2004-04-23 / Columnists

School Scope

By Norman Scott
Panel for Educational Policy, Tweed Courthouse (DOE HQ), April 19

By Norman Scott
Panel for Educational Policy, Tweed Courthouse (DOE HQ), April 19

We are at the monthly public meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy, the successor to the Board of Education. The room is packed. Parents, teachers and community have been pouring in from two concurrent demonstrations held outside Tweed and City Hall protesting the fact that the third grade tests being given tomorrow (reading) and next week (math) will be used as a sole criteria to hold back children. (An appeal process has been added, a process that has been placed squarely on the backs of teachers.)

We are watching a presentation of the new commercials to recruit 7,000 new teachers. They show happy teachers welcoming the challenge of teaching large classes. Teachers and parents in the audience start chanting "REDUCE CLASS SIZE." Some shout, "Why isn’t the money used for these commercials being spent in the classroom?"

They recognize it’s all about media and public relations.

The impact the presentation was intended to have is ruined.

Jane Hirschmann, co-chair of Time Out From Testing, one of the leaders of the movement to stop high stakes testing from impacting young children, gets the microphone. She holds up the technical manual for the test and says "The official technical manual from the company producing the New York City 3rd Grade English Language Arts test indicates the test will fail exactly 21% of the kids who take it – 16,900 children. The manual proves the test is norm-referenced: this means that questions everyone answers correctly are dropped, questions some students are unable to answer correctly are included, and that the test is then scaled on a bell curve to assure that a certain number of kids fail."

Klein tries to limit her to 2 minutes. He is shouted down and has to allow her to continue. (Boy would I like to see this guy try to control a third grade class.) Later, DOE officials deny that the test is norm-referenced, claiming it is criterion based, that a bell curve is not being used, and that all children can pass. They also say the results will not be back until early June. Doesn’t it take one day to machine mark a test? So why the six week wait? Are they "norming" behind our backs?

The meeting goes on. Senior Counselor for Educational Policy Michele Cahill makes a presentation on the wonderful plans the DOE has made to deal with the third grade retention issue. The members of the Panel, who have often been mute, are getting restless and start to ask questions. (Not all of them have been silenced by Bloomberg’s firing of three of their members just hours before the Panel was to vote on the third grade retention policy at the March meeting.) One of them expresses her concern that when she had asked that class size reduction be placed on the night’s agenda in relation to third grade retention, she was told it would not be necessary since that issue would be part of the report on the third grade retention plan. Cahill has somehow neglected to mention class size at all. The panel member wants it on the agenda. Klein tells her that would not be appropriate. She persists and is joined in her concern by another Panel member. Then the two student representatives from NYC high schools join in. There’s lots of support from the audience. Klein squirms out of it by promising to address the issue at the next meeting on May 17. (Of course that will be in Staten Island and few of the activists will be there.)

The public finally gets to speak for two minutes each. I am number three on the list. (I came in early and signed up. First I had to go through a security check that would outdo any airport. Don’t we have to protect the Department of Self-Importance?)

"Let’s make a third grader cry," I say. "But then third graders cry a lot. At least that’s what the Mayor says." (That’s’ a real quote from His Honor, folks.) "Welcome to the rat race kids."

I continue.

"Let’s make third graders stay up nights with worry.

Let’s make them go home from school with headaches.

Let’s make their parents cancel vacations to Disneyland.

Let’s make their parents spend enormous sums on private test prep. [Anyone at the DOE own stock in Sylvan Learning Systems or Kaplan?] At least, those parents who can afford it.

Let’s gut the entire curriculum and spend enormous sums on test prep.

Let’s pull teachers from their classes for staff development and put subs in their place.

Let’s spend lots of money (upwards of $50 million) on the third grade retention policy instead of putting the funds towards improving early childhood services immediately to make sure today’s kindergarten kids and first-and second graders won’t have to face the threat of third grade retention in the future.

Let’s make more commercials to recruit new teachers. Here’s a good commercial for recruiting teachers: Show the 7,000 new teachers recruited this summer and see half of them fade away within five years. Where did they go? Maybe some of them left because they had to teach third grade and get harangued and blamed when children failed the test. Make sure to tell them that it is fun to teach with 30 children while classes in Scarsdale have 18 and the elite private schools have even less.

Let’s spend loads of money on staff development instead of putting it towards reducing class size. Here’s an idea. Take all the staff developers and coaches and put them in the third grade. You can have class sizes of 15. And don’t use the "there’s no room" excuse. Put two teachers in a room or three teachers for two rooms."

My two minutes are up. I’m in the middle of a sentence when Klein cuts off my microphone. Over 40 people speak throughout the night, almost all attacking the retention policy. A group of young teachers do a little skit. They ask: "Which public official claims to be against some types of social promotion while clearly benefiting from others? A. President George W. Bush B. Chancellor Klein C. Both of the above.

The answer is C. Bush was admitted to Yale as a legacy, a type of social promotion that gives preference to children of alumni. Klein was named Chancellor even though he has no experience in the field of education.

Klein, of course, is too busy to stay for all the speeches and skulks out at 8 PM. He has put in his minimum monthly two hours of facing the music before the public. The thought comes back: Boy, would I like to see this guy in front of a class of third graders for a day.

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