1999-11-06 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

Nobody asked me but:

  • It is past time that the powers-that-be at both the central board and at City Hall realizes that teacher’s salaries hurt the recruitment drive for new teachers. Why would anybody young want to work in the city for 30 percent less pay and for worse working conditions? The new contract will probably be front-loaded so that new teachers get a substantial portion of any raise. At the same time, the city will probably come up with some sort of monetary incentive to keep experienced teachers in the system until the new people can be trained. If Giuliani offers his typical no raises for two years contract to the teachers, then people will leave in droves and there will be nobody to replace them. Come to think about it, perhaps that is what the mayor wants. If there is a teacher shortage, he will be able to talk the council into destroying the public system by giving the money to parochial schools and perhaps that has been the mayor’s aim all along.
  • Everybody wants new standards but nobody wants them for their children. The Special Education lobby won last summer when the standards were activated for all children with the exception of any kid with an IEP. They are at it again. The alternative high schools say they are so "different" in how they approach education that it would be unfair to hold their kids to any rational standard. The SURR schools say they need more time before the standards should apply to them. Parent groups are ready to sue the system if "their" kids are left back because of standards. Bilingual groups are arguing that the standards should not apply to any kid who ever traveled outside the United States (that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it is close to the truth). All is all, everybody talks a good game, but nobody wants the standards to affect them or their kids. Want to bet that all of those groups win their battles? You will find no takers among those in the know.
  • There has been a ground swell of support from teachers moving back to the system of middle schools utilizing department chairpersons rather than assistant principals. Those who are old enough to remember the department chairs also remember that they were the ones who taught new teachers to teach and they were the ones who were the subject experts that everybody else turned to. Perhaps this district should start a movement to revitalize those positions and replace the generic assistant principals with subject experts in each major subject.
  • Speaking of teachers and their administrators, I found a quote in the New York Times (of all places) that makes sense in that context. It is from Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University. "When Boston College, the Boston Celtics and Bank Boston pick new recruits ‘on the merits,’ they invariably choose very different people. Why? Because the three organizations have very different objectives. What choosing ‘on the merits’ means is picking the people who will help most to fulfill the legitimate purposes of the institution." Bok used his argument to ‘prove’ that a university needs diversity and that it was a legitimate goal for them to recruit on the basis of race and ethnicity. I wonder what the "legitimate goals" of the school system might be, when it hires people who do not have the language ability nor the knowledge background to teach New York City children. If the legitimate goal of the system is to "Teach Children," and I hope that it is, then they are doing wrong by using diversity as a yardstick. If the goal of the board is to create a more diverse teaching force, then they are doing a superb job. That goal, however, guarantees that many children will never learn.
  • The state has reiterated that school takeovers will be based on the scores in standardized tests. If that is the case, I would suggest that the state make their tests valid. Last year’s English Language Arts test, for example, contained a passage that had many Japanese words. The directions were not clear and many teachers did not explain the words in advance. That threw many kids off the scent. Why muddy up what you are testing for by using foreign words that the kids are not likely to have experienced? Only the state test-makers know the answer to that question, and they are not talking.
  • The city, by the way, has hired a superintendent to oversee the end of social promotion. We will pay that person $132,220 a year. I could do the job with one memo. It would go to all staff and it would say "No more social promotion. If a kid fails two or more majors, fails a standardized test or is absent more than 18 days (or, any combination of the three), he or she must remediate their failure in summer school or be left back." End of memo, end of job. Give me the money and let me go home.
  • If Rudy Crew really thinks that the school system’s problems stem from the fact that principals can no longer collect teacher’s lesson plans on a regular basis, then he should immediately move to Creedmore without passing go. "This is a primary issue with me," Crew said. "It offers tremendous opportunity in the movement toward higher performance." First of all, many supervisors have no idea of the material a subject teacher should be addressing because they have no background in that subject. Secondly, I have seen in my 25 years teachers who write dynamite lesson plans that run to several pages but who have never taught a good lesson in their lives. On the other hand, I have seen teachers use a lesson plan in a little box to remind them of where they are and who teach dynamite lessons. Which would you rather have? It is a phony issue at best and a tool to pry more from the teacher’s in the next contract negotiations at worst. Principals and administrators have to get into classrooms to see what teachers are doing. At present, they have so much paperwork that they can’t do that. Reading lesson plans will not help.
  • Speaking of paperwork, the last teacher’s contract said that an attempt would be made to cut down on the amount of paperwork required from teachers. In reality, the paperwork has tripled. Last year the district required all reading teachers to do an English assessment that took months from their teaching duties and was never used, as far as I can see. This year, the mathematics teachers are going through much the same thing. Special Ed teachers have been burdened with new IEP’s (which are meaningless to begin with). The chancellor has required that teachers contact parents of children who are failing their class prior to the end of the first marking period. Most of this is unnecessary, being simply make- work to keep parents from saying that they did not know that their kids were doing badly. The report card should impart that information, but the politically correct are demanding instant notification.
  • What ever happened to the Second Opportunity Schools (SOS) that were supposed to take the really bad actors out of the mainstream and give them some help in a different, more restrictive, setting. There was a weapons jump of 24 percent in the schools this year and nobody seems to be addressing the problem with anything but platitudes. It will take the murder of a teacher or of other kids to get the system working to remove those kids from schools.
  • Administrators are ready to give up tenure in return for a 30 percent raise. Can teachers be far behind? You can bet that the chancellor will demand an end to tenure for teachers within the next five years and the battle will be on. Tenure is important because teachers will have no protection if they speak out without it. I know from personal experience. Some school board members tried to have me fired several years ago (they are all gone now) because I wrote about their corruption and cronyism. Without tenure, they would have been successful. The First Amendment will be the loser if tenure is reduced in any way.


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