Tag Archives: school privatization

Did the DOE Just Do Something Right?

Did the blind squirrel find a nut? Not so fast.

Did the blind squirrel find a nut? Not so fast.

The New York City Department of Education did the right thing this past Friday by discontinuing its contract with McGraw-Hill. You might recall the debacle into which the scoring of the Regents exams descended this past June. Despite the DOE’s attempts to pin the blame on teachers, the public realized that the blame rested exclusively with McGraw-Hill and the DOE.

The annual scoring of Regents exams was one of the only fairly smooth undertakings of which I have been a part as a DOE employee. Our entire history department would get together with the assistant principal to “norm” the exam, which is a sort of self-training aimed at helping us understand the scoring rubrics in the same way. After we were all “normed”, we would split into pairs and grade piles of exams. We knew each other and we knew the students, making the process relatively painless. Each student would have their grades within a week, meaning they would know where they stood in terms of promotion and graduation.

However, the DOE feared a cheating scandal a la Georgia or D.C. They scrapped the decades-old system in favor of a convoluted scheme that resulted in a big fat contract for McGraw-Hill. The scheme involved having students take the exams, then having the school package the exams in an extremely specific manner (God help a school or a teacher that flubbed this part of the process) and putting those meticulously packaged exams on a truck bound for Connecticut where they would be scanned into a central database. At the same time, certain teachers were pulled from their schools and told to report to central grading sites around the city. These sites were generally larger schools that had enough computers for everyone to use. The process was an absolute train wreck for everyone involved, especially the students.

As one of the lucky teachers assigned to one of these grading centers (Stuyvesant High School to be exact), I had a front-row seat for when this new procedure went up in flames. Not only did the norming process take forever, we had to learn how to use the computer grading program and internalize a whole bunch of new protocols. These were small hurdles compared the biggest obstacle in our way: the gross incompetence of McGraw-Hill.

It would be but a few hours of grading essays before we received a pop-up message on our computers that read something along the lines of “the RIM for this exam is full”. We never fully figured out what RIM stood for but we knew it was McGraw-Hill’s way of telling us that they had not scanned all of the exams. They could not even scan the exams fast enough to keep up with us grading them. This meant that there were many-a-day when we ran out of essays to grade and had to be sent back to our schools. While this was a small matter for me who works within walking distance of Stuyvesant, it was quite the inconvenience for those who taught anywhere else in Manhattan. The big losers in this debacle were the students, especially those who needed to know their results for graduation and did not receive them, which led to students either being deprived of the right to walk down the aisle or being allowed to walk down the aisle with the proverbial “asterisk”. There were teachers who were stuck in grading centers who were deprived of the opportunity to watch their students graduate. All of this thanks to the good people at McGraw-Hill.

This coming June, teachers will still have to report to centralized grading centers but this time they will be graded by hand. The philosophy behind this effort is that teachers should not be allowed to grade their own students’ exams.

There are many things wrong with this philosophy. First off, high school teachers never really graded their students’ exams to begin with. Sure, we graded parts of their exams but the way it works in most schools is that all teachers in the department grade at least one part of all the exams. We are mostly grading students in other teachers’ classes, a practice that both online scoring and centralized paper scoring does not change.

Most importantly, I did absolutely nothing different when scoring the exams of kids in other schools via computer. I graded them the exact way I have graded students in my own school, which means giving them as many points as the rubric would allow. There was not a single teacher who I met that did not do the same. Bloomberg and Walcott really do not give themselves enough credit. They have created such an atmosphere of fear inside school buildings that teachers would be daft to risk their careers on out-and-out scrubbing of exams. There was really no need for such an expensive and inefficient program to prevent a non-existent problem.

At least the DOE has got it half-right for the 2014 Regents exams. We will still be shuffled around like cattle, albeit without having to deal with a lousy computer program. It is in step with the idea that teachers cannot be trusted. However, is it also not a tacit admission on the part of the reformers that testing does in fact skew incentives? It is merely a surface concern of a thoroughly rotten regime that revolves curriculum, instruction and “standards” around exams that not only determine whether or not a student graduates, but now will determine the ratings of teachers. If they think they have to create all of these hoops through which we all must jump for these exams, then perhaps it is a sign that there is something wrong with the way these exams are being used.

This McGraw-Hill fiasco should be Exhibit A against the well-worn argument that the private sector is more “efficient” for education, or anything else for that matter.


Eva is at it again. This time she is hell bent on invading my community. NIMBY!

Eva is at it again. This time she is hell bent on invading my community. NIMBY!

