Saturday, October 21, 2006

Joel Klein’s Iron Curtain

A shorter version of this column appeared in The Wave on October 20, 2006.

When all decisions flow without checks and balances from one source — be it a national leader, the head of a school system, the principal of a school, a union leader, an abusive member of a household — any form of dictatorship — the system inevitably fails. Decisions hatched in the mind of a super powerful person served by sycophants are not subject to the kind of vetting (like someone saying “are you out of your mind?”) and lead to the “emperor without clothes” effect. Some kind of democratic process, often messy, is necessary to prevent the train from running loose down the tracks. If you deal with the daily doings at the NYC Department of Education and with its counterpart the United Federation of Teachers, these words should ring true.

There’s nothing like a trip to Prague and Budapest, a decade and a half out of the yoke of 40 years of Soviet domination, to get one to thinking about similarities to the BloomKlein invasion of the NYC school system. “Are you crazy?” said my wife as we strolled around these incredibly beautiful cities. “If you make this comparison people will think you are nuts.” She’s probably right, but here goes anyway.

The Czech Republic and Hungary were both part of the Soviet Empire that controlled Eastern Europe with an iron fist. Puppet governments were installed but the people saw themselves as invaded by an alien force and feelings of nationalism engendered an anti-Soviet mentality. When the yoke was lifted in 1989, a sense of freedom these nations had never known burst forth. Revolutions in Budapest (1956) and Prague (1968), both revolts suppressed by an invasion of hordes of Russian tanks - bullet holes still show on the walls some buildings - had turned these cities into the epicenter of resistance to Soviet control.

Hungary is about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their Revolution, which lasted from Oct. 23 to Nov. 4, 1956. Being there two weeks before this celebration had an impact.

While on the trip I read “The Incredible Lightness of Being,” Czech writer Milan Kundera’s story of a Czech doctor during the “Prague spring” of 1968 when freedom blossomed and the aftermath of the suppression by the Soviets that August.

Kundera writes, “Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise…”

Tomas, a brilliant surgeon, is demoted to window washer after the Soviet repression because of a letter to the editor he wrote to a literary magazine during the Prague spring. In the letter, Tomas criticized the apparatchiks (blindly loyal bureaucrats) who had condemned Czech citizens charged with a variety of fabricated crimes and then later claimed they didn’t know and were just following orders. Kundera claims it is irrelevant whether they knew or not. “The main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn’t know. Is a fool on the throne relieved of all responsibility merely because he is a fool? Isn’t his ‘I didn’t know! I was a believer!’ at the very root of irreparable guilt?”

Let me digress to a story of a NYC teacher who contacted me shortly before I left. Jason (a pseudonym), who has been teaching a number of years, was ordered by his administrators to teach in a certain restricted style in which he was not only uncomfortable, but truly felt was not in the best interests of the education of his students. He refused. The result was a vicious attack by school administrators, coordinated by a new principal who had recently graduated from the Leadership Academy — often compared by teachers serving under the yoke of these graduates as a KGB training ground. He was threatened with a U rating, received visits from regional supervisors, threats of termination, manipulation of personnel that had him at the point of being excessed out of the school, and other techniques taught in the dungeons of the Leadership Academy. Assistant principals who had been supportive and knew him for years turned on him on a dime – the classic response of apparatchiks, the same way Tomas’ boss behaved in the novel.

The struggle reached the point where Jason was pretty much out the door. Realizing he had to think of his wife and kids, he capitulated. He told them he would teach as they wanted him too. (Need I say the union was useless throughout?)

The day Jason gave in, he sat in his car and cried, the first time he had done so as an adult. He just saved his job — you might think they were tears of joy. They were not. Jason cried for having been forced to give up his integrity; for being forced to do what years of experience told him in his marrow was wrong for his students; for being forced to choose between family and principle; for basically losing his profession.

The people who hounded him were smug and satisfied in their “victory” and they now parade Jason around as a model teacher. But they are really parading their conquest as an example to all the others. Jason laughs with irony, knowing full well a crime has been perpetrated against both he and the students he teaches. This battle took a lot out of him and has dissipated some of his passion for teaching. Whether you were in Eastern Europe from the late 40’s through the late 80’s or in the current DOE, passion outside the narrow box of orthodoxy is degraded, not valued.

