Tag Archives: Arne Duncan

Bring Back Social Studies – From the Pages of The Atlantic

President Bush signing the bipartisan No Child...

The beginning of the end: President Bush signing NCLB at Hamilton H.S. in Hamilton, Ohio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even if you’ve said it a thousand times, it doesn’t hurt to say it again.

Mr. D’s much more industrious little sister, Dr. D (yep, she finished that doctorate!) drew my attention to this recent article from The Atlantic.  The article advocates stopping the current trend towards neutering social studies as a distinct discipline in American education.

While the article itself breaks no new ground, it encapsulates the history and status of the issue well so that newbies to the struggle get an eye opener–whilst the veterans get a refresher course in the shitstorm that is No Child Left Behind.

Jen Kalaidis opens with the decline of student time spent studying social studies, to a whopping 7.6 percent.  More importantly, she details the history of this decline–and contrary to popular belief, it didn’t happen in the Cold War.

Kalaidis does mention the 1957 Sputnik launch as a “Pearl Harbor” moment in American education.  From that point on, millions of dollars poured into math and science programs to keep up the space race against the Commies.  Yet to assume education was a zero-sum game at the time would be false: social studies did maintain its status through the Cold War, in fact peaking in 1993-1994 at 3 hours per week on average in US classrooms.

The reasoning is simple: the Cold War was more than just a technological race.  It was a battle of ethics and morals, of hearts and minds.  Social studies was at the center of that struggle, for better or worse.  At its worst, social studies channeled jingoistic American patriotism into half-truths and propaganda.  At its best, social studies provided the historical foundations, civic structure and critical analysis that helped shape a better America–one that could hopefully achieve that moral high ground against the Soviets.

The real decline came with No Child Left Behind–and here is where the article gets mundane.

To old-timers of the education wars, Kalaidis’ retread of the decline of social studies–the sacrifical lamb at the altar of Common Core, ELA, and STEM–is an old argument shouted out in hundreds of teacher lounges, conferences and workshops across the country.  The emphasis on reading, math and science pushed social studies to a secondary discipline–one that was often not subject to standardized testing.  If you couldn’t use a number 2 pencil, it wasn’t worth knowing.

We also all know how important it is to develop critical thinking and analysis skills, something social studies was designed for.  If taught well, social studies makes students take ownership of history, of civics and economics, leading them to their own ideas, conclusions and opportunities.

One aspect of this decline that Kalaidis did mention–and should be mentioned more–is the “civic achievement gap.”  The lack of civic education has created an underclass not only ignorant of their own government, but wholly unable or unwilling to vote, to participate in local politics or pursue careers in public service.   As much as we rag on the government, we need one–a competent one–and that involves competent people working in all levels.  To ignore the civic gap in low-income Americans is tantamount to disenfranchising them.

Lastly, Kalaidis does mention steps to move social studies back to the forefront.  Obama has decried the lack of civic education in NCLB.  So has Arne Duncan in a half-hearted article in the NCSS journal in 2011 (I ripped him a new one about it).  Yet most of this is lip service, or that dreaded word integration (as in subject integration, not race).

The reality is that there is no concrete move to make social studies important again in American schools.  And I hate to admit it–but the conspiracist in me thinks the decline of social studies is deliberate.

When the lunatics run the asylum, they make sure no one figures out they’re really lunatics.  Without proper social studies education, there’s no way to tell the difference.

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The Teacher “Bar” Exam is no solution to teacher quality

American Education is in the Dumpster

The Sad truth about Education programs in the US (Photo credit: brewbooks)

When a cat and a dog start howling at the moon together, something is terribly wrong.

With Randi Weingarten and Arne Duncan howling in unison over the need to overhaul teacher training, I get immediately suspicious.  These two never seem to howl together for anything, and when they do…it is usually more self-serving than selfless.

Recently, Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has been touting the need for a streamlining of teacher certification, so that all teachers are held to the same standard.  This new system is meant to replace the multiple certification systems in place in all fifty states, geared toward making sure that “an individual teacher walking into her classroom the first day is confident and competent.”

