2006-01-13 / Columnists

School Scope

Discipline Problems? It
By Norman Scott


What Do They Know?

Alfred S. Posamentier, Dean, School of Education, The City College of New York wrote in a letter to the NY Times: “The simplest method for maintaining proper discipline in school is for teachers to provide highly motivating lessons. This often takes a fair amount of forethought and careful planning. Genuinely engaging all students in the material to be learned will keep them from pursuing disruptive behavior, which usually comes from not being properly motivated. This time-honored method is best guaranteed with sufficient resources allocated to continued teacher professional development. Investing in appropriate professional development is the most efficient form of educational enhancement.”

If this is the way people running institutions that train teachers think, no wonder many new teachers enter the system and immediately drown in a sea of discipline problems. New teachers will often say, “They didn’t prepare us for THIS.”

The attitude that kids misbehave because of lack of preparation by teachers reflects the attitude of the powers that be – professional development rather than reducing class size or separating disruptive children is the best way to invest education dollars.

 Recent reports on PBS following a “turn-around” principal in a difficult Virginia middle school began with this attitude, which the principal soon abandoned and moved to detention and separation as the situation deteriorated. He muttered something like “I wasn’t prepared for THIS” as he asked the cameras to be turned off after he was reprimanded by his superiors for not turning the school around quickly enough. Of course putting more resources into the school was not on the table. See, it’s easy – just put in a lone wolf turn-around guy or gal who can whip those teachers into shape. Well, the last we saw him, this guy had the “deer-in-the-headlights” look.

Private Donations

The NY Times ran a piece by David Herzenhorn on the success BloomKlein has had in getting philanthropists to give $311 million to the Department of Education. Let’s see how that money was spent: “$117 million to start new small schools; nearly $70 million to open an academy for principal training; $41 million for the nonprofit center supporting charter schools; $11.5 million to renovate libraries; $8.3 million to refurbish playgrounds; and $5.7 million to reshape troubled high schools.” What percentage actually affects the classroom? Zero for class size reduction and other initiatives that might make a real difference. We’ll follow up with more on this issue in our next column since the Times neglected to do any analysis as to how effectively this money is being used.

The Transit Strike Revisited

From the messages flying around the Internet, a gratifying number of teachers expressed a lot of admiration for TWU union leader Roger Toussaint.

Toussaint made some powerful points when he addressed Mayor Bloomberg, “You call us ‘irresponsible.’ New York City and New York State have slashed their subsidies for mass transit. Mayors and Governors have created a seemingly permanent structural deficit for transit, which must be filled by costly borrowing. Wall Street has profited, but Main Street has suffered. But you knew that already from your previous career. Now that the debt-servicing bill has come due, the MTA demands that we pay the price: worse health care and worse pensions.”

I heard the arguments about how private industry is abandoning pension obligations, which the federal government has to pick up. How come we don’t hear the word “illegal” attached to those actions? Or maybe it is not illegal as corporations get politicians to manipulate the legal system in their favor through large campaign contributions. So it’s just immoral, but why quibble?

As the media’s light began to shine on the MTA and its relationships with politicians, pressure began to build for an end to the strike despite the public demands by Pataki that there would be no negotiations until the strike ended and moves a settlement were made behind the scenes. MTA chairman Peter Kalikow was taking a particular beating from the press. Kalikow supposedly contributed a hell of a lot of money to Pataki campaigns. He wanted that job of MTA chairman that badly? A multimillionaire who never ran anything competently (see: how he bankrupted the NY Post ) and with no experience in transportation? (Remind anyone of FEMA head Michael Brown – Will Pataki soon say, “You’re doing a great job Kali?”) Why did Kalikow want the job? Do we think that in any way those $9 outrageous tolls we pay to go over the Verazzano Bridge are not going in some way to enrich some people who are connected to Kalikow and Pataki? I guess all of this is somehow not “illegal”.

