2004-10-22 / Columnists

Donna’s First Year - The Real Story? Part 2

As part of a series of columns examining how press coverage of education gives the public a distorted view of reality, I began an exploration of former NY Times education reporter Abby Goodnough’s recently released book, Ms. Moffett’s First Year – Becoming a Teacher in America. Moffett is a former legal secretary who became a teacher in the summer of 2000 at PS 92 in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn through the Teaching Fellows program in NYC, a program that recruits people from outside the education field.

I got an inside look at the events surrounding Moffett’s trials and tribulations through my friend Vera Pavone who worked at PS 92 and is also a good friend of Moffett. Goodnough’s series of articles in the Times that featured Moffett had such sympathy and insights; both Moffett and Pavone cooperated with her on the book. But they were shocked at how different the book turned out from the original series of articles, and even considered taking legal action before Goodnough made some modifications before publication. But she didn’t modify her prejudices and assumptions, accepting the view of the spin-doctors at the DOE hook, line and sinker.

Pavone responded by writing a review ( http://www.ice-uft.org/bookshelf-goodnough-pavone.htm.) We featured some of her thoughts in Part 1. Today we’ll focus on her analysis of how Goodnough accepts the official ideology at the DOE, which defines the problem and its solution in the following ways:

1. Our schools are failing and the major cause of failure is the poor quality of the teaching staff.

2. The most important reason for poor teaching is that too many teachers are deficient in intelligence, commitment, creativity. Goodnough uses the words “mediocre minds” and “sub par” and points to a study that shows them having lower SAT or ACT scores than college graduates who chose other careers. They choose a teaching career because it’s the only job they can get. In addition they are conformist and inflexible. Even if they start off with high expectations and enthusiasm, the system beats them down and they end up following like sheep.

3. At the top of the educational hierarchal bureaucracy are individuals who are eager to institute the reforms that the educational system needs. But, in addition to a resistant teaching staff, there is the enormous problem of an all-powerful teachers’ union, which insists on rigid work rules, and hiring and transferring procedures.

4. Two basic ways to remedy the situation are (a) micromanaging the teaching process, spoon feeding programs and forcing teachers to follow scripts and rules that smarter people have designed, (b) hiring teachers who are superior morally and intellectually.

5. The Fellows Program was set up ( by former Chancellor Harold Levy) nominally to respond to the legally mandated need for certified teachers, but more importantly to fulfill the Chancellor’s goal of getting a better stock of teachers who would be not only smarter, but, as Goodnough writes, “shocked—outraged even—by the risk-averse, apathetic culture that pervaded the...school system.” In contrast to the ordinary teacher, teaching fellows are seen as motivated by altruism, which will insure that they put more effort into their job than do ordinary teachers. Although it is necessary for them to overcome their elitism, arrogance and cultural differences, their motivation to succeed will prevail.

Teaching fellows would be more likely to challenge the ‘UFT stranglehold’ that forces the school system to obey rules that interfere with bettering education. The DOE/mayoral/NY Times portrayal of the UFT as all powerful, its political connections ‘second to none,’ is bought by Goodnough as she repeats their complaint that a big obstacle to school reform are those darned rules governing work schedules that prevents principals from asking teachers to work extra hours or days, or assigning them work during their daily prep period and duty-free 50-minute lunch break.

Now, I know that many non-teachers agree with the DOE spin. I maintain a lot of that is due to the anti-teacher bias of the press and in society as a whole. Pavone takes this point of view apart piece by piece in a section of her review called “The Conradictory Reality,” which we’ll look at in the next column. But I want to use the rest of this space to address some of the points made by former CSB 27 President Steven Greenberg in his letter to The Wave on Oct. 1 that was critical of the fact that the School Scop e column doesn’t pay enough attention to local educational issues.

His letter reflected elements of “The Spin” when he branded me as “…clearly a frustrated UFT member whose rantings and ravings give little insight as to what is going on in the district or classroom.” I responded that I saw my role as one of representing the views of teachers, which get so little play in the press. (One of the great things about Goodnough’s original series of articles was that the teacher point of view did get presented). Does Greenberg accept the “all powerful UFT” mantra of the DOE/ press bias? Is he assuming all teachers’ point of view coincides with that of the UFT leadership? In fact, I have been a critic of UFT policies for almost my entire career and was one of the organizers of the Independent Community of Educators (ICE), a caucus in the UFT that ran in opposition to the Randi Weingarten leadership in the last election.

One of our themes was that the “all powerful UFT” perception was false. We maintained that was partly the result of the UFT’s massive PR department, which, ironically, has created a false impression that dovetails perfectly with “The Spin.” Yes, I am a frustrated UFT member — frustrated by the fact that both UFT leaders and the BloomKlein DOE all too often play the same game. (The last edition of my newspaper Education Notes had a section called “Separated at Birth,” a point by point comparison of Randi Weingarten and Joel Klein.)

One of the great things about Howie Schwach’s School Scope column (the reason I started reading The Wave ) was his teacher point of view, a critical view of how the school system worked in District 27. Teachers appreciated his often-rational analysis (Howie has done his share of ranting too) of how the school system should be working. The fact that teachers have little or no say, in spite of the so-called “all powerful teachers union,” is one of the major reasons we have an irrational educational system.

Greenberg’s wish for the old School Scope , where Schwach often castigated the local powers that be, is belied by the fact that he goes on to list the kinds of things School Scope should be covering – the positive things going on at the DOE and in the Region 5 Superintendency of Dr. Cashin. This is interesting since Schwach has not stopped covering education and uses his From the Editor’s Desk column to take an often-critical look at the DOE and the Cashin regime. It seems Greenberg wants School Scope to provide the positive counter-spin.

The Wave has an enormous amount of local coverage of the schools. The Oct. 1 edition had a front page article titled “BCHS Principal Accused of Racist Request.” The Beachcomber column had three tidbits about local schools: how the new community councils have less power than the old schools boards, the manipulation of data by the DOE to make schools, including BCHS, look less dangerous than they really are, and a list of Rockaway schools on the “Need Improvement List.”

There was also criticism of how many of the schools have new principals, “a number of whom have little or no experience as school administrators.” Not exactly the kind of coverage Greenberg is looking for. No wonder he missed it. On the positive side, there was the usual School News , a full page of pictures about goings-on in Rockaway schools.

In my last column, I made the point that I saw School Scope as a vehicle to bring a broader teacher-oriented perspective to events taking place at the national, state and city level. When I wrote about the squeezing of small school into large ones and the dislocation it was causing in the Bronx, I pointed out that this movie would soon be playing at local schools all over the city, including the Rockaway schools.

I have generally tried not to get into the particular issues affecting local schools, because that can often lead to a lot of negativity. After all, there are just a few wee bit problems going on in our schools and there are things I know – well if I told you I would have to kill you.

In the last few weeks, I have been contacted by some teachers in Rockaway about some of the awful stuff going on in their schools, often due to the insanity of their principals who are placed under such extreme pressure by the policies of the DOE and the way Cashin has implemented these policies.

Greenberg should be careful about what he wishes for when he asks for local coverage from School Scope . He may find that sometimes it is best to just let sleeping dogs lie.

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