1999-10-23 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

Everybody who has ever stood in front of a classroom and looked out over a sea of 40 disinterested faces knows that class size matters.

Those "experts" who "proved" a few years ago that a reduction of class size did not matter simply did not know what they were talking about.

What they proved was that it made no difference whether there were 35 or 40 kids in a class.

What they failed to take into consideration is the fact that every teacher knows that it does make a big difference when there are 25 rather than 40 kids in a class.

That was proven once again this summer when literacy classes were capped at 10 in the "mandated" grades (four and eight) and at 15 in the non-mandated grades.

Teachers who had worked hard all year with kids who got lost in their classes of 35-40 now had the wherewithal to really attack individual problems and it showed in the test results.

Those in charge, however, do not seem to understand this simple truth.

In fact, those in charge seem to ignore lots of simple truths when it comes to education.

For example, an assistant state attorney recently said, "There is no evidence of overcrowding harming student achievement," she said. "Overcrowding is more a result of good education because the crammed schools are the ones that students most want to attend."

How about this statement referring to the new, higher state and city standards one from another state functionary?

"The new standards are aspirational and optimal while all the state constitution requires is a minimally adequate education."

The teacher’s union president, Randi Weingarten, is not exempt from the stupidity. We all know that a child cannot learn if he or she is not in school. Weingarten seems to have forgotten that simple truth, or she is too politically correct to recognize it.

Weingarten spoke in opposition to a program designed to insure that kids come to school on a regular basis. The program would dock welfare benefits from elementary school parents whose children have four unexcused absences in a marking period. Weingarten argued against the program, saying, "we don’t believe that poor families should be held to a higher standard than other families."

She added, "This program is going to put attendance teachers in a bind. Their caseloads are already enormous."

The daily newspapers, especially, seem not to get it. They often use statistics to "prove" their own point of view. A case in point:

"Teachers Report Less Violence," trumps last Tuesday’s Newsday. The lead paragraph says "Incidents of violence against teachers in city schools have decreased by nearly 20 percent, almost a year after the police department took over school security for the Board of Education, the city teachers union said yesterday."

The story does go on the say that a problem exists and that is that the police often do not report all of the incidents reported by teachers.

On the same day, however, the Daily News headlines "Assaults on teachers jump 15 percent."

The lead paragraph says, "The number of assaults on teachers in city schools shot up nearly 15 percent last year, while other crimes against educators declined, according to an annual safety report released by the United Federation of Teachers."

Both stories are true. Violent crime in the schools declined while assaults on teachers went up. It’s all depending on how you look at it, and the Daily News went for the headline that sells. It often does and Newsday does as well.

Unfortunately, the daily newspapers depict all administrators (except those who have left the system for greener pastures) as incompetent, all of the teachers as lazy, greedy and inept, all of the parents as wonderful, knowledgeable, caring people and all of the kids as alter boys who are being destroyed by those who run the system.

That is far from the truth.

Yet, District 23 superintendent, Kathy Cashen, tells a hearing that half of her 900 teachers "lack the basics –like how to teach a reading lesson…things that you would assume a person coming to be a teacher would have some knowledge of."

Why is that? Because the universities do not train people to become inner-city teachers. They can’t, because none of the professors have ever done the job for any length of time and they simply do not know what it takes to do the job, what the kids are like, or the strategies necessary to address those kids.

Like most of the others, they are in it for the money. People who want to be teachers must take their courses. People who have to get masters degree are forced to take their courses. People who want to become administrators must take their courses. What does it mean that those courses are a sham? Nothing at all, as long as the money comes in. It must be that way, or the universities would have done something about the situation long before this.

The dailies also argue that the teachers are overpaid and underworked. They constantly talk of 180-day school years and five-period teaching days, as if there were something nefarious in those statistics.

The truth is, if the job is so great, why is there a shortage of both administrators and teachers?

It is because the job is not so great and many teachers actually forbid their kids from entering the profession.

The administrative shortage has been addressed in this column in the past few weeks. Just the last week I met three assistant principals who will go back on their teacher’s license before December 16 so that they can earn a raise. Those who remain as administrators will earn less than senior teachers on that date.

There is no doubt that the system faces a massive teacher shortage. In fact, the chancellor says that the system will need upwards of 40,000 new teachers over the next five years.

As many as 54,000 teachers will leave a year from December. Those who have been teaching more than 22 years and have the requisite degrees will ream maximum of $70,000 this December. Those in Tier One (and, most of those senior teachers are in that retirement tier) have to work one year for the salary to become fully pensionable. In December of 2,000, those teachers will reach that milestone and most will bail out at that point. Some will remain until the end of the school year, but most will pick up, throw in their papers and go to the real world.

Why do I call the world outside of the school system "the real world?"

Because the school system world is one where you don’t get rewarded for good work and where you get punished for things that you have no control over.

Teachers and administrators in poor performing schools are often excoriated. The truth is, that it is the kids who have the problems, not the teachers or administrators and that it will take a sea change in our society to make it any different.

A case in point. Take a look at the top 10 scoring schools in the recent English Regents.

In each of those schools, more than 90 percent of the students who took the test passed it.

They are certainly a model for the other schools to aspire to. Right?

Each of those schools is a choice school, a school that gets to set its own entrance requirements and to chose its own student body.

The key to the success of those schools is not that the administration is better or the teachers are better, but the fact that the kids are better students.

Take all of the teachers and administrators form Townsend Harris High School (the top Queens school) and put them in Far Rockaway High School. Let’s see if they keep that school in top. You all know that it would never happen, because it’s the kids, stupid.

I was the parent’s association president at Far Rockaway High School when THHS was reinstituted. I fought against it on the grounds that it would take the top 10 or 12 kids from each local high school and put them in one place. I was right. That school and others like it have helped to destroy schools like Far Rockaway and Beach Channel. Those schools now largely get only those students who cannot go anywhere else.

There are lots of "truths" to be told. Most people are too politically correct to address those truths, but they have to be addressed before any changes will take place.

That is the sad part of the story. If people would accept the truth and do something about it, we would all see a change in the way kids are addressed as well as a change in the way they learn.



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