Category Archives: An Embattled Career

Different Types of School-to-Prison Pipelines

school to prisonThe ACLU released a report recently outlining what the school-to-prison pipeline looks like in New York City public schools in the Bloomberg era:

“The total number of annual suspensions has more than doubled during the Bloomberg administration, from less than 29,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 in 2011. Black students and students with special needs served an outsize proportion of these suspensions.”

They attribute this development to a zero tolerance policy handed down by Bloomberg in 2003:

“Mayor Bloomberg brought a harsh brand of zero tolerance to New York City in 2003, when he announced a new disciplinary plan calling for ‘an immediate, consistent minimum response to even the most minor violation of a school’s disciplinary policy’, including a ‘three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy’ for students who are in trouble repeatedly.”

NYC public school teachers who read these words might wonder on what planet the ACLU conducted this study. Just last year, Chancellor Dennis Walcott released a much more relaxed discipline code for the entire system. Even before this new code, one of the most common complaints from teachers in the city has been the complete lack of discipline in the schools.

I served as a dean for the first few years of my career. Deans in NYC are essentially school disciplinarians. They handle suspensions, parental conferences, arrests and investigations of wrongdoing. One of the first things I learned as a dean was how to suspend as few kids as possible. Kids who got into fights, disrupted class, cursed out teachers or compiled a long list of minor infractions over time rarely saw suspensions. If teachers in NYC tend to feel handcuffed when dealing with classroom discipline, that is because they are.

As a dean, I considered suspension my trump card only to be used in the most serious circumstances. We tried to work on modifying the behavior of disruptive students through mediation, parental involvement and conduct sheets that had to be filled out by teachers. At the time, I considered this a decent “ladder of referral”, as it is called in NYC. A combination of these things, along with a healthy relationship with the students, usually worked in quelling disruptive behavior. This allowed us to reserve our suspensions for the worst transgressions. I felt that using the suspension card too much cheapened its value and made it less effective in the long run.

Of course, this disciplinary tactic opened us deans up to accusations by our colleagues that we were coddling unruly students. The way I saw it, suspension was a poor disciplinary tool. It essentially amounted to a three-day vacation for students. What happens when the kid comes back from suspension only to continue with their unruly behavior? Since public schools cannot expel kids, the only thing left to do was to suspend them again.

The only exception to this is in the case of the “superintendent’s suspension”, as it is called in NYC. A superintendent suspension is usually given in response to a serious infraction, like a major fight or brandishing a weapon or assaulting a teacher. In my salad days as a dean, a “supe’s suspension” entailed getting a parent to pick the kid up from school on the day of the infraction. Then I would tell them to wait for the superintendent’s office to hand down a hearing date. Once the hearing date was set, we had to determine what type of penalty we wished to seek. The penalties ranged from a long suspension to a request for transfer to another school. We then had to go to a hearing where the student, parent and possibly their lawyer had a chance to defend themselves against the accusations being made. In most cases, the parents did not show up and we were able to get the penalty we wanted.

Very few infractions rise to the level of a superintendent’s suspension and fewer still warrant expulsion. In the most extreme case I saw as a dean, three students assaulted the principal which resulted in an all-out rumble between them and the School Safety officers. They were arrested and ended up testing positive for having crack in their system. Despite the egregiousness of this case, it was still a fight to get these kids out of our school. They lawyered up and dragged out the superintendent suspension hearing for weeks.

In the end, the main reason why public schools do not usually seek to suspend kids is that it looks bad on the “data” that has become so ubiquitous under Bloomberg. Principals know that suspension rates are a matter of public record, and also get factored into the school’s annual report card grade, so they discourage deans from pursuing suspensions. This is why schools that routinely get rated as “safe” in NYC can be anything but.

So the question remains: what planet did the ACLU study? Most teachers here would not recognize the zero tolerance suspension mills portrayed in this report.

I searched the entire study for the word “charter” (as in charter school) and the word did not come up once. My suspicion is that the study lumped charter schools in with the rest of the public school system. In that case, I can imagine suspension rates going through the roof over the past decade. The zero tolerance, almost militaristic, discipline code of many charter schools is well documented. Despite the claims of many charter advocates that they are as public as any public school, their discipline, suspension and expulsion policies are of a totally different breed.

In any event, the study does not paint an accurate picture of the discipline policies of NYC public schools. That is not to say that a school-to-prison pipeline of some sort does not exist here. It is just not the lock-em-up, zero tolerance type that exists in other places.

The report mentions the fact that many public schools have metal detectors through which all students must pass every morning. This is true and is not a practice with which I agree. However, I think it is important to look at what happens on the other side of the metal detector. I know a very smart parent who enrolls her children in a charter school. Despite my protestations to her that charters are nothing but test-prep mills, she has a response with which I cannot argue: they do not tolerate unruly behavior.  She does not have to worry about her child sitting in a classroom where kids are constantly disrupting the lesson. She does not have to worry about gang violence and fighting. While she might have an overly negative view of public schools, it is a view shared by many parents who opt for charters. These parents have a point.

There really is little that a regular NYC public school can do to curb generally rowdy behavior. Principals do not want to suspend students. What is more, principals fear angering parents by coming down too hard on kids. They all too often turn a blind eye to unruly behavior for fear of hurting their “data” or having an uncomfortable confrontation with a parent. This blind eye amounts to a sanctioning of bad behavior. Kids are instinctively able to feel out where the limits of the adults lie. Many know that there are very few limits and take full advantage of this.

This does not mean that most kids are unruly, far from it. However, it does not take a classroom full of unruly students to ruin the learning environment. A very small percentage of troubled kids can dominate a classroom or cafeteria. Through the sheer force of their examples and personalities, they can sweep up many of the meeker kids in a nefarious net where mischief becomes the order of the day. NYC’s teaching force is younger and more inexperienced than ever, as is the current crop of administrators. This means that the adults are less equipped to keep a lid on bad behavior. Experienced educators are able to manage school tone through soft means that do not include suspension or other types of harsh disciplinary actions. In short, lax discipline codes and inexperienced adults have been leading to a deterioration of school tone across the entire system.

At the end of the day, this is another version of a school-to-prison pipeline. A good school is able to reward good behavior, recognize the role models in the student body and elevate them so their examples affect all of the other students. What we have is precisely the opposite state of affairs, one where the most aggressive and abrasive students become the role models and set the tone. Other students then learn the lesson that these are the qualities that get one ahead in life. In these cases, schools can become recruiting grounds for gangs and other types of dangerous activity.

This is a school-to-prison pipeline that breeds criminality. Kids can be influenced into committing nefarious acts who might otherwise not be so inclined. They can be compelled to engage in a serious fight or drug use or brandishing of weapons or other types of criminal activity. These actions can lead to arrest and jail time. This type of school-to-prison pipeline is the other side of the same coin as the type of pipeline created by zero tolerance policies that criminalize even the most innocent childhood behaviors. A school can look for wrongdoing everywhere and end up criminalizing everything or it can look for wrongdoing nowhere and foster a culture of criminality. Charter schools fit the former category and public schools the latter.

I respect the ACLU and what they tried to bring forth in this study. However, their treatment of the issue is too thick to be of much value. There are different types of school-to-prison pipelines and I hope one day groups like the ACLU can realize this for themselves.

The Gooey Center: More Goo Than Center

This is your brain on education reform.

This is your brain on education reform.

I happen to believe that Americans who consider themselves political “centrists” are the intellectual midgets of the electorate.

Centrists and Democrats love to decry Tea Party types as the dumb ones. Sure, they show up to rallies with misspelled signs and tell the government to get their hands off of their Medicare. Obviously, their ideas are force fed to them by Fox News, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Definitely, they have been voting against their own interests by electing Koch brother-funded troglodytes to local and national office. Worst of all, there is a streak of understated fascism in everything they say. Their vitriol against President Obama is punctuated by dog whistle racism. However, there is one thing that recommends them to me better than self-professed centrists: their vile ideas at least have conviction.

