Friday, August 12, 2011

Chapter 21: Choice Schools

Chapter Twenty-One: Hook, Line and Sinker

Is it true that the more honest you are, the more easily hoodwinked you are?  Is it true that people who tell the truth are at a disadvantage when up against liars?  Is honesty really just naiveté?  Is kindness foolishness?  Is it true that nice guys finish last?
In another NY Post article during this summer of 2011, Kathleen Kernizan defends the “charter school option” for New York City kids.  Since she makes all the arguments she is meant to make and appeals to the very honest people she is meant to appeal to, this article is a good case study in the workings of disinformation.  Ms. Kernizan has swallowed the reform school fraud hook, line and sinker.  She took the bait and that’s why this article appears is the reputable Murdoch rag.  [Apologies to Mushnick.]
On page 27 of the Aug. 11, 2011 edition of the NY Post appears the headline: “Stop Attacking Schools That Shine”.  The sub-headline, which appears in the midst of the text reads: “The new test scores are more proof that the UFT / NAACP embrace of failure will only hold back thousands of children.”  As all good disinformation does, this states the exact opposite of the truth as if it were the truth.  One of the best ways to lie is to say it straight out with a straight face and shamelessly.  Better than that, however, is to get someone else to actually believe the lie first and then have that person tell it.  If you believe what you’re saying, are you lying?  That is the ultimate goal of disinformation – the true lie.
I don’t doubt Ms. Kernizan’s sincerity.  First of all she believes that there are “objective” statistics that demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that charter schools outperform what she describes as “local (zoned) schools”.  Here’s what she says – and what better person can you get to tell your lie than a mother with a small daughter:

“When I looked at the schools my daughter could attend in central Brooklyn, I chose Leadership Prep Ocean Hill Charter School because it seemed to offer a far superior education than our local (‘zoned’) school.”  [me – note that the word “Charter” appears to be part of the actual name of this faux prep school – “believe me” when I say that this is a PREP school!]

What convinced Ms. Kernizan of this were a couple of basic statistics: this charter school claimed that 60% of its 3rd graders were reading at grade level (compared to 44% citywide) and that 91% of those kids were “on track” in math (compared to 57% citywide).  Statistics, of course, never lie, especially objective ones, but assuming that these claims were valid and that it’s true that her local “zoned” school was doing even worse that the city average, as she says, then the “choice” was certainly clear.  Who wouldn’t have made that choice?
What makes these statistics far from “objective”, of course, is that they compare 2 different demographics.  By definition a ‘local zoned school’ serves the kids in the neighborhood and serves all of the kids in the neighborhood, not merely the ones whose mothers are taking them around to find out where the best results are found.  The very fact that Ms. Kernizan was involved in her daughter’s choice of schools sets her child apart for a large percentage of the kids attending the local school, where as many as 40% of the students have no adult support at home at all.  It is certainly true that parental involvement is one of the primary factors in the academic success of kids.  It is equally true that lack of parental support is harmful, although there are plenty of exceptions – kids who succeed purely on their own, sometimes in spite of their home environment.
But we’re talking statistically here and the statistics are the bait.  It’s easy to show that one school outperforms another when you are controlling who gets into each school and when you’re controlling the gathering, collating and disseminating of the statistics and when you’ve got expensive PR staffs to spin things in your direction for the media that you control.
“Hey, that’s not fair!  Just because the mayor is a billionaire and owns radio and t.v. stations doesn’t mean he’s controlling the flow of information.”
“Didn’t he choose a woman with a publishing background as his new chancellor?  Coincidence?”
Thankfully that was an utter failure but getting back to Mr. Kernizan and her defense of the people who are using her, the fact is that even statistically, as far as that goes, overall the charter schools in NYC so far have only done marginally better than the local schools at best – well within the margin of error or should we say the margin of spin control?  Even if this “Leadership Prep Ocean Hill Charter School” is doing as well as it claims, many of the 124 charters schools in the city now are struggling in the same ways that regular public schools struggle.
The UFT isn’t against the idea of providing the best school for every child or choice and neither is the NAACP.  This is another big gulp for Ms. Kernizan.  These organizations simply refuse to accept the discussion as it is being framed by the powerful Washington education establishment, led by a man, Arne Duncan, who, like Klein and Black, never spent time in a public school.  Their bogus PR spin tries to get us to accept the premise that more charter schools means more choice and fewer charters means less choice.  That is their argument and it is another red herring.  To accept that is to fall into their trap.  If you accept this, you are hooked into the real purpose of charter schools.
The real purpose is not to give parents choices but rather to create a second tier school system above the public schools, paid for with tax money, and to break the UFT and every other union.  In other words, they want to get their hands into the pockets of some of the last unionized U.S. workers and use tax money to pay for their own kids’ “prep” school educations.  Worst of all they want to turn the last great American socialist experiment, the most successful one, the one that created the middle class as we know it – I mean public education, of course – they want to turn it into another for-profit business and we know who is going to be getting those profits, all of which will be subsidized by us.  After sucking all the money out of the middle class mortgage, this is about all that is left for them to loot.
As an Ocean Hill parent, Ms. Kernizan, is this what you really want?
Another thing that ought to be obvious: there are many ways to create better schools within the public school system.  You don’t need the new layer of private bureaucracy that charter schools bring.  At the moment, more charters may mean more choice for some but the organizations like the UFT and the NAACP are looking at the entire school system, every mother and child, not just Ms. Kernizan and her daughter.  What’s needed is access to choice for every student / family.  Charter schools are not that now and do not mean to be that.  Look at the extent to which Ms. Kernizan has digested the bait:

“Choosing a school is one of the most important decisions any parent makes – but in disadvantaged communities, the difference for a child’s future between a good school and a bad one can’t be underestimated.  I’ve never understood why the UFT – and especially the NAACP, an organization that, as a black woman, I’ve revered all my; life – would impose terrible schools on children who most need something better.

