2000-12-23 / Columnists

School Scope

I touched on the staff development day held in my school recently in last week’s column, but there is more to be said about staff development in general and about the Outward Bound program specifically.

The focus of the Outward Bound program is teamwork and the most important parts of the day were spent discussing teamwork and leadership within the team and performing some low-key activities that demanded teamwork in order to get them done.

As I told you last week, one of the strengths of the program was that more experienced (I am loath to use the word "old") such as me were teamed with new teachers and with those with only a short time in experience.

At one point we were asked to share with another team member a lesson learned from the day.

One young teacher, with less than a term’s experience in the school system (but who had been an executive trainer in the corporate world) came up with the fact that "teamwork is the key. Each group built on what the group before them learned from the exercise and that allowed the final group to do the best at the activity."

He is right and he was elucidating something that every teacher already knows. It is a team of teachers working together to address the needs or a relatively small group of students that works best, especially with "at-risk students."

That is why the mayor’s obdurate stand that that the key to educational excellence is competition and not cooperation in the classroom is so blatantly ridiculous.

The mayor wants merit pay based on "student achievement." That sounds good and in some venues it works well. If people are building engines than you can measure how fast the engines get built and how few accidents there are in the workplace and the quality control of each engine. You can then build a mathematical formula that will tell you which team is the best and deserves the largest raise.

What would happen, however, if one of the teams had to work one-handed? How about a team that had to work with material that was machined backwards? How about if one team was allowed to spend extra hours working on the engines while the others were not? How about if the man in charge of the program’s brother-in-law was on one of the teams and the numbers were cooked to make it look like his team built better engines?

What I am saying is that in order for merit pay to work there has to be a level playing field and in education in this city there is no level playing field, not within districts and not even within schools.

At MS 53, for example, there is a program called the Advanced Learning Institute (ALI). All of the kids reading above grade level are in that program. They have specially trained teachers, their own lunch period and their own gym period. They will all go on to top high schools and to college.

The majority of the other kids in the school are reading eligible, which means that they are reading on Level I and on the lower end of Level II.

Few of the kids in the ALI are discipline problems. The majority of them have parents who care about education and who support the teachers.

There are many discipline problems in the rest of the classes and there is often difficulty in getting parents to address the problems evidenced in the classroom.

The ALI kids will always do better in standardized tests. Should the teachers who teach the ALI program be judged the same as the teachers who teach the other classes when it comes time to decide who is paid more?

In fact, in my opinion, the higher pay should go to the teachers who have a tougher time in teaching the kids in the other classes. Under Giuliani’s proposal, however, the ALI teachers and the teachers in the other district schools who teach students in like programs will get the merit raises. That may seem fair to the mayor, but it does not see fair to me.

The morale of many teaches and administrators had dropped exponentially in the past few months due to the ranting of the mayor and the harassing actions of the new district office team. Those who can get out are looking to do so. The older teachers are going for pension consultations at a record rate and the young ones are ripping out computerized resumes and shipping them off to Nassau County. It is only those in the middle – those with more than seven or eight years experience – that have fewer options.

The mayor had "dissed" teachers in many other ways in terms of the new contract.

His first proposal to the union amounts to an eight percent pay reduction.

His first proposal raises the amount that teachers have to pay under their health insurance.

His first proposal calls for a five-day deferral of pay for each teacher that he or she would get back at retirement. That has been done before in times of fiscal emergency, but never in time of fiscal growth.

His first proposal calls for a two-week payroll lag, which means that teacher’s pay would always be two weeks behind. In the last contract they city promised that it would pay teachers every two weeks. That has never happened and now it wants a two-week lag.

His first proposal calls for an elimination of sabbaticals.

His first proposal calls for an increased school day and an increased school year but no increase of pay.

His first proposal calls for a plan that "would adopt incentives to reward teachers for superior performance." That is merit pay.

His first proposal demands "the chancellor or his or her designee shall have the unilateral right to determine teachers’ assignments and duties, including the discretion to determine professional development and to modify the school based option process." That would give the superintendent, for example, the right to transfer teachers based on whatever criteria he or she decides is appropriate. That would not bode well for a person such as me, who speaks out about problems and is not on the superintendent’s "team." It would also not bode well for anybody who angers the superintendent in any way. At present, a teacher is assigned to a school and cannot be removed from that school except for cause.

In a perfect world, it would not matter. This is not a perfect world and it certainly does matter.

In the real world, workers are routinely moved about at the whim of supervisors. It is assumed that, given that the bottom line is profit, the supervisors will do nothing stupid to harm that profit. There is no such assumption in the schools, where education is often secondary to political gain in the world of school supervision.

Which brings us to leadership. The qualities that define a leader are ephemeral.

As part of the staff development, we were asked to state something that is true for life that we have learned along the way.

After thinking about it, I said that I learned in the military that leadership was important and that it was true that it did not take a formal education to know what was going on.

I pointed to the fact that junior officers who were all college-educated, were told by senior officers to listen to their petty officers and to their senior chiefs (most of who learned on the job) if they wanted to survive. I think that the same should be true of the schools. New AP’s and principals who have little or no experience should listen to what the senior teachers have to say. There should be a collegial model and not an adversarial one as we now have.

That, however, is another story for another week and another column.

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