2002-10-12 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

By Howard Schwach

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has hired a private consulting firm to help school officials analyze the entire educational system. Klein hopes that the firm will be able to come up with a "blueprint for reform" in the next 100 days. The cost of the study is a little less than $4 million, all funded by private sources.

Klein should save the money he is spending for the study and put it to use in the schools, where the money is sorely needed.

Here is my blueprint and he can have it for free.

If you were to ask 1,000 parents, teachers, administrators and students to tell you the major problem with the school system, 999 of them would answer "discipline and safety."

Unless that issue is addressed, there can be no meaningful changes in staffing, curriculum, standards, governance or anything else.

Those of you who have read my columns over the years know what I am talking about. Parents know what I am talking about. Administrators know what I am talking about. Even students know what I am talking about. It is only the people at the district offices, the people who work for Advocates for Children and the people who work at the Department of Education who do not understand what I am talking about.

Or, they pretend that they do not. It is not politically correct to respond to the problem in any other way than to ignore it and hope that it will go away.

The solution is a simple one. Take disruptive and dangerous students out of local schools and place them in special, centralized schools. The best model we ever had was the "600 School" program. It worked so well that the politically correct destroyed it because too many minority students were placed in the program.

At one time, in the not-so-distant past, there was a program called "Second Opportunity Schools (SOS)," but the program never got off the ground because nobody wanted the school in his or her neighborhood and because it was not a politically correct program.

Kids who assault other kids, kids who assault teachers, kids who burn down schools, kids who are sexual predators, all remain in local schools because there is no place else to send them. That has to change.

Every kid has the right to an education, but no kid has the right to take that right away from others.

After 30 years of experience, I have to tell you that a small percentage of kids cause the major percentage of disruptions. They keep the other kids from learning. That five or ten percent have to be removed and educated elsewhere until their behavior becomes appropriate and they can be put back into the mainstream.

Once that issue has been addressed, we have to set in motion a plan that would mandate every kid in the public schools go to his or her neighborhood elementary, middle or high school.

That would put an end to the recruitment of top Rockaway kids by Brooklyn schools and would serve to improve all of the Rockaway schools. If schools are not allowed to recruit top athletes, why are they allowed to recruit top scholars?

That would also put an end to rezoning a district to allow for racial balance or to satisfy some "deal" that was made between a school board and the city.

Townsend Harris High School in Queens, for example, is a great school. It should be. It takes the ten brightest kids from every high school in Queens. Why should every other high school be denuded of its potential leaders just to make one great school?

Why should MS 198 be denuded of every kid who can read well to make MS 180 a better school? Why should the kids from Ocean Village travel all the way to PS 225 when they have a perfectly good school (PS 42) in their neighborhood?

Why do the kids from PS 106 go to MS 53 rather than to MS 198, which is closer and not as crowded? Deals were made long ago that persist today. That has to stop. All kids go to their neighborhood school, Period. End of problem.

Then, we come to standards. I love standards, but only when they are true standards, not public relations vehicles, as they are today in our city.

There are three standards for graduation: Attendance, class grades and standardized tests. Those who run the system have ballyhooed those standards as if they really existed.

Let’s look at attendance first. The standard says that a child must not be absent more than ten percent of the schools year – 18 days out of 180. The fact is, however, any note from a parent excuses an absence. When I was working at a mainland school as the attendance coordinator I got a letter that said, "Please excuse my son’s 37 absences. He was sick." That note was accepted and the absences were not counted towards the standard. I would venture to say that not one kid in the city, with the exception of truants who never showed up, was left back because of the attendance standard.

On the eighth grade level last year, fewer than 30 percent of the students passed the English Language Arts (ELA) standardized test. Fewer than thirty percent of the students passed the Mathematics standardized test. Yet 95.7 percent of the students in the eighth grade were promoted. How did that happen? Perhaps somebody can explain what the standard for promotion really is when 65 percent of the kids do not meet standards and still get promoted.

Do the words "Social Promotion Lives!" come to mind when you see those statistics?

Then, we come to classroom performance. In many schools, teachers were coerced not to fail students. Teachers had to write educational plans for students and have them signed by parents. Even then, kids who did not perform the promised work were promoted. Those who did not pass their class work for the year were allowed to use "portfolios" to prove that they could do "standards-based work." I once joked that a kid who drew a picture of a person doing a math example had a standard setting math portfolio. I was not so far from the truth.

Kids who got the wrong answer but showed their flawed work got good grades. Kids who got the right answer but did not show the work were sanctioned. Talk about standards. There are none, despite what school officials might argue.

Klein must make those standards real once again.

Kids who do not come to school regularly must be left back.

Kids who do not work for an entire year must be left back.

Kids who cannot pass standardized tests must be left back.

Do that, address the discipline issue and bring back neighborhood schools, and you will see a marked improvement in education.

That is my blueprint and it is free. It is more than free, it is realistic, doable and would bring real change.

That means, it will never happen, because it also happens to be politically incorrect, and that is really the name of the education game.

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