2003-08-15 / Columnists

From the

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

There are two things that have screwed up the New York City School System … well, maybe three.

The first and foremost was the idea that special education kids should be mainstreamed for gym and lunch, coupled with the idea that special ed kids cannot be punished for actions that arise out of their handicaps.

Sounds simple. Sounds like something the school system should be doing. Right?


First of all, most of the special education kids in our city are classified as MIS II, AKA "Emotionally Handicapped."

For many years, these kids, many of whom are literally killers, were isolated from the general school population (I do not use the prison term lightly here). When they were mixed in with the other kids for gym and lunch, they quickly became predators, preying on the weaker kids. Lunch periods in many schools became war and cafeterias became war zones. Middle class parents began to leave the system in droves rather than allow their kids to be preyed upon.

The ruling that an emotionally handicapped kid could not be punished because any crazy act he or she did (fighting, assault on school staff, burning down the school, etc.) rose from his or her handicap, exacerbated the problem and left the other kids at the mercy of a few dozen predators each day.

The decline of discipline in the schools and of the idea of a public school that was safe for all, started with those asinine rules, made by the courts and by progressive educators who believed that there was no such thing as a bad kid and that "all children can learn." Neither of those things is true.

Then, we began to get the new, progressive curricula. We got the "New Math," which posited the idea that counting; adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing were out. Concepts were in. Manipulatives were in. The PAM Test was in like Flynn. That test, given each year, was based on a point system that allowed for kids who got the right answer, without showing their work, to get fewer points than a kid who got the wrong answer, but showed how he or she arrived at that answer.

If you wonder why kids can no longer add or subtract, blame the New Math.

Then, we got the "Writing Process" program.

Under Writing Process, students were not taught grammar "until they were ready to accept it," under the theory that grammar "got in the way of their creative writing efforts and the flow of words."

If your kid can’t write a grammatical sentence, blame Writing Process.

New and expensive programs came and went. Out of Pittsburgh came the New Standards in English Language Arts and the New Standards in Mathematics. They set up a process where kids would not any longer be graded, but rated on a scale of 1-4, with one being "far below standard" and four being "exceeds standards." Everything kids did had to be rated based on a Rubric that listed how kids reached various levels.

The report cards that reflected those changes were so stupefying that not even teachers or administrators could read them, let alone parents.

Along with the new, progressive wave came "Authentic Learning." The progressive theory is that kids will not learn unless that learning means something to them. An interesting theory, but not one that draws many into subjects such as Algebra and Geometry.

Those who believe in authentic learning also believe in rewriting history.

I went to a workshop run by a trainer from the UFT, who handed out materials about a black woman who had been one of the leaders of the 1864 Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Having written a textbook on the subject and have researched all of the primary source material on the convention, I knew that the woman did not exist.

When I brought up that fact, however, the workshop leaders excoriated me.

"Why will black kids want to learn about the convention if there is not one of their own involved," they asked me, and the others in the workshop nodded in agreement.

That is what passes for progressive education.

That, and the "self-esteem" movement that says that anything that lowers a student’s self-esteem (like failing a subject or a test) is verboten.

Competition is out. Cooperative education, where kids work on cutesy projects and the entire "team" gets the same grade no matter how much work they did, is in.

Kids who fail all of their tests can still pass a subject by having a "standard-setting portfolio," whatever that means.

So much for the Chancelor’s plan fordoing away with social promotion. Social promotion lives in our city.

Now, we have Lucy Calkins, the diva of progressive education at the gates.

We have "balanced literacy." Does that mean that a kid learns while balancing on one foot? Only a joke. The real answer, however, might be far worse.

One of the many years that I taught in summer school, the district office foisted the "Voyager" program on us. It was an interdisciplinary, balanced literacy program and it was an abject failure.

That led to the city using it even more.

Diana Lam, the Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning, loved Lucy Calkins. Lam, who came to us from Providence, Rhode Island (which has fewer kids that District 27), is betting on balanced literacy to improve test scores – even if the tests have to be dumbed down or the passing score reduced to do it.

Lam will soon learn that Providence is not New York City.

Trainers from Paducah and Knott’s Landing are now running workshops for New York City teachers on the new concept and the programs that the city has bought to implement those concepts.

Most of the teachers, some with 30 years of experience in our classrooms, say the program will not work.

Lam, the mayor and the chancellor, however, put those arguments down to "union interference."

The Powers-that-be should understand that teachers who have been in the system for a long time have an expertise that money cannot buy. Teachers know what will work and what will not, just as the mayor knows what will work and what will not in his Bloomberg Communications business. To bring in people with no knowledge of the city or its problems and to let them run roughshod over those who do, presupposes that those who do know do not care. That is not at all true, and balanced literacy will go the way of all of the other foolish progressive programs that led the city down the primrose path.

Unfortunately, it is the kids who will once again suffer for the adult’s arrogance and experiments in social engineering.

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