Chapter Twenty-Four: The Cohort Ponzi Scheme
“No,” she said, “I won’t do it.”
I was talking to one of my best students at the beginning of her junior year.
“Why won’t you?” I asked.
“Because I want to have a real high school experience.”
This was a student who had attended 9 different schools over the first 10 years of her academic career, grades 1 through 10. This was due mostly to financial circumstances beyond her family’s control but she had had enough. As a sophomore she had told her mother that she wanted to stay in one school during high school. By then they were settled for the 2nd or 3rd time in the Bronx. That was going to give her for the first time more than 2 years in the same school.
The school, however, wanted to cut short her high school career by graduating her in just 3 years.
“No,” she said, “I won’t do it,” and I was on her side.
Unfortunately, her “high school experience” was going to be in one of Bloomberg’s reform schools. For a good student looking for a good education this was bad news in a lot of ways. First, the administration wanted to move her out as quickly as possible and it was a matter of life or death for the school. Little did she know that by refusing to graduate in 3 years, she was refusing to invest in the Bloomberg cohort reform Ponzi and putting the future of the school in jeopardy.
In the Bloomberg reform schools, administrators have been turned into Ponzi schemers. They have a mandate to increase graduation rates from year to year. Failing to do so could land the school on any number of lists. There is the “SINI” list – “school in need of improvement”. There is the dreaded “SUR” list – “school under review”. The 33 schools threatened with closing at this moment – Jan. 2012 – are on this list. Ironically when the city lost $58 million in “race to the bottom” money because there is no agreement yet on a new method of teacher evaluation, the practical result was that the city didn’t have enough money to fail and close as many schools as Bloomberg wanted. No doubt this was the frustration bubbling out in Bloomberg’s “state of the city” address made from a Bronx school on Jan. 12, 2012 where he vowed to get rid of 1500 “bad” teachers at these 33 schools. This wish list increased to 1750 over the next couple of days and it must have been because Bloomberg knew he didn’t have enough money even to get rid of the 1500 on his original chopping block. Of course, in December he had ranted that he wanted to fire half of us. I imagine the conversation (purely fictional here) between Bloomberg and current schools chancellor Dennis Walcott before this “state of the city” address might have gone something like this: 
MB: Damn it, Dennis! Why can’t I say I’m going to fire half of those lazy bastards?
DW: Well, come on, Mike, you know that’s unrealistic.
MB: I know, I know, but how about something like 25 or 30 thousand of them?
DW: Mike ….
MB: Don’t we still have those programs running?
MB: You know, the odd fellows – what was it?
DW: The Fellowship Program? Yes, that’s still in place.
MB: Can’t we run 25, or 30,000 new teachers through that in the next couple of weeks?
DW: Well, Mike ….
MB: Think about it, Dennis. Then we’d have half of them on probation. We could get rid of half of them every 3 years when their tenure is coming up and keep the system flush with new, young, energetic kids who have never taught before.
DW: It’s going to take a little longer than 2 weeks to get there.
MB: What about that other one, you know, the illuminati one?
DW: You mean “Teach for America”?
MB: Yeah. Can’t we ramp that up?
DW: Well, you know, Mike, there are only so many Ivy Leaguers willing to waste, er, spend a couple of years doing public service.
MB: Can’t we offer them more money?
DW: Most of them are as rich as you.
MB: Damn it, Dennis, there must be something we can do. What if I just write a check for that $58 million we lost because of those union bastards? [Pulling out checkbook.] Can I do that?
DW: Well ….
MB: Hell, I’ll make it for a hundred million. Then we can close another 30 of those little schools and get rid of another 1500 teachers.
DW: You know you can’t do that, Mike. The union’ll block it.
MB: Well, how is that new plan going - what did we call it? Accelerated teacher removal?
DW: You mean the ATR’s. That’s the “absent teacher reserve”.
MB: Yeah, you’ve moved ahead with that, haven’t you, Dennis?
DW: Yes, we’re making their lives as miserable as possible. Get this, Mike. Every Thursday they get an email sending them to a different school the following Monday. Joel – remember him?
MB: Yeah, he’s in education software now, right?
