Friday, November 9, 2007

Bard's Botstein says "Let 'em eat cake (or meat)"

Bard College President Leon Botstein is being hailed a hero in some quarters for appealing the "C" rating his school (today's NY Times article posted at Norms Notes). There's lots of meat in his comments, though he says his school (the elite) are vegetables and the rest of the vermin are meat. Or something like that.

Some choice nuggets from the NY Times article:

School officials agreed to meet with Bard officials next week. “I appealed to the chancellor in an effort to tell him to remove this year’s assessment so that a better mode of assessment could be put together,” Mr. Botstein said.

Elisaa Gootman writes: educators and parents at.. nontraditional and high-performing... say that while the new rating system, which is driven by standardized test scores, may be a good way to measure whether schools are imparting basic knowledge, it is less useful and even harmful on the higher end of the performance spectrum.
Mr. Botstein said he respected the chancellor’s need to turn around a failing school system, but urged that he not do it at the expense of innovation and excellence.

“You have a system that is broken and that is failing, and they are desperately trying to improve it. But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” he said. “There are a couple of places, and we’re one of them, that really do something different and well.
“Not all plants are weeds,” he said, “so why are you spraying insecticide on the whole thing?”

He said of the Regents, “They’re to a lower standard, and we won’t teach to the test.“They’re in a tough bind, and I have a lot of respect for them,” he said.

“Let’s say we’re a vegetarian restaurant and you’re telling me our meat is not good. I’m telling you we don’t serve meat. We’re not in the meat business.”

In Botstein's world, and he knows full well this rating system is a farce for everyone, it is ok to force such a system down everyone else's throat but he wants special treatment. Or he says he has respect for them for political reasons, knowing full well if he criticizes the entire concept of the grading system, Tweed will pull out their dossier on him as they did with Diane Ravitch and send a Wylde attack dog after him. Or suddenly find building problems with the school he wants to open in Queens.

Before we go on with Botstein and Bard, let me reference Eduwonkette who uses her stat stick to give us five reasons the report cards might kindly be called statistical malpractice.

"I've concluded that the people in need of a wake-up call work not at F schools, but at the NYC Department of Education. Undoubtedly, data can and should be used for organizational learning and school improvement. But if we're going to rank and sort schools - an action that has serious consequences for the kids, educators, and parents affected - the Department of Ed's methods should be in line with the standards to which statisticians and quantitative social scientists hold themselves. Needless to say, NYC's report cards are not.

I urge Botstein to go and read the entire wonkette piece and then look us in the eye and tell us how much he respects BloomKlein.

I have a particular interest in Bard's progress. I know and like one of the teachers there so if she ever reads this I am never saying that great education doesn't take place at Bard (but they do have special kids that make great education easy) and of course the fact that Botstein says they don't teach to the test is an important statement.

I just wish he wouldn't say it is ok for everyone else, especially kids who are struggling and do not need a culture of teaching to the test that will only serve to turn them off to school even more. They need the culture Botstein is trying to instill as much if not more than anyone. If Botstein wants a challenge, let him open a school that does not attempt to pick the low-hanging fruit but goes after the most at risk students. Take the most struggling school in the city and turn it around without replacing the kids. Then he would be a hero.

But Botstein's history vis a vis struggling schools is not a good one.

I witnessed Botstein's rape and pillage of IS 126 (taking the entire 4th floor) in Williamsburg (I was the district tech liaison there) where Bard was first located, followed by the hostile takeover of PS 97 on the lower east side, where kids from homeless shelters had the only school that nurtured them ripped out from under them by Bard after they abandoned 126 because they refused to give in to their lebensraum (Bard wanted the 3rd floor too, being perfectly willing to squeeze the middle school students and teachers into closets).

No blame to BloomKlein here, as those deals were Klein predecessor Harold Levy's deal. Maybe that's what's going on.with the "C" rating. The revenge of Tweed on Harold's baby?

Read on for the ugly details
I was in JHS 126 on the day (I think it may have been spring 2000) the Bard deal was announced to much fanfare and press and DOE officials, with Harold Levy leading the charge, inundated the school's auditorium. Word was that a million dollars would be poured into renovating the 4th floor. Teachers were very pissed at the long-time principal, Sheldon Toback, for agreeing to this but he felt this would protect him against his growing critics (he may be the dean of Principals having run the school since the last 60's, but they just got an "F" and that may be the end.) Toback had gone from one of the leading lights as a principal in the 70's to leading a quickly declining school.

