Mr. de Blasio: Tear Up This Blacklist

5 Apr

Was Bill de Blasio’s dad blacklisted in the 1950s? Well it sure looks that way.

Long story short, Warren Wilhelm Sr., government analyst, was dragged before a McCarthy-era committee in 1950 and 1953, interrogated about suspect activities, interests, and affiliations, and then stripped of his security clearance.

“Over the next several years, the case resurfaced as Mr. Wilhelm was considered for promotions,” the New York Times reported in 2013.

Apparently the promotions didn’t come. Bill’s dad, who’d been awarded a Purple Heart for his WWII battlefield heroics, didn’t talk much about his difficulties with the Loyalty Board to his kids. But the Wilhelms left Washington for greener pastures after 1953, and he seemed to struggle thereafter in almost every way imaginable. It seems reasonable to assume, then,  that Mayor Bill de Blasio might understand, as few others can, the malignant power of the blacklist.

It’s a question of some immediate relevance. Currently making the rounds is an online petition asking that the mayor’s schools chancellor put an end to a Bloomberg-era policy of blacklisting-for-life probationary teachers who are “discontinued” ( “fired”, in plain English) from their initial DOE assignment.

The petition makes the obvious point that school principals should base their decision to retain  a new teacher, or not,  on strictly *pedagogical* grounds.   Yet this does not happen often.

So, apart from pedagogy, what else would matter? Well, politics, for one; both in the local ( i.e. within the school) sense of the word and in the more general sense.
Religion, race, and ethnicity, for another. ( All of the “old reliables”; rolled into one, for clarity’s sake.)
Sexual orientation and gender. (“But there are LAWS against that sort of thing.” Yeah. Right. PROVE it.)
Cronyism and nepotism. ( “Got a relative who needs a job?  We just might have an opening.”
Personality conflicts, unrelated to work performance. (Grow-up, folks. It happens all the time.)

The petition itself provides an excellent example of how the process actually works:

“Then, several months later and out of the blue, it happened. Without even realizing it, Jennifer crossed Principal Higgins by questioning some change in assignment and a preparation period she felt she was owed. Suddenly, Jennifer stopped receiving “satisfactory” observation reports and began receiving several “unsatisfactory” ones. Principal Higgins then rated Jennifer unsatisfactory for her first year final rating. Jennifer was devastated. It didn’t make sense. The students and parents liked her. She received unofficial praise from the assistant principal, but to Principal Higgins Jennifer didn’t differentiate instruction. She didn’t have coherent lessons and didn’t demonstrate knowledge of resources.

450 NYC probationers were discontinued in the last two years. The real killer here though is the *blacklist*. By the time teachers step into a New York City public school classroom for the first time  they have already  spent hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars in preparation: studying for undergraduate and —  in many cases — graduate degrees; serving in unpaid internships;  jumping through all kinds of testing and licensing hoops.  Suddenly… because of something so trivial as a personality conflict with a supervisor… they are essentially banned-for-life from their chosen  profession. Under the blacklist, no other principal in the 1,700 school NYC system may hire them. There is only one public school system in New York City. Just as there was, in the 1950s, for Warren Wilhelm …..and for many, many others… only one federal government.

One of the most striking and promising things about New York City’s new mayor is his intriguing resume. In an era when government policy is shaped for the most part by shallow, basically interchangeable , suburban prep school dilettantes, de Blasio’s bio smacks of something real.  Whatever he turns out to be…  he’s  not your typical 21st  Century  American big-city mayor.

Psycho-historically speaking,  Bill’s early years are less “story” than *struggle*.  And the struggle seems to have decisively shaped the public servant we are watching so nervously ( in the sense of:  “Who is this guy, *really*?”) today.

Plenty’s been written about the mayor’s troubled dad ,  a Harvard-educated economist. His presence in — and his absence from — Bill’s early life. His influence, for better or worse, on the tender, emerging mayoral psyche. Warren Wilhelm Sr.  struggled, it would appear… the way many of us struggle…. with the complexities, misfortunes and imponderables of life. But perhaps not as effectively as most.

Endowed, like his son, with uncommon physical and intellectual stature, Wilhelm saw more than his share  action  in WWII and lost a leg in the battle of Okinawa. The war, and its aftermath seemed to stay with him, long after V-J Day, according to the mayor’s own account.

Still, Wilhelm distinguished himself professionally as a government budget analyst in post-war Washington, DC, while raising a handsome family in upscale Georgetown with his, wife, ex- OWI ( Offiice of War Information) translator, the former Marie de Blasio. Life, on the surface at least,  (And was “life” in 1950s America ever anywhere else?) was good.

Then came McCarthy. “McCarthy” was less a person than it was an era; a mentality; a zeitgeist. More than a “mentality”, it was a lack of mentality. (Keep this phraseology in mind; we’ll be getting back to the NYC Department of Education shortly.)  McCarthyism was  an officially anti-communist ( and  — unofficially—  anti-socialist, anti-liberal, anti-intellectual, and anti-labor) firestorm, stoked deftly by demagogues in congress with plenty of backing from their sponsors and string-pullers in what today we call … with plenty of statistical justification…“the one-percent.”

In 1950, Warren Wilhelm was dragged, along with his wife, before before a government “Loyalty Board”. What HUAC was in that era for Hollywood notables, the Loyalty Boards were for ordinary federal bureaucrats who were suspected of Soviet sympathies. Warren Wilhelm, it developed, had studied … among many other topics…. the Soviet economy, as a grad student at Harvard. That this fact raised… if you’ll excuse me… “red flags” at all , hints at the Godzilla-like political monster that was stalking,  then devouring  the collective “brain” of official Washington in the early 50s.

