2001-02-10 / Columnists

School Scope

School Scope

In last week’s column I wrote about some of the things that are wrong with our public school system. I promised that I would posit some solutions in this week’s column, and I intend to just that. Would these recommendations instantly transform public education in Rockaway? Of course, they would not. They would, however, go a long way in increasing morale in the schools, provide for a much better governance model and would also provide for a much more realistic educational model for students.


Today’s public schools are governed through a system that allows for total political control and very little educational control. The mayor and the borough presidents, politicians all, choose their representatives to the central school board. The chancellor is chosen by those seven political hacks who all want to become larger political hacks. Political advantage is their stock in trade. Any chancellor worth his or her salt knows that the future on the job depends on how is perceived by the political community, not the educational community.

The chancellor, in turn, chooses the district superintendents. It is a fiction that the local school boards chose their own superintendents. All we need to do it take a look at the District 29 situation to understand how it really works. The school boards and the community can chose their own superintendent as long as it is the person who the chancellor wants for the job.

Principals and assistant principals have to go through a process that includes community and local school board review, but that has also become a farce. Few people apply for the jobs. Interims fill most of the district’s positions. In the ultimate, district superintendents do the choosing, but even that process can be short-circuited by the chancellor (who has, you will remember, no educational background whatsoever). William Stark was the assistant principal at the Bronx High School of Science, one of the top schools in the city. The parents interviewed Stark for the principal’s job and wanted him badly. A panel of distinguished alumni wanted him. The teachers in the school wanted him. Bronx high school superintendent did not want him and neither did Levy. They vetoed his appointment. Stark got tired of waiting. Late last week he took a job as the principal of the prestigious Manhasset High School. He will earn $128 thousand in his new job, $50 thousand more than he was earning as an AP in New York City.

The decision to keep the job from Stark was basically a political one. The supe and the chancellor wanted a "name" person in the job, one who could give good publicity to the school and bring it research grants. Another excellent administrator is gone.

In this district we have a number of people who were administrators in other districts. By all that I have heard, they were asked to leave their past positions as administrators and to seek positions elsewhere. They have wound up in this district and in many cases have not been rousing successes.

I would start the governance process at the local school. Each school would have a school leadership team made up of parents, teachers and administrators. The principal and the designated AP would be automatic members of the team, as would the PA president and the UFT chapter chairperson. Parents would elect the parent members, teachers the teacher members.

Such teams now exist, but many of them exist on paper only. Those teams would have the mandate to hire all staff, including teachers, assistant principals and principals from among qualified applicants.

Each of those school leadership teams would send one representative to a District Leadership Team. That team would elect several of its own members to work as an ad-hoc district board. There would be no elected school board.

That district team would choose the superintendent and would insure that the district office provide assistance (not management) to the schools.

Each of the 32 district teams would elect a member to sit on a citywide school team. That 32-member team would break into subcommittees that would insure that support (again, not management) would be provided to the schools in terms of budgeting and fiscal matters. It would also provide a subcommittee that would deal with the school unions.

I would then insure that assistant principals work in an area for which they were a licensed teacher. There is no more excuse for an assistant principal with a language arts license supervising mathematics or science teachers than for a teacher to be teaching those subjects "out of license." I would do away with the assistant principal slot and fill it with "department chairpersons." Those administrators would teach one or two periods each day and would supervise all of the teachers with a similar license. Those master teachers would become mentors and experts for the newer teachers to lean on.

That would professionalize both the teachers and the administrators. They would be chosen not for their politics or their loyalty to the superintendent, but for their expertise and commitment to education.

Politics would be deleted from the process all across the board. There would be local control and interest and there would be hiring based on the school’s needs, not the political needs of some bureaucrat. That would go a long way towards reforming the system.

Teacher Recruitment:

There are three keys to education: good teachers, small classes and students who want to learn. The school system can address the first two, but the third is beyond anything the system can do.

The first thing the system must do it go back to testing prospective teachers. Just as there are "standards" for students, so must there be for teachers. I will never understand why the UFT fought to do away with verbal and written tests, but that is the dumbest thing I ever heard of and we are all paying the price for that stupidity.

Candidates should have to take four tests to become a classroom teacher. They should have to pass all four of them prior to entering a classroom on a full-time basis.

The first test is a content-based test. The candidate should be able to pass a test of general knowledge and or knowledge of his or her particular academic subject. Before I became a teacher (in the early 1960’s) I had to take a several-hour test in the various social studies disciplines. It was not exactly a test that included "what color was Jacob Riis’ mustache," but it was close.

The second test should be a test of written English. When this test was given, candidates were told to KISS, because every mistake in grammar, spelling and syntax would be counted against you. Those who could not write a valid English composition could not teach in the city. Today, we have teachers who cannot write a proper sentence. Hell, we have principals and people at the district office who cannot write a proper sentence

The third test was a verbal one. You were given a subject and some time to prepare a speech about the subject. You then gave the speech to three members of the board of examiners. It was a tough test. Those who had a speech impediment often did not pass. Certainly, you had to be understood. Today we have teachers who speak English with such an accent that they cannot be understood by either colleagues or students.

The fourth test was designed to see how you would actually do in the classroom. I was told to stay home on a particular day. I was called that morning and told to report to JHS 198 (I lived in the west end of Rockaway at the time) at 9 a.m. I showed up at the school and was given a textbook and a subject (I believe that it was westward expansion). I had 45 minutes to prepare a lesson. I then had to teach the lesson to a class in front of the school principal and two members of the board of examiners. When the lesson ended, I was told to leave the school and go home.

Today, prospective teachers must have a state license, which means they have had to pass college courses. They also have to pass the mirror test. That means a mirror is placed in front of their lips and if it fogs up, they get the job. That is not funny. That is basically what it has come to.

We also have to raise teacher’s salaries up to a point where people will want to work in the system. There are those who are idealistic, but most of those who come to the system see it as a job and it has to be a job that pays a living and comparable wage.

Perhaps if we meet that benchmark, we will not have to worry as much about the testing of candidates. If we pay it, they will come.

Finally, class size has to be reduced. The cap on kindergarten to the second grade has to be 20 students. The cap on grades three to five should be 23 students. The cap on grades six to eight should be 27 students. That would be a great beginning in turning the system around.

What can be done about the final issue – the students? We have to move from an "all students can learn" mantra (a mantra that has never been true) to one that says "all students can be taught, but only those who want to will learn."

There is a big difference there and those who now govern the system have to acknowledge that if we are to move on.

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