March 15, 2008

Grading the schools on terror

As long as everyone’s going around designing “grading” systems for schools – first Klein, now Weingarten — I’ve decided to make one up myself.

I see it this way. When the staff lives in fear, they can’t do a good job. Simple as that.

So, for starters I paid a short visit to the Homeland Security website to see how they’ve set things up over there. One thing I’m sure to borrow from them is that nifty little color alert chart that grades our fear levels from “Low” to “Severe.”

In some schools, you just know the principal is plain out crazy. They’ve been around for a while and have managed to circumvent the contract in almost every way. Even when RW goes over to rein these guys in, it doesn’t much help. Their vision of an educational workplace is simply not ours, and they just don’t care whose lives they’re stomping on. Those schools get a “Severe" alert.

You’ll find “High” risk of terror in some of the schools where they’ve just installed a Tweedle, one of those leadership people who haven’t come up through the ranks and probably just got out of grad school. They’re either totally new to the job or still feeling their way, so they haven’t been able to establish a record of unmitigated terror as yet.

A school with an “Elevated” level of terror means that you heard that someone down the hall got sent to the rubber room last week and no one knows why.

“Guarded” means that everyone should be looking over their shoulder, but particularly in the direction of a chapter leader who’s cozy with the principal.

I guess there are a few schools left with a “Low” risk of terror attacks, but only the Tier I people know what it’s like to be in one of those.

Someone created a widget I’m thinking of borrowing, so you could plug a Real Time Terror Warning Badge box right into your own computer. Wouldn’t it be nice to know before you leave for school in the morning how much terror you can expect from admin when you get there.

“While there continues to be no credible information at this time warning of an imminent threat to the homeland, the department's strategic threat perspective is that we are in a period of increased risk.”

That's from the DHS website, but it sure feels the same way in schools. When teachers are seen crying after administrators have had words with them, when you hear someone’s been disciplined by a principal or AP even in front of students, when a teacher, or a secretary or a guidance counselor comes right out and tells you they can’t stand it anymore and this will be their last year, that they’ve had it, that they’ll never be around long enough to make good on the 55/25, then you know you’re in a terrorized school.

I know someone who got to be chapter leader for the first time about seven years ago. After a year of collaborating with her scalawag of a principal, she's had a rocky trip ever since: excessed twice, harassed (until the union jumped in and stopped it), and marginalized. She says the threat of being given a U-rating based on nonsense or sent to the rubber room on a trumped-up charge is always on her mind. With 20 years in the system, consistent satisfactory ratings and commendations, there’s never a day, she says, that she enters a school building without thinking: What bad thing is going to happen to me in here today?

I call that terrorization of the workplace, and I believe it is one of BloomKlein’s biggest legacies.

Re-read Mary Hoffman’s "Jack Welch is My Daddy", in which she talks a whole lot about how the CEO brought his “big stick” methodologies to Klein’s Leadership Academy.
This fall, the opening episode of the documentary about the Leadership Academy featured scenes from the ceremony for the first class of graduates. . . . Jack Welch played a role in the proceedings. When I saw him at the podium I wondered: would he wish the graduates luck? Tell them they could continue to call on him for advice and support? Thank them in advance for the years of public service they were about to embark upon?

“Get rid of your negative people,” he said.

. . . And who might those people be? Probably anyone who expresses skepticism about any aspect of the new curriculum. The official term used by the instructors at the Leadership Academy is “pushback,” and students role-play methods of dealing with it. A Joel Klein statement made in the course of the documentary is also instructive in this regard: he said one way the new principals could gauge their effectiveness was to ask themselves “ much you are changing the system, and how much the system is changing you.” In other words, “good” graduates will not be altered from the missionary outlook the Academy has instilled in them; “bad” ones might allow themselves to learn something on the ground, even from people who don’t have the Academy’s seal of approval.

This is what some of us long-term educators are up against. We know pretty much what works in the classroom, but the autonomy and prep time it needs to get it done have been taken away. Every single time we do some "pushback," we run the risk of Klein's legacy, that you're not gonna be a happy camper if you speak up.

Andrea Gabor, in Strategy+Business, also reported on a tidbit of Jack Welch, who was addressing a class of principals at the Leadership Academy:
Jack Welch is pacing the floor of a large, window-less conference room in Brooklyn. Occasionally leaning against a table, the straight-talking former chief executive officer of General Electric Company alternates between haranguing and cajoling his audience of 60 or so middle managers. “Your job is harder than running a company,” Mr. Welch tells them. “’Cause running a company, you have all the bullets in your gun. Well, you have sort of a water pistol, I guess.” He pauses. “And it’s out of water.”

The room erupts in laughter.

“But you’ve got to find a way to put water in that pistol anyway,” Mr. Welch continues, almost shouting. “And eventually, put bullets in your gun.”
Does this kind of language have anything to do with education? Should teachers be afraid of what their principals will do to them next?

The BoE takes great care to protect students from verbal abuse (A-421), which they’ve defined in part as language "that tends to cause fear or physical or mental distress" and "tends to belittle or subject students to ridicule." But they've done diddlysquat to protect its lower level employees from similar kinds of mental distress and abuse.

There should be a method — and the union has really let this go on way too long — whereby abusive, terrorizing principals can be brought up on charges of Staff Abuse and put under immediate investigation. Witnesses could be summoned, statements from colleagues taken. Maybe it wouldn’t be feasible to detain these administrators in a rubber room, but certainly a representative agreed upon by the UFT and the BoE could be installed to watch over the culprit for a while until he stopped hurting people. That would send a message, wouldn’t it.

Maybe we’ve become too used to terror in the workplace, and maybe, if the union stopped collaborating for a moment, there’d be ways to turn this around.


New from the lab: It's been a few days since this post first went up, and we're working towards a way to add the names of schools that are particularly dangerous to teachers. You should be able to know what you're in for before applying for a new job. Click on the alert to see the animated version we've been working on, and when you get to the new link, click on the buttons.

efore closing, I'd like give a shout out to the boys at the DHS, whom I've linked to above: How y'all doin' today?


  1. Brilliant post. There's lots more to talk about the Lead Acad. Principal at Mary's school - one teacher cuffed and arrested on trumped up charges not long after she lost by one vote for chapter leader and more people in the RR on ridiculous charges. When all people are drummed out of the school, we'll have a lot more to say.

  2. Great article. I am in the red zone (Severe) as being targeted by the DOE.

    I agree with you that they don't care how we are abused but if you look at a student the wrong way you can be charged under A-421 (verbal abuse) and our union does nothing about it.

    It is time that we are respected and not bilittled.

  3. I work in a "Guarded" school- at every faculty conference, I expect our chapter leader to plant a big wet one on our principal's lips.

    How about a website where everybody enters their school's "terror" alert level on a daily basis?

    Great post.

  4. Great post! I have worked at schools with different principals that would qualify for each of those alerts and you have the pegged just right.