2002-03-02 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

From the Editor's Desk
By Howard Schwach

Some odds and ends that need discussion:

The big issue in the city today is education. Everybody wants to get into the act. The future of local schools board and the city's board of education is the topic of discussion at two forums. The first, held last Wednesday at Queens Borough Hall, was hosted by BP Helen Marshall.

Marshall has lined up a number of panelists: Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, Geraldine Chapey (the elder, a State Regent) and Councilman David Wepern. The second forum, to be held next week, is being hosted by Carol Gresser, a former member of the city's board of education. Her panel included Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, UFT President Randi Weingarten and the head of the supervisor's union, Jill Levy. Marshall says that she "wants to get a consensus of the people of my borough – parents, local school board members and the like." Gresser wants "prominent educators." I guess that nobody wants teachers. Therein lies the problem. The one group of people who really know what is going on in our schools and how to fix it is never invited to the dance. You might argue that Randi Weingarten represents the views of teachers, but she does not, any more than Levy represents the views of working administrators. We need to find out what the "grunts" think about the issues. Had we done that in Vietnam, we would have been out of the war ten years earlier.

* * * * *

City Councilman James Sanders dislikes the agency that is in charge of rebuilding lower Manhattan. The members of that agency, all appointed by Governor Pataki and Mayor Giuliani (prior to his leaving office), are uniformly male and non-minority. "The board does not much resemble the city it hopes to rebuild," Sanders said recently. "The board has only two woman and one person of color." Sanders, who heads the prestigious Economic Development Committee, has promised to hold hearings "until the fog is lifted away" from the way the new agency does business. Sanders is probably right in saying that there are too few women and minorities in the group, but this comes on the heels of his support for reparations and other racial issues. I sure hope that he does not see his role as that of racial arbiter rather than as a supporter of Rockaway's needs. Often, particularly in local politics, it is impossible to be both.

* * * * *

The concept of teaching self-esteem in our schools is again under attack, and rightfully so. Self-esteem comes only from doing a difficult job well. When we try and artificially supply that feeling of doing a job well by rewarding everybody, no matter how well they do the job, then we are doing a disservice to kids that will haunt them the rest of their lives. Witness a recent letter in the New York Times. "We boomers not only make our lives more difficult by harping on the notion of self-esteem, but we pass it along to our children as well, in the guise of a concept of "fairness." After an Olympic-style field day full of athletic activities and contests at my child's elementary school, all the medals won individually (by the fastest runner, highest jumper, etc.) were collected and the children were given a chance to pick medals out of a bag so that none would feel bad about losing. My daughter, who won nearly every race, came home with a bronze medal while my sons, who won nothing, actually came home with two medals apiece. What does that teach them about working hard? How does it teach them that some are better in athletics than others?" I would have to add to those questions the one that most needs to be asked, and that is "how does that ready kids for life, where prizes are often not given to those who do not produce?

* * * * *

Some more school stupidity from Kansas, but with relevance for our city as well. A high school Science teacher in Piper, Kansas found that too many of her students were taking term papers right off the internet and handing them in as their own. She told them not to do it and gave them another chance, pointing out that plagiarism is illegal. Despite that, 28 students again handed in Botany papers that were right off the internet. They got zeroes for their projects and a failing grade. When parents complained to the school board, however, the teacher's grades were overturned.

She refused the changes and she was fired. In New York City, thousands of teachers are called in each May and are told that they are failing too many kids, that they have to come up with a plan so that the majority of their kids will pass. They are threatened with Unsatisfactory ratings if they do not comply. Is that the same? It is in my mind and it undermines education like nothing else we can think of.

* * * * *

Federal District Court Judge Harold Baer is one of those blatantly Liberal judges who make living in the real world tougher for the rest of us. He recently ruled that inmate's beds in jails must be six feet from each other. When I was in the Navy, I lived in a room with 200 other guys and out racks (beds) were less than two feet from each other and piled four high. Nobody suffered and nobody sued. This is the same judge who ruled in 1996 that the people in Washington Heights should be afraid of cops and therefore had the right to run away from a cop when ordered to stop. Where do we find these guys?

* * * * *

The "new" city council does not want to be defined by its street-naming ability. This week, one of the council members from Staten Island will formally introduce legislation that would remove the city council from the street naming game and move that responsibility to community boards. City council members and city agencies would have input into the board's decisions and perhaps the council will retain some sort of oversight in the process. Sounds to me like a good idea.

* * * * *

The Supreme Court has approved the process whereby students may grade each other's work with violating Federal law. Why did the Supreme Court get involved in such a mundane issue, one that goes on in classrooms around the nation every day? Because an Oklahoma mother challenged the practice on the grounds that it violated her son's right to privacy. The court voted 9-0 to allow the procedure. What a waste of time for the high court.

* * * * *

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column on elite schools and what they meant for the rest of the kids. Two weeks later, the New York Times has an op-ed piece entitled, "The Other side of Choice: After Top Students Leave." While my column was set in New York and the Times' article was set in Chicago, they basically say the same thing. Elite schools are great for the kids who go to them, but death for the schools that those top kids leave. It's nice to be able to say, "I told you so," once in a while.


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