DW: Yeah, he came up with software that randomly reshuffles the ATR’s every week and keeps track of it to make sure that they never end up in the same place twice where they might actually learn a few names. Joel says that they’re coming out with a new version – Accelerated Teacher Removal – ATR 2.0 – that will reshuffle all 80,000 of them weekly once we get that into the contract.
MB: That’s great!
DW: Those teachers are going to be dropping like flies. Then they’re coming out with the administrative version – AAR. That one will shuffle the principals and A.P.’s randomly each week.
MB: And how does that fit with the new teacher evaluation plan?
DW: Come on, don’t you see, Mike? If they’re all teaching different classes each week, they’re all bound to teach a bad one somewhere along the line. We just evaluate them based on their worst class and bounce them accordingly. It’ll be a piece of cake.
MB: Good work, Dennis. I don’t know why Cathie didn’t think of that.
DW: Come on, Mike. I’m an educator.
MB: I know, I know, Dennis. That’s why I put you in there – I mean, you know, after I gave Cathie her shot.
MB: I know, I know, Dennis. That’s why I put you in there – I mean, you know, after I gave Cathie her shot.
DW: [Cold look.]
MB: And Joel.
DW: [Colder look.]
MB: At least I turned down Trump. Give me credit there. He wanted to turn the public schools into a reality t.v. show.
DW: [Scratching chin pensively.]
MB: But he wanted to charge way too much for sponsorship. I wasn’t going to pay that when I can get exposure on “Jersey Shore” for less.
DW: [Still scratching chin pensively.] You don’t say.
MB: How’s she working out as your technical advisor? Cathie, I mean.
DW: [Even colder look.]
MB: Hey, a deal’s a deal.
DW: Well, you know, we don’t have any official relationship.
MB: But you talk to her every once in a while, don’t you?
DW: She’s earning her money. Don’t worry. Say, she knows something about marketing reality programming, doesn’t she?
MB: No doubt. Anyway, I’ve got this speech to make about my legacy as the education reform mayor. Can I say I’m going to get rid of 20,000 teachers?
DW: [Shaking his head.]
MB: Fifteen thousand?
DW: Mike ….
MB: Well, ten thousand must be realistic, isn’t it, Dennis?
DW: Say 1500, Mike.
MB: Just 1500!
DW: Well, we’ve only got 33 schools on the block at the moment and that number may go down. Have some patience.
MB: Patience? I’m in my third term already and I’ve hardly fired anybody! [Picks up the phone.] Get my polling people in here. When’s the next mayoral election?
It turns out that there are many ways to get blood from a rock – to turn a failing student into a graduate, that is. This mandate to increase graduation rates has led to all sorts of plans and schemes. In recent years there have been revelations of principals arbitrarily changing grades and demanding that teachers change grades. A little extra credit here, a quick on line test there and suddenly that missing credit appears. A 65 on a Regents exam results in a class grade of 55 suddenly morphing into a passing mark even though the student rarely showed up in class. A raw 55 on a Regents test is “scrubbed” up to 65. After all, is there really any difference between an F plus and a D minus?
To meet the graduation mandate the reform schools have to do 2 things: increase the number of students passing the 5 required Regents and make sure these same kids get the 44 credits required for graduation over 4 years whether the kids come to school or not. A good student can easily accumulate 44 credits in 3 years. If a student passes all 7.5 classes each semester – health and phys. ed. count as less than 1 credit – they receive 15 credits per year. That’s 45 credits in 3 years.
How is it then that students fail to graduate in FOUR years because of lack of credits? You might ask this question if, like the vast majority of pundits and politicians, you’ve never taught in an urban public school. If you have, you know that there is anywhere from 25% to 50% in any given cohort that either didn’t come to school at all, came only enough to remain on the roster or came and spent their time sleeping, gossiping, getting suspended, roaming the hallways, intruding into other classrooms, throwing paper balls – in short doing any number of things rather than going to class and studying. So when it comes down to their “senior” year, they’re short credits. In spite of report cards, phone calls, progress reports, letters home, conferences with counselors, team-teacher interventions, teacher-parent meetings, numerous admonitions from the teachers who are putting their own careers at risk by failing them, they suddenly discover that after 3 years they’ve only got 15 or 20 or 25 credits and have to scramble to get up to 44 in that last year when senioritis sets in to give them an excuse for doing the same things they’ve been doing for the past 3 years.