That is to say, Tea Partiers do not delude themselves into thinking they are open-minded. Many might even tell you they are proudly close-minded, which might be synonyms to them for being simple or traditional. At least one knows where one stands with them. Someone like me in their eyes would be just another big city, northeastern leftist who drinks lattes and wants to redistribute other people’s wealth. I respect this characterization, especially considering how it is not totally inaccurate.

Centrists, on the other hand, live in the delusion that they are fair and rational. They believe that listening to “both sides” and taking a little from each is Solomon-like. The past does not exist to these people. The notion that political discourse has been manufactured in such a way over the past 40 years that today’s Democrats were yesterday’s Republicans and today’s Republicans were yesterday’s frothing crypto-fascists does not exist in their world. Obamacare to them is a liberal program, despite the fact that it was created by a Republican think tank and implemented first by a Republican governor. To today’s centrists, the past does not exist and the present is merely an exercise in splitting the baby.

There is no other area of public concern in which centrists have run amok more than education policy. My favorite poster child for this type of centrist is Andrew Rotherham, a centrist Democrat who runs the Eduwonk blog and a reliable cheerleader for the cause of education reform.

Yesterday, Rotherham linked to an article from Politifact that ham-fistedly claimed Diane Ravitch’s interpretation of the NAEP scores in Reign of Error was “mostly false” .  Diane herself ably destroyed this claim. Both Rotherham and Politifact pride themselves on being rational centrists. Unfortunately, their attempt to split the baby of education policy does nothing but put them squarely on the side of education reform. It is unfortunate because education reform, as it is understood today, is a wholly radical endeavor.

Nothing captures the self-satisfied  attitude of education centrists than the comment left under Rotherham’s link:

” I completely agree about the confusion. I heard Ravitch speak last week in DC and found her rhetoric though inspirational at times, mostly divisive and combative, I have seen the same dramatics from hearing the reformers speak as well. I feel that the idea of proving one side right or wrong by cherry picking which test scores to use and which school systems to look at is almost completely missing the point. We aren’t in politics, we are in education. And as educators we need to do what we preach, work together, to find a solution.

I will continue to be optimistic and hope that one day Ravitch and Kopp will start a campaign to simply get all passionate educators talking to work together. That’s my two cents.”

This sounds like a laudable goal until one digs beneath what the commenter is actually saying. He essentially wants all educators to “work together”. Under the label of “educator” he includes Diane Ravitch, a professor of education, a former cabinet member in the Department of Education and someone who specializes in researching the history of education. On the other hand, he includes Wendy Kopp, a woman who wrote a thesis in Princeton on education, got millions of dollars to put her thesis into action and has been busily peddling her money-fueled program to school districts all around the country.

This is the first problem with education centrists. Anyone who has an opinion on education automatically becomes an “educator”. All opinions are valid, no matter the credentials, experience or motives of the person offering the opinion. Diane Ravitch is put on a par with Wendy Kopp or Michelle Rhee or anyone else who has jumped into the world of education policy without spending any appreciable period of time in a classroom teaching students. In this way, education centrists are just like political centrists who put Fox News, MSNBC and CNN all on the same par and believe the truth lies somewhere in between them.

Just like Fox News represents what used to be considered a radical brand of conservatism, Kopp, Rhee and others who have made millions from dabbling in education policy are arms of a decidedly radical brand of reform. Much like Fox News, their radicalism is a radical capitalism or, more specifically, radical corporatism.

Kopp and Rhee essentially advocate for a temporary, low-skilled and low-paid work force of teachers. Trade unionism and professional experience to them are not only antiquated notions, but notions antithetical to the types of reforms they wish to institute. It is the educational equivalent to the state of peonage to which big chains like Walmart reduce their own workers.

This type of workforce is in itself a reflection of a radicalized form of capitalism. Add to this the private charter and online schools that are hallmarks of education reform. Add to this still the standardized exams for students and prospective teachers created by private corporations. Finally, to top it all off, throw in private education data companies who wish to compile all types of sensitive information on children. What you have is a neat program of privatization punctuated by a creepy type of corporate surveillance. It is a wholly radical scheme.

Karl Marx rightfully saw capitalism as a revolutionary force. It seeks to turn everything into a commodity, whether consumer products, the natural world or education. Left unchecked or, even worse, aided by the power of the state, capitalism has the potential to dominate every facet of human life and civilization. The move to privatize education is of the same ilk as the move to privatize prisons. Both of these developments are part of a wider historical epoch that has seen the growth of massive multinational corporations. Education reformers are revolutionaries who champion the growth of unaccountable private power.

This is why people who strive for some sort of gooey center in education policy effectively turn out to be education corporatists. They accept the underpinnings of education “reform” and then expect its opponents to meet them halfway. However, there is no meeting a revolutionary force halfway. Once one accepts its legitimacy, one automatically rejects any opposition. Indeed, that is the very definition of revolution. It is major, historical change. One is either with it or one is against it.  This is the decision that the privatizers of education have forced people to make. Those who consider themselves part of the gooey educational center have already cast their lot in with the revolutionaries.

Yet, centrists in both politics and education serve the purpose of making the opponents of revolutionary radicals seem like nutty, fringe characters. Political centrists today accept the legitimacy of the far right that has masked itself as modern conservatism. This means that radical leftists, or even legitimate liberals, are off the political spectrum and not part of civilized political discourse. They locate themselves within a very narrow range of political thinking that goes from far right crypto-fascists to centrist Democrats. This basically gives the field over to the political right.

This is why education centrists see people like Diane Ravitch as “divisive” or “radical”. They have already accepted that education reform is true reform and not revolution. They fail to see the greater revolutionary force of which education reform is a part. In so doing, they have inoculated themselves from seeing the validity in any of Ravitch’s, or any other public education advocate’s, ideas. To them, it is only a matter of total reform or less reform. If they were alive during the French Revolution, they would be debating over whether Robespierre should behead 100,000 people or 20,000 people and think of themselves as fair minded if they believed he should only kill 50,000. Whether anyone should be beheaded at all, or if Robespierre should even be in power, they would consider the talk of divisive fringe characters.

Education centrists, much like political centrists, should be disregarded as the vacuous tools they are. They do not have to be won over because they have already internalized the assumptions of a radical ideology. Instead, true defenders of public education should speak to the vast majority of Americans who have not been steeped in the doublespeak that passes for education policy in this day and age. This is the audience that Reign of Error seeks to reach, which is why it is scaring so many reformers.

Do not aim to be a centrist in anything. Instead, take a peek under the accepted paradigms and figure out whose purpose it serves.

Small High Schools are Better, Say Small School Advocates

Economists are the priests of capitalism, and education reform.

Economists are the priests of capitalism, and education reform.

Both the Daily News and New York Post touted a study carried out by researchers from MIT and Duke that found Bloomberg’s small high schools to be more successful than their larger counterparts. As someone who has worked in small high schools, the findings of this study do not have the ring of truth. So, I decided to slog my way through it to see what it says for myself.

The researchers at MIT measure “success” by Regents scores and college admissions. This means that they have a myopic focus on the core subjects. The fact that the arts have been disappearing from all high schools, especially the smaller ones, does not register a blip anywhere in this study. They also make no mention of the dearth of enrichment programs at smaller schools, a dearth caused by their small size. Smaller schools do not have the pool of talent and resources that larger schools used to have to build things like debate or football teams. The study makes much of the idea that smaller schools have “themes” but never assess whether or not these themes truly reflect what goes on in these schools. It is just taken as an article of faith that schools with “technology” in their titles teach students technology, or schools with “leadership” teach leadership and so on. While this faith is troubling, one must keep in mind this study was carried out by economists, probably the most faith-based of all the social sciences.

One glaring shortcoming of the study is that it does not measure the scores of students with special needs in smaller high schools. This includes English Language Learners. According to the paper:

“Students who were special education and limited English proficient were manually placed into programs that could accommodate them and were therefore  not always subject to assignment based on lotteries. As a result, no students who are special education and limited English proficient are in the lottery sample.”

