Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The More Things Change….

Updated (thanks to DB for finding typos.)
I wrote this column for the upcoming special edit
ion on education in The Wave due out August 24.

So this email comes in from Wave editor Howie Schwach asking for a column for the Wave’s “Back to School” special edition. Back to School? It’s not even the middle of August. And then I remembered - teachers have to go back in August. Two days before Labor Day. Oh, The humanity!

Some have told me of all the indignities of the 2005 contract this may be the worst. Those daye last week before school began and coming back on Labor Day are gone. Some people now feel they have to go in two days before the two days to set up their rooms, as the other two days will be used for professional development, which obviously, every teacher need globs of. The little butterflies that used to start to gnaw away in mid August now show up a week early and grow bigger as the month goes by till they turn into dragons. (By the way, the only way to conquer these dragons is Twinkies, lots of them.)

Well, off to the task at hand. Howie wanted something on how schools are opening without supervision from districts or regions or whatever. All new school years begin with a review of old material. So let’s see what you remember. There will be a high stakes test at the end of this column where your car will be confiscated if you don’t pass, so pay attention kiddies.

In 2002, new Mayor Michael Bloomberg led a charge to give total control of the system to the mayor, a practice that has been growing nationally. This effort was supported by the UFT. Joel Klein, a lawyer without any experience as an educator (other than a supposed 6 month teaching stint in the late 60’s when the draft board was breathing down his neck – my reason for getting into teaching too) was appointed Chancellor joining the national trend to choose non-educators to head large urban school systems. The smell was in the air: Don’t trust educators to make basic decisions about education. What’s next? Having bureaucrats at HMO’s make medical decisions?

In a major move, BloomKlein changed the name from the BOE to the DOE. There was no more BOE. This was replaced by the PEP (Panel for Educational Policy – mostly appointed by the Mayor). In a major reorganization, all districts were combined into 10 regions, some even crossing boroughs. The special ed district was kept intact. All power emanated centrally.

The result? Disaster! Disaster beyond anyone’s imagination as teachers and parents were totally shut out of the system (previously they had been only 90% shut out but it was by people supposedly trained to some extent as educators) no matter how bizarre the decisions coming down from central. I won’t go into the gory details since they require a multi-volume book. Let’s just say experience as an educator didn’t count. And the Klein lawyer/MBA whiz kids types were now in charge. Massive changes in curricula and teaching methods were forced down everyone’s throat as the baby was thrown out with the bath water. Even great ideas were mangled in translation. I won’t even get into the immense amounts of money that was thrown down the tubes as privateers flocked to the DOE. To sum up: almost universal incompetence as everything they touched turned to doo-doo.

Witness the latest exercise: the implementation and follow-through of the Kahil Gibran International Academy with the predicted resignation of the respected educator Debbie Almontaser, who had run interfaith healing meetings after 9/11 and the appointment of a Jewish successor – to run an Arabic language school. We won’t even get into the discussion of whether such schools should exist. But for those people out there who like to jump on anything related to Arabic or Muslims (i.e., the NY Post), someone should check out what’s been going on in Williamsburg for the past 35 years where there have been bi-lingual Yiddish classes in public schools with all Hassidic teachers and kids. Guess the Post is not all that bothered by the concept.

Come 2006, guess what? Bloomberg and Klein (forever joined at the hip in these columns as BloomKlein) decided to reorganize again. Regions were out, districts back in. High schools were now out of the local districts and back into five borough districts, which is how they have been organized from say, 1890 ‘till 2002. The more things change….

But there were some major twists as BloomKlein institute a management system that has not been used anywhere. (If Bloomberg ran his business this way he would probably have ended up working as a clerk. Or maybe teaching 4th grade.) All power now resides in the hands of individual principals with supposedly little oversight from above – unless something goes wrong.

All principals were required to choose a support network from the following: Four networks led by former regional Superintendents (including Region 5’s Kathy Cashin), a centrally managed Empowerment Zone - a network of over 300 schools, or from a list of 9 private support agencies. How do you spell M-E-S-S?

Schools will now be giving 6 tests a year to prepare them for the BIG ONE. It is all about data and outcomes, saith BloomKlein. And outcomes do not mean that a teacher manages to do wonders with a difficult child in terms of their behavior. Or hold kids in an oversized class in check. Nada. Outcomes mean solely the results of these tests. Schools will graded from A-F and principals with an F will be fired (but probably recycled into some other bureaucratic job.) Attempts will be made to use the outcomes on these tests to evaluate the performance of teachers. Results will be used by principals to deny teachers tenure and U-rate teachers with tenure as being incompetent because Johnny can’t move from a Level One to Level Two. The UFT (who are they again?) will put on a show of objecting. But only a show. They will tell teachers to file grievances which will take a year to be heard. And teachers that are fired will not be recycled but blacklisted from ever working in the system again.