This is where the cohort Ponzi kicks in. A Ponzi scheme is one that depends on future investments to pay off current dividends, something like the American economic system, which requires gigantic loans from future taxpayers to pay off current debts. In the case of the reform schools, the school is tempted, like Madoff, to increase this year’s graduation rate by taking from next year’s. Ponzi schemes, of course, last only as long as there is enough to suck out of the future to pay for the present.
When schools are mandated to increase their graduation rates, this “objective data” begins with the 9th grade cohort. If the school admits 100 students into its 9th grade, the graduation rate is determined by the percentage of that 100 who graduate in 4 years. That 100 is the “cohort” for that year. Agile administrators have to angle around many obstacles just to keep track of that original 100, let alone come up with a transcript that shows the desired “data”. I once discovered a closet full of student folders. These were left over from a 9th grade class that I’d taught 3 years earlier. As I went through them, I found that more than half were no longer in the school. In fact, at least 25% of them had disappeared so quickly, I had no memory of them at all 3 years later.
Those same agile administrators have to keep track of those coming as well as those going. During those three years students were coming in over the counter almost as fast as they were going out under the table. Reform schools that don’t screen are required to take any student at any time for any reason – whether back from a stay at an upstate institution for infractions well beyond the academic to swaps of superintendent suspensions and to recent arrivals from all over the world as well as from their apartments down the street where they might have been hibernating for the past couple of years.
I once moved from one building to another. As I was walking down the hallway, I heard my name shouted from a block away – the other end of the hall, that is. This was a surprise since I didn’t yet know anyone in this school.
But there she was, a student I had taught the previous year in a different school building, a building that had a deal to swap suspended students with my new building.
“What are you doing here?” I asked as I greeted her.
“I pushed someone down the stairs.”
“Well,” I said, “it’s good to see you again.”
So one way to increase the graduation rate in a given year is to graduate a good kid early. If a kid graduates in 3 years, which cohort was he/she in? Is the student with the original 9th grade class or with the graduating class? Whichever, a graduating student increases the graduation rate for a given year. There are often 3 or 4 students who can be accelerated through high school and many of them want to get out early. After all there isn’t much to keep them there.
Another way that being in a reform school was bad news for that good student at the beginning of this chapter was the lack of school choice she encountered in her little school. One of the effects of the Bloomberg reforms is to take away almost everything of value from the best kids in the system. Since the resources in the reform schools are aimed at getting failing students up to 65 in order to inflate graduation “data”, there is little left for the good kids.
I was teaching a senior literature class. This was a class for those who were struggling to accumulate credits and graduate. There was one boy in the class who was aware of the situation and was making every effort to get a good grade from me. He had wasted much of the previous 2 years but had eventually realized that in order to play baseball in college, he needed a high school diploma. So in spite of my having gotten him suspended on several occasions in previous years, we were now on the best of terms and to his credit, he had changed for the better.
I called on him frequently because I knew he was more involved in the class than most others. One day I called on him once too often.
“Mr. Haverstock,” he said, “why don’t you call on one of these other people once in a while. I’m tired of doing all the talking.”
I looked around the class and realized then what I had vaguely known but hadn’t articulated to myself. “Because,” I replied, “most of these people aren’t actually in this class.”
Half the students sitting in the room were A.P. English students. These were the kids who had all their credits. They had accumulated enough credits that by their senior year, they only needed 3 or so. They had 3 classes during a 9-period school day. That meant that they had nothing to do during those other 6 periods. So they passed their time sitting in other classes, including mine, reading or studying for the few classes that they had.
Why were there no classes for these good kids? You might ask this question if, again, like most politicians and pundits, you’ve never taught in one of Bloomberg’s little reform schools. If you have, however, you well know that the small schools do not have the staff or the resources to offer elective courses for students, let alone after school programs. School choice? These good kids ought to have had choices. One of the ironies of “school choice” is that in most of these little schools, once you’ve chosen it, there’s nothing left to choose. Since the mandate is to increase the graduation rate for the non-working student, all classes are Regents-oriented classes aimed at the non-working kid as if there were a difference between a D minus and an F plus – and by definition every failing kid is an F plus since the lowest grade allowed in most of these schools is 55. The next allowable grade up is 65, coincidentally, a passing grade.