The “lottery sample” to which they refer makes up the bulk of the small school students that are being measured. On the other hand, they did not exclude a similar proportion of special needs students and English Language Learners from their sample of students from larger schools. To say this might end up skewing the results of this study is an understatement.

One of the findings of the study is that students and parents felt safer in smaller schools according to the Learning Environment Surveys. They do not mention the percentage of students and parents who fill out these surveys, which is typically a very small amount of the overall population. Is it really reflective of the overall attitude towards the school if 5% of the families who attend it feel safe?

If the learning environment is so good in these schools, then how can this be explained?

“Small school teachers often had to take on administrative roles given the reduced staffing at small schools, and additional work requirements may have lead to higher turnover rates (Hemphill and Nauer, 2009). The estimate in Table 3 implies that 28% of teachers were not teaching at schools attended by offered complies in the following year, while 19% of teachers were not teaching at schools attended by non-offered compliers in the following year.”

So, the yearly turnover rate at these small schools is between 19 and 28 percent and the researchers backhandedly chalk this up to teachers at these schools having to take on administrative roles. This puts a shiny gloss on a much uglier reality. New teachers being unprepared for the classroom, systematic harassment, denial of tenure and expectations by administrators that teachers work overtime for free are not mentioned anywhere in this study, although they are pervasive problems throughout the system. This calls into question the rigor and objectivity of this study.

And what of the fantastic gains of the schools that were studied? According to the Daily News article:

” Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Duke University found that city students who attend small high schools established by Bloomberg are 9% more likely to receive high school diplomas and 7% more likely to attend college, compared with students who attend older, larger city high schools.”

Therefore, these schools in which the scores of special needs students and English Language Learners were not counted, were a whopping 9% more likely to graduate students and 7% more likely to have graduates who attend college. These numbers should be put into perspective.

First, many of the large schools to which these smaller schools were compared have become little more than dumping grounds for the Bloomberg administration. As is the case with Long Island City High School, many of the larger schools have much higher numbers of special needs students and higher rates of overcrowding. It has been the DOE’s tactic to set large schools up for failure in this way so that they have an excuse to close them down, chop them up and, in many cases, move in charter schools. Furthermore, as the study states, many of these smaller schools benefit from the largesse of philanthropic organizations like the Gates Foundation. The study did not take these funding disparities into account.

Therefore, after all of these advantages, and after all of the ways this study skews the playing field in the favor of small schools, they are still only 9% more likely to graduate students. They do this without providing the type of enrichment activities that were possible with larger schools. This makes these smaller schools little more than diploma mills, and not very effective ones at that.

Rising graduation rates or college admissions is in no way a measure of success. It is usually more indicative of lower standards, which we see in the increasing number of incoming CUNY freshmen in need of remedial classes. It is interesting that this study does not delve into which colleges the graduates of small schools are accepted. Are these two-year or four-year colleges? Are they being admitted to Hostos or Hunter? These are things that would have given a more accurate picture of the types of graduates coming out of the small schools.

The worst part of this study is not the obvious bias in favor of small schools. It is how the miniscule gains it finds in these small schools, gains in a very limited scope of categories, is seen as success. There is no attempt to put things into context. There is no attempt to ask the question: was killing off most of the large high schools, firing hundreds of teachers, shuffling around thousands of students and bringing in countless unqualified administrators all worth these 9% gains in graduation and 7% gains in college admissions? Or how about: was the destruction of the enrichment activities that came with larger schools worth it?

These are the types of questions that must be asked when assessing Bloomberg’s legacy for New York City’s public schools. Given the advantages heaped upon the small schools in this study, it is more likely the case that so-called “achievement” of New York City students is no different that it was 12 years ago. The study itself gives an indication of this when it mentions that SAT and PSAT scores, the only statistics not open to manipulation by the Department of Education, have remained stagnant.

That means the Bloomberg legacy is one of aimless destruction. It means that Bloomberg subjected the children of NYC to never-ending upheaval in their schools for what purpose? There are more administrators in the system than ever before. There is more teacher turnover than ever before. There are more no-bid contracts in the DOE than ever before. When all of these factors are put together, it means that Bloomberg oversaw the creation of a pliant teaching force under the thumb of unqualified administrators who helped institute a program of privatization in our public schools. He turned education in NYC into a gold mine for his billionaire friends.

The scariest part about all of this is that it only promises to get worse. Even if Bill de Blasio is the progressive white knight that many people think he is (which is quite doubtful), he can still do only so much to undo the damage of 12 years of Bloomberg. He still has to contend with reforms coming from the state and federal level over which he has very little control. Those reforms only promise to exacerbate the damage done by Pharaoh Bloomberg.

Economists all too often act as lickspittles for the moneyed elite. This study is just another example of that.



John King’s Bully Pulpit

John King measures just how close he is to losing his job.

John King measures just how close he is to losing his job.

October is national anti-bullying month. A recent study suggests that schools with anti-bullying programs actually might have more incidents of bullying. While this might have something to do with the fact that such schools over report bullying incidents, the study confirms a general sense that anti-bullying programs do not work.

The sloganeering involved in most school anti-bullying campaigns is similar to the anti-drug campaigns popular in schools during the 1980s. Both efforts tend to gloss over complex societal issues in favor of hokey slogans. We knew that the crack plague of the 1980s was not going to end by teaching the next generation to “just say no”. Similarly, we know that teaching our children to recite words like “tolerance” and “respect” is not going to end this problem of “bullying”.

Bullying is not going away. This is because the currency of our school systems, the currency of this thing known as “education reform”, is naked bullying. Look at the parent in Maryland who was roughed up by a police officer for questioning the Common Core State Standards. Look at New York State Education Commissioner John King’s recent performance in front of concerned parents in Poughkeepsie where he first tried to talk over their concerns, then canceled the rest of his speaking tour when he discovered that New York parents do not want to be lectured to like children. For good measure, he accused these parents of being beholden to “special interests”.

John King’s comments actually represent the first stage of bullying. What makes it easy for children to bully another child is the sense that the victim is somehow flawed. The child can be labeled a “wimp” or “whore” or “gay” or “weird” or any number of labels. Once that label catches on with peers, it becomes permissible to then torment and torture the victim. This is how seemingly good people could be led to commit acts of unspeakable cruelty. Their “goodness” is reserved only for the acceptable members of society. Anyone who is out of those bounds is fair game. Dictators have used this strategy to persecute groups they did not like. Democracies use this tactic as well, often with greater success.

King’s labeling of concerned parents as a “special interest” is a favored tactic of education reformers. The reformers burst onto the scene with many labels. They labeled the schools as “failing”. They labeled the children as “stupid” or “violent”. They labeled teachers as “incompetent” and “lazy”. Thanks to a massive PR campaign funded by billions of education reform dollars, these labels stuck. This gave the reformers the public traction they needed to go ahead with their agenda. This agenda involved closing schools, disenfranchising parents, firing teachers and other acts of institutional violence that could be properly labeled as “bullying”.

The Common Core is just the latest incarnation of this bullying. The only difference is that now, after a decade of failed education reforms, it is tougher for the reformers to sell their tropes of “failing” schools and “underprepared” children to parents. They cannot make the labels stick, which means, hopefully, it will become harder to foist their will upon our public schools.

People should not be surprised by the actions of Commissioner King. As the founder of the Uncommon Schools charter network, King instituted the type of draconian discipline policies for which many charters have become notorious. As Pedro Noguera wrote about his visit to UC:

“I’ve visited this school, and I noticed that children are not allowed to talk in the hall, and they get punished for the most minor infraction. And when I talked with John King afterwards, I said, “I’ve never seen a school that serves affluent children where they’re not allowed to talk in the hall.” And he said, “Well, that might be true, but this is the model that works for us, we’ve found that this is the model that our kids need.”

So I asked him, “Are you preparing these kids to be leaders or followers? Because leaders get to talk in the hall. They get to talk over lunch, they get to go to the bathroom, and people can trust them. They don’t need surveillance and police officers in the bathroom.” And he looked at me like I was talking Latin, because his mindset is that these children couldn’t do that.

