2003-09-12 / Columnists

School Scope By Norman Scott   

Students Are Not Just Numbers
School Scope By Norman Scott   

School Scope By Norman Scott   

Students Are Not Just Numbers

Rockaway resident Norman Scott recently retired from the New York City Public Schools. He is the highly-respected editor of Ed Notes, which he has been publishing for many years.

I graduated from an elementary school in East New York in 1957. I would bet 75 percent of the kids in my class were fairly successful in school. We must have had great teachers, though I remember them spending a hell of a lot of time sitting at their desks and giving us tons of work to do while they marked papers and did their own work. I don’t remember spending much time learning how to read. Phonics was used minimally, if at all, as many of us came into school with the ability to read. Less than 10 years later those same teachers were facing children with enormous learning difficulties as the neighborhood went through one of the most drastic population changes ever seen in New York. Suddenly, they weren’t so successful.

Mark Twain Middle School in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn may be the best middle school in New York according to many friends who send their children there from as far away as Rockaway. At one point Twain was one of the worst schools. I had a conversation with a teacher who was there before and after the school became a magnet attracting the brightest kids from all over South Brooklyn and beyond. "What happened," he said? "Overnight we became great teachers?" "Weren’t you retrained," I asked? "Yeah, for half a day" he said. It doesn’t take all that much training or coaching to become good teachers when you no longer have the hassles of difficult learners. The real art of teaching  (we all know just what an art it is when we see a great teacher work) is figuring out ways to meet the individual needs of each child. The DOE automatons treat the school system as if there was only one type of child. Decisions made so far away from the actual teacher and learner seem like a joke to teachers.

The refusal to recognize there are innate differences in children who require a variety of teaching styles and techniques to be taught is just the leading edge of why a school system under centralized control, geared to a standardized one size fits all curriculum, is doomed to fail.

I entered teaching in 1967 at the very end of a centralized school system under Mayoral control. Ah! To return to those halcyon days before decentralization! NOT! I have news for all those dreamers of the past:  The system didn’t work well for children who are difficult to teach (non-motivated kids with learning difficulties or children with emotional problems) while it worked fine for kids who didn’t have these difficulties. The difference today? There are a hell of a lot more of the former kids than the latter, a fact that no one seems to want to recognize in a system where the concepts of standards and standardization have run amuck while the children have become less standardized as they face a wider range of "issues" that schools must deal with. I started my career as the system went through the throes of decentralization in grades K-8. And we all certainly witnessed massive abuses at the district levels. But let’s not pretend that the high schools, which remained centralized, were paragons of educational virtue. We could point to as many, if not more, poorly run high schools as existed at the district level.
One could make the argument that true decentralization at the school level never really existed since the district offices functioned as a mini-centralized systems, dominated by local politics, that dictated to the schools. BloomKlein promised to change all that by giving local schools and their principals true control over their schools. But that has not happened and the attempt to micro-manage all schools in a standardized way has given principals less control than ever.

Because so many problems need to be analyzed and solved at the local level, control should exist at the school level. What we need is a truly decentralized system, with a variety of teaching and learning styles, governed in a variety of ways. Let’s take the entire budget for the NYC school system and divide it up among the schools and let them "buy" services they need from a centralized bureaucracy, which would exist solely for the purpose of monitoring the schools. Dictate policy from the bottom up instead of top down as we have had throughout history. Then we would truly begin to meet the needs of students, teachers and parents and would see political use of the system minimized. Whenever this idea is brought up people scream about the disastrous pre-mayoral control system of parent run School Councils in Chicago. I’m thinking more along the lines of the highly successful private school network that exists in NYC (I know the kids are rich and the parents are active but that system does work.)  One factor that is common to that network is a high degree of teacher input and control with a major say in how the schools are run.

I used to meet a young teacher, who grew up in Rockaway, at a yearly party. Ten years ago he was accepted to grad school but decided to become an early childhood teacher in a private school instead. Every year he tells me he’s very interested in what goes on in public schools and maybe one day "I’ll make the leap." I asked him "What would it take to get you to teach in the public schools?" "Control and decision making," he answered, which he feels he has a lot of at his school but that his friends in public schools complain they have little of. Throughout my 35 years in the school system the one factor left out of the school governance debate has been power of teachers to use their talent and ability to make basic decisions about how their school is run and what should go on in their classroom. In New York whether we talk about the pre-decentralization era, the decentralization era, or the current top-down administration, teachers have had little or no say unless the principal was open to it. In other words, we were at their mercy. Nothing has changed, except now principals themselves are at the mercy of the new masters of the universe and they are not happy. (We know this from the glee with which so many supervisors read the send ups of the system in Ed. Notes.) It is interesting to find teachers and supervisors suddenly in the same boat. It is also interesting that in a system of over 1200 schools, not one is run by teachers.

Years ago, we advocated that the UFT sponsor charter schools run by teachers as a way to put the system in the hands of teachers and Randi Weingarten briefly flirted with the idea, even forming a committee to address the issue. It has always been our position that teachers have the most vested interest in well-run, well managed schools, even more than parents. You see, parents are mostly interested in their own children and naturally lose interest in the school when their children leave. Teachers, stuck facing life sentences, in their own self interest want to see their schools well run and  face helpless frustration at seeing dumb decisions or seeing money wasted because they have so little say. Now we know that some teachers are perfectly happy to be told what to do and want no part of management. Fine. There are plenty of schools for them to work in.

But for those teachers with an entrepreneurial sense of adventure and a wish to create a different learning environment we propose that the DOE offer them an opportunity to run their own schools with the power to choose their principal.

We issue this challenge:  Take twenty difficult schools and let teachers run ten of them with the promise they will have complete control over these school for five years. Let the other ten be managed by the DOE. Compare the results after those five years. I’m betting on the teachers. By a longshot.

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