ITíS A LITTLE IRONIC

June 12, 2009  

   In a nation that is literally polluted by education reform talk from every jackass and his mother up to the President of the United States, in a country where people, including some teacher unions, are coming to seriously believe that if only they could invent the proper pay for performance scheme for teachers the achievement gap would close, the U.S. would rise to the top levels of performance on international math tests and reading would replace Facebook and Twitter as the pastime of the young, one would think that in such an environment teachers and their union who have led a successful movement of school reform would not be put in the position of having to gear up to fight for raises that would  essentially keep them in the same economic position relative to their peers in the area.  Yet thatís the case in Plainview-Old Bethpage.  

   Some five years ago, the members of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Congress of Teachers (PCT) began to recognize the publicís growing discontent with our schools.  They were upset with administratively imposed math programs that ignored basic math skills.  They were infuriated by central office personnel who answered their complaints with, ďKids today donít need to know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide.  They all have calculators.Ē  They were perplexed by the lack of a core curriculum and wondered why what a student in a particular grade learned was largely dependent on the school she attended.  Numbers of parents began to wonder why academic standards and expectations for students were so low.  They and their childrenís teachers marveled at how this could be happening in a district where people shouldered a considerable property tax burden to have good schools.  

   When the PCT began to try to turn these deplorable conditions around, we had no allies in central administration and few - certainly not a majority - on the Board of Education.  As I went from school to school exhorting our members to raise the bar for students, as we began to form committees aimed at finding solutions to the issues that were plaguing us, I often found myself encouraging insubordination and defiance.  ďI donít care what your principal says about teaching math.  Make sure your kids know basic, age appropriate math facts.  Close your door and teach them math!Ē was part of almost every speech I made at our elementary schools.  

   Slowly, we began to evolve a strategy for rebuilding our academic program and a political strategy for gaining the support to win mainstream acceptance of it.  With the help of some savvy parents, we organized a community coalition to change the Board of Education which we quickly did.  This led almost immediately to the departure of almost the entire central administration and the installation of people who latched on to our reform agenda, seeing it as a unique opportunity for management and labor to be on the same page and intrigued by the possibilities of real and rapid accomplishment.  

   During that time, and facilitating the progress that was made during it, the Board of Education and the PCT put aside the often rancorous contract negotiations and opted instead for extensions of the existing agreements with raises that allowed our staff to maintain their relative position to colleagues working in other districts in Nassau Country.  Our focus was on district-wide school improvement.  

   So much has been accomplished too!  Math scores have gone up each year.  Our scores now compare favorably with top tier districts in the county.  English Language Arts scores are up very significantly too and will go higher after we complete our work this summer on the second half of our new skills based curriculum. High school honors classes and college level courses are increasingly able to run at higher levels as students now get a clearer picture of what will be expected of them in these classes before they register for them.  New science elementary initiatives are on the way, and next year our middle school teachers will complete the second year of study  of the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program that we believe holds great potential for beefing up our approach to the education of middle school children and better preparing them for high school and college.  

   Instead of keeping that momentum for change going and moving even faster, our members must now gear up to struggle with the Board of Education to avoid falling behind.  The same pride that motivated them to undertake their reform efforts, efforts that were often at odds with their bosses and which put them at some risk, will now be turned to making sure that they are treated with dignity and respect and recognized as the essential element in making Plainview-Old Bethpage a quality school district.  Itís just a little ironic that when schools are failing, people in power talk about paying more for quality and accomplishment.  When teachers lead a movement for quality, when their ideas and hard work lead to demonstrable improvement, they are told these are difficult times.  You have to expect to fall behind.

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