2006-02-10 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

There are some jokes that are so old that only the punch line is necessary for the joke to get a laugh.

Mention the words “Bloom’s Taxonomy (a detailed hierarchy of learning competencies) to a teacher and you are likely to get the same reaction: a chuckle with no joke necessary.

The taxonomy has been around for a long time. Administrators and teacher colleges look at it as the Holy Grail of education. Teachers often chuckle as if only they know the joke.

The joke ends, however, when the taxonomy (or the lack thereof) is used by the Department of Education’s henchmen (and women) to force principals to give “Unsatisfactory” ratings to experienced, competent teachers.

What you see on the jump page for this column is a memorandum dated December 27, 2005 from Roz German, one of the Local Instructional Superintendents for Region Five to Dr. David Morris, the principal of Beach Channel High School.

How did I get this supposedly “private” memorandum? That’s another story for another time. Let’s leave it at the fact that many people who saw it were angered by what it says and particularly what it says when you read it “between the lines.”

Ray Kelly, the NYPD commissioner continually says that there is no ticket quota for individual police officers, that there is only a “productivity goal.” As the police union president recently pointed out, however, when an officer is punished because he did not make his or her goal, that becomes a quota.

The same holds true in the school system.

When businessman and lawyer Joel Klein took over the system, one of the first things he did was to look at the number of teachers and administrators who got unsatisfactory ratings.

He said publicly that there were far too few teachers being given the U ratings. He opined that, based on his experience, that about ten percent of the workers in any system are unsatisfactory. So, the quota was born.

For the past three or four years, the benchmark for any principal who has to rate his assistant principals and teachers has been ten percent.

You doubt that there is pressure on principals to give teachers U ratings. Witness the memo. Read between the lines.

“When observing teachers, a few major words should pop-out to make you question the lesson: quiz, revisit (review), worksheet, fill in the chart.

“With the above in mind, I strongly question several satisfactory ratings. Also, it appears that classroom management techniques were not utilized. In reviewing your assistant principals observations it appears that most staff observations are satisfactory. I find this quite unusual as during my walk-through’s I noted that pedagogy requires improvement at Beach Channel High School. Please remember that you are responsible for monitoring the pedagogy in your building and making sure that assistant principals are on target.

“In addition, the stationery used for each department should be the same as yours. And you, as principal, must sign off on all assistant principals observations…

“Please incorporate my suggestions in future observations; also encourage your teachers to use higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy when planning their lessons.”

The memorandum is signed by Roz German, the LIS for the school and one of superintendent Kathy Cashin’s chief henchwomen (She came with Cashin from District 23).

Read between the lines. What German is telling Morris is that he and his assistant principals are giving far too many satisfactory ratings, something that has to end. Morris is reminded that he is responsible for monitoring the building and ensuring that proper ratings are given to teachers.

If you don’t think that is a threat to straighten up and fly right, you don’t understand the Department Of Education or the public school system.

That message is as chilling as the police commissioner writing a memorandum to a precinct commanding officer advising him that his men and women are not giving out a sufficient quantity of moving violations.

You can bet that the precinct commander would move to make sure that more moving violations were issued just as you can bet that Morris will now insure that his assistant principals give out more unsatisfactory ratings – whether or not the teacher is really unsatisfactory.

That is very troubling to me because the threat is often used these days against the older, more experienced teachers.

A UFT grievance a few months ago argued that more than 80 percent of those getting U ratings were over 40 years of age. That makes no sense in the real world, but makes lots of sense in the corporate world where you want to get rid of the higher-paid, workers who are often slow to buy into the new business practices that they know from long experience will not work. Those workers have to go whether they are competent or not. Teachers who don’t buy into the DOE’s new educational pedagogy because they know that students are actually learning less are in the line of fire because they refuse to harm kids.

There are two other things that trouble me about the memo. The first is the mention of the stationery used in the observation reports, as if that was important. To most people, the stationery would not matter at all. To a group that is fixated on bulletin boards and post-it-notes, however, the stationery becomes of prime importance, important enough to mention as a problem.

Then there is that old shibboleth, Bloom’s Taxonomy. German wants the teachers at Beach Channel High School to “use higher levels” of the taxonomy when planning lessons.

The lowest level in Bloom’s is “Knowledge,” the ability to observe and recall information, knowledge of dates, events and places.”

Next in line comes “Comprehension,” understanding information, translating that knowledge to new understandings.

Then comes “Application,” using information in new situations.

After “Analysis” and “Synthesis” comes the highest level, “Evaluation,” comparing and discriminating between ideas, assessing the value of theories, making choices based on arguments and recognizing subjectivity.”

Any teacher will tell you that the taxonomy level they use depends largely upon the students in the class.

For example, if your ninth grade students do not know that they live in the Borough of Queens (Level 1), then you certainly are not going to plan a lesson asking them to translate the meaning of “political subdivision” into a discussion of European geopolitics prior to World War I (Level III).

If you are a teacher and your students don’t know that there are three co-equal branches that make up the United States Government, then a lesson on comparing that government with the parliamentary government of Great Britain will not fly. Yet, supervisors continually push teachers to use the “higher” strategies on Bloom’s scale knowing that the students have not yet mastered the lower strategies.

Despite the fact that supervisors have to understand the limits of using the taxonomy with “slow learners” who have never mastered the easier skills such as memorizing material and repeating it back, under the pressure of the regional supervisors, they are always threatening teachers with unsatisfactory ratings if the teachers don’t plan to teach the higher skills in their required lesson plans.

For a regional supervisor (who is under the gun from the Regional Superintnendent, who is, in turn, under the gun from the DOE) it is always easier when working at a failing school to blame the principal for not properly supervising the teachers and the teachers for not teaching the higher skills. That masks the fact that the DOE and the region are failing the schools by focusing solely on test scores and irrelevant issues such as bulletin boards.

As for me, I am glad that I retired several years ago. I’m not sure I like (or could work under) the brave new world of U rating quotas, high stakes bulletin boards, and tests and especially the planned failure to teach children about their surroundings and their government.

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