Did putting Jason through the ringer benefit his students? Apparatchiks who are “True Believers” – Leadership Academy grads and Kundera’s “Fools” - will shout, in unison, “Yes, Children First.” The mentality and behavior of the “True Believers” at the DOE and in totalitarian states are similar and their tactics are scarily familiar.

The Assistant Principals who knew what a good teacher Jason was before and know it is all a crock will claim they were just following orders. Kundera would say they are all fools.

I can’t tell you how many similar stories I am hearing, with many people saying, “Now, it’s just a job.” Or worse, ending up in the Gulag of the DOE – the rubber room.

One day someone will write: “First they came for the senior teachers near retirement; then they came for the non-tenured; then they came for the people who could not produce the results they wanted; then they came for those who could not turn straw into gold; when they came for me, there was no one left.”

Maybe when the iron curtain at the DOE is lifted post BloomKlein and the fear of speaking out against these “state” crimes is over there will be a day of retribution. Meanwhile, the School Scope columns must suffice.

Mr. Klein, tear down that wall!
Klein has built his version of the Berlin Wall between managers and educators. Many of the apparatchiks at the DOE, especially at the Region level who carried out policies they knew were bad for teachers and children — if they were really educators — are now singing a different tune as BloomKlein are reorganizing once again as a way to cover their mismanagement. Region level jobs are threatened as the Empowerment Zone expands and the regions shrink. What has been going on is the replacement of educators with corporate types in the anti-educator modus operendi of the corporate takeover of school systems throughout the country. People trained to be educators are not to be trusted.

Thus, Klein's emphasis on corporate, entrepreneurial types as principals without educational experience. Or taking former educators and brainwashing them at the Leadership Academy before unleashing them (without their muzzles) into the schools.

Enormous sums are spent on doing professional development for all kinds of expensive programs that funnel more enormous sums into the pockets of private companies. What teachers learn in school or what they have learned from experience is denigrated. Yet, a qualified teacher under NCLB is measured by the courses and degrees they complete in education. “Qualifications” are not required of the people being chosen to run school systems, Klein being exhibit number one.

Note this quote by Mike Bloomberg in an article in the Washington Post when he tried to answer criticisms for the lack of parental input under his administration. "Parents know about their kids, but they're not professional educators. There is no reason to think they should be designing a school system or running a school system. Do you want parents to make medical decisions? I don't think so."

Hmmm. Mayor Mike. You sort of skipped the professional educator step when you chose a lawyer to run the NYC school system. If you should ever have to have an operation, I hope you choose a plumber to do the job.

Educators — and by this I mean people who actually taught for a few years — see BloomKlein’s corporate invasion of the school system as a hostile takeover. Sort of like tanks rolling into Prague and Budapest.

Coming soon:
What lies beneath — how the apparatchiks at the UFT almost outdid their counterparts at the DOE when Jason attempted to give out literature critical of the union leadership.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Education Notes - October 2006

Excerpts from the 1 page print edition handed out at the October 18 Delegate Assembly (with cartoon, a joke and a lovely picture of Randi and Bloomberg about to kiss).

PDF of leaflet available for distribution to your school - email me at

Contract on Life Support
(see cartoon posted on Sept. 30)

With a tattered contract, we must ask:

What level of responsibility for the erosion of the contract and the general deterioration in working conditions in the schools does the UFT leadership bear? Should UFT leaders be held accountable for their support for mayoral control, the willingness to negotiate givebacks and extended time for money, the lessening of contractual protections, and the severe reduction in protections of seniority? Is there a level of collaboration between the DOE and the UFT that is unhealthy for the members? Or should the leadership’s position be accepted that we are victims of the anti-union “climate of the times” and have done very well compared to other unions?

These are fundamental questions. The issue is whether the current leadership has the will or the capability to stand up to the onslaught of the well-organized forces of BloomKlein that have led to more unbridled power in the hands of principals than possibly in the entire history of the UFT. So far they have been found lacking — just check out conditions in your schools. Can Unity caucus, which has controlled the UFT since its inception over 40 years ago, bear no responsibility?

