1999-09-25 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

The Daily News profile of five "failing students" in a four-part series pointed out again that it is the student’s families and society that has to take the major responsibility for failing those students. If we follow the Swahili dictum that it "takes a village to raise a child," many of the villages in Rockaway have failed stupendously at the task.

At the same time, the educational "system" has to take some of the burden both for student failure and for a teacher’s inability to teach.

Detractors of the public schools point out that discipline is a major problem in the schools. They are right. Discipline is the major factor in a teacher’s inability to teach.

Having said that, it is instructive to point out that the lack of discipline in the schools is most often not the fault of individual teachers or of the UFT (where detractors often dump the blame).

Rather, the fault lies with groups such as the "Advocates for Children" and with liberal judges who have never met a system they could not tame.

A personal incident might be instructive. Several years ago, I was karate-kicked in the back by a student (not in my class) who was trying to come into my room during the class period to get a friend to cut class with him.

I asked the student to leave and then turned back to my room. He kicked me in the back with a flying leap and pushed me into a wall, destroying my glasses as well as my nose.

I tracked down the dean and he tracked down the student. It turned out that he was a resource room student, and he therefore fell under the absolute protection of the Division of Special Education.

When a suspension request was called in to the central board office, only one question was asked: "Did the student use a weapon to attack the teacher?"

When the answer was in the negative, the suspension was denied. The kid remained in school and no action was ever taken against him.

Actually, I was younger and more naive in those days and I allowed myself to be "persuaded" (actually, he threatened my career) by the principal not to file a police report because "nothing would be done to the kid anyway and it would give the school a bad name."

Today, I would not be as sanguine.

When you cannot suspend kids or take any other action against them and they know it, chaos often ensues. Many Rockaway schools, in particular, suffer from this syndrome.

What separates private and parochial schools from the public is that they can dump these students back into the public schools, and they often do just that. The public schools, because of rules promulgated by the liberal elite (who would never send their kids to public schools) do not have the right to send those kids packing. There has to be an alternative to educating those kids in the mainstream, but those kinds of options are shrinking rather than growing more expansive.

Secondly, social promotion led to a belief on the part of student’s that they did not have to do any work at all or behave in an age-appropriate manner, because they would be promoted no matter what they did. For years, they were right. Rudy Crew wants to end all of that and has begun to move in the right direction.

Unfortunately, those same child advocate groups who have destroyed any hopes of disciplining kids now see the end of social promotion as a plot to destroy kids, particularly minority kids.

There is no doubt in my mind that they will find a judge who will rule that too many minority kids are being left back and therefore, the move to end social promotion is racist.

I have seen it before, when the "system" kowtowed to "experts" and killed the much-needed vocational school program because too many minority kids were going to those schools rather than to college.

What they did was destroy the working lives of thousands of kids, minority and non-minority alike. Even the NAACP has begun to realize what a mistake it was to do away with the vocational education program. Try and get a plumber or an electrician and you will understand the impact of that lunacy.

Decisions based on racial statistics have never worked out and they never will. There are too many minority kids in the 600 schools? Do away with them.

There are too many minority kids in special education? Do away with it. There are too many minority kids in vocational schools? Do away with the schools. There are too many minority kids being suspended? Do away with suspensions.

What this has led to in many schools is educational chaos.

I have to laugh whenever I read that the "system" is turning to the universities to solve the problems of public schools because the universities are part of the problem, not of the solution.

For example, Lehman College has a writing program called "The Writing Process." It is used extensively in all of our district’s schools.

I believe, as both a teacher and as a professional writer, that "The Writing Process" has done its share to destroy a student’s ability to write and to research.

First of all, as the district writing coordinator told me, "you don’t do grammar with the kids until they ask for it, until they are ready for it."

What this has done is insure that our students go into middle school without the grounding in grammar that they need to do real research and write about what they have found.

Which probably does not matter, because the writing process focuses not on research papers, but on "I-
Search" papers. Those papers can be on anything the student is interested in, and topics such as "The History of the Ford Mustang," and "Killer Jet Fighters" are the norm.

The process demands that the kids ask themselves questions about what they know and what they want to know.

The theory is that every fact is as important as any other fact if it is important to the student.

Therefore, the fact that Abraham Lincoln wore a beard is important as the fact that he signed the Emancipation Proclamation and what factors drove him to do it.

And, every source is as important as any other source if the student deems it so. The writing facilitator once foisted a Russell Means polemic about a contemporary event and told the training group that it was a valid "statement of a Native American chief."

Students have to be taught grammar in order to write a rational sentence. They have to be taught that there are important facts as well as extraneous ones in any piece of written work.

They have to be taught to think independently about sources, more so now that the Internet plays such as large part in student research. They have to be taught to research important topics, not just those that interest them.

We were all trained to do that in high school and in college, where term papers were the norm. Our students in District 27 are losing out on that experience.

There is only one way to learn to write. You have to write often and you have to be edited by somebody who knows how to write and who can show you your mistakes. We have to go back to that, university "experts" or not.

Speaking of computers, I have long complained about our district’s policy on using the "Project Smart" computers that are being placed in each classroom.

I won’t even get into the fact that we are a Macintosh district and what that means to our kid’s future. All you have to do to see what it means is to look in the New York Times "Help Wanted" section any Sunday. You will find that 95 percent of the computer jobs require training on IBM-run programs. The other five percent require Macs. Draw your own conclusions. Our kids should be trained on the machines they will need to use in the real world. It is as simple as that.

It may be too late to do anything about that because we are too deeply into the I-Mac culture to extricate ourselves.

We have to start using those computers as both a learning tool and as a remedial tool for those who need it. We have to allow our teachers to make decisions on whether to use educational programs such as "Sim City" and Oregon Trail." As things stand now, the district’s computer coordinator decides which programs can go into those computers and her mandate is that nothing can be put into the machines except for what is put in by the district.

At the same time, the computers cannot be used for remedial programs such as "Math Blaster." All programs not dictated by the district are out and the dictate is that the computers cannot be used for remediation, as badly as many of our students need it and as expertly computers can handle that chore.

Like Pogo, "We have met the enemy and he is us!" It is time to change.


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