Unfortunately what is often driving these high-performing schools is the idea that the kids need to be broken. That the kids’ culture needs to be taken away from them and replaced with something else, because they come in with deficits. They come in as damaged goods. And these schools believe that their job is to mold the kids into something else.”

There probably is not any bullying at Uncommon Schools because the administration has a monopoly on the practice. King obviously already wrote the children in his school off as brutes. This made it easy for him to institute an uncommonly brutish discipline code that would have gotten him run out of the wealthier school districts in America. He made it a mission of his chain to bully children into behaving in the proper way. In the end, all bullying is ultimately aimed at getting the victim to conform to some preconceived norm.

This was King’s exact attitude towards the parents in Poughkeepsie. In his mind, the children of these parents were “unprepared” to meet the “challenges of the 21st century” and so need the Common Core to make America competitive. When the parents rebelled, he gave them a label reformers have traditionally reserved for teachers and their unions: “special interests”. This means that anyone who disagrees with John King or the Common Core are merely myopic naysayers who only care about themselves. It is a convenient way for him to justify to himself the imperious manner in which he handled the parents in the audience. It is a convenient way for him to justify all of the reforms he has helped force upon New York State up until now.

It should be recalled that King was the one who designed New York City’s disastrous teacher evaluation system. In that system, King called for teachers to be judged by the test scores of students who are not theirs in subjects they do not teach. We can see in this John King’s disdain for teachers. He has already labeled us as selfish “special interests” in need of the same draconian treatment as the students in Uncommon Schools. His evaluation system is institutionalized bullying.

When teachers get fired because students they never taught fail standardized exams, that is bullying. When students as young as 5 years old have to prepare, then sit, for standardized exams with no other purpose than to rate teachers, that is bullying. When the schools of these children close because they are labeled as “failing” due to these exams, that is bullying. When every public school is forced to abide by ridiculous standards that will serve to suck the joy out of learning, that is bullying. When the charter schools who are the shining stars of the reformer movement are exempt from all of these changes, that is bullying. The reformers have labeled a certain group of people, namely public school teachers, their children and now their parents, as failures in need of corrective action.

If incidents of bullying have increased over the past decade, there can be little wonder why. The way students behave within a school building reflect the environment created for them there by adults. If the school building is located downstream from where education reformers dump their effluvia, as most public school buildings today are, then it can be little wonder why bullying takes place there. If children see people like King and Michelle Rhee deride their teachers as “ineffective” and “special interests”; if they know the state wants to close them down because they are “failing”; if they now see their parents shrugged off and insulted by the State Education Commissioner, then it is the adults from whom the children are taking their cues.

The bullying problem in schools will never end until the way schools are run is fundamentally changed. Instead of autocratic mayors having unquestioned control of urban school districts, we need the type of local and democratic control of school systems for which America used to be known. Instead of putative standards enforced with putative tests, we need the type of school system that has a rich and open curriculum.

Many parent groups, understandably, are calling for John King to lose his job. While I sympathize with that sentiment, we all know that the disappearance of John King will only pave the way for another SEC with the same exact agenda. The only difference would be that Governor Cuomo will choose someone who is a more shrewd political operator. I say: keep John King as SEC. There can be no better poster child for the high-handed and bullyish tactics of the education reform movement. Nobody could do more damage to education reform in New York State than John King himself.

My Evening at the UFT Delegate Assembly

How many delegates dutifully raise their hands every month after getting the UFT's cue?

How many delegates dutifully raise their hands every month after getting the UFT’s cue?

Should I go to the Delegate Assembly or the MORE protest?

This was the question I asked myself yesterday afternoon while walking to 52 Broadway. Surely, the fervent MORE folks would be in front of UFT headquarters calling for a complete moratorium on the new evaluations. Inside UFT HQ, the Delegate Assembly would be voting on a moratorium of their own: no high-stakes testing until schools have the Common Core materials they need.

There is not any doubt that the UFT designed this call for moratorium in response to MORE, whose online petition has collected thousands of signatures in less than a month. This is a victory of sorts for MORE, since it shows they can have some impact on UFT policy. Of course, the UFT moratorium is a completely declawed version of the MORE petition that accepts tying high-stakes, Common Core-aligned testing to teacher evaluations.

Seeing as how it has been about two years since I have participated in a full-throated protest, and over 3 years since I have attended a Delegate Assembly, I opted for the latter. While I always feel guilty for missing DAs, my experience yesterday reminded me why I avoid them.

I arrived at the reception hall just as the DA was about to start. The room was overflowing with delegates. The only remaining seats were towards the front to the left of the stage on which our president, Michael Mulgrew, would be standing. Many people sitting in this area were clearly MORE members, as indicated by their trademark red shirts. Our view of Mulgrew was blocked by camera equipment, as was his view of us. It is all the same, since he did not bother to look in our direction anyway.

As Mulgrew started his opening remarks, I helped myself to a much needed power nap. There was only one available seat next to me, an aisle seat, which became occupied at some point during my siesta. It was an older man with a high-pitched voice who seemed to have something to say every 3 seconds to anyone around him who would listen. All the more reason, I thought, to continue with my nap.

I promptly came to attention once the voting was set to begin. To introduce the moratorium vote one of Mulgrew’s trusted right hands, LeRoy Barr, gave an impassioned speech about the injustice of rating teachers on exams aligned to the Common Core when so many schools around the city have not received their Common Core materials. He reminded us that we all believe in fair evaluations and the Common Core. We just wanted to make sure that the new system was being implemented properly.

At this point, it was tempting for me to mutter cynical responses to everything LeRoy Barr said. Things like “you guys believe in Common Core” and “you guys brought us these evaluations that are now being improperly implemented” hung on the tip of my lips. At some point earlier in the night, Mulgrew complained that John King’s evaluation framework was hundreds of pages long and needs to be simplified. I wanted to yell out “didn’t you say that you were fine with any plan King wanted to hand down?”

However, other people raised their hands to speak on the evaluations in the proper Robert’s Rules of Order format. One dissident claimed that we are ignoring the affects of poverty on education and test scores. She then tried to introduce a measure to call for a complete moratorium on the teacher evaluations, at which point Mulgrew imperiously cut her off. In response, a young well-dressed woman explained that she went to a summer seminar on “results based” unionism and the union’s role in bringing us these evaluations were part of getting “results”.

Meanwhile, the older gentleman next to me, who at that point noticed I was finally awake, turned to me and said the Common Core was great because kids who switch school districts in the middle of the year would be able to pick up from where they had left off. In an annoyed tone, I told him that the Common Core were standards, not a curriculum, and therefore guaranteed no such thing. I was tempted to add that local control of education has been a hallmark of American public schooling but I feared that thought would be lost on him.

The comment of the night came from a MORE member who eloquently explained why these evaluations were a bad idea. He said he has been teaching for 13 years without incident and now, all of the sudden, the union is telling him that he needs Danielson and junk science “growth” scores. His mini-speech garnered quite a round of applause. Even my new friend next to me had to acknowledge he made some good points. I was hopeful that this speech had swayed some minds before voting started.

However many minds it might have swayed, it was not nearly enough. The DA voted quite convincingly in favor of this moratorium, which was tantamount to recognizing the legitimacy of the new evaluations. Even the guy next to me voted in favor. It was at that point that I made audible reference to male bovine scatology. I turned to the sea of faces behind me and asked “are you serious?” My incredulity was returned with blank stares. I figured this would be a pretty good point to leave.

It is clear that teachers do not want this system. It is also clear that the Unity Caucus that runs the UFT gets whatever it wants passed through the Delegate Assembly. They do this by controlling the flow of debate, apparently making up Robert’s Rules of Order as they see fit. More importantly, they do this by controlling delegates. The woman who mentioned “results based” unionism was obviously a very convinced Unity foot soldier. Doubtless there is a cushy job waiting for her someday at 52 Broadway. Then there are the delegates like my new friend who are half-informed and accept anything UFT leadership throws at them. These are by far the majority of delegates. They are not Unity sycophants. They are merely apathetic. Many of the people who clapped for the MORE member’s impassioned speech also voted for the moratorium.