To understand the UFT one must understand Unity – a massive, monolithic machine that requires a loyalty oath to the caucus that puts its interests over that of the members. Many teachers only found out in the last contract struggle that their own chapter leaders, who were ordered to “sell” the contract to their staffs, were in fact members of Unity who get all sorts of perks like after school jobs, double pensions, attendance at conventions, and even some level of intervention on their behalves from top UFT officials when they have troubles with administrators.

One of the key problems is that the UFT has the trappings of democracy but is really what one would call a totalitarian democracy, a system with elected representatives whose members, while granted the right to vote, have little or no participation in the decision-making process. In the UFT all decisions flow from the office of the President with little room for vetting these decisions. A massive public relations operation and control of all the organs of communication within the UFT in the hands of the leadership, enforced by the Unity machine to the extent that materials critical of the leadership distributed to the schools are removed from teacher mailboxes and those who have attempted to distribute are threatened.

One response to this system is to build an effective, democratic alternative to the Unity machine that can force Unity to make the kinds of changes that will lead to a union that will stand up for its members. The key is to call for a package of democratic changes, one of which is a return to the election of district reps, summarily cancelled by Randi Weingarten years ago. A so-called bipartisan committee to examine the issue is just a smokescreen – a band aid for a gunshot would, as the Unified Teachers Party blog calls it (

Democracy does count. It is not a theoretical concept. The lack of it has resulted in bad decision-making on many levels. Fighting for it will lead to a stronger union.

Delegate Assembly Math

If you notice a preponderance of support for the UFT leadership at delegate assemblies that seems way out of proportion to the feelings of the people in your school, there is a reason. The DA has around 3000 members but is held in a room that holds just over 800. Unity Caucus members are expected to show up and many of them are required to be either a delegate or chapter leader.

With at least 1000 or more UC members, that is a serious base to start from.
Add the 89 members of the Executive Board.
Add the 300 Unity members of the retirement chapter.

There are probably 30 activist members of the opposition and maybe another 30 supporters at the DA. The rest are independents, but often actively recruited by Unity, which is always looking to keep people from drifting to the opposition.

So the leadership starts with a big majority, can dominate the discussion and can assure victory on any issue. That is why only 30% of the delegates show up regularly. If you are independent of Unity, we urge you to band together with other independents and begin to make your presence felt at the DA.


The following was posted as a comment to the ICE blog after the DA


The October DA is usually the most crowded because it is the first one of the year. This one in particular was crowded because so many new Chapter Leaders and Delegates who were elected last spring were attending for the first time.

The message from Randi and crew was: DON'T BOTHER COMING BACK

With probably 2800 or more delegates, instead of holding the meeting at the Marriott or in a school that could hold what is usually around 1200 people for these first meetings, they held it at the UFT in a room that legally holds around 850 people. It was reportedly so uncomfortable in there that one CL told me he went wild saying that it was a major fire trap and if the fire dept. has been called they would have shut down the meeting. If they did it wouldn't have made a difference as Randi did the usual filibuster thing.

Many people will not come back. But Unity people will. Exactly what Randi and crew want.

Joke of the Month
During a visit to the mental asylum, a visitor asked the Director what the criterion was which defined whether or not a patient should be institutionalized.

“Well,” said the Director, “we fill up a bathtub, then we offer a teaspoon, a teacup and a bucket to the patient and ask him or her to empty the bathtub.”

“Oh, I understand,” said the visitor. “A normal person would use the bucket because it’s bigger than the spoon or the teacup.”

“No.” said the Director, “A normal person would pull the plug. Do you want a bed near the window?”

An abridged version of the Lipstick on the Pig article posted on Oct. 6 is also part of the print version of Ed Notes. The pdf will be sent to my email list. If you are not on it yet, don't be left out.

For those newcomers to the Delegate Assembly, welcome.

Education Notes presents an independent view on issues affecting the educational community, especially as they relate to the actions and inactions of the UFT. It has been distributed regularly to Chapter Leaders and Delegates at Delegate Assemblies for the past 10 years. Feel free to make copies of any of the material in these bulletins for your staffs.

