2009-04-10 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Lots Of Trouble In Bloomberg's DOE Paradise
Commentary By Howard Schwach

In this space last week, I wrote about Bloomberg the spin master, the illusionist who makes you believe that the Department of Education is well on its way to becoming a paradise, while, in reality, it is becoming a sinkhole for overblown contracts, principals who have no idea what they are doing, pedagogues who teach how to take a test rather than content area material and sycophants in the press who believe every word and press release that the mayor and his school minions spin out.

One of the major complaints about mayoral control of the schools is that he has cut the voice of parents completely out of the process.

While once there were school boards (as flawed as some of them were) where a local parent could catch the ear of somebody who was in a position of power, now we have community education councils that are elected by a small cadre of parents and which exist only to rubber stamp the decisions of the chancellor and the district superintendent.

They have no power and, in most districts, do not even have the ear of the superintendent.

Bloomberg wants to democratize the process, so he does what all bureaucrats do - turns to the Internet.

Follow the bouncing ball:

Each Community Education Council consists of 11 voting members, who must be parents, and one student nonvoting member. Two additional voting members are appointed by the borough president, but they must be residents of the district or operate a business in the district.

Under the new rules, any parent who wants to become a member of the CEC must do so by nominating him- or herself in an on-line process that dictates that he or she must have a computer or long-term access to a computer.

Those nominated are then chosen, again on-line, by three members of each of the PA/PTA organizations in the district.

So, in effect, school activists nominate themselves and are selected by a small number of other school activists. Not much room for parent input in that process.

Bloomberg and his chancellor, Joel Klein, will tell you that parents have the right to attend parent forums and listen to what the candidates say, and that is true. They also have the right to an on-line advisory vote, but that is of little consequence.

Since the great majority of parents can't vote, however, that is like bringing people to the buffet table and then telling them they cannot eat.

The problem, however, goes deeper.

At one time, a parent who was having a problem in a school could go first to a school board member, who could often solve the problem with a phone call.

I can't tell you how many times I saw one school board member or another in deep conversation with an angry parent at Waldbaum's or some other local store.

Failing help by a school board member, a parent could go to the district superintendent and be heard. Those superintendents supervised each principal, and had an impact on school processes.

Today, those district superintendents do not supervise anybody in any real sense. Some principals, called Empowerment Principals, report only to themselves. They are, effectively, free agents who can run roughshod over their staff and parents.

We have a few of those in this district.

Other principals report not to the superintendent, but to cohorts called School Support Organizations that are pegged to specific learning styles.

At one time, Kathy Cashin was the superintendent for Region Five. Now, she runs the balanced literacy cohort and a number of local school principals still report to her.

She does not, however, supervise them in the same way she did when she ran the region and had Local Instructional Supervisors assigned to each school.

This has "empowered" principals to blow off the rules and to do their own thing, but a great number of those empowered have no idea what they are doing, because they were never either teachers or assistant principals. For many, the school is a business, to be run the same way Far Rockaway High School graduate Bernie Madoff ran his business, and you all know what that means.

Rather, they were trained at the Tweed Hall principal's academy in what the mayor terms a "principal's boot camp."

Despite the boot camp, I still believe that you have to know the territory before you can become a leader, particularly an education leader.

One of the notions that killed American business was that anybody with an MBA can manage any business, and that is obviously not true.

I have seen that myself in the business world.

When Xerox bought American Education Publications, the publisher of Weekly Reader and other school publications, it brought in managers from the highly-successful machine division, managers who knew nothing about either publishing or education.

Within a year, they had virtually destroyed the circulation of the educational publications with a series of ruinous decisions that left teachers all over the nation scratching their heads and looking elsewhere in the educational marketplace for periodicals.

You have to know the territory.

The mayor and his chancellor now control the school board with an iron fist and there are no interlopers allowed. Not parents, not the UFT, not other politicians.

Every day, we hear horror stories about the Department of Education:

A student with a straight A average who also plays the piano regularly at Carnegie Hall who is refused admission to his top ten high schools;

A Handicapped kid left on a freezing school bus overnight;

The chancellor fundraising for his personal non-profit on city time;

Parents and students protesting the actions of a draconian and abusive principal;

Al Sharpton's National Action Network receiving a $500,000 donation as soon as the racial arsonist joined with Klein to reform the nation's schools;

Million dollar overruns on no-bid contracts;

It goes on and on. When will it stop?

When Bloomberg is gone and those who know about education once again take charge.

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