2008-12-12 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

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

Nobody asked me, but … Despite the fact that times are tough for next year's school budget, with lots of cuts contemplated at the school level, the Department of Education continues to increase spending on "accountability" issues. Salaries at the Office of Accountability (an office that did not even exist prior to Bloomberg and Klein) now eat up $25.7 million dollars. That amount accounts for only 80 positions, so do the math. Those people are earning far more than teachers and they don't add anything to actual classroom education. In fact, they detract from education by forcing teachers to teach from rote lessons and to teach to the test.

Another $81 million was spent for a new computer tracking system that nobody is able to use and probably won't be able to use for a few more years. Another $29.3 million was spent on per-session money to teachers who did overtime to manage and enter the data necessary to keep the program going. Another $48.4 million was spent on interim tests, the practice tests necessary to insure that students do well on the real tests. And, finally, $3.8 million is spent each year on the meaningless school report card process.

Add it all up and decide for yourself whether that money would be better spent if it were used for classroom instruction, reduced class size and teacher training.

… The complete dependence on highstakes testing has once again led to a cheating scandal, one that mirrors a similar scandal in Rockaway more than 15 years ago. At that time, several PS 197 administrators, teachers and ancillary personnel got together and erased incorrect responses on a reading test, changing them to correct answers.

There were so many erasures, however, that a computer program kicked out the results and an investigation revealed the cheating.

This week a Bronx administrator did much the same thing with an algebra Regents exam with much the same results. I do not believe that cheating should be tolerated, but when you tell a person that his or her entire career rests on a test result over which the person has no control, you are going to get cheating and I would really be surprised if the Bronx incident was not the tip of a massive iceberg that could sink the entire testing program.

… Want to know why graduation rates are up in city high schools? Bloomberg and Klein have been trumpeting the small rise in graduation rates as a real triumph of their stewardship of the system.

The case of Darrius Spann, a former student at Boys and Girls High School, is a prime example of what happens to at-risk kids that the DOE wants out of the system so that they can keep their numbers up.

Spann first arrived at the school in 2003. He missed classes and was late several times and was suspended. He became the type of student who, in the old days, would have languished on for several years, ruining the graduation statistic.

When he returned from his suspension, however, he found that he was on a reduced class schedule of five periods a day rather than the traditional eight periods. DOE officials call that a "truncated schedule" that is often imposed to help the student for short periods of time.

In this case, it was the first step in forcing him out of the school before he became a negative statistic.

Weeks later, his schedule was shortened again, to three periods a day, even though he had no problem with the five period program. When the next semester came along, he found himself assigned to the auditorium along with 100 other students each day. He had no classes.

From 7:30 to 10:30 each morning he filled out worksheets and then went home. Then, the school declared that he was not making the proper educational progress and assigned him to an educational center for "troubled youth." At the center, bored and without hope, he was once again suspended and he dropped out.

No more problems for the school, because Spann no longer was its problem.

See how it works?

… The Department of Education was ecstatic when it reported that school report card grades had gone up across the board, with only two percent of the city's schools earning a failing grade this year.

Turns out, that the DOE was spinning that statistic just as it does with graduation rates and absence statistics. A posting on the DOE's website told principals to keep surveys rating their schools away from "toxic persons," apparently thought to be students and parents who might lower the school's rating on the "Environment" section of the report card and therefore the final letter grade. Principals were also urged to have school staffers help parents not only by translating the survey, but by "helping them fill it out," and to have the students fill the surveys out "after a fun activity," supposedly so that they would then feel better about the school when they completed the survey. In some schools, including at least two in Rockaway, classes that had the best rate of filling out the surveys "correctly" were given pizza parties and more time on the school playground. According to published reports, some principals announced that schools with bad survey results would lose money and in several cases, principals and other staffers actually changed survey results to raise their scores.

… After devoting eight years and several hundred millions of dollars to improving public education, Bill and Melinda Gates have found that what they have been doing does not actually work. Their foundation hoped to show the way to preparing at least 80 percent of low income and minority kids for college.

They were at the forefront of the "small school" movement in New York City, designed to bring quick results. Now, Gates says, "Simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often does not generate the gains we were hoping for." Far Rockaway High School take note. I hate to say I told you so, but I have, many times over.

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