2003-09-24 / Editorials


Reported New Teaching Rules Clash With Reality

Last week’s report outlining new wacky rules for teaching class, is a great illustration of the abysmal state of public education in New York City.

As reported in the New York Daily News, teachers are being told that students’ chairs should be set in U-shapes around the room or in a circle, but never in the conventional rows, the way classrooms have been set up since time immemorial. Teachers are also told they should sit in a rocking chair when reading to a class and students should sit on carpeted floors at their teachers’ feet. There are also directions as to which colors should be used at various times on classroom bulletin boards.

Education Department officials said the radical, new directives were not coming from central headquarters in the Tweed Courthouse building behind City Hall but from principals and local district supervisors who were interpreting the kinds of "sound educational practices" taught in teacher training sessions for the new unified curriculum, according to the story.

A followup piece the next day reported that school principals are saying that they were only doing what they had been told. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein maintained stoutly, "There’s no directives that we have put out."

Can you imagine all this petty bickering and trying to place blame in a system where large numbers of teachers cannot teach, students cannot read at a passable level, and the state high school graduation rate ranks 42nd among the 50 states?

We’ll leave Klein and Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, to argue about where the new directives came from. As far as the Gazette is concerned, we accept the story as written. Moving on from that point we’ve come to the sad conclusion that the Chancellor and his high ranking officials are sadly out of touch with reality.

The new rules appear to have been formulated in ignorance of two basic facts: there is not enough money in the education budget to run the system properly and classrooms are seriously overcrowded in most schools.

Of these two shortcomings, overcrowding is by far the more serious vis a vis the new directives. With no breathing room available, the traditional chairs in a row would appear to be the most practical way to set up classrooms where space is at a premium.

Unfortunately, Klein and his staff do not have the luxury of devising new formations for seating students, no matter how beneficial they may be.

Also it was never explained who will be dealing with the five or six other sub-groups seated in small circles elsewhere in a classroom while a teacher is concentrating on one small group at a time. This could require more teachers, teacher aides or paraprofessionals in every classroom. In any case, it creates a nightmare situation both physically and financially. The additional personnel may not even be available, and we shudder to think by how much more the education budget would have to be expanded.

Actually, we doubt there is any way to amend the budget. Nor do we see any practical way for implementing a plan for small groups of students sitting in circles or U shapes.

For the same financial reasons we find carpeted floors a nice addition to school decor, but out of the realm of reality in the current budget deficit environment. Carpeted classroom floors are truly a luxury our schools cannot afford. We are forced to continue with the cold, spartan look of bare, cold wooden or tile floors and will have to forego any benefits that the new experts at the Board of Education tell us can be derived from students sitting on carpeted floors at their teachers’ feet.

The carpeted floor conjures up another impractical, hard-to-imagine situation: with the teacher devoting her attention to a small reading group, who will be teaching or looking after the rest of the class?

Given the realities of the public school system here in New York City—the lack of funds and the lack of space—it is apparent that Chancellor Klein and his lieutenants are getting too far ahead of themselves with the aptly headlined "new wacky rules for teaching class."

We know that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Klein, given the mandate to run the schools with little interference from anyone, could be inclined to make some radical changes. In this case, those changes are impractical and unwise. Klein and Bloomberg should be devoting their time and energy to getting the system on a sound footing and improving teaching standards to improve student performance before taking impractical giant leaps with only cosmetic value as their advantage. Good decorating ideas are no substitute for the tried and true "Three Rs"—a sound basic education.

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