What these union members get from doing Mulgrew’s bidding is a bit of a mystery. My hunch is that, quite simply, they equate being a good union member with being a good soldier. Their attendance at the DA is a clue. Their passivity is another clue. As I asked them if they were serious, the blank looks I got in response spoke to a group of people quite satisfied with themselves and probably their self-images as union members.

Yesterday brought home for me the importance of being able to organize school by school. Much like the Tea Party did with Republicans they deemed “moderate”, critical and active teachers need to run against these staid delegates in the schools. The Delegate Assembly needs to be reformed one delegate at a time.

How that is done is the million-dollar question.



The DOE’s Future and MORE’s Winning Strategy


I became a tenured teacher in 2003. Between September of 2000 and June of 2003, I would walk into the main office of my school to see my name on the list of probationary teachers. These were the teachers who had yet to receive tenure. Then, at the start of the 2003 school year, my name was off the list. I did not throw myself a party nor did my principal make any type of to-do about it.

However, I think receiving tenure in the New York City Department of Education today is an accomplishment that calls for the throwing of a party, like a Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation. In fact, I cannot remember the last time a teacher with whom I have worked has received tenure. There is an excellent and dedicated teacher at my school who is in her 4th year and, not surprisingly, got her probation extended another year last year.

This is a trend happening all over the city. Teachers are being denied tenure one or two years in a row before they are unceremoniously herded out of the system. How dedicated or effective a teacher is matters not. Principals are obviously under pressure from the DOE to deny tenure as much as possible. Even worse, tenure is not what it used to be, especially with the Race to the Top evaluation system now in place.

Many veteran teachers, myself included, have expressed outrage over the lack of ownership demonstrated by NYC teachers over their profession and their union. The vast majority did not even bother to cast a vote in the most recent union elections.

Yesterday I ran into a former colleague who retired last year. She looked very rested and happy. I saw on her face the joy she must have felt for not having to be evaluated by exam scores or implement a set of ill-conceived standards. My words to her were “you got out at the right time” and she totally agreed.

This is a teacher of the baby boom generation, that massive sector of the American workforce who is starting to collect Social Security and Medicare. Many baby boomers in the DOE must feel as if they are sprinting through a mine field, hoping to make it to retirement safely before a bad evaluation hobbles their chances of a peaceful dotage.

With the exodus of the baby boom generation, as well as the revolving door of Gen Xer and Millennials brought about by the rampant denial of tenure, we should wonder no more as to why teachers in NYC are not taking ownership of their working conditions. The fact of the matter is very few teachers in the system look into the near and distant futures and see themselves working inside of a DOE school building.

So voting in union elections, going to union meetings, attending protests of the Panel for Educational Policy and the rest of the things that activist teachers do must seem like a whole bunch of useless work to young and veteran teachers alike. They cannot be blamed for this. There surely are many young teachers who intended to make education their life’s work, or many older teachers who would have wanted to stay on just a little bit longer, but cannot do so due to the efforts of Pharaoh Bloomberg and his Queen Consort, Dennis Walcott, to turn public school teaching into a temporary gig.

And then there is that other group of younger teachers who are working on their administrative licenses. Generally speaking, they tend to teach non-core or non-academic classes, tend to not be very dedicated to what they do inside of the classroom and tend to not be very good at whatever it is they do inside of the classroom. This is just what I have seen from my experience. I am sure there are plenty of exceptions. This young crop, many of whom are more likely to get tenure if they do not already have it, may not be longed for the DOE either.

With the prospect of a Bill de Blasio mayoralty starting in 2014, many people are expecting big changes to Department of Education headquarters at the Tweed Courthouse. De Blasio has never really been a fan of Tweed. I hear stories everyday through the grapevine of Tweedies and people from the various DOE networks jumping ship to other jobs in anticipation of the de Blasio era. There seems to be a general sense that he is going to clean house once he inhabits Gracie Mansion, which is certainly welcome news to teachers who care about public education. If this is indeed the case, where will these young people with administrative hopes go?

Years ago there was a young teacher at our school who fit the description of the bureaucracy-climber described above. He taught with us for one year before getting an assistant principal’s job somewhere else. He was an AP for around one year before going off to work at Tweed doing God knows what. From what I saw of him, the only skill he mastered was the ability to kiss the right posteriors, and he mastered this better than most anyone I have ever seen. What will become of him and those of his ilk? Will the ass-kissery that is their stock-in-trade be less of an asset (no pun intended) in de Blasio’s DOE?

Chances are, the field of administrative sinecures at the DOE will greatly decrease in the near future. That means these young teachers either have to be really lucky, really connected or really dedicated to making things work as a classroom teacher. Barring these things, they will have to find another profession or another school system.

That means that the next few months and years will be a time of great flux in the DOE. Current and aspiring Tweedies are going to be jumping ship. Principals will be trying to weed out the probationary teachers to whom they have refused tenure. More baby boomers will retire once they get the chance. And, finally, if the recent Daily News and New York Post hit pieces are any indication, Bloomclot is on one last push to get those teachers awaiting termination hearings out of the door.

So who is left in the system that has the most vested interest in improving our students’ learning conditions? First, there are teachers like me, the veteran 30-somethings to whom retirement is a distant prospect. Second, there are the first-year teachers who have come out of traditional teacher education programs (that is to say, not Teach for America), whose prospects for tenure might be better in three years under a de Blasio DOE than they are now in the Bloomclot DOE. Finally, there are the teachers of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the ATRs, who generally are veterans who continue to rotate from school to school without classes of their own.

If MORE wants a shot at winning the next UFT elections, these are the groups to whom they must appeal. These are the people who will most likely hunker down in the DOE for the long haul. If recent history is any guide the younger generation, the ones who elected Obama and de Blasio and started Occupy Wall Street, will be receptive to the “social justice” aspect of MORE’s platform. Social justice, however, must ride the coattails of bread-and-butter union issues and not the other way around.

MORE must paint for teachers a picture of what the teaching profession can look like. Solid workplace protections, small class sizes, a deemphasizing of standardized testing and a respect for the autonomy of educators as professionals, these are the things that will matter in the upcoming union elections. Thanks to a crop of new principals who have imbibed the Bloomclot method of systematic workplace bullying; thanks to the budget cuts that have swelled the size of our classes; thanks to the Race to the Top evaluations that have institutionalized the standardized testing regime; thanks to the prospect of Common Core that takes so much of the joy and creativity out of education, the imprint of over a decade of reformer philosophy will be felt in our schools for some time. MORE must attack each of these things head-on with an alternative vision of what the teaching profession in NYC can be.

Doing these things will paint MORE as a stark and highly desirable contrast to the Unity leadership of our union that has been complicit in this reformer legacy. They can paint the Unity method of caving to the reformers as the stuffy old status quo. Seasoning their rhetoric with the right amount of social justice will set them up to be the next wave of civil rights leaders, much like the reformers started using the language of civil rights over a decade ago to give their destructive policies a pious sheen into which the general public bought. MORE, by properly tailoring their message what promises to be the backbone of our union in the decades to come, can become a legitimate threat to the Unity stranglehold on power.

MORE will take a step towards building this new union coalition tomorrow with the “Win Back Wednesday” rally tomorrow at 4:00 pm outside of UFT headquarters at 52 Broadway. I will be there and hope to see you there as well.

What if They Were Teachers?

Bad teacher Cameron Diaz  wonders what would happen if the shoe was on the other foot.

Bad teacher Cameron Diaz wonders what would happen if the shoe was on the other foot.

South Bronx School asks a good question: what if this was a teacher?

The Crack Team has learned that Jessica Cruz, AP at PS 154 in the Bronx… has a special
talent. She is a professional belly dancer.