The renovation that summer included dividing almost every classroom in two since Bard kids were going to have small class sizes, beautiful new doors for each class, a new computer lab (while the old ones at 126 were falling apart – I know as it was part of my job to help keep them running) and all kinds of other goodies. When probably less than a 100 9th graders arrived in the fall, the disproportion between Bard and the IS 126 grades 7-9 kids (many Polish kids from Greenpoint, including many non-English speakers) now squeezed into 3 floors was clear. There was little mixing between the staffs, with the Bard administrators showing extreme arrogance towards the people at 126.

Naturally, the staff at 126 had tremendous resentment towards Bard, who they (rightly) saw as trying to steel their school out from under them. So relations in the teacher cafeteria were not exactly cordial.

I should point out that JHS 126 was once the flagship of District 14 when Supt. (Wild) Bill Rogers, who "taught" there, gave them mucho resources and the ability to steal the best kids from all over the district. When the coup d'etat by which UFT District Rep Mario DeStefano became Superintendent in the late 80's or early 90's and Rogers was deposed, resources shifted to IS 318 where Mario's guy Alan Fierstein (see my recent post in what makes IS 318 a good school here) was ensconced and JHS 126 began a long slow decline as the best kids went to 318 and more and more special ed and problem kids were dumped into the 126. In recent years, PS 132, a local feeder school, went K-8, thus taking away more kids. But some of the remnants from the teaching staff from the good old days still carried the "we're the elite" attitude.

Though the decline in 126 (and don't get me wrong, it was my favorite school to go to, with a wonderful teaching staff which Toback still actively recruited very rigorously) was due in part to the political manipulations by the old school district machine, it had become a self full-filling prophesy and teacher turnover began to rise. People were hoping Toback would retire and new leadership would help restore the luster. Under the first reorganization, the LIS in charge of the school was considered quite good and supportive and there were people actually hoping she would lead the school. But Toback has survived I believe because he can still count on some level of old-style seniority CSA protections and is still clinging on. The "F" grade may doom him and the school.

Back to Bard
As expected, Botstein and Bard began to demand the 3rd floor and finally Toback said "NO" which apparently he had the right to do. Bard then focused its attention on a new location. Besides, Greenpoint is not all that accessible. What of all the renovations on the 4th floor that left almost every single classroom unusable by the full-sized classes at 126? Not Bard's problem.

PS 97 the next target
PS 97 on the lower east side became the new takeover target. My source over there is a former teacher who was working with the school as an employee of Central. A top notch educator who spent most of her career in the classroom, her evaluation of the school can be trusted. She told me in an interview yesterday that it was a school that had an enormous number of kids from local shelters and did an amazing job of nurturing these kids. An example she gave was that since shelters have a rule that people can stay for only 6 months and then be moved to another shelter, often in the Bronx, many parents still brought their kids down to PS 97. She praised the principal and staff as being excellent, given the conditions. As an example of turnover rates, out of 326 children, 197 were new one year.

My friend was in the building when one day she saw a man from central going around with a tape measure. That was the first anyone in the school new they were in danger of being closed Who was that masked man, by the way? No less than Burt Sachs, notorious pre-BloomKlein central board power monger who had a reputation for enormous arrogance, one of the first to go under the BloomKlein takeover - some people early on considered Klein a hero for dumping the likes of Sachs and others - who would a thunk that one day we would wish for the likes of Burt Sachs to be back as Tweedle arrogance make Sachs look like a saint.

UFT to the rescue
But never you worry about Burt. Soon after leaving the DOE, guess who hired him for a full-time position? Randi Weingarten. He's still there doing something that no one knows exactly what it is. But he is valued for his knowledge in gaming the DOE. Maybe he helped work out the brilliant deal on merit pay with the Kleinites.

And Bard? They now occupy the entire old PS 97.

Give Botstein an "A" in hostile takeovers.


  1. It jarred me just the same way when I read the article where you quote it:

    "...educators and parents at some schools [nontraditional and high-performing ones] ... say that while the new rating system, which is driven by standardized test scores, may be a good way to measure whether schools are imparting basic knowledge."

    But then I thought this may be Gootman's opinion, not words out of Botstein's or anyone else's real mouth.

    Nevertheless. Am totally in agreement that what's good for the goose (Bard kids) is good for the gander (the rest), and as you say, even more so for the ganders in the system who "do not need a culture of teaching to the test that will only serve to turn them off to school even more."

  2. Actually, Mr. Botstein's response was far, far worse, and considerably more elitist. His comment that, "Not all plants are weeds, so why are you spraying insecticide on the whole thing?" displays a contempt for the rest of the public schools that is shockingly condescending. But as we are quickly seeing, not only are these report grades a meaningless travesty, they still allow plenty of room for those with influence to manipulate and game the system to their benefit. This entire situation is an enormous embarrassment for the NYC public school system on a national level. How anyone can support this regime and Mayoral control as currently constituted after this debacle is completely beyond my understanding.

    Steve Koss


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