2003-09-26 / Columnists

School Scope

By Norman Scott
School Scope By Norman Scott

Who Are You Gonna Call?

Norman Scott retired last year after 35 years in the NYC school system. He spent 20 years teaching grades 4-6 in self-contained classrooms, 10 years as a computer cluster teacher and 5 years as a staff developer in technology, all in District 14 in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. A former UFT Chapter Leader, for the last 7 years he has put out Education Notes, an alternative publication aimed at teachers and other parties interested in the educational scene in NYC schools.  Ed. Notes is supported by contributions  from school workers and has a current circulation of 16,500. Email: NorScot@aol.com.

Mayor Bloomberg cares about education. He tells us that practically every day. He has even staked the success of his Mayoralty on improving the educational system. He and Joel Klein (BloomKlein) have undertaken the most drastic reformation of the NYC school system in history, destroying much of the infrastructure along the way. A destruction so deep that even many highly placed officials in the new regime  have been shaking their heads at the Taliban like breakage. As people struggle through the maze to get answers, echos are heard throughout the halls: "Who ya gonna call?" Bill Murray, where are you?

The system certainly needed reform. We can talk ad-infinitum about what was wrong with the old system with its overwhelming bureaucracy and its often politically corrupt districts, but we’ll leave that for another time.  What did the Mayor’s Minions do? As predicted, after destroying the old bureaucracy, they just replaced it with one of their own, a new, even more stifling one.

You see, the whole point of reforming the system was to give the  schools the power and flexibility, and most importantly, the funding, to make changes at the local level as they saw fit by removing the political favoritism at the district level and the bureaucracy at the central level. Sure, monitor the schools to hell, but put decision making at the local control.

Instead, the most minute controls have been imposed, as headlined in the Daily News:  Don’t use chalkboards, you must have a rug, the kids must sit on the rug, etc. (Why not mandate the rug must be midnight blue with a yellow border?) Assembly-line education run amuck. Even Henry Ford would cringe.

Everyone knows this will be a disaster and it will take years to pick up the pieces after BloomKlein’s gang have been driven into the hills. The teaching staff is sullen and angry at both the bosses and at a union that has allowed this to happen. This low level of morale seems to bring glee to the new bosses, people in the press and other anti-teacher groups. It  brings fear to union leaders, who, facing an election this coming spring, are worried about a backlash (if a fairly ineffective opposition ever gets it together).

It is interesting that teachers are always told how important it is to motivate the children. But the people in charge never seem to think it matters if teachers are happy and motivated. Well, there’s one heavy group of unhappy campers in the teaching ranks.

Some are comparing the whole thing to a hostile corporate takeover, similar to what happened in Chicago where Mayor Daley took control almost 10 years ago. For over 2 years Education Notes has been chronicling events there based on information from George Schmidt, editor of Substance, a teacher-based newspaper (in publication for 27 years) directed at Chicago area educators. Schmidt was part of a dissident group which captured control of the Chicago Teachers Union and catapulted Deborah Lynch, an 8th grade teacher, into the leadership of the 2nd largest teachers union in the nation. Lynch’s election was the direct result of the impact of Mayor Daley’s takeover.

Schmidt had been warning us about the impact of the corporate model and its companion, Mayoral control, on a school system from the very moment UFT leader Randi Weingarten put the idea on the table (pretty good irony here) in June 2001:  That the top down corporate business model of running a school system with people who don’t have a clue about what goes on in a real school will never work; that control of education in the hands of politicians instead of educators leads to manipulation of the educational process for the purpose of winning elections; that attempts will be made to privatize. (That is happening right now in the custodial union and is just the tip of the iceberg); that blame would be placed on teachers for the problems. (It certainly can never be the fault of their faulty policies or the fact that some kids are really difficult to teach); that enormous funds would be put into staff development as a result of this philosophy instead of focusing on class size reduction (the "bad teachers will still be bad whether they have 35 or 10 in a class" argument); that enormous numbers of high salaried "Executives," many of whom are educational theorists or corporate bottom-line types, would be hired to "manage" the system; that there would be a shut down of information, a gag order on all employees and a system of lies and manipulation of data to put a good face on all that is happening; that employees will show their bosses the so-called "Potempkin Villages" where the face of things are made to look good (see: stress on bulletin boards) while the decay underneath is covered up;  that kids would be pushed out of schools to make results look better. That dropout rates will be hidden; that test scores would be emphasized to the exclusion of all other learning like science and social studies. (Hey, maybe it’s a plot of Bush’s "No Child Left Behind" legislation: If you never learn where Iraq is you will believe anything the government tells you). And most importantly, that union busting will be in full flower.

No doubt, some people out there will think an attack on the UFT is a good thing. Though I have spent over 30 years fighting with the leaders of the UFT over their narrow self-interest that often does not represent the interests of the members, I’ll leave it to another time to explain how breaking the union will truly lead to Armageddon in New York City schools. (Hint: The UFT contract protects children as much as it does teachers).

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