2007-01-26 / Columnists

School Scope

The Surreal World of Tweedledom and BloomKlein
Commentary By Norman Scott


Norman Scott
Norman Scott I dragged my way over to cover what was billed as Joel Klein's round table meeting with reporters on January 19th at 3:30 pm, just a short time after Mayor Bloomberg announced yet another restructuring of the school system. (The press conference was actually held on a rectangular table, but if Klein says it's round, all the Tweedledee apparatchiks will tell you it's round.)

This is one weird scene with reporters sitting at the table and a gaggle of TV cameras set up. Most interesting is that the entire perimeter of the room is packed with Tweedledums who are dragged out of their offices to serve no purpose other than to be there for Joel while he faces the press. For what these people are being paid, one would at least expect them to be doing some real work. (Throughout the press conference, one could hear the buzzing of a hundred Blackberries.)

There will now be four regions that will provide support services, each headed by a veteran of the old school system: Laura Rodriguez (Region 2, Bronx), Marsha Lyles (Region 8, Brooklyn), Judy Chin (Region 3, Queens), and our own Kathy Cashin (Region 5). Note the perfect ethnic balance - Hispanic, African-American, Asian and Caucasian. (But no men.) It is not clear how the city will be divided geographically, if at all.

The guts of the reorganization is that all schools will be free - sort of - to make one of three choices. They could enter the Twilight - er -- Empowerment Zone, which frees them from all regional control and places them under the aegis of Eric Nadelstern, CEO of the Empowerment Schools Initiative (ESI). (Instead of CEO'ing, Nadelstern was forced to sit with his hands politely folded at the perimeter of the press conference.)

The ESI is Klein's baby and he glowed with reports from principals who praised the system to the sky, just loving the supposed relief of paperwork.

They also told Klein how much they loved his set of new clothes. This is clearly one direction Klein wants schools to go. Around 350 schools made that choice this past year. An interesting sidelight is that the recent NY Times article on Kathy Cashin stressed how few schools in Region 5 had joined the ESI, a tribute to her leadership.

A second choice schools have fits BloomKlein's other strand - privatize everything that moves. External Partnership Support Organizations (PSO's) will be bidding to support the schools and principals can make a choice of one of these private groups.

Third (and least if not last), the four "winning" regional superintendents will be the internal Learning Support Organization (LSO's) with each designing their own unique offerings from which schools can choose. Will they be region-based or will they all have to compete with each other and with the other options? Schools can have up to six choices or more when you add in the laundry list of PSO's. Oy! "Mess" is not a messy enough word to describe it all. Try: muddle, disarray, chaos, confusion, bedlam, turmoil, pandemonium.

Clearly, Klein wants schools to choose from Column A or B, but is offering Column C as a last remnant of the school system he destroyed. If I were Rodriguez, Cashin, Lyles and Chin, I wouldn't spend too much time decorating an office. In a photo I took, it appears as if Klein's newest appointee, Christopher Cerf, might have been napping, or as the caption says on my blog, "Christopher Cerf dreams of ways to turn the NYC school system into a subsidiary of Edison." Cerf was the CEO of Edison Schools, a fading for-profit corporation that looks to milk money out of public schools. Hey! The stock tanked and Cerf needed a job. Where else but in BloomKleindom?

Edison was once in the forefront of the ideological struggles as the right wing attempt to dismantle public education. Under Cerf's leadership, Edison once made a run at NYC schools but was beaten back by the UFT and parent groups. Now they have the chief Edison wolf in the henhouse. So, it was not surprising to read in the Daily News a day after the press conference:

The world's largest for-profit school operator yesterday expressed interest in being a part of the massive school reforms laid out this week. While Chancellor Joel Klein pitched his sweeping school overhaul to business leaders and educators yesterday, he said that he expected mainly universities and nonprofits to apply for the private contracts available under the reforms. He acknowledged, though, that legally he can't exclude for-profits, adding that, "I don't expect the for-profits will apply , but that's up to them. But Edison Schools - the controversial for-profit group that attempted to takeover five failing city schools in 2001 - would "certainly be interested" in reviewing opportunities and seeing "whether it would be a good fit," company spokeswoman Laura Eshbaugh said yesterday.

Sure, after hiring Cerf, Klein never, ever thought of Edison applying for the PSO's. Don't we need to get Edison's value up to prove the validation of the private model by having them feed at the public trough? You could actually see Klein's nose grow as he spoke.

One of the key supposed changes in the reorganization, that is not really a change, is a mandate to scrutinize new teachers before giving them tenure. One would think that was going on all along. Most onerous was Klein's statement that they will be judged on the way their students perform. A gym teacher commented on a blog that this would get pretty interesting for him. "Can't get 70% of your kids to run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds? You're fired!"

I got to ask Klein questions about whether class size would be taken into account in all these equations. Klein preferred to put the cart before the horse and said that teacher quality came first. Hmmm, isn't it possible that a teacher who might struggle with 32 in a class could do much better with 22? Klein always talks about a data-driven system to evaluate students and teachers but always excludes the most important data of all.

A question was asked about how the reorganization will affect school budgets, which under the new system looks to be based on the real salaries of teachers in the schools rather than the current system of charging schools based on the average teacher salary. Klein danced around on this one but I take it as another attack on higher-salaried teachers.

What this is really about is to make it unappetizing for schools to keep senior teachers on the payroll. Klein claims there will be more equitability, since senior teachers tend to congregate in the better schools.

Klein has always wanted to be able to move teachers around like chess pieces, early on claiming the teacher contract prevented him from putting the "better" senior teachers in the schools where they were most needed, but at the same time, his minions went on a witch-hunt to drive senior teachers out of the system. Klein often says it is better to have teacher turnover than keep senior teachers who supposedly are tired and unmotivated (and insist on adhering to the union contract.)

This is not about teacher quality, but about saving money by driving out senior, tenured teachers (anyone with over four years in the system). With the UFT crumbling in the face of the onslaught (what ever happened to those age discrimination suits?) there will be no need for those buyouts they gave in the 90's. Just put enormous pressures on senior teachers 'till they retire. Add closing schools that will turn many senior teachers into subs who might have to go from school to school and become so miserable they will run from the system and Klein has a slam-dunk.

The circle is complete. With this reorganization, the attack on senior and junior teachers is out in the open. While it is impossible to change the tenure law, BloomKlein aims to eliminate tenure simply by eliminating tenured teachers.

To many reporters, the entire exercise left them scratching their heads, as no one seemed to know where high schools belonged - back to the old centralization before BloomKlein or just floating out there in space. District Superintendents will be back for grades K-8, just like in the days of yore. I jokingly predicted this in a post on my blog the night before BloomKlein's announcement. But nothing is funny in Tweedledeeland.

On my way into the press conference, I had to go through a gauntlet where my pitiful press pass from The Wave gets more scrutiny than Al Quada. I was told to wait off to the side until I could be escorted down to the pressroom. I have the honor of being attended by a nice gentleman who turned out to be Klein's press spokesperson, David Cantor, who was interested to know what exactly it is I do. (Did my wife ask him to ask that question?) I wish I knew myself. He said he was told I have a blog and that I speak at PEP meetings - not the behavior of most reporters (thank goodness). Are they tailing me?

I informed him I was the education editor of The Wave (thanks Howie for the promotion) and cover these events for them either as a reporter (fair and balanced) or as a columnist (ranting and raving.) I asked him if there was a problem.

He said he had none.

"Write whatever you want," he said. And so I did.

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