2000-01-15 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

When doctors talk, patients listen. While patients can take a doctor’s advice or leave it for a second opinion, very few people think that they know medicine better than their doctors.

Remember the old saw that only a fool has himself for a lawyer? People might hate lawyers and joke about them, but when a lawyer is required, few people would raise their own judgment over their lawyer’s opinion.

When it comes to education, however, everybody is sure that they know more than the professionals.

I have often heard a parent say that he or she knows what is educationally viable for his or her child because "it is my kid, after all."

Would that parent, told that their child needed surgery, tell the doctor, "know what is better for him because he is my child?" Of course not.

They do it all the time, however, when teachers and administrators are the target.

Mayor Giuliani knows what is best for the system. He would blow it up and give all the money to the parochial schools.

Floyd Flake (who will probably be our next Republican mayor) and others fairly drool over the thought of getting all that public money to finance their religious ideas and ideals.

Parents know what is best for the schools. They achieved respectability in that role when the UFT and the legislature pandered to the crowd by designing "School Leadership Teams," that include equal numbers of parents and educators. Can you imaging a "Hospital Leadership Team," a "Fire Department Leadership Team," or a "Supreme Court Leadership Team?" Those thoughts are laughable. Why then, is a School Leadership Team accepted with such aplomb?

The newspapers know what is best for the school system. Editorialists tell the educators what to do all the time. They argue, for example, that teachers should spend more time in the classroom, that preparation time is "wasted." Would they say the same if they were told that only the time they, themselves, spent writing was well spent, that the time they spent researching and interviewing was "wasted?" Yet columnists and editorialists constantly comment on such issues without understanding what they are speaking about.

Everybody knows what to do to make the school system better and the pols listen to them all, except that they push away the comments of those who really know how to make the system better.

The recommendations of teachers and administrators are immediately suspect because "they just want to benefit somehow." That is not necessarily true.

Given a year, a free hand and an unlimited amount of funds, I could turn the system around and make it work.

Here is what I would do.

Discipline is the main problem in the schools today. There is none. Each borough was to have a SOS School – a Second Opportunity School that would house the troublemakers from all of the other schools in the borough. That would have allowed the other 90 percent of the students to really learn. The schools were never heard from again after their grand announcement. Terri Thomson, our school board rep shot down the school in Queens, because the selected site was across the street from a building where her firm did business. The disruptive kids remain in school. I would open as many SOS schools as necessary to make the schools educational-friendly once again.

I would then reduce class size to 15 for students in grades K-2, to 20 for students in grades 3-6 and to 25 for students in grades 7-12. We don’t have the schoolrooms to make that kind of move? Build them! Buy them! Go on double session! Go on triple session! Class size is the key after discipline. At-risk kids need the smaller classes and higher-functioning kids will thrive in that environment as well.

Continue the move to end social promotion. Do not let anybody opt out and do not allow the standards to be changed for any particular group or class. It was blatantly unfair to exempt special ed kids from last year’s summer school just because they had IEP’s. It created hard feelings and exacerbated the chasm between regular ed and special ed students. A recent report said that bright kids were getting phony medical notes saying they are disabled in order to get more time on the SAT’s and to be put into a favored class for college admission. That is what it leads to whey you allow one group to opt out of the standards that are expected of everybody else.

An educator recently took me to task for suggesting that resource room kids should not be allowed to take a test over two days when everybody else had to take it in one sitting, especially when those kids saw the test and got to go home and look up the answers.

"There are doctors and lawyers who get extended time on their board tests," I was told. I retorted that I would not want to go to a doctor or lawyer who needs more time on their tests than others. Most people agreed with me.

I would retool the School Leadership Team concept and structure the teams so that those educators comprised the majority of members. Parent input is fine, but parent control is not.

I would go back to the basics. Students in mathematics would drill until they could add, subtract, multiply and divide without the use of a calculator. I would forget about the Writing Process and I would actually teach spelling, grammar and syntax.

I would make sure that this nation’s ideals were understood and that every student had an understanding of how our government works. I would insure that every student gained the skills necessary to become a functioning citizen.

I would unilaterally do away with bilingual education. It is a racist and destructive program. It harms kids and it draws wasted funds needed for mainstream education. All it insures is that Hispanic people have jobs and that Hispanic kids will not adequately learn English.

I would restructure special education. First of all, I would forget about the cost and place kids where they really belong. Today, MIS II kids (emotionally handicapped) are placed in MIS I (Learning disabled programs) so that the city does not have to fund a lower student cap and a para. Kids who should be in SIE VII programs (hospital day schools) are placed in MIS II. It is much cheaper. So what if one of them assaults a teacher or another student or burns down the school once in a while?

Inclusion programs, where special ed and general ed students and two teachers work together, is good for MIS I kids or physically handicapped kids (is that still PC) if both the teachers and students are hand-picked. It will never work for all students because many students cannot handle the freedom of a traditional classroom setting, nor of the gym or the cafeteria.

Special ed should remain, but it should only be used for special students and the placements should be done on need rather than on cost.

I would stop trying to find ways to "level the playing field," in such a way as everybody passes, even if they do not meet the standards. We have pushed portfolios and cooperative learning to the point where even those who do not do any work get a passing grade. We want to insure that everybody is a winner even if they lose. I have seen teams of kids complete a project in which one or two kids did all the work and made the classroom presentation. The group, however, got a passing grade and so did the kids who did nothing.

That is the wrong lesson to teach kids. In the real world there is competition and some win and some lose. If a team is to succeed, every member of the team has to pull his or her weight. We are not doing that.

We teach the kids that it is all right to fail as long as they try. That is not a good lesson. They have to try harder and there have to be set criteria for passing from one grade to another.

We are moving away from that. I would move back towards it.

It is clear that I am not going to get the chancellor’s position. In fact, the position might well go to a non-educator on the theory that a businessperson would do a better job. That is pure bologna.

I worked some years for Xerox Education Publications in Middletown, Connecticut. You’ll all remember them by the fact that they published "Weekly Reader." I wrote for the company’s secondary school division – for Current Events, Issue’s Today, You and Your World and others. When I joined the company Weslyan University owned it. It made so much money that the feds threatened to take away the university’s tax exempt status. They sold it to Xerox for a chunk of stock.

When the copier company took it over, WR was doing well over 13,000,000 copies a year. It fired all of the educational experts who were managers and brought in managers from its machine division. Within three years, WR’s circulation was down to 125,000. The managers made changes that made no sense because they had no inkling of what either education nor publishing entailed. After raping the company they fired most of the teachers who worked there and then sold it. So much for the "pure manager" coming in and taking over the functions of a business they know nothing about.

I do know the system after 28 years of working within it, however and the changes I would make would turn the system around quickly. None of them will be implemented.

They are too expensive. They are not politically correct. We will continue to do what we are doing because the power structure wants it that way. And, we will continue to be fired because we don't ’succeed" in a system that is forced by know-nothings to breed failure.


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