April. The State just announced those results won’t be available before the middle or end of September.

But we have results from the Dibels tests we give three times a year to all 300 students. Dibels is a early literacy assessment used by thousands of schools, developed at the University of Oregon in the late 1980s. We have used it since August 2015 when ICS opened.

We look both at proficiency (where do these results stack up) and progress (how have the results changed over time)

In June 2018 the median ICS student scored in the 77th percentile on the Dibels English test. This means half our students did better than 77% of all kids in America who took this test. By comparison when we gave this test at the end of our first year, in June 2016, the median student scored in the 58th percentile. Based on this assessment, we think ICS students are pretty proficient.

Of course ICS is growing so we can’t exactly say we gained 19 points, because our mix of students changes.

But for students who started kindergarten and 1st grade with us in 2015, the change was from the 63rd percentile to the 82nd percentile. Which is to say the median student who stayed at ICS for two years scored higher than 82% of all children who were given the Dibels test nationwide. This is particularly remarkable as the tests get harder each year – the kids are expected to know more – so just maintaining the same percentile is considered typical growth.

Another important goal for ICS is to serve an economically diverse student body. In that regard our recruiting efforts have been successful – about 33% of our students are economically disadvantaged (“ED”) compared to 27% at three neighboring charter schools that pursue a similar strategy.

ED children face academic challenges. At ICS the median ED student was in the 56th percentile in June 2016, lower, but not too dissimilar from the average (see the 1st paragraph above). By June 2018 that median ED student scored in the 63rd percentile. Growth, but below the average change among all ICS students.

As with the general population,  ED kids who have been at ICS for two years saw more growth. The change was from the 51st percentile to the 73rd – a 22 point change. That is heartening news and a lot of growth. The gap in percentile scores between the ED group and the general population dropped from 12 points to 9 points.

Another way to look at growth is the change students achieve in a single year. Since hundreds of thousands of students take the Dibels every year, we have very precise data on how much their scores would be expected to change in a given year. As the table to the left shows, 65% of our students experienced above typical growth last year.

Lastly, I should mention the consistency of the growth we are seeing in the Dibels scores – 47% of the students who’ve been with us for two years saw their percentile increase in both years; only 11% saw their scores fall in both years.

The New York state exams are the measure on which our authorizer, the Charter School Institute, relies most heavily. But if these results in English are illustrative, we think they (and you) will be very pleased.


Cultural Literacy: It’s not The Canon

A common concern about the ICS approach to teaching English is that the stories and experiences we teach are part of the Western Canon; ‘dead white men’ as postmodernists like to say.

Setting aside the issue of whether and how children in America are taught the history and culture at the foundation of their country, the assertion misrepresents what we do and believe.

The Canon is ever-evolving and ever-moving. This came to mind as my daughter told me about her life saving class. She just learned CPR. I asked if she knew the chest compression rate was the same as the beats in the BeeGee’s hit, “Staying Alive“?

“Who?,” she replied, quizzically.

Artists, writers, philosophers have always looked to the future through the lens of the past; When”Empire State of Mind” was topping the charts, I explained to my then nine-year old son that Jay Z was paying homage to the past when he rapped:

I’m the new Sinatra, and… since I made it here
I can make it anywhere, yea, they love me everywhere

My son was incredulous that Sean Carter from Marcy knew about Sinatra. Or that the skinny Italian from Hoboken was once so edgy that my grandfather threatened to throw out my mother’s collection of his albums. (Thankfully he did not, and we still have them). The Canon is not static.

A few years before Kendrick Lamar was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Texas author Lawrence Wright won it for “Looming Tower,” his account of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His most recent book is about his home state.

Discussing Texas culture and its many layers, he writes, the base is “Aggressive, innovative, self-assured.” But as Texas looked outward, it mimicked external influences. This Wright calls layer two. In the third layer the culture absorbs external influences and “returns to its primitive origins to renew itself.”

The best examples of Level Three tend to be origin stories. Beyoncé’s album Lemonade absorbed the street talk and country music and the church choir of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston, and enlarged the tablet of popular music.

I hope there will always be a Western Canon. We know Shakespeare because his extraordinary insight into the universal human condition makes him as relevant today as when he was alive. Leonardo DaVinci, bastard child of a teenaged mother, understood science hundreds of years before society caught up. Voltaire, Smith, and Locke inspired Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson to imagine a country and government that had never existed.

When we teach systematic phonics and expose kids broadly to history, geography, literature, art, music and science we are not imposing a dominant world view that sanctifies one group. We’re laying a foundation that helps them to make sense of the past and the present. And prepares them for the future.

