2009-10-02 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

'We Have Forgotten What Good Education Is'
Commentary By Howard Schwach

I have been writing for years that increased test scores in reading and math do not necessarily mean increased education. Generally speaking, I was told that I didn't know what I was talking about.

Recently, however, with the bogus report cards that the mayor and his chief stooge put out this year, more people in the media have begun to understand the smoke that they are blowing. No less an education expert than Diane Ravitch agrees.

She writes: "The single biggest problem in American education is that no one agrees on why we educate. Faced with this lack of consensus, policy makers define good education as higher test scores. But higher test scores are not a definition of good education. Students can get higher scores in reading and mathematics yet remain completely ignorant of science, the arts, civics, history, literature and foreign languages. Why do we educate? We educate because we want citizens who are capable of taking responsibility for their lives and for our democracy. We want citizens who understand how their government works, who are knowledgeable about the history of their nation and other nations. We need citizens who are thoroughly educated in science. We need people who can communicate in other languages. We must ensure that every young person has a chance to engage in the arts. But because of our narrow-minded utilitarianism, we have forgotten what good education is."

Those of you who read this space regularly will find that familiar.

Just last week, a deputation from MS 53 in Far Rockaway came to The Wave, complaining that the school got one of the best report cards in the city (96.6 points out of 100), yet I continue to write that the school is troubled, with approximately half of its students reading either below or just at grade level (Level II).

The deputation was made up of the school's UFT chapter chairperson and its parent association president.

They presented me with letters to the editor about how great their school is and how bad all the parents and kids feel when I write bad things about the school. They were asked about art and music. Neither believed that the school had either a music or art teacher, but they would check and find out.

When I asked them how many language arts and math periods each of their students had each week, they told me that every student in the school has ten periods of reading and ten of math, a prerequisite for raising test scores. I asked them if the students had a fiveperiod a week test prep program and they agreed that the students had such a program.

I then asked them when the kids take subjects like social studies, government, science, foreign language, technology, music and art.

I reminded them that a student's program was 35 periods a week and that 25 of those were admittedly taken up by language arts, math and test prep, and leaving only 10 42-minute periods a week for all of those subjects.

They disassembled a bit, saying that those subjects were built into language arts and mathematics. They said that the lack of education in those areas wasn't their fault.

"We're only following Department of Education orders," they said.

They are right. Department of Education orders are to get test scores up at the expense of real education, as experts like Diane Ravitch (and me) well know.

New York State mandates that each student take certain subjects for a specific amount of time in specified grades.

For example, every student in middle school must take a full unit of the four major subjects each semester. A full unit means at least four periods a week. That was always the minimum requirement. Generally speaking, students take each of those subjects at least once each day.

In addition, students are required to take a full unit of foreign language before the end of the eighth grade and two periods a week of art and music in both the seventh and eighth grade. There also is a requirement that students take physical education for at least three periods a week. Health and technology are required in the eighth grade.

In years past, a typical seventh grader' s schedule looked something like this: Language Arts (7 periods), math (6) science (6), social studies (6), foreign language (2), PE (3), music or art (3) and computer (2).

Today, that same student's schedule might be language arts (10 periods), math (10), test prep (5), PE (2), science (3), social studies (3) and foreign language (2).

That schedule clearly does not meet state mandates, and I'd be willing to bet that the state regents (with the elder Chapey in her seat) have given the city a waiver that allows public schools to fudge the mandates in order to increase the reading and math scores and get the mayor reelected.

Blowing off all of the other subjects might allow for increased scores, but it also allows for far less education than in the past - say before Bloomberg took control.

That is what Ravitch and many other experts have been talking about for months, a cry in the wilderness that has largely been drowned out by Bloomberg's political advertisements that crow how much he has done for education.

If you have $30 million to spend, you can tell the big lie so often that people who don't know any better will begin to believe that lie.

In fact, all of Bloomberg's high-sounding braggadocio is built on lies.

He has not raised standards. In fact, he has lowered them in elementary and middle schools and conspired with the state to lower them on Regents exams as well. It wasn't enough to drop all education except reading and math from the school curriculum, Bloomberg had to insure that even with the extra instruction geared only for the test that kids would do better in those tests. Teaching to the test was not enough, the tests had to be easier as well.

So, Bloomberg and Klein reduced the number of correct answers necessary to achieve level 2 on the tests and then dumbed down the questions just to be sure. When teachers or test-makers create a new test, that test is normed. The test maker has to figure out how many questions will be on the test and the weight of each question. In most cases, questions are pre-tested to insure those questions test for the information desired and that they are fair and balanced.

For several years, I was one of several New York State teachers who wrote the questions for the Grade 11 U.S. History test. I have been through the process several times. There are ways of asking the questions and norming the test that make it easier or more difficult. An easy way to do this is to use fewer, easier questions and have each of the questions count for more.

At one point, a few years ago, it took nearly 30 correct answers to achieve a level 2 on the ELA tests, for example. Today, teachers tell me, it takes only 22 right answers to achieve the same level, which is why so many kids who can't read very well are getting to level 2, thereby making the mayor look like a winner.

It is all smoke and mirrors, designed to get the mayor reelected. He cares little for the teachers in the system (his drones) or the kids (the product).

To return him to office and allow him to continuing blowing smoke for another four years is unconscionable.

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