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Let’s not fail the so-called ‘failing schools’

for The Brooklyn Paper
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As an educator for well over 40 years, to me, the biggest tragedy in the controversy over school closures is not large schools versus small ones. It’s a national obsession with high school graduation rates where once-creative faculties are now teaching children to pass tests and not much else. Superintendents and principals are also held to these same parameters.

The first casualty in this educational new world is the learning process itself. It’s been abandoned. Creative thinking, problem solving and experimentation have been replaced by convergent thinking and getting the right answer on a test. Kids know that the system is not interested in their needs and that they are clients of an uncaring policy that wants them to pass so schools can stay opened and adults can keep their jobs.

Think of the implications this obsession engenders. If a principal could get rid of as many low-performing students as possible, his or her academic benchmarks are increased. Look at what we’ve done to our educational leaders in this regard. There have even been cases where teachers doctored grades to avoid negative scrutiny because their classes didn’t hit acceptable passing parameters. What happened to John Dewey’s concept of learning at your own rate? And if a child takes five years to graduate, so what? He or she needed more time. Does that mean the school that educated this child to a level of acceptability and functionality is a failure? Not in my book. The kid didn’t drop out. He stuck it out.

And if these children are jettisoned, who will pick them up? Are we creating an educational class of nomads unwelcome anywhere because they may require more support than is available? What’s the alternative if they don’t get that support? There are gangs waiting to recruit them.

Whether by intention or accident, an anti-intellectual atmosphere is permeating our educational system because passing has become more important than learning. When you have environments that foster learning as a priority, the grades follow.

The Council for Unity is involved in nearly 30 schools in the city school system. Our innovative curriculum focuses on a child’s need for healthy relationships, safety and freedom from discrimination from a unity empowerment model, developing self-esteem from a syllabus that educates a child where he or she is functional not dysfunctional and fostering empowerment through partnerships with administrators and faculty to collectively bring about the constructive changes necessary for a positive learning environment. As a result our high school graduation rate with challenged populations has never gone below 85 percent in 36 years. I see what is possible.

We’re Americans — a pragmatic people. We sink or swim in a society of strong communities with a public school system that brings children of all cultures, abilities and orientations together. It’s where kids learn tolerance and respect. It worked for our forbearers, and it must work for us even more so today. Whether large or small, our schools need to ensure this.

Robert De Sena is founder and president of Council for Unity, a non-profit organization that specializes in reducing violence in schools and communities.

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Reader Feedback

nancy from coney says:
as a n educator myself i find it hard 2 believe that you cannot straighten out failing schools,get rid of the teachers that are consistently not showing that the kids arent performing.stop worrying about test preps it seems like the whole school year is preparing kids 2 pass test in may and june,to make the schools look good instead of educating the kids and teaching them.also the way teachers have 2 teach has 2 be changed.also i hear charter schools only keep the brightest kids that perform well thats why they are getting such high scores
Jan. 21, 2011, 9:04 am
Mark from Boerum Hill says:
Amen, Brother! Nailed it spot for spot! This is absolutely a disastrous course and anyone who enables it should be dunned out of office and education.

Teaching kids to take tests as opposed to teaching kids. Just think about that statement. Idiocy.
Jan. 21, 2011, 6:24 pm
nancy from coney says:
the schools are not tottaly to blamed they schould be forced 2 change their ways and listen 2 the teachers and also where are the parents in all this.get off ur butts and work you had fun making them now help out
Jan. 21, 2011, 7:08 pm
anon from carroll gardens says:
As a parent I have been questioning the validity of the test scores as an accurate indicator of student performance. My now eighth grader has been doing test prep since the second grade and is able to achieve "3's". However, his classwork is very poor. I was just finally able to get him evaluated after years of requests and the gist is that because he is able to get average grades all is well even if he is one to three years behind academically. Of course grades are based on various factors so my child can fail every in class test and still get a passing grade and that is A OK with the system.

This is a child who will fall through the cracks without the right supports.

This year for some reason the students don't have math text books. The teachers seem a little sheepish when I asked them about this. It makes it all that more difficult for me to support my child at home in algebra. Fortunately, I can use Google but what about families who don't have internet access at home?

Is it any wonder that 75% of incoming CUNY freshman that come from city public schools need remedial education?
Jan. 22, 2011, 9:47 am
NANCY from CONEY says:
I SAY TEACH THE KIDS ONLY PREP THEM THE MONTH BEFORE
THAT IS THE TRUE WAY 2 TEST A CHILDS KNOWLEDGE
BASED ON WHAT IS IN THEIR HEAD
BUT PARENTS HAVE 2 BE PUSHY AND QUESTION EVERVERYTHING
Jan. 24, 2011, 7:16 am
Ha says:
Nancy, you shouldn't be an educator with that grammar.
Jan. 24, 2011, 1:21 pm
Alissa Lembo from Prospect Heights says:
Very well said.
Feb. 4, 2011, 10:40 pm
Vic Spelman from Vineyard says:
Every time I read remarks by this guy it's alike a power punch, but full of grace. He's like the Carmine Basilio of teaching. Teach the heart, teach the soul, find the passion. The shoe horn, aka 4 yr curriculum, often produces - however well intentioned - the very opposite of what it promises (and for reasons that should be obvious). Consider Joe Lieber of Mount Sinai and Elmhurst Hospital, written up in this month's New Yorker. The guy gets in a 4 AM and leaves at night. Every day but Sunday. Elmhurst attracts a lot of residents who just want to work under him. And Joe was rejected by 72 medical schools. De Sena's got it right. Find the passion.
May 16, 2013, 7:28 pm

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