2007-06-15 / Columnists

School Scope

The Cashin Lobby Lives
By Norman Scott

By Norman Scott

Norman Scott
Norman Scott Education historian Diane Ravitch, who was Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander under President George Bush (the First) from 1991-1993, writes on a listserv:

"[Kathleen] Cashin's 'Knowledge Network' will be training principals to teach the Core Knowledge program, which includes the arts, science, history, geography, literature, and other subjects in every grade, beginning in kindergarten. Many of the teachers don't know what they are expected to teach. The professional development is absolutely necessary to make sure that everyone knows the program. PD is provided, I believe, by the UFT Teachers Center. From my perspective, this is the richest, most coherent program that any of the (Learning Support Organizations (LSO's) have to offer- not just a smorgasbord of disconnected programs, but a coherent, sequential, developed curriculum that adds up to a rich liberal education for all kids."

At a recent right-wing think tank Manhattan Institute luncheon attended by educators from around the city honoring US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Reading First's Reed Lyon and Ravitch served on a panel, moderated by a conservative writer and education critic Sol Stern, who made a point of praising the program being offered by Cashin and urging schools to adopt it.

The NY Times ran a major article focusing on Cashin in December 2006: …with studies showing little progress in narrowing the achievement gap between minority and white students, the question of how best to improve schools in places like Region 5 is the most critical issue in American education. And Dr. Cashin has the numbers to stake a claim as the best turnaround artist in town. In 2003, 33.2 percent of her students in grades three to eight could read on grade level and 34.6 percent were proficient in math. Today, 50.6 percent read on grade and 56.9 percent are proficient in math. No other region starting below 40 percent has crossed the halfway mark in either subject. "We are relentless," Dr. Cashin said in a recent interview. "The secret is clear expectations. Everything is spelled out. Nothing is assumed." She provides her principals, for instance, with a detailed road map of what should be taught in every subject, in every grade, including specific skills of the week in reading and focus on a genre of literature every month."

Of course, if you talk to teachers you get a different picture, pointing to Region 5 as not being much different than the rest of the city - lots of test prep and rigidity.

The Times went on to praise Cashin for going against the grain of BloomKlein by preferring traditionally trained principals over Leadership Academy grads and by cooperating with the UFT - the UFT charter schools have space in Region 5. And note who will be doing the training in the Knowledge Network - UFT Teacher Centers, (proving the UFT IS a business.) The Times emphasized how few of the schools in Region 5 signed up for Klein's Empowerment schools, his baby.

Despite all the praise, Cashin had the least number of schools sign up with the Knowledge Network, gathering only 7%, while Region 3 Queens Superintendent Judy Chin, got 27%. Chin has been portrayed as the anti-Cashin because she has shown a lot of flexibility in dealing with the schools. Most of Cashin's schools came from Brooklyn (55) and only 35 from Queens. "You have to be kind to people," Cashin said in the Times article. "If people feel they don't have a voice, they are going to strike back at some point." Hmmm!

Talking to some teachers, they said basically about the Cashin program, "been there, done that." Overly rigid programs quickly lead to boredom on the part of teachers and kids.

Cashin fans Stern and Ravitch have been amongst BloomKlein's strongest critics, so there's certainly some interesting stuff lurking beneath. But worry not! You have Uncle Normie to explain it all to you.

In the Times article, there were signs of sniping at Cashin's record from some Tweedles. But she was still chosen as one of the four Region heads to lead a Learning Support Network (as chronicled in my alphabet city column a few weeks ago where I listed the acronyms of the millions of options offered to schools). When I attended a press conference at Tweed where Klein introduced the "winners" amongst all the organizations trying to get a piece of the action and told them they all they now could compete, Cashin and the others looked like they were making a hostage tape.

The BloomKlein team has received accolades from around the nation for disrupting the school system and basically ending the power of the UFT at the school level (but don't feel sorry for the union leaders, as they are doing very nicely leading an organization with a head but no body, while fueled by a massively regressive dues structure.) The withering criticism directed at BloomKlein coming from parents and educators here in NYC has generally been ignored nationally and by the local education press. Ravitch has criticized BloomKlein from A-Z as part of Class Size Matter's Leonie Haimson's wonderfully informative listserve, consisting of some of the sharpest parent/activists in the city. Led by Leonie, they have been on top of BloomKlein's every misstep.

But Ravitch's major focus has been on the BloomKlein supposed "progressive" curriculum. (Using the word "progressive" in the same sentence with any reference to anyone at Tweed takes the non-sequitur to new heights.)

Now keep following the bouncing ball. Ravitch's website states, "She led the federal effort to promote the creation of state and national academic standards." Some high stakes test resisters refer to Ravitch as "standardista" as they feel slavish devotion to a narrow range of standards help put us on the road to testing mania. Progressive educators are certainly not happy with the role she has played.

Now, what do I mean by "progressive" educators? Generally, that philosophy of education has come from the Bank Street/Teachers College at Columbia University, where the web site proclaims, "The Bank Street approach, also known as the 'developmental-interaction approach,' focuses on child-centered education and improving the quality of classroom instruction." It often includes non-traditional ways of teaching (the anti drill and kill), whole language, which has evolved into balanced literacy and various workshop models. To implement these approaches adequately one needs small class sizes and critics say that this approach only works with kids who are not struggling academically and is a disaster with kids who are behind.

Under former Chancellor Anthony Alvarado, Manhattan's tony District 2 and Park Slope's District 15 were the leading lights of this approach - not surprising looking at the neighborhoods. When anointed Chancellor, Klein met with Alvarado who was in San Diego destroying that school system and adopted Alvarado's program almost totally, including the Leadership Academy, which was run by Alvarado's then girlfriend and future wife at a quarter of a mil a year. The "progressive curriculum was then regressively forced down the throats of the entire school system by Klein's educational guru Diana Lam (who was forced out in disgrace), who was followed by true believer Carmen Farina, the former Superintendent of District 15 and then Region 8 after reorganization #1 (who was told by Tweedles she didn't have the skill set for the job). Can you guess that the Farina and Cashin educational philosophies were just a bit diametrically opposed? Farina has taken the wrath of critics who I call "The Phonics Police."

When the counter-revolution and the discrediting of the progressive curriculum which was implemented by Lam and Farina in such an insane manner takes place in the wake of BloomKlein's departure, we will never ever see it again. And it is critics like Stern and Ravitch (and our esteemed editor Howie Schwach) who are leading the attack, unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons. But I believe they will prevail.

Thus, enter, or re-enter, Kathleen Cashin, who still has influential people like former Chancellor Frank Macchiarola who was her guardian angel and should exert some behind- the-scenes influence in the power vacuum of BloomKlein's departure.

There are loyalists among some leftovers in her old District 22 (south/central Brooklyn), District 23 in Brownsville, plus some of the people she brought over to Region 5 with her from Brooklyn, many of whom did sign up with her more out of loyalty than to devotion to the concepts of the Knowledge Network. And fear of her relentless vindictiveness may have played just a tiny role.

As we move toward the end of BloomKlein, expect to see the Cashin lobby's voices, aided and abetted by the UFT's cozy relationship with her, grow louder and the possibility of Cashin as a future Chancellor will loom. Never a fan of Cashin, that I feel a sense of relief at the prospect of having a chancellor who actually taught and ran a school indicates the depth of alienation created by the non-educator Tweedles. I guess it's the old "devil you know" thing.

The Sterns and the Ravitches may see the educational value of the Knowledge Network as the reason, when in reality it will be all about politics, as usual.

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