2000-01-22 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

Anybody who really thought that politics play no part in running the school system should now be debased of that thought.

The mayor of this great city says that we should blow up the system. He wants to take over the school system’s control functions. He wants to take money from the public schools and give it to parochial schools. He wants to sell the Board of Education properties that house both the headquarters and business functions. Then he would give them a new building with "75 percent less space for bureaucrats." He wants to farm the schools out to private enterprise. He wants competition rather than collegiality in this city’s schools.

When he did not get his way in the choice of an interim acting chancellor, he kicked his feet and held his breath until his face turned blue.

He and his henchmen (and henchwomen) floated some trial balloons.

There would be no summer school because the new interim chancellor was not responsible enough to spend the money wisely.

"The mayor has to believe in the ability of the board to properly use those funds," said Ninfa Segarra, the mayor’s puppet on the board. "Not to have $80 million go down the tubes."

The mayor said that private companies should be allowed to take over some city schools, despite the fact that private companies have been unsuccessful in doing so throughout the nation.

Giuliani said that he would favor the move because the school system is "engulfed in political garbage."

One has to ask whose political garbage the city system is engulfed in?

The mayor added that he would not approve any new teacher contract that did not "reward teachers based on performance."

"The next contract with teachers should not have a single pay raise," the mayor said, despite the fact that the system faces a teacher shortage that could reach 40,000 in the next two years.

In fact, most educational experts are calling for incentives to keep experienced teachers from leaving and for enticing young college graduates to enter the teaching profession.

There have been some fears that Giuliani’s posturing would have the opposite effect.

Why is the mayor so angry that the board chose Harold Levy rather than his candidate?

He gave his answer at a news conference right after the State Commissioner of Education granted Levy the waiver he needs to hold the position, even temporarily.

Speaking of his candidate, Robert Kiley, the mayor said, "We share some of the same views on issues such as competition for the public schools."

During his interview, Kiley reportedly told the board that he favored a school voucher experiment.

Another man who often demands things his own way joined the mayor in his opposition to Levy. Al Sharpton said that he would withhold his support "pending an evaluation of Citigroup’s (Levy is a VP at the company) record in inner-city investing and minority hiring."

Sharpton added that, "When I weigh in, as I have in other chancellor fights, it will not be ignored."

Did I hear somebody say that politics have nothing to do with the educational process?

What is lost in the sauce is that the school system is not a business and should not be. While business fosters competition, education should foster collegiality.

I worked at Xerox Education Publications at a time when they had a merit pay system. At the end of each year, I would write down all of the things I had done during the year (23 issues of CE, books, interviews, etc.) and the periodical’s editor would then rate them. The managing editor would then "use the words" of the editor to decide on my raise for the year from within a range set by the company.

At one point, I was downgraded by my editor who was trying to get a larger raise for himself by proving that all of his writers were incompetent and that he had to do all of the work himself. That is the way it works in the real world.

Two weeks before I was fired, I got the biggest raise of anybody in the office.

After Xerox destroyed the company that published such school publications as Weekly Reader and Current Events, I taught for three years in a small school system in Connecticut—the Portland (CT) schools. There were two elementary schools, a middle school and a high school – all for about 900 students.

Most of the people who lived in the town and who comprised the school board were managers at Pratt and Whitney Aircraft. P and W is situated in East Hartford, only about 20 minutes north.

Since the aircraft engine maker had a merit pay system that seemed to work, the managers who sat on the school board decided that they would develop one for the school system as well.

The P and W model was built on a complex formula that included the number of engines produced by a team over a given period, the number of accidents the team had, the quality of the engines at inspection time and the number of years a person had with the company.

Under the formula, for example, a member of team A with 10 years on the job whose team built 30 engines in a month with no accidents and 90 percent quality control would get more of a salary than a person on Team B with the same number of years whose team built 27 engines with two accidents and 87 percent quality control.

That is simplifying the process, but the statement is basically accurate.

The board members then went into the schools and interviewed all of the constituents from the school superintendent to the students. They were trying to find performance variables that could be used the same way engines, safety and quality were used in the engine factory. The process was simpler for them because each teacher negotiated his or her contract individually with the superintendent.

The obvious choice for an indicator was student performance. A teacher whose students increased their scores on the Iowa Batter of Basic Skills test (they still used that discredited test) more than another teacher would get more of a raise the following year. A teacher whose students did not increase enough would get fired.

They were asked if their performance indicators would work at the factory if, for example, one worker’s team got inferior material with which to build his engines and those engines therefore failed quality control more often.

They said that the system worked only if all of the material used by engine builders was equal.

How then, they were asked, could they compare teachers who had classes with varying skill levels. Would a teacher who had a "gifted class" whose students were guaranteed to advance at least a year on the Iowa test be compared to a teacher who had a remedial class that was already three years behind and would need to raise four years to equal that other teacher’s performance?

In addition, they were asked, didn’t they want a teacher with a clearly good classroom results to share his or her methods with the rest of the school?

They answered that they would mandate that successful teachers share their methods.

Why should they share if it meant a monetary reward for not telling?

They had no answer.

That team of managers then came up with a formula that included such things as performance in terms of yearly increase on the Iowa test hooked up to "collegiality," "interest in student achievement," and other factors that I have forgotten.

The principal of the school would then rate the teachers on those other variables.

When it was pointed out that principals often had favorites among teachers and that a teacher who questioned the principal’s dictates, for example, could be rated low in "collegiality" even if he or she shared all ideas with the other teachers, they went back to the drawing board.

After three years of trying, they gave up and admitted that education was not the same as building engines and they gave up trying to find a viable merit pay system.

In New York City, the problem would be even worse.

Are the teachers at PS 105, for example, going be held to the same standards as those at PS 114 even though the student’s background makes it clear that they do not have a chance of matching the former school’s scores?

Is a teacher who teaches alternative ed, where all of the students have been suspended at least three times going to be held to the same standard as the teacher in a gifted or talented class?

Setting standards for those classes if fine. Paying teachers on the basis of unequal working standards is not.

The politics of the game will continue to dictate the direction of the school system.

There is nobody willing to say what is really wrong with the system and to make the changes necessary to reform it from the ground up.

It is politics as usual and that does not bode well for the system.


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