(Name one person who’s “confident and competent” on their first day on the job, and I’ll show you someone who’s neither.)

Part of this would be a teacher “bar” exam similar to a bar exam for lawyers or a medical board exam for doctors.  According to Weingarten (a trained lawyer, not a teacher), a combination of clinical experience in the field, academic preparedness for the subject(s) in his/her license, and training in child cognitive development would culminate in a national board exam that would create a teacher ready for the first day.

Everyone seems to be on board, from Arne to Andrew Cuomo…and that really scares me.  They see another silver bullet, but I know otherwise.  How is a national exam going to fix—or even try to fix—a system that suffers due to its participants.

With all due respect to my colleagues, the problem still lies at the very beginning: entry into the field of education is too easy.

Years ago, I got a slew of feedback both positive and negative from my previous diatribe on teacher education.  Many of you cheered my call for an admission process just as stringent as law and medical schools.

Others took me to mean education itself was an “easy” profession and took me to task—which further proves my point about ease of entry into this profession.

We all know that education is among the toughest jobs to do.  I, for one, work long hours above and beyond my workday to research, plan, grade, analyze and organize for my students—work that usually gets foisted off to nurses, paralegals and first-year associates in other professions.

Yet even those in education itself agree that the law and medicine have barriers to entry that education lacks.  Unfortunately, prestige and especially pay are determined largely by these barriers, whether you like it or not.

Sandra Stotsky, who oversaw teacher certification in Massachusetts, stated that “You have more problems today with ineffective teachers because we’ve had virtually open admissions into the profession.”  Since the bar is set so low (no pun intended) many teachers with an education degree and a teacher’s license still lack the stills to become effective in the classroom.

Medicine and law both started as apprenticed crafts that developed professional institutions.  Due to prejudices about teaching, education never reached the level of “official” professionalism of the other schools.  For teachers to garner the respect we richly deserve, education programs need to catch up and develop a rigorous framework that includes high admissions standards.

Of course, the raising of admission standards is no silver bullet.  Certification requirements vary widely, from state to state and even from college to college.  Some colleges focus too much on academic theory, some too little.  Some spend countless hours analyzing fieldwork and classroom routines at the expense of theory and concepts.  Even in a field with few barriers of entry, the quality of preparation is a complete crapshoot.

The need for a new way to train teachers is important at many levels.  Education programs, certification programs and school districts need to realign and synch their resources to create a useful, rigorous, and productive teacher training program.

Yet as long as anyone can be a teacher, then our schools will still be flooded with those who have no business being teachers.

Much of the god-awful education reform agenda—the data collection, the constant forced collaboration, the constant assessment to collect data—is designed with a simple premise: that most in the teaching profession are stupid.   Even the collaboration, the common planning and “inquiry analysis”, is built around the supposition that in any group of idiot teachers there must be at least one person who’s competent.

Teachers in the past were never subject to such scrutiny because their word was law, in every way.  Now, because of a veritable free-for-all system of hiring and licensing, competent teachers must suffer the yoke of the grossly incompetent.

It’s insulting to any hardworking teacher, and wouldn’t be necessary if the idiots weren’t allowed in the classroom in the first place.

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Why I am Marching in the SOS March in July (other than to sweat my nuts off)

Trust me, the last place you want to be in late July/early August is the District of Columbia.

It’s hot and sticky, with a haze that saps you of your dignity as you drench through layers of clothing. The huge, wide boulevards leave little, if any, shade for comfort. Hilly neighborhoods outside Downtown turn a sidewalk stroll into the Bataan Death March.

And don’t look to the Metro subway system for relief; the genius who laid out the stations made it so that everything’s at least a half-mile from each station—just enough to sweat through your shorts and overpower the trains with the stench of ego mixed with misplaced ambition.

I should know: after years in college, numerous weekends, Fourths of July, and an abominable summer without air conditioning, I pretty much have DC clocked.

Which makes it even crazier that I’m heading there in late July to participate in the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action.

My colleagues think I’m nuts. My girlfriend, Future Mrs. D, is convinced I went off the deep end. My parents are convinced I’ll pass out after the first half hour sitting in the sun on the Ellipse.

