In an almost perfect inversion of the ancient Greek fable of the King Midas, whose touch turned everything into gold, New York City Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein has the uncanny ability to turn every educational initiative he touches into a pile of policy offal and refuse. When Klein’s tenure is finally assessed, what will stand out is how he has consistently taken educational programs and reforms which should have a positive effect, and implemented them in ways which not only have been negative and counter-productive, but have also cast discredit on needed educational change.
Just look at a few of the lowlights of the record:
■ Quality professional development and time for teachers to meet and plan together is a central component of any comprehensive effort to improve teaching and learning, but Klein did such a poor job of leading the Department of Education in the use of the additional time for professional development provided for by the 2000-2003 contract, all the while insisting principals must have the authority to act unilaterally, that the very words ‘professional development’ became a slur, an insult to their actual professionalism, in the minds of thousands of New York City public school teachers.
■ The replacement of unsuccessful large schools with small schools is a policy initiative with real promise, as the smaller size makes it possible to build an intimate democratic school culture in which teachers and students know each other well, and teachers are treated as educational professionals with a real voice in the running of the school. But Klein’s small school effort created scores of schools in a single year without meaningful plans on how they could be reasonably accommodated, thus leading to massive overcrowding and safety problems. And so many schools were created at once in a mad rush to mass produce ‘unique’ schools [over 100 in one year], that the DOE could not find sufficient numbers of experienced, qualified leaders to serve as principals, or sufficient numbers of experienced, accomplished educators to staff the schools. The sheer number of new schools also meant that the DOE’s regions could not provide the support a new school needs. [See the report of the UFT’s Small School Task Force on the problems with implementing the small school initiative in NYC.]
■ In 2003-04, Klein’s Department of Education created a self-inflicted safety crisis in its large comprehensive high schools when it discarded the existing system for handling discipline of disruptive and violent students without having a replacement system ready to takes its place. As students soon learned there were no consequences for disruptive and violent behavior, incidents increased dramatically.
The common thread that runs through these and still other policy debacles at the DOE is the complete lack of evidence that Klein and his top management possess one of those skills the rest of us learned in kindergarten, how to play well with others. In each of the above instances, Klein’s DOE refused to work cooperatively with teachers, with parents and with the UFT, and massive problems ensued as a result. To the extent that the DOE has been able to undo some of the damage it has done around the small schools initiative and around school safety, it has only been when they finally decided that they needed to pay some heed to what others were saying, after it was clear that their obstinate go-it-alone policy had proven calamitous.
Yet Klein and Tweed are a constant challenge to the teacher’s faith that everyone is educable, because they seem incapable of learning the lesson that is so obvious to other observers – schools change for the better with cooperative and collaborative efforts that value all stakeholders and draw from the input. Today’s New York Times article, “City May Gain 200 Teachers Designated As Masters,” recounts yet another episode of taking an important reform, this time the lead teacher, and implementing it in unilateral ways that threaten its very integrity.
The lead teacher program was piloted in the Bronx at the initiative of Community Collaborative to Improve District Nine Schools, or CC9. The design developed by CC9 and used in that section of the Bronx for the past two years involved collaboration among parents, community organizations, teachers, the UFT and the DOE. But no longer, according to the Times.
But members of a coalition of parents and community groups who devised the position and ran a pilot program for it in 10 Bronx schools last year said yesterday that the Bloomberg administration was potentially dooming the effort by not giving them sufficient input.
They said the administration had ignored a review of the pilot program that found that its success hinged on a coordinating committee of parents, administrators, teachers and union officials. There is no plan to replicate that committee.
“The critical ingredient for the success of the program was the cross collaboration of parents, teachers, principals and the community, and it was proven,” said Ocynthia Williams-Watson, a parent leader, citing a report by the Academy for Educational Development, a research group.”We are outraged.”
“They shut them out,” UFT President Randi Weingarten told the Times, “just like they shut us out.”
Is there no end to the positive educational initiatives Klein can undo with his ham-fisted, unilateral implementation?