Chapter Fifteen: Who’s Better, Who’s Best?
I’ve said repeatedly that although this book is a “memoir”, it’s not about me. It springs from my experience as a teacher in the Bronx between 2001 and 2011 but it is about the best and the brightest kids in that borough and what the Bloomberg / Klein “reforms” have done to them; it’s about what the newly structured schools in the Bronx have done to them; it’s about what they have in mind with the pretense that the common core standards are the answer to fundamental social issues.
To this end there appeared - again as I paste this book together during the summer of 2011 - another interesting article in the NY Post, this one headlined “’Myth’ of the elite city HS’s” (NY Post, Aug. 2, 2011, p. 6). Paragraph 2 of this article by Yoav Gonen, the educational reporter for the paper, reads:
The National Bureau of Economic Research found that students accepted at the city jewels, Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science high schools don’t score much better on the diploma-granting exams than smart kids at other public schools.
Note the not-so-smart use of the word “smart”.
We have to ask ourselves what point this NY Post is using this article to make, given the paper’s editorial position that the UFT is blocking all progress in improving the quality of education in the NYC schools because improving the schools somehow is antithetical to the job security of the teachers, particularly seniority rules. Maybe they are suggesting ever so subtly, though with an ax, that the elite teachers teaching the elite kids in these elite schools aren’t so elite after all and ought to be laid off first.
Who’s better, who’s best? Since we’ve been hearing this monotone mantra from Bloomberg, Klein, Black and people like the conservative columnist for the NY Post, Michael Goodwin  for more than a year, let’s stop for a moment to think about seniority and LIFO – “last in, first out”. LIFO means simply that if the budget dictates that cuts in employment have to be made, those most recently hired are the first to be laid off – “last in”. One of the things rarely mentioned is that the names of laid off workers go onto a list which is kept so that when the economic situation improves, these very people are the first to be hired back – “LOFI”, last out, first in, so to speak. Another thing rarely mentioned in teacher attacks is the fact when layoffs are made, they are made across the board and not directed at a single group.
The rationale against LIFO goes something like this: laying off teachers according to seniority means that good, young teachers get the boot before older, ineffective teachers who keep their jobs, benefits, retirement and so forth at a staggering cost to the city, as if people earning an average of $70,000 are busting the budget. Bloomberg / Klein attempt to bolster this bogus argument by claiming that it is the struggling schools in the struggling neighborhoods who would be hurt the most by LIFO layoffs because those schools have an inordinately high number of these good, young teachers. Bromides, as I’ve said elsewhere are easy to spout. Who wants to get rid of good teachers? Who wants to keep ineffective teachers? Bromides, however, fail to address the issues.
This argument for jettisoning LIFO can only be made during times of economic crisis when the economy is so bad that the mayor can claim a need for city job lay-offs. Layoffs have nothing to do with teaching. They have everything to do with balancing the budget. The city can only layoff city employees by declaring a “state of emergency”. When this happens, the city is mandated to lay off city employees across the board. In other words, Bloomberg / Klein never had the power to target teachers any more than they could have targeted cops, firemen or DC 37 members. This alone proves that Bloomberg / Klein were not interested in improving education by pushing for the end of LIFO. They may have been interested in saving money but the real reason for their push to exile LIFO was to dissolve seniority in the hopes that they could then have more direct control over their employees. You can’t run a union shop with the faux iron fist that they were showing to the media.
There is a reason that LIFO exists and has been the rule under dire economic conditions for decades. There is nothing arbitrary about LIFO, though that is how Bloomberg, Klein and others have frequently portrayed it. Economic crises are about survival. LIFO means that those with the least investment in their career are the first to go. That is deliberate and sensible, not arbitrary and irrational. Leaving aside the fact – something else lost in the rhetoric – that the attrition rate for teachers in the first 5 years approaches 50%. Up to half of these, good, energetic, young teachers don’t survive five years of teaching; therefore to imply that by laying off those with least seniority first means getting rid of the best teachers is an obfuscation if not and out and out lie. An irony that is probably lost on Bloomberg / Klein is that most young teachers who do survive – the good, energetic ones - will say that the only way they made it was with the help of an experienced teacher.
