2004-11-05 / Community

School Scope

By Norman Scott

As part of a series of columns examining how press coverage of education in NYC give 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, a former legal secretary, 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 featuring Moffett had such sympathy and insights, 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. Goodnough made a few modifications before publication based on their input. 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.) My last column focused on her analysis of how Goodnough accepts the official ideology at the DOE, which amounts to “teachers and poor teaching, in addition to the straightjacket work rules of the ‘all-powerful’ UFT, are the causes of the failure in the schools.” They view the Teaching Fellows program (and we should include the Teach for America Program), which attempts to attract people from outside the educational field, as the answer to this problem. As incentives, Fellows were offered a free Masters degree (since modified), summer stipends, and other perks in exchange to agreeing to teach for two years.

In “The Contradictory Reality” Pavone takes a close look at the Fellows Program, pointing to the high attrition rate (more than 10% quit between September and November 2000 and about 16% were gone by spring break.) I had an interesting conversation with Goodnough during the 2000-01 school year, where I mentioned the scuttlebutt I was hearing about the attrition rate. At that time she maintained that her sources were telling her it wasn’t that bad. I assured her there would be a large attrition rate. She asked me how I knew. I said, “These are supposed to be smart people, right?” “Right” she said. “It takes the average teacher about 3 years to understand the system sucks. If they’re so smart they’ll figure it out in 3 months,” I replied.

I got a first hand look at the Program after I retired when I was hired by Staten Island College to mentor 12 Fellows (half in their second year) in Brooklyn Schools. Ironically, five of them were at PS 92 in the follow-up year to Moffett. (So I got to know Moffett a bit as she was in her third year—She is still teaching at PS 92). Of the 12 I would say that eight were really good teachers. How many are still in the NYC system? I know of at least four that left after their two-year commitment, a 33% attrition rate. How many more will still be there at the end of four or five years?

It is not surprising there was such a high attrition rate, since most of the Fellows were placed in the 50 “worst” schools – the “Chancellor’s District.” Goodnough buys the DOE line that blames the union rule that allows senior teachers to transfer into better schools, leaving the more challenging schools with less experienced teachers. (In reality the amount of these transfers are so inconsequential as to be meaningless.) “Start them in the better schools so that they can learn the ropes in a less challenging environment; then, as soon as they have honed their teaching skills, transfer them to the schools with the greatest needs,” goes the DOE wish list. Goodnough, in essence, allows the DOE off the hook in the poor conception and management of the Fellows program. In fact, three of the Fellows I mentored were in excellent schools in Park Slope or in Borough Park. In later years when the DOE started distributing Fellows around more schools there suddenly didn’t seem to be a UFT work rule to stop them. They did a pretty good job “convincing” masses of people to retire, so there were lots of openings all over the place.

The DOE position that seniority rules in the school left the Fellows (and all new teachers) with more challenging teaching assignments is a more serious charge. The answer to that is not to throw out seniority rules (which I’ll defend at another time; hint: many principals don’t make decisions based on what is best for the children) but to establish an internship program where all new teachers get to work with an experienced teacher for a year before being thrown into the fray. That is the way many private schools work in their new teachers. If you’re going to establish such an expensive program, you might as well do it right. (Recent reports that the DOE is trying out a more intensive mentoring program for new teachers may prove promising.)

One of the contradictions in the DOE recruitment of the Fellows was the fact that many of these people changed careers because the allure of teaching made them feel they could make a real difference. More proactive people were actively sought. Yet the model for the chancellor district schools, as Pavone writes “ – was extremely rigid: they included lower class size, layers of supervisors and administrators, rigidly structured reading and math programs, mandates about everything from room arrangement and decoration, to techniques to use in disciplining children to exact time spent to develop each specific skill, and a close monitoring by superintendents, sub-superintendents, school liaisons, and school-based supervisors, as well as reading and math program company representatives.” Sound familiar? That model (except for the lower class sizes, of course) has been brought to almost all schools in the city under mayoral control.

So, now, we had people, who were supposedly less likely to conform, being recruited under false pretenses, as they were micromanaged to death. Pavone writes “Goodnough presents this contradiction in the personages of Moffett vs. her supervisor and the staff developer. She describes in detail the arguments they had, mostly in front of Moffett’s class, and she portrays them each as initially inflexible, then later more compromising as they learned to work out a way to coexist. One of the big negatives of this book is the sensationalizing of these conflicts, plus a very superficial and stereotypical analysis of what brought them about. All three actors—teacher, supervisor, and staff developer—-were new to the job, and played out their roles in a very problematic way. A description of what took place can be instructive and useful, but the way it was presented in the book made it hurtful and unhelpful.”

In a future column I’ll discuss other supposed “reforms” Goodnough accepts as being necessary — reforms that are being promoted by the DOE as absolutely crucial to their ability to manage the system effectively — differential pay for certain license areas to attract more competent, talented teachers and merit pay based on the performance of students are at the top of the list.

The DOE/mayor PR machine attacks these UFT work rules as hindrances. In reality, they are just excuses for their failures.

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