There have also been 10 tabloid size editions that have been produced for wider distributions to the schools. Copies of future editions (the next one is planned for late November) are available for your staffs.

Editor Norman Scott worked in the NYC school system as an elementary school teacher for 35 years. He retired in 2002 but has maintained an interest in union and educational affairs. In late 2003 he and other independents, unhappy with the direction the UFT was going in, organized the Independent Community of Educators (ICE), a caucus that aims to affect change in the UFT. ICE ran in the 2004 elections and will do so again with Teachers for a Just Contract (TJC) in the upcoming elections in the spring of 2007. See the ICE blog ( and website for details of their program.

Education Notes is independent from ICE and represents solely the point of view (often weird) of the editor.

Friday, October 6, 2006

Putting Lipstick on the Pig

The following 2 articles appeared in The Wave, Rockaway's community newspaper (since 1893). The first is the bi-weekly School Scope column appearing in the OCt. 6 edition.

The second is a news piece ("Joel Klein Meets the Press") from Joel Klein's press addressing ELA scores and appeared Sept. 29, 2006.

Putting Lipstick on the Pig
by Norman Scott

October 6, 2006

In the movie “Boiler Room” shady brokers used the expression “Put lipstick on the pig” when they dressed up lousy stocks to sell to a gullible public. Attending events put on by the NYC Department of Education are all about putting lipstick on the pig (PLOTP).
(I wrote about the bright shade of lipstick Chancellor Joel Klein tried to apply to the flat ELA scores at his Sept. 21 press conference in a separate article.)

For the DOE, it is all about spinning the many disasters that have resulted from mayoral control. They have managed to do in 30 years what decentralization could not — unite parents and teachers in an increasing understanding that there must be some major changes when the law giving dictatorial powers to politicians and the corporate non-educators they hire to run the school systems for them sunsets in 2009.

A good illustration of people’s frustration was a letter to the NY Times by John C. Fager, former education columnist for The Daily News and currently a teacher. “The mayor… has lost the support of teachers. He and Chancellor Joel I. Klein do not understand the importance of meaningful parent involvement and have alienated parents as well. Having such a person exercise overwhelming control of the school system without any checks and balances is not desirable or effective. Mayoral control, which I ardently supported, needs to be reformed.”

Fager’s letter was in response to a Times article (“Bloomberg Re-emphasizes School Control”, September 20, 2006) on the Mayor’s visit to LA where the mayor there is trying to emulate Bloomberg by fighting for control of the school system. But he has been partially stymied by a less cooperative teachers union than the UFT, which served up the school system to Bloomberg on a platinum platter.

The article stated, “Mr. Bloomberg has embarked on a high-profile offensive to make mayoral control permanent. At stake, the administration fears, is the long-term fate of his changes to the school system.”

Bloomberg and Klein are afraid that there could be a reversal of their so-called “Children First” reforms when a new mayor comes into power. Actually, they are worried that when they are gone people will unbury the lies and distortions and discover it was really Children Last, Management First as all the shennigans (can anyone spell S-N-A-P-P-L-E) of no-bid contracts, political favors no different than took place under decentralization (but with a new cast of characters) are uncovered. At least in the old days people on the gravy train were community based rather than the high end corporate pilfering going on as wheelbarrows of money are handed over to private firms with influence – the BloomKlein version of “friends with benefits.” I never thought I’d say this, but the pre-BloomKlein system was less harmful to children, parents and teachers.

At his press conference Klein started lobbying to remain as chancellor under a new mayor by talking about the wonderful stability in Boston after having had the same Superintendent for 12 years. Boston topped New York for the Broad (pronounced Brood) prize, supposedly for “an award created to honor urban school districts making the greatest overall improvement in student achievement while at the same time reducing achievement gaps across income and ethnic groups.” In reality, it is a prize for the greatest achievement privatizing as much of public education as possible while undermining the teachers union. It is hard to see how Boston could have topped New York in the latter.

Apparently, BloomKlein were so sure of winning the prize, they trucked all regional superintendents down to the award ceremony, only to end up with just a bit if egg on their faces.