In the end, the couple was cleared of being spies. They were cleared of being Communist Party members. They were not cleared of harboring Soviet “sympathies” and of playing “pro-Soviet” records on their home phonograph. Warren  Wilhelm retained his position in the government. His prospects for advancement evaporated.

Three years later, he was brought back. before the board. Someone at Yale, presumably a college classmate had anonymously reported that , Wilhelm harbored “ultra -liberal “ ideas as an undergrad.

That’s *in college*. That’s *15 + years after the fact*. That’s  “Ultra-liberal”  ideas It’s not clear how Wilhelm defended himself against that one. Nor, in 2014, is it clear why he would have to. All we know for sure  is that the family left DC shortly thereafter and had what sounds like a few relatively good years in the Connecticut suburbs before relocating yet again  to Cambridge, Mass. where Mr. Wilhelm seemed to slide more rapidly  into alienation, alcoholism and, eventually, an early, self-inflicted death.

Maybe the blacklist… if there WAS a blacklist…. had nothing at all to do with Mr. Wilhelm’s struggles with depression and alcohol in the 60’s and 70’s. But maybe it did. 

Maybe the blacklist.… if there WAS a blacklist….never *officially* existed at all.. I’m sure the feds would deny the existence of such a thing; or they’d have coined a euphemism. NYC DOE calls what it does variously, “flagging”, “red-flagging” and “problem-coding.”

Yeah. OK. Fine. Wonderful.  But spare us the doubletalk: it’s a *blacklist*. One can’t get work if one is “on” it. That’s what  a “blacklist” is.

If you’re like most New Yorkers, you didn’t even know there is a blacklist. Heck, if you’re like most teachers, you wouldn’t know either; until you’re actually ON it. ( If you’re like most Americans , you are unaware even  that there was a blacklist in America in the 1950s. Such is the state of American  History instruction in United States secondary schools  in this glorious 21st Century of ours. Fodder for another post entirely.)

But there it is. The blacklist. It’s modern day cultivator and guardian — no surprise here — is  NYC’s Department of Education, that bottomless pit of  nepotism, patronage, mendacity, mindless cruelty and absolutely incomparable bureaucratic dysfunction.

Mayor de Blasio can do something about it. The question of the hour  is: will he?

Stop This Train: The Common Core and the Uncommon Student

19 Nov

“Bureaucracies force us to practice nonsense. And if you rehearse nonsense, you may one day find yourself the victim of it.” 

 — Laurence Gonzales,  Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things


Good Morning.

As you can see,  on the agenda today is the Common Core Standards. 

I posted a question a few weeks back on the MORE Discussion list-serve…. the Google Group that many of you are familiar with. Words to the effect of  “Does MORE  have a position on the CCSS?  If not, why not?”

So… in a classic case of “no good deed goes unpunished” ( or maybe in this case, “no snotty-assed question goes unnoticed”)…  I’ve been asked to share my own thoughts about the CCSS in some detail.

Well, by way of explanation,  what prompted my question in the first place was the fact that when (MORE activist) Michele Showman and I were petitioning  against the teacher eval system at schools in the NW Bronx… specifically at the JFK campus …. that particular  question about MORE and the  CC seemed to repeatedly  suggest itself.

We’d be talking to people about the teacher eval system… and why it was so bad that we needed a moratorium.  And why MORE’s moratorium was  different and distinctly better than the flakey moratorium that the union leadership had frantically  cobbled together (To keep up with us? Who knows.) at about this same time. ( late September, early October.)

Naturally, people ( esp. *teachers*)  asked about the  eval system, the moratoriums, the organization MORE, how MORE’s moratorium was better than Mulgrew’s, etc. and the dialogue  often  flowed into longer discussions that incorporated the OTHER two proverbial “elephants in the living room”: Danielson and the Common Core.

The point is this:  it’s hard to talk about just ADVANCE …the bureaucracy’s nifty little handle for its moronic new teacher eval system….and  just how bad it really is, without talking about EVERYTHING.  “Everything” includes the CC. Now,  as an organization, we have a position  on ADVANCE and I think we have a position on Danielson ( If we don’t maybe we ought to.) but we don’t seem to have an explicit position on CCSS.

Maybe we should think about that today.

I  personally don’t have a huge history with CC. I retired from District 75 two years ago. In my last year, we were part of a pilot program to introduce the Danielson Framework ( for teacher observations), and CC was sort of smuggled in at the same time, essentially unnoticed in the avalanche of new, largely unnecessary paperwork and assorted confusion that inevitably attends the adoption of the Danielson method. In case you are unaware,  District 75’s mission is to educate kids with “significant disabilities”. That’s how DOE itself describes it. I taught high school-aged kids, 15-21.

“Significant disabilities” means, in the vast majority of cases, kids with IEPs whose impairments are so severe that they need  self-contained special ed classrooms. And often a lot of other services, like speech therapy, occupational therapy, etc.

The severity of the handicapping conditions in question varies, even within D75; but many, many D75 kids have 1. little or no language or literacy , 2. little or no numeracy, and 3. one or more of a myriad of overlaying and complicating (from an instructional POV) conditions. One example: severe autism. ( Avonte Oquendo, the young man who walked out of his school 6 weeks ago and has not been seen since, walked out of a District 75 school. ) In short, D75 kids come with a wide range  of what are — to be brutally frank,— severe, permanent,  life-long handicapping conditions. 

