Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Howard Schwach on Al Shanker

From the Editor's Desk
Back To School Edition
Commentary By Howard Schwach

The Wave

Now that we are back to school, there are many issues that have to be addressed about the "success" that Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein have brought to the city's public school system.

First of all, there are three ways to increase scores on standardized tests, such as the ELA, the math tests and the state's Regents exams, to give the appearance that students are learning more.

The first is to actually teach the content area and skills needed to understand and pass the test, as the city schools have been for years.

The second way is to forget about everything but the tests and to teach only the content area and skills necessary to pass the tests, which is what the city has been doing for the past two years.

The third, also apparently a city priority is to make the tests easier, lower the passing grade and then insure that only those who have a good shot at passing the test actually take it.

The city and state have been heavily into the third option, something that has only recently come to light, although school staff have known about it for two years or more.

Where is Al Shanker when we need him most?

One of the funniest lines in movie history came in a Woody Allen movie, "Sleepers," where Allen was asked what started the wars that led to the destruction of many nations.

"Al Shanker got the bomb," he answered.

That was an insider joke that drew a big laugh in New York City, but probably not in the hinterlands, because Shanker was the first president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the union that represents the city's teachers.

I knew Shanker because I was a chapter chair at the schools where I taught and I spent some time speaking with him.

In one case, he even called me at home to ask me (it was more of orders from headquarters) to stop private teaching activities during the long strike in 1968.

The point is that Shanker was very liberal and very interested in education. He would have never let the UFT get away with some of its more recent activities and acquiescence to Department of Education foolishness had he still been alive.

He believed in educating students to become citizens. He did not believe in educating students on how to take a test.

Shanker once enunciated his core belief for education in New York City at a meeting of chairpersons.

He said that schools were places where children learn to be active, engaged citizens in their democracy and where teachers must be free to exercise professional judgment to do what is best for the children in their care.

How far we've come from that core belief.

We no longer teach social studies or citizenship because that gets in the way of teaching test-taking skills. Students no longer get an education on how democracy works, on what our Constitution stands for, on how our three-branch government works, or how important it is to a democracy for each member to make an informed vote.

No longer do teachers have the right to exercise their professional judgment on any classroom-related topic. Everything is dictated from Tweed Courthouse; from the type of rug the kids have to sit on, to textbooks, to providing teaching texts to elementary teachers.

Shanker would have fought the mayor and the chancellor. He called one three-month strike over community control run amok. He might well have called another over the lack of education going on in this city.

The Daily News thinks that it broke the story of dumbed-down tests, but it has been going on for some time.

I once wrote questions for the Grade 11 American History Regents Test. I went to Albany for a workshop that taught how to write succinct, difficult questions.

Those that were thought of as too easy were pushed from the Regents table to other, easier state tests such as the Regent's Competency Test (RCT).

Three years later, the annual workshop given by the state education department were already focusing on making the questions easier, giving more students a "chance to excel," as they put it.

Two years ago, the State Board of Regents changed the passing score on those tests from 65 to 50. How to get more kids to meets standards? Make the standards lower.

Last year, at Beach Channel High School, a student was found taking a regent's test for a younger sibling.

The student who took the test was reprimanded and suspended for three days.

The student for whom the test was taken received no sanction whatsoever.

At the Scholar's Academy last year, parents of eighth grade students received letters in June saying that their students would not be allowed to take the coming Math A Regents because there was little chance that they would pass the test.

In fact, the Scholars' Academy is a good case in point for what is going on in our schools.

That magnet school draws a population of sixth graders that is already performing in the high range - high 3's and 4's - on standardized tests otherwise they would not have been admitted to the school in the first place. Yet, they spend the months of September, October, November and December for ten periods a week going over the Kaplan test prep material in English and Mathematics.

Why? Because the school has a public relations goal of becoming one of the "best" schools in the city, rather than a goal of providing the best education to their already high-performing students.

Some parents, however, less concerned with test scores, would rather see more sophisticated incorporation of content area skills and understandings for their middle-schoolers.

I always believed that a child should be given the chance to fail. To keep kids from taking the test just to insure that the number of kids passing the test will be impressive is not education, it is statistics.

Every child taking the class should also take the Regents. To keep kids from the test because they might fail is just plain wrong.

Kids who are already performing above level should not be burdened with test prep to the exclusion of content area material.

Education has become a numbers game rather than an education game.

Principals get a bonus if their numbers are up, even if the majority of kids are still failing.

Teachers working with at-risk kids are often excoriated, given Uratings and fired or transferred because their numbers do not move sufficiently from one year to the next.

Schools are called "failing," even though the great majority of their students are doing well in school, because one group - typically special ed or English language learners - are not statistically up to snuff.

Kids are moved ahead despite poor test scores, because they do well on their "alternative methods of grading" - portfolios and the like. Other kids are held back or made to suffer intensive courses of study because they are poor test-takers and do not do well on the standardized tests. Teachers know who they are, but are powerless to do anything about it.

We need another Al Shanker. A person who believes strongly in education rather than test scores and believes as strongly in democracy, not in isolating children in singleissue or single-language schools.

What we need is some good basic education rather than high-stakes testing.

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