Advances in Knowledge

At ICS the academic progress we usually monitor is of our students, but today we note Parag Pathak, a 37 year old from Corning, NY. He won the John Bates Clark medal for the best economist under the age of 40.  It’s only slightly less prestigious than the Nobel prize.

While it’s unlikely you know his name, Pathak’s work has had enormous practical impact in cities like Boston – where he teaches at MIT – and New York. Lotteries such as the one you entered to enroll your child at ICS are one way to allocate a scarce resource – good schools – fairly. But Dr. Pathak and his collaborators have been busy developing improved systems and studying their effect.

Kevin Bryan, a Professor at the University of Toronto, writes that Pathak labors in:

an area where theorists have had incredible influence on public policy, notably via Pathak’s PhD Advisor, the Nobel prize winner Al Roth and his proteges like Atila Abdulkadiroglu and Tayfun Somnez, as well as the work of 2015 Clark medal winner Roland Fryer. Indeed, this group’s work on how to best allocate students to schools in an incentive-compatible way – that is, in a way where parents need only truthfully state which schools they like best – was adopted by the city of Boston, to my knowledge the first-time this theoretically-optimal mechanism was used by an actual school district. As someone born in Boston’s contentious Dorchester neighborhood, it is quite striking how much more successful this reform was than the busing policies of the 1970s which led to incredible amounts of bigoted pushback.

Pathak’s family came to the US from Kathmandu, Nepal. Atila Abdulkadiroglu and Tayfun Somnez are originally from Turkey. Roland Fryer grew up in challenging circumstances in Lewisville, Texas. At a time when many Americans are anxious about the impact of immigration, trade, and expanding opportunity for previously marginalized groups, it is quite something to reflect on the impact of this talented, young, diverse group of researchers on educational opportunity in America.

Although it is supposed to work like Boston’s, Pathak examined New York City’s [high] school choice program to check that belief. (Critical thinking!)

He concluded that parents do not choose irrationally, but they value the quality of the other children at the school over the school’s academic effectiveness, which may be hard to judge. This creates a perverse incentive for the school’s administration to allocate resources to screening applicants more carefully – in order to get higher quality students – rather than to improving instructional quality. Because of Pathak’s work we know more and have chances to improve this fraught time in kids’ and parents’ lives.

With a lottery as our only entry method, ICS has no incentive or way to screen applications. And as you know, we focus a lot of resources on instructional quality.  But what makes me especially happy is to live in a country where economists like Parag Pathak are given the chance to think broadly about difficult social issues and develop solutions that will improve outcomes and opportunities for all our kids.

Tough Love

In 1948 Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that “education has a two-fold function to perform… one is utility and the other is culture.” At ICS we refer to these functions as knowledge and socio-emotional learning  On the wall outside the music room our children see that King warned us that “intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.”

This advice came to mind when my younger daughter took a Tae Kwan Do belt test in Friday night. Apart from the physical benefits that come from martial arts, Tae Kwan Do also seeks to inculcate character values similar to ours at ICS: courtesy, integrity, perseverance and self-control, among them.

Before the test began, her teacher, Master Kwok asked the students if they were living up to the Tae Kwan Do values. “Did any of you greet your teacher when you entered the room?”

Silence. A lot of staring at feet.

“Do you think I should proceed with the best test if you have not even learned the first value? What does it mean to be courteous?”

A parent sitting near me could not hear what was going on and asked “Why does he seem so mad?”

William Kwok

I explained that apart from the forms and strength, Master Kwok expected them to learn values that would reflect well on themselves, and on him as their teacher. 

The tension continued as he asked more questions. He turned to the assistant teacher, asking what this situation suggested. She seemed uncomfortable.

After a few more comments, he agreed to start the test. The children acquitted themselves well, demonstrating precise forms and strong kicks. But afterwards as he handed out the belts he warned them that living the values of his studio was as important to him as their technical knowledge. “You can ask [name of kid]. He was a red belt with three black stripes and I dropped him back to white. He had to earn everything again.”

 *  *  *

Greater appreciation for and acceptance of diversity is a positive aspect of our society in the past 60 years. Writing this post on a Saturday morning from a coffee shop at the corner of 87th St and 4th Ave in Bay Ridge, I see Arab moms in headscarves, Chinese grandparents pushing shopping carts, and white kids in Rangers tee-shirts. Thomas Jefferson wrote said it was ‘self-evident’ that all men were created equal but we have long struggled to live up to this ideal.

As we become more open and accepting, the challenge is to simultaneously remain committed to common values that bind us together. When we hesitate to impose these values, for fear we are shaming or excluding, we tell kids these values are not really important to us. 

Directors of Culture

The Family Organization adult book club is reading David Brook’s The Road to Character.  Whether you can join them for the discussion (Tuesday May 1st) or not, the book offers yet another variant on this universal lesson and rewards your effort.  