Traditionally, working with  these kids  involved … first of all… recognizing them as not only individuals but as *exceptional* individuals. Their *IEPS* guided the  pedagogy; NOT any generic curriculum.

So, let’s consider that term, “IEP”: Individualized Education Plan . The key word is *INDIVIDUALIZED*.  The IEP, written by the child’s educators and parents  TOGETHER, stressed goals that were appropriate for that particular INDIVIDUAL. So there was math, for instance… but it was *functional* math: telling time, counting money, basic banking and budgeting. The complexity of each goal carefully calibrated to the specific needs of each particular student.  The developmental level of each INDIVIDUAL child was considered. Not the grade level that would ordinarily be assumed by their chronological age. Our guiding planning  principle: if the student could  master these basic skills, he or she could achieve….  at the very  least…. a *degree* of independence in adult life. Public education would have therefore served a useful purpose for that particular child.

For reading  goals, we  again zeroed-in on the  functional and the practical: signs, labels, directions. Alphabetical order, for instance. ( If one knows alphabetical order one can  file;  can be useful in an office;  can use a directory; and so on.) Schedules. ( “If you know how to read a schedule you can take a bus to get to  a job,” I sometimes explained to my more capable students.)

The art — and the challenge— for the teacher and planner was  in *prioritizing*. And in being realistic. What can this student *really* learn; what can I *really*  TEACH him/her, that is going to significantly enhance his/her quality of life —  considering the limited amount of instructional time we would have together in the classroom before he/she aged-out at  age 21 — COMBINED WITH the obstacles posed by the severity of the handicapping condition?

So. You would think that the Common Core …. based as it is on the assumption that all children can and must be made college or career ready by the end of high school…. would make a detour around District 75.  Surely our D75 administrative high command would see to that. You would *think* so.

You would be wrong. ( You give them *way* too much credit.) All of the aforementioned was thrown out. A completely useless, commercial, online, generic curriculum —costing tens of thousands of dollars and boasting that its content was “aligned” to the Common Core Standards— was imposed. D75 teachers were not only responsible for implementing the IEP but for  incorporating the Common Core standards at the same time. It was the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen in 27 years in the NYC system. We spent hour after excruciating hour at workshops and in-services and “cohort meetings” discussing Common Core-aligned topics such as “equations and inequalities”, “polynomials”, “rewriting rational expressions” and ” reasoning with equations and inequalities.” Why were we doing this?

Because our kids were high school-age. And the CC insists that that’s what all HS-aged kids should be learning. 

In the meantime, our kids, though teenagers,  typically couldn’t do two-digit addition correctly and often couldn’t count to 10. We should have been  finding ways  to bridge the gap between handicapping condition, otoh, and functional independence  on the other; but we wasted  all that planning time talking about… and trying to COMPLY with…. bureaucratic  Common Core nonsense.

So… that’s what  Common Core means to me. Complete and utter academic irrelevance. Chaos. Instructional incoherence. Now perhaps, you may be thinking, CC is more applicable to general ed populations. Maybe to the students that most of YOU teach. Frankly, I doubt it.

Contemplate for a minute the  lack of mentality, the  sheer *mindlessness* behind the requirement  that teachers of profoundly impaired special ed students teach or … or  *pretend*  to teach… “polynomials” and “rewriting rational expressions”  to 17 year-old kids who can’t count to ten. While the Common Core may initially seem  a  better fit to the gen ed  classroom, keep in mind that the same know-nothing, authoritarian arrogance that drove CC thru my classroom is now driving  it thru yours. 

The CC rationale rests on a  rickety step-ladder of false assumptions, starting with the assumption that people have more in “common” than they actually do. Our kids are individuals… all of them: special ed, general ed; *all* of them…. before they are interchangeable widgets, OSIS #s,  clones or drones.

So…. maybe we can spend some time today talking about the CC and what it means for both students and teachers. MORE doesn’t HAVE to take an official position on every educational issue that comes down the pike. But CC has become so central to school life in NYC and so integral to the stealthy and  self-serving undertakings of corporate “reformers” that maybe it’s time we looked it squarely in the eye.

Presented at the  November general membership meeting of MORE ( The Movement of Rank-and-File Educators) a caucus of NYC’s United Federation of Teachers.

The District 75 Danielson Pilot: CRASH! Burn! Fizzle………..

25 Mar

Can Charlotte Danielson “cure” Down’s Syndrome?  Can she make it “go away” or render it educationally irrelevant?  What about cerebral palsy? Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Ms. Danielson  is the creator of the now-famous “Danielson Framework”. It is  a teacher observation/evaluation tool that is all the rage  in  those school districts  around the country that are  right now undergoing what is generously described as school “reform”.  So my admittedly loaded  question is this: Can she ( or *it*; i.e. the Framework)  enable a  16-year-old quadriplegic — with irreversible birth trauma-related organic brain damage, no spoken language capacity, and profound intellectual disability — to miraculously rise from his wheelchair and his wordlessness and lead his  classmates in a grade-level discussion of , say, Shakespeare’s break with  Renaissance literary convention in “Romeo and Juliet”?

