1999-06-19 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

Steve Greenberg is confused and frustrated. Steve is probably the brightest person on the local community school board, and if he is confused and frustrated, we are all in trouble.

Steve recently was quoted about the most recent reading and math scores.

"I think that it is troubling that we are at the bottom," he said. "We have been pouring resources and special programs into the schools that are not performing and they continue not to perform. I wish I knew what the answer is."

Steve, do I have a quotation for you. "The beginning of wisdom is the understanding that there are problems without solutions."

I’ve always admired the man (or woman) who first said that, and it sort of quantifies my personal philosophy.

It certainly pertains to the situation we are now faced with in our schools.

In the past few years, many of the schools in this district have reorganized and have received grants to "restructure" the schools to allow for literacy.

The redesign initiatives have names like "Little Red School House," and "America’s Choice," and "Ventures in Education." Most of them have failed, despite the money and the technical assistance and the reorganization and the changing of principals and the reorganization of the schools."


Let’s listen to some other people for a minute. First, from a retired teacher:

"I’ve seen inept teachers try to teach, to no avail. Yet, the children do fine on the standardized tests. I have also seen good teachers try every trick in the book to teach a class or ill-equipped children and get nowhere. Teachers and principals have to work with what they are given. The home is the place where education should start. Blame the home on the inability of city children to read or not read."

Then, for a daily columnist:

"Let’s be frank. In much, if not in all of the city, a library book is much less likely to be returned than read. Bad parenting and social pathology, not taxpayer penury, underlies the reading score crisis in New York."

Look at the statistics and you will have to agree that this is true.

I wrote a few weeks ago that PS 114 in Belle Harbor did better that many of the schools in Nassau County with their high tax base, high teacher salary and smaller classes.

PS 105, on the other hand, had less than 10 percent of its students reading on grade level. That despite the fact that it was redesigned two years ago, its principal was demoted and an entirely new staff of "young, dynamic teachers" was brought aboard. You’ll remember that, as part of the reorganization, the schools fifht and sixth grades went to JHS 198, effectively making it a pre-K to grade 4 school. It got a grant for a national reorganization initiative. Nothing seems to have worked.

It has not worked because the kids who are there are the kids who are there and PS 114 does work because the kids who are there are the kids who are there.

Sounds stupid? Think about it for a minute.

As I have said many times before, you can take the entire staff from PS 114, a successful school by any rational measure (some parents use irrational measures) including the administrators and put them in PS 105. Then, take the entire staff and administrators from PS 105 and put them in PS 114.

Would the kids at PS 105 do any better on the standardized tests? Would the kids at PS 114 do any worse?

In your heart, you already know the answers to those questions. It would make no difference, because, "it’s the kids, stupid!"

There are indications in the daily papers that many superintendents and principals are in danger of being demoted (they can’t be fired, only reverted to the next lowest license) because of the test scores. That is a little like firing a manager because the players cannot play the game.

District 27 is not the lowest performing district in the city. It is, however, the lowest performing district in Queens. It also has the highest percentage of poverty in Queens. Do we see a parallel here?

In this district and throughout the city, those schools in middle class areas do well and those in minority areas do worse. That is a fact of life, and we can argue from today to tomorrow about why that is so.

Despite that, at least four principals are rumored to have their heads on the chopping block.

That will satisfy the blood lust of those who want somebody, anybody punished for the low scores. They would rather see the punishment than they would move to change the community ethos that makes the scores so low.

I have a question for those who order the firings. Who will replace those principals?

Why would anybody take a job when they know that they have little to no chance of changing things on their own and that they will be fired in a year of two for "persistent educational failure"?

At one Rockaway school, there are two assistant principal openings. Not many people applied for the jobs, but 10 finalists were identified and invited to an interview. Only two reportedly showed up.

Nobody with any integrity will take a job where they have little chance for success because the game is loaded against them.

Think about it for a minute. You are interviewed for the CEO of a company making widgets, but you are told that all of the materials delivered to your factory will be substandard. You are advised that all the above standard material will go to the factory across town. You are then told that your tenure with the company will depend on your factory meeting the same high standard as the factory across town.

Would you take the job? You’d probably run screaming out of the room.

That is what principals and teachers face today.

I am for accountability. But acc-ountability needs a level playing field. If I have to carry a 500 pound rock up a 100 foot hill while you have to roll that same rock down the other side, we both can’t be accountable in the same way.

In many of our schools, kids were moved from the second or third percentile up to the fourteenth percentile. That is a prodigious feat, but it does not count in the statistics, because those kids are still in the same quartile. If, however, in a good school, a kid moves from the 70th percentile to the 80th (a natural jump for a student who can read), that does show in the statistics because the students moved from the third quartile to the fourth.

On this, people will lose their jobs.

Is all hoping to be abandoned? Not at all. We can overcome the societal influence with small classes on the lower grades. I’m talking about 15 kids in a class in kindergarten as well as in grades one and two. I’m talking about 25 kids in a class in grades 3-6.

I’m talking about doing away with bilingual education. Kids will never learn English as long as they are taught in their "home language" for their first six or seven years in school.

I’m talking about a system of "Second Opportunity Schools" for kids who can’t handle the traditional classroom situation. We are actually going the other way, pushing "inclusion" for kids who should not be in traditional classrooms.

Those changes will begin to address the problems we face. Until those kinds of changes are made, firing principals and teachers makes little sense.

Not that our central board and our state educational bureaucracy ever made much sense in the first place.

Those kinds of changes will never be made because they cost too much and politicians do not want to spend money on kids.

As somebody said, "there are problems without solutions," and education in our city seems to be one of them.

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