THE BLOG

Americans Are Lousy Reformers

01/24/2013 05:16 pm ET | Updated Mar 26, 2013

We're experiencing one of those spasmodic waves of reform that seems to wash over us every 60 years or so. The effects of it are unpredictable but if history is any guide it will have lots of unfortunate consequences that succeeding generations will inherit and have to clean up, like it or not.

Let's face it, American's aren't that good at taking care of their own backyard. In the aftermath of our bloodiest war in 1865, a failed Reconstruction, which was arguably our greatest attempt at reform, resulted in a segregated and virtually re-enslaved south. By 1896 the Plessy decision codified segregation into Federal law less than 40 years after the Civil War! It was clearly an unintended consequence.

Prohibition, the centerpiece of the next national wave of reform had the unintended consequence of transforming local criminal rackets into sophisticated criminal corporate enterprises with national reach once the opportunity to produce and distribute bootleg liquor was facilitated by the forced closing of legal breweries.

And so it goes: a fix for difficult problems by people with little understanding of the situation on the ground who cannot keep up with the awful consequences of their actions, in possession of the vain delusion that they have the answer.

Today's education reform rests on the premise that the civil rights movement that overturned Plessy and desegregated the South has failed because there are elements of the black community that have not made sufficient progress over the past fifty years to justify the continued existence of public education as we know it.

For these reformers the solution is the adoption of the free enterprise system because they believe free market choices always results in the survival of the best products, in this case the best schools, while the inferior ones whither away. Theirs is a universe devoid of snake oil salesmen or Chinese handcuffs.

I'm a teacher in the New York City school system fleeing to the high ground to avoid drowning from this reform wave. At this stage it's impossible to predict what the long-term consequences of this reform will be. I'm reminded of Premier Chou En-lai's response when Nixon queried him about his thoughts on the impact of the French Revolution. He answered, "it's too soon to tell."

But there are conclusions that we can draw after a decade of reform with some certainty.

For starters by persuading us to accept the business model as the paradigm for reform, "closing" schools is now enshrined public policy. I predict that this policy will prove to be as unsustainable a policy as busing to achieve integration was, but not before leaving shattered school systems in its wake.

Closing hundreds of stores isn't a business model unless it's a reorganization that ends in bankruptcy. Does Wal-Mart close hundreds of stores each year? Can you name a going concern that does?

The assumption that poor student achievement is primarily the fault of the faculty without regard to socioeconomic conditions is wrong and absurd on the face of it. What's worse is that closing a school destabilizes the most stable institution in the lives of many of the kids the policy ostensibly claims to be aiding.

I've worked in schools where large percentages of the student population neither have command of the English language nor are they literate in their native language. Yet school administrators are expected to achieve benchmarks set down by the Board of Regents that are designed for literate native speakers. The question is not how can these schools succeed, but how can they not fail?

The staffing of over a thousand school buildings in New York with a managerial class whose primary mission is to weed out failed teachers turns the principal, traditionally defined as the most skilled teacher in the schoolhouse, into little more than a hatchet man.

You also can't help but notice that large numbers of the "new" management class, the "empowered" principals, are poorly educated. If you need proof, just watch the evening news when a principal is interviewed in the wake of a school incident. What you are left with is a demolition company instead of a construction firm.

As a result, teaching has become a very, very, unattractive profession. Teachers I know personally tell friends, relatives, and anybody who will listen to avoid the teaching profession. A colleague recently told his two children that he would pay for their college education unless they decided to go into teaching. In that case they would be on their own. He is not an exception

Even before the great reform wave only about 50 percent of the teachers survived past their fifth year in New York City. I suspect that the turnover has become even more pronounced as the unrelenting assault of the pundits and politicians continues unabated.

The demise of the modern bureaucratic city-state is another consequence. In New York City when teachers and guidance councilors are released from their school because it is closing or enrollment has declined, they are cast adrift and instructed to find a position on their own in the "open market." Simultaneously principals hire new teachers at the lowest possible salary levels and avoid the more expensive veterans.

So we now have New York's largest bureaucracy adopting a staffing protocol that simply wants to rid itself of trained educators because they aren't needed in a particular location.

Should you try staffing police or fire in this manner you'd return to the age when the Gangs of New York ran volunteer fire departments and police were bought and paid for by anyone who wanted to circumvent the legal system.

One opinion writer suggested that the school system model itself after Zappos online shoe company because of the efficiency of their purchasing and returns operation.

But more importantly because as a matter of company policy Zappos offers a buyout to any employee who wants to leave because they can't meet the company's demanding customer service standards. If you could only 'Zap' teachers the way Zappos does its employees all would be well in New York's schools.

I've encountered a fair number of teachers who've been cast adrift and wander the system assigned to different schools each week. I recall a black woman who was licensed in electrical installation. When she lost her job because of budget cuts she was left to wander from school to school unable to teach her skill. In a rational world someone with her skill would be considered a treasure. The so-called marketplace treats her like a zombie instead.

Another colleague who was jettisoned from my closing school found a job at a small school. She's a superb teacher and disciplinarian having worked as dean in a pretty tough environment. Kids in her classes would get good results on state exams, yet she was cut loose by a principal who has managed to have 17 out of a faculty of 25 take flight over the past four years. Lets see the Business Marketeers justify this management model unless they believe that a bounty for teacher scalps is the coin of the realm!

Last week I attended a professional development day and sat across the table from an elementary school teacher who had lost her position when art was eliminated in her school. I asked her if she was interested in reading something about her plight and with a forlorn look said, "No, I just want to teach. I like teaching art to kids. Why won't they just let me teach?" I had no answer.

Last Spring my class watched Schindler's List in conjunction with reading Elie Weisel's Night. There's a scene in the movie that haunts me. The commandant played by Ralph Fiennes wants to know why there's a disturbance in the camp when he hears a woman arguing with one of his subordinates.

The woman is in charge of construction and protests that the building going up will collapse because the Nazi's didn't pour the foundation correctly. She explains to the commandant that she's a graduate of civil engineering from the University of Milan. The commandant says "an educated Jew... shoot her." Her defiance of German authority was unforgivable. After she is shot he tells the construction crew to build it her way.

Recently I tried to ascertain the number of reality shows on TV and couldn't come up with an answer. All the websites stated that they were too numerous to count at any one time. However I can tell you that you won't find any reality shows about life inside our urban public schools today. The closest you will come is the depiction of Baltimore's schools in the HBO series The Wire.

You also won't find the voices of public school teachers on the talk shows, editorial pages or the radio discussing these reforms. Ironically, the voices of those who are supposed to be the most critical factor in these reforms have been excluded.

I suppose that's what happens when you are purported to hold all the power.