2002-12-07 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

From the Editor's Desk

Suppose you got a letter this morning from New York State telling you that the legislature passed a new law designed to insure that all children had adequate clothing to wear and that, under the new law, you had to spend $1,500 a month on each of your children's clothing. Not only that, government inspectors would come to your home periodically to check not only the clothing, but the sales slips as well. Should you not abide by the new law, your state income tax would be triple the normal rate as a penalty.

I know that sounds stupid, and that the government would never pass such a law (would it?), but laws that force the city to spend money it does not have on things it does not need is something that both the state and federal governments do on a regular basis.

They are called "unfunded mandates," because the city must obey them and spend the requisite money, but the government making the mandate does not provide the money to make its mandate reasonable.

New York City's schools are drowning in unfunded mandates directed by government.

Special education is only one the prime and most expensive example. Bilingual education is another. Both of those programs are directed by government and funded by your tax dollars to the tune of tens of millions of dollars each year. Both of those programs are politically driven rather than educationally driven.

Those programs pale, however, when held up next to the latest politically driven program from the minds of the federal bureaucracy - "No Child Left Behind."

One of the major parts of the plan is that students in schools that are identified as "failing" schools must be given the right to transfer to other, successful schools within the school district.

Under that plan, about 40 students from other district schools were added to PS 114's register in September.

PS 114, located in Belle Harbor, is probably the only elementary school in Rockaway (one of a handfull in the district) that is not listed as "failing" under the new regs. PS 114 is now above capacity. Parents are angry that their school has been driven to overcrowding by the inclusion of students from failing schools. The district, however, had little choice.

The law says, "Districts may not use lack of capacity to deny students the right to transfer."

Students have the right to transfer from failing schools to those that are not failing even if local officials can prove that there is no place to put them.

If the city does not comply, it faces the loss of $600 million in federal aid.

Holy unfunded mandate! Holy chaos!

There is an underlying assumption in the new law that I believe is flawed.

That assumption posits that a failing student transferred to a successful school is automatically going to become successful.

In fact, that is nowhere close to being true, as any teacher or administrator can tell you.

What makes a successful school? It is neither the principal nor the teachers. It is the students. Successful students make a successful school.

If the feds do not believe that, let them try an experiment.

Take the principal and staff from Mark Twain High School, one of the most successful in the city because, by federal mandate, it takes only students on or above grade level, and place them in Middle School 198 (the lowest performing school in Rockaway). Take the MS 198 staff and put them in Mark Twain.

Leave them in place for a year or two. I can tell you what would happen.

The students at Mark Twain would show little difference from their previous record. In fact, they might do better because the principal of MS 198, Beth Longo, is a tremendous administrator.

Their scores certainly would not go down.

The scores of the students at MS 198 would remain low. Having the "best" principal and staff at that school would make no difference whatsoever.

In fact, the change would probably have a greater impact on the staff than on the students.

The new staff at Mark Twain would probably be the happiest, most motivated in the city while the new staff at MS 198 would probably run screaming from the building, seeking early retirement at the age of 30.

That, unfortunately, is the reality of the situation.

The administration at MS 198 is hard working and dedicated. They are working with a population that includes only a handful of students who are performing on grade level.

As hard as they work, the staff will never get the students now at the school to raise their scores to a level where the feds would consider them to be a successful school. Students reading on the third or fourth grade level in the seventh grade are not going to get their scores to level over a two or three year period no matter what heroic efforts the staff attempts.

That is true for most of the elementary schools in Rockaway as well.

If all of the students in the failing schools were transferred to the successful schools, those schools would become failing schools. Is that a game we really want to play?

PS 105 was a SURR school that worked hard to get itself off the list. It did so with smaller classes, less students and extra hours.

Those efforts, especially the smaller classes, work. Shoehorning a hundred students into an already crowded "successful" school will not.

One of the regulations under the law requires school districts to disaggregate its scores -- to break them down by race and gender.

Those scores show that there are many failing students in successful schools. In fact, the new studies that have been mandated by the law show that minority students in "successful suburban schools" do as badly on standardized tests as those in failing inner-city schools.

That fact points to the futility of transferring those students from failing schools to successful schools.

When I was the editor for all of the publications coming out of the city's Special Education Curriculum Development Unit, I attended meetings at the World Trade Center with the people from the state's Education Department. At one of those meetings the state mandated that clinicians write primary long-term goals for special education students on their mandated Individual Education Plans (IEP's). I asked the state officials to tell me how the clinicians, who are not teachers, would know where the individual classroom teachers were in the curriculum and they asked me in real wonderment how teachers would know what to teach if they did not have an IEP in front of them. I nearly choked at the foolishness of that question because few teachers ever look at the IEP's after they are written and approved by their supervisors. It is an example, however, of how little the state ed people knew of education. The feds are the same way.

There is no way that New York City can move a large number of students from failing schools to successful schools, nor should it want to.

It is bad educational policy and it is bad public policy. And, the net result will be more failing schools and fewer non-minority kids in the system.

That is not what anybody wants, least of all the federal government.

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