The neighborhood in which I live is called Astoria in the borough of Queens, New York City. It is culturally diverse with predominately middle and working class families. There is a heavy Greek accent to the neighborhood, even though the Greek influence has certainly waned over the years. It is one of the few neighborhoods left that is both reasonably priced and near Manhattan.

In short, our neighborhood has been getting along just fine. The public schools, generally speaking, have also been getting along just fine. Our largest high school, Long Island City, has a beautifully modern facility built by the same people who did the new Stuyvesant High School campus. The DOE has done everything in its power to destroy LIC, since such a wonderful building is prime real estate for charter school operators.

While LIC teeters on the brink, the DOE is going out of its way to set the other schools in the community on the road to ruin. Take the example of P.S. 122. It is a Kindergarten through 8th grade school that has served the Astoria community for the past three decades. The middle school portion has one of the best gifted and talented programs in the city, known as the Academy for the Intellectually Gifted. Using the DOE’s favored standard of judging schools (test scores) the Academy has been flourishing since its inception.

So, in the world of the DOE, it makes sense to get rid of it.

The DOE wants to reduce the Academy’s share of the middle school from 11 to 3 classes. They then wish to increase overall enrollment, which would turn the Academy into a miniscule  rump of a program. 122’s facilities will be taxed to the limit. Some students would have to be scheduled for lunch as early as 9:30 am. If the DOE does not provide the extra resources necessary to deal with the increased student population (and there is no reason to believe they will), enrichment programs like art, dance and health will be the first to suffer. In short, the DOE is on a mission to destroy 122.

However, the destruction of 122 is not the endgame. These new students will be siphoned off from the other public schools in the area. While 122’s facilities will be pushed to the limit, the other schools will be underutilized.

Underutilized…. Why would the DOE want to create a situation where certain schools will be underutilized?

Word around the campfire is that Eva Moskowitz, head of the Success Academy chain of charter schools, has put in an application to co-locate a couple of schools in the district. Her minions have been seen handing out their glossy fliers to passersby. It is not going out on a limb to say that the DOE is clearing out space for Eva’s Success Academy.

The upshot of this is that the students of 122, who come from working class families, will have their best ticket to a great educational future choked off. Eva can then swoop in and act as their savior by promising “better” schools. However, all that she will provide are inexperienced teachers who are trained exclusively in test prep. Meanwhile, she can line her pockets some more on the backs of working class children.

The PTA of P.S. 122 is having an open meeting tomorrow. They will figure out a plan to fight back against Eva and her merry band of privatizers. I will be there as well representing MORE.

It will be 6:3o pm at 21-21 Ditmars Boulevard. If you are in the neighborhood, or can get to the neighborhood, come on out and be on the front lines against the destruction of public education.

Jada Williams: Lightning in the Night

Jada Williams is the Rochester teen whose essay on Frederick Douglass is forcing people to confront where education in America is headed.

By now, you have probably read about 13-year old Jada Williams, the 8th grader at School #3 in Rochester, New York. She wrote an essay describing how her mostly white teachers merely hand out “packets and pamphlets” that they expect students to complete on their own. This is a recipe for “mismanagement” because “most of my peers cannot read and or comprehend the material that has been provided.”

Jada compares this type of non-education to the type that slaves received in the United States. She quoted a part of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass where Douglass’ master, Mr. Auld, scolds his wife for teaching Douglass how to read. “If you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there will be no keeping him,” Auld says. “It will forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.” Different era, same scenario. Her white teachers had knowledge that they refused to share with their mostly minority students.

For her essay, Jada was reportedly harassed out of School #3, ending up in an even worse school reserved for troubled teens.

It certainly is a story pregnant with meaning. As a history teacher, I applaud Jada for the type of insight it took to use slavery as a way to shed light on what is happening in black education today. If the school really did harass her because of this essay, then it is something that needs to be dealt with. While it is tempting to call Jada “courageous”, I simply think she was fed up and at a point of total alienation. Her words are like a bolt of lightning in the night, momentarily illuminating the darkness in which American education finds itself.

There could be no more appropriate name for the school than “School #3”: generic, cold and interchangeable. It sounds like a school that was rolled off an assembly line and stamped by an inspector. There are literally thousands of School #3s around the country. In the current age of education reform, we are facing a situation where every school that does not serve the very wealthy promises to be a School #3.

Arne Duncan chimed in on the Jada Williams story by reciting the usual bromides about the “achievement gap”. Yet, few people have done more in this country to ensure that the achievement gap becomes a permanent state of affairs. Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program basically calls for two things: more testing and more charter schools.

