2000-04-29 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

If memory serves, Tonto was continually telling the Lone Ranger that one man or another was "talking with forked tongue." He was usually right about the fact that the person was telling a lie to cover up something he did not want generally known.

Tonto’s aphorism continually comes to mind when reading the public statements of all of the players and all of the "experts" who are addressing the city’s "public school crisis."

When it comes to education, in fact, everybody talks with forked tongue because everybody has an agenda.

Take Randi Weingarten, the teacher’s union president.

Speaking about the disappearance of the summer school teacher shortage. Weingarten told the dailies that the chancellor was lucky that the recruiting drive was saved by a court decision that allowed summer school pay to count towards teacher’s pensions. A few weeks ago I wrote in this space that plenty of teachers would come if the money were made pensionable. A few days later, the decision came down.

"The board got lucky with the timing of the decision," Weingarten said. "Once that came through, applications skyrocketed." Weingarten made no mention of the fact that the decision was surely going to be appealed and that it probably would not cover this summer’s work.

In the UFT newspaper just days later, however, Weingarten said she had received reports that "some districts were attempting to recruit summer school teachers with promises of pensionable pay." She emphasized that "nobody could predict whether the decision would apply."

The union said that the city would probably take the suit to the next level and that it "can take from six months to several years since it (the decision) could be appealed twice."

You can bet that Giuliani will take the suit all the way and that teachers will not see their per-session money made pensionable for years. Even then, it will be up to the court to decide if the ruling is retroactive. Chances are it will not be.

Which Weingarten statement is the truth? Probably neither.

An editorial in the union newspaper speaks with a forked tongue as well. The union has urged that all teachers should be "qualified" to teach his or her subject. The chancellor recently decried the fact that many teachers who he has met do not speak "adequate English" to do the job. I agree with him. Many teachers who have been hired in the name of diversity do not speak the language nor do they have an adequate bank of knowledge to teach. Yet, they are licensed by the state and hired by the city.

Despite this, the union paper called for an end to oral exams for perspective teachers. At one time, in order to get a job as a teacher, one had to pass a written exam and an oral exam. A candidate had to be able to express him or herself in standard English and to write a short composition using standard grammar and syntax.

The written test has long gone by the boards. The oral test has become a joke, judging by some of the people who pass it. In the days of Tonto and the Lone Ranger, the oral was a tough one – some say too tough. People were rejected if they had a lisp or a deep accent.

According to the editorial, "The Office of Recruitment, Professional Assessment and Licensing (ORPAL) makes decisions on a more professional basis. It asks candidates to discuss how they would deal with two classroom situations."

I have to wonder, then how teachers who cannot speak English well enough for their colleagues to understand them, nevertheless their students, pass muster. The test should be strengthened, not deleted.

In fact, some people at the central board should have to take the test. A recent memo from the man who Crew chose to lead the summer school program reads: "Given the increased academic challenge of the expanded Regents’ requirements for high schools. (sic) Graduation, it is imperative that eight (sic) grade students, in order to be graduated, demonstrated (sic) the academic skills necessary to succeed at the high school level." I would give that an "F" for both grammar and syntax.

The rest of the memo was so confusing, that school people are not sure today what it meant to say. My reading from the media was that standards were gone, that a student would need to fail at least two of the three indicators (test scores, grades, attendance) before being held back.

The board says that social promotion is dead, however, that "the promotion policy has not changed." Somebody is speaking with a forked tongue.

Those who say the system is failing -- the media, politicians, and educational "experts" -- use standardized test results as their benchmark. The headlines blare that "48.2 percent of the city’s students read below the national average and that 47.7 percent do math below the national average." They forget that, by the very definition of the word percentage, 50 percent have to be above and 50 percent below the national average.

In any case, the city has reacted to the media and the other experts by trying to do better on the standardized tests. In many cases, students read well above the level that they test. I have seen it over and over. A seventh grade kid who is officially reading "well below grade level" will be able to read a newspaper or book that is tagged at the sixth grade level or above.

The trick then is to teach those kids the test-taking skills that they need to succeed on the test.

That is not good enough for the forked-tongue brigade, however. "Schools Give Cheating Lessons," the media blares. What is the cheating lesson? The schools are actually using coaching books that teach how to take a specific test. That is the cheating the media decries.

Well, if you are going to make the test the sole criteria for judging whether a school (or a specific teacher) has succeeded or failed, then you have to expect that the schools will react by teaching to the test.

Using test prep books is not cheating unless you take into account that every lawyer, every doctor, every MBA has cheated when they used test prep books before taking the MCAT, the LSAT, the SAT, the PSAT or the Miller Analogies.

Even parents speak with a forked tongue even though they say they want "what is best for their children."

When their children are picked up at a bodega buying chips and soda at 9:30 a.m. when school begins at 8:40, many no longer want what is best for their child (being in school on time), they want their children "left alone." You cannot imagine how many parents have effectively told me to "mind my own business," when I called to tell them that their child had been picked up by a NYPD truancy patrol well after school began.

Then there are the parents who are worried about "zero tolerance" programs at their schools. They don’t want violence, but they don’t want their child questioned about his or her violent acts. "No mercy, no exceptions" is good for the next kid, but for mine – nothing doing.

And then there is special education, where the "experts" have three forks to their tongues. They talk a good game about "the rights of students to an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment" at the same time that their own statistics show that up to 80 percent of all of the problems in city schools come from special education students or from those who have special ed IEP’s (there is a difference that I do not have the time to go into now).

The problems at MS 180 began when special ed kids attacked kids in the gifted program. That made the parents of the gifted kids look elsewhere for an education and the flood tide increased until today, when very few west end Rockaway kids will attend the school.

There is a crisis in education, particularly in Rockaway schools. Too few kids can read and that is a factor of the community the school serves more than it is of the schools themselves.

It is not the reading score statistics that the "experts" need to look at. Teachers can do little to change that at the middle school level.

Look, instead, at these statistics:

  • One out of five novice teachers leave the system after three years.
  • New teachers who scored in the top quartile on the SAT’s were twice as likely to leave as those who scored lower.
  • Beginning teachers who did not have a mentor were twice as likely to leave.
  • The majority of new teachers who left the system said that they did so because of the lack of student discipline and the environment in the schools.

Those are the frightening statistics and the "experts" should take a close look at them before it is too late.


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