2003-09-12 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach
From the Editor’s Desk

From the
Editor's Desk

Teachers are not happy campers at the beginning of the 2003 school year, and I do not blame them.

Most of the 80,000 teachers in the system have been unhappy with the schools and how they were run. That has been true for years.

Books and supplies were hard to come by. Discipline, unless it was discipline of teachers rather than by them, was nonexistent. Many supervisors had no idea of the subject area they were supervising. District offices were bloated fiefdoms that ruled by fear rather than example. Bulletin boards, written standards and up-to-date lesson plans became more important than teaching. High stakes testing became more important than learning.

I have heard some disquieting things about the new curriculum and the way classes are programmed for this coming school year.

I was a middle school programmer for a dozen years and even taught programming to other school districts through the offices of Bank Street College, so I know a little about the state mandates and how schools need to program to meet those mandates.

First of all, Social Studies is a major subject. Students must take a full unit of Social Studies each year. For the past several years, under the Carnegie Middle School Model, students took at least six periods of Social Studies a week, and some got seven periods a week. That was still not enough time to address the entire curriculum correctly, but most teachers made do.

Under the new paradigm, however, middle school students will get only four periods of Social Studies a week, hardly meeting state mandates and certainly a mistake.

Social Studies, which includes American History, Geography, Citizenship (what we once called "Civics") and a number of other important components such as current events and decision-making.

I understand that reading and math have become the big sellers - after all, kids have to pass high stake tests in those two areas. To ignore the other two former "majors," Social Studies and Science, however, is a very big mistake, one that this city will be bearing for years to come.

The talk about "balanced literacy" is fine. Students must know how to read and to reason. They have to understand math, although experts in the field no longer find it important that kids can add, subtract, multiply or divide without a calculator.

To be literate, one must know more than how to read, write and add a column of figures. More than how to pass a standardized test (which today, is the name of the whole game).

How about knowing which way is west, east, south or north? How about naming the three branches of government and how they interact? How about the names of the "Founding Fathers" and why they are called that? How about knowing enough to be a viable voter. How about knowing that America is part of a continent? How about all the other history that students learn about themselves and their nation, about building pride in being an American?

One school board member (yes, the school board still exists and will until a new group takes over their function) told me today that Science Labs at a number of schools have been dismantled. The award-winning television studio, housed at MS 202, but utilized by the entire district, has not been funded by the region office and will be used solely for that school's program. That effectively does away with the exciting programs that Rockaway kids took part in such as "Mind Over Matter," "Talking About Books," and the community interview program that was hosted by local students.

In some schools, Science study has been cut the same way that Social Studies has been cut to allow for more foreign language study and for more "balanced literacy" time.

What is this all about?

It is all about control and politics. It is all about a school system run by people who have no idea what either New York City or urban education is all about.

The Dean of the School of Education at City College told the New York Times, "[These changes] are akin to an engineering firm that develops this new machine and doesn't know if all of the parts are going to behave the way they are supposed to when they flip the switch to turn it on."

They have no idea.

The Mayor put out a press release praising himself and his appointees for insuring that textbooks arrived on time this year. They came last Thursday. Bloomberg doesn't even understand that the books are not simply taken from the box and handed out to students.

They must be inventoried and stamped with the funding source, teachers have to look at them and decide on how they can best be used. Teachers have to be familiar with the book, at least more familiar than the students.

Teachers went back to work on Tuesday. For the first three days back, they went through a staff development process that was designed to alert them to the new, standardized curriculum and how to use them. Teachers from a number of schools told me that the process was a waste of time. They said that the training materials they were given were not at all useful, that in many schools the trainers knew less than the teachers they were training.

To be fair, a few teachers in mainland schools, who I still correspond with, told me that the training was "adequate" and that they thought the new curricula would work.

Other teachers, however, both in Rockaway and on the mainland, complained that the new scripted curriculum took all of the excitement and creativity out of the classroom.

"Why did I need a master's degree if all I am supposed to do is follow the plan book each day," one long-time teacher asked.

"I am just going to hand the plan book in when a supervisor asks for my lesson plans," says another. "I can't deviate from them, so why bother writing creative plans?"

One teacher at a local middle school had it with the training and asked her supervisor what would happen if she decided not to follow the city-wide curriculum. She was told in no uncertain terms that she would be "re-educated," and then she would be given a letter for her file and possible a "U" rating for insubordination.

Sounds like Cambodia, doesn't it?

The bottom line is the Department of Education is now a business rather than an educational institution. The DOE business does not want to educate students any longer. Its aim, like any business, is to turn out a product (in this case, students), who will be marketable and who will meet a certain standard (i.e., passing standardized tests). The kids are now widgets that are pushed through the system until they meet that marketability standard.

That is very different than educating kids who will then be able to go forth and succeed in the real world.

People have been saying for years that what the public schools needed most was to operate on the business model. We are about to find out what that really means to our kids.

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