Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Age of Enlightenment on its way out

There’s not a lot of agreement on what it means to be “enlightened,” but for starters we could look at back to the middle of the 18th century.

That would be a couple of decades before a handful of truly enlightened souls cobbled together a declaration of independence, and about 150 years before these united states committed to an education system funded by the public purse (1870).

Voltaire, according to some, thought the appeal of the new way of thinking boiled down to seven social and intellectual phenomena:
— the autonomy of reason
— perfectibility and progress
— confidence in the ability to discover causality
— principles governing nature, man and society
— assault on authority
— cosmopolitan solidarity of enlightened intellectuals, and
— a disgust with nationalism.
(Gerhard Rempel, Western New England College)
I could argue that the corporatist siege squeezing the moral life out of this country, perpetrated by heavily lobbied facilitators at every level of government, has maneuvered us in totally the opposite direction. We’ve abandoned all of Voltaire’s phenomena.

The Age of Enlightenment is well on its way out, and the ignorance, social chaos and repression of the Middle Ages are making a big comeback.

The campaign against Reason is spearheaded here in New York City by the mayor and his five-star general Joel Klein. They command a whole army of hastily trained-up staff sergeants from the Leadership Academy and a slew of corporate players bidding for pieces of the education pie.

BloomKlein campaigns best when the rest of us are overworked, apathetic or comatose. Shuffling things around under the guise of reform, they’ve come up with ill-conceived reorganizations, a perverted school grading system, falsified testing analyses, and some very strange notions of quality education.

These are the fabrications of an unenlightened oligarchy.

They don’t seek to understand or fix the underlying problems of the system — like overstuffed classrooms, too few experienced certified teachers, not enough school buildings, arts and phys ed programs, or services for special needs. They don’t listen to educators or parents, they intentionally place blame where it doesn’t belong, and they show little respect laws that get in their way.

Thumped for half a generation at least, we’ve learned how to keep taking it on the chin. We're becoming un-enlightened.

Across the country, being educated, articulate, and rational in thought has somehow become a bad thing. We’re still reeling from a federal administration that put nationalism at an all-time high and the ability to reason at an all-time low.

Nevertheless, the reasoning people among us are forever confident in the ability to discover causality, so we should be able to think this one through:

Oligarchs grab power when society allows them to. Enlightened people need to get out in the streets and stop them.

That’s what they did two hundred years ago, and that’s what they need to do now.

Just like what they've already been doing:
at P.S. 57 in Manhattan . . .
at P.S. 160 in the Bronx . . .
at IS 218 in East New York . . .
at IS 278 in Brooklyn . . .
At Bethel Church in Harlem . . .

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The inimitable

If you liked Norm Scott does Les Mis, you'll love this one.

It's a video clip of Norm doing his thing outside yesterday's Delegate Assembly, I'd say about an hour before Weingarten resigned.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Crime down, PR up

Over at GEM this week it was predicted that Bloomberg would quickly try to burnish his image once a report called The New Marketplace got published on Wednesday. The New School study showed that the larger high schools have not fared well during Tweed’s slash-and-burn strategy to create more and more small schools.

As it turns out, Bloomberg obliged and did mount a press conference at one of the big high schools: Truman — way up in the north Bronx. Accompanied by some very high-profile people, including Commissioner Kelly, the chancellor, UFT prez Randi Weingarten and her heir-apparent Michael Mulgrew, the mayor felt a strong urge to talk about the drop of crime in the city’s public schools.

I guess he chose Truman because it was one of the two large HSS cited favorably in the report under the heading “Leadership and Stability Matter”:
Some other large high schools managed to handle the side effects of school closings and growing numbers of new students without severe disruptions. Those with strong, stable leadership and a solid core of high-achieving students have been especially successful in coping with sharply higher enrollments. . . And when enrollment boomed at Harry S. Truman High School, there was initially a steep decline in attendance and graduation rates, but the school managed to rebound.
At some point during the conference, Bloomberg referred to a number of handouts graphing the decline in "major" crimes (burglary, grand larceny, and grand larceny auto) and "violent" crimes (homicide, rape, robbery, felony assault, misdemeanor assault, and sex offenses) in schools.

When a reporter asked why anyone should believe the numbers, Bloomberg apparently shot back something like: “Are you saying I’m lying?”

To which I'd have responded: “Duh!”

First, everyone knows there’s underreporting of incidents, by teachers and administrators. In the “gotcha” climate wrought by Tweed, no one likes to report incidents unless you have to — for insurance purposes. Sometimes it’s a matter of sullying the school’s image or your own. After all, if an incident happened while you were around to see it, maybe you weren't doing something right. I don’t know whether principal’s bonuses are affected by the number of incidents they report, but they may be. There’s also a question of being afraid to make a false statement (Did I really see that?), and in some cases fear, retaliation, and/or blowback.