The Times article quoted Bloomberg as saying at a meeting of city commissioners a year ago (my brackets), “We’ve got to find some ways [to put lipstick on the pig] between now and the end of our administration to make it so compelling [more PLOTP] that the public will demand that we continue to put the interest of our students first, and the interest of the people who work in the system or benefit from getting contracts in the system last.”

BloomKlein are putting their interests (let me repeat — Management FIRST instead of Children First) ahead of those of the children. What a joke to talk about those who got contracts in the last system when the BloomKlein regime has made the previous outlay of money to contractors look like small change — but the KGB-like hiding of information by the DOE requires a steam shovel to dig it all up. But when they are gone — it will be “Katie bar the door” time.

The damage to children from the rest of their incompetent schemes; from the one-size-fits-all curriculum (millions of dollars spent on new books by the districts were wasted as these books sit in closets); to the massive amounts spent on PD that so many teachers consider a waste (especially those 2 days before Labor Day); to the spending of $17 million to fix their own incompetent reorganization when just about anyone in the system would tell them what to do for free; to the report that the number of overcrowded classes violating the UFT contract have doubled to over 6000 — now there’s Children First for you. If there were no UFT contract (under such attack by BloomKlein) protecting children from obscene class sizes, they would cram a hundred in a class. Or maybe build more stadiums and have class sizes of 50,000.
The BloomKlein administration will need shipping containers of lipstick.

Randi Weingarten’s quote in the same Times article, considering the onslaught against the members of her union, was tepid, at best: “You talk to a student or a parent who’s in one of the new small schools, they’ll tell you that it’s fantastic. You talk to a parent of a special ed student who hasn’t gotten the placement they want, and they’ll tell you it’s terrible. You just have a whole bunch of anecdotes right now.”

With an obvious need to gear up a campaign to stop the Mayor from lobbying a continuance of the disaster known as mayoral control, Weingarten missed another opportunity to call attention to this by taking a neutral position. Why one might ask, considering the fact that for teachers this has been such a catastrophe? Is it that she put so many eggs in the basket by being a major supporter of the mayor's takeover? Or is it her expectation that in the next election the UFT's favorite candidate Bill Thompson will be the new mayor and the UFT can be back in the driver's seat.

The UFT uses a different shade of lipstick

The UFT version of PLOTP is to convince the members of the advantages of the 2005 contract, where the Open Market System and the inability of senior teachers to be given job preference has led to numerous experienced teachers being tossed from their schools and classrooms and turned in substitutes, one of the most horrifying jobs in the school system. While having full-time subs assigned to a school is not a bad idea (that was my job for my first year and a half as a teacher and I learned a lot while doing it) there has never been such a demand from the UFT. Yet, notice the tub of lipstick applied by a 6-figure salaried UFT PR person disguised as a teacher on the UFT blog:

“There is a real educational benefit in having an ATR pool — and a real benefit to teachers too. If you’ve ever worked in a school…where subs were hard to come by, you know how valuable on-site subs can be… the teachers are spared from having to take extra kids…some principals are just fine with breaking up a class, disrupting everybody else’s classes on that grade for the day…nobody ever really liked bumping. Even the senior teacher who did the bumping was often resented in the new school and made to feel unwanted. And of course, some poor new teacher down the line was out of a job. But what choice was there? Now there is a choice. On balance, I think it’s a better deal.”

This lead to a comment from blogger called “Schoolgal”: “After reading the above comments, I can only conclude that this is a sad day for our union. This has to be the worst spin ever, and tasteless at that.”

The UFT can go halfies on a couple of those lipstick containers with the DOE.

Norman Scott can be reached at

Joel Klein Meets the Press
Sees progress despite flat results

Special To The Wave by Norman Scott, Education Editor
Sept. 29, 2006

New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein held a press conference at the Tweed Courthouse on September 21 to discuss the results of the just released 2006 English Language Arts (ELA) 4th and 8th grade test scores. While not quite ecstatic, Klein seemed pleased with the results – despite the fact that they showed little or no improvement over last year.

