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.”


  1. How does the teacher's union deal with school reform?

  2. Are you talking about the UFT or generally? I can only talk about the UFT. It has been charged over the years with retarding real reform, though the use of the word "real" means different things to different people. After all, BloomKlein claims to have totally reformed the system but I view what they did as overturning the structure and replaced it with a superstructure. Not reform.

    Real reform to me always focused on teacher control over basic educational processes. I would set up teams of teachers and give them total responsibility for educating a bunch of kids over a period of time (years) in any way that they see fit. I would make sure there was not a strict number based on class size but at least one extra person or more who either coordinate or rotate with the others. A real learning community. Provide social workers and guidance to the teams. After school support for the kids, etc. It would cost money but why not try an experiment in a couple of places?

    But getting the union on board to any plan that empowers teachers seems doomed. I really believe that the leadership doesn't trust rank and file teachers.
    There's probably lost more ideas. Any of your own?


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