2009-03-20 / Columnists

School Scope

Clueless David Brooks
Commentary By Norman Scott

I actually like some of the things moderate conservative David Brooks says - at times. But when he can be so clueless about education, can you believe in anything he writes? In his March 13 NY Times column, "No Picnic for Me Either," Brooks' confusion is evident in his opening words:

In his education speech this week, Barack Obama retold a by-now familiar story. When he was a boy, his mother would wake him up at 4:30 to tutor him for a few hours before he went off to school. When young Barry complained about getting up so early, his mother responded: "This is no picnic for me either, Buster."

That experience was the perfect preparation for reforming American education because it underlines the two traits necessary for academic success: relationships and rigor. The young Obama had a loving relationship with an adult passionate about his future. He also had at least one teacher, his mom, disinclined to put up with any crap.

Wait a minute. Obama's mother was also his teacher? Brooks confuses the essential point right here. It was his parent, not his teachers who made the difference. The so-called education reformers talk about great teachers out of one side of their mouths while disrespecting the mass of teachers out of the other side. People who talk about total solutions to the problems in education and say they must include attacking the social problems in the lives of kids (which include parental and home life issues) are always accused of making excuses. Sadly, Obama and Brooks have joined the chorus.

The phony education distorters who have hijacked the word "reformers" are finding that as they take over more of the public school system, they discover it will take more than merit pay or charter schools. They themselves start making excuses. (Just wait till charter school chain KIPP takes over entire swaths of schools and can't hide the warts.) Like, why does Joel Klein have to close so many schools that have been under his control for 7 years?

He and former Chicago schools head, now Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, talk about the need for charters to promote innovation. Klein and Duncan have run entire school systems for 7 years. What stopped them from innovating in the public schools?

Brooks' next paragraph takes us from confusion to total bewilderment. We've spent years working on ways to restructure schools, but what matters most is the relationship between one student and one teacher.

You ask a kid who has graduated from high school to list the teachers who mattered in his life, and he will reel off names. You ask a kid who dropped out, and he will not even

understand the question. Relationships like that are beyond his experience.

Okay, so let's get this straight. The most important factor in graduating from high school depends on a relationship with a teacher? Did Brooks actually read Obama's book? Can he cite even one teacher Obama credits with having a transforming influence on him?

I went to school in the East NY section of Brooklyn where many of our parents didn't graduate from high school — my mom didn't even go to elementary school and could barely read or write and most of us couldn't name a teacher who made such a great difference. In fact, we had quite a few lousy teachers — more than great teachers. Yet, my mom nudged me as much as Obama's mom did him.

But let's look at Brooks' other clueless point - that kids who drop out had no relationships with teachers. He should check the letters and phone calls I received over the years from my former dropouts, some from state penitentiaries. My fault, I guess. Or maybe Brooks should have joined me at some of the funerals I attended for former students who were slaughtered in drug wars.

In fact, I found the future dropouts in my 4-6 grade classes were the most needy of a parent surrogate, and they were the ones I often grew closest to. The kids with stable families looked at their teachers as, well, teachers. Some were inspired.

One teacher in my school took a few favorite third- graders to Alvin Ailey and one of the kids swore that day she would become an Alvin Ailey dancer — and she did. I had that same child in the sixth grade and believe me, she would have been successful no matter what. Her mom was a nurse, one of the few students in my schools whose parents had middle class jobs.

Schwach and The Wave on TV Manhattan Neighborhood Network Cable public access TV ran a segment my partner Mark Rosenhaft and I produced and edited featuring Howie Schwach and The Wave for the show Active Aging, which features people who take on second careers after retirement.

Howie certainly did that, going from teacher to managing editor. Interviews with Wave publisher Susan Locke and The Wave's Vivian Carter are also featured.

The program ran with a segment on famed folk singer Pete Seeger and was hosted by former WQXR legend Lloyd Moss, who closes the program with, "We hope the inspiring glimpses into the lives of both Pete Seeger and Howard Schwach will help dispel the myth that getting old means getting stale." Amen.

We are following up with a feature on another Rockaway stalwart, Rockaway Theatre Company's Artistic Director John Gilleece. And speaking of the RTC …

RTC's "Proof" proves one thing. If you have spent a hundred bucks a ticket for a Broadway show, had dinner for two for another hundred, and spent another $30 for parking, and you missed "Proof" - $15, free parking, you have got to be nuts. I saw the play on Broadway with one of my favorite actresses, [pant, pant] Mary Louise Parker, who won a Tony in 2001, and believe me, the RTC production didn't miss a beat.

Co-directed by novice directors Susan Corning (whose acting has wowed us) and triple threat Frank Caiati, who played the male lead (and has also had the dubious task of teaching acting to the likes of moi), the play was done to perfection.

As I always like to point out, Frank graduated from Brooklyn College last year and is all of 23 years old. Ya think we may be hearing more from him some day?

For those who missed it, the next time you shell out over 300 bucks to see a show on Broadway, maybe with Frank acting or directing - na, na, na, na.

As Brown's Hardware's Noni Signoretti put it so aptly in her letter to The Wave last week, "…. stop crying about what Rockaway doesn't have and start celebrating what we do have. The Rockaway Theatre Company makes [the Rockaway neighborhood] that much better."

Kudos to retired teacher Mary O'Leary for her excellent letter in last week's Wave. "The NYC Board of Education is perpetrating a hoax.… Every time I see Joel Klein or Bloomberg smiling and congratulating themselves on our students progress, it makes my blood boil."

If your blood is boiling, check out my blog, where I chronicle the Tweed (and UFT) follies while also tracking the fight back by teachers and parents that is just beginning to grow, stories that will reduce your blood pressure.

Norm blogs daily at http://ednotesonline. blogspot.com. His email is normsco@gmail.com.

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