2001-05-26 / Columnists

School Scope by Howard Schwach

You would think that I would no longer care what happens in the schools because I have one foot out the door and the other foot will follow in 24 days and a wake-up.

I do care, however and that is why some recent developments really bother me.

The first thing that really rankles is the "ten percent rule." This "rule" comes from the very top, from the chancellor and it is stupid any way you cut it, particularly in light of the coming massive teacher shortage.

Chancellor Levy comes from the business world and statistics mean a lot to him. He looked at the number of teachers who had been rated the year before he took office and he was appalled.

"There are too few teachers being rated unsatisfactory," Levy told aides. "Statistically, at least ten percent of the teachers in the system must be unsatisfactory."

So was the "ten percent rule born."
The chancellor’s minions passed the word to superintendents. The words below might not be the exact wording, but it is close enough and it displays the intent perfectly.

"Five principals in your district and ten percent of the teachers must be statistically unsatisfactory. Find those staff members. Help them, and if they still can’t do the job, get rid of them. If you can’t do that, your job is forfeit"

The superintendents passed the word to principals.

"Rate ten percent of your teachers unsatisfactory. If you can’t do that, your job is forfeit"

Principals passed the word to assistant principals.

"I need unsatisfactory teachers. Rate one of two of those you supervise unsatisfactory. If you can’t do that, your job is forfeit."

This might not sound like a quota system to you, but it certainly seems like one to me.

The "ten percent rule" seems to me to be both immoral and unsound.

I know of one teacher who is caught in the ringer. She is a great teacher in her second year at one of the district schools.

One day the superintendent and his assistant for middle schools came to visit. They walked around the building with notepads and pen, checking both classroom and hallway bulletin boards.

I do not really think that this is what the public pays the superintendent more than $100 thousand a year and his assistant somewhere in the $90 thousand range to do all day, but who am I to complain. If you want to pay a total of $190 thousand a year to people who consider it their role in life to check bulletin boards, so be it.

In any case, the word is that the teacher did not have enough "standard’s-based student work on her classroom bulletin boards and that she will be one of those in the "ten percent club."

They reportedly did not watch her teach. They did not check her record. They did not look at student notebooks. She is "unsatisfactory" simply because she did not have the proper work on her bulletin board and they need the ten percent sacrifice for the chancellor.

This might make perfect sense to you, but it makes no sense to me.

Here you have kids running the building, sexually assaulting other students, cursing at teachers, assaulting staff, causing riots in the cafeteria and the one thing that the high-priced talent does when it comes to the school is to look at bulletin boards.

That one act defines why the schools are failing.

The second thing that really bothers me comes closer to home.

It is a memo that superintendent Matt Bromme sent to his district cabinet and others who work for him at the district level.

I have not seen the actual memo. I am out of the loop for memos these days, even memos that I need to do my job.

It was reprinted, however, by Norm Scott, a teacher in another district, who is on the UFT executive board and who writes a monthly newsletter called Education Notes. In his May, 2001 issue, Scott says that the memo from Bromme to his Superintendent’s Cabinet, district staff and the UFT rep, Harolyn Fritz, read:

"In order to avoid any confusion – if staff (whatever the rank), are directed by me to do a task (simple and/or complex), no one is to contradict that directive.

"Whether it is a matter as simple as storage space, or as complex as a nuclear reactor, I am the final decision maker. In addition, if I ask for something to get done – it is to be done – there is to be no debate. I accept the responsibility of making the decision and the ramification of that decision. I have a cell phone and a beeper.

"If there is a need for change – call me –I will direct the staff member to make the change. There seems to be too much confusion in the office and I need to tighten up these issues."

Shades of the KGB! You will follow my orders, or else. There is something sinister in a directive such as that one in an organization that is supposed to be collaborative.

I have to tell you that when I first read this memo I thought that it was an out of date April Fool’s Joke. If it is a fake, then I have to apologize to Bromme for reprinting it. I have been assured, however, that it is real. That makes it frightening.

Where is the trust that a professional will do his or her job without direction? Where is the collaboration the chancellor always speaks about? Where is the consensus building that schools are supposed to major in?

First, Bromme restricted what floors in the district office that his staff could visit without permission. Then he made a ruling that all contacts with the school board had to come through him. Then he restricted where staff members could eat their lunch. Then, we have this memo.

What is the system coming to?

Last week, I wrote about IS 53, but the problems of that problem school are also the problems of all of the middle schools. It is just a matter of degree.

Instead of worrying about bulletin boards and standards-based work and rating ten percent of the teachers as unsatisfactory, the superintendent and his assistant should be addressing the kids running the building, excoriating and assaulting teachers, staff and students. That is where the real problem lies.

If nothing is done to address the discipline question, we will not have public schools twenty years from now.

There will be a series of single interest based schools that are charter schools or voucher schools. There will be Catholic schools and Jewish schools and Muslim schools and gay schools and Afrocentric schools and left-handed schools and immigrant schools and the list will go on and on.

When that happens, democracy will begin to die.

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