April 23, 2012

Socrates' man at City Hall

The good thing about retirement is that I have the time and energy to read.

The bad thing is that some of the stuff I read reminds me of Michael Bloomberg's failed education policies and the mess he's making with NYC public schools.

This afternoon I was two-thirds the way through I.F. Stone's Trial of Socrates when the quality of his governance came to mind.

I recall how frustrated I was studying Plato's Socrates way back in college because of what Stone calls the "semantic fog" of his negative dialectic. Socrates affirmed nothing himself, says the Roman writer Varro, who lived a few centuries later. He refuted everything anyone else had to say. It was purgatory for me that semester trying to work out the thread of the Socratic dialogues.

I guess in the murk of it all, I never quite registered how deeply Socrates despised democracy. According to Stone, he "saw the human community as a herd that had to be ruled by a king or kings, as sheep by a shepherd." I don't know how I came away with the idea that the man was a founding father of Greek democracy, because clearly he wasn't. He didn't believe that the demos, the average Joes, could be trusted with decisions of state. Rather, he favored autocracy: it was the autocrats who knew best how to rule. That kind of thinking would have made him very popular with the Bloomberg crowd.

But, on one occasion Socrates did publicly criticize an autocrat and his supporters. It was just after the Peloponnesian War in 404 B.C., when Critias and the newly empowered Thirty Tyrants went about executing and exiling hundreds of upstanding pro-democratic Athenians.

Ordered to help round up one such citizen for execution, Socrates refused. His reasoning was explained by Xenophon like this: 
"When the Thirty were putting to death many citizens of the highest respectability and were encouragining many in crime," Xenophon writes, Socrates turned a favorite analogy against the Thirty. "It seems strange enough to me," Socrates said, "that a herdsman who lets his cattle decrease and go to the bad should not admit that he is a poor cowherd; but stranger still that a statesman when he causes the citizens to decrease and go to the bad, should feel no shame or think himself a poor statesman." (Stone, p. 158)

Michael Bloomberg is such a statesman.

For when he starves schools of resources and allows them to "go to the bad" to achieve a political agenda of a whole other order, he is shameless indeed.

The April 19th protest at Tweed against the most recent projected school closings probably made as little difference to Bloomberg, Walcott, and their PEP collaborators as rallies have done in the past.

But the words in a press release for the event speak truth to power, and the stain this mayor leaves on public education cannot be removed.

extracted from a post in Ednotes
With a cynical misrepresentation of the truth, Mayor Bloomberg is holding 26 Persistently Lowest Achieving (PLA) schools hostage to his demands ... The NYCDOE refuses to return to the negotiating table and has threatened 26 of the 33 (PLA) schools with closure through a process called "turnaround".

"Turnaround" is a failed policy because it is disruptive and distracting to the entire school community. It is a model that has been borrowed from the business world and we all know how well the American business model has fared during the past decade. Turnaround destroys bonds between students and teachers. It demoralizes the entire school community when instead the school community should be bolstered and strengthened.

All of the PLA schools have endured years of neglect and threats from the NYCDOE. We have worked hard to move our schools forward and we are making great strides in overcoming the tremendous obstacles that were put in our path by the NYCDOE. Why is Mayor Bloomberg still threatening our school communities?

Bloomberg's policy of school closure has gone on too long.  In three terms of Mayoral Control, Bloomberg has now closed over 100 schools.  Many of the schools voted to phase out on February 9th, were schools opened under the Bloomberg administration. The policy of closure, phase-out, and now turnaround, has not improved our school system in any way.  Bloomberg continues this policy only to hide the data that would paint him as a failure on education.  He is ruining the lives of a generation of students all for his own political gain.

As recent research has demonstrated, having a consistent set of teachers increases student success. However, a huge turnover in staff will have a negative impact on the students who remain at the affected schools, decreasing the likelihood of students' graduation and achievement.  Furthermore many of the programs that are successful at these schools, including electives, clubs, and AP courses, many not run when the majority of the new staff is untrained.

Mayoral control of the NYCDOE under Mayor Bloomberg has been a colossal failure. The very idea that one person has been granted the authority to close any school without input from teachers, parents, and students is a mockery of the concept of democracy. What lesson are our students learning about how this city and our nation work if the voices of affected communities are shut out? We need an end to mayoral control of our public schools.