Let’s go line by line.  Choosing a school is, of course, very important.  This is one of the partial truths that is used to disguise the larger truth.  The difference between a good education and a bad one is important and more important for the more disadvantaged because it may be the one access to power for that group.  This is another partial truth used as a ruse.  Then comes the lie that these two partial truths are supposed to lead to – opposition to charters means opposition to choice.  It seems to make sense but it only makes a kind of no-other-choice sense if you rule out any other possibilities.  There are literally hundreds or thousands of other possibilities for creating choice within a public school system or more generally for improving the delivery of education and creating safe environments.  I’ve put forth my suggestion on that throughout this “memoir” and I’ll do it again at the end of this chapter.
Now there is another bogus conclusion to be drawn from this fraudulent discussion: organizations that are supposed to be for the disadvantaged are actually against the disadvantage; therefore you can’t believe anything that the UFT or the NAACP says anymore.   Even Ms. Kernizan, who has accepted their parameters for discussion, notices the great disconnect to the statement that the UFT and NAACP are “imposing” terrible schools on disadvantaged kids.  That’s obviously false but it’s one of the false conclusions you’re meant to draw once you accept their premises.  So now they’ve got her hooked into drawing conclusions that she knows can’t be true.  Ms. Kernizan has allowed them to frame the discussion for her.  Charter schools are the only way to provide choice.  Anyone opposed to charters schools is opposed to choice and is therefore “imposing” bad schools on kids.  The UFT and the NAACP, therefore, aren’t what they came to be.  Don’t forget that part of the hidden agenda is to undermine the UFT and all unions – get rid of them, in fact, so that the “free market” can lower wages, benefits, etc.
So of course, you don’t understand this, Ms. Kernizan.  You have not only accepted their bogus premises; you have tried to draw the bogus conclusion from these bogus premises – their conclusion.  You can’t understand nonsense.  Don’t you see, Ms. Kernizan, how they have baited you with the buzz word “choice” and led you on to the conclusion that they want you to reach?  Only by allowing the debate to be framed by “them”, whoever they are, does their bogus conclusion seem to fall into place.
I’ll tell you who they are.  They are those who can see that the middle class in America is disappearing and disappearing fast.  Most of the middle class has its eyes closed to this fact as they struggle to figure out how to catch up on that mortgage.  But the power of the bureaucracy and the power of the media are strong enough to delude us into thinking that these are the issues, that these are the problems, that these are the questions that need to be asked and that they have the answers – to their own questions!  Never mind that when you analyze their premises, they don’t add up.  They are the people who control the flow of money.  In this case they are the Washington education bureaucracy run by Arne Duncan but controlled by the people who put Duncan and Obama in power.  Those are the people framing the debate and they are powerful people, indeed.  Their power comes not from public education – most of them have elite Yale and Harvard educations – but from money.
The biggest lie here is that the only way to provide “choice” is the charter school system.  Not only is that not the only way to provide “choice”, that is not truly a “choice” at all because charter schools are not on the same playing field as public schools, don’t play by the same rules and don’t have the same goal of serving every child no matter what sort of problems the child brings to the school.  What would have happened to that kid who threw the desk in my classroom when he discovered that he’d missed the pizza if he’d done that in a real prep school, one that charges anywhere for $20,000 and up per kid per year?  Most likely he would have suffered the fate of Holden Caulfield.  If he’d been in a real prep school, he probably would have had access to a private therapist to help him cope with getting thrown out of school and wasting his parents’ money.  Charter schools aren’t real prep schools – yet.
It’s easy to see why they have chosen “choice” as their bait.  Who in America is opposed to choice?  We’re supposed to be free.  We’re supposed to be able to do whatever we want.  I can imagine that meeting of the National Governors Association ….  Offer choices, people grab at it.  If you don’t like this one, we’ve got another that you surely will like!  Get one free (for every one you buy)!  I’ll give you a check (refund in the mail if you fill out the paperwork) with each purchase!  So how do you hoodwink people about education?  (And yes, I’m probably using that word “hoodwink” because I just finished the Marable biography of Malcolm X.)  You pretend that anyone against YOUR plan is against CHOICE.  It is brilliant disinformation – these people are pros, you’ve got to admit.
The solution is obvious – track the public school system so that children are grouped in schools with other students performing at their level.  That would provide the choice that everyone is looking for – a school with a safe environment and effective teachers and students who reinforce positive habits and routines on one another for the high-functioning students.  That would provide various environments for the dysfunctional students where they could get the help they need and where they will not be able to obstruct the progress of the high-performing kids.  It is so obvious that this ought to be done, the fact that it isn’t being done ought to suggest to all of us that there is some underlying purpose or reason for not doing it - a hidden agenda, in other words.  They will never come out and say that they are trying to privatize education because they know very well that public education is the greatest of all American successes, which, as I’ve said, is the very reason that it is a threat to those with power.
What is wrong with privatizing education?  Just think of what we have today?  There is a private school system for the wealthy.  There is a public school system for the rests of us.  Traditionally all but the ultra-rich attend public schools.  The middle class has always been the “product” of public school education but the middle class is disappearing.  They know this; we don’t know it only because we dread it.  We can see it all around us every day, however, the disappearance of everything that was once considered “middle class”.  They’ve been destroying unions since the Reagan days.  They shifted private retirement plans into the stock market where it is rare that the average investor comes out ahead and the safest thing is to stay in a large group.  They’ve taken homes through the mortgage “crisis”.  We never really had medical coverage and we’ve got less now than ever.  They’re taking back Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and every other “entitlement”.  What else is this contrived recession about?
The charter school movement is a movement to create a third-world, two-tier society – them that got and them that don’t.  Charter schools will become the educational system for them that got but rather than paying for it themselves, as is the case now, the working class will be paying for it.  The working class will also be paying for their own public schools, too, of course.  There will be no in between.  How’s that for “choice”?
The way to divine a hidden purpose or motive is to stop allowing those with the agenda to frame the discussion.  Rather than accepting what they say, we ought to be thinking about what is not said and asking why it isn’t being said.  Why do they never speak of tracking the school system, for example?  Rather than try to answer their questions, we ought to be asking why they are asking these particular questions and thinking about the questions that are not being asked.  Most of all we cannot just accept what they say, especially when it comes in the form of “objective” statistics.  We have to notice when they’re comparing apples to oranges.  We have to start assuming that whatever they say, it’s at best only part of the truth, the part they use to disguise the whole truth.
If you’ve read any further in this “memoir”, you know that ultimately I’m in full agreement with Ms. Kernizan.  I agree that she ought to be able to send her high-functioning child – assuming that the kid is, of course – to a school of her peers, “peers” being other high-functioning students.  That should be what happens in the public school system.  It is what happens still in many public school systems across the country.  Students are tracked but with the possibility of changing tracks based on performance and behavior.  But that’s just one alternative.

Cut to the next meeting of the National Governors Association.

Gov. #1: Okay, let’s get this thing going.
Gov. #12: Great lap dance last night, huh.
Gov. #14: Yeah, yeah,
Gov. #12: Did you get your socks back?  He he.
Gov. #14: Yeah, they were under …. 
Gov. #1: All right, we’ve got business to conduct.  I assume that none of you saw the email my secretary sent out last week.
Gov. #43: Just tell us what we have to do.
Gov. #17: Did we take any more federal money?
Gov. #1: Yes, you all got “Race to the Top” money.
Gov. #32: What did we promise for that?
Gov. #1: We promised to use it to set up charter schools.
Gov. 18: What’s that?
Gov. #1: You know, those schools where they use tax money to subsidize private companies.
Gov. #26: Oh, like real estate.
Gov. #33: Like oil.
Gov. #41: Like agriculture.
Gov. #36: Like mining.
Gov. #1: Yes, yes, it’s the same thing.
Gov. #12: There’s a lot money in kids – I must have stuffed two hundred ….
Gov. #1: Okay, okay.  Anyway, we’re committed to using this federal money to set up these sort of private charter schools.
Gov. #25: So let’s do it.
Gov. #1: Well, that’s easier said than done.
Gov. #2: Why’s that?
Gov #1: Well, you know, we have to give them money that’s supposed to be for public schools.
Gov. #19: So?
Gov. #1: Just think about it for a second.  The more money we give to charter schools, the less we have for public schools.
Gov. #19: What’s wrong with that?
Gov. #1: Nothing, but people won’t go for it.
Gov. #27: Why not?
Gov. #39: Where’s the poll?
Gov. #1: Well, you know, most people think public education is good.
Gov. #27: Oh, right.
Gov. #1: So the PR people are telling us to come up with some excuse to give this money to charter schools.
Gov. #40: Like what?
Gov. #1: You know, something they’ll buy.
Gov. #9: You mean like lottery tickets?
Gov. #1: Not buy – would you wake up Gov. #8.  I mean, believe.  We’ve got to come up with something to convince them that we shouldn’t be giving so much money to public schools.
Gov. #46: Are they really going to check up on this?  Can’t we just dump the money into one of the slush funds?
Gov. #1: Listen, Hack, didn’t Acme Prep Schools, Ltd. underwrite your last campaign?
Gov. #46: Oh, yeah, I forgot about that.
Gov. #1: They’ve got a lot invested in this.  They want their cut.
Gov. #7: Not to mention Schools ‘R Us.
Gov. #15: Bob’s Schools.
Gov. #37: Schools for Dummies.
Gov. #44: Aunt Betty’s Can’t Miss Institutes for Pre-school Achievement.
Gov. #29: Jimmy’s Discount Prep Schools.
Gov. #22: The 99 Cent Academies.
Gov. #1: Right, a lot of people are in this and they expect a return on their investments in or campaigns.  So we have to start funneling them some money.
Gov. #40: Right, those school lobbyists are in my hair every day.
Gov. #34: But this is all legal, right?  I’ve already got three commissions on my ass.
Gov. #1: Not only legal, it’s illegal not to do it.
Gov. #42: So the feds gave us money to pay back our contributors?  Nice.
Gov. #1: Yeah, it’s a sweet deal but we’ve got to do our part.
Gov. #28: What’s that?
Gov. #1: I told you.  We have to come up with some excuse, I mean, some good reason to give this money to our buddies, I mean, you know, the education people.
Gov. #11; Well, we could do what oil does, give them a tax break.
Gov. #34: The Education Depletion Allowance.
Gov. #1: Not bad, pretty good.
Gov. #36: Yeah, since everybody forgets everything they learn, there’s your depletion right there.
Gov. #1: Sounds legit to me.
Gov. #39: Where’s the poll?
Gov. #2: But I thought we were talking about money in the bank, not write-offs and accounting gimmicks.
Gov. #1: Oh, yeah.
Gov. #2: Didn’t you say the feds gave us some money for something?
Gov. #1: Right, we’re talking about money we have to get to these private education people.
Gov. #19: [To his secretary] Make a note of that Education Depletion thing.  Maybe we can do something else with that.
Gov. #21: What money?
Gov. #1: I told you.  We all took money to use for private schools.
Gov. #21: You mean we’re supposed to give tax money to private schools?
Gov. #1: That’s what I’ve been saying!
Gov. #43: Okay, so?
Gov. #1: So we need to sell the idea.
Gov. #17: So let’s just call it “smart” money.  You know, “S” is for scholarships and so forth.
Gov. #12 “A” for nice ass.
Gov.. #1: Hey, you might be onto something.  It seems to me I heard something about that.  I think the PR people like that word “smart”.
Gov. #35: Didn’t we already do that?
Gov. #18: What?
Gov. #35: Use that word “smart” for something.
Gov. #1: What are you talking about?
Gov. #8:            Yeah, we used that last time.
Gov. #12:            How would you know?
Gov. #8:            I was there.
Gov. #12:            How many totalitarians did you have last night?  He he.
Gov. #8:            I knew where Bill’s socks were.
Gov. #1:            Wait, let’s have the stenographer read back the minutes from the last meeting.
Stenographer:            Okay, resolved:
1.  The word “smart” is to be used in the marketing campaign for NBLC.
2.  The word “smart” will be applied to the word “goal”.
3.  The word “smart” will be used as an acronym.
4.  The letter “S” will stand for “surreal”.
5.  The letter “M” will stand for “magic”.
6.  The letter “A” will stand for “ABCs”.
7.  The letter “R” will stand for “repercussions”.
8.  The letter “T” will stand for “pterodactyl”.  Did they ever do anything about that?
Gov. #1:            About what?
Stenographer:            You know, pterodactyl.
Gov. #1:            What about it?
Stenographer:            Well, it doesn’t start with a “T”.
Gov. #1:            Really?
Stenographer:            It starts with a “P”.
Gov. #1:            No kidding.
Gov. #47:            Who cares what it starts with.  Can we get back to this private school give-away thing.  It’s almost nine o’clock already.
Gov. #1:            Good idea.  Keep thinking.  “Smart” is out.  We need something else.
Gov. #48: For what?
Gov. #1: To convince voters that it’s good to cut back on public education.
Gov. #9: Why don’t we do what I always do when I have to cut back on some popular entitlement?  Why don’t we call it a “choice cut”?  That’ll get their mouths watering and they’ll forget that they’re being shafted.
Gov. #1: What the hell does that have to do with education?
Gov. #9: I don’t know.  I was really just thinking of lunch.
Gov. #10: Hey, I like that.
Gov. #9: Me, too.  I move we choose to go to lunch.
Gov. #10: I mean that word “choice”.  That’s almost as good as “smart”, isn’t it?  You know, “choice meat, choice school” – same thing.
Gov. #1: Not, bad, maybe you’re onto something.
Gov. #7: Why don’t we get them to change the name from “charter” school to “choice” school.
Gov. #1: Pretty good.
Gov. #7: Who would object to giving money to a “choice” school?
Gov. #39: Where’s the poll?
Gov. #44: So we just say that this money is ticketed for choice schools and they’ll just figure that we’re giving it to the good schools.
Gov. #31: I like that.
Gov. #1: Pretty good.  What do you say?  All for “choice” cuts, er, schools.
                       [48 ayes]
Gov. #1: Okay so let’s see.  We’re going to start funding Choice Schools run by Jimmy’s and Bob’s and so forth.
Gov. #3: But don’t these Choice Schools actually have charters?
Gov. #1: Good question.  Anyone know that?
                       [Governors scratch their heads.]
Gov. 47: What’s the difference?  We’ll just get the PR people to shove this down everyone’s throat.  If you want the money, you call it a “Choice School”.  That’s all.
Gov. #46: Acme Choice Prep Schools – they’ll go for that, I think.
Gov. 12: If it sounds like a choice cut of meat, it’ll be a piece of cake.
Gov. #47: Right, that’s their problem.  That’s what they do.
Gov. #39: Where’s the poll?
Gov. #9: Hello!  It’s nine-thirty.  I thought there was a motion on the floor.
Gov. #8: What?
Gov. #1: What was that?
Gov. #9: I moved we adjourn for a choice lunch ten minutes ago.
Gov. #12: Seconded.
Gov. #1: All in favor.
                       [48 ayes]
Gov. #1 Let’s get out of here.


