2008-02-01 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

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

Nobody asked me, but … the State Education Department has instructed DOE Officials that the principal of Susan Wagner High School in Staten Island will not be allowed to have any involvement with the administration of Regents exams in his building. The state also ordered two AP's, including the principal's wife, from getting involved in the testing as well. Those moves were due to a cheating scandal, pointed out by the school's teachers, last year. What I don't understand is that despite the scandal and the fact that the state has removed the three from taking any part in this year's exam, there has been no punishment for any of the three arising out of that scandal, outside of removing them from the Regents exam process. At the time, the principal, Gary Giordano, threatened teachers who told of his improprieties last year.

… All city workers who belong to either GHI or HIP - active and retired both, got letters from their health plan this week telling them that the merger of the two health care giants was moving along and that the new partnership would move to leave the public sector and move to private, for-profit status. The letter attempted to tell the employees what a great thing the merger and privatization would be for them and their families. If you believe that, I have a few bridges you might want to buy. The new company, to be called "EmblemHealth, Inc.," would be interested in only one thing, and it isn't your health care. Instead, the driving force will be profits, and we all know what that means. The UFT seems to be buying into their bologna, but everybody who now gets his or her health care from either GHI or HIP should get on the horn to the local state legislators, both in the Assembly and in the Senate, and tell them how much you hate the plan. The life you save may literally be your own - or your child's.

… Following up on our mayor's plan to pay school kids for "doing the right thing," the schools in an Atlanta (Georgia) suburb are now going to pay students who need help to go to an after school tutorial program. Students in Fulton County will earn approximately $8 an hour for attending the extra classes, and will then be paid a bonus for doing well on their tests.

… You have to hand it to Assemblyman Mark Weprin for bursting the DOE's bubble in a big way. There were all the big shots at a DOE news conference in a Bayside school, crowing about the "Excellence Awards" that would be given to schools that got an A on their progress report and the top score of "Well Developed" on their peer review, when Weprin stepped to the microphone. Every other speaker, beginning with the Chancellor, had extolled the program and the schools that got the awards. Weprin, however, wasn't buying it. He used his turn in the spotlight to bemoan how the school system was turning into little more than a shill for the Kaplan test-prep company. "Too much focus is on trying to get the right answer on tests and not enough focus on, in my opinion, learning," Weprin told the stunned crowd. "And a good teacher doesn't just teach how to get the right answers. A good teacher inspires, and a lot of that is being lost in our schools." Weprin's got my vote. I just wish Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, who sits on the education committee, believed the same thing.

… The UFT is not supporting a group of city teachers who filed suit against the DOE, demanding that the "rubber rooms" be closed down for good. You know about the rubber rooms, the place to which teachers are sent when their principals no longer want then in their buildings. Technically, the teachers are there awaiting disciplinary hearings for violations ranging from sexual assault to insubordination, but so few teachers are actually ever formally charged and so few hearings are actually ever held that the rooms are holding cells awaiting the death or resignation of the teachers assigned there. The suit alleges that the rubber rooms are "part of a scheme to discriminate against experienced teachers and reducing salaries by forcing teachers to quit or be fired." UFT President Randi Weingarten says that she is not supporting the teachers because she's working with the DOE to address the problems in other ways. Sure she is. There are teachers who have been languishing in the local rubber room in Long Island City for two or three years for nothing more than telling a risqué joke in their school's teacher's lounge.

… The DOE has cancelled the first round of scheduled citywide science tests for third and sixth graders, opting instead to give a trial test to a very small sample of schools. The DOE says that the cancellation was due to the fact that some schools would not be prepared because the transition to its new curriculum was not as smooth as it thought it would be. Many teachers, however, believe that the tests were cancelled because the DOE knows that students who get only two periods of science a week because of the push for language arts and mathematics test prep, would not do well on the test and would therefore embarrass the DOE and the mayor.

… Last year, 1,300 eighth graders were held back from high school because they did not meet the required standards, which admittedly were lax. This year, however, the mayor has decided to employ new standards, a move that could see as many as 18,000 held back at the end of the eighth grade. Starting next year, students who bomb the standardized math or ELA tests, or who fail one of the four major courses, will not be allowed to move on to high school. It's about time, but it's going to cause a large crowding problem in already overcrowded middle school and K- 8 schools.

The Mayor plans to cut funding for schools in the coming year at the same time that he continues to hire consultants and administrators at Tweed Courthouse. Bloomberg says that he must have the new people and pay them large salaries because "it's important to have the right people in those positions and to retain them." On the other hand, it's good for school budgets to be cut because "It's healthy to go and say let's cut a little bit and force the principals and the teachers and the administrators to say, is this program worth it?"

To my mind, the mayor's actions indicate more than anything else why an educator, rather than a businessman, should be running the school system. Business people believe that their CEO's and the toadies who tell them "yes" when they want to hear it are more important than the people who actually do the work, who are considered expendable and interchangeable by management types.

... In the 1960's, when the dreaded Board of Examiners still existed, people who wanted to become principals had to undergo a strict testing and interview process. The requirement was that they had to have time as teachers and assistant principals before they could become teachers, and the written test they had to take required months of study. Now, principals come from Tweed with no prior experience either as teachers or administrators. Superintendents can hire virtually anybody they want. Bloomberg says that he wants to change that by setting up a "pool" of candidates for the job. What many want is a guarantee they will have experience.

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