District superintendents will function mainly to evaluate schools based on the results of tests and will have no role in support. Just in evaluation.

I spoke to Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters who has the best handle on what is happening in Tweedledom. “The separation of support from evaluation is a model that has not been tried in any educational system I know of, and from what people tell me, not even the corporate world. Usually, the person evaluating is also responsible for helping to fix what is wrong.” District Superintendents will not even be evaluating schools in their own district and will not know the specific needs of the schools they should be most familiar with.

“The $80 million IBM Aris system will be inputting and spitting out data. But the data will be severely circumscribed and will not include factors such as class size or overcrowded conditions. Principals are supposed to be able to manage them. Haimson pointed to Murray Bergtraum HS, one of the large schools that have been affected by the closing of other large schools and the placement of small schools in their place. It is 125% over capacity, with triple shifts and maximum class sizes, with many more needy kids pushed out of closed schools, while the favored small schools and charter schools have lower class size limits that allow Tweed to brag about higher grad rates (don’t get me started on how these numbers have been arrived at.)

“Their strategy of fixing problems by shutting down schools and opening new ones rather than actually providing these schools with a chance to improve demonstrates the emptiness of their vision of school reform,” Haimson said.

“They only push problems from school to school. Their refusal to cap enrollment at large schools at least as a start to fix these schools instead of closing them is an admission they do not know how to do it. They absolve themselves of responsibility when they refuse to go beyond the idea that all it takes is proper management of a school and good instruction. In other words, failures are the fault of principals and teachers, not systemic. They claim they have changed the system from bad to good. To get to great all they have to do is unleash the entrepreneurial spirit of individual school leaders. It is the wild west.”

It is also the free market and competitive system brought to the schools, which will prove to have the same impact as if it were brought to firefighting (a bonus to the first fireman up the ladder?)

Haimson points to some obvious outcomes based on principals’ fears of being fired or the incentive to earn bonuses if “successful.” Poor performing students will be forced out or discouraged from attending the school in the first place. Cheating on tests and pressures on teachers to pass failing students to inflate the graduation rates will be rampant. Since schools get grad credit for kids passing the much easier GED (about an 8th grade level) students will be channeled in that direction. Things will appear to look much better. In reality, the more things change…

(Note: While the outer surface of the system may have been changed mucho times, for the overwhelming majority of students, the long-term results will not be much different.)

Additional material:

Historical background
Until circa 1968 schools were centrally controlled but with some oversight by a board of Education. But it was pretty much under the control of the mayor. There were districts for managerial purposes and superintendents appointed centrally.

In 1968, power over K-8 schools was taken over by locally elected school boards divided into 32 geographical districts. These boards had to hold public meetings every month. Nobody cared. Few voted. Few attended unless there was a pressing issue. The performance of the districts varied greatly depending on – guess what -- the abilities the kids brought to the table when they entered school. Duh!

High schools remained under c
entral control divided into roughly 5 districts. There was also a centrally controlled special ed district though local districts had their own special ed operations. Geez, I’m tired already.

There was some hanky panky in some districts that resulted in demands for more oversight at the central level. In the late 90’s, some power was given to the Chancellor (did I say there was a revolving door for this position?) to choose the district superintendents. There was a different level of hanky panky in the centrally controlled high schools but no one bothered to mention this.

Demonstration supporting Debbie Almontaser at Tweed, Aug. 21


  1. Why did you have to label the internem principal of the Khalil Gibran Inst as a Jew? Is that the issue? Or is it that she is non-Arab?

    There are many Jews of Arabic origin (I am descended from Iraqi Jews).

    As for the Hassidic Jews in Williamsburg (who by the way are anti-Zionist and anti-Israel), the only students who get public school education (bilingual Yiddish) are those who are in special education. I believe they are provided with the services because of various court decisions (such as the Lau decree?)

    You make it sound like all the Hassids in Williamsburg attend special public schools. That isn't so.

  2. It seems everyone finds irony and insensitivity in putting a Jew in to run the school (and by the way, since you are establishing your roots, I too have first and second cousins living in Israel and my mom's entire village was wiped out by the Nazis including many family members.)

    As for the Hassids in Williamsburg, they used their voting block to control the schools for their own ends and got away with it. $7 million disappeared into their schools and because both Superintendents died they were allowed to get away with phony jobs, etc. Politicians were catering to the voting bloc.

    Sure their special ed were entitled - but Catholic kids have otbe taught in trailers, not as a bi-lingual yiddish program which allowed them to hire their own teachers at public school salaries.

  3. Good job on exposing how bad the schools are Norm.

  4. Brainy, funny, and sadly all true!

    If teaching doesn't work out, you can move over to Bloomberg LLC and keep us all laughing about the subprime mortgage crisis. Which seems small compared to this.


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