2005-12-02 / Columnists

School Scope

Contract Wars Flare Up: We Told You So
By Norman Scott

Just as we go to press, reports are filtering in of squabbling over the implementation of the 37.5 minutes between the DOE, the UFT and the supervisors union, the CSA.

The union is miffed that the DOE is saying it is ok to put more than 10 kids in an after school tutoring program as long as more than one teacher is present.

The CSA is complaining that the entire thing has been dumped in the laps of principals and the DOE is complaining about Randi Weingarten’s suggestion that they delay certain aspects of the new contract like lunchroom duty until September.

Those of us opposed to the contract said all along the implementation was going to be a nightmare and would allow the DOE all kinds of ways around the agreement. Oh, da pain.

In the debate over the contract very little was said about the impact on students and parents.

This statement from a “Guide to UFT Contract Changes” sent to principals by the DOE is worth noting:  “Attendance at these [tutoring] sessions will be mandatory for students identified by the principal as struggling academically, which, for purposes of the 37.5-minute sessions, shall mean those students in danger of not meeting standards.

Principals are expected to take appropriate action if identified students fail to participate in the 37.5 minute sessions, including appropriate action pursuant to the discipline code.”

 I can just see teachers having to chase kids around with nets to keep them from leaving school. This will be a lot of fun, especially in the high schools, where the disciplinary code is often not enforced when mayhem is taking place.

Teachers will be getting professional development in being cowboys – they will learn standard round-up and roping techniques so they can capture and hog-tie their charges. YiHaaa!

Parents in elementary school will also love the dislocations of multiple dismissals on Mondays to Thursdays where younger children who are picked up by big brother or sister are left hanging to wait around or parents themselves have to hang around the school for the extra 37.5 minutes – but not on Friday when everyone will chant in unison when school ends at the normal time: TGIF.

The “Guide” did allow for School-Based Options worked out between teachers and school administrators to add the time under certain conditions to the beginning of the day, or compress the time into two or three days, thus leading to an extra 50 minutes – and check my math here – Mon-Weds, while a school a few blocks away might have a four-day schedule. Oh, da confusion!

Speaking of math, Clyde Haberman talked about the woeful state of math this week in the NY Times despite the “sexy” TV (Numb3rs,” about a crime-solving mathematician) and movie (“A Beautiful Mind,” about the troubled mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr.) and Broadway’s “Proof,” a math-themed play by David Auburn, that won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a recent movie.

“It is no secret that our collective knowledge of math is a woeful mess. Any number of studies lament this country’s mathematical duh-ness.

In the late 1980’s, John Allen Paulos, a mathematician at Temple University, wrote the best-selling book ‘Innumeracy,’ which examined mathematical illiteracy and found it to be rampant.

Have we since improved? Not significantly, Professor Paulos says. ‘Fewer Americans are going into math…’ Similar concerns are expressed by Alfred S. Posamentier, a mathematician who is dean of the School of Education at City College of New York. Math, he said, is ‘the only subject in the curriculum where adults are proud to say they were lousy. From childhood on, kids have heard it from their parents.’”

I was a decent enough math student in high school, though strangely, not all that good until I met algebra in the 9th grade and geometry in the 10th grade. But I don’t use a hell of a lot of what I learned, even the early grade arithmetic. Do we really need to spend millions of dollars forcing times tables down kids throats when calculators are so readily available?

Use the money to just buy everyone a bunch of them. And how long before technology allows us to implant a calculator chip in everyone’s head that will take care of the simple math? I was beginning to think that there is a math lobby at work to convince everyone just how important math is so math teachers can keep their jobs.

So I asked Stephen Shapinsky, my partner in the Region 4 robotics program, to explain why math is considered so much more important than understanding science, politics and history – so important that poor math scores can lead to schools being branded failures and closed, administrators losing their jobs and teachers being blamed. I said sarcastically, “I often use the trigonometry I learned in the 11th grade.” Surprisingly, he said he has used trig over the years for carpentry projects and in some computer design projects.

Now, being only 30, he at least has some memory of high school. He proceeded to make a very plausible case for math being crucial to so many potential careers and if we de-emphasized it we would not be giving all kids an opportunity to explore these opportunities – there can be no career in any branch related to science without some high level math.

He also went into detail as to the kinds of analysis and problem solving that is learned in mathematics that apply to many areas of life, both on and off the job.

We both agreed that the problem was with the implementation of teaching math in the schools, with the over-emphasis on test scores that can lead to such a big turn-off for so many kids. And teachers too.

I believe that the forced feeding of the Workshop model with small-group instruction by the DOE was an attempt to respond to this turn-off by students. The rigidity and ineptness of the implementation has led to a bigger turn-off by math teachers, particularly in the high schools. More on this another time.

Back to my conversation with Stephen. I told him how I was influenced by geometry, learning how to solve more complex problems in depth and being able to apply these skills to real-life situations. He pointed out that geometry was different than most of the math we learn that require absolute answers.

It lent itself to more analysis.

That reminded me of one of the seminal moments in my education that took place in the 2nd semester of geometry in the 10th grade. The book we were using had answers to some of the problems and that fascinated me because knowing the answer was only useful in geometry if you could come up with a method that got you there. So I used to spend hours working on the problems until I could figure them out. The revelation? If I had enough time I could always figure it out, an experience I had not had in math up to that time.

My confidence level went up immeasurably and it all paid off when I got a “98” on the regents. In my senior year I got a “100” on the advanced algebra regents, at which point my math career went into decline upon coming face-to-face with calculus.

Other than lamenting the state of the Jets, this is what we talk about while driving around doing robotics. I have heard senior teachers, particularly during the contract battle, lament that the newer teachers are somehow not up to snuff.

I have met a hell of a lot of young teachers and older new teachers from other careers who have a lot on the ball. It just takes a few years for them to get their bearings.

I helped lure Stephen, one of the first group of Teaching Fellows who I met when he was a first year teacher in District 14 in Williamsburg, into our robotics program and as the only full-time robotics staff developer in the city (and maybe the world), he has been the engine that has enabled our program to grow from two schools when we started last fall to over 35 schools, which includes public and non-public elementary, middle and high schools.

We will be running the NYCFIRST LEGO League Queens practice tournament at Long Island City High School on December 17, where we expect 40 teams (sadly, none from Region 5) to show up for the Ocean Odyssey Challenge, where robots made out of LEGO have 2.5 minutes to complete a series of tasks to solve ocean-related problems like rescuing a dolphin and closing a pipeline leak.

This week we were at Aviation High School, one of our favorite places, where everyone we meet – the principal, AP’s, teachers, students, security guards, etc. – are so welcoming. Stephen trained 20 students who had volunteered to give up their Saturday to work as referees and other jobs on December 17.

What a great bunch of kids!

The interest they showed as evidenced by the questions they asked, gave us confidence that the Queens tournament will be a success – and confidence that maybe things are not all that bad with today’s yoots.

The full citywide tournament has 174 teams registered and will take place at Riverbank State Park in Manhattan on Jan. 28th and Jan. 29th. It is open to the public and we need loads of volunteers.

Contact me at noscot@aol.com for more information.

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