2006-06-30 / Columnists

It's My Turn

The New York City School System Is Not Broken
By Bernard Gassaway


Bernard Gassaway
Bernard Gassaway Bernard Gassaway is the former principal of Beach Channel High School and senior superintendent of alternative schools and programs for New York City. He is a homeschooling father and author of "Reflections of an Urban High School Principal."

I have spent a large part of this past year trying to figure out how to improve the New York City Public School System from the outside. I have come to the following conclusion: The New York City School System is not broken. It is doing what it was designed to do.

People often query, "Why can't the New York City government get the schools to work? After all, they spend nearly 15 billion dollars annually." To them I say, again, "The system does work. It was designed to teach uniformity, conformity and compliance among its participants. It was designed to teach a class of children to be willing and eager servants. Even the factory-like way schools operate supports its purpose to train the majority of children for their future roles - civil servants or civil dependents. In large urban areas, schools in effect are used to warehouse a large number of children (currently, New York City public school enrollment is slightly more than one million children). Overcrowding, underachievement, high dropout rates and crime are all expected outcomes of warehousing.

We know numerous upstate communities are highly dependent on New York City's residents to fill their prisons. Approximately 66% of the upstate prisoners come from New York City. At least 50% of all New York State detainees do not have high school diplomas. They come from poor neighborhoods that have a disproportionate number of failing schools. At least 50% of all state detainees are African-American, though they only account for 16% of the state's population. Latinos make up 28% of the state's prisoners while only representing 15% of the state's population. Conservatively, 50% of African-American males are either dropped or pushed out of New York City public schools (the figure is probably higher when you factor in students who never make it out of junior high or middle school).

We know prisons are proportionately built at a higher rate than schools. Since the early eighties, an additional 36 prisons have been built in New York State. Currently, there are 69 state prisons. From a personnel standpoint, there is a correction officer to inmate ratio of 1:3 in the state prisons. On average, in New York City, general education classes have a teacher to student ratio from 1:20 to 1:34 in some high school classes.

We know there is a correlation between the prison population and education failure. When children are not educated, a demand is generated for more prisons. Why do you think there was so much opposition from upstate republicans to give New York City additional money for schools? If schools were to educate New York City children successfully, rural upstate communities would suffer because many are dependent on city residents to fill their prisons.

We know upstate politicians fought hard to prevent the city from getting additional school funding. They need not worry. Additional funding for New York City schools will not translate into an improved school system. As long as the system remains the same, you can spend 28 billion dollars and little will change for the majority of the children. School and government officials will find a way to divert the money. Look at how the Department of Education is currently wasting millions of dollars.

We know they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to hire consultants to improve the system. The largest provider of professional development services for New York City teachers is an Australian-based company. Although school principals will never admit it publicly, many are forced to purchase professional development services from this company.

We know the people who are impacted the most by the New York City education system have virtually no say in its design.

As I previously stated, the system is not broken. It is doing what it was designed to do.

African-American scholars have long fought to influence the New York City curriculum. There is a legitimate claim that the children who make up the largest part of the system cannot find any significant evidence of their people's history in the school curriculum. Although documents have been prepared to begin to address this gross omission, the Board of Education has rejected them. No surprise. In order for city officials to correct this travesty of exclusion, they would be required to hire Africans or people of African ancestry to provide professional development services to schools, similar to the Australian deal. It would also require the school system to recognize that Black history began long before Africans arrived on North American shores as victims of chattel slavery. To do it right, it would cost the system billions of dollars to correct all of the misinformation and propaganda. Teachers and administrators must be retrained. New books must be written and purchased. I surmise even if these efforts were successful, it is easier to train the mind than it is to train the heart. At this point, I would welcome an educational system that focuses on truth, relevance and student interests.

As I speak to numerous groups, teachers often ask me, "What can I do to help the children I have pledged to serve?" I say, "Stay true to your principles. Be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for our children. If you are a teacher of history, you are culturally and ethically required to teach the truth, although it is your job to teach the lies. As long as children are required to take 'tests,' you are required to prepare them. You need to figure out where you will draw the line. That is an individual decision."

Here are some specific recommendations for parents and other educators:

Parents should organize and open learning institutes in their communities. Establish child-centered environments where adults stand among the students not against them - no competing interests.

Parents should advocate for funding to follow the child - a form of vouchers. This funding should be available to all city residents to support their child's education, regardless of the parents' choice of educational providers, including homeschooling.

Establish community-based enrichment activities for children. They need structure, stimulation and security. Children never get tired of learning. They get tired of people trying to teach them.

Parents should boycott all standardized testing. The purpose of testing is to bankroll the publishing industry. A well-trained teacher can provide students with meaningful assessments.

Listen to the actions of children. Their behaviors are manifestations of what they see. Do not preach to them. Demonstrate for them.

Home educate your child/children. Revive the rite that parents are the first teachers. Work with other like-minded parents to educate your children. There is no natural law that says education is reserved for 8 A.M. to 3 P.M. If you are a parent, you have at least two jobs. One is to earn a living for your family. The second, and more important, is to raise and educate your children. Do not abrogate this important responsibility to an outside entity.

Create learning environments that recognize children have different learning styles and different timetables for learning. Do not force a circular child to become a square student.

Create learning opportunities that show children how to become owners, not renters, masters, not servants, employers, not employees.

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