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29th April

First Published in The New York Sun, April 29, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

In a column earlier this month, I discussed how changes in the testing schedule could result in a significant gain in instructional time for our city’s public-school children.What makes ideas like this attractive is that they cost little to implement. It is just better, more efficient management.

This kind of thinking is critical today. The state of New York is under court order to increase funding for the schools, a decision being appealed by Governor Pataki. Since the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court case was filed more than a decade ago, expenditures on the public schools have more than doubled. Since no one is happy with the results of this already dramatic increase, why should anyone believe that further increases would make a difference?
New York’s taxpayers are already put upon, paying what are among the highest tax rates in the nation. Education, while an important priority, is not the only area of government activity that is making demands for more funds.We have a bankrupt health-care system in desperate need for reform and a transportation infrastructure that is suddenly in crisis.

What will make a difference in education, I believe, are better-managed schools where the dollars invested find their way directly into the classroom to benefit children. That’s why we need to ask, where is all the money going?

Significant sums are not being invested in educating our children, but rather in training their teachers. I have seen advertisements for teachers that proudly proclaim “Professional Development is THE Job!” I thought that the job was teaching children to read, do mathematics, and prepare them for lives as productive citizens. Silly me.

In this space, I have repeatedly raised this issue and the hundreds of millions that are being squandered. Half of the extra 100 minutes a week that the teachers union agreed to work in their last, now long-expired contract, has already been stolen from the children in the form of after-school professional-development sessions. This comes to 30 hours per school year, the equivalent of a full extra week of instruction.
These sessions are much hated by the teaching staff, as evidenced by increases in teacher absenteeism on the days they are forced to remain in school for this extra 100-minute session, held 18 times during the school year.

While it would benefit the children if this time were given to them, at least this is time they never had, so some could argue that they haven’t lost anything. But what is even worse is the increasing amount of time that classroom teachers are pulled from their classrooms during the existing school day for still more professional development.

This issue is gaining increasing attention from parents. In many schools, teachers are being pulled from their classrooms on a regular weekly basis for training. One parent, Linda Talisman Gomez, asked “How many New York City parents know that the city has decided to send large numbers of teachers off-site on a regular basis, necessitating increased use of substitutes, or, failing that, splitting the kids into different classrooms?”

Aside from the money spent on the trainers — and in the case of Columbia University Teachers College, a leading provider of these services, the cost is $1,200 per day for one trainer at one school — there is the expense for the substitute teacher.

But no one bothers to ask about the hidden cost to the children. Even in the comparatively genteel days when I attended New York City public schools, we ate substitute teachers for breakfast. The best case is that children will be given “busywork” during these times. The worst is that they will be swinging from the light fixtures. But even obtaining substitutes is increasingly difficult in New York, so often children are split between classes or herded into the auditorium to watch videotapes.

Ms. Gomez’s observations are confirmed by a veteran Manhattan teacher: “Teachers College’s presence at (my school) severely disrupted the school and the educational process. For most of the academic year, TC ‘staff developers’ came to the school once or twice a week. On those days, students were generally taken to the auditorium to watch movies while their teachers attended workshop sessions. On numerous occasions, students watched movies twice in a single day, while their teachers attended morning ‘lab sessions’ and after-lunch ‘debriefings’ … on some days students watched movies for two periods, had a coverage teacher (art, computers, etc.) for one period, ate lunch, and had only three periods of regular instruction. Factor in pullouts in reading, math, or ESL, and we have an educational mess and a tragic disservice to students.”
For our City Council, quick to meddle in areas such as where we can use our cell phones and how many previews movie theaters can show before the main attraction, here’s an issue to tackle. How about finding a way to prohibit the use of teacher time that is supposed to belong to our students for any purpose other than instruction? Not only will the children gain more learning time, but we can divert the $1,200 daily fee to other activities that will directly benefit them — before we raise taxes and further damage our already fragile economy.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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