Let it be known that both the UFT and the DoE use the word “incident” for a broad range of negative behaviors. Included in the union’s list are: “assaults, classroom disruptions, threats, and violent or dangerous behavior.” The official DoE Incident Report gives the following definitions on page 2:

In both lists, classroom disruption and misbehaving are as much “incidents” as are assaults and violent behavior, and that’s weird. Remind me to file an incident report next time Johnny tells me to f... off when I tell him to stop pawing a girl and get to class.

It’s actually a little confusing to match Bloomberg's graphs with the comment made by Criminal Justice Coordinator Feinblatt in the press release:
Thanks to the collaboration between the Department of Education and the police, we have reduced the behaviors that disrupt our classrooms and hallways and prevent our students from concentrating and learning.
Someone really has to explain what the "behaviors that disrupt our classrooms and hallways” have to do with homicide, rape and other violent crimes — or, in fact, with the NYPD at all.

Behavior is controlled by good security leadership (which Truman has, I understand), adequate space to place kids while they calm down or serve suspensions, and most importantly, enough staff — aides, agents, and teachers on patrol — to do the job, inside the classroom and out in the common areas. Not all schools have all three, and they may very well suffer for it. For Bloomberg to leave teachers out of the security equation is strange. The press conference was by invitation only and it was reported only two teachers were in the room. That’s interesting, and distressing.

Getting back to the reporter’s question on the credibility of Bloomberg’s numbers, there’s this:

Massaging data to support a favorable school governance record has been a trademark of Klein’s chancellorship. In fact, it’s what the Tweed PR team actually do best.

Look how they've already manipulated test scores, school grading, and graduation rates — statistics that congressmen and city council members seem to accept without question regardless how frequently their conclusions have been shot down by ed analysts like Jennifer Jennings (aka Eduwonkette) and Fred Smith, historians like Ravitch and Meier , and brainy activist parents like Leonie Haimson (Class Size Matters).

Thank you, Mr. or Ms Reporter, for asking Bloomberg that question about believing his numbers. Maybe it made them think twice about broadcasting the conference all over the news.

And maybe the press is just not buying this stuff anymore. Fingers crossed.

Which brings me to Randi Weingarten, who once again greeted the mayor with a kiss.

Does that mean the new contract’s already in the bag?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Woof, woof!

A parent recently contacted a couple of us to express a serious concern — one that I remember having when my own kids were attending public schools, here in NYC and in the suburbs.

She wrote:
I support your goals of supporting neighborhood schools, smaller class sizes and reducing high stakes testing.

Unfortunately, I disagree with you about teacher seniority. Our Principal is unable to replace a teacher who is ineffective simply because this teacher has seniority. This is not good for our schools or our children.

Here is how I answered this sticky question — given the circumstances teachers we're in dealing with this mayor, his thug of a chancellor, and our let's-play-dead union prez.

Dear Mrs. Parent,

I write to you as a long-time teacher in the school system.

In any profession, there are workers who are less "good" at their job than others, and in the private sector they can be fired at will.

But, in teaching and other civil service jobs, there are two ways already in place for terminating someone. There's a probationary period, 3 years for teachers, during which time administrators evaluate whether tenure should be granted. The teacher can be easily terminated once a principal decides he or she has little chance of success at the job.

If over time a teacher develops a questionable performance record, an principal can file 3020-a charges and the case goes up for review. Educators can also be hauled off to jail when the situation requires it, hopefully in the rarest of cases.

In a climate of union-bashing and corporate models of public school management, which we have here in New York for a decade, administrators are disregarding their contractual responsibilities and using instead some rather harsh techniques to remove not individual teachers, but categories of them from their budgets. These include:
— teachers who are competent in many or even all ways but who disagree with them,

— senior teachers, who cost way more then newer teachers. The situation is made worse for veterans because of the chancellor's decision to give principals more control over their budgets. Expensive teachers take a bigger chunk out of the budget, so principals think twice how many of them they want to keep around.

— unionists and activists, and

— whistleblowers.
When I say harsh, I refer to the so-called rubber rooms, where not only supposedly poorly performing teachers are sent for months or years until their cases are heard, but many others as well, of the kinds mentioned above. Regardless of the charge, putting a person in a rubber room to wait for a verdict is tantamount to deciding someone is guilty until he or she is proven innocent.

In the old days, if a teacher's judgment were called into question, he or she might be summoned to the principal's office for a "chat." Klein's corporate methodologies place no value on informal chats whatsoever. He has instead given administrators a neat set of tools to demolish the careers of people they don't want to deal with — even before a case is decided in favor or against.

We are finding out that most of the people sent to rubber rooms are at the end of their ordeal returned to a classroom. That is because "competency" is not a finite term, and in the cases mentioned above, it actually had never really been an issue in the first place. Some teachers are asked to pay a fine, which is frequently just a whimsical pay-to-play scheme.

If teachers sent to the rubber room choose to tolerate this "prison" environment from 9 to 3 every day, they'll continue to draw a salary. To some that is a fair exchange. Others resign. But, whatever they choose to do while they wait for their hearing, they endure this situation without actually being proven guilty of the charge against them. Even probable criminals are out on bail and free to continue working.