NOTE: This blog contains an excerpt of the first draft of this book.


Chapter 18: Bronx Kids Sacrificed in Unholy Rite!

 Chapter Eighteen: Sacrificial Lambs

“Mr. Haverstock, what are you trying to do?  Ruin my grade?”
Here is how the best students in the Bronx are being sacrificed as a means of destroying the public school system altogether.  The plan is to get rid of public education and replace it with a system of private schools.  Charter schools are the “missing link” in this process.  They masquerade as public schools but they are not public schools.  They are a ruse to distract us from the reality all around us, the move toward privatizing public education.  If you are not prepared to consider this possibility, stop reading here.
The two-pronged assault on public education comes in the guise, of course, of pedagogy and methodology.  One prong is known as “differentiated instruction”; the other prong is known as the “workshop model”.  Together these semi-legitimate concepts are being used to justify and rationalize the sacrifice of the best students in schools like those in which I’ve taught and there are many such schools.  Over the past 10 years these two prongs, as I call them, have become a virtual mandate to all teachers and they are wielded against teachers as deceptively as they are wielded against students.
“Differentiated instruction” means teaching each individual student at his/her own level.  The need to do this is as obvious as the need for a goal to be “specific” and “measurable”.  In a classroom with reading levels that vary from 2nd grade to 12th, for example, the teacher is expected to give each student work appropriate to that student’s level of ability while teaching the same lesson to the entire class.  An English teacher can assign texts at each student’s level in order to move them forward from wherever they are.  Nevertheless, they all have to reach the level of the same test, the Regents.  Some of these Regents come at the end of freshman year, usually U.S. History, algebra and a science test.  Others come during or at the end of the next 3 years.  The English Regents usually arrives sometime after sophomore year.
Differentiating instruction in a math class is more complicated than in English.  Since students cannot progress without learning basic concepts, if the understanding of these concepts is not consistent among the students, it is impossible for a math teacher to teach the same lesson to an entire class.  Nevertheless, they all have to reach the level of the same test, sometimes in a single year but at least by the end of four years of highs school since high schools are rated and graded on Regents pass rates and graduation rates.
It may not be in the best interest of the student to attempt to move him/her through 3 years of work in one semester but it is often in the best interest of the school to do that, especially if the semester in question is the student’s 8th and he/she still hasn’t accumulated enough credits to graduate.  Hence during the summer of 2011 there have been many stories of various ways of getting around the accumulation of credits.  I recently read about a school where students were allowed to go on line to look up answers to tests while taking the test.  This would have been strictly to increase the number of students gaining credits in order to increase the graduation rate.
For many the one-room schoolhouse is a quaint reminder of days long gone.  Imagine, at one time they only had one teacher for an entire town; they only had one small school building for the entire town; they had no choice but to bring all students together.  The teacher had no choice but to differentiate among 1st graders and 6th or 8th graders in the same room.  It was a quaint idea brought about by dire necessity.  Today this same one-room schoolhouse approach is going on in schools all over the city, justified and rationalized by the education shills preaching the “concept” of differentiated instruction, most of them unaware of what they are being used for.
The necessity for this modern version of the one-room schoolhouse, however, has nothing to do with lack of teachers or school buildings and everything to do with the necessity of creating failure in the public school system.  How often are charter schools touted as out-performing regular public schools?  How often is it admitted that these “objective” statistics are culled from groups of students who are screened for entrance into these schools and therefore do not resemble the demographics of the populations of the regular public schools?  No wonder they need so many data analysts.  It’s no easy task creating a specific, agenda-defined illusion for such a mass of numbers.
The 2nd prong of this attack on public education is called “the workshop model”.  This is meant to replace the outdated “chalk and talk” method of teaching.  “Chalk and talk” is where the teacher lectures, writes notes on the board, refers to the text as students follow along and expects students to mostly listen, think and reflect, usually through written homework assignments.  Homework is critical to the “chalk and talk” method because most class time is taken up by the teacher.  The teacher spends class time explaining, instructing, modeling and at times encouraging discussion.  A homework assignment then is meant to give students more practice for the skill that was the subject of the lesson or more in depth reading and understanding of content.
A high percentage of students in schools like those in which I’ve taught, however, do not do homework.  The breakdown is similar to the breakdown I’ve made repeatedly throughout these pages.  There is about 30% who will do homework.  There is 30 – 40% who will do no homework under any circumstances and most of these do little or no class work.  Then there is the middle group, 30% - 40%, who will go either way.  If the do-nothings capture the imagination of this middle group, then the teacher is faced with up to 70% of the class homework-less.  If homework is essential to reaching the goals of the curriculum, this creates a serious problem.
Another problem with the “chalk and talk” method of presenting a lesson is that students are easily bored and distracted.  I like to put up “stop day dreaming” signs around the room.  I place them as high up on the walls as possible.  Above windows is a good spot.  They’re funny but if anything they probably encourage the daydreaming that gets them noticed in the first place.  Hyperactivity doesn’t respond to this; short attention spans pass over it with as much reflection as a hummingbird might give it.  It is certainly true that the attention span of the average Bronx student in 2011 is very short and I don’t doubt that our quick-cut advertising is part of the vicious cycle that has perpetuated and intensified this.  Movies, t.v., even the passing of an advertisement in a magazine or passing taxi cab – these all contribute to shortened attention spans even as they are also a reaction to it.  We live in a very fast-paced world.
Much has been made of ADD and ADHD but the real problem is the 30 – 40% of students who cannot function in a conventional classroom.  The problems with this group go way beyond known disorders.  ADD is a condition that a person can learn how to deal with.  If you know you’ve got a short attention span, you compensate for it if you have a goal that you need to reach.  ADD and ADHD are nothing new.  People my age can remember the students we knew who suffered from them before they were characterized as such.  We can remember how they dealt with their “issues” rather than use them as an excuse for failure.
The use of these as excuses for poor behavior is relatively new.  However most of the disruptive behavior that I’ve seen goes way beyond ADD or ADHD.  Now there is something called ODD.  This comes closer to explaining the sort of sudden, uncontrollable outbursts of emotion that we see.  Even if it is an explanation for something going on internally, however, it is not an excuse for such a student to be placed in a classroom where 30% of the students are functioning normally, can have no positive effect on people exhibiting these symptoms and end up as the victims of these emotionally disturbed people.
So with chalk and talk deemed outdated or too boring or too or ineffectual, the workshop model has replaced it in spite of research that shows that students actually learn better through direct teacher-centered instruction rather than through “cooperative”, student-centered models like the one that is the 2nd prong of the attack on the best students, the “workshop” model.  The workshop model calls for the teacher to make a brief “mini-lesson”.  This is an abbreviated chalk and talk presentation, no more than about 10 minutes of a 50-minute class. The emphasis is on modeling rather than explaining.  The teacher models a skill or a process and then quickly turns the work over to the students.  The students are arranged into small groups – the larger classroom is divided into smaller workshops.  In these smaller groups students practice whatever it was that the teacher modeled during the mini-lesson. The 30% of functioning students are expected to have understood the mini-lesson.  These high-functioning students are then expected to “re-teach” what they learned from the mini-lesson to the rest of the group whose inability to focus prevented them from learning it the first time around.
Creating the groups is an important part of this approach.  Groups usually consist of 4 – 6 students each.  The teacher might group students by reading or math level, according to behavioral characteristics or by taking second language problems into consideration.  Second language learners might be mixed in with native speakers, for example, or they might be put together so that they can discuss the topic in their on language.  Reading levels might be mixed in order to expose the weaker readers to the stronger ones and so forth.  These decisions are up to the teacher who then spends the bulk of class time going from group to group giving help as needed, doing small group instruction, and ensuring accountability.  “Accountability” is ensuring that learning is taking place.  That is, the teacher makes sure that each group is on task and that the conversations that are happening in each group are “accountable” and have more to do with the topic at hand than with Justin Bieber, Beyonce or last night’s basketball game.  As a closing some sort of writing assignment is usually recommended both to increase literacy across the curriculum as well as for accountability purposes.
Pedagogically the workshop method is justified in various ways.  It is a way of encouraging teamwork, something that is said to be very important in the workplace.  It is a way of encouraging independent and creative thinking because students spend most of the group work time without direct oversight from the teacher, who is making the rounds of all 4 or 5 or 6 groups in the room.  It is up to the groups and the individuals in the group, who are assigned roles like discussion leader, presenter, time keeper, scribe, and so forth, to figure things out for themselves before resorting to the teacher.  In theory it is a way of focusing the attention of students who have difficulty listening to a teacher’s “chalk and talk” on academic work.  In practice, of course, it is often a way for the non-working students to ride the coattails of the working students.  The hope is that in doing so, something will be learned.
Of course, the workshop model ultimately is predicated on – as is the chalk and talk method – the students’ ability to stay on task for 45 or 90 minutes.  The 30% of functional students in the typical Bronx classroom are as comfortable with chalk and talk as they are with the workshop model and for them it’s nice to vary things some to give the class a bit of unpredictability in order to avoid the rut of the routine.  Establishing routines, however, is very important.  It is important for the students to know generally what to expect and what is expected of them.
