2004-03-26 / Columnists

School Scope

By Norman Scott
Beware The Ides Of March

By Norman Scott
Beware The Ides Of March – You’re Fired

Three members of the Mayor’s Panel for Educational Policy heard these words on March 15, the Ides of March, and they didn’t come from Donald Trump. They came from Mayor Mic hael Bloomberg, that Julius Caesar pretender.

They were fired because they weren’t going to vote for the BloomKlein policy of retaining third graders based on a single test. Their replacements, who were practically hustled into the raucous meeting, held later that evening, with bags over their heads, dutifully went along and the measure passed by an 8–5 vote. Two of the replacements are city commissioners working for Bloomberg and their appointment and vote just may be illegal, which could lead to a court challenge.

Bloomberg demonstrated his educational expertise with this comment: "Yes, they may cry a little bit. But children in the third grade cry a lot, and it’s part of the growing-up process." Hmm. One of his daughters went to the exclusive Spence School at over $20,000 a year with class sizes of about eight. Wonder if she ever had to cry about being held over in the 3rd grade? Brutus, where are you when we need you?

None of the press or TV reports captured the charged atmosphere in the auditorium at the HS of Art & Design. In the two plus hours people spoke, 90% of them either opposed the policy, or the autocratic methods used to get it passed. A couple of the speakers supporting the policy turned out to be employees of the DOE. Politicians naturally got the first crack at the microphone and some used the stage to their own political advantage. (Eva Mosko witz made her usual self-serving statement.) Others were more effective, especially City Council rep Margarita Lopez, who is fast becoming one of the leading politicians standing up for children and teachers. Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields effectively raised the idea that the policy was designed to raise 4th grade scores during next year’s mayoral election by keeping the lowest scoring 3rd graders out of the 4th grade. This theme was picked up by other speakers and the thesis began to work its way into news reports as the week went on. (Kudos to The Wave’s How ard Schwach for advocating this theory the week the policy was first an nounced in January.)

Many poignant comments were made, a number of them by children. One incredibly articulate 15 year old talked about her struggles in the third grade and how she overcame them af ter being promoted to the fourth grade. She was a walking ad for why the policy is so bad. We heard from a number of parents whose third graders have started coming home with headaches since the policy was announced in January as schools ramped up the pressure on the children.

Professors and teachers cited re search that children held over have a higher dropout rate.

A group of young teachers (clearly not worried about retaliation from "The Ministry of Fear") put on a little play—from now on we are going to prepare for those tests. No more fun projects, no more in depth learning, and definitely no time spent on ANYTHING that won’t be on the test.

Why not put resources for early intervention?

Speakers pointed to the disingenuousness of the BloomKlein plan. Some asked, facetiously: Why 3rd grade? Why not hold them back in 1st or 2nd or k? A compromise plan to postpone the policy for one year was categorically rejected. Why? That would be too late to impact the mayoral election in a positive way for the mayor — throw those 15,000 level 1 scoring kids into the 4th grade next year and the mayor can not claim he improved the schools.

Questions were asked: Have re sources been poured into current K & 1st grade, today’s five and six-year olds kids who will be faced with the retention policy in a few short years? Why not direct the money (some say it is $60 million) being spent on the retention plan to provide early grade intervention? One cannot fail to note the irony of pushing 3rd grade retention while cutting such services as paraprofessionals from kindergarten classes.

Social Promotion? Where?

Ever since this debate on the 3rd-grade test started, BloomKlein have been saying they will not tolerate social promotion any longer — as if the system were based on social promotion now. Newspapers have been printing the mayoral spin ad nauseum, ignoring (though less so more recently) the message Time Out for Testing (TOFT) NY Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE), and the Independent Com mun ity of Educators (ICE). have been consistently making — that what is wrong with the 3rd-grade retention policy has been the use of a single test to determine who stays back and holding back kids before giving them the services they need.

Since the Monday Night Massacre, stats have begun to come out. An article by Carl Campanile in the generally pro-Bloomberg New York Post re veal ed that there is no real social promotion in the system, even in the elementary school, where "nearly one in 10 students is over-age in the first grade, and 15 percent in the second grade. By third grade, nearly one in five students is over age; by sixth grade, it’s one in four."

The article in the Post might be the start of a small shift against the BloomKlein spin as it clearly spells out that so many kids in every grade are already not with their own age group. BloomKlein are either misinformed or purposely bent on deceiving the public for political reasons to appeal to conservative voters. Hmm! Which one can it be?

In most schools struggling readers have been held back at least once. What principal would socially promote kids and risk pulling the school’s scores down (unless the parent is politically connected)? A check of homogeneous classes will find the lower exponents mostly with children at least a year older than the top classes. In Thomas Jefferson High School, 43% of the entering 9th graders in 2001-02 were over age. In one NYC middle school of 566 children, 199 have been left back one, two and three times. .

Of course, pitting social promotion against retention is a smokescreen for an unwillingness to properly fund education. BloomKlein wants education on the cheap by putting the onus on the victims and their teachers. With out a considerable infusion of services, retention will continue to be of little use in getting struggling learners back on course. They need early diagnosis, small classes, reading teachers, guidance services, and family support, all very expensive stuff. What’s been proposed by the mayor and the chancellor, and endorsed by the tainted Panel, falls far short of what is needed to turn the situation around.

Even the good learners in this city would benefit from the smaller classes and well-rounded curricula to which students in other parts of the state already have access.

One of the final speakers was a parent who stressed the political nature of the BloomKlein policy and said he would do what he can to inform parents of that fact. "Parents are voters too," he said.

Bloomberg summed up his attitude to wards the schools when he said, "Mayoral control means mayoral control, thank you very much,"

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