All reasonable people agree: no. But the NYC Department of Education, particularly in the Bloomberg era,  treats  “reason” as one would  sensibly treat a contagious disease.  And, after twenty-six years on the lookout for this sort of thing, I can recognize a truckload of DOE  *stupid* from a mile away. Especially when it’s headed right at me.

So when I saw this… this thing, “The Danielson Framework”, unveiled in September of 2011 and renamed ( Why?)by the NYC DOE ,”Talent Management Pilot”, I recognized a code-blue situation immediately and made a bee-line to my union leader, President of the United Federation of Teachers, Michael Mulgrew.

I managed to corner him  after the  UFT monthly Delegate Assembly  in October. I told Mr. Mulgrew that my District 75 “Network” ( group of NYC schools) was “piloting” ( testing) the Danielson Framework as a teacher observation tool in D75.  He exclaimed, and I quote: “They’re using *Danielson* in D75 !?”  He squinted, his brow furrowed. Then  he rolled his eyes. I slapped some related paperwork into  his hand. ( He’s always in a hurry. I understand; there’s a lot to do.)

I heaved a huge, audible, sigh of relief. ( Where would we be without our body language? Confused, I guess.) Mulgrew used to teach in D75 and *instantly* saw the problem: Danielson’s work is  normed on general education teachers of general education students in general education classrooms. District 75, in contrast,  serves students with severe and profound intellectual and/or behavioral handicaps, often compounded by physical disabilities,  who are taught in specialized, *self-contained*  ( i.e. special ed only) classrooms by teachers who are trained and licensed to do  this highly specialized — and very different — type of teaching.

In short: NO gen ed students, NO gen ed classrooms; NO gen ed teachers in D75. This being the case, it seems inarguable that  mistakes were made ( a lot of them) when, last year:

1. the DOE  assigned 11 schools in District 75 to the so-called Talent Management Pilot ( DOE-speak for its version of Danielson) ;

2. the UFT agreed to go along with it;

3. no one bothered to consult the Special Ed professionals ( many with post-graduate degrees in Special Ed. and decades of experience working with the student population affected) in those 11 schools; the teachers whose professional lives were about to be turned upside down by the astoundingly *dumb* idea of test-driving  the Danielson Framework through District 75 .

Here’s the problem: Danielson doesn’t work in D75. Mulgrew knows this.  Alas, the rest of UFT … even ( and I really don’t  quite *get* this part)   the Special Ed  section of  UFT…does not seem to understand what I’m talking about. In November of 2012, more than a *year* after my ‘brief encounter” with President Mulgrew at the DA and, after a  lengthy  and complicated correspondence with the UFT VP for CurrIculum  that seems to have gone  absolutely *nowhere*,  I emailed said VP as follows:

“It is not a trivial issue. Evaluating teachers of severely  multiply-handicapped children with a rubric that is designed to evaluate teachers in general education settings with general education students is tantamount to punishing and penalizing teachers who go into this demanding , difficult and highly *specialized* type of teaching. Our union was formed in order to protect teachers from administrative malpractice… not to facilitate it. ”

The simple fact is that the vast majority District 75 kids cannot, by definition, perform to the standards  required by the Danielson Framework.  (That’s WHY they’re in District 75!)  Yet , with the “pilot” unchallenged by UFT leadership and now in its *second* year,   the pedagogy of teachers of severely and profoundly handicapped kids will again be analyzed and  rated according to Danielson’s  “spam-in-a-can” criteria.  The inescapable consequence: artificially low ratings for the aforementioned Special Ed teachers. It’s hard to explain to people  outside of the district  just how   ridiculous this  is; how *utterly* mismatched the tool is to the task;  how blatantly unfair to the specially-trained and  specially-licensed special educators who are — along with their students , of course — its  primary victims.  And, one increasingly suspects, its *targets*.

Ridiculous, you say?  It can’t be? Well, let’s look at some examples. In  Danielson’s  “Domain 3: Instruction,” the classroom teacher can earn a rating of “Highly Effective” ( the highest rating possible; it corresponds to a rating of 4 on a 4-point scale)  *only* if his/her students are observed by the evaluator ” formulat(ing) high-level questions.” Additionally, said students must “assume responsibility for the success of the discussion.”  In short, if one’s students aren’t observed doing this ( i.e. assuming “responsibility for the success of the discussion”) the teacher cannot be rated as “Highly Effective.”  These behaviors are, evidently, what Ms. Danielson expects of high school students in general education.

Now.  Perhaps we can excuse Ms. Danielson. ( And perhaps not . Her website bio says she has experience in teaching “all” levels, which is clearly not the case.) Statistically speaking, we are talking about kids that are outside the norm: 5% or less of NYC public school enrollment. It’s unlikely that Ms. Danielson understood this initially — I told her later —  but many of the youngsters in District 75 programs cannot speak. I don’t mean to say their language is “weak”. Or that they don’t speak *clearly*. I mean to say they literally “cannot speak”.  At all. 

In some cases  these non-verbal kids may be trained to push buttons on  electronic devices to communicate basic needs. “Bathroom,” for example, represented on the device by an icon or pictograph, is a basic need; as is “Hungry”. There are various picture/symbol communication  systems (TEACCH, PECS, etc.) that are used with some success with some students.  This is the kind of thing we do in special ed. ( Or should I say, “what we  *used* to do.”) We adapt and shape our instruction to meet the unique demands of each individual. And let me tell you: if you are talking about a non-verbal child, classified by the DOE as “untestable”, who is incontinent and has struggled from birth with tripelgic or quadriplegic spastic cerebral palsy, you can take the Danielson Framework and burn it. It has no relevance to the  proper education of the child I just described.

