2001-01-27 / Columnists

School Scope...by Howard Schwach

School Scope...by Howard Schwach

It is time again for the yearly disclaimer. This column represents what the legal community calls "comment." What you read here is my opinion, my take on the passing education scene, particularly in District 27, but citywide, statewide and globally as well. It is based on my nearly 30 years of experience, my perceptions, and information from others involved with education and on official presentments.

There are lots of things going on that impact education in this district. Most of them are not meaty enough for an entire column, but I would be remiss if I did not comment on them at all, so here goes:

At the beginning of this year, the central board decided that it would give a prep course to those teachers who had failed to pass the required state certification tests. The results are now in and six out of 10 have failed the test again. Some of the daily papers point to that fact with glee and say that it is representative of those who teach in the system. That is pure bologna. One "education advocate" says, "Some teachers are just not very bright. It’s as simple as that." It is not as simple as that. The majority of teachers who have failed the test were hired as bilingual teachers. They are from other nations and do not know English very well. Should they be teachers in our city? Probably not. They have neither the language skills nor the background or knowledge that it takes to be a teacher. Yet, the city keeps hiring them in the name of "diversity." One of the teachers quoted in the New York Post is a native of the Dominican Republic. He has an MA from Columbia University and one has to wonder how he got that degree if he can’t pass a simple liberal arts test. Another who was quoted was a native of Ghana with degrees from three universities. He failed the test "six or seven times" before finally passing it after the prep course. I have to question whether the city should be hiring these people at all. I worked with a woman two summers ago. When JFK Junior’s plane crashed, some kids in her class did a collage in honor of his death. She walked into the office and asked me if his father was somebody important. I do not think that somebody who has so little knowledge of American history should be teaching in New York City.

Which leads us to the next item. Chancellor Levy has said recently, "We’re in no position to be picky (about hiring new teachers)." He wants the state legislature to repeal a law requiring citizenship to obtain a teacher’s license. He wants to hire people from such nations as the Philippines, Australia and Canada, where English is spoken. That begs the question as to whether those candidates know enough about America and about our culture and history to become teachers. It takes more knowledge of where we have been and where we are going to be a teacher than to become a banker, and that is what Levy’s model seems to be.

Which leads us to the next item. Despite the fact that city officials still aver that there is no teacher shortage, Levy admits that he will have to hire 3,000 new teachers through his "teaching fellows" program that urges people to switch professions to become teachers. He has high hopes for the program despite the fact that nearly 10 percent of last year’s group dropped out even before the year was over. Of the initial 324 "fellows," 29 have already left the system before the first semester is over. It cost the city about $20 thousand to retrain each of those dropouts. A new class of 1,400 "fellows" is expected to begin in June.

Careers in education cannot be a very desirable when the majority of upper level managers would not recommend it to their children. A study conducted by the State Council of Superintendents found that 65 percent of those polled said that they would not recommend a job in education to their children. One district superintendent decried the fact that he once got "hundreds" of applications for every supervisory vacancy. He now gets fewer than 10. Another poll showed that up to 500 veteran principals would retire at the end of this year. Approximately 55,000 of the city’s 79,000 teachers will be retiring or leaving the system for greener pastures over the next five years. If this is not a "crisis in education," I don’t know what it. Yet, the mayor and his minions continue to say that the numbers are really "union negotiating ploys" and that there is no crisis in education in this city.

There was a recent letter to the New York Post from the husband of a Far Rockaway teacher responding to columnist Andrea Peyser (who seems to dislike teachers so much that one might think that she failed in the job somewhere along the line). Jeffrey Levine writes: "Perhaps Ms. Peyser should switch with my wife, who is a special-ed teacher in crack-infested Far Rockaway. Not only do teachers have to educate this generation of children, but they have to teach them how to behave, many times being put in physical danger, with very little support from the city or the parents."

Randi Weingarten, the president of the UFT, made a good point in a recent letter to the New York Daily News. She writes: I’m very confused. On Jan. 12, your editorial… condemned the fact that in the police department there is a small army of officers whose daily work has nothing to do with fighting crime. You say that clerical and other jobs could and should be done by civilians. But in your Jan. 16 editorial…you criticize Circular 6, the provision of the teacher’s contract that turns non-instructional positions like lunchroom and hallway monitoring over to non-teachers. This gives teachers more time to perform their professional duties…If letting professionals focus on doing their jobs is a good idea in the NYPD, why is it an abuse at the Board of Education?"

The federal Education Department has endorsed 10 K-12 mathematics programs for schools. Five were called "exemplary" by the feds. One of those who approved the programs was Steven Leinwand, who wrote, "It is time to recognize that, for many students, real mathematical power, on the one hand, and facility with pencil and paper computational algorithms on the other, are mutually exclusive. Continuing to teach these skills to our students is not only unnecessary, but counterproductive and downright dangerous." For example, Leinwand would not bother teaching a student "the pen and pencil procedure for dividing 10 by 1.59." Rather, he would ask the students to guess how many $1.59 Big Macs he could buy for $10 and then by asking them to interpret the 6.2893082 answer on a calculator to understand that they could buy about six of the Big Macs. One math expert says that the new programs "attempt to engage students by placing less emphasis on hard work and persistence." What Leinwand is talking about is a program that does not teach students such skills as multiplication, division, subtraction and addition. We are already moving in that direction with the PAM tests that reward work shown and downgrade the correct answers. When will we learn?

It is obvious that cost control problems exist only at the school level. The central board and districts continue to hire people in positions that did not exist in the past. For example, Levy recently hired Andre Hornsby as his supervising superintendent (sou-nds like something of Scotland Yard). Hornsby will get $145,367 a year in his new post. He will train superintendents. You would not think that superintendents would need much training, being most of them have been in the system for more than 30 years, but that is life in the big city. What is also strange is that Hornsby was recently accused of breaking state ethics laws and was removed from his last position as school superintendent in Yonkers. Is he going to train our superintendents how to break ethics laws? Judging from recent events in other districts, one would think they already know how to do that.

The UFT recently did a poll of its members and some of the findings are germane to what I wrote about in the last two columns. More than 65 percent of the teachers polled said that the new standards are forcing them to concentrate too heavily on what is tested to the detriment of other topics. Nearly 30 percent reported using practice tests and test-prep material "a great deal." Nearly one-half reported taking time away from teaching chores to prepare students to take specific tests. Fewer than half of the teachers polled reported that they had sufficient textbooks and materials that match the new standards.

All in all, these unrelated articles culled from sources all over the nation tend to show that we do have a crisis in education, that teachers and administrators are disaffected with their careers, that they are getting little help from the infrastructure, and that the new standards are forcing education to become a system of "teaching to the test." More about this in future columns.

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