iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Marc Epstein

Marc Epstein

Posted: November 17, 2010 05:23 PM

The Triumph of Academic Apartheid

What's Your Reaction:

Jamaica High School is named for one of the largest neighborhoods in New York City. It has survived six wars, The Great Depression, and 9/11. If Mayor Bloomberg has his way, it won't survive his education "reform."

Last December, Joel Klein announced his intention to close 19 (the number has since jumped to 47, with more on the way) "failing" schools. Jamaica High School, with its long illustrious history, was the most prominent school on the list.

Klein, no businessman himself, became enamored to the "business model" for instituting school reform. Unable to improve or correct deficiencies, Klein gravitated to the "hostile takeover" as the means for remaking the school system.

The reason for our schools' failure has become a clichéd mantra for the left and the right. It goes something like this. "Kids fail because our teachers and administrators fail them. They aren't personally responsible for their poor performance. The teacher is the most important person in their life. If we can get better teachers we can turn it around."

Personal and parental responsibility has been tossed out the window, and in its stead, the dreaded unions have emerged as the boogieman.

How we wound up in this predicament is a cautionary tale worth telling. It reveals much about the nature of the educational reform tsunami that has engulfed American public education today.

The trouble began when we found ourselves on the list of the most persistently dangerous schools in the state. The reality was something else.

As part of the modernization under mayoral control, a new paperless computer reporting system was put in place. It made it possible for the overseers at the Department of Education to track incidents in real time.

When school violence exploded city-wide as a result of the reckless reorganization of the school discipline office, a panicked Klein informed principals that he was a "law and order" chancellor, and would not look unfavorably on principals who suspended misbehaving kids.

Our principal at the time took him at his word, but when our suspension numbers skyrocketed, we found ourselves under intense scrutiny. We became a prime candidate for a new NYPD "impact" program.

It didn't help things when the Department of Education sent us a steady stream of students who were placed in our school after serving stints in prison on Riker's Island, and other "alternative" settings.

On paper we looked dangerous, while far more dangerous schools went unnoticed. That's because other schools simply followed the old system of suspending students without entering the incidents on the computer system.

If your school produced "good" numbers you were left alone. Nobody bothered to ask why wide discrepancies existed between schools with similar demographics. Transparency only works when everyone is transparent. All that really mattered was good news at City Hall.

Police were added; full-time scanning came to the building. Under NCLB letters were sent to parents telling them their child could transfer out. Enrollment plummeted.

As classrooms became available, a "small school" was given space in our building. Their rooms were spruced up with latest technologies, furniture and books, while ours remained in dilapidated quarters side by side.

We were told that if we wanted more students, teachers would have to go out and recruit. In a "market" driven system we'd have to sell ourselves. "Jamaica could still survive," we were told.

Teachers took the higher ups at their word and actively went out and recruited more kids, visiting middle schools on their own time. We were removed from the most dangerous list, and the persistently dangerous category too.

But the improvement in enrollment was marginal. Neighboring schools were filled to 150 percent of their capacity. Despite our efforts, students were not being sent our way. We were told that in the new marketplace parents and kids were free to choose. If kids didn't want to go to a school, it was their choice.

We were playing against the house with a marked deck. Joel Klein persistently referred to us as a failed school and asked, "Why would parents want to send their kids there?" Endless editorials calling for the summary firing of "failed" teachers from "failed" schools went unanswered.

In spite of stellar results on our American history AP exam, the best in over a decade, those same students were denied an AP government course this year. After all, how can we have high achieving students in a failed school?

Our demographic has changed dramatically too. A large number of our students are new arrivals to America.

Many of these kids don't speak English, and some aren't literate in their native language. I've been teaching English language learners, along with other members of our department, without any training in ESL or bilingual education.

The court ruling that found that the city improperly evaluated the schools it wants to close appears to be hollow.

For its part the reputedly omnipotent teachers union has shown no stomach for dragging the Department of Education back into court and forcing it to engage in an honest evaluation of the school and give us a freshman class of any meaningful size.

The plan to close our school continues apace even as Merryl Tisch, the Chancellor of the Board of Regents for New York, declared that a study she ordered conducted by Professor Dan Koretz of Harvard, found that the state tests results were fraudulent and the much-vaunted closing of the race gap in student performance was an illusion.

Bloomberg maintains that even with the recalibrated test results, they've still made extraordinary progress, while following Jowett's advice to the gentleman to "never apologize, never explain."

So a policy of ripping apart a school system and disrupting the lives of thousands of students and depriving them of a proper education rests on a pile of sand that has just been swept away by those ugly stubborn little facts.

We now have a system of the haves and the have-nots, often in one building standing side by side.

The savvy parents search out the well equipped spruced up small schools, while those of limited circumstance live their school days out in dumping grounds waiting to be put on a failing list to facilitate their demise.

But in fact, "academic apartheid" has become the legacy of education reform, and the small school movement. Our schools are more segregated than ever.

Joel Klein leaves a trail of disruption, poor performance, a demoralized work-force, and an "Inquisition" that shows no sign of going away. A permanent cultural revolution that will remain hostile to the workforce has become institutionalized.

He has managed to do all this with a budget that doubled to about $22 billion dollars annually. When accounts are settled, the vast treasure that's been squandered will define Joel Klein's tenure.