Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Historical Perspective, 2003: On Closing Schools and High Stakes Testing and the UFT's Role

There was a lot of wallop packed into a few pages of Ed Notes when we published our second 16 page tabloid edition 7 years ago in Jan. 2003.

The incredibly perceptive John Lawhead [ICE-TJC candidate for the High School Executive Board] laid down some serious truths on testing and small schools and where Eric Nadelstern [now rumored to be Joel Klein's successor] was coming from at the time.

George Schmidt, sent John an email after reading his article, including this gem:
Most of the "small schools" research (at least the stuff around here, especially from William Ayers and Michael Klonsky of UIC) is also intellectually dishonest. Nailing Ayers 5 years before he became famous all over again.

Check out the ed deform disasters in Chicago and now New York today.

I had just met Lawhead in late 2002, and he proved to be one of a most perceptive analysts on the deep issues affecting education. In March 2003 John and I attended a meeting in Birmingham, Alabama with some of the leading Resisters to NCLB, high stakes testing, and all the ed deforms to come – such leading lights as Susan Ohanian, the late Steve Orel, Juanita Doyon, Bill and Joanne Cala and 20 others. I learned so much from these people and from John, one of the most widely read people I've ever met- code words for "I felt downright inorant." I learned in those days that John had been the administrative assistant to a lawyer at Columbia U who happened to be named James Leibman, who became Joel Klein's Chief Accountability Officer years later. Boy does the worm turn.

Nine months later John and I and a few others hatched the idea of an Independent Community of Educators (ICE) which has attracted some of the leading thinkers and writers in the UFT.

John's analysis is incisive. Teaching at soon to be closed Bushwick HS, he saw a copy of Ed Notes in his mailbox at school and sent in this article. After Bushwick HS was closed – and the process he lived through has given him enormous insight – he ended up a Tilden HS where he is chapter leader. Now Tilden is about to be closed as the Tweed tsunami sweeps through Brooklyn.

In that same early 2003 edition, I ran an email sent by George Schmidt to John sharing his experiences with the small schools movement in Chicago (see below John's article), followed by my 2 cents at the time on the role the UFT was playing in the high stakes tests/school closing scenario.

Shhhhhhhhhh ... The Small Schools are Coming
by John Lawhead, Teacher, Bushwick HS
Jan. 2003

Teachers, let's repeat the mantra:

Change is never easy but it is necessary and good. Change is a part of life and it's a big part of a school system that feeds us.

Teachers know that change is also a godsend for those who can't finish what they start. Often the changes are meant to invite a kind of amnesia that will take us past whatever has previously been inflicted on the schools or promised but never delivered.

I belong to a pocket of teachers who are suspicious and combative about the new wave of small schools reform. Not everyone understands us. For instance, me and my complaints about the New York Teacher newspaper. What they put in and what they leave out.

Why be irritated over a paper that's mainly devoted to making teachers feel good about being teachers? On the days when it comes you can put your feet up and read about the fresh triumphs and "historic" accomplishments of our union.

The rub is that my Brooklyn high school is being phased out and September and October have passed without a word about any of it. Nothing about this year's opening of small schools and the phasing out of large ones in the Bronx. In the absence of clear statements suspicions turn to speculation.

My guess is that this is another issue, like high-stakes testing and teacher-proof curricula, on which our UFT leadership prefers to "deliver" a passive teacher constituency for its political bedfellows. Perhaps that's an overly subjective perception. I'll just leave it there and let's wait and see. {emphasis mine}

[Breaking up large neighborhood high schools into smaller theme-based academies is not something new. Perhaps that's why the current wave of small schools, officially called the New Century Initiative, rolled into the Bronx and now Brooklyn with almost no attention from the major media. The hiring of a staunch small schools proponent, Michele Cahill into the Department of Education's high command as well as comments by Joel Klein have been the more widely noted signals that small schools are the coming trend.]

As with any school reform there are reasons; and then there are reasons. Let's start with a big one. The City's Department of Education is operating under the pressure of federal mandates to demonstrate vigorous reform efforts and offer alternative schooling and other services to students in low-performing schools.

The small schools initiative which is being overseen by New Visions for Public Schools lets the city spend private money to close schools and open new ones in a time of looming budget crises. In this way, leaving aside the nature of the reform, the financially strapped school system is able to use tens of millions in foundation largesse (Gates, Carnegie and Open Society) to do something dramatic. Reason enough. Why debate the particulars?

Only that some fairly credible people are claiming it's all for the better. The plan calls for participants at the school and community level. Staff at schools slated for closing are being wooed as potential small schools designers.

The small schools proponents argue that size is the thing that matters. In the first place the smallness allows for greater familiarity among staff and students. Small schools foster a sense of community in which students thrive.

In discussing the positive effects of the smaller, more friendly environment the reform enthusiasts are often also quick to mention favorable data the show the superiority of a small school situation. If they are careful they will qualify the claim, that this data only pertain to "at risk" students. Sometimes people seem to take for granted that it's only Black and Latino that are being discussed. That's both understandable and alarming. The discussions have mostly revolved around the schools targeted for closing and so far those schools have only been in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

The other part of the pitch is innovation. "Why should students have to learn math inside a classroom?" asks Brooklyn High Schools Superintendent Charles Majors. This part of the argument seems to rely on suggestive appeal rather than achievement data.

The small schools initiative propelled two former small school principals into the role of district administrators. Eric Nadelstern [Ed Note: Now rumored to be Joel Klein's successor] and Paul Schwarz are the deputy superintendents for small schools in the Bronx and Brooklyn respectively. It has fallen upon them to field the most difficult questions. Paul Schwarz, for instance, is facing teachers in a district where a command-style of administration has been prevalent. In my school and several others students must learn math in front of a computer with a packaged curriculum that no one in the school asked for. The obvious question for those charged with small schools implementation, and perhaps for others, is why isn't more local autonomy, innovation and student/staff familiarity being advocated for the large schools?

