1999-11-13 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

Union chiefs are often given to hyperbole and what they say has to be taken with a grain of salt. Randi Weingarten, the UFT president, despite her liberalism, spoke the truth, however, when she testified at the recent hearings on school funding.

"The schools have all of the ingredients for disaster," she said, citing underpaid teachers, disadvantaged students, crumbling buildings and overcrowded classrooms.

She added class size, which she said "was absolutely too high," and "more students coming to the system with obstacles."

"Kids with obstacles need more one-on-one time with teachers, not less," she argued, asking for funds for lower class size.

The next few years are going to be critical for the New York City Public Schools. The mismanagement from 110 Livingston street, the liberalism of child advocate and parent groups and the disdain of the political power structure have all joined to bring the system to a juncture, a fork in the road so to speak.

Which way will the system go? Will it reform itself and once again become the greatest public school system in American or will it continue its path to mediocrity?

There is no clear answer. There are, however, lots of questions.

  • Where will the next generation of teachers come from? Teacher recruitment is more than money, although salary obviously plays a part in the decision-making process when a person decided to become a teacher. New teachers start at about $28,000 a year, not a great amount when you factor in the fact that they need a college degree and 36 graduate credits to keep their jobs. On the average, a teacher earns $47,000 a year. That is almost $20,000 less than a teacher in neighboring areas. Working conditions play a part as well. Fifty-five percent of those new teachers hired leave within five years. That is compared with fewer than 25 percent for the rest of the state. They leave for higher salaries, but they leave more often because the discipline system is such that many of them find that they just can’t teach because many of the students do not want to learn. Upwards of 40,000 senior teachers will leave the system through retirement in the next two years. They will be tough to replace.
  • Will the move to do away with social promotion really work? This is one policy that might have a major impact on the system. If kids are no longer routinely moved along from grade to grade and they get that message early, they might even decide that it is time to learn. Up to now, there was no incentive to work or to learn because eventual promotion was certain in any case. Crew’s decision to choose John Musico to lead the initiative is troubling. He was cited in an investigation over District 14 funds that were going to a Jewish parochial school in Williamsburg rather than to the public schools where they belonged. All in all, about $6 million disappeared to no-show jobs and fictitious students. Musico was the deputy superintendent in the district, but he claimed that he did not know what was going on. Ed Stancik, the board’s investigator, reported that Musico helped to destroy documents related to the scam. This is who we are putting in charge of one of the most important initiatives in modern history. Surely, Crew could have found somebody with a cleaner record to do this important job.
  • Will the system begin to address the problem of disruptive students realistically? Every teacher knows how to change the system overnight. Simply add a realistic discipline component and stick to it. Children who constantly disrupt instruction, fight, bring weapons to school, assault staff and the like must be removed from the mainstream and educated elsewhere. The 600 schools did that job until they became politically incorrect. Very few kids are identified and moved into special education programs such as MIS II (emotionally handicapped) and SIE VII (self-contained school). They are too expensive and no longer politically correct. The movement is to include kids in the mainstream rather than to exclude them and place them in self-contained classes, and that is as stupid a notion as treating juvenile criminals (murderers and rapists) as kids. Society has the right to protection from the youthful predators and school children have the right to learn without the disruption caused by a minority of students. We need to go back to 600 schools and to open up the self-contained MIS II classes once again. One telling statistic: Students were responsible for 83 percent of the assaults in the classroom last year. Almost half of those students were special education students and the assaults were against staff and general ed students. Special ed staff, about one-quarter of the total staff, suffered a little less than half of the assaults. Those are the kids who are doing the deed and to place them in the mainstream more often may be politically correct, but it does a disservice to general ed students.
  • Can we stop the universities from experimenting with our kids? The test scores are in (more on the test scores next week in this space), and our district did poorly, as was expected. Part of the problem is that those in charge accept every ditsy idea that a university can come up with. Teachers know that the ideas are wrong, but are forced to take part in the experiments by district office staff and by the central board. The New Math, PAM Tests, Writing Process, holistic writing, the Efficacy Institute, bilingual education, whole language and the like are all examples of programs that retarded education rather than advanced it. Yet, they all gained prominence because the university studies "showed that they were the way to go." University people have become rich by promulgating programs that pay a lot but do little.
  • What impact will the new School Leadership Teams have on the system? Those of you who read this column regularly know that I consider the parental involvement component of the leadership teams a sham. I think that parents are important to education, but I do not think that they should be making decisions on curriculum, budget and hiring. That is what it is coming to. Parents do not have the expertise to make those decisions. God knows, our experience with local school boards has proven that point time and time again. It will not be long before administrators begin losing their jobs because a teacher failed the child of one of the team members and the principal refused to change the grade. Or, some parent will demand that his or her dull normal kid be placed in the gifted program. An administrator will be fired for not agreeing quickly enough. Teachers will be fired for failing students. Cronies will be hired for staff positions. Education will once again become secondary to money and power. It has already begun. The Urban League will get $9 million to train the teams and to "educate" parents as to their rights. They, in turn, have subcontracted the training to three groups: The UFT (which has no business making the parents the equals of teachers on the teams); the United Parent’s Association (one of the groups responsible for forcing the mainstream to keep disruptive kids) and Aspira, a Latino advocacy group that just loves the most racist program in the history of education -–bilingual education.

As the Lorax once said, "things are not going to get better, they’re not." Not as long as there are questions such as those above and the answers are to bring more of the same.


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