Despite the naysayers, I’m going. The reasons are numerous: the Declaration of Independence, the need for an educated electorate, the systematic raping of education by pseudo-reformers that care little, if anything, about the future of our democracy.

Yet funny enough, the most important reason is Joe DiMaggio.

When the Yankee Clipper retired after the 1951 season, a Sporting News reporter had asked him the reason why he was hanging it up. DiMaggio could’ve given any number of excuses: his constant pain, the lack of pop in his legs and his bat, the years of hard fielding taking their toll.

Instead, he gave the best response I ever heard, “When baseball is no longer fun, it’s no longer a game…”

After so many years and all the headaches, baseball became a job. Like Joe D, I’m starting to feel that our game, our sport, the education of American children, is no fun anymore.

Like so many educators who will be in attendance in July, I love—absolutely love—educating children. For me, opening minds to the challenges and achievements of history, government, economics, even exploring maps gives me a rush similar to hitting a home run in Yankee Stadium.

Even with the headaches, the paperwork, the bullshit, teaching was never much of a grind—it was genuinely fun.

However, I can see the handwriting on the wall—words like, “accountability”, “data-driven instruction”, “quality reviews”, “peer assessment” and so on. These things are not terrorizing, per se. Yet when they are applied in a manner that undermines the purpose of American education, these words rob our profession of the joy, the excitement, the fun that it had.

Education is no fun anymore when meaningful debates, projects, skits and the like must be shelved for Dickensian workhouses of test preparation.

Education is no fun anymore when subjects are tossed aside in the curriculum simply because their results can’t be boiled down to numbers that fit into a nice chart or graph.

Education is no fun anymore when the tasks that measure authentic progress—reading, writing and math skills needed for college and beyond—are shunted for half-baked tests that simply measure how children digest the buzzwords du jour.

Education is no fun anymore when teachers must put aside the most challenging and exciting parts of their curriculum, not because they can’t do their job, but simply in fear of their jobs in order to produce higher test scores like widgets in a factory.

Education is no fun anymore when students, teachers, and administrators are left holding the bag while the corporate dunderheads, ed-policy dingdongs, and government hacks get off Scott-free when their latest half-assed silver-bullet theory of achievement falls flat on its face.

Education is no fun anymore when teachers, parents and administrators are set to fighting each other—and among each other—while the ed-reform puppet masters systematically strip public education bare.

Education is no fun when generations of students leave high school ready to do one thing: answer questions on a test.

They will not understand the meaning of why “all men are created equal.”

They will not understand the importance and fragility of our “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

They will not be able to participate in a government that is “instituted among men,” nor will they be able to adequately serve as the “consent of the governed.”

Lastly—and this makes Eli Broad, Gates, and the Koch brothers giddy—these students will not realize it when “any form of government becomes destructive of these ends.” Furthermore, no one would’ve informed them that “it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it (government), and to institute a new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

If these people have their way, we will have students that can read, write, do arithmetic, bubble answers and give simple written responses on a test. You may recognize them: the well-scrubbed, scripted and compliant students in places like China and Singapore that these bozos love.

But we will not have thinkers, builders, innovators, inventors, entrepreneurs, activists, artists, writers, intellectuals, or leaders.

We will no longer have the type of people that built this country. We will no longer have the type of people that made our democracy better, stronger and more inclusive through the centuries.

In short, we will no longer have Americans.

Not only is the educrat establishment robbing American education of its fun, but also of its purpose: to create educated, thinking citizens as active members of our republic.

The current attack on education is not simply an attack on public schools, teachers and students. It is an attack on the very essence of America.

That is why I am marching—sweating and uncomfortable, but marching nonetheless. Like the Minutemen of yore, thousands of educators like me will be carrying our voices and bodies as proverbial muskets against the imperial onslaught.

Join me and others at the Ellipse this July 30. Lets make a clear message to President Obama, Arne Duncan and the rest of the “reformers” that American democracy cannot continue without a valuable public education—and their actions undermine our way of life.

Let’s make American public education meaningful, important, purposeful…and fun again.