“But Ms. Danielson,” ( I have a recurring dream that I was somehow present when the Framework was conceived.) “if these children cannot *speak*, how can they , in any  real sense, ‘assume responsibility for the success of the discussion'”?

The Talent Management rubric is riddled with these glaring logical disconnects. Still in Domain 3: “Instruction”: the teacher … to be rated “highly effective”  ( 4) … must ensure that his/her students ” are cognitively engaged  in high level, grade appropriate thinking throughout the lesson.” But 17 year-olds  with measurable IQs in the 40s cannot “engage in grade-level thinking.” Students with unmeasurable IQs can’t either. And neither can students with severe autism and/or echolalia  and/or other language processing disorders. It doesn’t matter how “effective” or “ineffective” the teacher is.   To claim otherwise is to announce to the world  that one does not understand the population we are talking about.

There’s lots more. In Domain 3c, “students (must) initiate or adapt activities and projects to enhance their understanding.” Note: that’s “the *student* (must) initiate and adapt.” Not the teacher.  Educational psychologists put the ability to “initiate”in the category of “executive functioning,”  a skill-set known for decades to be a key deficiency in children with intellectual disabilities. Generally, the more severe the disability, the less able the child is to “initiate.” Is it fair, therefore,  or even logical to expect these children to perform on par with average students in their ability to “initiate”?

My Point:  The evaluation rubric doesn’t acknowledge the existence of children with severe and profound language and learning handicaps. Instead, it penalizes teachers for even *working* with this population. The developmental disabilities of the children  in D75 are NOT caused by the special education teachers who are trying to address them. Yet the “logic” of Ms. Danielson’s DOE and UFT-endorsed teacher  evaluation rubric insists that they ARE.

So given its — let’s be kind— “limitations,” how did the Danielson Framework  end up in District 75, anyway? I’ve no idea but the notion that this is a worthy eval tool for this type of teaching is so bizarre that speculation as to how it got there is both responsible and inevitable.  I initiated a short and amiable email exchange with Ms.Danielson in early 2012. She seems extraordinarily committed to her work. And anxious to defend it.  So it couldn’t have been easy for to acknowledge the following: “However, I also can see that it would be inappropriate to require teachers of profoundly handicapped students to create higher-order questions.”

“No kidding”, I muttered to no one in particular.  From my POV, I felt like like a dentist extracting  an impacted, wisdom tooth from an unanethesized 600-pound gorilla. Even this admission of the staggeringly obvious  didn’t come easy.  Some analysts ( blogosphere edu-sleuth Susan Ohanian, for instance: have pointed  to a previous collaboration between Danielson and the Gates-funded Measures of Effective Teaching… the implication being that there is Gates money behind the Danielson Framework, pushing it indiscriminately , even into places where it plainly doesn’t belong.  Of this I know not. I do know that  the Gates Foundation has poisoned forever the  public debate on public school reform  nationally by discretely  funding front groups and ‘think tanks’ that then produce “data” and “advocacy” that support Gates Foundation positions on pubic education policy.

Is something analogous happening here? It’s difficult to know. But  I  do think it’s incumbent on Ms. Danielson… given Gates’ scuzzy  history… to make plain the full  extent of her collaboration with him and be utterly clear on the question of exactly who  is paying exactly whom for exactly what.

Corporate influence aside, other disturbing questions are raised by the D75 Danielson Pilot.   The public trusts that there are responsible and knowledgable adults in charge at  NYC DOE  who  presumably SHOULD have put the kabbosh on a no-go notion like Danielson in D75 but did not, have not, and … apparently… will not. Does not the district have a Superintendent? Do not these 11 schools have a Network Leader? Do these education leaders not understand the nature  and  learning characteristics of the student population whose interests they purport to serve? Did they really read and  really understand the Danielson Frameworks before they decided to take the education of NYC’s least advantaged children out for  what amounts to a two-year joy ride? Do they really know what they’re doing?

Ms. Danielson has a vaguely  worded — and weirdly redundant ( Three paragraphs. Paragraph 3 repeats paragraph 1, nearly verbatim. BTW,should we rate that particular writing sample  1, 2, 3 or 4 ?) — official bio her on  website. She was kind enough to send me two meatier resumes on request. Likewise, Kirsten Busch Johnson, the DOE official in charge of the aforementioned Talent Management Pilot ( the Danielson Framework slightly ——and pointlessly, imo— revised by NYC DOE)  boasts a google-able online resume . Three years teaching experience right out of college. Before going to work for Microsoft, i.e. Gates. (Hey, she must be an expert.)

But what about the Superintendent ? And the Network Leader? You know, the upper-level DOE managers who are really supposed to know these D75 kids. Who are these people, really? I know their names and their faces and have met and spoken with both. Yet I can’t find an online  resume for either. I’m wondering if there’s a reason for that. How much do they really understand about this population? What is their training and education, exactly?  How many years– if any — have they spent  working in classrooms with these profoundly  impaired kids? Did they spend enough time  there to really absorb the nuances and complexities of getting these kids to learn?  Frankly, one doubts it. In any case, this taxpayer  wants to see the resumes.

