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Michele Somerville

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The NYC DOE Needs an A-Team

Posted: 06/08/11 04:01 PM ET

A few weeks ago, proponents of charter schools -- many of them black and brown parents who believe charter schools may be their children's best shot at decent education in a system hobbled by racism -- took to the streets.

They faced off, in Harlem, against the UFT and the NAACP.

It would seem that those who oppose the charter schools oppose not so much the opening of all charter schools but the lack of balance that results. I believe people on both sides of this dispute want the same thing -- a just system which puts its children first.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, as the controversy unfolds, the real culprits -- the Lords of Tweed -- sit fat and happy on the sidelines. They know they have those who genuinely care about DOE students and their rights, exactly where they want them -- divided and conquered.

Former Washington D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and United Negro College Fund president and CEO Michael Lomax collaborated recently on an opinion piece that appeared on June 2 in the New York Daily News. Rhee and Lomax argue that the schools are failing children.

Rhee and Lomax are correct.

The NAACP, along with the UFT argue that charter schools drain much-needed resources from the NYC DOE school system.

They're also correct.

It's an understatement to say that the opening and closing of public schools in New York City has become highly politicized. Some see the charter schools trend as movement in the direction of privatization, but no one can deny that charter schools have taken on many of the children the larger NYC DOE forsakes. The fevered response to charter schools strikes me as a response to callous way new schools are opened amid "failing" ones, and to the to the racism (both subtle and blatant) that mars and hobbles our school system.

I think, however, it's a mistake to conflate the politics of charter schools with those of new non-charter schools. Charter schools have a track record when it comes to reaching out to students in some of NYC's poorest communities, while many of the new (in some cases, screened) non-charter schools are designed to give the squeaky wheels of the middle class the grease for which they clamor.

Proponents of charter schools are right to fear that the NYC DOE brass cannot be trusted to improve itself. The wolves of Tweed are too busy gorging themselves on its hens to protect their house. But, the UFT and NAACP are also right to challenge the institutional racism that is the NYC DOE's shame and its tendency toward discriminatory practices.

I applauded the appointment of Dennis Walcott to the post of Chancellor of Schools this past spring but I found listening to Roland S. Martin's May 27 interview with Walcott (via Martin's Washington Watch podcast) confusing and disheartening.
Defending the the plan to close "failing" schools, the chancellor of schools alluded to one school with a 3 percent graduation rate.

It's hard to argue, on one hand, that a school which graduates only 3 percent of its students should remain open. On the other hand, Walcott's outline of the plan for making improvement sounded neither educationally sound nor cost-effective. In some instances, Walcott explained, the DOE would hire as many as 50 percent of the teachers from the aforementioned "failing" closed schools to teach in new schools opened in the very same buildings in which the "failing" schools had operated,

Huh?

Why rehire half the teachers from a "failing" school? And what happens to the other 50 percent of teachers? If we are lucky they obtain positions as overpaid Bartelbys and "gofers" in district offices or administrative departments, where they remain until pension time, safely out of range of DOE students they were hired to teach.

The current game plan is hinky.

Obviously the students, parents, communities and staff of many of these "failing" schools care about them. Why not revitalize them? The answer is as complex as it is disgraceful.

One reason is that revitalizing schools is neither easy nor cheap. Another is that only very talented educators can do this work and the system, with its overarching commitment to rewarding mediocrity and punishing ingenuity, chases away those who have the mettle and talent for it. As is the case with most of what the DOE does wrong -- figuring out how to do it right would be more cost-effective.

The broken television approach the NYC DOE currently favors (whereby it's cheaper to put old television set on the curb than to haul it to the talented guy who can fix it) may or may not be cheaper in the short term, but when it comes to schools, "you get what you pay for." Furthermore, (pardon the extended metaphor) the guys who can fix the TV sets are a dying breed.

Here's where cronyism comes into play. The system needs new schools so it can reward compliant administrators for good behavior in a bad system. DOE sycophant principals are "the great white hope." They help to create the illusion of system-wide improvement by keeping middle class, educated, affluent (read: "white") parents happy.

There's no dearth of teachers and principals gifted enough to walk through the metal detectors in any vermin-infested, asbestos-ridden hell-hole school in this city and, in a few years, turn such a school around, but this kind of educator tends not to make a suitable Tweed pet. These kinds of thinkers, innovators and scholars know "separate but equal" is not the answer.

A two-tiered school system which further marginalizes the marginalized should be an anathema to any decent teacher -- and in most cases it is. The Lords of Tweed want the idealists to step aside because widening the margin between the haves and have-nots, unfortunately, now passes for system-wide improvement. Standardized tests have become a golden mean for measuring efficacy and mastery, and a "dog-eat-dog" mentality pervades the entire NYC public school system.

It is easy to conclude that a school with poor attendance, a dismal graduation rate, low standardized test scores and criminal activity simply needs to be shut down. But, how much thought is given to the need children have for continuity? What about community? New schools don't open and close in vacuums. Every time a new school opens, some neighboring school takes one for the team. The ripple effect is damaging.

In some cases a "failing" school is closed by a quick coup de grace. More often it's a case of death by a thousand cuts.

First, a "failing school" is warned to shape up. Next, it scrambles to exhibit some modicum of improvement. Sometimes a school targeted for closing scores a little extra funding. Generally it comes tens of thousands of dollars short and a generation late. The Lords of Tweed know money sunk into failing schools is ever destined to be "good money thrown after bad" unless comprehensive and innovative approaches to remediation, counseling, and involving community are implemented, but it's the price of doing business.

