Domestic, Education, New York — December 1, 2003 at 11:15 am

Schoolhouse Crock

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Illustration by Aaron Rosenberg

Visit any elementary classroom at a public school in New York City this year, and you will find only the finest student artwork and writing assignments papering the walls. It’s no surprise—bulletin board guidelines permit only the best work to be displayed. These guidelines are part of an education initiative begun this year to standardize curricula at public schools. Proponents of the standardized curriculum say it promotes continuity and consistency throughout the public school system, but opponents, especially teachers, say it prioritizes cosmetic changes over real classroom needs.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Joel Klein, Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education (DE), informed teachers in January of 2003 that 1,000 out of the city’s 1,200 public schools had to adopt uniform reading and math curricula. The new kindergarten through third grade reading curriculum emphasizes a program called Month by Month Phonics and utilizes new classroom libraries filled with books relating to the material. The K-5 math curriculum, Everyday Mathematics, centers on the notion that children do not learn material the first time they encounter it, but instead go through three stages of learning before they master the concepts. Klein also announced that, along with the revamped curriculum, the DE would dispatch advisors to public schools to help teachers implement the new curriculums, while principals would enforce proper classroom appearance including, of course, carefully selected wall displays. The theory behind the changes is that if there is some coherence to the education syllabus citywide, the school administration can provide the best possible instructional support for teachers. (The Chancellor’s office declined to comment for this article).

But on the ground, teachers’ reactions to the school appearance component of the plan help to illustrate some of the larger problems with the DE’s approach. “They want us to have only perfect work up, but kids don’t do perfect work, I don’t do perfect work,” said Allison Newbauer, a third grade teacher in her second year at PS 110 in the South Bronx. “Most people make mistakes. That’s life. And the fact that the work that’s hung up has to be perfect is just unrealistic, and I don’t understand how that helps anyone.’”

Although the “instructional approach,” the term adopted by the DE for the sweeping changes, looks great on paper, there are two major flaws with the program. First of all, it does not accommodate the varieties of actual classroom experience. Second, the approach also does nothing to address a disparity in teacher quality in New York City public schools.

Ron Davis, a spokesperson for the New York United Federation of Teachers, spoke about the difficulty in adapting the curriculum to the classroom. “You can’t take one rigid monolithic curriculum and say ‘OK, everyone make X amount of progress with everyone during the first semester of the school year.’” Any given class of students has individual nuances stemming from a variety of factors beyond the control of the DE. Tovah Sherman, a third grade teacher at Crotona Park in the South Bronx, where most of the students’ parents do not speak English, argued that “the new instructional approach is best suited for an ideal teaching environment where kids get the support they need at home.”

Sherman says that the abilities in her classroom vary widely, with students’ reading levels ranging from first to fourth grade. She says that the new curriculum, because its reading materials are for only those at a third grade level, does not fit the student makeup of her classroom.

The second problem with the new teaching initiative is its failure to address the uneven distribution of teaching talent in New York City public schools. This disparity stems from the fact that the teachers who do not burn out and stay in the New York Public School system the longest tend to be the ones who started work in the better schools, where there is more instructional support.

Alfred Posamentier, the Dean of Education at City College in New York, explained that teachers at schools like Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant are usually the most experienced. “[A teacher at Bronx or Stuvesyant] is probably a good teacher and could probably also be effective in a not ideal school setting. There is no way, I think, that the Department of Education is going to be able to tell that teacher, ‘you are no longer going to be at the school that you’ve been at for 25 years.’”

This means that, under the new initiative, less experienced teachers—potentially the ones with the most classroom difficulties because of their junior positions—must learn the intricacies of a new, unwieldy curriculum.

To address the problem, the DE supposedly dispatched instructional supervisors to help guide new and inexperienced teachers. Yet these teacher advisors are few and far between, with one individual responsible for as many as fifteen schools. Newbauer has not yet had a teacher critique her teaching style this year. “I know when someone comes to my room to observe, they will tell me I’m doing everything all wrong. But no one has come.” If a teacher is expected to follow a meticulously designed approach to teaching under the new system, the first phase of implementation this year should have been to provide teachers with complete training in the new teaching methods. Instead, teachers were given a six-hour explanatory CD-Rom and wished good luck. The city awaits fantastic results from the new educational initiative while teachers still struggle with the age-old issue of lack of administrative support. This dearth of support services results in teachers’ inability to meet the needs of a diverse group of students. Thus the initiative’s standardized math and English programs, in the hands of teachers unfamiliar with the methodology, serves only to stifle the abilities of high achieving students, while the needs of students at the bottom of the classroom may go overlooked.

The DE simply has not sufficiently addressed the nuts and bolts of applying a theoretical program in a real-live classroom. If the DE delves beneath the superficial issue of classroom appearance and dedicates money and energy to training teachers in how to adapt the curriculum to students’ individual needs, it has the potential to succeed.

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