Alas, we are kept in the dark.  And, while were at it,  let’s look at the building administrators: our principals  and their  assistant principals —  the bottom rung of the ed admin  ladder and consequently the paramecia, if you will, of  the now-immense corporate “reform” movement food chain.  These grim souls  do the dirty work.  Now functioning as professional nit-pickers and fault-finders,  they are in fact  ex-teachers (usually) with very limited ( almost always) hands-on experience themselves.  They nonetheless  go into  classrooms, ( in teams, if you can believe it) observe the instruction in progress and try to make the Danielson-based Talent Management Rubric sound relevant to a situation where no  objective, clear-thinking adult believes it has the slightest applicability.

One could almost feel sorry for them. It’s a fool’s errand if ever there was one.  But, by dutifully following   orders from the “big fish” in this particular  bureaucratic swamp, the small fry get to keep their  out-of-classroom jobs, along with the attendant perks.  So they  play along (or should I say “swim along”), aiding and abetting when and where they are needed. Classroom teachers, consequently,  take on a serious risk by teaching profoundly impaired  kids what they actually need to learn….as opposed to what’s in Ms. Danielson’s  Framework… and  doing so in ways that help those kids to actually *absorb* it.  Whatever her intention,  Ms.Danielson, by her own admission, has no clue as to what they need to learn. Nor how to deliver it. And her rubric reflects that. But what’s really alarming is this: neither do  the DOE “suits” who brought the Framework   into the D75 buildings.  And they’ve been involved with the D75 population for years. At this point , it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they just don’t care.  At least not about the education of handicapped kids.

So, what do they care about then? Again, I’ve no idea. I’m neither mind-reader nor psychiatrist.  Some people don’t care about anything. Let’s leave that  “to Dr. Freud along with the rest of it!”  But instinct ( and experience)  tells me  that the Talent Management Program’s application  to D75  is  concerned less with education than it is with *defamation*. This being the case,  it becomes more of a labor/management issue ( or a legal matter) than  an educational one. As to possible motive: it’s a lot easier to fire people if you can manage to professionally  discredit them first… even on the basis of such absurd  evidence as that yielded by the use of the Danielson Framework as a teacher observation tool. And it’s easier still to create a hostile work environment falling just short of the legal standard of  “hostile work environment” by setting them up to fail.  The Framework is useful for this purpose as well.  Then you don’t have to fire them. You can just drive them away.

So… where were we?  OH! Right! Now our union leader is going to do….well…. what exactly?


Paper(work)-thin: I Thought We Were Supposed to be *Teaching*

21 Feb

       Like death, taxes and Randi Weingarten, certain things  will  be with us forever. Teaching will always involve paperwork . But , just as certainly, teaching is not only paperwork. At least it ought not to be.

Our union (UFT)  seemed to “get”  this at one point;  even successfully  pushing for  a safety-valve mechanism  in the 2007 contract to guard against paperwork excess and abuse. (And that’s as it should be. They,  our union leaders, were teachers at one point.  I think. Weren’t they? )  So… what happened?

      I lobbied for *years* to get a  “paperwork reduction” committee established (as per  Art 8-I, Sect. 1. of the NYC UFT contract. BTW, people should actually READ THE LANGUAGE of these  things. They’re chock-full of surprises.) in my district only to be repeatedly stonewalled by the unelected UFT  District Representative  then in charge. When I approached him face to face at the Delegate Assembly… after a number of emails on the topic went unacknowledged…. it was like I was speaking a language other than English.: “PaperWHICH?” “ReductionWHAT?” “CommitteeWHO?!?”

     After the initial shock, ( Someone was actually calling him out about something important !)  he quickly gathered his wits. We didn’t NEED a paperwork reduction committee, he explained. His eyes which darted nervously around the room at first , almost bird-like, now met mine with a dead-on earnestness . The UFT had everything under control. There was a lawsuit making it’s way thru the courts… the outcome of which  would surely end “excessive paperwork” as we then ( This was about 3 years ago, I’d say.) knew it.
     I went home that night and googled every possible phraseology and word-combination  that I thought might elicit a reference to the UFT being involved in  a law suit  —  the subject or object of which was paperwork reduction. Coming up empty, I emailed DR ( “Flash”;  I decided that this one needed a name.) again. No response. ( Don’t these folks know how to click the “reply” button ?)  Metamessage: “Leave me the fuck alone.”
So I left Flash alone.  Maybe I’ll need him someday for something *vital*, I reasoned, not unreasonably. For something URGENT. Better not antagonize him.  Instead, I  continued… as did everyone else in the district…. to spend hour after unnecessary hour  dutifully producing meaningless, superfluous and redundant paperwork for the nightmarishly dysfunctional bureaucratic swamp   that increasingly IS the New York City Department of Education in the second decade of the twenty-first century; the hideous offspring produced by the marriage of two distinct, nominally antagonistic yet depressingly similar first cousins).
     Then… around March 2011…. my writing hand beginning to throb, the fingers on BOTH hands seeming to strike the keyboard with increasing inaccuracy, ( Is this what early carpal tunnel feels like? I fretted uselessly.) I decided to pick-up the paperwork gauntlet once again and give the swamp people one more try. I wrote to the UFT  VP  with jurisdiction over Flash in March of 2011  as follows:

