Monday, July 2, 2007
Small Schools: Bloomberg & Klein have a dog in the hunt....
... thus, politics takes precedence over education
Exploring some of the complexities of the small schools/large schools issue.
As Canarsie high school parents met with Region 6 Officials - sort of, we think - the press was banned - we noticed a poster on the door of the Region HQ at 5719 Flatlands Ave. says "Your voice counts. When one parent speaks schools listen." Sure.
On Monday, June 25, a group of parents and teachers and some students came to the Region 6 HQ in its final days to ask for a meeting to discuss the planned removal of principal David Harris. What they got was typical DOE mumbo jumbo. That, added to the fact that not all of them were allowed into the meeting. Lack of space or something like that. There must be special training sessions at Tweed on exactly what to say to people who demand answers.
It is certainly of interest that in their dying gasps, just days before they officially closed down the operation, officials of Region 6 chose to disrupt yet another high school with the removal of Harris, a popular principal who seems to have the support of parents, teachers and many students.
One teacher, just days away from retirement, said that Harris in his year and a half tenure had begun to change the culture of a school that has been under serious difficulty over a period of many years.
My guess would be that the removal of Harris is part to the overall plan to close down Canarsie to make room for a gaggle of charter schools by making it impossible to show any success.
In giving some background to a reporter from Channel 12, I talked about the political context of the action in Canarsie against the backdrop of the closing of just about all the other large schools in the immediate area – Jefferson, Tilden, South Shore, Wingate – leaving Canarsie as the last large school standing. When I and another teacher made some critical comments regarding small schools, the reporter said, "What's wrong with small schools?" We told her there is nothing intrinsically wrong with small schools, but when shoved into larger ones creating even more pressures leading their ultimate closing, they are being used as a political tool.
"Explain," she said.
If you start out with the idea that you are going to make the establishment of successful small schools one of the pillars of your national reputation as an educational miracle maker and stake your political bones on these grounds, then you have a political ax to grind to make large schools look bad and small schools look good. BloomKlein and their Tweedle Dees have a dog in that race and will manipulate stats to give their small school dog every edge they can. Note the extolling of grad rates in small schools and the concurrent attack on the stats in large schools. While the numbers have grains of truth in them, as usual there is a story behind the numbers.
See the accompanying piece at Norm's Notes where Diane Ravitch nails the details on the spinage spilling out of the mouths of Tweed on grad rates.
Since small schools in their initial years do not have the facilities to accept some of the more difficult students to work with, like special ed and students with language difficulties, these students end up gravitating to the nearest large schools still remaining open. This is moving pieces, which is all the children are to the Tweedles, around a game board. Or rearranging those proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic.
In fact there is a lot of information on the subtle creaming to skim the better students that goes on at these small schools. Klein denies it, pointing to the number of Level 1's and 2's and to the fact that 90% of the students are African-American and Hispanic (figures the DOE gives us no way to prove by withholding access to the actual data.) Because schools require an application process where a proactive parent must make an active decision, that alone is a form of creaming. Even low performing students academically, but with parents concerned enough to take action, are often not the kind of behavior problems and that make such an enormous difference in how a school functions.
I have no problems with the fact that these kids are skimmed and often saved by the attention they get in the small schools, one of their prime benefits. But I object to the way the policy is implemented in a way to harm way more kids than are helped. Plus the outright lies and distortions.
When I was a teacher and had difficult kids heading for middle school where I knew they would get lost, I hoped that such schools would exist. I even looked for one for an extremely difficult child who ended up dropping out in the 7th grade and was killed at 18 while selling drugs. So I absolutely support the movement to create small learning environments. But not in the way it is being done by BloomKlein, whose main purpose is political, not educational.
Let's at least be open abut what is going on. Any teacher or administrator will tell you that a fairly small cadre of difficult to manage kids can infect an entire school. These are kids who have parents that will not be out there looking for a small learning environment. In cases that they do and the kids end up in a small school that is in no way equipped to deal with the difficulties they present, in many cases the school does the kinds of things that will drive the kid to either drop out or transfer to a large school.
See examples of how schools do this in Jeff Coplon's New York Mag amazing piece "NEST+m: An Allegory" the most succinct account I've read of the manipulation principals engage in to drive students out. I had the opportunity to meet Jeff at a party last Friday night and told him this was one of the most perceptive pieces I had read and points to the serious lack of adequate reporting by the NYC Ed press. Jeff said it was his first ed piece. Kudos to him.
Most of these kids also want to be able to hang out with buddies, roam the halls, etc -- all the things that drive all schools, but especially the larger ones to distraction. They become an infection of sorts to the rest of t he kids. As to how to rescue these kids, we'll address at another time.
But the DOE shell game of moving schools around creates a class of nomad students not really wanted by anyone, but the large schools are forced to accept them and schools like Canarsie, which as we pointed out, will be overloaded with these super at-risk students who will be joined by many students who will not find room in the small schools in the neighborhood. That at a time of the massive reorganization and the expectation that with South Shore and Tilden not accepting 9th graders who will gravitate to Canarsie, the idea of not leaving Harris there as principal and bringing in someone new at this crucial point in time is insane. But this is the NYC DOE. I have an idea. Try Jolanta Rohloff who can deal with the situation by threatening teachers with u ratings. (One sidelight of Harris' removal was his refusal to come up with his quota of U-ratings.) Sorry, she's slated to destroy Manhattan Center for Math & Science.
Since there will never be enough room in the very cost-intensive small schools where the Bill Gates money runs out after 4 years and these schools begin to face some of the downhill slides if they cannot attract enough students who can perform well academically, the people at Tweed ought to invest the capital necessary to attempt to fix the large schools instead of throwing up their hands and saying it is no use.
The attack on large schools, using the buzz words of "we need to change the culture" is an attempt to replace a teaching staff that is often more knowledgeable about their union rights - in effect a union-busting tactic. In essence, they want to change the culture on the backs of young, inexperienced teachers who will be often be burned out after just a few years and replaced.
When I attended a luncheon at the Manhattan Institute for Christopher Cerf, he said throwing money at educational problems doesn't automatically fix them. I raised the point that the DOE under BloomKlein is willing to throw all kinds of money at consultants, expensive computer systems and all kinds of pet programs, but not at schools. I asked, "Why not at least try throwing money at schools like Tilden and Lafayette instead of closing them? Try putting enormous amounts of personnel to provide guidance, social workers and a drastic reduction in class size." He had no response. But that's expected when you have a dog in the hunt.
Bloomberg and Klein's dog (undoubtedly a lap dog) is proving one of the underpinnings of their restructuring of the NYC school system - the success of the small schools - will be hammered home again and again even at the expense of the overwhelming majority of students remaining in the large high schools. To them, the collateral damage to an entire generation of students is a small price to pay. If there were truly an educational pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, we could at least say their motives were pure. But every day they reinforce the idea that it's all about politics, not education.