2006-05-05 / Columnists

School Scope

Cinco de Mayo
By Norman Scott


This column has nothing to do with Cinco de Mayo other than appearing on that date but just hearing the words makes me want to have a beer. And I'm writing this at 6 a.m.Urp!

Teacher retention

Our recent coverage of the DOE new rating policy giving schools grades based on a number of factors pointed to leaving off class size and teacher retention rates.Last time I wrote about class size, which by the way had a preliminary hearing in court on April 26 over placing the issue on the ballot in November (vehemently being opposed by BloomKlein).

Why are teacher retention rates an important indicator? They provide us with objective data on a very subjective area - how the principal is treating people. If there's lots of turnover over a period of time that means conditions are bad - either through mismanagement or the principal is a tyrant.

I taught at one school for 27 years. Many of my colleagues stayed there too - a school in the Williamsburg/ Bushwick are, right in the middle of tenements and projects. It was no bed of roses. Yet people stayed. With so many lunatic principals running around why take a chance - we only had a semi-lunatic principal.

Despite numerous issues with the principal we were basically treated well, especially when it came to personal problems. She always showed up at a death in the family or gave total support to a teacher that was ill, even supporting a pre-k teacher with terminal cancer who struggled into school every day because it kept her involved.

But beyond all that, she gave every person in the school her unqualified support no matter what the complaints of parents. This did not always make her popular and at times, there were abuses, but the opposite exists in today's world where so many principals will throw a teacher under the bus at a whisper of a complaint.

The Children's Hour

A version of Lillian Hellman's play "A Children's Hour" about a vicious young schoolgirl who destroys the lives of two teachers, is being played out in the New York City school system every day as it has become increasingly clear that any child has the power to destroy a teacher's reputation with just a few choice words.

While there is a need to investigate accusations against a teacher, these investigations go on without the teacher being given a clue as to what they are being charged with as they are forced to languish in the rubber room, often for months, awaiting their fate. Isn't there something in the Constitution that says they can't do that? The DOE and the UFT seem to agree that this is ok using the argument they are still paying you. (The UFT did pass a resolution at the May 1 Executive Board meeting calling for protection of teacher rights while they are in the rubber room, or as they call it, the "Temporary Reassignment Center.") Why aren't interviews conducted in a day or two or a week at most so the innocent people can go back to their classrooms? A shortage of investigators? Isn't it cheaper to hire enough investigators than to pay teachers not to work?

If a teacher happens to be out of favor with the administration (in particular chapter leaders who stand up for the rights of their members) they are in much greater danger of being pulled from the school and having a stigma put on them even of they are ultimately found innocent. The after effects can be long lasting if not permanent, affecting their effectiveness as both union activists and educators. This is especially true for the people who teach in a natural style in a free and open manner where their words can be easily misconstrued. Kids are increasingly knowledgeable about their power.

What teacher hasn't done or said something at some point that in today's climate wouldn't land them in the rubber room? Investigators go on fishing expeditions, interviewing kids who can "rat" out their teacher. (Some teachers find out from their kids they are under investigation.) It is within the power of the principal to say - this is a good teacher; he or she should stay in the school while the investigation goes on. But teachers who have stood up for their rights don't get this break.

The use of the rubber room (and U observations and ratings - more on this in the next column) for political reasons to "get" people is a policy that will harm attempts to remove people who should not be teaching because every unfair case teachers witness will only make them dig in their heels to try to gain more protections.

Unfortunately, the UFT has all too often cooperated with the DOE.

What has been the response? "Our hands are tied" is the common refrain we hear from union officials. In the role of "we want to get rid of bad teachers," they have allowed way too many innocents to suffer and have accepted a reversal of a basic constitutional right - you are now guilty until proven innocent.

UFT Cover Up at John Adams HS?  

Teachers at John Adams HS who were being interviewed for a story in the NY Teacher to investigate the continued harassment of the staff at John Adams HS in Queens by the principal Grace Zwillenberg have complained that the proposed story has fallen off the radar scope. They had hoped that exposure would shine a light on the activities of administrators but the story seems to have been dropped like a hot potato and suspect Zwillenberg has an "angel" at the UFT, possibly someone in the Queens borough office which has long been known as the least effective and most collaborative with administrators, as likely to stand up for a principal as for the members.

Criteria for June

Promotion Decisions

Joel Klein's "Principal's Weekly" (or "Weakly" as my friend Jeff Kaufman calls it) reported on May 2 that "This year the New York State Education Department (NYSED) expanded the English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics testing program to Grades 3-8 as required under the federal No Child Left Behind law. However, results from these tests will not be available until the fall."

Hello! Now there's a useful test that will really help teachers and children (Say again, Joel - "Children First?") So, without scores until September how will they make promotion decisions? Listen to this: "In order to make promotion decisions in June, a promotional cut score for New York City students will be established for grades 3, 5, and 7 based on the New York State ELA tests, and for grades 3 and 5 based on the New York State mathematics tests, both administered this past winter. The cut score will be de-termined by City educators in conjunction with NYSED and its test publisher (CTB/ McGraw-Hill)."

Looks like they will make a guess based on a test given in the middle of the year punishing students who improved in the spring. It's like making the cut for a golf tournament. Fore!

I wonder how much McGraw-Hill will be getting paid for all this extra work after proving they are incapable of getting the results of their tests in the hands of people so they can be useful in the school year children actually take the test. But, not to worry. Principal's Weakly states: "Test results will be available much earlier beginning in the 2006-07 school year." Like maybe July.

Well, I've had just about enough writing this crap. It's time to celebrate Cinco de Mayo a few days early. Double Urp!!

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