2008-11-28 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

Putting A Spin On Alice's Wonderland
Commentary By Howard Schwach

What would you say if you were told that a company was spending more money to test and track its product than it was spending actually manufacturing its product?

You would undoubtedly think that the CEO was somewhere on Mars and needed badly to be replaced.

Yet, that's what it has come to in New York City's public schools.

The Department of Education (DOE) is reportedly spending upwards of $130,000,000 a year not to educate students, but to track the performance of individual schools in the system.

That number comes from the city's Independent Budget Office, an agency that should know what's going on.

The budget office says that the money goes for things such as sophisticated student data systems and report cards that assign letter grades to schools.


That is the bad news, the report shows. The good news is that the same programs will cost only $105,000,000 next year. How much education could you buy for $130,000,000? How many classes could be reduced to a reasonable level using that money? How many new seats to reduce overcrowding could be constructed using that money? How many teachers could be trained to use new, cutting-edge curricula using that money?


Those things are not important. What is important is testing students and keeping track of those test results. That has become the be-all and end-all of education in New York City.

Isn't the monitoring necessary?

Of course it is, but there is monitoring and there is monitoring.

For example, the city has a contract with Cambridge Education, a Londonbased consulting company to visit and evaluate city schools.

The $20,000,000 contract brings British "experts" to New York City and it includes their travel, housing when they are in the city, and the cost of their meals and sundries.

I cannot believe that there are no excity principals and other supervisors who could do the same job for a lot less, and they would have the benefit of understanding what they are looking at, which the British consultants clearly do not.

The school progress reports are a perfect example of how the DOE spins its myriad of failures to look like they are successes.

This makes the chancellor and the mayor look like they are doing a great job when, in fact, their reign has reduced the amount of education going on in the system in proportion to the so-called rise in achievement factors.

Look at the report card grades. The high school reports just came out, and any school achieving a score higher than 64.2 out of 100 earns an A. I don't know about you, but when I was teaching, a student who averaged less than 65 got a failing grade, not an A.

The high school component of the Channel View School for Research, housed at Beach Channel High School, received an A grade with an overall score of 78.3, a high C by any normal standards.

Nearly 40 percent of the city's high schools received an A rating even though the citywide graduation rate sits around 50 percent.

The absolute graduation rate is not easy to find on the report cards. The number is given as graduation rate relative to other graduation rates, such as "relative to the peer horizon" and "relative to the city horizon."

You want to know how many kids passed the Regents exams? At Channel View, 61 percent passed the English Regents exam, 40.4 percent passed the Mathematics exam, 70.8 passed the Science exam, 62.3 percent passed the United States History exam and 54.4 percent passed the Global History exam.

The DOE says that those grades are good enough to earn an A.

Beach Channel High School received a C with 38.2 points out of 100. Doesn't sound like a C to me.

Sounds more like an F, but only two percent of the city's high schools got an F and you had to get less than 29.6 points to earn that lowest of grades. Since a school gets 26 points for existing, that is not asking too much.

Beach Channel's graduation rate is 46.1 percent, enough to earn it a B in that category.

Less than one percent of its students pass the English, Mathematics or Science Regents. One and a quarter percent pass the U.S History exam and .6 pass the Global History exam. That's enough for a C.

Talk about spin.

Look at the attendance statistics provided by the DOE.

At one time, any student who was absent more than four days in a row or twelve days in any one attendance period was flagged for special attention and marked as a truant.

A form 407, an attendance alert form was issued and an aide or attendance teacher had to find out what happened to the kid before he or she could "close" the form 407.

More than 18 absences a year (10 percent of 180 days) could mean that a student would be held back.

Now, a student can be absent every other day for months without touching off a form 407 report.

Absence notes can wipe out absences without any questions. A student can be absent for more than 25 percent of the school days before there is any kind of consultation with parents.

Even in the city's vaunted "small schools," set up by the mayor and the chancellor to remediate the problems of large school buildings, kids are skipping school at a record rate.

Nearly half of the small schools failed to meet their attendance goals.

The state still uses the old parameters to track the attendance rate and it shows that there is a glaring problem in the city's schools.

The DOE, however, uses the number of form 407 reports generated to see whether or not a school is meeting its goals, and that is a far easier standard than the state standard.

More spin.

The school system is morally bankrupt. It values rising scores and money over education.

Take a look at the teachers sitting around on the teacher reserve program.

The great majority of those teachers were excessed when their schools were closed or reorganized. They are good, experienced, interested teachers who cannot find a job simply because they cost a principal more from his or her budget than new teachers.

Look at the balance - one teacher at $95 thousand a year or two teachers at $35 thousand apiece.

Yet, the chancellor continues to say that those teachers are no good and that he should have the right to fire them, union contracts be damned.

Money over qualifications. Testing over education. That is what our city schools are all about.

The headline on the New York Times story the day the new high school report cards were issued says "Most High Schools Improved Their Grades This Year."

They are right. The grades are going up, but education is not. Soon, everybody will get an A no matter its Regents passage rate or its graduation rate.

Then, we will be in nirvana and Klein will move happily to Washington, D.C. as the new education guru.

What Klein knows about education, you could put into a teacup - a small teacup.

He knows lots about testing and measurement and how to spin statistics to show that you are a success when you are really a failure.

The upside would be that the city would be rid of him. The downside would be that he would screw up our state's education department as well as those of the other 49 states.

I could easily imagine him bringing in teachers from China to evaluate California schools.

Do I sound bitter? I am. After 30 years as an educator and 20 years of covering education, it is tough to sit and watch some all-knowing yahoo destroy a system that I worked so hard at for so many years.

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