The 30% to 40% of dysfunction students are as uncomfortable with the workshop model as they are with chalk and talk.  The problems experienced by this group are not addressed by routines, methodology, standards, lesson plan formats or even visits to the dean’s office.  If a student is unable to control his/her own behavior, nothing in the structure of the class or in the teacher’s behavior will address that.  In the minds of many in this group, the workshop model is nothing more than legalized cheating.
“You mean, we present together?”
“Yes, you present as a group.”
“You mean I get to turn in the same work as our group leader?”
“Yes, you get to turn in the same work as everyone else in your group.”
“You mean, I can … copy?”
“No, you’re working cooperatively.”
“Mr. Haverstock, what are you trying to do?  Ruin my grade?”
When one of my best students said this to me, I had to admit that something was drastically wrong.  I was attempting to follow recommended procedure with a 10th grade class – aim (focus of the lesson), “do now” (something relevant to get students started), mini-lesson, group work.  For this particular lesson I decided to use mixed-level groups.  That is, I decided to mix some of the high functioning students with some of the lower functioning students in terms of reading level.  (This was an English class.)  So I came into the class with groups that I’d written into the lesson plan with this purpose.
One of the “low” functioning students was actually non-functioning.  This student had done no work at all over the course of about 14 weeks.  He certainly suffered from ADHD at the very least but that was the least of his problems.  When I instructed him to sit with group two, he flatly refused to move his seat.  He was used to spending a great deal of class time in the hallways was not interested in being grouped with anyone.  He had problems with authority; he had problems with male authority figures; he had problems focusing in any situation that was larger than one-on-one.  His skills were so low that he frequently acted out as a ruse not so different from the sort of ruse used by Michelle Malkin as described in Chapter 16 – a way of diverting the teacher’s attention from the fact that he was reading at a 1st grade level in the 10th grade and he was overage for 10th grade.
This, by the way, is a common excuse for misbehaving students – they act out because they can’t do the work.  No doubt this is frequently true, although for the student in question this wasn’t the primary issue.  No doubt, it is good for the teacher to understand this about the student.  Understanding the problem, however, is not solving the problem.  Understanding that a student is acting out because he is well below grade level does not stop the student from acting out and wasting the time of the students who are not so far behind.
For pedagogues to justify mainstreaming dysfunctional students with functional students as a means exposing a student with weak skills to students with strong skills is to do a great disservice to those students with strong skills and that is the point of this chapter and this “memoir”.  We have done a great disservice to the best students that we have.  More than that – we have used this sort of pedagogical new-speak to rationalize sacrificing those very students in the name of … what?  What can be the justification for asking a high functioning student to spend his/her class time instructing, modeling, tutoring, helping – whatever you call it – a student with problems too serious to be addressed by teachers, let alone by other children?
I spent 5 minutes trying to get this student to sit in his assigned group – the best group in this particular class.  I was trying to help him, which was in my mind the purpose of this form of the workshop model.  I wanted this weak student to work with the stronger students, to expose him to their work ethic, their ability to focus and stay on task, their approach to solving problems independently and their ability to organize their team.  In short, I was trying to help this student for all of the right reasons, for all of the reasons preached by the pedagogues about the benefits of the workshop model.
Pedagogy, of course, meant nothing to this student.  He was ruled by the forces inside of him that forced him to confront authority and oppose it.  In his mind these actions gave him his identity.  These actions somehow gave him a sense of dignity.  I don’t know if this was clinically ODD; symptomatically it was.
I called in the dean.  Again he refused to change his seat.  The dean called in the A.P.  Again he refused to change his seat or perhaps even more did he refuse to budge from that seat for the higher the authority, the more successful the opposition.  This is another form of “successful failure”, a syndrome that I described in a previous chapter.  Finally when confronted with a teacher, a dean and an assistant principal who were as adamant about moving him as he was about not moving, he left the room.  This took up about 15 minutes of valuable class time.
At that moment I was l looking upon this unfortunate turn of events as a lost opportunity for this low-skilled student.  This student failed to take advantage of something that would have been highly beneficial to him.  It was his loss; therefore it was my loss and a loss to the class since we try to create a sense of community with classrooms, particularly with the “self-contained” classroom, the one where students spend the day in the same large group, in the same room.  It might even be described as a loss to the school since the school will be judged in part on this student’s ability be helped and to help himself.  If he doesn’t get the credit and doesn’t graduate, that will be another crack in the wall.
“Mr. Haverstock, what are you trying to do?  Ruin my grade?”  This question came to me at the end of that class.  It came from one of the best students in the class, one of the students in that top group to which I was trying to assign this low-functioning student.  It came from one of the leaders of the class, the one who every day set the best example for anyone who cared or was able to notice.  It came from the student whose name I had penciled in – for all these reasons - right next to the name of the student who had stormed out of the room, unable to grapple with a situation that didn’t fit into his sense of who he was, unable to overcome the forces aligned against him – benign as they were and with his best interests in mind – but also unable to overcome the forces within himself that were driving him to deliberately fail.  This was a spectacular case of successful failure.
“Mr. Haverstock, what are you trying to do?  Ruin my grade?”  This student did not have successful failure in mind; she had success and nothing but success in mind.  It came to me that I was looking at the situation from the bottom up rather than from the top down. As this student stood there in front of me with these words ringing in my ears, it came to me that the top down view was as legitimate as the bottom up view.  As this student turned and walked away from me because I couldn’t think of a meaningful response, it came to me that I had swallowed the reform school propaganda, which insists that that we look at things from the bottom up rather than from the top down.  I came to me that while I might have been trying to help this low-functioning student, at the same time I was trying to hurt the high-functioning one.
It wasn’t intentional but, as Paul Simon said, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.”  In trying to do good, I was also doing harm.  It was thoughtless.  Of course, it’s good to expose someone with poor work habits to someone with strong ones.  But at the same time the opposite isn’t merely bad, it’s wrong.  Why should it be the responsibility of the hard-working student to sacrifice his/her time to help someone else?  How can a teacher ask a student to take responsibility for other students?  How can a pedagogy be touted as the rule for methodology when it demands that one student give up his/her time and work and energy – time, work and energy that ought to be devoted to that student’s own progress and education?  The student who asked me that question was the most responsible kid in the class, the one who did the most work and always took care of herself and that was the only thing I could reasonably ask of that student or any other – that she do the best possible work she could and if she had time and energy left over because she worked faster and more thoughtfully than most, why shouldn’t that time left over be hers?  She earned it.  It should be for her, not to be sacrificed for someone else.
I might suggest that there is a tinge of Christianity in this – if I thought it was anything at all like that.  It is changing, particularly with the influx of African students, some of whom are Muslim, but most Bronx students are still Christian and many of them are fundamentalist or evangelical.  Sacrifice is not alien to them.  In fact, it is something that has been instilled in their worldviews both consciously and subliminally.  This may be the reason why it has not often occurred to them that the sacrifice of their own lives ought not to be asked of them.
But this is what this vicious, two-pronged attack on our best students does and it is driven by something far different from a religious – any religion – agenda.  It does, in fact, involve sacrifice – the sacrifice of the best students in the Bronx for the worst – but the agenda is purely secular.  Differentiated instruction and the workshop model – what are these but rationalizations for the crime – sin? – of demanding that students give up their own lives in order to help someone who may need it but is not even likely to appreciate it and certainly doesn’t deserve it, though it has nothing to do with forgiveness either?  What is this forked “methodology” but the excuse for the abdication of responsibility by an entire school system?  By what right do we take away a person’s time and work and give it to someone else?  By what right do we sit an exceptional child down with a perfect stranger with the expectation that this exceptional child will give up his or her time and thought and ideas and work for this perfect stranger who has no right to it and has done nothing to earn it?
So this is my answer, finally, to that’s student’s rhetorical question: “Mr. Haverstock, what are you trying to do?  Ruin my grade?”  It’s the well-adjusted, well-functioning students who are being led to the slaughter by a system that cares nothing for them and everything about making itself look good by raising graduation rates, i.e., getting semi-literate kids to score 65s and graduate even though a 65 means next to nothing and if it predicts anything, it predicts that the student is not “career or college ready”.  It’s the well-adjusted, high-functioning kids that are being led to slaughter by being placed into rooms where high percentage of their “peers” are dysfunctional and in desperate need for some of that work ethic and ability to focus and learn to rub off on them although this never happens.  Having spent a decade observing and encouraging this sort of miracle osmosis, I have very rarely seen anything like it happen.  Instead what I’ve seen are the well-adjusted, high-functioning students being used by desperate school administrators to keep their schools open and keep their jobs and a despicable school system to undermine the very concept of public education.
These are the questions we ought to be asking: How much of the time of these exceptional kids is wasted?  How much work that ought to be completed is actually completed?  How much work that ought to be completed isn’t even arrived at for these exceptional students?  How much further could these kids be going if they weren’t forced to waste their time on dysfunctional kids?  Why can’t a school system of over a million students group students according to their abilities so that they can progress at the quickest possible pace?  Why can’t the school system itself differentiate between these high-performing kids and the dysfunctional ones?  Why isn’t the NYC school system tracked from top to bottom in order to save these kids, in order to stop them from being the sacrificial lambs that they are now?