Layoffs are about economics. Leaving aside, as I started to say there – leaving aside the fact that the young are often the restless, the economic consequences of laying off a person who has 20 years invested in a career as compared to someone who has 6 months on the job ought to be obvious. The only reason these facts are not obvious is because they have been deliberately obscured in the “debate”. A person with 20 years invested in a career – any career – is likely to have a family, a home and to have grown roots in his/her community. Ripping the means of support from such a person has an obvious, rippling effect throughout the economy of his/her community. The loss of income may mean the loss of a home, the loss of a mortgage payment, the loss of local business, etc. Laying off someone who has not put down such roots and may even still be deciding on a career path has a much smaller negative impact on the economy. LIFO makes very good economic sense and once again, layoffs are about economics – no matter how often Bloomberg / Klein / Black / (likely) Walcott try to claim otherwise.
Furthermore there is a process in place for getting rid of “ineffective” teachers, something else that has gotten lost in the rhetorical bromide spouting. No one wants bad or ineffective workers in any work force. Everyone wants the best people for the job and that includes teachers. Teachers have to pick up the slack for the slackers and don’t appreciate that. A teacher who is frequently absent for dubious reasons does not endear him/herself to other teachers who have to make up and cover for that work. A teacher who doesn’t teach does a great disservice to the students and is a burden not only for the school but for the other teachers as well.
So there is a process by which such teachers can be terminated. If it is too cumbersome, perhaps ways to expedite the process can be found, just as happened recently when it came to speeding up the process of hearing the cases of “rubber room” teachers with pending charges. Our legal system is our legal system, however. Everyone is presumed innocent until found guilty. Due process may sometimes be frustrating but it is the only way to ensure justice.
Who’s better, who’s best? This question has been injected into the layoff problem where it doesn’t belong. The article mentioned above, however, suggests another way to insert this question into the educational situation. What do we make of the statement that the 6% of kids applying to the “elite” schools don’t do much better than the “smart” kids at other schools? Of course, if we applied the “S” in “S.M.A.R.T.” to either “much better” or “smart”, we’d fail to find precise definitions. At least we can assume that by “diploma-granting” is meant Regents since the Regents are the only exams required for graduation from NYC high schools. One might reasonably ask why the education reporter for a newspaper would use such imprecise and evasive language.
According to this article, the reason the “elite” kids don’t do as well as expected on the Regents is because classes in these elite schools are focused more on college prep than on Regents. The assumption is that these kids will have to trouble passing the relatively easy Regents exams. Schools like the ones in which I’ve taught do, indeed, focus heavily on Regents exams since these schools are evaluated not merely on their graduation rates, not merely on the percentage of students passing the Regents, but also on the percentage of students who simply show up for the test. This is a tacit admission that getting students to show up in the first place is one obstacle faced by many schools but, presumably, not faced by the elite schools. As I mentioned in an earlier chapter, the most spectacular example of successful failure was a student who didn’t graduate simply because he refused to show up for a test.
Of course, one of the results of this rule – all students must take the Regents – is that many who take the test are not prepared for the test, thus lowering the pass rate. As you can see, this is a lose – lose situation for the school / teacher. (See Chapter above: Kamikaze.) The school gets points because they kid shows up but loses them because the kid can’t pass the test. It’s worse than a lose – lose situation for the student who has to humiliate him/herself by conforming to blind rule aimed more at school administrators than at students. I’ve seen students who have been in the U.S. less than a year and speak virtually no English at all made to sit for an English Regents that they cannot reasonably be expected to pass – this in the name of conforming to a rule made by bureaucrats who have never been inside a school, let alone a classroom.
Close your eyes and put yourself in this position: you’ve just arrived in – pick a place with the oddest sounding language to you. You sit down at a desk. Someone you’ve never seen before walks into the room and reads an article of about 1,000 of these odd-sounding words and you understand 10% of these words or less. It takes about 10 minutes for this strange person to read these strange words to you. Then this person reads these same indecipherable words again. Then it’s read a third time. You’re supposed to be writing down notes in whatever language you can but the questions are going to be in this same new language. Now you’re faced with 8 multiple choice questions in this strange-sounding language. At least they no longer ask you to compose an essay in the unknown language after you’ve taken your guesses on the MC questions.