I’m not ready to hang up my cleats anytime soon—not by a long shot.

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Arne Duncan’s Double-Talk on Social Studies and NCLB

Arne Duncan

Image via Wikipedia

I don’t know if it was Sabrina’s shaming or my call to Homeland Security, but Arne Duncan just wrote about (gasp!) social studies.

Our bud, the Secretary of Education, wrote an article in the recent May/June 2011 issue of Social Education extolling the essential role of social studies in the classroom. Other present and past presidents of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), of which I am a member, also commented on Arne’s writing.

We all tend to be in agreement: Even though he seems well meaning, Arne has a bad tendency to cry alligator tears and blame everyone but himself.

He begins by acknowledging what we have been screaming about for years: that No Child Left Behind has created an environment where English, mathematics and science were given massive emphasis at the expense of history, geography, government and other social sciences. Yet even this admission is half-hearted. A particularly galling statement begins thus:

“Principals, particularly those at elementary schools, tell me that though they would like to allow ample time for social studies education, they feel constrained by pressures to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP). By sacrificing civics, economics, and history, these leaders have felt forced to neglect the long-term benefits of a well-rounded education, instead allowing less important, short-term goals to take over.”

Instead of a mea culpa for the narrow AYP standards, he blames administrators and districts for not allowing enough time—all the while pushing these same districts to standards that require all of their time (and then some). Apparently the AYP is such a sacred cow that any attempt to corral it is seen as a trip to the NEA/AFT slaughterhouse.

Furthermore, his praise of social studies is clearly tongue-in-cheek. While pushing for social studies to be elevated to its rightful place as an essential subject, he still harps on the importance of reading and math. Arne does this for almost a paragraph before he finally declares that marginalizing social studies “is not only misguided, it is educational neglect.”

To me, this is tantamount to thinking about that hot new office assistant at work while having sex with your wife. Sure, it gets the job done—it may even feel pretty good—but deep down, you know what you did was dishonest.

Not only does Arne pass the buck on the problem, but it seems that solutions are also hard to come by. He mentions the need to “fix NCLB so that school leaders do not feel forced to ignore the vital components of a good education.” No specifics.

He stresses President Obama’s plan to focus more on at-risk schools than in micromanaging good schools in the new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). No specifics.

New assessments that track for college and career readiness—no specifics.

More allowance for well-balanced curricula for districts—no specifics.

Where Arne does get specific are the very things that get his melon-head so excited: testing and giving teachers more work. He goes ga-ga, as he always does, for data-driven planning that targets strengths and weaknesses, especially with alignment to the Common Core standards in English and Math (kill me now). Yet he still has the nerve to call multiple-choice tests “mediocre” without questioning the data derived from said tests.

So who should fix this mess? According to Arne, we should.

Apparently, the Department of Education has a full plate pulling education dollars from children, creating ridiculous targets, adoring China like Mao in heat, all the while satisfying the needs of Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Koch brothers, McGraw-Hill and Pearson like a veteran Thai call girl. There’s just no time to force states and school districts to create rigorous curricula and assessments that measure success in social studies.

Arne is urging us, the social studies teachers, to push local and state governments to create high social studies standards. He wants us to push for data-driven accountability in social studies. He wants us to reform assessments to make them authentic enough to base instruction. He wants us to test kids on a full range of social studies skills and strategies.

We do a lot of this already. We bust our ass creating meaningful and rich curricula and assessments for our children. The problem is the states don’t listen to us—and neither does Arne.

When social studies testing at the elementary level fell to only 10 states, he said nothing.

When social studies standards became a political hot potato in Texas, he said nothing.

When high school tests in New York are threatened with extinction, he said nothing.

A recent House bill threatening to cut 43 educational programs was introduced—including Teaching American History, a grant program that serves as the very incubator of innovation in social studies education that Arne seeks. The Education and the Workforce Committee found “no demonstrated results from the program…” Really. Tell that to the hundreds of students in New York City that benefit from trained TAH teacher-historians. Yet I have not heard a peep from our secretary.

That’s the problem.