The good kids have been left out of the reform equation. But these are the students who work, study and learn. This is where the bulk of education resources ought to be directed. These students ought to have electives like drama, film, poetry, creative writing, shop, home economics, computer technology, software writing, advanced courses in science and other disciplines. One school in which I worked, didn’t even offer chemistry, let alone physics or advanced math courses like trigonometry and calculus. If you didn’t need it for graduation, it wasn’t there.
When one large school (3000 students or so) is broken up into 6 small schools of about 400 students, the result is that the small schools don’t individually have enough students to comprise elective courses like French, Russian, and other languages, advanced science and math classes – all of those just listed above. Out of 3,000 students, half of which were good kids, there were 30 or 60 kids to make up these classes but out of 400 there might be only 5 or 10 ready and willing to take a given advanced or elective course. That’s not enough students to assign a teacher who could otherwise be teaching a Regents class that some non-working student might pass and thus be transformed into positive graduation data.
The small number of students in the reform schools is one problem. The larger problem is the mandate to increase graduation rates in these small schools. This mandate directs resources to the bottom rather than to the top where it would be well utilized by hard working kids. If this sounds like I’m advocating an increase in the drop-out rate, then that sounds right. It’s better to allow kids to drop-out than to increase the graduation rate of kids unprepared for and often uninterested in college work. As long as the goal for all is “career and college readiness” and there are few vocational alternatives, then it is better to increase the drop-out rate than to increase the graduation rate because by getting rid of the non-working students, resources in the system – money, supplies, personnel, time, etc. – could thus be directed toward the kids at the top – the deserving kids who are going to make the most of those resources.
But like the “SMART”  goal, a P.R. scam, the “school choice” buzzword has been sounded with the frequency of the chorus in a Beyonce song. Of course students should have access to a good school. The school choice illusion, however, like a Ponzi scheme, is a scam that ends up doing the opposite of what it is suggesting because once in the school of his/her choice, the student has little left to choose. Another great irony is that while the number of high schools in the Bronx has ballooned from around 30 to over 125 during the Bloomberg reform school years, the courses actually offered in all these little schools has shriveled to nearly nothing beyond Regents classes. The crime and the sin is that everything that made the high school experience worthwhile for the good kids has been eviscerated.
So the good kids are more than willing to get out fast and maybe that is part of the plan. What happens, however, when the graduation rate still isn’t good enough even after graduating 3 kids early? Bernie Madoff could see the obvious solution. If you can bring a few along in 2 years, then you can increase the graduation by a few more points. If this sounds fantastic, I would mention a student – one of the best – that I taught who entered 9th grade at the age of 11, graduated at 14. School choice? She gave the school several choices in when and how to graduate her in order to maximize her “data” potential. This accelerated student graduation is a Ponzi scheme that, like all Ponzi schemes, will collapse – this one under the weight of its own absurdity.
That great kid who wanted nothing more than a “high school experience” stayed around for a 4th year of high school. If she had graduated a year early, that one piece of “data” that she would have become might have increased the graduation rate of that school enough to keep it off the SINI list. It may be “all about the students” but that meant nothing to her. Nevertheless, she made the most of her high school experience. She was elected class president, worked on the yearbook, did as much as possible in the only arts elective the school offered (visual studies), insisted that the school offer chemistry as a P.M. school course since it wasn’t in the curriculum, managed to get music lessons outside of school, worked in the office during some of those free senior year periods, and volunteered for anything and everything that came along, including various money, food and clothing drives and trips to a soup kitchen. She did everything that the reform school offered her.
It wasn’t nearly enough.
NOTE: This blog contains an excerpt of the first draft of this book.
 Yes, this is another fictional interlude in this “memoir”. I wasn’t there and have never met either Bloomberg or Dennis Walcott.
 Since making fun of the SMART goal in chapter 11 last summer, they have changed the acronym. Last summer “A” stood for “attainable” and “R” for “realistic”, the same thing. They’ve changed the “A” now to “accessible”, by which the P.R. people seem to mean something specific to a given student. [See chapter: “D.U.M.B. Goal”.]