1999-05-22 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

I usually ignore the New York Post because it is too far right even for me. The paper’s headline last Sunday could not be ignored, however. In the usual 96 point type it proclaimed "Why Kids Can’t Read." Then, in smaller type, "EXCLUSIVE: Scandal of teachers who can’t write."

The fact that many teachers cannot write may have come as a big shock to Andrea Peyser, the columnist who wrote the story, but the fact that many teachers cannot write or speak adequate English comes as no surprise to those of us who work in the system.

It seems as if a teacher in a Brooklyn middle school sent Peyser a folio of teacher’s work that would make any normal person cry.

"He does not take to many things serious," wrote one teacher of a student.

"She does not know the alpha beth," wrote another.

"Why is he not learning or learning but so little with my help, …I will like to know what is causing the mental blockage," wrote still another.

These came from a Brooklyn school, but they could have come from many District 27 schools as well.

When I first began teaching, I had to pass a writing test and a speaking test. They were simple tests, but they indicated that I could write simple sentences and that I could speak English so that my students could understand what I was saying.

That was then. This is now. What is the difference? The answer is "Diversity."

During the late 1960s and early 1970s a movement began to make the teaching staff "more diverse." The word "diversity" in the minds of many was simply a code for fewer Jewish teachers and more minority teachers and immigrants. The conventional wisdom was that the students in the system would benefit if the teachers looked and talked more like them. That would increase the student’s self-esteem and would allow the teachers and students to have a better rapport.

We all know how that movement turned out.

Where once you had to pass a stringent test to become a teacher or a supervisor, today, the joke goes, you have to pass the "mirror test."

What is the mirror test? You put a mirror in front of the candidate’s mouth and if it fogs up, you hire the candidate.

It is not far from the truth.

"I think that the new teaching force coming in over recent years is for the most part, unqualified," said one Brooklyn teacher quoted by Peyser.

I am not sure that is true. I work with new teachers and the majority of them are adequate to the task. They speak English well and can write and read.

The minority of them, however, is another story.

There was once a supervisor in this district who went on to get a doctorate from Columbia University and become a district superintendent in another district. I would cringe when she got on the loudspeaker each day and said something like "We is now goin’ to moves to the next period."

I swear that is the truth.

She replaced the Star Spangled Banner for her grade with "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and she could not write a complete grammatical English sentence. Her memos had to be rewritten by another assistant principal or by me before they went home to parents.

There was another teacher in the same school who spoke with such a heavy Jamaican accent that not even the faculty was able to understand her, never mind the students.

She taught Language Arts. The kids would come to me after each period, laughing about her and complaining that they did not understand what she was saying. She lasted five years in the school before she moved on to a high school. Her accent never became any clearer.

In addition, many of those teachers lack a body of knowledge that is critical to teaching.

One Social Studies teacher, just in from the islands, wrote on the board that Pittsburgh was a state. Another wrote on the board that Eugene V. Debs, an important American labor leader was a Supreme Court case named Eugene versus Debs.

I could not make this stuff up.

Unfortunately, most of these teachers wind up in schools where the kids have the lowest academic achievement.

Before you start blaming the local school board or the local principals for the situation, think again.

The fault is not theirs, but the central board’s.

The central board certifies that people are eligible to teach. They give them a file number and a certificate. They send them to the districts for placement.

Under our convoluted system of justice, the district or a school principal cannot turn down a person with a teaching certificate for any reason without engendering a lawsuit.

You can no more turn down a person because they do not speak English adequately than you can because that person is in a wheel chair or is deaf or has any other handicap.

The new State English Language Arts test in the eighth grade requires that students listen to a passage twice, take notes and write about what they heard.

How can they pass if their teacher does not speak adequate English?

The city, knowing it has a problem with teachers who cannot use the language, asked the state for permission to issue tapes with the passages on it. The state turned the city down flat.

Thousands of kids will fail the test not because they do not have the requisite skills, but because they could not understand the teacher who read the passages to them.

The teacher’s union knows well about the problem.

It has not addressed the problem with the central board because its leadership is also politically correct. The union says that salary is the central issue.

"With some of the lowest wages in the state, we have difficulty attracting and retaining the best and the brightest teachers," a union spokesperson said.

That is a cop-out. Even when the best and the brightest are not available, you do not allow the system to hire sub par people for such an important job.

The union is constantly having workshops to celebrate diversity. It is part of the problem.

I am in favor of diversity, but I am also in favor of standards.

New teachers must be tested for both speaking and writing skills.

Those who cannot meet the standard should look elsewhere for work.

Maggie Gallagher, another columnist for the paper, put the problem succinctly

"The real, unspoken problem with attracting new teachers is not pay: it’s prestige and working conditions. Too many teachers are being asked to perform in classrooms where neither the parents nor the administration (nor the courts, busy writing up new children’s rights) require that the students show them the respect their position deserves. Unless something is done about that, public school teaching will continue to totter on the edge of becoming not a professional vocation but a blue-collar job.

All it will take to stop teachers from entering the system with inadequate skills and knowledge are some simple tests. The central board will not give those tests because it will cut down on the diversity of the teaching staff.

To those in charge, the diversity is more important than the skills.

That, is a crying shame.








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