Arne Duncan plays lip service to the social studies crowd using tried and true platitudes and pithy remarks. All the while, we see right through his game—to placate us while his dismantling of American education is complete.

If Arne is truly serious about establishing social studies’ rightful place in American education, he should be the one—NOT us—who is pushing the states and districts to make AYP contingent on social studies success, to make meaningful and rich social studies curricula and assessments, to hold schools accountable for success in history, geography, economics, government and social sciences.

We have been advocating this—for years. It is time the Secretary of Education to stop fence-sitting and finally get in the game of saving social studies in America.

Otherwise, his words are as authentic as the assessments he loves.

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Join Mr. D at the Save Our Schools March in DC July 30

While others may soak up the sun this summer vacation, Mr. D will be sweltering in the swamps of the Potomac–for an important cause.

This summer, the Neighborhood will be joining educators across this country in a nationwide call to save public education in America.  The Save our Schools March and National Call to Action will take place in Washington, DC this July 28-31.  It is a gathering of educators, concerned parents, activists and journalists demanding an end to the destructive policies of the education establishment–policies placed in the guise of education “reform.”

In specific, the goals of the March are (according to their website):

  • Equitable funding for all public school communities
  • An end to high stakes testing for student, teacher, and school evaluation
  • Curriculum developed for and by local school communities
  • Teacher and community leadership in forming public education policies

Now these are goals we can all get behind.  Unfortunately, much of the policies of the education reformers like Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan (both covered here at the Neighborhood) have hindered, rather than helped our goal of a quality education for ALL Americans.

The weekend features seminars, workshops, lectures and a get-together for education writers and bloggers on July 29–and yours truly will be there IN PERSON to greet all his colleagues and fans.  Join me the next day as the Neighborhood will be marching to the Ellipse at noon, where education heavy-hitters like Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Maier, Jose Vilson and many others will rile up the crowds.

At two, we then head to ol’ Arne’s office at the Department of Education, to give him a taste of that old time religion known as “public education.”

Now, Mr. D doesn’t mind tooting his own horn and beating his own drum…but if he did it alone, it would make him look like a lunatic.  Here’s where you come in.

Linked here is an RSVP site to join the March on July 30.  If you want, you can also register for events on the other days of the conference.  The RSVP doesn’t obligate you to go, but it helps the organizers get a head count so they can print numbers that would make Arne soil his enormous jock strap.

At any rate, I want the Neighborhood to have a strong presence on the Mall July 30.  Join me and thousands of others in fighting to save public education in America.

At the very least, you can meet me in person–and tell me what a bullshit artist I am right to my face ;)

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A Letter to Secretary Arne Duncan Re: the 2010 NAEP Civics Report Card

Seal of the United States Department of Education

Image via Wikipedia

Dear Secretary Duncan,

(Again, is Arne okay? We tend to be informal here at the Neighborhood, so we hope you don’t mind.)

How’s it going, big guy? Still keeping up that jump shot? I’m just assuming since you seem to be more of a perimeter player than someone who dominates the paint…

…which is a lot like your current job as Secretary of Education (just kidding, I think).

Anyway, I’d like to start out by offering condolences. It wasn’t easy being taken to the woodshed for your alleged insincerity on Teacher Appreciation Day—especially from my friend Sabrina Stevens Shupe. I know, I know: your press flunky felt that the “broader teaching community” was in agreement with you. Yet the overwhelming evidence Sabrina and others brought—of glad-handing, double-talk, duplicity and outright hypocrisy—has got the intellectual feel of a few rounds with Mike Tyson in his prime.

Nobody likes an ass-kicking, Arne, but it builds character…at least that’s what I tell kids just before they get their butts whupped again.

Now to the crux of the matter, and I’m afraid it isn’t pleasant. You see, last time we spoke, the New York State Board of Regents was destroying social studies assessment in the state while you fiddled with the Race to the Top money. In the end, you ended up giving them the dough—for making New Yorkers dumber citizens.

It’s a brilliant move, if you were an authoritarian despot that depended on mindless sheep to vote for you in sham elections. Way to make our state look more like a banana republic, Arne.