The tests that Duncan wants are in no way designed to help students learn or even truly measure what they know. They exist to rate teachers. Jada describes a mechanical classroom where teachers hand out packets and expect students to work on them independently. Now that teachers stand to be rated by the test scores of their students, classrooms stand to become nothing more than test prep centers. There will be more packets consisting of old exams, test-taking strategies and frequently asked questions. There promise to be many practice exams that teachers will give on their own just to see how much “value” they are “adding” to their students. So while Arne Duncan talks about closing the achievement gap, he is ensuring the institutionalization across the board of the type of classroom that Jada describes.

Through simplistic multiple choice questions, standardized exams boil all learning down to trivia. They are a series of decontextualized bits of “information”, most of them having no connection to each other. Instead of “information” as a byproduct of the study of the human condition, information will be the end-all-be-all of education. Teachers will have no reason to require their students to reflect on the world around them and make their own judgments based on inductive thinking and synthesis. Instead, the only thing that will matter is how much information students can regurgitate. The worst thing of all is that this information will be determined by a corporate apparatus that has no interest in educating anybody, let alone poor minority students. The exams, prep materials and text books will all be handled by the few megacorporations who have the resources to pump out millions of pieces of paper and the ability to vie for government contracts.

Duncan is also ensuring that the test prep coaches that pass for teachers under his regime will remain white. During his eight years as head of Chicago’s public school system, Duncan fired 1,800 teachers, most of them black women. To replace these veteran educators, who were fired no doubt because they made too much money for his taste, he called in young college graduates at half the salary. I wonder how many of them were from Teach for America, the program that brings in privileged temps to experiment on inner city children.

Teach for America has done nothing but expand on Duncan’s watch. School districts across the country have seen veteran teachers harassed out of the system. Many of these teachers, like the ones fired in Chicago, were members of the communities they served. They dedicated their lives to being role models for children who desperately needed them. Teachers of this breed are quickly dying out as Teach for America expands its corporate tentacles.

The situation in New York City is no different from the situation in Chicago. As Mayor Bloomberg closes more schools, displaces minority congregations, supports gentrification and promotes stop and frisk by the NYPD, the black population has taken the hint that there is no place for them in his vision for New York City. While other groups are expanding, the black population of New York City is steadily declining.

Despite these glaring truths, Bloomberg is still desperately trying to salvage his legacy as the “education mayor”. While over 100 schools will be closed by the time he leaves office, he has been quick to erect charter schools over their carcasses. This is the other part of Arne Duncan’s corporate Race to the Top agenda. These charter schools are building their mythical, propagandized reputations around the idea that they have raised student test scores. The fact is that charters skim the best students, kick out the kids they find too difficult to educate and institute corporal punishment.

Jada Williams wrote in her essay that she wants her white teachers to be held accountable for the learning of their students. The reality is that Arne Duncan and the rest of the education reform movement want more white teachers and less learning. They want nothing more than to build glorified test prep centers (charters) that educate who they feel like educating in the manner they feel like educating them, which is rote memorization in the name of passing government mandated exams.

And those students who truly need educational services, like students with learning or emotional disabilities, or students still learning English, are the students Arne Duncan does not want educate at all. They are the students that have no place in corporate charter schools. Instead, those students are being relegated to the same public schools that Bloomberg and Rahm Emmanuel continue to shut down. Despite the fact that there are more public and private dollars floating around education than ever before, these are the schools that are being squeezed due to “budget cuts”.

So this is why Arne Duncan can offer nothing in response to Jada Williams other than the same old clichés about closing the achievement gap. The fact is that Jada Williams has caused us to confront head-on what the true goal of education reform is. It is about turning teaching and learning into a mechanical process of test prep. It is about displacing veteran teachers who used to be part of the community in favor of underpaid and underskilled temp workers. It is about shutting out anybody who cannot afford to choose their own school from any access to true knowledge of the world around them.

The end goal of all of these reforms is a form of slavery. Corporations are telling our children what they should learn by making the exams and building the charter schools. Just like Frederick Douglass was cut off from anything that might put big ideas in his head, today’s students are being forced to not think about anything higher than the next bubble to fill in. Charter schools, through their rigid discipline codes, are training children to follow orders without question. Education reform seeks to pump out generations of passive citizens. Citizen perhaps is the wrong word, since it entails some sort of active democratic participation.

There is an area between citizenship and slavery that we and our children are increasingly being forced to occupy. The station at the very bottom of a hierarchy of wealth where the only thing that matters is following orders can properly be labeled as serfdom.

Jada Williams has called attention to this condition of serfdom. Despite being harassed out of her school, she has at least proven that there is still room to speak out against it. The end game of the privatizers is to take away any public space that allows us to speak freely. We need to take the opportunity now to speak out while there is still public space to do so.