And Jessica Cruz has a website dedicated to her belly dancing. On her website, one can find the following Youtube video featuring still photos of her in action:

This reminds me of the story I wrote some time ago of pictures that surfaced of Sharron Smalls, the principal of Jane Addams High School, in which she can be seen hugging a male stripper who was pouring what appeared to be ketchup on the both of them,

I will say now about Jessica Cruz the belly dancer the same thing I said about Sharron Smalls: I do not see anything wrong with these photos. Not to be snide, but I do not even see what is wrong with the following photo of Cruz that greets the visitor of her belly dancing site.


Granted, these photos of Jessica Cruz are a different breed from the Sharron Smalls photo. In my mind, Jessica Cruz’s photos are more tasteful. I do not say this just because I am a guy and Jessica Cruz is an attractive woman. I say this because Jessica Cruz has a legitimate talent, of which she is obviously proud, and the revealing outfits are part of that talent. Sharron Smalls, on the other hand, was being doused in ketchup by a stripper.

Regardless, I do not see anything wrong with either of their photos. They are adults and are entitled to a life outside of the Department of Education. This is not about trying to smear Jessica Cruz as something she is not. This is about raising a legitimate question: What if she was a teacher?

South Bronx School cites instances in which teachers have lost their jobs for much less than this:

She has the same right to do this as did a teacher on Long Island that took his shirt off on a reality show. The same right as a teacher in Florida that was forced to resign and had posed in bikinis. Or thatguidance counselor in who posed in lingerie years before she was with the DOE and got terminated.  Or that teacher who was forced to resign because a parent found a photo of her holding a beer and a glass of wine on her Facebook page. We here at SBSB support BFF AP Jessica Cruz and her First Amendment rights.

What is particularly interesting in the above quote is the case of Tiffany Webb, the guidance counselor who was fired by the Department of Education for photos of her on the internet from her days as a lingerie model, before she was employed by the DOE.  She rendered 12 years of service to the system until these photos were discovered that magically made her unfit to counsel children all of the sudden.

Jessica Cruz is an administrator of the DOE now, as well as a belly dancer. Do you think Richard Condon’s office, the one that thrives off of destroying the lives of teachers for the pettiest of reasons, will take any action at all against Jessica Cruz?

I would not hold my breath.

Again, for the third time, this is not to say that I believe the DOE should take any action against her. They should not have taken any action at all against Tiffany Webb either.

But what does it say about the DOE that they would fire a veteran guidance counselor of teenagers for something she did in the past but do absolutely nothing about an assistant principal of little children for something that she is doing now?

What does it say about the DOE that they would hire a confirmed misogynist and bully to be the principal of Flushing High School?  This is from Chaz’s blog:

Now we find that the Chancellor has hired a man, James Brown that was sued for sexual harassment, bullying.  racist comments and retaliation against a female dean at a Baldwin middle school who won the lawsuit against him.  Notice, this was not just an accusation but a lawsuit where the preponderance of evidence presented showed that Mr. Brown was found guilty of such behavior.  The story can be found here.

While a case can be made for Sharron Smalls and Jessica Cruz, there is absolutely no defense of James Brown, nor is there a defense of the DOE’s hiring of him to lead an entire school building, let alone a classroom.

The DOE hired Brown because he is a known bully. In this day and age when every twenty-something with three years of teaching experience has an administrator’s license, it is not like there is a shortage of principals in the job market. That means the DOE likes what James Brown brings to the table. It can be the only explanation for such a move.

As a system, the Department of Education is a giant bully. They will send investigators to the house of Christine Rubino to rummage through her garbage for a post she made on Facebook that was read by no kids or parents, but they will hire a man who was found to have sexually harassed teachers in a court of law.

It is obvious that the schoolmarmish discipline code the DOE rigorously enforces applies to teachers and teachers only. If Jessica Cruz was a teacher or a guidance counselor, they would send goons to harass her at her house and tell the New York Post to write a scathing article about the derelicts who infest the classrooms to which we send our children. People would be horrified and the hypocrite lynch mob would be out in force screaming in the comments section about these people who are “unfit to teach” and “should not be allowed around kids”.

But Jessica Cruz is not a teacher, so she can gyrate and show as much cleavage as she wants on the internet. Sharron Smalls is not a teacher, so she can hug as many scantily clad strippers who pour on her whatever condiment her heart desires all she wants. James Brown is not a teacher, so he can sexually harass as many women as he damn well pleases.

Might I remind you that Francesco Portelos, a teacher, is currently fighting for his career at a termination hearing for the following reprehensible and unforgivable offenses that obviously make him a liability around children:

1. January 30, 2012– Principal Hill called and stated that Mr. Portelos hacked,, and took her administrative privileges away.

2. January 30, 2012– Principal Hill received an anonymous call that Mr. Portelos used an iTunes program called Fake a Message to email a student and make it appear that it was sent by the Principal.

4. February 22, 2012– Principal Hill alleges that Mr. Portelos requested that a paraprofessional work with him and other teachers on a Learning Technology Grant (LTG) after school to help his students. Principal Hill declined and Mr. Portelos apparently had him work anyway and submit time sheets.

This is just a fraction of the over 30 charges Portelos is facing for things he did not even do. They all are in the same ballpark of ridiculousness as the ones cited above.

Perhaps if he was gyrating suggestively, hugging strippers, harassing women or gyrating suggestively while hugging strippers and harassing women, they would have promoted him to principal.

The Argument Against Online Grading

Just say "no".

Just say “no”.

Sue me: I do not use an online grading program.

Engrade, Schedula, Jupiter Grades, every school in New York City has adopted their own program where teachers can post each and every grade to each and every assignment online. It is not free either, for these programs can cost the school over $1,000.

For teachers, the selling point is that they no longer have to hunch over a calculator for hours on end come report card season. All they have to do is press a button and the grades are all calculated for them, according to whatever scoring algorithm the teacher chooses.

For students, they can log on to see their latest scores. It is like checking under your pillow to find some money from the tooth fairy each and every day. An ongoing tally tells them the grade they have in the class so far.

For parents, they can closely monitor the progress their kids are making in their classes. The more involved parents can even download the assignments and/or lessons, assuming the teacher has uploaded them. An email link keeps them in frequent contact with their children’s teachers.

Administrators seem to like the idea of being able to pull up any student’s grade from a central database. From what I hear, most administrators exhort their staffs to use the school’s adopted online grading program. Some schools have even mandated that teachers use it, although I am not sure that is 100% contractual.

And here I am, one of the last teachers in the city to not grade my students online. I am the only teacher in my school who is not online, which leads to some interesting exchanges come parent-teacher night.

One teacher recently referred to my absence from the world of online grading as me “taking a stand”. I do not see it that way. For my part, online grading is not compatible with my teaching philosophy or my philosophy in general. Many teachers swear by it and that is their decision. If a teacher believes online grading helps them do their job better or more efficiently, then I certainly am not one to try to convince them otherwise. Teachers should be free to make these types of decisions based upon their styles and experience.

I understand all of the arguments in favor of online grading. Now I would like to present my arguments against it.

Teachers should make the effort to inform their students of how they are doing in class. But what does this actually mean? Is “how a child is doing” mean a number grade? I told my students on the first day of school this year that I do not want them caring about grades. They are not sitting in my classroom to earn a number. This bit of information caused many a furrowed brow on many teenaged faces. My goal for them is to gain an appreciation for history.

This is a quaint notion, especially in the era of data (!). Kids have this idea that they come to school to earn good grades so they can get a diploma so they can go to college so they can get a good job. These are assumptions that most students, no matter what their background, tend to share. This is all the more reason why they must be reminded of the fact that there is actual knowledge, actual learning, to be done inside of a school building. If on the first day, or even the second or third day, I did the standard thing by giving each student their pass codes to log into their online grade account, I would merely be confirming their deeply held assumptions that school is about numbers. There will be more than enough time for them to fret over numbers throughout their lives, whether in the form of grades, salaries or bills. For the 45 minutes or so they are in my classroom, I want them to worry about history.

