2007-03-23 / Columnists

School Scope

Commentary By Norman Scott

Commentary By Norman Scott

Norman Scott
Norman Scott I've been writing about Christopher Cerf, Joel Klein's Deputy Chancellor For Organizational Strategy, Human Capital, and External Affairs. External Affairs? Does the DOE have a foreign policy? Or are their policies just foreign?

A previous column described my visit to a Manhattan Institute luncheon where Cerf explained the latest version of the Children Last reforms to a mostly anti-public school audience clucking approval. I got to ask the last question of the day and people have been asked what the question was. First, let's look at some of Cerf's premises.

There is an educational crisis and we should be outraged. We need a call to action and dramatic reform. Incremental reforms are not effective. Look at what FDR did in 100 days. This is the civil rights issue of our time. Our critics, of whom there are many (except for the New York Times) are in favor of status quo.

Throwing money at educational problems like class size does not lead to solutions.

Teacher quality is the most important factor. Reducing class size without assuring teacher quality will not work. Of the 80,000 teachers the overwhelming number are superb. We want to make it easier to get rid of the 20% and move them to other careers.

If we swapped the teaching staffs of a top-notch school on the West Side with a failing school in the Bronx, we would see some major changes in the failing school. Good teaching should be rewarded with merit pay.

Accountability is the key right down the line.

Weigh school funding so the money follows the student. Schools with the same demographics have vastly different funding (mostly due to the vast differences in teacher salary).

We are data-driven and will track teacher quality and progress of kids.

The case Cerf made is very seductive to some, especially business people as it follows a business model. To educators, it is chilling.

BloomKlein have used the idea of accountability to absolve themselves of accountability. Put the burden on the schools- hold principals and teachers accountable and when things go wrong, say, "See, we gave them the tools and they failed. We'll just replace them." But how do we replace the BloomKlein/Cerfs when they slip-slide away on every failure of policy? Isn't the fact of multiple "reforms" in a cataclysmic way an admission of failure?

Teacher quality is not abstract. It is affected by conditions. You get higher quality with fewer kids or with kids who are easier to teach: BloomKlein/ Cerf negate factors like behavior, learning disabilities, language, and the support network at home.

The question

So, here is the question: You say you are data driven but you present no data that shows that the overwhelming majority of the 80,000 people who must implement your policies think that 95% of what you said today is drivel.

You say throwing money at education problems doesn't work - Cerf interrupted "Is not the only answer." But you NEVER throw money at problems. You use gimmicks like reorganization instead. You certainly didn't try to solve the problems at Tilden High School with money. Why not try to fix Tilden by throwing money at it with more teachers, support personnel, etc. instead of giving up and just closing it?

The overwhelming majority of teachers are highly insulted at the idea they would do a better job it you gave those who get higher test scores a bonus. Like they are not trying for want of a bonus. (The idea of merit is designed to get teachers to be motivated by money, focus on test scores to the exclusion of real education to make Klein and Cerf look better.) Cerf interjected "you would be surprised at how many teachers I hear from who agree." OK, Mr. Data, tell us exactly how many teachers out of the 80,000 tell you that and not throw out a vague number.

On swapping staffs of schools, why not go ahead and try it for a three to five year experiment if you are so sure of the results? I am sure it not only wouldn't make a difference, but the results in the Bronx would be worse as the teachers who are not used to teaching kids there would take flight or require a serious adjustment in time, while the teachers who are placed in the West Side school would flourish under the better working conditions. I would bet my pension on the results.

That got oohs and ahhs from the corporate audience. Now I was talking. Cash on the barrelhead. Anytime Mr. Cerf wants to take me up on the offer, he knows where to find me. And my pension.

UFT Election Update

Ballots must be in by March 28 and the votes will be counted the next day. Three years ago 70,000 working UFT members DID NOT VOTE. The giveback-laden 2005 contract should bring out a higher turnout this time. If it doesn't, well, what can you say?

Randi Weingarten's Unity Caucus sent out a large postcard to most members with a red-baiting attack on ICE-TJC candidate Kit Wainer who is running against Weingarten for president of the UFT, accusing him of being, oh my God, a socialist! Wainer, who has taught at Leon Goldstein HS on the Kingsborough campus and has been elected chapter leader over the past 12 years (it seems the staff of Goldstein doesn't have a problem with his politics) has published some materials on the web that were extracted by Unity and put in red bold letters. Why would we expect anything less than McCarthyite tactics from Unity? The irony is that their partners in the election, former opposition caucus New Action, were red-baited by Unity in past years because so many members had roots in socialist and communist organizations. Not that there's' anything wrong with it.

We received calls of outrage. Some thoughts expressed were, "Isn't it a slam dunk Unity will win? This smacks of the kind of desperation of someone who is losing a political campaign instead of expecting to win with a 90% vote. Why is it so important that a 70% majority is not enough?"

The most common analysis is that Weingarten wants an overwhelming victory so she can sail into the sunset with a glorious victory and head off to the AFT in the summer of '08.

It is not that simple. For Weingarten, it is important to keep the ICE-TJC vote low as a way of marginalizing them, which if they start attracting 25-30% of the vote, threatens to pass the vote totals New Action was getting when it was THE opposition. For Weingarten to leave an orderly union for her successor, she must reduce the threat ICE-TJC presents and promote her homegrown opposition New Action.

By getting more votes than the ICE-TJC upstarts, New Action can claim, despite their alliance with Unity, they are still the main opposition, albeit totally tied to Unity's apron strings. They also have to prove to Weingarten that they are viable.

Weingarten is so enamored of New Action's leader Michael Shulman because he has proven time and again he can control the troops. When she announced the purchase of the new buildings on Broadway in 2003 just as the alliance with New Action was in the earliest stages, some of the New Action members on the Executive Board at the time wanted to ask for more information. Shulman, not a member of the Board, passed by each one and ordered them not to raise any questions. "Randi doesn't want this to become an issue, so don't say anything," Shulman said.

Now there's the kind of opposition Randi can be proud of.

Read more on my blog: http://ed no tesonline.blogspot.com/

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