From the Editor's Desk
Commentary By Howard Schwach
We all know that Mayor Mike Bloomberg knows what's best on every issue under the sun, from trans-fats to education.
Or, at least he thinks he does.
When the State Legislature gave him the power over the public schools, he promised to improve those schools appreciably. He staked his reputation on improving the schools.
He should quit. He has actually harmed the schools, severely cutting the education of the system's students in such vital areas as Social Studies and Science and virtually cutting such programs as foreign language, art, music and technology.
He had driven parents from the system by reducing their voice to a whisper. The majority of parents are actually alienated from the schools and many take their anger at their impotence out on teachers and administrators, who can do nothing about the problem.
He has fouled up the governance system by constantly changing direction, so that hardly anybody, in or outside the system, knows which way they should go for guidance on problems and issues. First it was ten regions. Now, it's empowerment and Learning Support Organizations.
Nobody knows which way is up and Bloomberg crows that everything is wonderful.
Last week, I took part in a forum hosted by the Queens Civic Conference. There were five of us on the panel, one publisher, one community education council member (who happened to be an attorney) and three reporters who cover education in Queens on a regular basis.
There were about 50 people in the audience, all of them representatives of their home civic associations.
Each of the panelists had to make a presentation. Mine was entitled: "Principals I Have Known Who Shouldn't Be Empowered."
I thought that I would be the only one to believe that the mayor had "screwed the pooch" when it came to education.
I was wrong.
Each of the panelists, in their own way, excoriated the mayor and told of problems in their own communities.
When the panelists were finished, the audience had a chance to ask questions and make comments. Not one person in the room thought that the mayor was right on education.
In fact, they all asked the organization to formulate a platform to send to their state legislators asking them not to renew mayoral control of the schools in 2009, when it comes up in the legislature.
That's how bad things are. Yet, the mayor keeps saying that things are wonderful and that he is fulfilling his mandate to improve the schools.
Let's look at the facts.
Reading scores in elementary schools fell across the board this year. In grade three, the percentages fell by five full points - a disaster by any measure. Grade four scores fell by three points, grade five by .05 points.
Bloomberg, however, announced that the scores had actually gone up. How did he figure that? He said that the feds, who released the new percentages, counted more non-English kids, lowering the scores. Factor them out, he said and the scores were higher. Which is what he has been doing since he took over. Scores in the city have been going up not because kids can read or do math better, but because the city no longer counted the scores of English Language Learners and special education students - the scores that always lowered the scores in individual schools in the past.
"We have more work to do. That's a point that I have been making repeatedly, but I think that it's very important to recognize that the system is clearly moving forward," said the mayor's puppet, Chancellor Joel Klein.
Sure, it's important for the mayor to have everybody believe that the system is moving forward, even when it is moving backward instead.
In order to increase reading and math scores, Klein and Bloomberg ordered schools to increase the study of those two subjects. The number of periods that students took those subjects virtually doubled, to twenty from eight or twelve. In addition, he mandated five periods each week for the study of test-taking skills, spending millions of education dollars on the Kaplan Learning System.
Since the number of periods that students can take each day is finite, adding extra periods for reading and math as well as test-taking, reduced the number of periods available for everything else.
Do the math yourself. There are eight periods each day, 40 a week. Five of those are lunch, reducing the week to 35 periods. If 20 of those are used for math and reading, then there are 15 left over for everything else. Three must be given over to physical education by state mandate (and common sense). That leaves 12 periods a week for Social Studies, Science, foreign language, art, music and technology.
It is no wonder that New York City students did so badly on the eighth grade Social Studies test in 2006. In fact, only 27 percent of the city's eighth grade students passed the state test.
Did you hear the mayor or the chancellor talking about that test? Of course not, because it is not important. It does not count towards accountability under the No Child Left Behind Law and therefore it is not a problem that budding teens do not understand how their government works or that they develop the skills to become voting adults and viable citizens.
The mayor apparently does not care that fewer than 20 percent of the eighth graders can identify the three branches of government, nevertheless know that they do, or understand why we celebrate our nation's holidays.
As long as the pass the reading and math standardized tests, all is wonderful and the mayor is a hero.
And, sometimes even getting low scores does not matter if you are one of the mayor's vaunted "Empowerment Principals.
Claude Monereau is the principal of Middle School 53 in Far Rockaway. He was given that position after being tossed from Beach Channel High School were he was the assistant principal and aspiring principal. He aspired to that position so ardently that he got the local NAACP involved in a demonstration that led to racial problems at the school. Monereau has had two years at MS 53.
How has he done? In the January tests, only 29.1 percent of the sixth grade students were on grade level. Only 30.3 percent of seventh graders and 18.6 percent of eighth graders were on level. For that, he got a "satisfactory rating" from the region.
See how it works?
So, the next time you read in the New York Times that the mayor is doing a wonderful job, think about the truth and let your state legislators know that you don't want the next mayor to have control over the public schools.
If you're really for public education, you should want to give the system back to the parents and the professionals.