By Norman Scott
Issues, Issues, and More Issues
Why can’t I get this education stuff out of my mind so I can start taking golf lessons?
I’ve been attending the monthly meetings of the much-derided Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), the successor for the Board of Education. The May 17 meeting was held on a fog-shrouded night in a remote area of Staten Island. After the wild and controversial meetings that took place from February (when Bloomberg had three panel members fired for not supporting his controversial 3rd grade retention policy) through April, this meeting was tame.
One of the interesting developments has been the emergence of a couple of panel members as real advocates for children and teachers. Natalie Gomez-Velez, appointed by the Bronx borough president, has led the way. She has been supported by the Brooklyn borough president’s appointee Martine Guerrier, along with some lower level backing from Jacquelyn Kamin, the Manhattan borough appointee.
Gomez-Velez has really been pressing Chancellor Joel Klein and the Panel on the class size issue, especially in early childhood. She has raised the point that if resources were put into class size reduction instead of holding kids over, we would get more bang for the buck. (She put it so much more elegantly than that.)
Interim Acting deputy Chancellor for Teaching & Learning Carmen Fariña (Diana Lam’s replacement) had made a presentation in which she talked about early intervention and the plan to make specialists available to schools so children’s reading problems will be diagnosed early. Sounds like a plan. But the devil will be in the implementation, an area in which the DOE has been just a wee bit weak.
As Fariña was speaking, I thought about how I used to complain all the time that as a classroom teacher I never was able to start the year with some previous diagnosis of the reading problems of individual children. Basically, I had a test score to go by and always had to reinvent the wheel, which often took until November. It would have been useful to have some help going into the new school year to get me off to an early start. Fariña seems to be promising that this will now happen. If her plan allows schools to make the decisions on how early intervention will be implemented, it could work. Let the schools become factories of best practices and then share them around. If the DOE just imposes an "interventionist specialist" as just another out of classroom position and doesn’t put adequate funds into reducing class size, as Gomez-Velez pointed out, then the plan will fail. Teachers’ knowledge and ideas must be included to make the process work. Fariña hinted that each school will be given funding to find its own solutions instead of having it all come down from the sky. If true, it would be a step towards decentralizing some of the decision-making, a good thing.
Jackie Bennett, a teacher from Staten Island, used her two minutes to talk about the significance of the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Bd. of Ed and the impact that decision had on segregation in education and throughout society. Joel Klein has been teaching lessons on the topic at schools around the city and by some accounts, did a decent job, though there are stories of handpicked kids and lots of prep to get the kids "ready." The whole exercise is obviously a photo-op and a public relations move, but Klein does seem to be passionate about the subject. Bennett applauded his passion and pointed out that the passions that teachers have for their subject often make for great teaching, but that these passions are being squashed under the DOE heavy-handed management style. She also made the point that Klein’s lessons violated so many of the rules that the DOE has been forcing down teachers’ throats. He certainly has been doing whole class lessons, not the rigid grouping being required (Fariña, one of the leading proponents of grouping, looked embarrassed). Bennett praised Klein for making the choice of teaching whole class lessons when appropriate and upbraided him for not giving the teachers of NYC the same opportunity.
Joan Roach, a pre-k teacher from PS 14 on Staten Island, told how the $5000 she was told she could spend on her class had somehow vanished in the Galaxy (the budget-management software the DOE uses) system. Her Region told her it was too late to get the money back, but shifted $1600 from other sources for her to spend. That money vanished too. (They might as well have named the system "The Black Hole".) She was insisting that Klein somehow find at least some of the money since she is due to retire in six weeks and doesn’t want her successor to be shortchanged. If I were Klein, I would have written her a check on the spot and then gone down on my knees and begged her to stay.
Changes in Rockaway schools
I’ve never heard a parent say a bad word about Mark Twain MS in Coney Island. As we know, a number of Rockaway students in 6th-8th grades make the trek there every day. That’s pretty remarkable, when you think of it. Even more remarkable is that there seems to be few places that have replicated their success. Certainly the old District 27 never did.
Now Region 5 is making an attempt. Will it fly? Preliminary discussions with parents have indicated that some do not want to their kids to be the guinea pigs, the attitude being: "Why take a chance when Twain has been so successful. Let’s wait until we see similar success here." Other parents are thinking about the considerable advantages of locality and not having to have their kids spend so much time on a bus, in addition to the expense. One of the interesting points some parents have made is that they have seen so much growth in their children in non-academic ways from the very positive contact they have had with a variety of children from many ethnic backgrounds from various areas of Brooklyn. Parents who would not have chosen Twain if they had an alternative seemed happy in retrospect that they had to make that choice. The opportunity to play and learn with students from a diverse background has opened up their minds and prepared them for the greater world out there. Is that one of the ingredients at Twain that will difficult to replicate in Rockaway? It will certainly be interesting to see how it all plays out.