When Pataki threatens to veto the pension money rebates, claiming he knew nothing about them despite the fact that everyone involved says he was informed all the way, the press lets him get away with it. Raise your hands boys and girls if you believe the Governor! Hmmm. I’m having trouble counting the multitude. But then again, a politician lying to the public is not illegal – nor is it illegal to use your political ambition of becoming a serious presidential candidate to make points with the Republican right wing by forcing a strike. Note how almost every important issue in the state, from charter school reform to transit, are being held hostage to Pataki’s political hopes. Where’s the outrage? And the type of editorials that condemned Toussaint and the transit workers? Hopefully, the fiasco known as the MTA, where Pataki appoints the majority of the members will be the final nail in Pataki’s would-be president hopes. (Oh, do I need to remind you that the UFT endorsed Pataki in his last election.)

Roger Toussaint had a galvanizing impact when he started to talk about how Rosa Park’s actions were also illegal when she wouldn’t give up her seat on the bus. Comparisons were made to Martin Luther King’s support for the illegal sanitation strike that ended with his assassination in 1968. I received this email from a retired UFT chapter leader “I thought Toussaint’s address to the press … was the labor speech we have waited for decades to hear in NYC. I hope Randi was watching. Maybe she could learn something. [The TV News] will never show the full content and excellent argumentation in defense of his members. This guy has balls. I hope he survives to run for mayor!”

Toussaint chastised the mayor with this: “But what about our conducting an ‘illegal’ strike? What about the law? You are all over the media with high-minded talk about ‘illegal’ behavior, castigating criminals and screaming that no one is above the law. Your hypocrisy knows no bounds. You must hope everyone has forgotten your biography: ‘Bloomberg on Bloomberg.’ You boast on Page 59 on how you started your rise to great wealth, great enough to enable you to buy the Mayor’s office twice. You set up your office ‘...all without permission, violating every fire law, building code and union regulation on the books.’

“I guess illegality is in the eye of the beholder. A confessed lawbreaker has the gall to lecture 34,000 hard working people whose only crime is standing up for their families and for dignity and respect on one of the toughest, most dangerous jobs in New York.”

That the Taylor Law is stacked against the unions with penalties assessed that could lead to their very destruction while there are no penalties assessed against employers unwilling to negotiate -– witness the years it took for a teacher contract – is somehow acceptable. 

As a participant in the 1975 illegal teacher strike in response to the layoffs of 15,000 colleagues and the severe cuts we had to take as a result, there is a time when people have to make a stand even if it is “illegal.” (Can anyone imagine what class sizes in NYC schools would look like if teachers hadn’t been willing to strike over working conditions?) The problem labor has had is an unwillingness to stand together.

There has been some level of debate in the UFT over the role played by Randi Weingarten in helping end the strike. And behind the scenes she is not shy about taking some amount of credit, doing shuttle diplomacy between the parties. She says the UFT gave the TWU a lot of support but she fell short of saying the strike was the right thing to do or even that it took guts. She claims that praise of the strike could result in sanctions against the UFT. That is a cover. Instead she talks about starting a discussion about the impact of a “no contract, no work” policy would have upon the members, pointing to the fact that there would have to be whole lot more militancy from the members, too many of whom (a former teacher I know calls them “New York’s Meekest”) have often proven to be easily cowed by abusive administrators and even their own union leaders.

Remember the threats during our contract negotiations? “What do you want to do, strike?” How would they browbeat people in the future unless they prove the TWU lost more than they gained by striking? So, basically it’s up to the members to show militancy, not the leadership. Sort of like the attitude that disruptive kids are the fault of the teacher.

In fact no matter what words come out of the mouths of the UFT, a union that has historically allowed its members to work under a 4-Tier pension system cannot be happy about a union that refuses to capitulate on this point.  A more militant group of teachers is not something UFT leaders really want, though they talk a good game. Militant teachers might begin to take a hard look at how the UFT, a top-down institution with banana republic democracy, is run.

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