New York is now not alone. Other states, in their zeal to give you your annual tribute in reading and math data, have either pared down history, geography, economics and government curricula, removed requirements, and even trashed state assessments altogether in social studies. According to a recent study in Education Week, “…the number of states that test elementary social studies declined from 30 to 12 over the last ten years. By the 2009–10 school year, about half the states had developed grade- or course-specific standards across all grade spans in English/language arts (27 states) and mathematics (26). Slightly fewer have such detailed standards in social studies/history and science (23 and 22, respectively).”

The fruit of this labor is the recent results in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)’ 2010 Civics Report Card—results deemed “pathetic” by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

I needn’t rehash the results for you, Arne, but just to highlight the bullet points: Less than 50% of eighth graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights. Only 10% understood how the three branches of the federal government balance national power—the old “checks and balances” system. Only 25% of high school seniors were able to identify an effect of US foreign policy on other nations. The same percentage could name a power granted to Congress by the Constitution.

In all, only 20% of eighth graders—and only 25% of high school seniors—demonstrate a proficiency in the workings of their representative democracy.

Now, there are some people who will tell you that the results are skewed and not reliable.

There are others who do not deem this to be a crisis at all.

Frankly, Arne, these people are either committed to destroying our republic or waist-high in their own bullshit.

(Don’t tell me you’re offended by foul language…you played basketball in AUSTRALIA, for God’s sake! That’s like writing an encyclopedia of barracks humor.)

Now, the numbers for fourth- and eighth- graders, while abysmal, can be corrected in time with little collateral damage. But 25% proficiency in high school seniors should make any true-blue American brown their shorts.

You see, Arne, 100% of them are the legal voting age of 18. Yet only 25% knew what the hell they’re doing in the voting booth. That doesn’t frighten you? Doesn’t it astound you that in a few years, as the electorate gets younger, their knowledge of representative democracy diminishes just as fast…

…and yet we still expect them to participate in our democracy?

How about you give Father O’Malley the key to the boy’s orphanage, or my drunk uncle the keys to the Cadillac while you’re at it…because the education establishment’s outright disdain and neglect for social studies is just as irresponsible.

How many times to we have to repeat it, Arne? We live in a representative democracy that requires an active, informed and educated citizenry to run effectively. Speaking for my fellow teachers, it is our job to train young people to be fully active in their democracy, in all areas.

That includes a thorough knowledge of their history, their geography, and the diverse cultural heritage of our nation.

That includes a thorough understanding of the development, foundations, ideologies, functions and opportunities of our democratic republic.

That includes a thorough analysis of goods, services, inputs, outputs, needs, wants, theories, models and institutions that define us as an economic entity.

That includes a thorough understanding of a citizen’s role in a democracy: to vote, to petition, to complain, to foment dissent, to attack unjust policies, and to change politics and government itself through the electoral process or even direct action.

By the way, these things are not taught in that educational paradise you love called China. It’s because China is a dictatorship. A quasi-“Communist” dictatorship, to be sure, but a dictatorship nonetheless.

My students can have all the science, math and reading knowledge they can muster. What good is it in a dictatorship where dissent is silenced and citizens have little basic rights? Is that what you want to create in this country, Arne? A population of ignorant sedated blobs just educated enough to read the propaganda slogans?

Arne, I don’t want my students to be like the Chinese. If I did, I’d have moved there a long time ago. I don’t make data points in ELA, Math or any other subject. I don’t make goal setters, essential-question verbalizers, educational inputs, lifelong learners, lifelong objective makers, coherent planners, or jargon-based drones worthy of a “quality review” like widgets on an assembly line.

My job, Arne, is to make Americans.

The disciplines of the social studies involve every subject, every skill, every concept and idea embodied in the more “accepted” subjects of reading, math and science. They need to be nurtured, assessed and empowered as a separate subject in curricula throughout the nation. Otherwise, we can just pack up the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence and call it a night.

Arne, please help us in training the next generation of American citizens, leaders and politicians. Stop the rot now. Reverse the gutting of social studies by making them just as important as reading, math and science in data, in scores, in reports and especially in funding. Keep social studies on the pantheon of American education. Make sure our country has an informed, active citizenry for years to come.