We’ve gone so far at this point as to reward the dysfunctional.  A well-meaning program in one school decided to try to raise the self-esteem of the do-nothing kids by having an awards ceremony for them.  Students who had not passed a single class, students who rarely came to school, students who came to school but rarely came to class, students who slept through class, students who refused to sit in an assigned seat, opting to do nothing in the back of the room, students who spent their class time throwing things around the room from paper balls to books and pencils, students who found it appropriate to inflate a condom and bounce it around the room like a beach ball at a ball game – these students were being “rewarded”.
What were the “awards”?  “Best effort”.  “Most improved”.  “Most likely”.  One of the more notorious of these award-winning students ran into a colleague known for his no-nonsense approach to instruction and learning.  The do-nothing student flashed his “award” and stuck out his hand, expecting to be congratulated for being rewarded for behavior that ought to have gotten him expelled on any number of accounts.  What do you think this colleague did?  What would you have done?
There is nothing wrong with trying to help people who need help – unless it comes at someone else’s expense or unless it is counterproductive in some way.  In the summer of 2011 the New York Yankees announced a program by which students who were truant from school would receive free tickets to ball games if they showed up at school some number of times.  [See chapter “Attendance Scam” for details on what it means to be “present” at school.]  This, of course, is akin to awarding a former drug addict with the “rewarding” career of counseling people at risk for this sort of successful failure.  Once again, they are shooting in the wrong direction.  Why not give these tickets to kids who have already shown a high attendance rate and then publicize this so that the truant kids can see that there is some reward that they can understand for going to school?  Is this scheme ultimately counterproductive, evidence that there really is no point in doing the right thing – that it’s better, in fact, to do the wrong thing because that is what gets rewarded?
How is it that the school system has come to this?  How can so many teachers be willing to sacrifice their best students for their worst?  In one sense it is again an injustice done by people who are “just doing my job”.  Teachers create their own lesson plans but they are observed delivering these lessons.  If the lessons don’t conform to what administrations want to see, the lesson is deemed unsatisfactory (“U”).  Once this happens, the administrator is in a position to dictate the format of the lesson plan.  In fact, it becomes the administrator’s duty and responsibility to guide the unsatisfactory teacher toward a more satisfactory outcome.  In this way the two prongs are wielded against teachers as well as against students.  They’re wielded against administrators as well.  When administrators themselves are being judged on their ability to institute recommendations made to them so they, too, are “just doing my job”.  This doesn’t mean that these administrators and teachers are not working hard.  The problem is that the job that they are working at is not in the best interest of the best students.
Thoughtlessness then is another reason for the sacrifice of the best students for the worst in the Bronx.  It’s easy to assume that the experts know what they’re talking about and there are experts a-plenty in the DOE.  There are consultants, partners, liaisons, coaches, support groups, workshops enough to keep you busy thinking about what they’re telling you rather than what you’re actually doing or what your students might be telling you.
One “expert” that comes to mind is a man who was brought in to coach a small group of teachers in methodology of “ramp up”.  Ramp up was and still is, though not pushed by the NYC DOE as it was a few years ago, an approach to literacy that emphasized independent and in-depth reading of relatively simple texts along with reflective writing and, of course, differentiated learning and the workshop model.  The school system was flooded with “Aussies”, as they were known – ramp up experts from Australia, though the program originated at the U. of Pittsburgh.
An Aussie came to coach us on how to institute this program.  He sat down with us and holding in his expert hands a gigantic three-ring folder that described in detail the ramp up program from another consultant group, America’s Choice.  Our conversation with him went something like this (I paraphrase):
“So, Mr. Aussie, when you taught ramp up ….”
“Actually,” he interrupted in that distinctive and startling accent, “I’ve never taught it myself.”
His candor seemed refreshing.
“Okay, then when you observed the program in classrooms ….”
“Actually, I’ve never observed it.”
This was a little surprising, given that he was the expert and was there to show us how it was done.  We had not taught it or observed it but we were willing to push ahead, though one colleague, known for his hot temper, was already starting to bubble over.
“Well, then,” we said, indicating the large folder at his fingertips, “when you read through the program ….”
“Actually,” he admitted, “I haven’t read it.”
(I am not kidding – this conversation took place.)
It was certainly the hot-tempered one of us who next said something like, “Well then what the hell are you doing here and why are Australians the supposed experts in this anyway?”
“Actually,” he said in what turned out to be his faux-Aussie accent – he’d married an Australian, “I’m from Des Moines.”
Now we find that tens of millions of “Race to the Top” dollars are going to consultants, analysts, measurement specialists and “innovation managers” (see Chapter 19).
Then, of course, another justification for the sacrifice of our best kids is the admitted benefit of differentiated instruction and the workshop model.  As methodologies there is nothing wrong with them.  However, as I’ve described, the insidious underlying premise of these is to use the talents of the best students not for those students themselves but in the interest of other, low-functioning or non-functioning students – a responsibility that ought not to be put on any kid, let alone the best kids who otherwise could be working ahead, doing SAT prep or working on their own special interests.
The UFT held a huge rally at Madison Square Garden a few years ago during the waning tenure of Randi Weingarten.  This was a big event starring Phoebe Snow and the G.E. Smith Band, among others.  At issue, of course, was the next UFT contract then being negotiated with the Bloomberg / Klein administration.  Union leaders from most of the unions with members associated with the DOE lined up to make the speeches to a very large crowd.
The speaker, however, whom I remember best was a young woman, a NYC high school student.  She had one point to make and she made it very well, as well as any of the professional speakers who preceded and followed her.  Her point was simply this: “I want to be taught by my teachers,” she said and again I paraphrase.  “I don’t go to school to be taught by students.  I want my teachers to teach me.”
She then specifically described the workshop model wherein she was being used as I tried to use the student who is the star of this chapter and therefore of this entire “memoir”.  This young woman at MSG, a student at one of the “elite” high schools, as I recall, was being used to teach weaker students.  Instead of her class time being used productively for herself and her needs, her education and her own learning, she was being forced to give it up so that she could be used to help others catch up.  This, she said, was not fair to her.  She was right.  She said it then but it took a more direct experience for me to fully grasp the real consequences of what is going on in the Bloomberg / Klein reform schools.
It’s time for the NYC school system to do the right thing by the best and the brightest.  It’s time to separate the wheat from the chaff.  It’s time to track the system so that students are placed with groups whose individuals can progress at similar paces.  It’s time for these best and brightest to be set free from the confines of differentiated instruction and the workshop model, the one-room schoolhouse, so that they can be taught by their teachers.  It’s time, too, to place dysfunctional students in environments where they can be helped rather than pretending that they are being well-served by being placed in general education classrooms where they cannot function and can only obstruct the progress of those who can.  The arrangement as it with its pedagogical, two-prong justifications is unfair to both groups but vastly more unfair to the best and the brightest because their time and lives are being literally stolen right out from under them by the very people who are supposed to have their best interests at heart.  It’s more than mere theft; it’s betrayal.
I’m reminded of Carl Schurz, the secretary of the interior during the 1870’s and ‘80s – simply because while writing and pasting together this “memoir” during the summer of 2011, I’ve also been reading for fun books like Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.  Schurz oversaw the final resolution to the Indian problem that had confronted American manifest destiny for the past 100 years or so.  By then Americans had realized that Indian territory wasn’t as worthless as we thought it was when we signed it over “in perpetuity” with laws and legal documentation to the Indians – all the land west of the Mississippi, that is.  Of course, we had yet to steal much of that land from Mexico.  Stealing, I guess, is as American as ramp up, the workshop model and apple pie.
Schuz sat in his office in Washington D.C. as reports of atrocities and massacres of Native Americans came in.  Suggestions and recommendations for kinder treatment also occasionally crossed his desk.  But rather than see for himself what was going on, Schurz stuck to the agenda, the one that he had vowed to pursue at all costs, which vow had brought him that nice suit that you see in the photographs as well as the related amenities of his exalted position in the U.S. government.  The agenda that he’d vowed to pursue to the bitter end, of course, was the final theft of all Indian land and the forced “civilizing” and “Christianizing” of the Natives, a hidden agenda that was never articulated to the victims but which by this time was clear to them nevertheless.
There is a hidden educational agenda, as I’ve described elsewhere in this “memoir”.  The agenda is to dismantle public education, thereby closing this last route to power for so many.  For many of us education has been our only access to power.  Education is empowering and it was for this very reason that even as America was committing genocide during the 19th century, there was also this very altruistic ideal of an educated population and the idea that democracy could only work if the people involved were educated.  There is no doubt about that.  Democracy demands education and education for all.
It is for this very reason that the state governors and education bureaucrats sit in their offices with their agenda, just as Schurz did.  If the sacrifice of children is required to accomplish this agenda, as the sacrifice of innumerable lives was deemed necessary to accomplish manifest destiny, then so be it.  How is it that a school system can come it this?  How is it that school system can sacrifice the very students it’s meant to educate?  By blindly following an agenda set by people who don’t know and don’t care to know about the harm they are causing, this is how it can be and that is how it is.