Often the clandestine decision to "collocate" a shiny new school in a hell-hole building is the first step toward closing a neighboring school. The incursion of shiny new schools tends to take a sledge hammer to morale. A plan to phase out older schools already occupying buildings wherein new schools are collocated is often part of the plan: this, to make space for the new school to grow.

Children who attend the shiny new school and the "failing" children queue up alongside one another in the morning, encounter each other in the neighboring streets, eat together sometimes, are either thrown together amid the maelstrom of their socioeconomic tensions -- or are painstakingly kept apart. The "failing" school anguishes in the face of the inevitable as the shiny new school on the floor below enjoys its freshly painted walls, new furniture and cutting-edge equipment. Educrats at the helm like to argue that all schools in a given school building benefit when a new school (with lots of new school "articulation" funding) encroaches.

That's crock, because these collateral lavishments are bestowed as the DOE sword of Damocles looms and a school community, comprised mostly of children, tries to manage its feelings about having "failed." Hence the paint job and toilet repairs a new school brings, simultaneously delivers a psychic slap in the face. Anyone who thinks students from so-called "failing" schools don't think of themselves as "failing" kids needs to pay more attention to what these young people are saying.

It's interesting how "private" the decisions to close "failing" "public" schools are. "Cloak and dagger" discussion is followed by baja la mesa "proposals" to close and open schools. The secrecy alone ought to make anyone who cares in the least about the educational rights of children, nervous. The "proposal" is announced, strategically, late enough in the process to ensure that blindsided staff, cold-cocked parents and sucker-punched students have little if any recourse. Within a month or two a pro forma DOE "show vote" makes the fait accompli official.

Even the most gifted principals and teachers cannot turn truly "failing" schools around in two or three years without special support. In the cases of very low-performing schools, students often struggle under the weight of five, six or seven years of educational malpractice. These children can be brought up to grade level but not in buildings with chipping paint, metal detectors, newbie teachers and toilets that don't flush. Students from "failing" schools are more likely to be illiterate, homeless, high, hungry, learning-disabled, sick, orphaned, abandoned or parents themselves. They require aggressive, enlightened intervention.

The cruelest irony is that many are very intelligent. So many forgotten children in the system are the embodiment of the lethal combination of intelligence, post-pubescence and illiteracy. Yet, children who are able to contend with the vicissitudes of poverty, the insult and injury a racist educational system heaps upon them, and the trials of life in tough streets often tend to be facile learners and the quickest studies of all.

It's hard to adequately describe the face of cumulative educational malpractice without trivializing it. The shame an illiterate child of 15 feels when his secret is out, is gargantuan. I've been lucky enough to help bring a few "failing" students up to speed in Language Arts. I've taught first grade phonics to intelligent 14 year-old students who, three weeks later, were writing stories and reading Autobiography of Malcolm X. I know it can it be done. However, once a student has racked up a half-dozen social promotions, business as usual doesn't cut it. Such a child can not be thrown into a class of 27 be expected to catch up.

Such children need a lot of individualized instruction. Such children, having been serially promoted, having been defrauded by the system, deserve restitution. The kind of teaching they need is way beyond the ken of city Tweed hacks masquerading as educators.

Unfortunately a crisis in leadership is to blame of much of what is wrong with NYC schools. The master teacher as principal is fast becoming a thing of the past in the NYC DOE. It's no accident that "No Child Left Behind" and instant principal "academies" emerged at about the same time. Some superb principals come out of these programs but these are rare. The advent of the relatively inexperienced, bureaucracy-friendly, less scholarly principal has catalyzed the deterioration of struggling schools, yet students in "failing schools" need the most intellectually capable educators the system can procure and principals smart enough to facilitate this. The kind of principal who can pull this off is becoming as extinct as television set repairmen.

If ethics is not motivation enough to warrant rethinking the current approach, practicality should be. It is dangerous to continue to graduate students who cannot read, write and perform simple mathematics operations. It's a statement of the obvious to point out that most of society's problems -- poverty, crime, over-taxing of the medical system -- can be traced back to the kind of discriminatory educational malpractice that brought both black and brown charter school proponents and the NAACP to the streets of Harlem two weeks ago.

Any school that is not part of the solution to discrimination in the schools is part of the problem. Neither charter school fever nor the "separate but equal" orientation the DOE currently embraces campaign is the way to go. It must be said; a system in which any one school has a 3 percent graduation rate is flunking. A new model is needed.

Not long ago, I heard writer Richard Stratton, author of Altered States of America, discuss life in prison on Curtis Sliwa's NYC morning radio show. Stratton is a Harvard-educated television writer and producer who served an eight-year sentence on a drug charge. He noted that inmates who could read were more likely to use their time to improve themselves while incarcerated, and suggested they were, therefore, less likely to resume criminal activity following their release.

"Don't get me started," he said, "about the education system." This sentence stayed with me for days as I followed NYC DOE news.

The chancellor and mayor have it backwards. The way to make genuine change in a system that is failing hundreds of thousands of children is to revitalize the weakest schools. Revitalizing the weakest schools would bring up the entire school system's game.

There are several great schools in the New York City school system. My children attend two. But, when the grades are averaged up, their school system deserves the grade of "F."

An A-Team is needed. An A-Team made up of the kind of people who say, "Don't get me started about the education system" -- an A-Team comprised of power-thinkers who have the intellectual "cred" and pedagogical "chops" necessary to take the doltish Tweed chimps to school.


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