2004-05-21 / Columnists

From the

By Howard Schwach

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and School Chancellor Joel Klein are embarrassed, as well they should be.

"It’s a bit like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight," the mayor said recently, referring to both himself, the chancellor and the Department of Education. "It is embarrassing to say the least."

When the mayor was first given control of the city’s public school system by the state legislature, there was a heady feeling that something might be done to move the moribund system ahead.

Like the Iraqi War, however, most of those who saw the early victories believed that they had won; those concerned with the school system now see that neither the mayor, the chancellor or his minions at Tweed Courthouse have any idea of how to run a school system.

The idea that a "pure manager" can manage anything from a toothbrush factory to a school system has run into the reality that education ain’t like business, kids are not a product and parents are not just consumers.

Unfortunately, the powers that be have enough ego to believe that they do know what they are doing and could turn the system around if only those pesky teachers and administrators, who have been in the business for decades, would stop nit-picking their ridiculous decisions.

The mayor and the chancellor have a great disdain for the system’s professional staff. The two men share the belief that administrators are like division managers and that teachers are the piece workers who can only succeed if they are told what to do each minute of the day by people who are managers, whether those people know anything about the business or not.

Is that simplistic? I wish it were, but that is the way it is in today’s school system.

And, because it that, the system is beginning to unravel, one thread at a time.

You might say that the system unraveled a long time ago, but look at the statistics.

Forty percent of the students who attend public schools get the best education in the world and go on to the best competitive schools and lead productive lives.

Another forty percent of the students will probably never get an education no matter what Bloomberg and Klein pull out of their hats, no matter what the governance system, the curriculum or the teacher training system.

That is not the fault of the schools, but of society and the way education is valued in various communities that make up our melting pot, or stew, or mosaic, or whatever they are calling it these days.

That is a sad , yet realistic fact of life in our city in the year 2004.

Unless society changes and the value of education in that society changes, nothing the school system can do will get those 40 percent of students to learn.

The twenty percent in the middle, however, can be impacted by education and it must be left to teachers and administrators to decide how those kids are addressed.

There are lots of indicators that the system is unraveling not only for the low forty percent and the middle 20 percent, but for the top forty percent as well.

Klein recently put out a press release stating that nearly 50 percent of the parent association officers eligible to vote for members of the new Community Education Councils (CEC’s) did so. Fifty percent.

"This is a clear indication that parents want to have their voices heard and join in providing every public school child with a fist-rate education," the Chancellor said.

What world does he live in? Here you have as the only eligible voters the three most dedicated people in each of the city’s schools, people who are parents and who dedicate countless hours to school affairs. They are deeply concerned with education and only half of them voted.

That is victory? That is a disgrace.

Why did so few vote?

Those involved with the "election" process tell me that parents are not convinced that the CEC’s will actually give them the voice they seek.

In fact, many parents who work within the system are convinced that the CEC’s are largely a sham, a shadow group without portfolio.

What do the CEC’s have the power to actually do?

It has to hold a monthly public meeting, where "the community can be heard on educational issues."

Just like the school boards that the CEC’s are replacing with great fanfare.

It will "be responsible for promoting the achievement of educational standards and objectives relating to the students."

Just like the CSB’s.

Education Council members: "must hold quarterly meetings with PA/PTA officers and provide assistance to school leadership teams;"

"Have a voice in evaluating the community superintendents and the local instructional superintendents assigned to the district;"

""Approve zoning lines submitted by the community superintendent."

OK. One more time. Hold lots of meetings. Have a "voice" in evaluating higher-ups. Not quite the same as evaluating them straight up.

Approve zones submitted by the community superintendent.

Not quite the same as doing the zoning after meeting with community and parents.

That’s it. No more. Meet, have a voice, approve recommendations.

Not exactly heady stuff.

"Some parents did not vote out of protest, some didn’t vote because they did not know any of the candidates (a majority of candidates did not show up for the parent forums and others never put out fact sheets. No questions were allowed of parent candidates who did show up for the forums), others because the voting process was too complicated," said one parent advocate.

In fact, a number of parent voters did not get their ballots in the mail until after the deadline for sending them back.

Another person, who is the treasurer at each of the high schools that her children attend, reportedly voted twice for the same person for the high school CEC.

Such is the state of the Department of Education and its "pure managers."

One only has to take a look at the third grade testing fiasco to understand how deep the incompetence of those "pure managers" goes.

First, they force seven and eight-years olds to face a critical test early in life. We have been told by a local doctor that he saw a number of third graders with anxiwty problems in past weeks. Then, they screw up the test and the re-test so badly that everybody is laughing at our city.

Our state legislators should now begin the process of reviewing its gift to the mayor and the chancellor. They are squandering it terribly and are getting deeper and deeper into the mire each week.

Perhaps it is time to rescue them by giving education back to the professionals.

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