2008-11-07 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

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

Nobody asked me, but … Here's the deal. The Department of Education went out of its way to recruit "teaching fellows" from other industries, training them for a few months and then throwing them into city classrooms. The problem is, at least in 120 cases, there were no classrooms for them to teach in. Now, after heavily recruiting them, taking them from their former careers and training them, the DOE is planning on firing them because they can't find permanent jobs. What a way to run a railroad.

… The DOE, better known as the gang that can't shoot straight, has done it again. Each region was running its own gifted program, and doing a pretty good job at it. Then the "experts" at the DOE decided that it was time for more diversity in the special programs and that they had better step in to insure that diversity. They set up a citywide testing plan and put it into effect.

The problem is, two years later, statistics show that there is far less diversity in the programs now than there was prior to their intervention. In fact, there has been a 50 percent plunge in enrollment in all of the programs and a steep decline in the number of minority students in gifted programs. The problem seems to be that the DOE prizes standardized tests over all and refuses to use any other criteria for entrance into the programs. Under the regions, teacher recommendation and local testing was the key. What does the DOE say about the drop in diversity?

"We won't compromise our standards and dilute our programs," was the official comment.

… What's important to the DOE? Certainly not classroom supplies, as proved by the cut in "Teachers' Choice" material this year (the DOE wanted to do away with the program entirely, but the UFT negotiated a smaller cut). What's important? Moving paper from one place to another. In fact, the DOE spent $5,000,000 on courier services last year for private courier services to move testing material and data from headquarters to schools and back. Recent audits show that the city agency spends $10,000 per day to move the testing material from schools to headquarters.

When I was involved in the schools, assistant principals or teachers brought the tests to the district headquarters and they were picked up there by DOE employees driving their own cars to be taken to the computer sites. The words "send it by courier" were simply not in our vocabulary.

By the way, the DOE's Office of Accountability, people who never go anywhere near a classroom, went from 19 employees in 2004 to 79 today, and they are all making big bucks.

What a brave new world.

… Here are some more statistics that prove that our mayor, who has staked his legacy on improving schools, does not deserve four more years of screwing up the public school system. In the last six years of his administration, Rudy Giuliani, who was not known as an education mayor, created 15,440 new seats in city schools, leaving them still vastly overcrowded, but giving a little solace to some Queens communities.

During the first six years of mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration, our education mayor created 10,895 new school seats, and most of them were created by breaking large high schools into smaller schools and counting them as new seats.

More smoke and mirrors.

Today, more than a third of the city's elementary and middle school students and more than half of the high school students are in overcrowded classrooms. Not exactly something upon on which to build a legacy. One watchdog agency says that the city needs 29,751 new seats to end overcrowding and 114,551 new seats to meet the city's own class size goals. And, the DOE continues to tell The Wave that there are plenty of empty seats in Rockaway, despite the building boom that is going on all over the peninsula.

… When I was the attendance coordinator at MS 202 in South Ozone Park, the rule was that a student could be left back for a combination of transgressions, including a ten percent absence rate - 18 days out of 180.

By the time I left the system in 2001, however, the ten percent rule had changed to allow for any absence notes from family that would ameliorate the absence. Now, under Bloomberg's DOE, it seems that all bets are off. Statistics recently released by the department under Freedom Of Information Law (FOIL) request from the New York Times, shows that more than 90,000 of the city's elementary school students - roughly 20 percent - missed at least a month of classes during the last school year.

In the high schools, where the problem is the worst, a quarter of the students missed 38 or more days last year. That's roughly 30 percent of the school year, and most of them were not held back. Of course, the city says that the attendance rate has actually increased under its control. The DOE does that by spinning the statistics to show less of a problem by counting only those students for whom a "407 form" is generated. That form is generated when a student misses ten days in a row (in my time, it was four) or 20 days in one month. So, if a kid misses every other day of school, that kid would not be reported as a truant under the DOE's system.

See how statistics can be used to spin the story?

Once again, for our education mayor, the statistics are the only things that count.

… An elaborate new $80,000,000 data and information system, which was to be in place for September of this year is nowhere close to being ready to go even for the coming February term. The system was supposed to allow staff and parents to see how their students were doing and to track one school's progress against all the other schools. After all, measurement and accountability are all that count to the mayor and the DOE. So, they spend nearly $1 billion on the program and it is a flop. What else did you expect? Perhaps the program needs even more consultants and city tax money to fix it up. Perhaps we should just cut more education programs to pay for it.

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