2000-12-16 / Columnists

School Scope

The mayor is out of control. There is nothing about the public school system that comes in for praise. He is the proverbial loose cannon when it comes to education issues.

His latest target was the system-wide staff development day that was held this past Thursday. The mayor pointed to that day as "proof" that teachers do not work as many hours as other workers.

I wonder if he says the same when police officers are pulled off patrol for a day of training at the academy or at the firing range. I wonder if he says the same when firefighters are brought into the fire academy on Randall’s Island for refresher training. I don’t know if the sanitation workers ever do refresher training, because all garbage receptacles are basically the same (I expect that I will get some angry letters about that), but every profession requires updating of training.

In fact, doctors and dentists are required to do a set number of hours of professional training each year to retain their licenses.

Giuliani does not want teachers doing those things, however. He wants them in the classroom every minute of the day, teaching kids.

Never mind training. Never mind marking papers. Never mind planning. Never mind meeting with colleagues to plan projects and major units. Never mind meeting with team members to talk about kids.

After all, don’t those teachers in the suburbs who make so much more money do just that?

In fact, they do not.

New York City teachers work six hours and 20 minutes each day. Middle school and high school teachers teach 25 45-minute periods each week. Elementary school teachers teach 29 45-minute periods each week. For a middle school or high school teacher (who has four or five different classes each day), approximately 225 minutes (about four hours) of that time are spent in the classroom. There is also a contractual 45 minute duty-free lunch period, 45 minutes of preparation time and 45 minutes dedicated to working on an educational endeavor such as tutoring, curriculum design or a few administrative details. An elementary school teacher (who generally has only one class each day) spends an average of four and a half hours in the classroom each day. There is also a duty free lunch period and a preparation period. The elementary school teachers get one extra prep each week to do educational or administrative duties.

New York students must attend school for 180 days each year.

In Nassau County schools, teachers work an average of seven hours and 10 minutes. Approximately three and a half to four hours each day are spent in the classroom. The extra time above what New York City teachers work is spent before school and after school, working with kids on an individual basis, meeting with parents, tutoring, on curriculum design, and on administrative duties.

Nassau County students must attend school for 180 days each year. In fact, every school student in the state has to attend school for 180 days each year.

Look at those statistics and then tell me that Nassau County teachers are working much harder and longer hours to deserve their $8 or $10 thousand in salary above what city teachers are earning, as the mayor argues.

It is typical, however, of the mayor to equate teachers, who must have a master’s degree within five years to keep their license current (at the cost of $20 to $25 thousand) with sanitation workers who only need a high school diploma and do not have to worry about taking work home. I do not mean to denigrate sanitation workers. It is cold and backbreaking work, but c’mon.

How can anybody, particularly the mayor, equate what teachers need to do their jobs and what it takes to do the job each day with what a sanitation worker needs to do his job and what it takes to do the job each day? Think about it! If there is a teacher’s strike this year it will be more about that lack of responsibility and respect on the part of the mayor than on the money issue.

It was even more disingenuous of the mayor to attack the system for its staff development days because he is the one who complained that teachers are not well enough trained and that too many "unqualified" teachers were clogging the system.

I have to admit that some staff development programs are better than others. Many schools use them as planning time for interdisciplinary teams to get together and plan long-range activities and to coordinate educational activities. Other schools use them to address such things as the New Standards and the new Special Education Continuum (that is another story for a later date). Many of the failing schools use those days to discuss reinventing the school and working with new ways to teaching.

The school that I work in did something different last week. The school’s leadership team hired the "outward bound" people to come in and do a day of team building and morale-building activities.

I was skeptical of the program, but it turned out not only to be interesting, but to be valuable as well.

Early out, the staff was asked to make a large circle in the school gym, with the newest teacher at one end and the most experienced at the end, standing next to the newest in the circle. The group was then broken randomly into teams for the rest of the day and each team wound up with a mix of teachers, administrators, counselors and paraprofessionals who had worked 30 years, 20 years, 15 years, 10 years, 7 years, 2 years, two months, etc. In many cases, some of those teachers were from different disciplines and different teams and therefore did not know each other.

The exercises that went on for the rest of the day required them to meet and to talk with each other. They required them to discuss school and school problems and how it felt to walk into a large building as a "newbie." It required them to work together against other teams to build things and move things and to trust each other.

The word that came up most often during the discussions about school and school problems that day was "consequences."

There are consequences for principals whose school has a history of "persistent educational failure," consequences for teachers who fail too many students or who cannot raise their student’s scores, consequences for everybody except students and parents.

There are no consequences for a child not coming to school. Absences can be wiped out by a note saying, "Please excuse my son’s 37 absences. He did not feel well."

There are no consequences for poor behavior, despite the new school safety bill. A number of teachers at MS 198 in Arverne, for example, have e-mailed me to tell me that a teacher at the school was threatened by a student with a serrated edge butter knife and that student was not even suspended because the district would not allow it.

There are no consequences for a parent who will not come to school to find out how a student is doing. This year, a big deal was made of the fact that parents had to come to school to pick up their student’s report card. It was announced at meetings that any parent who did not come within a certain time would be reported for educational neglect. Last week, report cards were given to those students whose parents did not come to school.

Teachers soon learn not to threaten students with anything they cannot carry out. The district should learn that lesson. Those parents who did come just to get the report cards can now say they were misled. They would be right.

There are consequences for a student who fails, but that will soon be in the past. The district constantly points out that too many students are being failed by the district’s teachers and it will not be long before teachers are pressured to pass kids who do not pass. Remember, if the student cannot pass classroom tests and cannot pass standardized tests, there are always portfolios. A portfolio with a drawing of a teepee and one math problem, a report on Mars and an I-Search on tomatoes should be enough to pass from one grade to another. Right? That is what we are coming to.

In any case, teachers do work hard and they do work as long hours as teachers elsewhere.

If they were left alone to do their job, everything would be better. It is the interference by those who do not walk the walk or talk the talk that disrupts education.

Unfortunately, that is not about to change. Not as long as Giuliani is our mayor.

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