As a newly minted administrator Schwarz pleads innocence regarding the neglect or abuse of the large schools. As to whether the district is a favorable environment for innovation he describes the coming wave of small schools as a "paradigm shift." Major changes are in the forecast but there aren't many actual guarantees yet. He does voice the suggestion that small schools reform will have an influence on the entire school system.

Eric Nadelstern pushes further in this regard. He's an ardent believer in the potential of small schools reform for everyone. In fact, Nadelstern calls for breaking up all the large schools including selective high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. As unlikely as that prospect might seem, the man seems to have chosen his stand with integrity. He is clearly for more than the phasing out of zoned schools in Black and Latino neighborhoods. He is adamant that all large schools are failing their students.

Nadelstern also expresses a crusader's zeal on another issue: the possibility that small schools would try to improve their data by gleaning students. He concedes that many school people believe the way to show improvement is by finding better students and turning away the worse ones. To prevent that he vows that the small schools will abide by what he calls "random selection." It's something of a paradox the way the man can display both small-scale idealism and an administrator's high and mighty scorn for those who cheat at the numbers game.

The test for such reformers is to what extent they can change the system versus what it does to them. There are, after all, two sides to the bargain. If the school system is only bent on the wholesale elimination of zoned schools in Black and Latino neighborhoods then the school reformers may prove more useful to the system than to their small-scale cause.

Both Schwarz and Nadelstern are advocating the formation of school communities within "choice schools." There's no support from them for neighborhood-based community schools and that's significant. For most of the kids involved small schools is going to mean commuter schools. It's really not hard to imagine what kinds of students will be drawn into the new arrangement and who will not.

Alas, the small schools reformers may be surfing atop Microsoft millions but that isn't the only money in play. A trend in recent years has been the increased interest of upper middle class parents, mostly white, in having their children attend neighborhood public schools. Whites make up just over a third of school-age children in the city and roughly half of them go to public schools. The more affluent parents bring money and a willingness to pour some of it into the schools their children attend. They also bring political clout and one expects their wishes will tend to be met.

The most troubling aspect of the smalls schools reform is the distinct possibility that the school system values small schools for their weakness rather than their strength.

It hasn't been so long since their alternative assessments were defeated in favor of standardization by the State Commissioner of Education Richard Mills. Advocates for the Performance Standards Consortium had been adamant that a regime of regents exams would destroy their curriculum and their mission.

They also practiced a 'holier than thou' approach to the threat by declining to spearhead any larger challenge to high-stakes testing in the city. The court appeal of the Mills' decision was argued as narrowly as possible. It did not directly challenge the use of high-stakes testing in large schools.

So the question is this: If the well-knit alternative assessment schools could not mobilize enough parent or community support to defend what they claimed they needed, then what does that say about the strength of the new commuter academies that Black and Latino youth are being funneled into?

What happens to such schools when their school data shows decline for whatever reasons, including possibly, the honesty of the school staff? We can imagine they might easily be closed without much fuss from the local residents who might say: Who went to that school anyway?

And for the teachers: just another change.

School closings and "small schools" alternatives are epidemic here, too
by George N. Schmidt, Editor, Substance
(from email to John Lawhead re: Bushwick HS)

For several years, I've argued (against the Maoists, the old lefties, and the conservatives who've pushed "small schools") that "small schools" in urban contexts is the new face of Jim Crow.

The "best" high schools in Chicago's public school system (as measured by test scores and other measures) are selective enrollment schools with student populations of between 1,500 and 4,000.

The "best" high schools in the greater Chicago area are large suburban high schools with student populations of 1,500 to 3,000 (New Trier, Glenbard West, Hinsdale, etc., etc.).

The "small schools" people (and Gates money, which is fronting for dozens of other foundations pushing the same stuff) are pushing a new form of "separate but equal." We should point out that their program is an alternative to equitable funding for schools that serve mostly poor minority children.

Most of the "small schools" research (at least the stuff around here, especially from William Ayers and Michael Klonsky of UIC) is also intellectually dishonest. They do not have research to back up their claims, but simply assert those claims over and over based on anecdotes which, when checked out, turn out to be either half-truths or outright distortions.
George Schmidt

I also wrote an article on the UFT role in all this in that winter 2002/03 Ed Notes:

High Stakes Testing: Where the UFT Sits by Norm Scott

Want Higher Scores? Work ‘till midnight
UFT leader blames short day and poor teaching for low scores

An article in the NY Times this past summer [2002] pointed to the fact that “Yonkers far outstripped other large cities on the 4th grade test with 59.5% meeting standards, up from 52.7% last year and up from 33.6% four years ago.”

The article also stated that Randi Weingarten, president of the UFT, attributed the sharp gains in Yonkers to “higher teacher salaries than New York City” and “to an additional 20 minutes a day added to the school day in Yonkers.”

Let’s see. Our union leader is saying that higher salaries in Yonkers have attracted better teachers so the scores have risen. The corollary must be that lower salaries in NYC must have attracted lower paid and therefore less qualified teachers. Ergo, the scores have not risen as much.

Conclusion: New York City scores are lower because the teachers are not as good and don’t work a long enough day.

That’s a union leaders speaking boys and girls. It’s not the conditions in the schools or the difficult family life of students or poor supervision or poor management or political manipulation or waste, etc., etc.

So, let’s all roll up our sleeves and work ‘til midnight. Scores should go through the roof.

Note: The UFT leadership has backed and collaborated in the punitive closing of schools, in contrast to the recently elected union leadership in Chicago which led protest marches over such closings.

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