“I’m a Special Ed teacher … and a UFT Delegate.  We are DROWNING in paperwork.  I am told by administrators to anticipate that it will get worse. 
Our contract with the DOE reads as follows:
‘Committees composed equally of representatives of the Board and the Union shall be established at the central , district and division levels to review and reduce unnecessary paperwork required of employees.’ (ARTICLE 8, SECTION I; # 1) 
Is there, in fact, a committee  established ( in my district) as described? If so, when does it meet? Where does it meet? Does it issue minutes or summary reports for public consumption? 
Can I  participate in the activities of the committee(s) ? 
Our District (Rep.) … has not responded to emails pertaining to this topic.
 Again, we are DROWNING in paperwork.
Can you help us?”
     The Veep’s reply was a bit indirect but the upshot was : yes, all districts, including mine, are supposed to have paperwork reduction committees and she would see to it that the District Rep ( i.e. Flash) would take the necessary steps to get this going. 
“About time”, I muttered to myself. The date on the contract is October 2007. We were now in March 2011. But, grateful for the confirmation that I *wasn’t* crazy after all, and that there was at least ONE person in the union hierarchy with whom I could profitably communicate, I looked forward to the chance to participate in a process that promised to free-up more time for the teachers I represented. So that they’d have at least SOME time to actually, you know, *teach*.
     But we weren’t out of the woods yet. ( Are we ever?) If the DOE’s wheels grind notoriously slowly, waiting for the UFT to implement its OWN part of the deal is “like watching (educational) paint dry.” April came and went. As did May. Instinct ( and experience) told me it was time to act.
In June I wrote the UFT Veep as follows:

“It’s been a long time — over two years — since I asked this question originally: ‘Is there an actual paperwork reduction committee in (my district) as described by the contract?’” (Yes, I was back to square one. But at least I was somewhere again.)
The VP replied the same day. It was as if we were communicating for the first time. “I have copied ……. (“Flash”; alas, still my DR); he will give you the updates to the status of the …. paperwork committee.”

     June passed. As did July. Still no sign of life from Flash. On August 21, I wrote the Unity Veep as follows:

“Still haven’t heard from (Flash). In fact, I’ve *never* heard from (Flash), despite the fact that I began asking him about this… at polite but regular intervals … over two years ago.”
(Was there something going on here that no one was telling me? My mind raced. Did Flash even exist? “Getta hold of yourself, pops. You saw him yourself at the DA two years ago. Remember?” )

I talked myself  down but I was getting tired of playing this game. I know in the DOE cultural taboo-hierarchy, going over someone’s head is *way* up there on the gravity scale.  It is… second only perhaps to going public…  the penultimate transgression. Bette Davis, comes to mind all of a sudden: “Men have been hanged for less!” , she screams in All About Eve.
Screw it. I was getting too tired to care anymore. After not hearing back from UFT Veep regarding the apparent disappearance of Flash, I wrote President Mulgrew on Sept 7, 2011 as follows: 
“Perhaps at this point you should intervene. I’ve been trying to get a simple answer to what I thought was a simple question for about three years. The contract says there are “paperwork reduction” committees established at the district level. I’m in District ____. I’d like info re. my committee:

1. When does it meet?

2. Are there minutes from these meetings and can I access same?

3. How can I participate?

Michael, we are  drowning in paperwork. Please help.”
     The next day, I received my first email ever from my new ‘best friend forever’, Flash. 

Hey, guess what?  We’re  setting up a  joint  UFT/DOE paperwork reduction committee . Would I be interested in participating?


10 Feb

Let’s go back in time. It’s 1971,  young Barack Obama has just moved back to his native Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents, Madelyn (“Toot”) and Stanley Dunham. Barack has just completed 4th grade in Indonesia and has left his mother   and half-sister behind in Jakarta. “It was time for me to attend an American school.” ( Dreams from My Father, p.54).

Emerson said, “There is properly no history; only biography.” What happened next is one of those seemingly innocuous personal decisions that reverberates  down through the ages. Passing up the local  Honolulu public school system, Barack uses “Gramps'” connections to cut the long waiting list  and enrolls in the posh,  private Punahou Academy , a renowned “incubator for island elites.”  Toot’s salary ( she was a bank vice president) and a partial scholarship keep him there thru high school.

So, with regard to this pivotal moment: what exactly was gained and what was lost? What was gained was that Obama blossomed academically in the rarified atmosphere of Punahou and  he parlayed that performance into a dazzling  academic record… climaxing in his now famous stint as first-ever African American editor of the Harvard Law Review…arguably that most prestigious of institutions’ most prestigious honor. The rest… as they say …is history.

That’s what we *gained*; what we lost was the chance to have, as President of the United States  — and  chief architect of federal education policy — someone with  first-hand knowledge of American public education.  The absence of first-hand knowledge is not insignificant. It runs to the very core of what has come to be known as the  modern “school reform” movement and it drives  teachers crazy. Why, exactly, are teachers so…. I’ll clean this up a little; it’s for general consumption…”irate”? Well, for a lot of reasons, really, but mainly because their harshest critics ( self-styled school “reformers”) do not know what they are talking about. I mean that quite literally.

We begin with the  “Race to the Top” president.  Race to the Top, for the uninitiated , is the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s  education agenda. It is also is corporate school “reform” on industrial-strength steroids. Its chief aim is to “incentivize”  —  one has to appreciate the euphemisms — the states to adopt those public ed  measures that had been   most doggedly pushed by the political hard -right ( in this case a  not-so-loose coalition of “socially conscious” billionaires ,Republican politicians,  and incredibly well- endowed right-wing think tanks) before and during the presidency of George W. Bush. The most noxious of these is  the practice of  ranking schools and teachers on the basis of students’ results on standardized state testing. RTTP says, “Scores go up, or *else*.”  “Else” is  —- complicated legalisms and   educratic jargon writ simple  —  school closings, privatization  and teacher firings.  This is known as “high stakes testing”.

