2004-07-09 / Columnists

From the

By Howard Schwach

This has been a seminal year for Chancellor Joel Klein. With complete control over the school system through his new chain of command that includes Regional Superintendents and Local Instructional Supervisors coupled with the demise of community school boards, Klein had the chance to make the kind of changes necessary to move the system forward.

Did he succeed? Herewith, from a retired teacher with thirty years of giving final grades, Klein (and the Department of Education’s) report card.

Communication With The Public: Klein pays $33,000 a month for a public relations firm to spruce up his image. He has several people who work at the DOE’s press office at Tweed Courthouse. He has a principal and assistant principals in each school. He has Regional Superintendents. He has Local Instructional Supervisors. He has District Superintendents. And, with the exception of the press office people, none of them is allowed to speak with the media about school problems (or, even school successes). All communication has to go through the press office and I can tell you from personal experience that the press office is more tight-lipped than the old KGB. (Grade of 55).

Hiring Practices: Both Klein and his boss, Mayor Mike Bloomberg, come from a business background that posits that a "pure manager" can manage anything, even a business in which he or she has no expertise. That is not true, particularly for public education, which is not a business to begin with. Klein chose to surround himself with those managers and it proved to be a disaster. Even the Mayor at one point referred to the DOE as "The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight." That is an outgrowth of what happens when nobody knows how to play the game. If you don’t know the questions, how will you get answers? Those inexperienced managers were taken in by educational flim flam provided by some top universities and educational charlatans.

(Grade of 55).

Relationship With Parents: Part of the deal with Bloomberg and Klein’s takeover of the system was the end of the community school boards and the formation of new Community Education Councils. Although the new councils took over only last week, the plan is already a disaster. The old CSB’s were the link between the community and the district office. Under the new decentralized regional plan, that type of contact is no longer available. In fact, fewer than half of the PA officers eligible to vote did so and only one parent from Rockaway, a west end father, was elected to the council. Then, we have the Parent Coordinators in each school. Half of them do not answer their cell phones. Some of the others have no desire to assist parents. Chosen by the principals themselves, it is no wonder that so few were rated as unsatisfactory by those same principals. What you have now is a group of parents with no ties to the community and with ties to the region acting as parent advocates. It does not work. (Grade of 50).

Working and Playing Well With Others: Stop laughing. Three central board members were fired because they did not agree with the mayor. Nobody, not parents, not teachers, not administrators, not students hold sway with this chancellor. "I’ll do it my way," is his mantra and his Regional Superintendents follow right along. Principals are threatened with U ratings unless they retire. Teachers are summarily given U ratings after 30 years of satisfactory service. Assistant principals are dumped back into the classroom in out-of-license situations and then threatened with dismissal for not doing a good job. Administrators with ties to the Regional Superintendent are brought in to replace those who have been summarily dumped. The press is kept at arms length. Of course, when he wants to, the chancellor uses the media to further his agenda. Naming the names of principals who were "removed" from the schools seemed like a good PR idea until it turned out that most of them simply retired under pressure. Actually, many of them ran the best schools in the city. Some, like Barbara Pleener of BCHS have been gone all year. Now, they want an apology and I think they should get it. What a way to run a railroad. (Grade of 45).

Test Scores: Test scores are marginally up and that’s good news. In order for the mayor and chancellor to claim credit for growth, however, it’s going to have to be sustained growth. The new curricula Klein and his minions have put in place have received mixed reviews from long-time teachers, and those are the people who really know what is going on with their students. (Grade of 65, but the complete grade will not be in for two years or more).

Social Promotion: Sure, we’re holding back everybody who fails the tests, except for those who have satisfactory portfolios and those whose parents complain and those who go to summer schools and those whose principals (who hate holdovers) say they should move on. Will anybody who failed the test really be left back. Check in September. By the way, how about all the other kids who are not in the third grade and did not pass their tests? If you’re not a third grader, nobody seems to care any longer. (Grade of 55).

Safety: Naming 12 schools as "The Most Dangerous" and addressing those schools to the point where crime fell sharply was a good PR stunt, but it meant little for the school system as a whole. The discipline code has not been changed to address dangerous kids in the classroom and the promised suspension centers did not materialize in most communities. The center scheduled for Rockaway with much ballyhoo was closed down by Superintendent Cashin before it even opened. Many local schools are still dangerous, witness the problems with Beach Channel High School and MS 198. Dangerous students have to be taken out of the mainstream and educated elsewhere so that the kids who want to learn will have the opportunity to do so. (Grade of 40).

Overall Grade: An average of 52. Not enough for promotion, Joel, but I’ll take a look at your portfolio and get back to you at the end of the summer.

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