It’s no fun setting your alarm to wake up 15 minutes earlier, or enduring the whining of a child to whom you have to say “No, it’s a school night.” I’ve got three of my own, and I wish I could tell you they become courteous and full of perseverance right at the end of 5th grade. 

But as Shakespeare wrote, sometimes we have to be cruel to be kind. Even at 8:02 in the morning.

Lottery Overview

Our lottery was drawn on April 3rd, at 1:30 pm at our school. Results were emailed out on Saturday.

The email you received contains specific instructions about next steps, including our enrollment process and information sessions where families can see our building, ask specific questions, and meet other potential ICS families prior to committing.

Our Family Organization will host adult-only events at 6:00 pm on April 26th as follows:

  • Fort Greene: Putnam’s Pub & Cooker  – 419 Myrtle Ave
  • Brooklyn Heights/Downtown Brooklyn: Circa Brewing Co. – 141 Lawrence St
  • Prospect Heights/Park Slope: Morgan’s BBQ, – 267 Flatbush Ave
  • Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights: Chez Oskar  – 310 Malcolm X Blvd

The Details

As of April 1st we received the following applications:

Kindergarten 1st – 4th Grade Total
CSD 13 242 65 307
Non-CSD 13 274 236 501
Total 516 301 817

State law requires us to give preference to families residing in CSD 13. Their names will be drawn randomly, but before the names of families who do not live in the district.

If a child with a sibling is offered a seat, we must offer a seat to his or her brother/sister, even if they have a lower number in the lottery.

Waitlist Policy

Children to whom we cannot offer a seat will go onto our wait list in the order of their lottery number. When seats become available we will call once and email you twice; you will have 24 hours to reply. If you do not respond, your name will be removed from the waitlist.

Families can join the waitlist at any time.


School Safety

Lockdown drills have become a sad element of school culture. The shooting in Parkland, Florida was particularly upsetting as the killer exploited students’ natural reaction to a fire alarm to increase the number of deaths he could cause, and the police response was not ideal.

As with any terrorist incident, these senseless deaths provoke emotional responses. We are human and terrorism exploits this.

Our families are diverse and have responded differently to this news. Some discuss it with their kids, others shield them. As an elementary school we must consider your children’s emotional capacity, while respecting your choices.

I pointed out previously that we live in one of the safest large cities in the country, Crime rates have been dropping in Brooklyn, consistently in the last decade, even as we ended the ‘stop and frisk’ program that some claimed was integral to our increased security.

Further context can be found in this story from the non-partisan news site 538.com, which quantifies key elements of gun violence in America. Shootings like Columbine and Parkland, while horrid, are far from the biggest gun violence risk we face. By a long shot.

Reviewing the history, one sees that school shootings have taken place almost exclusively in middle and high schools, perpetrated almost exclusively by current or former students who had motives (albeit twisted), and access. David Ropiek writes in the Washington Post that since 1999 there has been a 1 in 614 million chance of a child being killed in  school shooting.

The chance of a child being shot and killed in a public school is extraordinarily low. Not zero — no risk is. But it’s far lower than many people assume, especially in the glare of heart-wrenching news coverage after an event like Parkland. And it’s far lower than almost any other mortality risk a kid faces, including traveling to and from school, catching a potentially deadly disease while in school or suffering a life-threatening injury playing interscholastic sports

Ellen and I have consulted with neighboring charter elementary schools, reached out to the 84th precinct, and spoken with a retired NYPD detective who now heads corporate security for a large financial services company. The key thing you can do as parents to support our policies is to follow instructions at pickup and drop off.  We have spoken with the teachers about their key steps as well.

Ropeik notes that school shootings don’t happen in isolation but in the context of worrying news about all sorts of things. Our judgement suffers from the “mean world syndrome” arising from relentless headlines about war, terrorism and the flu. He concludes:

Just as surely as there will be another school shooting, it will prompt another flood of outrage and fear. That fear, while understandable, will distract us from greater threats and lead to behaviors that do greater harm. The real lesson we need to learn is this: We need not just reasonable gun control, but also a bit more self-control over our emotions and instincts if we want to keep ourselves and our kids safer.

Technology in Schools

Prospective parents often ask how ICS exposes kids to technology. We offer a counter-intuitive answer:  “Not much.” Our experience is that the impact of most educational technology is oversold.

This weekend I read a provocative essay by a local mom, who notes there is little evidence that technology in the classroom aids poor kids, whose disadvantage is often used to justify large spending plans.

Talk of a ‘digital divide’, she says, is misleading:

The real digital divide in this country is not between children who have access to the internet and those who don’t. It’s between children whose parents know that they have to restrict screen time and those whose parents have been sold a bill of goods by schools and politicians that more screens are a key to success. 

