Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Wrinkles in the Iron Curtain

So where was I? Oh yes, last time I was comparing the BloomKlein takeover of the NYC school system with the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe. One of the keynotes of that system was inefficiencies and economic breakdowns, part of the reason for the fall of the iron curtain. Here is where one would expect the analogy to the NYCDOE to fall apart. After all, we have master business people running things in Bloomberg and Klein. But au contraire.

I met a businessman on my recent trip to Prague who sometimes does business with the DOE. He was asking about the impact of BloomKlein on the schools. I gave him my take and mentioned no-bid contracts, in particular the $17 million paid to the consultants Alvarez and Marsal to find savings in the very system created by BloomKlein (as I reported in The Wave – “The A&M Story Tastes Better than M&M’s” Sept. 16, 2006). He said one would at least expect that the business end would be well run. He then told me how he had considered bidding on a big contract but when he saw the RFP – request for proposal — it was clearly set up so that only one company could qualify, a company that had lost the contract at one point because of some impropriety. Thus, even bidded contracts are no bid in reality. So much for keeping costs down through competition. Don’t get me started on all the other inefficiencies perpetrated by BloomKlein.

In totalitarian systems, political correctness counts more than competence — one of the most obvious attributes of the BloomKlein takeover, where the keynote is led by the brainwashing Leadership Academy, also known as the Ministry of Fear.

And fear is central in a police-like state — recently a teacher asked me to meet him in a diner far enough away from his school so he would not be seen.

Fear doesn’t exist only at the bottom. One of the hallmarks of totalitarian systems is the climate of fear among top and middle managers over the “numbers” they are expected to produce. Bad numbers and heads would role. Five-year plans always called for increases that were impossible to meet. So they lied. The rulers could never understand why the economy was failing when the numbers coming in showed such great results. When the numbers didn’t match, the rulers just manipulated the data to show how the system was succeeding.

If you work in a school this must sound familiar. Just check the fear factor among supervisors and their supervisors right up to the regional superintendents — the almost desperation and panic at times — over test scores, grades, graduation rates, attendance and anything else that is being tracked by the data-driven ‘educators’ above. (The number of "reported" instances of changing grades grows by leaps and bounds.

Whatever the numbers, they are massaged by the rulers at the DOE. This massage even goes beyond the DOE to the state level where the tests were made easier in an election year.

Collectivization, one size fits all curriculum and standardized teaching
Remember studying about the attempts to eliminate individual farms and collectivize agriculture, forcing all farmers to “forget” their knowledge of farming and use standardized state-run methods in Soviet bloc countries? No matter where it was tried, it turned out to be a disaster and always ended up in a reversal where individual farming had to be reintroduced in some form in order to feed the people. There was actually a general trend to attempt to stamp out individualism on a mass basis.

Teachers at the DOE have undergone their own form of collectivization as a one-size-fits-all curriculum was imposed, along with a standardized method of teaching to go along with standardized bulletin boards. Just listen to the similar jargon and acronyms floating around all schools. (You’re out of touch if you think a LEP is someone with a disease on a remote island.)

In totalitarian systems, there were mass book burnings. When BloomKlein took over, books — many brand new costing millions upon millions of dollars — received the equivalent fate when they were banished to school cellars to rot away unused while millions upon millions more was spent on books that were deemed by many teachers not to be nearly as useful as the ones banned.

Control the means of communication
In all top-down controlled systems, how information is presented to the public assumes a crucial role. Behind the iron curtain all press was controlled. In this country, public relations assumes a crucial role and enormous sums are spent on it, certainly a truism of the NYCDOE. But you might wonder if it is all that necessary. The NYC press, owned by business people who are “with” the program, make you think the world of BloomKlein is a Garden of Eden (though recently more and more reporters have begun to see through the mist.)

Except, of course, for the completely non-critical NY Times, which remains immune to the scandals and always manages to report just one side of the story. I used to at least look forward to the Wednesday “Education” page where Mike Winerip would report on events going on in the NYC schools. Since he left, these reports touch down anywhere in the country — except NYC. Maybe Mike stepped on too many toes.

One of the most blatant examples of slavish support by the business community was a recent glowing tribute to Bloomberg and Klein in US New & World Report, owned by Morton Zuckerman who also owns the Daily News and is vice-chair of Klein’s private fundraising “Fund For Public Schools.” Parent activist Maria Dapontes-Dougherty President, D30 Presidents' Council was prompted to write a letter to the editor.
Here are excerpts:

“Mr. Klein's premise was that ‘teachers are the most crucial people in the system’ and yet he shows them no respect and is dismissive of their opinions… Parents are philosophized and politicized as a vital component of the system, but are blocked any time they voice an opinion or try to participate. Schools cannot be run exclusively like a business, in as the ‘product’ of this business are the future minds of our country. They are our children!
“The savings in bureaucracy was utilized to create a new bureaucracy and to fill the pockets of big business catering to education. Mayor Bloomberg's partnering with private groups is costing the system millions of dollars. There was no public input in the expenditure of this public money. The cronyism and entrenched interests are now with big businesses….
“The uniform curriculum led to a massive expenditure in books and materials. There was a large increase in middle management which was the strategy for centralization of the system. After three years of this decision not really making enough of an impact there is now a strategy to decentralize with the creation of ‘empowerment Schools’. So here we are having come full circle in aging buildings with antiquated electrical systems and not enough materials. Our class sizes are bursting at the seams and [among] the highest in the country. Our middle school students still show a high percentage of low performing students and our graduation rate in high school is still a disgrace at 43%. [Massaged into 57% by DOE data managers.]
“If these two men are an example of what leaders are in our great country, then our future is dismal.”

Maria’s letter is a sign of the growing opposition to BloomKlein from parent groups, an interesting development considering the lack of opposition in the early years. Andy Wolfe explains in the NY Sun:
“Upon assuming … control, the mayor and chancellor moved quickly to win over the school system's parental establishment the old-fashioned way — by giving out jobs.
“At a May 9, 2003, press conference organized by the Department of Education, the president of the United Parents Association, Ernest Clayton, praised Mr. Klein's plans to hire parent coordinators in each school, stating that ‘this is the first time we've had a chancellor willing to make a substantial investment in parent involvement.’ Mr. Clayton, who led an umbrella organization of more than 200 individual school parent associations, was perhaps the city's best-known parent advocate.
“By July, Mr. Clayton had given up his post to take a $60,000-a-year administration job: parent support officer in Division 3 in Northeast Queens.
“In fact, many of the more than 1,200 people initially hired as parent coordinators and citywide and regional support staff came right out of the leadership of the parent groups and parent associations, effectively co-opting a key source of potential opposition.”

Now, there’s BloomKlein doing business the old fashioned way —if you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em.

The Wave, November 3, 2006


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