2005-05-06 / Columnists

School Scope

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By Norman Scott


The recent resurfacing of former New York City chancellor and District 2 (central and southern Manhattan schools) Superintendent Anthony Alvarado as executive director of the City Council’s Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) commission (created by City Council Speaker and mayoral candidate Gifford Miller) does not lack significance. Just about everyone I speak to – parents and teachers – who worked in District 2, are not happy. Alvarado is viewed as the architect of the policies currently being implemented in New York City schools.

Alvarado left New York’s District 2 in 1998 when the newly appointed San Diego Superintendent Alan Bersin, a federal prosecutor in the Clinton administration, hired him as Chancellor of Instruction. Bersin recently resigned (most say forced out) after years of controversy and last week was appointed Commissioner of Education in California by Governor Schwarzenegger. That the current NYC Chancellor Joel Klein has the same background as Bersin (both also non-educators) and that there are similarities between Klein’s former lead instructor Diana Lam (also forced out under a cloud) and Alvarado (forced out in San Diego in Sept. ’03) is no coincidence.

Before he ran District 2, Alvarado resigned as New York City chancellor in 1984 after a brief tenure over some personal monetary difficulties. At the time, progressive educators felt the loss of Alvarado as chancellor in NYC was a tragedy for the system and that it never recovered as a succession of chancellors followed in his wake. I joined the chorus in excusing his indiscretions and remained a fan throughout his early tenure in District 2, viewing him as a very impressive and passionate educator. In later years, an uglier story began to be told.

The ending of Bersin’s recent tenure in San Diego has brought the impact of the Bersin-Alvarado partnership back into the news. When Joel Klein became NYC chancellor one of his first acts was to jump on a plane and head to San Diego. The system he put into place parallels the San Diego story – déjà vu all over again – and again.

Alvarado made his bones nationally by raising scores dramatically in District 2, the most affluent district in the city, which some critics contend minimizes that achievement when demographics are taken into account.

This led to the San Diego gig, where he engineered enormous changes throughout the system that New York educators will recognize: massive doses of professional development at great expense, literacy and math coaches, a strictly managed top-down system minimizing teacher input, the Workshop model imposed on all teachers, the use of Teachers College concepts of teaching, hiring high-priced consultants from outside, ignoring any semblance of parental input, a strict cloaking device to keep information from flowing out of schools, a massive public relations operation to put a good face on everything, and of course, attempting to minimize the influence of the union.

The model of separating instruction from operations and the use of sub-superintendents (LIS’s) may have also been field tested in San Diego on a much smaller scale.

Money spent on class size reduction was minimal (other than that required by the California class-size reduction law), as Alvarado has always placed the emphasis on teacher training.

“I believe and work under the theory that the problem is the capacity of the system. It is what the adults know and are able to do that is the primary issue at hand. It has nothing to do with who kids are or what they are doing, what do they know, what about their parents, what about their poverty level, what about the, it is what the adults in that school know and are able to do.” (Alvarado interview, 4/20/01)

You see, it’s just what we said in last week’s column on what is wrong with Far Rockaway HS – the teachers must be at fault. Poverty level, class size, or any other factors don’t count. Give teachers lots of professional development and kids from the worst situations will do as well as kids on the Upper East Side. The Alvarado philosophy in a nutshell.

To get a sense of what is really happening in New York, it is worth looking at the results in San Diego, in particular the words of John deBeck, a school board member. Check put his web site for more details. http://www.johndeb eck.com/MessageFromJohn.htm.

Fear Motivation: Many experienced principals have elected to leave the district in fear of humiliation [after 15 principals were removed and faced the use of police escorts and public humiliation.]

“Teacher Training: From the get go [teachers] were told to just do what they were told. They were going to have to give up what they had found worked for them without any tryout and evaluation period at all!

“Public Input: …community meetings had massive opposition to the [Alvarado] plan, but comments by parents, teachers and others were mostly ignored.

“Top-down or else: ...Alan and Tony became the Czars of reform. Alan the lawyer reverted to his prosecutorial mode. He had a client, Tony ...and he was charged to make what Tony decided happen. Alan simply didn’t have the educational background to decide the issues for himself.

“Know-it-alls from everywhere: Another issue is the constant importation of consultants (at high per diem cost) to lecture teachers on instruction. The best staff development is observation, followed by hands on practice, not lectures! The staff could surely use the money to support teachers’ observations of effective instruction instead. We have enough local success stories and expert teachers whose talents and accomplishments are being ignored. Everyone I represent agrees that they are in a top-down, inflexible, take-it or leave-it mode.

Angry troops, False Claims, Moving Administrators: A highly trumpeted part of the [Alvarado] Blueprint eliminated administration from the Ed Center to move personnel to the schools, but unfortunately the switch created more people looking over the shoulders of teachers instead of more people teaching! In fact if the plan was to shift these personnel to reduce class size in upper grades I would have been eager to support it. If we did that, we would have class sizes of 20 throughout all crucial elementary grades! And all these experts would be in the classroom where they would be able to demonstrate rather than preach! Over 93% of the teachers voted no confidence for the superintendent and his program!

“Test score data is in dispute! It has been reform for reform’s sake. In fact, ill-informed national foundations [School Scope will soon report on the shameful role the Eli Broad Foundation plays] reportedly have been willing to prop up Alan Bersin and his hard-to-find cohort Anthony Alvarado based on an unsubstantiated business plan. Even local colleges and universities have been co-opted by becoming partners in the administration of grants that are isolated from the decision making by your elected school board.”

San Diego also instituted a principal’s training institute based on the corporate model (which Klein replicated in his Leadership Institute headed by Jack Welch.) They funded this by taking the San Diego district’s Title 1 money away from the schools. (Klein says his Institute is privately funded.)

Reading deBeck’s comments and hearing from people who were part of the District 2 story should make parents and teachers in New York aware that the implementation and ultimate outcome of what occurred in San Diego will come back to haunt us. With Alvarado back and playing a role in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, we can expect the guru to continue working his magic over the New York educational scene.

The UFT and Alvarado

Given the supposedly hostile climate between the UFT leadership and Joel Klein, one would think the union would be totally opposed to having the architect of the school reform nightmare for so many UFT members involved again and could have used its influence to keep Alvarado from working with the CFE committee. But Alvarado and the UFT have always enjoyed a good relationship, something that makes a lot of people scratch their heads and wonder whether the UFT’s screaming about the BloomKlein reforms is not just a bit disingenuous. We certainly never heard the UFT crying over the Alvarado reforms when implemented in District 2. In fact, teachers there used to gripe, but very quietly because they were teaching kids who were not exactly representative of the average New York City student and feared retribution would force them to teach in places like Brooklyn. Or even Far Rockaway.

Good Administrators

deserve accolades

Great administrators who support teachers and students and value relationships with parents, especially in today’s climate of fear and loathing in the school system, can be rare. But we are finding them more common than you would think.

Michael Weinberg’s tribute in a letter to The Wave to Far Rockaway HS supervisor Karen Lashen, who left May 1 for a promotion in Region 3, was very moving. Following the theory that one man’s favorable opinion of someone is often another man’s horror story, we asked around and found that Weinberg was right on the money and that Lashen createIIXPR3CCXP at Far Rockaway. Maybe if people above her recognized her abilities and allowed her influence to permeate Far Rock, it wouldn’t be facing reorganization and Region 5 wouldn’t be losing her. It’s always good to hear about good administrators. We wish her well in her new job.

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