At school, both for ICS kids and my own, I see time and attention spans sliced into ever smaller bits; kids who struggle to find the deeper meaning in written words and conversation. In 1984 George Orwell predicted the government would use constant noise to prevent citizens from thinking. The irony is we have done it to ourselves.

We are not Luddites. Our partners at Amplify are looking at a range of ways in which we can use technology to better assess kids’ comprehension. But as you see the picture to the left, the adult is talking to the child, not simply hooking him up to a screen. As we see impact we are willing to invest more. But poorly conceived school-wide or district-wide programs rarely succeed.

Another area of interest for technology is in programming and engineering-like activities. The Family Organization is partnering with the League of Young Inventors on one such program.

Additional screen time leads to increased attention deficit disorder and other academic issues, according to the essay I cited above.

In general, families can best support their kids by putting down the computers and phones, and talking. Or reading a book together. Set limits (for yourself too!) and stick to them. It is not easy, but the impact is high and the investment will pay dividends for both your child and our society.


How Long?

Psalnyc elementary schoolm 13 begins by asking “How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?”

The question seems apposite in light of the latest study from the New School, publishers of the popular InsideSchools website that helps many parents to pick schools. The Times covered it today, noting:

the poorer students were, the lower they tended to score on the test, even when they went to the same school as wealthier children.

Take P.S. 8, …  in Brooklyn Heights, which the Center for American Progress identified last year as having one of the richest Parent Teacher Associations in the country, and which has a relatively diverse student body. While 64 percent of its students passed the state math test in 2016, compared with 36 percent of students citywide, black students at the school were nearly a full proficiency level behind their white peers. (emphasis added)

I raised this same concern three years ago, observing that average Black-White achievement gap in seven desirable Brooklyn elementary schools was 37 percentage points in English and 43 in math.

At the time I wrote to one Brooklyn mom that until we wake up every morning asking, “why is this?” we’re fooling ourselves that we’re solving the problem.

It seems we are still asleep.

A co-author of the New School’s study told the Times her study “shows diversity, and whether a school does or does not have diversity. But there’s a big leap between having diversity and having integration.”


ICS kids have yet to take state tests. We’ve made our overall view of the role of state testing data very clear. That is not the same as asserting that ICS will not face a gap. We know where the challenges lie.

But we’re not hiding from them.

A ray of hope in the New School report is a diverse-by-design charter school in Cobble Hill, where the economic gap does not predict the academic gap. Many of you will know this school is part of the Success Academy network. There’s an interactive site here where you can look up individual schools and districts.

Meanwhile, we continue to invest in our children and their families. With high quality instruction, emotional support, and harassing messages to please get your kids to school by 8:00.  Because we believe all kids can succeed, and income must not be allowed to predict outcome.

Know Your Ancient Civilizations

Veterans of 1st grade will recall we invest several weeks learning about ancient civilizations. Like the King in Alice in Wonderland we think history makes more sense when you “begin at the beginning and go on ’til you come to the end.”

As parents know far-too-well, time is quite abstract for young children. Many educators believe kids can’t learn history at this age as it is not concrete enough. We know they can, they just need support.

After a class presentation on monotheism, I recently explained to a 1st grader that David, the famous King of Israel, lived a long time ago.

“You mean like the 80’s?,” she asked?

Even longer, I explained.

Her classmate chimed in, suggesting, “Like the 2500’s?” That’s more like it, I nodded.

The stories of the Babylonians, Egyptians, Aztecs, and Israelites might seem to offer little more than the answers to Trivial Pursuit questions. But their cultures form the foundations on which ours rests, whether in art, literature, technology, math or philosophy. The fact that you can read this blog post is a sign of our debt to our ancient ancestors’ systems of writing. (Something many ancient American civilizations lacked.)

Ancient cultures frequently borrowed from each other – Our third graders understand how the Romans recycled the Greek gods. But these civilizations also had distinct features, as one of our 1st graders recently explained.

This week his mom recounted seeing a paper on which her son’s name was written, and underneath an unusual script. “What’s this,” she asked?

In the tradition of families everywhere, the older sibling, who does not attend ICS, blurted out: “It’s hieroglyphics. He spelled his name.”

The ICS student responded promptly, “No, it’s not, it’s cuniform.”

“Same thing,” interjected the older child.

“No it’s not,” replied the younger one. “Cuneiform is Mesopotamian and hieroglyphics are Egyptian.”

If you’re struggling to tell the difference in the pictures in this post, ask one of our first graders. They may not know (yet) exactly when the Sumerians and the Israelites lived. But there’s a lot that they do know. And bit by bit, maybe even without you realizing it, they are building insight and understanding that will serve them for the rest of their lives.