By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders
Labor Day has come and gone, which means that school bells will soon be ringing.
Our community has some of the finest public and parochial schools all in walking distance of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. I’m speaking about P.S. 40, Simon Baruch JHS 104 and schools in Epiphany and the Immaculate Conception churches. Each of those schools rank in the top tiers of their respective academic categories.
Unfortunately, they remain anomalies within the overall New York City education universe. Too many schools are failing our over one million school children. Too few students graduate from high school with the requisite tools or academic knowledge to succeed in college or a trade.
This is true in many school districts across America. If not remedied, it will leave this nation behind in the highly competitive 21st-century world where advanced knowledge is a necessary commodity.
The answers to our education underachievement are not so complicated. But they require effort and money on the part of our local, state and federal governments.
First of all, we need to make the teaching profession one that qualified young adults want to enter and make a career. The obvious truth is that a $55,000 starting salary with limited financial advancement beyond that simply does not attract the best and brightest into the academic world. Accomplished students coming out of college can earn much more from the get go if they choose law or business, engineering or even plumbing.
All too often, teaching becomes the default profession for those who cannot qualify for something financially better. And many stay a short time in the education field. In a high cost state like New York, especially in New York City, a minimum of $75,000 to start is needed with incentives to make significantly more down the road. Like most things, economic options will drive the most capable to or away from a profession.
Charter schools are also a desired alternative to public or parochial schools for some parents. They need to be encouraged and not stifled. They are places where creativity and innovation can produce quality results apart from the more regimented public schools. But those charter schools must also abide by the same academic standards as public schools and must accept even difficult to educate students and those with disabilities. After 20 years, charter schools have proven their worth and the state should remove the arbitrary limits on how many such schools may operate.
And we must invest more in our school building technology and infrastructure as well as ending overcrowded classrooms. Twenty-first century learning requires modern school environments fully equipped with computers and up-to-date learning implements.
As for standards and assessments, they too require reform. Twenty years ago, the State Board of Regents adopted high stakes standardized testing from elementary school through high school as the singular means to evaluate students. Everyone took the same tests. Failure on even one exam could mean no grade promotion or denial of a high school diploma. That was wrong. There are multiple ways to assess students learning. No single instrument is dispositive.
Recently, the Regents announced they are revisiting that policy. Good for them. But they must not let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction. Testing is important as a diagnostic tool as well as assessment. But it must be used in conjunction with other things such as portfolios and classroom work.
These are some of the essential elements to prepare our youngsters for the rigors that will face them in this century. Maybe instead of being preoccupied with a $25 billion wall to keep “undesirables” out, that money should be used to invest in the minds of our children.