The very life of the United States depends on it.

Thanks, as always for your time.

With warm regards,

Mr. D and the good folks at Mr. D’s Neighborhood

PS: If you choose to ignore this, the actions (or inactions) of your office could merit a call to the Department of Homeland Security as a potential “enemy of the state.” Not acting on this crisis is tantamount to high treason. You’ve been warned.

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Some Free Advice to New NYC Schools Chancellor Cathie Black—from her friends at the Neighborhood

Cathie Black, New York City's new Schools Chancellor

Chancellor Black, welcome to America’s largest, most Byzantine, and most convoluted school system. We sincerely hope that during your tenure (should I use the word “tenure”?) New York City will also be among America’s greatest networks of learning.

We must admit, in all fairness, that many folks here in the Neighborhood were none too pleased at your appointment. Given the outward business-like nature of the Bloomberg regime (or dynasty, royal house, whatever), we expected a selection process free of the nepotism, cronyism and backdoor dealing that so typified the dark days of the past. Wishful thinking, of course…

Yet we digress. In an effort to bury the hatchet, we wish to open a true dialogue with our new capo. Our hope is that through honest, frank communication we can achieve the best results possible for everyone in our school system.

We won’t belabor you with the nonsense questions so many critics have leveled on you. That would be insulting your intelligence—a well-honed trait of your predecessor. As you settle into your first week on the job, however, here are some suggestions to make your work a little more meaningful:

Visit every school in the system—unannounced

The typical Chancellor’s tour involves an entourage of poobahs parading through a pristine campus while smiling, polite children entertain him with well-worn platitudes about their “reading levels” and “learning processes”. This usually takes place at schools with “KIPP”, “Mott Hall” or “Kappa” in their names, or with suffixes like –Academy, -Charter School, or Blankety Blank School for Success and Entrepreneurial Excellence in Waste Management.

This is not reality—not even close.

Make a point to visit schools in our most distressed neighborhoods, especially those schools that have been deemed either failures or in danger of closure by the DOE in the past. Pop in without the menagerie, and watch as teachers struggle with day-to-day tasks, principals balance inane initiatives with budgetary constraints, and parents tangle with administrators over discipline, zoning and programming.

Also take into account schools that are succeeding, but are bursting at the seams with students from closed schools in the community. Take a good hard look, and tell me if these schools will continue to succeed given the budgetary and population constraints on them.

Teach one class in each grade level—including Kindergarten

You can’t hide from it. We all know: you have almost no experience in a classroom, let alone any educational institution. You might already have it in your head that teachers are lazy and uneducated, do little with their time, and need the stick more than the carrot.

At the very least, that was the vibe we got from your predecessor—as well as his boss. Michelle Rhee certainly put her two cents in, we’re sure.

It won’t make up for it, but walking a short distance in the shoes of a New York City classroom teacher can do you a world of good for giving much needed perspective. Put up a bulletin board with substandard work so your superiors look good for their bosses. Push back art history or science for the umpteenth time to test prep for an exam six months away. Get hands-on with Global History, and its rushed, watered-down, one-year fiasco of a curriculum (and we wonder that our students know little about the world.).

But no cheating, now—you can’t teach at a private school or some Upper East Side celeb-charter academy. Like before, find those schools “In Need of Improvement” or “In Restructuring”, those wonderful NCLB phrases that taste like boiled Auschwitz.

Take the standardized tests the students take—all of them.

We can probably guess that like the mayor and his minions, you are ga-ga over standardized tests and their use in evaluating everything, from the teachers to the lunchroom floor. Oh, the joy of reducing everything to a number! It looks pretty on a mission statement, makes for great graphs that delight educational Neanderthals such as Arne Duncan, and make for great printing material and “culling of the herd.” (Just ask the Los Angeles Times).

