2001-05-05 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

by Howard Schwach

To the mayor and his minions, the school system is no different that any other business. A school teaches kids to read and do math, a factory makes widgets. No difference. Raw material in, finished product out.

In the business world, if the widgets do not come out right, it is the fault of the manager, the foreman and the workers. A team that produces 70,000 widgets a year deserves a larger raise than a team that produces 50,000 widgets a year. A team that produces only 25,000 widgets a year deserves to be terminated – literally.

Life is so simple when you are the mayor. Merit pay is the answer. If you figure out who the best teachers are and you give them a large raise then all of the teachers will want to become the best teachers and the system will prosper.

Unfortunately, life is not so simple in the schools.

Merit pay has never worked in school systems as it allegedly does in industry because schools are not factories. They do not take the same raw materials and fabricate a product as factories do.

I would never consider children to be "raw material," and neither should the mayor. Yet, he does, just as big business now considers its workers not to be people, but to be "human resources."

Even the media cannot fathom the school merit pay system.

Cincinnati has been trying a teacher merit pay system in its schools. Of course, we know that Cincinnati has other problems than the school system. Its recent riots were the worst in America in decades.

That fact aside, on April 18, the New York Times published a column by Richard Rothstein that declared that the Cincinnati experiment with merit pay is "a radical experiment in teacher pay that could become a national model if successful." It added that the "experiment is the one to watch."

On April 20, a Washington Post column by William Raspberry, the distinguished Black columnist, claimed that the Cincinnati plan "is like rewarding golfers by analyzing their form rather than by counting their strokes."

Which newspaper is right? Nobody knows, and that is the point. Nobody has ever been able to come up with a successful unbiased merit pay system for teachers and god knows, they have tried.

As an aside, the Cincinnati teacher’s union president who had negotiated the merit pay plan was recently bounced by his union by a woman who campaigned solely on doing away with the plan. She got 78 percent of the vote running against the incumbent (thanks to Norm Scott for the info).

Of course, if the merit pay plan falls, the mayor has another idea.

He wants the school leadership to go through the vaunted Compstat program just as police commanders do.

Under that plan, precinct commanders are responsible for coming up with strategies for driving the number of crimes down. They are critiqued in front of their peers and derided for "poor numbers." If the numbers do not improve, commanders are forced to retire or are reassigned to the landfill on Staten Island. Where they will go when the landfill closes is anybody’s guess.

Giuliani loves Compstat even though he does not love Bill Bratton, the man who started it. He thinks that he started it. He also things it would work with school principals just as it has worked with police commanders.

"That’s what I believe you need for our education system," the mayor recently told reporters. "You need accountability."

The mayor’s aides have even come up with a name for the program. They reportedly call it "learnstat."

Isn’t that darling?

The plan calls for principals to be called on the carpet for a myriad of failures, such as a surge in student absence or lateness, a high suspension rate or a drop in reading scores.

Superintendents could be called into a Learnstat session as well, for things such as "persistent educational failure" in district schools, a high assault rate in district schools or a high absentee rate.

Jill Levy, the head of the administrator’s union does not like the plan very much.

"We are about education and not about numbers and crime," she said. "All this will do is heighten the fear and blame and drive the good principals out of the system."

She is probably right. After all, while precinct commanders can cover trouble spots and reassign cops to pinpoint specific crime stats, principals do not have that option.

Can principals stop students from staying home? Of course not, only parents can do that.

Can principals stop suspensions? Sure they can, and they do. That only results in a worse situation, where kids run wild because they know there are no sanctions for inappropriate behavior.

Can principals stop kids from coming to school late? Of course not, only parents can do that.

And they do not. I know from personal experience that few parents care if their kids come to school late each day. I talk to dozens of them each day and the majority says they do not care of that they cannot do anything about it.

Can principals make the reading scores go up? Sure they can, marginally, but not to the extent that the system demands. It is the kids with the reading scores and when they and their parents vote with their feet to take their high reading scores elsewhere, scores will dip in a short period of time.

It happened at MS 180 when all the best students fled the sixth grade at PS 114 to go to Brooklyn for the final three years of middle school.

It is happening again at some mainland schools.

There is nothing the principal can do about that. Perhaps the chancellor should mandate that all middle school students go to their neighborhood schools and then perhaps he should make all of the neighborhood schools real neighborhood schools. That would go a long way in reversing the trend for kids to travel for middle school.

Do we need merit pay? Do we need Learnstat? Do we need this mayor? The answer to all three questions should be in the resounding negative.

Perhaps there is life after Giuliani after all.


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