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.