City fourth grade scores dropped slightly, but less than the rest of the state. While Klein attributed this drop to a slightly harder test, he felt it was important that the gains of the previous years had been upheld, a point echoed by UFT President RandI Weingarten who held a brief meeting with the press on the steps of Tweed after Klein’s conference.

In 2005 when there was a big jump in 4th grade scores that occurred throughout the state, Klein and Mayor Bloomberg ignored the gains across the state as the Mayor trumpeted the results in his reelection campaign, attributing the improvement to his educational reforms. Some teachers charged that the test was extremely easy, tailored politically rather than educationally in an election year.

This year, across the grades, there was also a significant jump in NYC of Level Ones, the percent of students at the lowest grade level. That was somewhat surprising since numbers of teachers hired to mark the exams in February complained that many exams they graded as Level Ones were ordered changed to Level Twos after consultation with state officials who created the grading rubric, in essence making the results throughout the system look better than they should have been. “A child practically has to breathe on the paper and we are ordered to give them a Two,” said one teacher. A harder test and an easier rubric could theoretically cancel each other out.

At the press conference, Klein compared the NYC results with the so-called Big 4 cities of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers as a more apples-to-apples comparison. Last year when the Big 4 showed gains corresponding with NYC last year, Klein did not make such comparisons, claiming it was his reform package that was the difference, not the nature of the test.

The news was somewhat better for the 8th grade scores, though still dismal, as 36.6% of 8th graders scored Level 3 & 4. Klein claimed a rise of 7.1% in 8th grade scores in the four years he has managed the DOE, statistically higher than the rest of the state. The Big 4 rose 4.95 in this same period. Yet as Bob Tobias, former head of testing for DOE, pointed out, the results in 8th grade are only 1.3% higher than seven years ago – when the state first established this exam. Klein attributed the severe drop off in performance with each succeeding grade once children leave elementary school as being a national problem.

State Education Commissioner Richard Mills was quoted in the NY Times: “The overall pattern is disturbing. Literacy is the problem. This pattern is not inevitable. This pattern has to change… We still have a lot of work to do. We have to do something different. We have to change our tactics, our curriculum, our approach.”

One teacher had a different take. “They want to make is seem that scores stop dropping after the 4th grade because of the curriculum or teacher quality as a substitute for funding education anywhere near the range of the wealthy suburbs or exclusive private schools. Class sizes are often kept low to assure better scores in a scrutinized grade and allowed to rise after that. So much time is spend practicing for the test instead of actually learning to read in a meaningful way, which leads to artificially pumped up scores, much like a weight lifter pumping up a bicep for a competition. When the level of intensity is reduced in the 5th and 6th grades because they do not get as much focus as the 4th grade, the ‘muscle’ goes down as they revert to their ‘true’ reading level.”

Some teachers feel that a truer measure would be to track individual children from the 4th to the 8th grade over the years as a method of getting valid information that could be useful for them. They point to the fact that a certain number of children held over actually take 5 or more years to go from the 4th to the 8th grade and this has an impact on scores, usually skewing them upward.

Both Randi Weingarten and Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters also disagreed with Mills and Klein, saying that there is a correlation with rising class sizes after 4th grade and worse performance, a point that Klein and Mills totally ignored.

As average class sizes in NYC rise dramatically in grades 5 and up, the percent of students scoring at grade level drops —

5th grade: 56.9% at grade level
6th: 48.6% at grade level
7th: 44.3% at grade level
8th: 36.6% at grade level

While the average class sizes in NYC compared to the rest of the state are significantly higher —
5th grade: 26.6 vs. 21.9
6th grade: 27.6 vs. 22.3
7th grade English: 27.9 vs. 21.6
7th grade Math: 28 vs. 21.3
8th grade: 28

Class sizes in NYC, particularly in 7th and 8th grades, have not fallen significantly in seven years according to Haimson. But the averages tell only part of the story. “According to an analysis from the Independent Budget Office a few years ago,” Haimson said, “60% of middle school students remained in classes larger than 28, with nearly half of them in classes larger than 30. The Bloomberg administration continues to tinker at the edges by creating K-8th or 6-12th schools. But as long as our middle school students continue to be deprived of the individual support they need because of their class sizes, we will not see major improvements in these grades.”