NOTE: This blog contains an excerpt of the first draft of this book.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Chapter 19: Them That Got

Chapter Nineteen: Wrong and Right

Wrong Question: Why is the NYC school system able to graduate only 61% of its students?
Right Question: Why are 39% of NYC students unable to take advantage of the golden opportunity for a free education?
We live in a society where expediency reigns.  Think only of the federal budget crisis taking place during this summer of 2011, for example.  Rather than face up to the problem, Obama and his congress elected to simply put the problem off for another year or two or five or ten.  Rather than do the right thing, they did the expedient, which is par for the course in politics, particularly the sort of survival politics that Obama is now playing.  The expedient is often the result of compromise – if I can’t get what I think is right, then neither can you.  Perhaps compromise is exalted for precisely this reason – it often leads to the expedient rather than to the right and in our society, expediency reigns.
Expediency supercedes the real question of right vs. wrong and the reason is perfectly obvious.  Very often doing the “right” thing requires sacrifice.  It might even require someone to give up something of what they have but our society is based on the premise that whatever you can take, you can keep until someone else takes it away from you – if they can acquire the power it would require and that is what this chapter and this story of sacrificing the best is really all about.  This is about getting and keeping, which is the law of our society, a sort of survival of the fittest law for private property.  Possession, as they say, is 90% of the law.  Expediency, we might add, is the judge and jury of such a law.
By now it ought to be obvious how this applies to the NYC school system, given that education is one of the few means of acquiring power, sometimes the only means.  The pen is mightier than the sword as long as we speak only in metaphorical terms.  In reality, of course, the sword, i.e., money, is always mightier unless overwhelmed by pure numbers.  Public education, of course, is about pure numbers and not hypothetically “objective” statistics.  Public education is about more people gaining more power.  For this reason it is loved by the many, loathed by the mighty.
Rather than ask the real question, we take the expedient route.  Instead of asking the right question, only the wrong question is asked.  Asking the right question would necessitate further very unpleasant questions and answers, questions like why is it that infant mortality death rates, drug addiction, crime, unemployment, substandard housing, rates of infections diseases – why is it that all of these things are coincidentally present in the very neighborhoods where the graduation rates tend to be the lowest?  Instead of admitting the obvious and asking the right question, we take the expedient route and ask why the schools are failing when it is perfectly clear that it is not the schools that are failing but something far, far larger in scale.  It is perfectly obvious that these problems are far larger than the “failing” school system.  It is perfectly obvious that a democratic institution set up to provide an environment for learning cannot and was never meant to deal with issues like family dysfunction, mental illness, emotional trauma, poverty, and the problems associated with single-parent families, as well as everything else mentioned in this paragraph.
Wrong question: Why is the school system failing?
Right questions: Why is society failing in certain neighborhoods and for certain demographic groups but not in others?  Why in the year 2011 is this failure spreading into demographic areas where it was rarely seen during the past 70 years?
Perhaps you thought I was joking when I described the imaginary conference of the 48 governors who so far have elected to take the expedient route of accepting NCLB “Race to the Top” money rather than ask the right questions that I’m asking for them in this chapter.  Perhaps you thought I was joking when I put these words into the mouth of Gov. #1 in chapter 11:

Can we get to the point here?  One of the things we have to do with this money is come up with a marketing plan.  We have to pretend that we took this money because it was in the best interest of the school children in our states.  Can’t you get that through your thick heads?  Bob, would you wake up Gov. 8?