At the same time, I do not see why those students who are particularly hung up on their GPAs cannot remain hung up. They get homework every evening that is returned to them graded the very next day. They get exams every two weeks that are returned to them graded, also the very next day. Their projects are graded in a timely fashion, so they have those numbers as well. For class participation, students know whether or not they raise their hands, come on time and complete the little written assignments that are required of them. In short, they have more than enough data (!) to keep track of their own grades. Those students who are grade-driven will know and remember the grades they get throughout the semester, whether those grades are online or not.

Most importantly, there are always students who I do not grade by the strict algorithm required by our department. Every year I teach a class of exclusively English Language Learners. If they were plugged into the same equations as all my other students, as most of the online grading programs demand we do, most of them would surely fail. Instead, I must use a more “holistic” grading method, as teachers like to say. There are students who come to my class speaking and writing very little English and end the year with much more confidence and skill using the language. These students have upside, meaning their English skills will only continue to improve over time. Should I fail these students if I know they would be able to make their way in the next grade, even if they have struggled in my class for most of the year? Not only would this be unfair, it would frustrate them. They would be forced to sit again for a class of which they eventually got the hang. I would be holding them back from applying their new-found English skills in the next, more challenging, stage. Would they continue to improve if they are not continually challenged? For these students, and for students in analogous situations, plugging them into a strict numerical algorithm would be doing them a tremendous disservice.

Teachers are under pressure to bring more technology into the classroom. We are told that kids are using more technology than ever in their personal lives, so we should get with the program and integrate more of it into our practice. The push to record grades online is an extension of that pressure. I see things precisely the opposite way. Since children are spending so much time with technology, they need to have daily reminders that life is not digital. Adults could use this reminder as well, which is an ironic statement coming from someone who keeps an internet blog.

Many parents seem to like how online grading makes keeping track of their children’s schoolwork easier. In an age when the American worker has to put in well over 50 hours at the office to keep their families’ heads above water, it is understandable that many of them like online grading. On parent-teacher night, many parents ask me why I have not posted any grades to the internet. This leads me to summarize to them what has been written above. Most of the parents seem to understand my reasoning. A very bare minority do not and chalk up my rejection of online grading as either laziness or Ludditism. I give them my personal email and school extension and tell them they can contact me at any time they might have a question about their child’s progress.

This always leads me to think about how my mother was able to be so involved in my schooling. She was a single parent who, at times, worked two jobs. After working, cooking and cleaning, she still set aside the time to help me study and do homework. She came to every parent-teacher conference. She came into my school even when there were no parent-teacher conferences. She received every report card and knew all of my grades, which was never a good thing for me as a solid 65 student. She interacted with me and my teachers constantly. The truth is, I would have never pulled even a 65 if it was not for my mother. If she had access to my grades online, how much less would she interact with me and my teachers? How much more would she be inclined to see my schooling as nothing more than a pile of data rather than a daily interaction between me, my teachers and my peers?

While it is tempting to have the freedom to throw away my calculator at report card time in favor of a computer program that tallies the numbers of all of my students with one click of the mouse, I kind of like punching in those numbers and seeing what comes out. A student comes out with a grade of 59? What if they tried their hardest for that grade? What about that unit when they were asking all of those questions about the Enlightenment or the Civil War, went out of their way to watch a documentary about it and then came to class the next day to tell me what they learned? Should I fail this student just because they did not surpass some arbitrary cutoff point? What if this was the first time they ever started to care about something that happened in history? With online grading, those students are locked into whatever number the program says.

This is not to say that I grade students with fuzzy math. I keep meticulous records (on paper of course), add up every single number and adhere to our department’s grading policy. Students are informed as to how their grades are calculated. In fact, as I told one parent who disapproved of me not posting grades online on parent-teacher night, I spend more time than most other teachers going over with my students how their grades are calculated. I walk them through a hypothetical student with hypothetical grades and show them exactly how I calculate during report card season. They get a handout describing in both words and in diagrams what it means for their grades to be “cumulative”. In my mind, there is more transparency in this type of grading than in online grading since, unlike a computer program, I walk them through exactly how the sausage is made.

And then, after I do all of this, I tell them that this is not the point of coming to school. These are merely numbers. Education is what goes on in class all day. It is how they are affected by history. It is how history shapes their lives.  How many online grading programs were used by Socrates? Did Plato respect him because he promptly posted his grades to the internet?

Administrators can twist my arm to go online all they want. They have their reasons for wanting teachers to post their grades to the internet. None of those reasons have anything to do with education and everything to do with the bureaucratic exercise of covering one’s behind. Administrators want to be able to say that their schools constantly inform parents. Granted, some administrators might think that going with online grading is “pedagogically” the best thing to do. If that is the case, they should share their reasoning with their staffs who should, in turn, be free to accept or reject that reasoning. However, in Bloomberg’s Department of Education, it is all about informing parents.

But informing is a one-way street. Informing means explaining to someone a policy decision after it has already been made. Instead of informing, schools should be eliciting. Instead of posting grades and sending home letters, schools should be asking parents what they need. Instead of telling parents what has already been done, schools should be working with parents in designing what needs to be done in the future. Granted, these things are not mutually exclusive. A school can both inform and elicit. Yet, instead of spending a cool grand on an online grading program, imagine a school spending that money on organizing a “parents’ night” or several “parents’ nights”? Instead of mandating that teachers hunch over a keyboard to punch in numbers, imagine schools that would encourage teachers to take a day out of the semester to knock on doors of the parents they do not get to meet on conference night. Instead of more digital interaction, how much face-to-face interaction can a school purchase with a thousand bucks?

Subconsciously, this is probably another reason I have an aversion to online grading. It has the foul stench of Bloomberg all over it. Not only does it conjure up images of Joel Klein-like characters profiting off the backs of school districts by hawking superfluous and/or useless technological wares, it is just another way to inform. One thing the reformers have done well is drive a wedge between teachers and parents, as well as between parents and parents. They have sought to atomize the “stakeholders” of the education system into its constituent parts so that it is more difficult to unite against their harebrained “reforms”. Bloomberg himself has accomplished this by making it easier for schools to inform than to elicit.

Contrary to what we are being told, education is not all about the data (!) I will remind myself and my students of this every chance I get.

How New York City Can Rid Themselves of the Race to the Top Evaluations

There is no crime against wishful thinking, although it might not be part of Danielson's rubric.

There is no crime against wishful thinking, although it might not be part of Danielson’s rubric.

Teachers at my school keep asking me: “What is the union going to do about this new evaluation system?”

My response is: “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

This new evaluation system is brought to you by our union. It was Michael Mulgrew, president of our beloved UFT, who accompanied Andrew Cuomo to Washington, D.C. when New York State was applying for Race to the Top.

It was Michael Mulgrew, as well as NYSUT president Richard Ianuzzi, who negotiated the framework that mandated 40% of our evaluations be based on standardized test scores. We were assured by UFT leadership, including Leo Casey, that collective bargaining would cushion the blow of this framework at the local level.

When collective bargaining broke down earlier this year over Mulgrew and Pharaoh Bloomberg’s inability to agree on a “sunset clause”, it was Mulgrew who signaled his willingness to abide by any system that State Education Commissioner John King saw fit to foist upon us.

Every step of the way, Mulgrew and Unity leadership were there telling us how great this new system would be. They told us it will be “objective”, thereby preventing abuse by administrators. They said it would give us valuable feedback about our teaching practices.

The bottom line is: our union has been complicit in this evaluation system. They have cast their lot in with this evaluation system. How likely will they be to do a complete 180 and say “sorry, our mistake”?

Not bloody likely at all.

Some teachers in New York City have been heartened by the prospect of a new mayor, one who promises to be more sympathetic to public workers. While all signs point to a Bill de Blasio mayoralty, which would be a major improvement after 12 years of Pharaoh, do not fool yourself into thinking that this new system is going away.

