2008-06-20 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

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

Nobody asked me, but … There were so many complaints about last year's inaugural school report cards, particularly from high performing schools, that the Department of Education (DOE) has announced that the program will get a facelift next year that officials hope will quiet the critics. Those report cards graded schools mostly on educational progress, disregarding the fact that lots of schools had high-performing students with Level 4 scores and no place to improve on the present testing system. In addition, schools with large populations of English Language Learners and special education students believed that the process unfairly denigrated the schools because of those programs,

where progress is traditionally in small increments. Under

the changes, schools will get four grades rather than one. "It's about making the most accurate comparison we can across schools that have different characteristics," a school spokesperson said. Teachers, however, continue to raise the issue of grading schools primarily on standardized test scores. "The kids need to be wellrounded. We can't turn out a generation of test-takers," a union official said. "We need to send thoughtful citizens into the world."

… When the DOE announced that it would reward principals who ran successful schools, teachers and others warned that it would not be easy to choose the principals that would get the extra bucks. It turns out that the naysayers were right. One Brooklyn principal whose school is so low performing that it will be closed in September and reorganized is being rewarded with a $15,000 bonus, and another who was removed from his school under charges of mismanagement will receive a $5,500 bonus from the DOE. Four principals whose schools earned an F grade on the past report card cycle received bonuses ranging from $10 to $15,000. The DOE defends the bonuses, stating that the schools posted scores that were high enough to meet the requirements for the bonus, but did not show enough improvement to meet the benchmarks for a higher report card grade. If you believe that, or even understand that, I have a bridge you might want to buy.

… DOE officials have moved to fire a teacher blamed for a student boycott against the number of both standardized and practice tests they had to take each year. The students at a Brooklyn intermediate school all handed in blank test documents on a threehour practice standardized social studies test a few weeks ago. The teacher was sent to the local rubber room to think about his transgressions, but the kids raise a valid question that many teachers raise as well. That question is, "how many tests are too many tests?" The corollary of that question is, of course, "how can we educate kids if all we do is teach them what is on the test and then how to take the test?" I am not urging that we do away with all standards. I am arguing that, in a race to meet the artificial standards, we are throwing education out the window.

… The DOE has made David Salkin the poster boy for how hard it is to fire teachers. Salkin, who reportedly taught in PS 197 in Rockaway, had taught for only five years before his principal decided that he was incompetent and could not control his class. In 2005, he was dumped in the rubber room for incompetence. The DOE said that it then took 2 ½ years for him to be fired. In the meanwhile, he received tenure and continued to draw his salary, a total of $169,000 over the three years it took to get rid of him. Only ten teachers were axed for incompetence last year, something the DOE says proves its point that it is too difficult to get rid of incompetent teachers. Salkin's case raised another point, however. Was he really incompetent, or did the principal want to get rid of him for another reason. Believe it or not, that happens often in today's DOE. Teachers are dumped into the rubber room because they are too senior and the principal wants to dump their high salary. They are dumped into the rubber room for union activity. They are dumped into the rubber room because the principal wants their job for a crony or a relative. The process that took more than two years is important. I understand that from personal experience. We had no rubber rooms when I was teaching, but a school board member once tried to have me fired for incompetence or transferred from a Rockaway school because of what I wrote about him in The Wave. Today, he would have had no problem getting rid of me, and I would have disappeared into the rubber room, never to be seen in a school again.

… Speaking of the rubber rooms, there are no supervisors sitting around cleaning their fingernails all day. Despite the fact that many supervisors are charged with wrongdoing and with corporal punishment of students, they are allowed to remain in their schools while the charges are being investigated. Why the difference be- tween teachers and administrators? You'll have to ask the DOE.

… After my last school column, I received email from a teacher who is assigned to a school with fewer than ten students. Despite the small roster, the school has a principal, an assistant principal, four regular teachers and five teachers assigned to the teacher reserve. There are also one full-time and one part-time guidance counselors, a school secretary, a part time payroll secretary, a para, a dean and a part time student activities coordinator. Now, despite the fact that the school, one of the mayor's new small schools, got an excellent performance review, it is being closed down in September. That is typical of how the DOE does business.

… A statistic to ponder when you think about standardized tests and what the total focus on the testing process has done to remove other subjects such as physical education, science and social studies from the school schedule. In 1991, nearly half of the kids in America took gym each day. Now, that figure is 3.8 percent. In New York City, students were mandated to take gym three times a week, but now that mandate is disregarded and many students get the physical activity only once each week.

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