2003-07-11 / Columnists

From the

By Howard Schwach
From the Editor’s Desk By Howard Schwach

The city’s Department of Education, which recently cut the jobs of numerous school aides, is spending $175,000 so tha t you can compare your child’s school to other city schools on line.

The department has hired GreatSchools, Inc., a San Francisco-based company to set up the service. They say that it will be in operation in September.

According to the report, the website will allow parents to make informed choices on middle-school and high school entrance and will assist them in transferring their children out of low-performing schools.

"We have powerful tolls on the site to help parents compare schools," said a spokesperson for the company. "We take the data available and explain it in real terms."

The site will allow parents to check out such things as the test scores of a given school, the level of experience and the qualifications of school staff, faculty absence rates, student attendance and the percentage of students receiving free lunch.

There are two things wrong with the plan.

First of all, there is no reason to spend that much money to provide information that is virtually useless and might even be harmful to parents.

Which leads me to the second reason. There are no subjective measurements that can tell a parent what his or her child’s experience will be in any given school.

That is the absolute truth told from the perspective of a person who has had two kids go through city public schools and who spent more than 30 years in the system both in schools and at the district office.

I hate to use my kids as examples, but they both went to IS 53 in Far Rockaway at a time that the school was considered by most to be the worst middle school in the district.

Granted, that was many years ago, but the school was even worse in those days than it is today, although that seems hardly possible.

By any standard used today to "rate" or compare schools, IS 53 was the worst. It had low reading levels. The great majority of the students were reading far below grade level. Because there was true social promotion in those days (not like the hidden social promotion of today), most kids just got passed on to high school. It had high teacher absenteeism, most of the teachers were new and did not possess the credentials to be appointed to the system, and virtually all of the children (maybe 90 percent) were eligible for free lunch.

Would you want your kid to go to such a school if you found those statistics on the web?

Probably not.

I did, however, because I believe in public school education and that was our zoned school. The two were seven years apart in age, so they did not go to IS 53 at the same time. One went during the late 1970’s and the other, in the mid 1980’s, and both were in the two-year SP program.

Being in a special program, they had the best teachers and the most expansive curriculum. They had a very positive school experience. Not even being in the vast minority harmed them. They learned to live with people of varying religions and ethnicities, an experience that I believe made them stronger and more compassionate human beings as they grew.

Terrible school. Great teachers. One went on to Far Rockaway High School and Queens College.

The other, to Townsend Harris High School (an elite city school) and to Queens College.

Going to IS 53 did not harm them. It helped them.

That experience might never have happened had I had access to a website that compared IS 53 to other schools and believed what I saw.

They had great teachers at what was considered to be a terrible school. That made all the difference.

Conversely, there are schools that look great on paper, a dream for any parent. Except, there are bad teachers in each of those schools. Should your child have one of those teachers, particularly in an elementary self-contained classroom situation, then it doesn’t matter at all if the school is the best in the city by every indicator on the web. Your child is going to miss out, to get a bad education.

Take a close look at the indicators that you will find at the new website. Test scores are a major indicator of how good an education your child will get at a particular school. Right? Laughable.

It is possible, for example, that a school has lots of immigrant children, students who tend to score low on the test even though they might be very bright. The more bilingual classes situated in a school, the lower the scores for that school, unless a school cheats and keeps its bilingual students away from the test.

Then too, parents are beginning to question the testing program. Are students really learning the skills they will need to get along in the real world, or are they learning just what they need to take the test, including countless hours spent on learning test-taking skills rather than actually learning a subject?

How about the level of experience of the staff and their qualifications?

Another foolish indicator. Some experienced teachers are completely burned out and are going through the motions. Some less experienced teachers are dynamite. Some fully qualified teachers are really terrible. Others, who lack full state certification for one reason or another, are great. How is a parent to know?

All teachers are entitled to 10 days of absence each year. Most of them take their 10 days, although some "bank" them and use them later in their career. I retired with 186 days left in my "bank," and took a full semester of terminal leave before I retired.

Sure, there is more teacher absence at schools that are more stressful, but there is no way to correlate teacher absence with whether the school is good or bad.

The same is true for student attendance. For example, many immigrant children "go home" for vacation during the school year. In some schools, fifteen or twenty percent of the kids are traveling somewhere around the world at any given time. Does that make the school they attend a bad school? Certainly not. It only means they lose valuable classroom time, but it is hard to convince parents.

As for free lunch, that is a racist marker by any stretch of the imagination. Since most of the children who get free lunch come from a low socio-economic community, parents from other communities can use it to see how many of "them" go to a particular school and judge accordingly on whether they want their kids with "them." If that is what the city wants, that is what they are going to get. What other reason could that indicator be used for?

All in all, the website is a bad idea, as is comparing schools. What is the answer? Parents should use their neighborhood school, check often and lobby for a better education for their kids.

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