2006-03-10 / Columnists

School Scope

Takes And Outtakes
By Norman Scott


Just go away for a while and things related to education back up so far you need gallons of liquid plumber to get them moving again. We celebrated my recent birthday at the Museum of Natural History where we went to see the Darwin exhibit. While a bit disappointing, we did learn a few things we didn't know. Darwin had a very happy marriage and 10 kids - can't you just see the Broadway play, "Darwin! The Musical." Amidst numerous school groups floating around, which brought back lots of memories of the days I used to bring my classes there a few times a year, the key points of Darwin's theories emphasized. One interesting point was that Darwin's reading of the Malthusian theory (published in 1798), that poverty and famine were natural outcomes of population growth and food supply and that plants and animals produce far more offspring than can survive, had a major influence on him. Darwin made similar notes on his famous five year trip around the world in 1831 but didn't make the complete connection to the theory of natural selection - the most favored genes in a particular environment had the best chance of survival in the dog-eat-dog world of nature - until reading the Malthus work years later.

The connection between Darwin and Malthus has been used in some quarters to justify social Darwinism - let the survival of the fittest apply to humanity. Sort of like saying that kids in Scarsdale and Brownsville should have to compete given the same resources. Or fewer resources. Need I point out that the kids in Scarsdale, in addition to their initial economic and social advantages, also have double the spending per child and many more school-level resources plus significantly smaller class sizes? Sounds like No Child Left Behind -social Darwinism where not only are they not on an equal footing, the most disadvantaged get their legs (and maybe an arm) tied together before the race even begins.

PEP Rally

The Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) held a demonstration in front of State Senator (from Bay Ridge) Marty Golden's office over his advocacy of the state budget surplus being used to support tuition tax credits instead of fully funding NYC public schools. Governor Pataki and his allies like Golden have opposed the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) award from Judge Leland DeGrasse based on his ruling that NYC schools are under funded by the state. The use of tuition tax credits is just one more attack on free public education. We can't mandate that people send their kids to public schools, but why should the public pay for it while at the same time weakening public schools?

From Golden's office a group of about 30 students were bused to the Panel for Education Policy meeting on February 27 at Murrow High School in Brooklyn (PEP) where they held a demo calling on the Panel to reject the proposed $1.9 billion in cuts to the schools capital improvement plan that would cut or delay numerous projects.

Many politicians showed up, including three borough presidents and scads of city council people for their two minutes of speaking time (which kept growing exponentially with each successive speaker despite Chancellor Klein's appeals for brevity - how badly do you want to see that man in front of a class on a regular basis?) Christine Quinn, the new political superstar in New York who is having a wonderful relationship with Mayor Bloomberg, made a surprisingly strong statement against his planned cuts. Our borough President Helen Marshall also made a statement that could have been the least effective made that evening. I wanted to rip the "Hi, I am from Queens" logo off my forehead.

The complexity of this issue is that BloomKlein take the position that they had to make the cuts to keep projects going but some speakers reported that up to $30 million has been spent on projects that will be left unfinished, leaving one big hole in the ground. Pundits were saying that these cuts came with a big wink - the public was being manipulated into lobbying the state for the shortfall. Some speakers pointed out that last year when the state didn't fund the capital improvement plan, and the mayor and city council made up the difference. Cynics sneered - "it was an election year." How about coming up with a decent funding formula for New York City so we don't have to rely on the manipulations of the state legislature, famous as one of the most regressive in the nation? How about a tax on the massively wealthy corporations in the city for education purposes?

Political manipulation or educational blackmail? While claiming the cuts were based on educational priorities, it was noted that the bulk of the cuts came in Republican districts in the city. There were no cuts in Rockaway - another good reason to keep Republicans off the peninsula? I would throw in the Democrats and start all over.

State marking rubric verrry weak

Reports came in from test marking centers around the city during the February mid-winter break, where thousands of teachers were paid to mark standardized tests, that the state-mandated rubric - the criteria by which students were judged to be rated a 1 (the lowest score) to a 4 (the highest) - was a joke. If a student managed to scratch out a few letters they were given credit. Sort of like the mirror test they used to give teachers - hire them if there's a sign of breathing. And if there was any doubt at all, the benefit went to the higher score. With a lot at stake for the entire educational and political establishment, no one seemed upset except teachers who felt the entire process was being manipulated to show phony educational progress. This was not a surprise. The Governor controls the state Ed dept and, hey, isn't he running for president?

Sol Stern, a Senior Fellow at the conservative, anti-union, pro-voucher Manhattan Institute and very critical of BloomKlein made a surprise appearance in the UFT's house organ, the NY Teacher, which reprinted an article he wrote for the Institute's City Journal . The article pointed to how data is manipulated for political reasons and pointed to how the rise in test scores was not due to BloomKlein policy but to a dumbing down of the tests since all urban areas in NY State rose even more than NY. Rather than that question Klein preferred to compare our scores to other urban areas around the nation. Stern punched a hole in that argument - NYC has had less white flight and a greater influx of immigrants from parts of the world with highly educated populaces.

Ahhh, politics and education. A mix that benefits no one - except the politicians.

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