1999-06-05 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

Ever since the fourth grade reading scores from the new ELA test were released, editorialists, politicians and parents have been trying to pin the blame on various groups. There is plenty of "blame" to go around and I’m here to tell you whose fault it is.

Out of 100 percent, 80 percent of the blame goes a group that nobody has mentioned before. Believe me when I tell you, however, that most of the things that are wrong with the public school system can be traced back to this group.

I am talking about the Advocates for Children. That group has single-handedly insured that little learning goes on in many of our city’s classrooms. How did they do it?

By forcing the powers-that-be (they didn’t need much convincing) that all students are victims of the system and can personally do no wrong.

They began by forcing the city to agree that no student can be suspended more than three times each year. That insured that students who already have three suspensions could not be suspended again no matter what he or she did to teachers or other students. No matter what! Then they forced the city to agree that parents had the right to lawyers in suspension hearings. That turned the hearings, set up to find a way to help the student, into advocacy hearings where teachers and administrators were often treated like criminals. Then, they went to court to force the city to agree to the ridiculous theorem that special education kids could not be punished for any transgression unless they used a weapon. That’s right, a special ed student who punches a teachers cannot be suspended for it unless he or she uses a knife or a gun.

Just recently in one of our schools, a special education student went wild and tried to attack her teachers. The teacher, a long-term substitute, locked herself in a room to escape the student. Another teacher tried to intervene and her arm was badly damaged by the student. That child was not suspended because she had been suspended a number of times this year and because she did not use a weapon. The child remained in school.

What did the other kids who witnessed the event learn from that lesson? That their teachers are fair game as long as you’re in special ed or if you’ve already been suspended.

You don’t think the kids know about the rules. Think again!

The rules against corporal pun-ishment are stringent. They should be. No teacher should ever hit a kid, although I have been often told by parents that I had their permission to bash their kids should they misbehave.

Now, however, corporal punishment has evolved to mean yelling at students. Today, a teacher can be punished under the corporal punishment rules for "lowering the self-esteem" of students.

One teacher said to a kid who had pulled a particularly ridiculous stunt, "What’s the matter with you, are you stupid?" The teacher was called to the district office and charged with corporal punishment. It took months for the teacher to finally return to the classroom.

If you don’t think that inter-pretation of the rule is stupid, you have not been paying attention. Thank the Advocates for Children for that rule as well.

What it does is take discipline out of the classroom. Kids can refuse to work. They can call the teachers vile names. They can fight continually with other students. They can attack teachers. They can burn down bulletin boards. They can do just about anything except sexually harass other students. There are rules against that.

Kids are always testing limits. When they find that there are none, they can go to the limits without any worry about being punished.

The other 20 percent of the blame can be spread over the spectrum. Parents who do not care about their child’s education and who do not set up an atmosphere at home so that a student can do his work gets lots of blames. Kids who refuse to do any work, who think that it’s cool to test the limits get their share. Teachers who cannot speak English get a share. The bilingual program has to take a big share of the blame for those students mired in the program. How can a kid learn English if he or she is taught completely in Spanish for the first seven years of school?

Administrators get a small share. There is not a lot that they can do in a positive way. Like the major league batter, they have to hit the ball where it’s pitched. . They set a tone, they set the administrative style and they decide the discipline policy of the school. Teacher moral has a lot to do with the administrative style of the principal. Principals can turn a school into a dung heap by being too lenient and by driving teachers rather than leading them, but even they cannot make a sow’s ear into a silk purse. Finally, our policy of moving kids along even if they do not deserve it gets part of the blame. Social promotion has to go.

By the way, when parents were polled about laying blame, 35 percent named parents and kids as the main problem. Only 20 percent mentioned the teachers and a small number named the administrators as the guilty parties.

What do the current reading scores really mean?

Look at the scores as statistics. Which schools had the high scores in District 27? Those schools are PS 114 and PS 207. They are in middle class areas, communities where the parents are involved with the education of their students. What are the lowest in the district? PS 105 and PS 123. Those schools are in areas where parents are not as active, where education is not valued on the whole.

On the city level, the top 10 schools were mostly in lower Manhattan and in Northern Queens. Those are areas where parents are involved. Which were the lowest in the city? Schools in Harlem and the South Bronx. Need I say more?

I will be called racist for this, but statistics do not lie. Look at the facts. It is time for Hispanic leaders to do away with Bilingual education and it is time for Afro-American leaders to stop telling kids that they are victims and to tell that that it is time to get moving. They have to know that it is not "white" to do well in school.

Take a look at the Nassau County results. PS 114 had 74 percent of the students reading above level. That is better than Island Park, Uniondale, Freeport, Hempstead, Amityville and many others.

Is the principal at PS 114 better than the other principals in the district? Of course not. Are the teachers at PS 114 more competent? They are not. What then, is the difference between PS 114, which had 74 percent in the top two levels and PS 105, which has less than 10 percent in the top two levels? It’s not the principal. It’s not the teachers. It’s the kids.

In our city, 54 percent of all Asians were in levels 3 and 4, the two highest levels. Fifty-eight percent of white students were in those groups. In contrast, only 23.9 percent of all Hispanics were in those groups and only 25.1 of African-American stu-dents were in those two groupings.

Is it racism that drives those numbers? I don’t believe so. I believe that the Hispanic community is kept down by its own activists who believe that creating jobs for Hispanic educators is more important than educating Hispanic students. I believe that black kids are kept down by their own leaders, who keep telling them that they are victims and that nothing they can do will change that. Those are the people who tell the students that they are entitled to go from one grade to another because America is racist, that they will find the American dream by having it handed to them rather than by working for it.

The schools cannot change anything in a vacuum. It will take a sea change on the part of the kids, the community and the educational infrastructure to make a difference.

Firing the principals will not do it. Parents and community activists need to teach the kids respect and the value of education. That’s all we can ask.

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