The folks at more than a few New York City schools are not happy this week.
Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have graded almost all of the 1400. Three out of 5 got A's or B's. But the rest, as Desi Arnaz used to say on "I Love Lucy," have some "splainin" to do. For example, to the parents of the children they are failing to prepare to compete for jobs even someone can do without a college degree, but which do require that one be able to read and do some math.
Predictably, many schools are crying foul. The grades are based to a large extent on improvement in test scores in reading and math. "Too narrow." "Punitive."
But to situate these plaints in context, let's do a "You Are There" in one Manhattan public school classroom I have observed, serving a humble population of brown-skinned kids.
No one knows how to make the students do something as simple as zip it and pay attention. One student takes the occasion to offer his assessment of the gluteal region of the teacher. Another one doesn't even want to sit down, and his jolly antics suck up time for teaching reading skills. Yet there are no procedures for getting him out of the classroom.
The administrators' attitude is "deal with it."
And more than a few of these kids, in their mid-teens, cannot really read. They can read signs, or do text messaging in a "C U after class :)" vein. But no one has been taught how to teach them to read in the sense that people reading this column know as reading.
Have you ever known someone who couldn't really read?
I was once at a restaurant with someone who the Baltimore school system had denied training in how to read beyond the functional level. Faced with a busy menu, she could decode the dense-packed text only fitfully, with knitted brow.
It reminded me of grinding my way through, say, "Anna Karenina" in Russian. I'm a linguist: I can pull it offbut only at a laborious pace, steady but slow. Relocated to Moscow, I could only hold down a menial job.
Upon which we return to "punitive." Attention must be paid to a school system leaving people already starting out with less than sterling opportunities without basic survival equipment.
The tests are not perfect measures of how hard a school is trying. But the question for those lambasting Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein is the following: What better alternative do you have?
One senses that the teacher's union feels that the solution is paying teachers more. But besides that, New York City schoolteachers are not exactly paid a pittance, precisely how would upping teachers' salaries improve the school I described?
The problem there, as in so many schools, is not how much money is put in, but what is done with itas well as how teachers are taught to teach, which falls outside of salary and funding issues entirely.
Even the head of the National Education Association, Reg Weaver, knows this. Last week at an inaugural address in Tulsa, Okla., he called for improving teacher training, noting that as for lesser-trained teachers, "They're not going to send them to teach where Ray-Ray, Little Willie, Little Man, Too-Sweet, and Chiquita are in the classroom."
Big surprise: The education school crowd is dogpiling on Mr. Weaver for "stereotyping" in appealing to that vividly rhetorical suite of names.
But Mr. Weaver is on to something. I'd be interested to hear an argument that if said teachers were paid more they would teach better.
Which means that our task is to rate the schools not on how much teachers are paid, but on how well they are doing.
Note also that airing these grades is a way of alerting parents, in an immediate way, that they need to get involved in the workings of the schools their kids attend. Folks of all political stripes wish parents would hop to it in this waywell, here we are. Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein have offered a constructive strategy. The naysayers have not.
It reminds me of New York City's infrastructural "Master Builder" Robert Moses, who once said in regard to his critics that they "have an easy time broadcasting from their ivory towers, amplifying catcalls and Bronx cheers," but that in the end, "they build nothing."
Say what you want about the lesser aspects of Moses' legacy. But in his day, with the clotted web of obstacles to channeling automobile traffic and creating middle-income housing in this great city, without his single-minded sui generis administrative energy, nothing significant would have happened at all.
In which light we must ask: if Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein had not taken the New York City school system by the horns, where would it be now?
Let's face itwe'd be treading water as we had been for 30 years, with the teacher's union preserving its prerogatives and jaded, unmonitored administrators and teachers leaving people like my old friend mentally winded by a restaurant menu. Ergo Bravo, Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein.
The school I described, by the way, got a C.
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