What Really Matters in Schools
Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein recently announced, with much fanfare, plans for yet another top-to-bottom restructuring of the nation’s largest school system designed to dismantle the bureaucracy and shift all responsibility for educating kids onto the shoulders of principals.
This radical restructuring, the third in five years, deals almost exclusively with structure and, except for the get-tough rhetoric, does nothing about instruction. Instead, it would set schools adrift, privatize many essential education services, cut funds for successful schools, limit parental input and make it even harder for new teachers to voice their concerns for fear they will be denied tenure. It also could hurt students because of the uncertainty and instability it will cause.
Why would we engage in the most radical restructuring of the best urban school system in America without real evidence that what is being proposed works any better than what is being replaced? The only other school system in America that dismantled its central structure in this way is post-Katrina New Orleans -- and that was because of a disaster and with disastrous results.
The reorganization talks about accountability but it looks only at principals and teachers, while Governor Spitzer wants to hold chancellors, superintendents and school boards accountable as well. The governor also focuses simultaneously on instruction by requiring that districts use much of the extra state money for classroom instruction, lowering class size and universal pre-kindergarten.
Parents, students and educators care more about matters that will directly improve scholarship and social development: smaller class sizes, school safety, adequate supplies and giving teachers the professional latitude to tailor instruction to their students’ needs. Students and parents know that bureaucratic changes have little bearing on classroom interaction, which is crucial to any hopes for sustained academic improvement in our schools.
Some editorial writers want you to believe the chancellor is right in wanting to use student test scores to help determine whether teachers are granted tenure, but the truth is it will undermine the integrity and fairness of the process, deter teachers from working with the most challenging kids and further exacerbate the focus on test prep. (By the way, tenure is not a lifetime job guarantee; it simply grants teachers the right to a day in court before they are disciplined or fired.)
Some say another reorganization of the school system is worth considering. After all, what harm could it do? Quite a bit, actually. A recent New York Times editorial urged city and state lawmakers and the State Board of Regents to make sure “the reforms are closely scrutinized and modified where necessary to produce the best possible result.”
I agree. Every reorganization has created great upheaval and uncertainty for parents, students, teachers and principals; it usually takes them at least a year to adjust to a slew of new regulations and bureaucratic red tape. Our students cannot afford yet another year of educational drift and turbulence - look at what just happened with student bus route changes.
For several weeks now, the city teachers’ union has been running a television commercial encouraging the public to listen to teachers about educational priorities. Ask a teacher and you’ll hear nothing about structure. Instead you’ll hear about the need for smaller classes, more career and technical education, music and art classes, less emphasis on tests and greater latitude.
These are the things that really matter to parents and teachers. It’s well past time for structural changes that don’t directly translate to the classroom. Now that we have, by the mayor’s own words, the best teaching force anywhere, it’s time to help those closest to students - their parents and the dedicated educators who teach them every day.
Randi Weingarten is the President of the United Federation of Teachers in NYC.