2006-09-15 / Columnists

School Scope

The A&M Story Tastes Better than M&M's
By Norman Scott

Oh my! Where do we start? So many delicious stories, so little time.

The strategy of the DOE is out there for all to see. Turn over and retrain teachers over a five-year period. Automate and standardize the curriculum and teaching styles and spend a lot on professional development to do this.

No tenure, low salaries, no pensions, no real union.

New teachers will struggle with high class sizes and other horrible conditions as an apprenticeship and when they have earned their teaching spurs will go elsewhere.

In the corporate world of BloomKlein, using children as guinea pigs is irrelevant.

If you read my report of the Joel Klein press conference on Sept. 1, which I covered for The Wave, this became very clear. I wrote that Klein "seemed to negate the experience factor in teacher quality when he said even if teachers do leave after three years, the system benefited from having such high quality teachers for even a short time, pointing out that this is better than having some 20-year teachers who do not function effectively. He did not address charges from some experienced teachers that they have been systematically discriminated against, with some schools openly advertising positions would only be open to first year teachers and openly stating 'They must not be a transfer from another NYC public school.' Some have surmised that the move to newer teachers is merely a cost-cutting device."

The ad referred to above was informally posted by a teacher on a listerve, but it reveals what she was told. Anyone who has been around a school or been in a classroom for any amount of time knows full well that experience does count no matter how dedicated a new teacher is. Preferring a first year teacher to one with experience makes no sense unless it is all about a lower salary and a person without tenure who will not demand the contract be adhered to.

Some say it takes 5-10 years to become a fully rounded teacher but in my experience people are pretty capable by the 3rd year. That Klein seems so willing to accept that people from the high priced Teaching Fellows program will leave after two or three years shocks educators but makes perfect sense in the corporate world where the bottom line is so all-important. It is interesting that the high end school systems in the suburbs are snapping up many of these NYC people as they complete their 3rd year while avoiding first year teachers like the plague. Just ask new teachers who try to get jobs on Long Island.

They are told to go to NYC to learn how to teach. I'll comment next time on the Open Market Plan that has turned so many teachers with seniority (a dirty word at the DOE - and it seems the UFT) into substitute teachers as the UFT tries to put lipstick on the pig of the last contract.

Many questions were raised at Klein's press conference about no-bid contracts, in particular the 17 million dollars awarded to consulting firm Alvarez and Marsal. I reported "A&M has come under scrutiny for their management of the schools in St. Louis which led to drastic cuts that included the closing of 16 schools, cut staff and charges the corporate management turn-around mentality had taken a school system in severe trouble and made it worse." A report from teachers in St. Louis said, "... the 'turnaround' management team was brought in for union-busting purposes and privatization."

Of course, Klein claimed the money is being well spent since A&E will cut $200 million from the bureaucracy to be redirected to the classroom. Sure! Go ask teachers if they see any of these savings. Why Klein's expensive management team can't be trusted to find ways to cut the bureaucracy themselves is beyond me, especially since much of the bureaucracy was created by Klein himself: Ten Lis's per region (well over 100 altogether) at 135-150k each, Ris's, Pis's, who knows how many at Tweed, etc. etc. etc. Klein turned what was a simple mess before he took over and turned it into a tangled mess. Pick ten teachers or principals at random and I bet they could find $200 million in savings and would probably do it for free.

Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters reports:

"I have just finished reading "A Recipe for Failure; A year of Reform and Chaos in the St. Louis Public Schools" by Marilyn Ayres-Salamon, about her tragic experiences as a middle school teacher the year Alvarez & Marsal, a corporate turn-around firm with no education experience, took control of the St. Louis schools. On NY1, Joel Klein said he "had no idea" what the firm had done in St. Louis; a rather astonishing admission considering the money they are paying them. Perhaps someone should send him a copy of this book."

Basically, A&M balanced the budget at the expense of the students - typical behavior expected of corporate managers who make sure to take good care of themselves financially, while providing the standard corporate perks - lots of travel allowances for managers, expensive communications devices, etc. It is interesting that the corporate manager expect teachers with lots of education to take a hit for working in the public sector but exempt themselves. The complete Audit Report is at www.auditor. mo. gov/press/2004-47.pdf.

Back here at the NYC DOE, also known as Blackberry Ville, we can see all the corporate perks right out in the open as everyone above a classroom teacher can whip out their little machines every 10 seconds to check their email. I hear some teachers want to dress up as Indians and hold a local version of the Boston Tea Party where every Blackberry gets thrown into the Hudson River where they can try to swim their way back to Tweed. Hey! We just saved the DOE some serious bucks.

Attending a press conference with the NYC Education press corps is certainly an interesting experience as Klein lies - I mean spins - and reporters often don't have the detailed knowledge needed to counter these "spins." He bills these events as roundtables, which implies some level of dialogue or discussion. But that is not the case as there is little opportunity for extensive follow-up or for providing information to counter what Klein is saying. I've covered a couple of these for The Wave and am trying to feel my way and shift from a clearly partisan attitude to a reporter while at the same time framing questions in a manner that will get some useful information out of Klein (who told me at one conference "I see you've gone from being a gadfly to a reporter.") It is a tough shift.

One of the things you notice right away is how many people surround Klein - including an enormous public relations and press control operation. Many of them are very young - some refer to them as "Twinkies." Since perception is more important than reality, it is a must to spend money on the spinning operation.

In the corporate world, the bottom line is profits. In the ed-corporate world the bottom line is based on test scores, graduation rates, attendance, etc. and massaging these numbers to make them look good can be tricky and costs big bucks.

I've often been critical of the education press corps. But given the conditions of covering ed news, which many reporters use as a way station to bigger and better things (two of the Times recent ed reporters are now bureau chiefs), some do a pretty good job on certain stories. Dave Andreatta of the Post, considering the anti-teacher positions of that publication, does some very good and fair reporting. Erin Einhorn of the Daily News distinguished herself on the A&E story, as have Andy Wolfe's columns in The NY Sun.

Here is some of Einhorn's reporting on A&M that is worth sharing:

"The most expensive consultant, Sajan George, is billing the city a staggering $450 per hour as part of a $17 million contract that the city awarded his firm, Alvarez & Marsal, without competitive bidding... George's fees alone will cost taxpayers $1.7 million - more than four times what Schools Chancellor Joel Klein will earn during the same 18-month period. And in an unprecedented move, the contract appears to make some of the consultants responsible for work historically performed by top Education Department officials."

To Klein accountability is only for people at the bottom.

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