2000-11-04 / Columnists

School Scope 11/4

Schools mirror the ills of the society that they serve. Often those ills are both magnified by the community and distorted so that teachers and administrators often feel that they are working in some sort of "fun house," where nothing is as it seems to be on the surface. Schools fail because society has failed them. Often, parents do not help the schools to educate their students. Instead, they exacerbate the educational problems of their children by failing to grasp the problems that their children are going through or to believe that such problems can happen to "their child."

Very often parents have a great disdain for teachers. That disdain is passed on to their children.

Parents are not the only adult problem that teachers face, however.

Very often those who fund and direct the system (politicians, central board administrators and even district administrators, in some cases) share that disdain for those who must live in the fun house.

Look at some of the regulations for governing schools promulgated by the central board and by districts and you will see that they are designed to control teachers as much as they are designed to educate students.

Teachers and building administrators are seen not at all as professionals, but as some sort of underclass. The perception is that the underclass needs to be closely directed and controlled and that, as a class, the group can make no decisions nor act without direction because those decisions will not reflect what is best for the students.

Because of that disdain, often decisions are made that are so antithetical to the educational process that those of us who have to walk the walk and talk the talk within the fun house are left both astounded and speechless.

Harold Levy, the chancellor who has no education background whatsoever, seems to have set the tone.

Many of the people who he choose as his principal administrators have little or no educational background. There is a message there somewhere.

There is now a vacancy for a principal in one of the city’s best high schools. It does not matter which school we are talking about. Suffice it to say that it is one of the best three or four in the city.

The C-30 Committee, made up of teachers, parents, union reps and community leaders decided that one of the school’s assistant principals would be the best person for the job.

The chancellor, however, wants a non-educator. He wants a high profile winner of the Nobel Prize or such to direct the school. One such person was asked about taking the job and his answer was, "what do I know about running a school for kids?" He is right.

Levy thinks that a high-profile scientist would draw grants and other money to the school. He might be right about that, but he forgets that people with experience are important to the process. That there is a lot more to being a competent school administrator than being good at fund raising.

It is another example of the disdain that he has for those who have come up through the ranks of teachers and administrators.

As a matter of fact, if that is such a good idea, why not put those high-profile people in the worst performing schools rather than the best. After all, don’t they need the elite principals more than the top schools?

At the end of last year, Levy stated his disbelief that only a small percentage of teachers were given a "U" rating – declared to be unsatisfactory. He argued that at least 10 percent of the teachers over the system of 60,000 teachers must be unsatisfactory given the reading and math scores of their students.

This year he has set out to remediate that, not be bringing the students up to par, but by mandating a quota system whereby each principal has to designate 10 percent of his or her teachers as unsatisfactory.

In a school with 100 teachers, that means that 10 teachers must be given "U" ratings.

I would admit that every school has some teachers who are unsatisfactory, but I would argue that a quota system will destroy young teachers, those who have not yet found their voice and their shtick. Those young teachers are the ones, who, more often than not, will be declared unsatisfactory. The question then becomes, who will replace them?

The whole argument over lesson plans is another example of the disdain for teachers and the need to control them tightly.

Every teacher needs to plan. That is a given. It is also a given that not every teacher has to plan in the same way.

I have seen in my time teachers with fabulous lesson plans who never taught a good lesson in their entire careers and I have seen teachers with scribbles on a page who teach fantastic lessons each time they enter a classroom.

Standardized lesson plans are a lazy administrators way of monitoring what the teachers are doing in his or her school.

If an administrator wants to find out what a teacher is doing, all he or she has to do is walk into the classroom and open his or her eyes.

For many years, the contract allowed administrators to dictate the form of a teacher’s lesson plans and to collect them on a regular basis.

Administrators would usually collect the plan books twice a month and initial them to show that they had read them. Rarely were they every really read.

In the last contract with the teachers, this was changed. Teachers had to plan, but they did not have to use a standard form. Administrators could ask for them during an observation, but they could not regularly be collected or checked. Lesson plans became the "work product" of the teacher and no longer subject to the whims of the administrators.

Principals went crazy. They asked how they could keep track of their teachers without being able to collect lesson plans. They acted as lesson plans really reflect what is happening in the classroom when they knew that this was not really true.

When Levy became chancellor, he avowed that he would bring back lesson plans so that his school managers could once again manage.

I have to wonder if the financial planners that worked for Levy at Citibank had to submit weekly plans of how they would conduct their business to their managers. I am sure they did not, because it would have been considered that a ridiculous prospect and a waste of valuable time. Levy, however, believes that it is perfectly reasonable for professional teachers to do just that because it is obvious that they would not do their jobs if their managers were not monitoring them closely and lesson plans are one way to do the monitoring. After all, what other purpose does collecting lesson plans on a regular basis have in the educational firmament?

Our district now has two primary "indicators" that it checks when it does it vaunted "walk-through" of the schools. The district personnel who do the walk-through check lesson plans and they check bulletin board. Lesson plans and bulletin boards! That takes me back to the days when the district personnel checked only "Learning Objectives" on the chalkboard because they were seen as the end-all and be-all of education. That is no longer the case. Now it is lesson plans and bulletin boards.

Stupidity even comes from the court front. It is a common classroom process for teachers to give a quiz and to allow students to switch papers and mark each other’s papers.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held, however, that doing so is a violation of the privacy laws. Those teachers who continue to do so will be in violation of federal law.

What a world. Talk about smoke and mirrors and about fun house distortions.

Teaching has never been an easy profession despite the summer vacations. It promises to get even harder, not because of the students, but because of the perception of the profession by those who should know better.

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