If you thought it was a joke, consider the news that came along this summer about this very subject.  Again the education reporter for the NY Post, Yoav Gonen, reported the following on page 7 of the Aug. 8, 2011 edition of the paper in an article entitled “Educrats win Race to the Top”:

“The city’s plan for more than $255 million in federal Race to the Top funds has something for everyone – especially educrats, data analysts and consultants ….”

Gonen goes on to describe how tens of millions of dollars of this “Race to the Top” money goes not to children but rather to the DOE bureaucracy.  One might think that the city, fresh off the $700 million payroll swindle that came to light this summer – one might think that the city would take a closer look at the money it doles out to people like data analysts and consultants and “innovation managers”.

“The 32-page document calls for creating dozens of positions for midlevel managers … including $5 million to hire ‘network innovation managers’ [me – an oxymoron if ever I heard one] and ‘central innovation staff’ …. [me – ibid]

UFT president Michael Mulgrew is quoted in this article – and remember again that this is the Murdoch owned NY Post – the same place you find the ignorant diatribes of Michelle Malkin, one of which is described in detail in Chapter 16 – remember again, I say, that this information comes through the New York Post, a publication that grits its teeth as if it were in a dental chair whenever it is forced to say anything supportive of teachers.  Mulgrew had this to say about the use of this Race to the Top money:

“‘I see a lot of money going to figure out how to measure things …  I don’t see anything in here that’s for the kids.’”

Wrong question: How can we use student results to measure teacher performance?
Right question: How can we use student results to discover ways of helping successful students become even more successful as well as helping failing students change their direction?
We are now 2 years removed from that “timely” target date of 2013-14, the year in which no child will be left behind.  The graduation rate in the city crept up to its highest level ever in 2010 – 61%.  Now we find that there are also gains in both math and reading.  Despite the headline, “City’s test scores: Read ‘em and weep”, an article in the Aug. 9, 2011 NY Post actually reports gains in both reading and math scores in NYC’s middle schools.  Why should we “weep” over gains in student performance especially since these most recent tests are said to be tougher than the dumbed-down tests that Bloomberg / Klein were using up until last summer in order to claim bogus progress in their reform schools?  It was just after the revelations that the gains that Bloomberg / Klein had boasted were, in fact, illusions created through the “innovative” use of “objective” statistics – maybe those statistics were created by an “innovative statistics manager” – it was then, I say, that Klein bailed out – I thought that the captain was supposed to go down with the ship?
Why should we weep over gains?

“Data shows the percentage of city kids in grades 3 through 8 meeting the benchmarks climbed by 1.5 percentage points since last year in reading – to 43.9 percent – and by 3.3 percentage points in math – to 57.3 percent.”  (NY Post, Aug. 9, 2011, p. 2]

There were modest gains and yet the actual situation remains dismal.  On the other hand, an “objective” statistic might give pause for laughter rather than tears: if something less than 43.9% of students entering high school over the past 5 years were reading at grade level and yet 61% managed to graduate in 2010, then the high schools must have done something good, right?
Wrong question: What did the high schools do right?
Right question: What factors helped under-performing middle school children begin to function better in high school or what factors were holding them back in middle school?
I told a class of 10th grade kids once that I would have a bacon-egg-cheese sandwich waiting – nice and hot and fresh – right off the bodega grill - for anyone who showed up on the last day of class, a day on which there would be only clean-up work at best.  Usual attendance for that class was about 18 out of 28 and sure enough one of the LTA’s materialized.  He popped in for his sandwich and then disappeared again without so much as a thank you to his benefactor - me.
Wrong Question: Why did I give this kid breakfast (although I’ve asked myself this one)?
Right Question: In what way is this ungrateful behavior related to this student’s lack of motivation to graduate from high school?
Another time I was offering pizza on the day before Christmas break.  Typical attendance for that 9th grade class was about 22 out of 34 but, of course, attendance on the day before a long holiday traditionally was low.  There are traditions and there are traditions.  In that particular group there were about 14 who came every day and then another 8 or 10 or so that was some combination of the other 20 students, a common situation that wreaks havoc on instruction continuity and on group projects.  Still only a dozen showed up for the pizza.  The pizza disappeared within a matter of minutes.
One 17-year-old 9th grader who was always in school but rarely in class was not there during the few minutes it took for the rest of the kids to devour the pizza.  He walked in late only to discover several empty pizza boxes sitting on the front desk and his classmates looking relatively contented.  The sudden realization that his hallway meanderings had caused him to miss out on pizza was beyond his verbal capacity.  He screamed something that I could not interpret as belonging to either of the languages that I knew he spoke (but couldn’t write).  He picked up a desk as students ran for cover, bench pressed it above his head and hurled it into the wall, missing the window by several inches.  He then disappeared again into the hallway netherworld.  As students checked themselves for collateral damage and crept back to their seats, I picked up the tossed desk and set it back on its feet.
Wrong Questions: What disciplinary action did I take against this student (who had already been frequently and repeatedly subjected to every disciplinary action the school had to offer)?  How can teachers create a lesson or environment wherein this student can function better?
Right Questions: In what way does the behavior / performance of this student indicate the need for some other educational setting rather than a conventional classroom?  How is the assignment of a general education class inappropriate for this student?  How detrimental to the highly functioning students is the daily behavior of students like this?  Where can this student be placed in order to deal with the obvious emotional issues before being placed into a general education classroom?
Another time I was teaching a special education English class.  There were a dozen on the roster but I typically saw six in a small room with a paraprofessional present at all times.  One student in this group was more interested in the perplexing question of how one becomes a bum than in anything offered by the ELA curriculum.
“How do you become a bum?” he asked me on several occasions.
In going to and from school every day this student saw street people and it was worrisome to him.  Imagine that you are a 15-year-old with the world experience of a 15-year-old, i.e., with little historical or sociological knowledge, let alone enough knowledge to comprehend the intricate social, economic and personal patterns and problems that lead to homelessness.  This was something that I was at a loss to comprehend myself and could not explain in any meaningful way other than to say things like, “Sometimes people give up.”  Imagine then, too, that homelessness appears to be a common fate and that there doesn’t seem to be anything separating you from it.  Imagine that the one thing you do comprehend is that living on the street, having nowhere to sleep at night, no family and no way of nourishing yourself is a terrible condition to be in.
Of course, I insisted that such a fate would not be his as long as he stayed in school, studied and worked hard.  Of course, that was no answer to his question and we both knew it.  Imagine trying to focus on anything at all, let alone something as apparently meaningless in terms of staying off the street, as the difference between a fable and a myth – imagine trying to do well in school with these much, much larger questions and anxieties on your mind and in your heart.  He was asking the right question, the one with a very complicated answer.  The answer to that question would be a step toward making education more relevant to the patrons (students) than to the entrepreneurs (teachers, administrators, bureaucrats, politicians).
This thoughtful student was not involved in the incident that took place one day in that same room and might have suggested a further complicating factor in determining the genesis of homelessness.  There was one student in that class who was clearly emotionally disturbed and with a tendency toward violence.  He seemed to enjoy taunting other students.  He seemed to enjoy the possibility of violence, impending violence and creating such an atmosphere.  He had a long history of violent behavior and was mandated by his I.E.P. to have a one-on-one paraprofessional with him at all times.
I was well aware of this student’s history and tendencies but with no training in dealing with such sociopathic behavior, I mostly just hoped for the best, meaning that when the inevitable happened, I hoped it wasn’t during my class.  One day he made good on these attitudes by viciously attacking another student.  This took place right in front of me.  There was nothing about this other student that warranted such an attack but there was clearly some sort of antagonism created by something that I couldn’t fathom.  I could only observe it and hope for the best.  The best is not what I got.
By the time the paraprofessional had brought security into the room, the attacker had drawn blood from the other student.  He had knocked the other student to the floor, jumped on top of him and punched him several times in the face.  I can only compare it to the sudden, unexpected and yet not surprising attack of a pit bull.  Although I had attempted to intercede in other physical attacks, I stayed out of this one.  This student was clearly capable of violence far beyond my ability to damn it.  I waited for security.
Wrong Questions: Why didn’t I do more to help?  How can a new common core standard help this student perform better?
Right Question: Why are students with such histories placed in public school classrooms at all?  Why are students who have shown an inability to function in a conventional classroom nevertheless placed in such classrooms?  How can a situation that is detrimental for everyone involved be maintained and how can such a student’s performance reflect in any way on the teacher’s performance?
The worst thing I’ve seen in a Bronx high school is the stampede.  Bear in mind that the large old buildings that I’ve worked in are just that – large.  Hallways are the lengths of city blocks – long blocks in some cases.  To walk from one corner of the building to the other is to walk several city blocks sometimes.  I used to allow one hyperactive 9th grader to run laps in the hallway when it became obvious that he couldn’t sit for another minute and he did this.  He actually went out and ran a couple of laps around the building – easily quarter mile laps – and that helped dispel some of that nervous energy for a while.
Wrong questions: Where was hall security when this kid was running laps?  In what way can such behavior be measured academically?  What were you thinking?  He could have been hurt.  Were you, the teacher, ever reprimanded for allowing such inappropriate behavior?  (Answer – nope, though I’ve been reprimanded for many other things.  My file looks like J. Edgar Hoover’s dossier on Rock Hudson – rigidly thick and overflowing.)
Right question: How can we expect a hyperactive student to sit in the same seat in the same room all day long?
I never saw this particular kid in a stampede but then again the faces flashed by in such a blur that I couldn’t have identified him if he had been involved.  Yes, I’m using this word in its literal sense.  The first time I witnessed a student stampede, there was an announcement that came over the school intercom to lock the doors and keep students in the room even if the bell rang.  This I did and from inside the room we watched as hundreds of students – literally hundreds of students – went running in a group from one end of the school to the other, around the corner, and on down the next hallway.  Yes, they were running.  Where they were going I never heard or figured out.  What started the stampede was never made clear.  What those kids could possibly have been thinking was beyond my capacity to imagine.
Another time I was leading a group of about 15 9th graders to the library.  The entrance to the library was midway down one of these long hallways.  As we turned the corner onto that hallway, the stampede appeared – at the opposite end and heading for us.  There wasn’t time to run back to the room.  Some of the students ducked off to the side where they pressed their backs up against the walls.  Several were caught with me right in the middle of the hallway.  They stood behind me, single file, as the herd swept by.  Fortunately I’m over 6 feet tall.  The mass of students parted like the biblical Red Sea and flowed around us, leaving me with as helpless a feeling as I’ve ever felt.  As soon as the flood had subsided we ducked quickly into the library.
Wrong Questions: Why didn’t I interrupt this mass hysteria and write up referrals on everyone involved?  Where was security?  Why wasn’t the principal held responsible for such outrageous – not to mention dangerous – behavior?
Right Question: How can such behavior not occur in a school where thousands of students are congregated in situations that they perceive to be beneficial for others rather than for themselves?  How can we create environments that are beneficial and that meet the needs of individual students?  How can anyone think that it is possible to place well-functioning, studious kids in a classroom with completely dysfunctional, often emotionally disturbed and otherwise neglected or traumatized kids and expect anything but poor results for all?
That is, unless you are setting up a system that is designed to sacrifice these high performing students so that you can declare the entire public school system a failure in order to propose a new, privatized, “charter” school system.  (See Chapter 18: Sacrificial Lambs)
It was expedient for W. to announce in 2002 that by the year 2014 no child would be left behind.  It was expedient for his re-election campaign, especially considering that he would be long gone and out of sight by the time it became necessary to admit that the whole thing was a fraud from the start.  But that time is now upon us.  43.9% of middle school students in NYC are reading at grade level at the end of 2011.  In 3 years a 100% graduation rate is called for.  In 3 years, no child shall be left reading below grade level.  In 3 years no child shall be left performing below grade level in math, science and history.  In 3 years there will be no more hyperactive students needing to run a lap around the school, no more mass hysteria that causes kids to storm out of the classroom at the first indication of a fist fight in the hallway – and students are highly attuned to such indications.  In 3 years the serious social, economic and cultural problems that underlie that “low” graduation rate in NYC will all somehow be gone.  In 3 years the common core standards and the PARCC and other new tests will be here to measure and maintain the miracle of 100% success, to ensure that everyone of us is “above average”, something that Garrison Keillor long ago achieved in Lake Woe-be-gone.
Wrong Question: Why is the NYC school system able to graduate only 61% of its students?
Right Question: Why are 39% of NYC students unable to take advantage of the golden opportunity for a free education?
Here’s another right, related question, this one put to us by Ray Charles in Them That Got:

I’ve gotten down to my last pair of shoes
Can’t even win a dollar bet
Because them that’s got are them that gets
And I ain’t got nothin’ yet …

That old sayin’ – them that’s got are them that gets
Is something I can’t see.
If you gotta have something before you can get something –
How do you get your first is still a mystery to me.

The “smarter set”, of course, like smart phones and smart boards, are the way to be.  Here is the reason for asking the wrong question rather than the right one: public education is a dream and for many a dream come true.  In a capitalist society where capital is everything but few have it, education has been a crucial means for getting what only “them that got” are supposed to get and therein lies the rub.  Our society says that the individual is allowed – indeed, mandated to take what he can get and to keep what he already has.  Our very survival, as that student contemplating homelessness intuitively knew, depends on our ability to “get”.  Getting, however, requires power of some sort; likewise keeping requires retaining power and denying others access to power.
Public education is access to power and thus it is something that the “powers that be” cannot tolerate.  Public education is a particular threat because it is one of the very few means of access to power for the most powerless people in our society.  NYC has a billion-dollar mayor who “earned” his billion dollars playing by these rules of getting and maintaining control of the power to “get”.  He might tell you that if he did it, then so can you.  He might admit, however, that if everyone were a billionaire then being a billionaire would be no different from being an ordinary person, that if everyone were a billionaire, then no one would be and power would be equally distributed.  It would mean having no more power than anyone else.  Then again he might not admit this, given that he is part of the cabal that is maliciously trying to destroy this threat to their own status, this most democratic access to power – I mean, public education, of course.
Disinformation is the art of changing the subject.  Changing the subject becomes an art when the audience doesn’t realize that the subject has been changed.  Asking the wrong questions is one means of dis-informing people.  Pretending that the wrong question is the right one is one way to hide your true agenda.  Pretending, as Michelle Malkin did in the NY Post, that teacher tenure is the reason for low graduation rates is one such ruse, admittedly clumsy in the hands of such an obvious, inept dis-informant.  Pretending, as 48 states have, that a new set of standards will magically alter the landscape of public education is another obvious ruse to divert our attention from their real goal of dismantling the public education system in order to maintain power.  Taking Race to the Top money, as 48 governors have, and pretending that it is for the sake of the children even as they dole it out to their consultant and “innovative management” buddies is another such obvious and malicious ruse.  Hiring your friends, as Mayor Bloomberg did when he tried to pawn off his friend Cathie Black as an expert on managing a large school system, is another.  Going along with that, as Black did in accepting that absurd position with the bogus proclamation that she was someone who was “passionate” about public education, is another attempt to dis-inform us.  That one, of course, imploded almost immediately because it was so crudely and arrogantly perpetrated.  The subsequent appointment of someone who is the exact opposite of Cathie Black is the equivalent of the mayor saying, “Believe me.”  But we don’t believe him.  How could we?  How could anyone believe that anyone appointed by this mayor – no matter what his qualifications, not excluding his years of service to the mayor himself – after Cathie Black, how can we believe anything the mayor might ever say again about education?  Believe me, he says in so many words; this time I’m serious.
Meanwhile we’re being inundated with the wrong questions: how can we get rid of ineffective teachers; how can we use that 61% graduation rate against teachers; how can we get rid of the seniority rule in the UFT, the rule that is holding all those kids back; how can we use statistics to better measure things that are already well known; how can we arrange for the successful students to give up their own time and energy to help the failing students when all of their time ought to be devoted to their own educations?
Right Question: When do we put the best students together where they can learn at an accelerated rate while putting dysfunctional students in environments that will help them overcome the non-academic problems holding them back?

NOTE: The next draft will have many more true horror stories as well as some great success stories from the halls of NYC education.
NOTE: This blog contains an excerpt of the first draft of this book.