There are two reasons why I say this. First, the evaluation framework is state law, something over which New York City mayors have no say. Second, our union will not fight to get rid of this framework since they helped give birth to it.

Some teachers envision Mulgrew and de Blasio sitting down at contract negotiations next year, exchanging laughs and slapping each other on the back. They envision retro pay, a cost of living increase and an end to this evaluation system. While the former two things might happen (indeed, they might be the only things to come out of negotiations), the latter will not happen.

Michael Mulgrew will never push de Blasio to do away with the system he helped conceive.

If we want a chance to do away with this system, there is only one way to go about it: fight.

The rank and file of the union has to band together and move the Unity leadership of the UFT to change things, at least the things about this system that can be changed at the local level. We can start by signing the petition being passed around by MORE.

This, unfortunately, will not be enough. Even if we push the UFT to fight against this system, it is still state law. That means a bigger grassroots effort will be necessary.

We can start with administrators. Many administrators throughout the city are not happy with the new evaluation regime. Not only does it give them more work, those who are veteran educators generally feel demeaned by the deskilling of their job implied by the so-called “Danielson” rubric. Grassroots teachers must make common cause with administrators, even if it means holding our noses in some cases.

While we engage administrators, we also must engage parents. This will be much more difficult. Many of our parents are disengaged. Some of our parents want more testing. Most importantly, many of our most savvy and vocal parents send their children to charter schools, where this new evaluation system does not affect them. We can at least make common cause with sympathetic parent organizations, like Leonie Haimson’s Class Size Matters and the feisty Change the Stakes group.

Even if we pull all of these things off, an unlikely scenario under the best of circumstances, it still will not get the state law repealed. The reformy money wields too much influence in Albany and Cuomo is too infatuated with his self-image as a dyed-in-the-wool education reformer and a “lobbyist for children.”

So why do all of this?

Recall earlier in the year when Mulgrew and Pharaoh Bloomberg reached their impasse over the sunset clause. It looked like NYC would not have a new evaluation system after all. That is when John King stepped in and threatened to withhold Race to the Top money, as well as Title I money.

Grassroots pressure from teachers, administrators and parents will not work on the Albany crowd but it might just work on Mayor Bill de Blasio. As a public school parent, he might come to oppose all the new testing mandated by this evaluation system. Even if his son, who attends my alma mater at Brooklyn Tech, would be shielded from these tests, he might sympathize with other parents whose children come home from school with testing anxiety. With enough public pressure, he might be the one to pull NYC out of this system.

Predictably, King will huff and puff about withholding funds. Let him huff and puff. Those Race to the Top funds are only enough to pay for new testing anyway, so he can keep it. When he threatens to cut off Title I money, let him be sued by the union and every major civil rights organization with a chapter in the State of New York. Not only will he eventually be forced to fork over that Title I cash, he will ruin his own and Cuomo’s reputation to boot.

As far as I can see, this is the only formula for totally getting rid of this evaluation system. If it seems far-fetched, that is only because it is. The moral of the story is that these evaluations are here to stay until our union or our political landscape change radically.

Class Size Matters



Like most teachers, the sizes of my classes have progressively increased over the past few years. This year is no exception, save for one of my classes that has 22 students. As we complete the first month of the school year, the differences between this class and my larger classes are instructive as to why “class size matters“.

The class is a 9th grade Global History class that meets towards the end of the day. Anyone who has ever taught freshmen when the clock is close to 3:00 pm knows the challenges involved. It is basically the same set of challenges for any class that meets towards the end of the day, only double. After 6 hours inside of a school building, kids start exhibiting symptoms of school fatigue: fidgetyness, boredom, irritability and intractability.

Yet, this particular freshmen class exhibits none of those symptoms. All of them are motivated and attentive in their own way. By the end of the period, most if not all of the students have raised their hands and contributed to the daily discussion. The few students who straggle with the “do now” assignment I am able to quickly get on task by quietly going over to them for individual attention. Most importantly, it easy for me to get know each one of their personalities. I know them better than I know the students in my other classes.

Contrast this class to the one I teach during the preceding period. This is an 11th grade U.S. History class with 32 students. They are a good group that I enjoy teaching. As 11th graders, they are able to pick up on subtle humor and we generally have a few laughs by the time the class is over. Yet, I cannot say that I know many of them as individuals. Just like the freshmen class, there are a few stragglers during the “do now” assignment. However, I cannot get to all of them because the class is just so large. There are a few students who have not participated all year. The quieter students tend to slip through the cracks while the ones who are bold during class discussions soak up most of the attention. To be sure, there are many students who excel at class discussion, so I am able to get a fairly decent spread of participants on a daily basis. Still, I have never been able to get to everybody yet, even though I know I will by the end of the year.

The difference between the percentage of students who participate in my freshman class compared to the junior class is not merely due to differences in numbers. The smaller class size in the freshmen class makes the students feel comfortable. There is a smaller audience for them to reach. They do not have to worry as much about saying something that others might think “silly”. Furthermore, they seem to feel more comfortable with me as a teacher. Even a student who sits in the “last” row (Yes, I seat kids in rows. Charlotte Danielson will probably have my head for this.) still only sits towards the middle of the room. In the 11th grade class, a student who sits in the last row sits all the way in the back, far away from me until I make my rounds throughout the room, which I do often. The smaller class size enables me to have a better rapport with my students.

If I was one of those yelling teachers, or someone who got ticked off easily, my 11th grade class probably would have driven me over the edge in week one. This is not because they are bad kids, because they are not. This is because when you have a room of 32 teenagers, it is inevitable that some of them are going to talk, or try to sneak a text message, or fall asleep or whatever else teenagers do. I am sure things go on during that period that escape my notice. When I do notice things in that class, I only have time to stop it by saying “stop it” or throwing a glare. To be sure, no truly bad or disruptive behaviors have taken place but a teacher still has to deal with a student who talks too much to his/her neighbors or does not want to do work.

With my smaller class, I can be much more inventive with my discipline. Since I have come to know them over the past three weeks, I can understand why each student does what they do. Instead of just telling a student to “knock it off”, I can try to work a normally disruptive behavior into the lesson or buy the time to go over to the student and deal with the issue personally. At this point, I know that none of the students in that class would be disruptive for the sake of derailing the lesson or showing me up. Whatever they do is an extension of their natural personalities, which is to say they do not do things simply out of pure malice. Of course, I know this is the case for all of my students in all of my classes. But the smaller class size allows me to understand from whence certain behaviors arise. In my larger classes, I just assume that malice is not a motivating factor for disruptive behavior. That does not necessarily tell me what the motivation is.

After 14 years as a teacher, I have no doubt that I will eventually figure all of my students out. The fact that I am able to do this faster with a smaller class means I am able to build a better rapport with them earlier in the year. Every teacher knows that the beginning of the year is vital, for it forges the channels over which the rest of the year will flow. I can already foresee that I will be able to be more creative, take more risks and teach more in the long run to my small freshmen class than to my larger classes.

This anecdotal evidence should be enough to give the lie to reformers like Bill Gates and Pharaoh Bloomberg who assume class size does not matter. What I mentioned here are merely the in-class benefits of smaller class sizes. It does not even speak to the other out-of-class benefits, like being able to spend more time on grading each child’s assignment, which would enable me to provide more individualized guidance. I am an effective teacher whether there are 22 or 32 students in my room, but there is no doubt that I am more effective with 22. Any veteran teacher worth their salt would say the same.

It also should give the lie to the KIPP and Success Academy philosophy of school discipline. Even with a classroom of 32 students, I never felt the need to force them to sit up straight or keep their eyes focused on me or keep their lips sealed until they are spoken to. With a class of 22, which is closer to the class sizes that exist at Kipp and Success Academy, there should be even less of a need to do this. If a high school teacher cannot keep the attention and focus of a class that size with kindness and understanding, then that person should not be teaching. How much damage are these charter schools doing to kids with their draconian discipline codes? How many kids are learning to hate learning in these places?

Only three weeks into the school year and already we can see that class size matters.