2008-05-09 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

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

Nobody Asked Me, But … For the last several years, there has been a large group of excessed teachers, called the Daily Teacher Reserve (DTR), in our schools. These experienced, competent teachers were excessed when their schools were closed (for reorganization) or their programs were ended. Many teachers from Far Rockaway High School and PS 225 found themselves acting as subs after ten or fifteen years of successful teaching experience. Why? With principals controlling their own budgets and no oversight from a district office, many of our school leaders decided that cheaper was better than experienced. They could hire two brand new teachers for the same price as one older, experienced teacher, so why spend the money? The Daily News got it all wrong last week when it argued that these DTR teachers are all incompetent and should not be hanging around, eating up public dollars. The fact is, they cost too much and many principals care only about making their budget numbers and increasing test scores. Education? Forget about it.

Most city elementary and middle schools no longer comply with the state education law that mandates three 42-minute period gym classes each week. In fact, many schools no longer provide any gym periods for its students. The Public Advocate randomly checked 100 grade and middle schools by posing as parents, calling schools on the telephone to ask about sports and gym programs. Of the 93 that responded, 96 percent of the elementary schools and 88 percent of the middle schools were violating state regulations. Why? Do the math. In the middle schools, for example, there are 40 periods each week. Five of them are lunch periods, leaving 35 periods. Because of the NCLB Act and its demand for higher reading and mathematics scores, 20 of those periods are now dedicated to those subjects. In New York City, another five is taken up by test-taking skills. What does that leave for social studies, science, foreign language, art, music, technology and gym? Ten periods remain for all of those important disciplines. That's what the mayor, the chancellor and the NCLB have done to your child's education. The standardized tests have become the be-all and end-all to education in this city, and those scores have little to do with what we all think of as a classical education.

… Did you know that the State Commission on School Governance held a hearing at Queens Borough Hall last week? No? Neither did we. Perhaps it was an oversight not to let the local papers know it was scheduled. Perhaps the state commission did not want to hear what you had to say. In any case, you missed the Queens hearing. Mayoral control, which was granted in June of 2002 by Audrey Pheffer and her colleagues in the Assembly, is up for renewal in 2009. I certainly hope that the state legislators can read and realize just how bad mayoral control has been for our kids. While our students certainly learned how to take tests and particularly how to pass the two highstake standardized tests, they learned little else over the past five years. What did the Department of Education learn? How to spin statistics to make it look as if education has improved. And, after all, isn't that the most important aspect of education in this city after all?

… The story is a typical one. A principal believes that a teacher has been insubordinate. Or, the teacher has been leading a protest against the principal's inane policies. Or, the teacher has complained about the principal's promotion of incompetent cronies to out-of-the-classroom duties. Where do those teachers wind up? They all spend lots of time, sometimes up to three years in the rubber room, drawing a full salary with no possibility of doing meaningful work. In fact, the city spends $65 million a year to pay teachers in the various rubber rooms around the city. A few of them may even really deserve to be there. Most do not. My favorite is the clinician in a District 27 middle school who was a stand-up comedian at night. One day, he was telling a slightly salacious joke in the teacher cafeteria when another teacher took umbrage. She went to the principal, who asked the clinician to stop telling off-color jokes when that particular teacher was around. He was telling another joke one day when she walked into the teacher's lounge. He was reassigned to the rubber room and remained there for nearly three years until he retired. Another teacher, who pulled a kid from under a cafeteria table where the kid was grabbing the legs of girls sitting at the table, was sent to the rubber room for assault. He spent two years there. Another went to the rubber room because a young teen he had failed in his class claimed that he touched her butt. He was there for months until another teacher who was going to fail the girl was threatened that she would get him like she got the other teacher.

… One of the major initiatives started by the Department of Education when it did away with local school boards was to hire a Parent Coordinator in each school. Those coordinators were given cell phones so that parents could be in instant contact. Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum found this week that parent coordinators were often very hard to contact. Out of 100 phone calls made to randomly selected parent coordinators in each borough, 78 went unanswered, including 13 that had full voice mail boxes and would not even take a message. Of the 65 messages left by people posing as prospective parents, 46, or 71 percent were not responded to within five days.

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