1999-09-18 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

Some comments that might sound familiar:

"Many of the failures we ascribe to contemporary education are in fact failures of society as a whole."

"Without higher salaries, it should come as no surprise that the number of qualified teachers entering the profession will continue to fall, while at the same time, established teachers will continue to leave in record number for other, more lucrative endeavors."

Those comments come right out of the headlines of our city papers in recent months, don’t they?

It would seem so, but neither of them was written specifically with New York City in mind.

The first quote is from noted historian Henry Steele Commager (Documents in American History, The History of the American Nation), writing in Life Magazine in 1950. He was noting the education scene not in our city, but in the Midwest (New Trier, Ohio).

The second is more contemporary, but it comes not from a New York City paper, but from The Capital Gazette, published in Annapolis, Maryland. It is a letter to the editor of the paper in response to a story that recounted how both teachers and administrators are hard to come by in Anne-Arnundale County.

The point is that our city and our time is not much different than it was forty years ago or that it is at present in cities both large and small in other municipalities around our nation.

We just happen to have more newspapers and those newspapers know what raises circulation.

The Daily News recently did a multiple part "investigation" of the school system. They did not have to investigate very deeply. They found that elementary school teachers were passing students who (Gasp!) cannot read. What a revelation!

The piece in The News said that the teachers union played a role in the failure of the students who they were tracking.

"(The school’s) shortcomings were compounded by two provisions in the union’s contract with the board of education," the article said.

"One prevents the board from assigning experienced teachers to schools that need them most. The other stripped the principals of the power to routinely ask teachers for copies of lesson plans and to require teachers to plan in a specific way."

I have never heard such hogwash. First of all, why should a senior teacher, one who had been teaching at a specific school for 20 years and knows the neighborhood and the kids have to move to another school in another borough at the whim of some knucklehead at the board? Why should some teacher who lives in Atlantic Beach and has taught in Far Rockaway for decades now have to travel to the South Bronx every day? Nobody else is treated that way, why should teachers be treated in that manner?

Second of all, it is clear that all teachers must plan. It is impossible to go into a classroom without a plan and all experienced teachers know that fact.

Not all teachers have to plan in the same way, however. I taught seventh grade social studies for several years, for example. My class was using a textbook that I wrote. Should I have to write the same detailed plans as a new teacher, wasting hours of my time, simply because my assistant principal wanted to see them.

I can just see an editor at the Daily News saying to a reporter on Monday morning: "I want to see what you are going to be writing about every hour of every day this week by this afternoon." I want you to note who you will be interviewing and how you will get that person to talk to you. I want to know what you expect of the interview and the main points of the story."

That example is really no different than to ask an experienced teacher to detail his or her plans for the week on a detailed form that must be the same for all teachers.

I have known teachers who write great plans but cannot teach a class. I know some great teachers who plan by noting some information in a box the size of a half of a pack of cigarettes.

Untenured teachers, by the way, must write lesson plans in the prescribed manner. Most of them need to do it and they do. Experienced teachers do not.

It is neither the transfer plan nor the union contract on lesson plans that lowers educational standards.

Just read the Daily News piece and you can draw your own conclusions.

It highlights five students: Kylaja, David, Shane, Tiffany and Mary.

They are all students in a school in South Jamaica (District 28), but their story’s are not much different from many in Rockaway.

All of them got passing grades from their teachers, but failed the standardized tests that mean promotion or retention under the new standards.

The article excoriates the system for passing these students along.

"Getting promoted was the rule for these children, as it has been in schools across the city under the system of social promotion. Only two were held back: Tiffany in first grade, when she was absent for 136 days and David in second, the year he emigrated to New York from Guyana. Other than that, it was clear sailing for all –including for Tiffany, who, after missing 70 days of school the following year, still earned eight satisfactories and was promoted to second grade."

Let’s look at the kids that the "school failed."

Kylaja was born addicted to drugs at birth. Her mother "poisoned her in the womb" and lost custody of Kylaja and six other kids. She is presently in jail. Her father is in prison. She lives with her great-grandmother, who is raising her and two siblings. At nine, she cannot tell time and she struggles to make out the patterns of the dots on dominoes.

Mary is the product of a broken home, one in which the mother worked long, hard hours to support the family and to get a master’s degree while the father was involved with drugs.

Shane is stubby and he suffers from a speech impediment. He lives in the projects on Guy Brewer boulevard. "They call me fat boy," he says. "Every place I go, somebody wants to fight me." His mother is a home attendant, and she is raising two other kids by three different fathers. The fathers of the three kids "seldom drop by." The school provides speech therapy and he has been involved in Project Read for the past two year. He still failed the standardized reading test.

David comes from Guyana. His father came to America in 1990 and brought David and his siblings here in 1996. He and his parents only recently began "living like a family." Both of his parents work long hours and get home late in the evening, when David is ready for bed. He says that he can’t concentrate in school because "the teachers and the children are mean."

Tiffany lives in the South Jamaica Houses with her mother and three siblings. Because of "her mother’s difficulty," Tiffany missed 136 days of school last year. "I am lazy," she says. "I’d rather watch television than read." During the time out of school, her mother tried to educate her. Her mother has a second grade education. Tiffany’s father, who left the family many years ago, has remarried and lives in a house with a back yard. Tiffany yearns to live with him.

Those are the students who have "been failed by PS 40."

Read them carefully and then think about the platitudes that "school reform" people throw around. Think about "it takes a whole village to raise a child." Do you think that the village did its job in the case of those five kids?

Think about "all children can learn." Do you think that those five children can learn in an atmosphere where there are 35 kids in a class, where the buildings are crumbling or where they are learning in closets? Do you think that those kids can learn given the fact that disruptive kids are routinely returned to their classrooms?

Do you think that the school failed those kids? Personally, I think they were failed by their parents and by society long before they even began school. I have to admit, however, that the central board and the city’s power structure have failed these kids. They have failed the system.

The second part in the Daily News series talks of untrained teachers, chaos in the classroom, assaults on teachers and administrators by both students and parents, and students who "the system forgot."

Those things all exist. Is it the individual school’s fault, or the parent’s fault? Have the school’s failed these students, or has society? You decide for yourself.

There are some things that university "experts" have foisted on teachers (and on children) that have exacerbated the problems that kids bring with them to school. More on those "educational innovations" in next week’s column.

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