2010-04-09 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

New York State Was Right To Say ‘No’ To Duncan
Commentary By Howard Schwach

There are times when you just have to say no, and that time has come and gone. New York State did not win in the first “Race to the Top” contest that would have provided the state’s schools with lots of money in return for following Arne Duncan’s liberal school agenda that includes more charter schools and tying teacher pay to student performnce.

Neither of those things is either doable or desirable, at least to my mind, and I have been involved with education ever since 1965, when I came out of the U.S. Navy and began teaching at Junior High School 198 in Arverne.

Duncan seems to think that bribery and coercion work best, but I can’t blame him, because Mayor Michael Bloom berg thinks along the same lines.

Both Bloomberg and Duncan are wrong. There was a lot of money involved in the “Race to the Top” application process – more than $4.3 billion. That’s not chump change.

And, all a state had to do to get a chunk of the money was to walk hand in hand with Duncan and his ideas right into the promised land of educational success.

To get the money, states had to get a maximum number of points by showing that there was a clear consensus among teacher’s unions and school districts that Duncan’s brave new world is wonderful, when it is really Oz.

The state, in order to rack up points, had to promise to close “failing” schools and build more charter schools in their place; to improve training for both teachers and supervisors; and to create what the feds call a “data-driven instructional system” that ties student achievement to teacher salary.

Except perhaps for the training module, there is nothing there that is new or appetizing, and the state was right to balk at the clarion call to get the money at all costs.

Because we did not toe the Duncan liberal line, we came in 15th out of 16 finalists. The winners were Tennessee and Delaware, two states that will apparently do anything to bring home the bacon.

Why should we have told Duncan to take his bribe money and shove it?

First of all, beyond Bloomberg’s mantra that the UFT has to go and that charter schools are wonderful, there is no real evidence that the latter is true.

Sure, some charter schools do better than local public schools, but many do not. To close public programs and replace them with charters does nobody any good, with the exception of the politicians that fund them and the forprofit corporations such as Victory Schools that partner with their nonpaid boards, including the boards of our two local charters, the Peninsula Preparatory Academy in Arverne and the Merrick Academy Charter School in Jamaica, both of which were founded by State Senator Malcolm Smith, who pushed a bill to double the number of charters in the state.

Secondly, tying teacher pay to student outcome has never worked, and it has been tried in a myriad of places.

For one thing, the playing field is not level enough to make up one criterion that would fit all.

Take a look at Rockaway. The teachers at the Scholars’ Academy work with kids who are all at high level three or level 4, the top students.

They go through the day actually tea ching, and their kids achieve at high levels because they came to the school at high levels.

At many other Rockaway schools, the teachers work with kids who are immigrants and illiterate in both their home language and English. There are special needs students that require a high level of care. There are a myriad of problems and it takes a fantastic teacher to get those kids to take achievement baby steps.

Who is the better teacher? Which of the teachers deserves higher pay? Not the teachers at Scholars’. Yet, they will consistently be paid more despite the city’s attempt to level the field through the use of developing “cohorts,” schools with similar populations for the purposes of rating the schools and rating the teachers.

In addition, teaching was never meant to be a competitive business. It should be collegial. If I were to develop the secret to teaching kids to read, would I share it with other teachers if I were going to earn more by using my secret weapon? Of course not.

So, trying to bribe New York to adopt Duncan’s (and Obama’s) radical ideas, did not work, and I am glad for that.

Bribes do not work.

Bloomberg found that out recently, when the results of his “groundbreaking” and “much-heralded” three-year attempt to bribe poor families to “do the right thing” showed that those who were bribed did not do better than those where were not bribed on a number of indicators.

The plan, the first of its kind in the nation, gave parents payments for things like going to the dentist or holding down a full-time job.

Kids got the green for attending school regularly or passing a Regents exam. In other words, they got paid for doing things they should have done in the first place. At the time, I editorialized that intrinsic rewards were better than extrinsic rewards like the bribes, and that the plan would most likely fail. It did. The school kids who participated in the program and were paid from private funds did not perform better in school than those who were not paid off.

Parents who were paid to go to the dentist or to take their kids for a medical check-up did those things no more often than those were not paid.

Bloomberg said that the program was not a failure because he tried.

What a cop-out. It is clear that bribery does not work. I wonder what comes next.

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