2007-12-07 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

Nobody Asked Me, But (School Edition)…
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Nobody asked me, but … No formal reauthorization legislation will be offered this year in Congress to change the infamous No Child Left Behind Act. The Bush administration has decided that it's not worth the trouble and will allow the next president to wrestle with the problem of whether it should be reauthorized as is (nobody really wants that), dropped completely, or changed in some meaningful way. The reauthorization of the unpopular law - which is seen by most educators as a testing strategy, rather than a learning strategy - has been held up by a number of factors. The reauthorization bill proposed by House Education Chairperson George Miller, called for mandated merit pay programs for all teachers, and that merit pay was to be based strictly on student test scores. The AFT and NEA fought that proposal, and the Bush White House would not approve any bill without that merit pay proposal. That led to the present deadlock. The holdup does not do away with the law. All of the present features of the law remain in effect.

... Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein continually trumpet the success of the smaller school movement. They never point out, however, that those schools are barred from taking either special education or bilingual students for up to four years. It is those students who traditionally depress reading and math scores in the schools they attend. In fact, many schools are declared "failing" under the NCLB Act simply because those students are not performing up to snuff, even when the rest of the school is above standard. One of the major points the dynamic duo make is that 20 percent more students in the small schools graduate than in traditional high schools. Even that claim, however, is a statistical fabrication. A new study done by an outside agency found that more than half of those small school graduates earned local diplomas that only required a passing score on the Regents tests of 55, rather than the 65 required for a Regents Diploma.

... We got a press release from the Department of Education a few weeks ago announcing a major plan to use the increased state funding for financing smaller classes and increasing funds for failing schools. The problem is, the city was forced to do those things by the state as a requirement for getting the extra funds. The city took the money kicking and screaming, because the DOE wanted to do neither. Rather, the agency reportedly wanted the money to hire more outside consultants to study performance more closely and to monitor the schools. The city agreed to use the money for the kids only when it was told by the state that it would lose the funds if it did not comply.

... Teachers are dropping out of the system in droves, and it has nothing to do with money. While the DOE pooh pooh's Randi Weingarten's contention that teachers are quitting in records numbers, anybody familiar with the schools knows that it is true. Why do they drop out? They did not become teachers to deliver a canned script to their students each day. They do not want to focus on test-taking skills rather than the skills the students need to function in the real world. They are no longer willing to do the myriad of paperwork used to monitor students, instead of focusing on real, teacher-led lessons that educate rather than teach to the test. They are tired of being dumped on by supervisors who never taught the subject they are attempting to teach their students. They are tired of facing students who do not want to learn and who are not sanctioned for misbehaviors in the classroom. They are tired of being "whipping boys" for a system where there are no standards for students or parents, but strict accountability for teachers. They are tired of dealing with principals who have never been in a school building since their own graduations and having to put up with the foolishness dictated by Tweed Courthouse. They are tired of being told they don't know how to teach when they have done so successfully for five or ten years. It is no longer worth the bother to stay in the classroom for these experienced teachers, and so they find someplace better to go. Chris Cerf, the Deputy Chancellor who is beholden to the charter school movement for his job, says that the statement that teachers are leaving is a "stunt." How wrong he is. Just talk to teachers and see how wrong he is.

... By the way, I have nothing against getting rid of teachers who can't do their job. Every teacher knows that there are such people in most schools. Hiring high-paid lawyers to get rid of tenured teachers, however, is not necessarily the way to do it. First of all, many of those who principals want to get rid of are not necessarily bad teachers. Many are teachers who principals consider disloyal or who cause problems for the principals by filing grievances or stirring up other teachers to action. Believe it or not, some teachers are given U ratings simply because of their age and status among other teachers. Others are given U ratings because of race or gender. If you do not believe that, you have not been paying attention to the brave, new Department of Education. There has to be a process for getting rid of the truly bad teachers that still provides rights to the accused.

... I like Peter Vallone. The City Councilman has proposed a ban on homework one night a week and a limit of two-and-a-half hours a night of homework for elementary school students. Vallone must be a public school parent or grandparent. He knows the deal. Kids are still kids, and four hours of homework for a second- or thirdgrader is just too much to ask for. Some city school administrators have long recognized the wisdom of such limits; Region 5 had a formal guideline for teachers and parents that homework not exceed 10 minutes a night, multiplied by the student's year in grade, i.e., 10 minutes for first-grade, 20 minutes for second-grade, and so on. Kids have to grow and develop, and that takes play and other factors that have nothing to do with schoolwork. This emphasis on testing and high-stakes education has simply become too much and many kids are beginning to suffer what could amount to nervous breakdowns at their tender ages.

... I should be flattered. Claude Monereau, the principal of MS 53, sent out a memo to all of his staff when the school was awarded a "C" report card. The memo, written on November 19, says, "Our school is neither at the bottom nor is it the worst school in the Rockaways or even city-wide as previously reported by the local newspaper, "The Wave." After all, we did much better than at least three other schools in the Rockaways, and six other schools also received a "C" on their report cards." Why then, was the school named one of the worst 25 schools in the city by the DOE just prior to getting its "C?" Why are the cops there all the time? Why is a racial arsonist who sparked riots at another Rockaway school in charge of such a troubled school in the first place? Why make this guy an "empowerment principal?"

Lots of questions, few answers.

... As an example of how political the report cards can be, Brooklyn Technical High School, arguably one of the best schools in the city, originally got a C on its report card. When the school complained, the DOE acknowledged that it had not entered all of the August graduation data and upgraded the school to a B. This week, U.S. News and World Report named the school as one of the top 100 schools in the nation. How can 23 percent of the schools in the city be "better" than that? It makes one wonder.

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