2000-10-14 / Columnists

School Scope by Howard Schwach

There are always things that people accept as true even when they are not. Even our professional journalists and politicians are not exempt from believing something that is no true.

In the recent debates between Hillary and Rick, Marcia Kramer asked them about "Bill 602P," which would place a five-cents charge on each e-mail. Both candidates answered the question by saying that they are opposed to it. The fact is, there is no Bill 602P and the whole thing is an Internet-based hoax that most people believe is true.

The education field is full of ideas and ideals that are accepted as true but are, in fact, as much smoke and shadow as Bill 602P.

· The conventional wisdom (CW) says that parochial schools and yeshivas do much better in standardized tests (today’s measure of "education") than the public schools. The statistics, however, do not bear that out. Take a look at the most recent test scores. Grades are on the fourth grade test unless noted otherwise.




Church of God (Far




Bnos Bais Yaakov



St. Camillus



St. Frances De Sales




St. Mary’s



St. Rose of Lima



St. Virgilius



Stella Maris HS








Yeshiva of Belle Harbor



While some schools did better than the local elementary schools, particularly in mathematics, most did about the same or slightly worse than the local public school.

· The CW says that the legislature and the Regents want to insure that students achieve higher standards. In reality, the politicians in the legislature are only interested in one thing and that is getting reelected. The standards "game" is one way of insuring that people vote for them. Those same politicians appoint the Regents, and they do so for he same political reasons. Witness the appointment of Geraldine Chapey to the body simply because her daughter made the "right" political choice and you will understand that what I say is too true. The Regents mandated that students pass a math Regents test when they had a right to know that thousands of students would fail. Now, the legislature is frightened that "the massive failures will erode legislative support for using the exams as a prerequisite for graduation," and that "if we see massive failures and massive dropouts, the legislature may have to step in." The legislature is so worried that the body way well do away with the tests that are being used as graduation criteria. Steve Sanders, the most powerful man in the Assembly says, "We have created this absolutely inflexible system by which there is only one way to assess a student. There are a number of legislators who feel that we need flexibility." Someday soon you will see the legislature do away with the standards that they have designed, simply because too many kids cannot meet them and that is neither politically correct nor politically expedient. As a reaction to the legislature, Chancellor Levy named a commission to study mathematics education in the city. The commission is made up of mostly academic types. It is noteworthy that most of the problems in teaching mathematics were caused by those very same academics and their insistence on the new math, the PAM Test and on other such gimmicks that keep kids from learning how to compute. Putting them on the commission is a little like hiring the fox to guard the henhouse.

· The CW says that the more homework a student is given, the more that student will retain what he or she learned in school that day. In fact, studies have shown that homework often has a negative effect. "…There are no significant gains for homework in the elementary school years. Just as telling, virtually no one so far has attempted to ascertain the side effects of homework. What are its effects on family, on children’s life-long interests in learning and on stress levels among our children? Our own ethnographic research shows that extensive homework assignments have played a major role in school dropouts. In interviews with high school dropouts as part of our study for the Maine Department of Education, we asked students if there was a moment when they knew that they were going to drop out of school. Every teenager cited ‘…the crushing effect of homework.’ "

· The CW is that bilingual education helps students with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) to learn until they can effectively use English. The fact is that bilingual education destroys lives. I have been saying that in this space for years and so have others in the field, but the editorialists are finally catching on. The Daily News recently did a series of editorials on the program. The lead for one such editorial sums the problem up nicely. "In cities across the country, voters and enlightened parents have finally realized that bilingual education spells failure in any language. One by one, they are doing away with it. But in New York, with the nation’s largest school system, the movement remains deeply entrenched, a monument to ethnic politics gone awry. If immigrants in the most diverse city in the world are ever going to get their fare share of the American pie, that must change." While the federal law that created the program has an escape hatch, it is unlikely that New York legislators will use it. Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer said recently, "Bilingual education has become a bullet in the cultural wars." That is true and, as the News points out, "pols have yet to find the moxie to stand up to the ethnicity-first crowd." Aspira, the Hispanic organization whose lawsuit first propagated the law, wants it continued. "Bilingual education is as important to Latinos today as it was 25 years ago," Aspira’s head says. "My group will fight any attempt to change it." In order for the mandate to be changed, the mayor must ask for relief under Article 14 of the law. Will he do it? It all depends on the politics of the situation, not on whether or not it is educationally sound.

· The CW is that we can learn from the Japanese model of education because Japanese students do so well in school. The fact is, we cannot use the Japanese model because we are not in Japan. Japan is a homogeneous nation. Everybody speaks the same language. There are few immigrants and those who come to the island nation must learn the language to survive. There are only two religions and their belief systems are very close to each other. Few children come into the system after the primary years. Education ends early for those who cannot pass definitive tests in the teenage years. Those facts make education relatively simple because almost everybody is on the same page from the beginning. I am not saying that makes Japan any better than we are, but I am saying that it makes it much easier to educate its young. I am just tired of "experts" who point to Japan and who then say that we should be more like them. We cannot and that is the bottom line in that story.

· Part of the carry-over from the "Japanese education is better" idea is that American schools should increase both the number of hours students spend in school and the number of days each year. Borough President Claire Shulman has called for schools that would run for an extra hour each day and an extra month each year. I figure that the UFT will buy the extra hour a day plan as long as the teachers are paid for the extra time. The extra month is another story. It is not that I do not like working in the summer. I have been doing it for almost 20 years now and I can see it as a special program for students who need remediation. There are not enough schools that are air-conditioned nor enough teachers who want to work in the summer to make the program work on any grand scale, however. Teachers have few perks. The pay is bad, the working conditions are terrible and neither the students nor their parents have any respect for the profession. The one real perk is the summer vacation. Teachers need it, students need it and parents need it to get to know their kids. It is simply too hot in our city to work the extra month in an environment that includes 35 kids and excludes air-conditioning.

Those are just some of the misconceptions about education and the effect that those misconceptions have on kids and on the system as a whole. Perhaps it is time to allow those who know the system best to decide its future. That will never happen, however, because it is not politically correct or politically expedient.

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