Some very strong, committed educators, union activists, and civil servants now have their careers in ruins because of Klein's methodologies.

We are not against decertifying people who clearly cannot teach. We seek, however, to establish some safeguards for people who are improperly marginalized by a non-educator chancellor and a union president who is very much a collaborator in the demise of public education, and who makes it clear she is not so willing to defend the contract that she herself negotiated.

For these reasons, we have become activists — not to defend poor quality, but to make sure there are watchdogs in a system that has been so thoroughly contaminated.


Sunday, June 7, 2009

The NY Teacher and agita

What a self- congratulatory, biased, obsfuscatory, and exclusionary rag the NY Teacher is.

In a post I wrote last September, I said I thought it had morphed into some kind of arm of the DoE, with all its Tweed friendly, Tweed collaborative, Tweed duped, and Much Ado About Nothing articles.

I don’t know whether to laugh at some of the things in there or cry.

For example, it’s really funny where Weingarten is talking about getting the cuts reduced and she says “Let’s take a moment to appreciate what we've accomplished so far.” In the very next sentence she says what really “saved the day” was the federal stimulus package. By her own admission, she accomplished little or nothing. It was Washington that came through with some cash.

I love it when she suggests that if adding some non-mayoral appointees to the central board “fails to make it into law” — as surely it will — there would be other ways to curtail Bloomberg’s "dominance." I’m taking this as a joke, and I’m pretty sure she is, too. I mean, she has to say something if she’s going to defend her indefensible position on continuing mayoral control.

What does Weingarten suggest to rein in this mayor? Three things. Give the board members fixed terms — that’s so they can say “Yes, sir! Of course, sir!” for a finite number of months before a new group of flunkies is rotated in. Increase the number of DoE actions that require board approval — as if Joel Klein ever wanted, thought he needed, or asked for approval for the nefarious, sometimes illegal schemes he’s gotten away with. And end “the chancellor’s voting status and automatic chairmanship of the board” — like fish Klein would give that one up. Isn’t she a card?

I also love it when she crows over the test scores:
Almost any way you look at the data, there was good news in the June 1 release of the 2009 statewide math test scores.
Puh-lease. Don’t tell us about test scores being better this year without getting an impartial evaluator to determine whether the newer tests were dumbed down last time round. Absent that teeny-weeny bit of information, what does anyone gain by calling the higher scores “good news” except to score a political point dealing with BloomKlein or give a very transparent tap on the back to math teachers, who might really have had nothing to do with this year’s “improvement” at all.

By the way, you have to wade through to the last paragraph to see the demurral: “Overall, gains in scale scores were much more modest than gains in proficiency.” I guess that’s why Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and State Ed Commissioner Richard Mills “recommended looking at the finer detail of scale scores (students are graded on a scale of 400 to the upper 700s) rather than the simplified level scores (in which students are graded on Levels 1 to 4, and small gains can bump into the next level) for a truer picture.” Not to mention that there are times when Weingarten finds it convenient to downplay test scores, like when she's selling her new ACES network.

I’m not laughing anymore and start flicking through the thing a lot faster, until a “Schedule of Program and Operating Expenses” for the year ending last July 31 catches my eye on page 32.

Payroll last year (and probably every year) was the biggest expense. Between the Borough office and Central, the union spent a cool $29,971,086 on staff salaries, plus an additional $12,648,653 for additional benefits and taxes. Total: $42,619,739.

Way down the list, after the Conventions, Workshops & conferences, Meeting expenses, Travel, Lodging, Negotiations, Legal fees, Consulting fees, Elections & referenda, Chapter Leaders’ stipends, and DoE released time cost, there’s this:
ARBITRATION: $171, 078.
Is that the figure they're saying they spent for a whole year's worth of arbitrations?
In this climate of administrator thuggery? The only redress a member has with Step Is and IIs being so reliably unsuccessful is arbitration, and the union paid so little for it? That's weird. If that number included AAA fees for surveys and elections, it would make what they spent on our Step IIIs even less.

With so much union-bashing these days, it’s definitely not funny that Arbitration came to only 0.4% of the UFT staff payroll. That's just not enough money spent on defending members. What’s also not funny is that the amount laid out for Gifts and condolences — $47,396 — is a quarter (27.7%) of the Arbitration amount. What are they buying everyone, mink coats?

There's no clarification of these terms and categories in the chart, so it's obvious no one's really interested in helping us understand what their expenditures really are. For all I know, the amounts listed in Legal fees ($2,712,223) and Consulting fees ($1,131,153) could actually include the costs of defending members. I doubt it, though. I'm told it's the DoE that pays the arbitration costs for 3020-a cases, not the union, and I’ve asked a couple of people what the difference between “Total Expenses” and “Non-Chargeable Expenses” might be, but they don’t know either.

As I said, I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry when I read this stuff.

All I can hear in the background is the kerching!, kerching! of our dues money dropping into murky union coffers, and as the Queen of England says: We are not amused.