2005-11-04 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

There are two things and only two things that are important in the public school system run by Mayor Mike Bloomberg – standardized test scores and bulletin boards.

How about educating students? Not even close to being a priority.

Somebody who doesn’t understand what is going on might ask, “Don’t higher standardized test scores mean that the students are learning more, that they can read better?”

Actually, while it might seem silly to the uninitiated, the fact is that the rise in test scores seems to be a function of a push to teach test-taking skills rather than subject matter, and that translates into higher scores and less education.

Kaplan Test Preparation, the company well known for building SAT and other test scores has come into our public schools in a big way.

Look at the Kaplan Website. The company does not pretend to do anything but build scores. It teaches skills, not content information.

Sure, kids who have been through the Kaplan classes have higher scores because they know how to take a test, what to look for, how to figure out multiple-choice questions.

Lots of classroom time is taken in presenting the Kaplan material in all of the Region Five schools and that time is chopped away from such academic courses as Social Studies and Science. Kids appear to read better because they get better scores on the English Language Arts test. The fact is, they don’t necessarily read better, they just know how to answer the questions on the test better. There is a very large difference.

Witness the low scores that students (many of whom achieved high scores on the English Language Arts Test) achieved on a recent state Social Studies test. More than 80 percent of the middle school students who took the test failed. Why? Because they were getting a reduced load of Social Studies in order to accommodate the Kaplan program of test-taking skills.

In many of the schools in this region, U.S. History and Geography classes have been cut from six periods a week to four and even three.

The same is true of Science classes in many region schools.

Why is learning test-taking skills more important than learning to be an informed voter?

Because the Mayor has pledged to improve education and has chosen standardized test scores as the benchmark by which he will be judged. Neither he nor Chancellor Joel Klein are educators and neither understands that sometimes, tests and education can become mutually exclusive.

To use the business model, it is a little like promising to make more widgets and then achieving that goal by allowing unsafe widgets to be built as long as they are built in higher numbers.

Bloomberg and Klein are making students who can achieve well on tests but are learning less content area material than they did in the past.

The region, however, wants everybody to think that the kids are learning new and exciting things.

Which leads us to bulletin boards.

Claude Monereau, the principal of Middle School 53 in Far Rockaway (you’ll remember all the racial strife he caused when he was the assistant principal at Beach Channel High School and wanted to become its principal a few years ago) has issued a “checklist” for bulletin boards in his school.

Disobey the checklist and get an unsatisfactory rating. It doesn’t matter what kind of teacher you are or how long you have been teaching. Bulletin Board rule! That checklist includes such items as: 15 to 30 samples of publishable quality student work; No “white out” or visible corrections on student display; No red pen for corrections; Authentic teacher comments that are standard’s based; Organized, colorful and neatly displayed and Timely display (Due the first of every month).Teachers have actually been given U ratings and have even been fired because their bulletin boards were considered by a supervisor to be inadequate. It’s as if “show and tell” is more important than what is actually going on in the classroom in the interaction between teacher and student.

The harassment over “flawed” bulletin boards got so bad citywide that the UFT made one its demands in the new contract that the issue goes away.

What the UFT got, however, was a statement that teachers can no longer by disciplined for “micromanagement violations” such as bulletin board format, furniture arrangements or the duration of lesson units.

What a sad commentary that this issue would even have to be addressed. Think of it, experienced, expert teachers getting zapped by their supervisors not because they were not adequately teaching their subjects, but because their bulleting boards were not adequate or because they did not have their furniture in the room as prescribed by the region, or because they broke a unit into two parts to address slower students.

At the same time, teachers lost the right to file a grievance when supervisors place a negative letter in their files. They retain the right to meet over the letter and to have it removed after three years if no disciplinary action is taken as a result of the letter.

One teacher who recently retired after 35 years in Rockaway schools rather than put up with the micromanagement of supervisors who knew nothing about teaching his subject, shared a letter he got from Monereau during summer school last year.

The letter cited the teacher’s “failure to adhere with the following policy: The work on your bulletin board did not state positive and negative feedback and did not state what the students have to do to achieve level 4 work.” He eventually was given an unsatisfactory rating at the end of the summer, the first he had ever received in 35 years of teaching. In that rating he was cited for his inadequate bulletin boards, having his lesson plans out of order and for “poor questioning techniques.”

You want to know why highly qualified, experienced teachers are leaving the system in droves. Take a look at that teacher and you will know exactly why. The question is, why would anybody with the ability to go put up with such foolishness?

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