People in the trenches…. there are exceptions but not many…. will tell you that this does not work and in fact  *exacerbates* all pre-existing forms of  school dysfunction and corruption. People remote from the situation,  especially. the high command of the school “reform” movement,  don’t  want to hear this. Or see it. So they don’t.

And you can’t get much more remote from a  situation than the leaders of the modern school “reform” movement are from public education . The president, for example, is “batting a thousand” in this regard. Not only did he reach adulthood without having ever set foot in an American public school, he made certain that his own kids escaped that hideous  fate as well. ( Until 2009, both Obama girls attended the private and exclusive  University of Chicago Lab School ; in DC they are tucked away at Sidwell Friends,  along with their peers, the  children of the Washington political and economic  elite.) But the president is far from alone. Last year in the New York Times (4/17/11) , Michael Winerip  rummaged thru the bios of  a dozen or so of the nation’s most prominent , self-styled school “reform”  experts,   none of whom whom had  ever set foot —not as student , not as teacher;  not  as consumer, not as provider  —  in  a single public school classroom.   Most of the big names were there,  along with their alma maters: Rhee, Duncan, Gates. (Respectively:  Maumee Country Day- Toledo, U of Chicago Lab School, Lakeside School- Seattle.) The wonderfully incongruous former New York City Schools Chancellor, Cathie Black.  ( Aquinas Dominican –  Chicago).   David Levin  ( Riverdale Country -NYC),  CEO of the nation’s largest charter school chain: KIPP. ( Yup. They’re now coming in “chains”; just like Pizza Hut or Banana Republic.) And so on.  I started to notice  this weird correlation myself  about 5 years ago when school “reform” was  still basically the  exclusive proving grounds of the aforementioned billionaires,   conservative pols  and  incredibly well-endowed right-wing think tanks.

Then Obama was elected and something strange happened. Emboldened by the lofty, cliche-filled  pronouncements of the president and his new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan ,  more than a few liberals tiptoed from the shadows to noisily endorse the goals and means of corporate school “reform”.  But it always seem to be a particular *variety* of liberal: one with limited  personal exposure to the issue at hand.  I don’t mean to suggest  they didn’t know “much”. I mean  to suggest that they didn’t know *anything*.  Experientially, that is. First-hand.  Sure, they may have read an article or three.  They may even have given the matter some serious thought; perhaps even discussed it a little ( with each other, no doubt.) But they, themselves, had never attended  a public school . Their children had never attended one. None of them ever taught. Yet, as if by remote control,  these folks drove the  media “discussion.”  How they came to imagine themselves as *expert* I do not know.

 It got to the point where I’d play a little game with myself. I’d read an article about a Davis Guggenheim ( director  of Waiting for Superman, the cinematic magnum opus of “the movement”), for instance; or a column on ed “reform”  by Newsweek’s   Jonathan Alter. Then I’d  try to guess what  fancy prep school they had  attended, before looking it up on Wikipedia. (Sidwell Friends and Phillips Andover, in these two instances.)  Truth be told, I often  failed to  correctly match the specific prep school with the  corresponding school “reform”  advocate; that’s *hard*.  But I found amazingly  few public school graduates among the ranks of “reformers”. ( Try it yourself.)

 It’s no longer   completely  clear how *fixed* the president’s ideas are on this issue. He’s begun to drop a few hints that, for example,  maybe….  just maybe….. high-stakes testing is not  quite  the panacea that the “reform” movement has heretofore claimed it to be.  If so, he is on the right track.  But he must not stop there.  There is more – much more —  to be discovered. However, he remains in need of  skilled guidance and sage advice. As near as can be determined, Secretary Duncan is his  chief supplier in this regard . But  the bright and articulate Mr. Duncan, perhaps America’s single most important  school “reformer”,  is neither skilled nor sage.  A political creature of the Chicago Democratic machine, his defenders  bristle at the suggestion that he lacks gravitas; credentials; *experience*.  It is true, they acknowledge , that  he has never been  a teacher or school administrator;  it is also true, he attended expensive private schools exclusively. But they point  to his mother’s service as the director of an inner city Chicago tutoring service as evidence that the secretary has the right stuff. But that’s not much to point to. My  own mom was a legal secretary in Mount Vernon, NY for 20 years. I do not… on this basis… expect a call from the president informing me that I’ve been nominated to the Supreme Court.

It seems likely that Mr. Obama is headed for a second term. Having glanced more than once at the Republican presidential debates, I expect , for that reason, to  heave a sigh of relief on election night when the votes are counted. But no ” dancing in the street “or “shouting from the roof tops”  this time around.   For me… and I dare say for most people familiar with how public education actually  works… four years  of  contending  with the consequences of  know-nothing, “bi-partisan”, school “reform”  nonsense coming out of the United States Department of Education has dampened my enthusiasm.    Just a sigh of relief that it could actually  have gotten worse.   At one point in American history, it was expected that  — at the conclusion of a reelected president’s first term —  each member of the cabinet would  submit his/her resignation .  The president at that point could  ritually refuse the resignation . This implied that  he felt that he and the nation had been well served by that particular cabinet officer.  Or,  he could gracefully change course from a particularly disastrous policy by accepting it .

What a great tradition.

( A version of this piece ran in THE RIVERDALE PRESS, April 11th, 2012.)

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13 Jul

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