I might mention before it’s forgotten that the state of NY got rid of the essay for this part of the English Regents - Task I, the “listening-dictation” part, it’s called – last January with no notice. That’s right – without warning they changed the structure of the exam. Not only did they change the structure, they suddenly moved it up by 2 weeks. Instead of administering the ELA exam during the last week of Jan. 2011, it was moved up to Jan. 11 without warning. Students who had been preparing for one exam suddenly had a completely different test sprung on them. Teachers who were preparing students for one test suddenly had a completely different test sprung on them. How objective, I ask, were the “statistics” emanating from this poorly planned and executed scheme – unless the whole point was to raise the failure rate of both students and teachers? Kamikaze.
Who’s better, who’s best? What this has to do with the theme of this “memoir” ought to be obvious by now. In chapter 8 I discussed one class in detail. I said that at the end of the semester I could predict how the students would do a year hence on this revamped ELA Regents. A teacher can do this because after working with students day in and day out for 5 months, we know who the “smart” kids are – using “smart” as used in the NY Post article above – as I’ve used the word “good” throughout. These are the very kids that I’ve been talking about and advocating for (hopefully) in this entire narrative. These are the students who have no behavioral issues, haven’t been suspended, come to school every day and expect to work. They may not have reached that elite 6% that made it to the elite schools but these are elite kids who, as this study discovered, do almost as well on the Regents as those elite kids do.
These are also the forgotten kids. These are the kids who ought to be getting the bulk of the school system’s money and resources but who instead are forced to sit in classrooms and watch as those resources are wasted on those kids who need to be saved by Freedom Writer people. These are the kids who ought to be spending their time doing college prep work but who are corralled into Regents classes because they didn’t make the “elite” schools and so got stuck in schools where the bulk of the resources go school administrations with the aim of getting students who are not attending and who are not passing to come up to a 65 in their classes and on the Regents – never mind that a 65 is a D minus and almost worthless in any terms that might apply to a student’s future. These 65s only have value in the contrived world of the public rations presentation of schools to a voting public. Throwing away so much time, energy and money at the bottom certainly does make the schools more for the adults, mainly the politicians who are doling out the money, than for the kids.
I remember sitting through a lecture when I was in high school in Ohio in the late 60s. This lecture took place at a school assembly – they made us all sit through it. The lecture was given by a former drug addict. This former drug addict told us all about the dangers of drugs. He was an expert primarily because he had first hand knowledge of drug addiction. I guess he was supposed to scare us out of using drugs even though by virtue of his being there he was proof that you could sink into drug addiction and still not only survive and survive with some great stories to tell, you could come out with a sweet gig going around talking to kids. I didn’t then and never did have any interest whatsoever in drugs and neither did most of the kids at that school. We were forced to sit through something that might have had relevance for a few “at risk” kids but instead of targeting those kids, they used a scatter-shot approach and wasted our time and their money / resources. This is what is happening in this age of Bloomberg / Klein reform to the “smart” kids in schools all over the city where they are being made to sit through classes aimed at the bottom rather than at them.
The answer is obvious: more “elite” schools for these “smart” kids. Why is there a mere handful of “elite” schools? Why don’t we have enough to accommodate all of the “smart” kids? They deserve better; they don’t belong in reform school.
NOTE: This blog contains an excerpt of the first draft of this book.
 Michael Goodwin’s politically conservative column appears in the NY Post several times a week. Like Bloomberg / Klein, Goodwin has called for an end to LIFO. Unlike Bloomberg / Klein, Goodwin has made an admirable attempt to get the teachers’ side of this story. In his column he has printed teacher tales of things like principals forcing teachers to fudge grades in order to increase graduation rates. He has tried to open up the lines of communication between teachers and the new chancellor Walcott but most teachers are leery of speaking the truth to the DOE for fear of retribution. Most will only speak anonymously. I emailed to Goodwin the link to this “memoir”, which has my real name attached, but have not heard back yet.