Take the time to take each of the tests yourself, from the 3rd grade reading and math tests to the vaunted Regents tests at the high school level. As you plow through the material, ask yourself these questions:

(1) Do these things really measure the ability to read and function as an intellectual being? Will a “4” on the 5th grade ELA guarantee a slot at Harvard in a few years—or a slot on the night shift at McDonalds?

(2) If you find yourself struggling with certain tests (especially the science ones), imagine a kid with half your intelligence, a quarter of your attention span and a thousandth of your resources—a specimen we find a lot of in our system. Do you think he has the right supports to pass a test that you, a middle aged wealthy white woman, are struggling with?

(3) If the teacher is already hamstrung with a motley array of students in an overcrowded classroom with a lack of support and unsuitable standardized assessments to use, how can it be the only measure of a teacher’s success or failure? How can you measure a teacher’s effectiveness on one variable?

We’re pretty resigned to the fact that test scores will factor in teacher evaluation. However, it shouldn’t be the ONLY factor. Taking the tests yourself will convince you of this.

By the way, we’ll cut you some slack on those advanced science and math Regents. Most of us couldn’t tell Planck’s Constant from a plank at the Home Depot.

When cutting the budget, cut the fat, not the muscle.

Times are tough economically, we know. There will, inevitably, be cuts in funding from Albany which will trickle down to the schools themselves.

When you look at the budget for the coming year, remember that the school level—yes, that level that you should’ve experienced firsthand, by now—is the sinew and muscle of our system. Yet why has it been that the knife was drawn closest to this all-important skeleton?

Instead, turn your scalpel towards the people behind you in the mirror. Since you’re a smart lady, you may notice how we chuckle at the juxtaposition of DOE headquarters at the Tweed Courthouse. That courthouse was at the center of the city’s largest political scandal, and its named for the chief culprit. That insult aside, make sure that those people immediately around you are utilized the best way possible.

If not, you can definitely lay-off at the top in a professional manner (We remember the show where you talked about laying off workers effectively—nice job.)

Give Principals real autonomy—in discipline.

Principals bear the brunt of the abuse as our schools are slowly becoming all-encompassing nation-states that are built ass-backwards—a body like an Athenian and a brain like a Spartan. A lot of the hot talk is around whether principals should be given more leeway to hire and fire personnel at will, as well as more control over the school’s purse strings.

Now remember the little bastard in the classroom you were in that was so defiant he would make any classroom cringe with fear? Good luck getting him placed in a different setting. The process for removing or transferring students due to behavior problems is long and convoluted: even teachers who diligently follow up with phone calls and letters find that administrators have their hands tied as well.

So how about this: let the principals admit and expel students as the need arises, especially at the elementary level. We’re not talking about cases where the child acts up due to academic struggles. It’s about the stone-cold bad kids that have reached the end of their rope with students, teachers, parents and principals; those kids that pose a true threat to learning for everyone.

Wondering how to use closed school buildings? Use them for programs that move these “bad kids” in a more productive direction than a regular classroom would allow. If he keeps up into high school, then he can be expurgated without a fuss.

Despite what the knuckleheads think, children are left behind, sometimes by choice. It even happens in (gasp!) Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan—those bastions of academic excellence. You think every kid in Asia is on the board of directors of a car company, construction conglomerate or electronics consortium? Morons are the same the world over.

Want Teacher Quality? Stop the half-measures and go after the source.

It’s something we harp on here at the Neighborhood almost as if in a mantra: the goal is to acquire and RETAIN excellent quality teachers. Don’t listen to Rhee and the morons at TFA who think that alternative certification programs are the “silver bullet” that will finally eradicate the achievement gap.

Teaching gets better with age, and the TFA’ers don’t stick around long enough to reach that level of maturity (if they were ever that mature to begin with).

You want to get good teachers? Make teaching a respectable profession to graduates from the top universities. The only way that can happen is (a) the salaries are commensurate with other professionals. This can only happen if we have (b) teacher training programs at the university level that are as competitive and as rigorous as professional schools and higher academia.

The education programs at New York’s universities must stop becoming diploma mills for any two-bit dipstick that wants the summer off. As schools chancellor, you are in a unique position to correct this problem.

All the education programs love the deals they have with the DOE to provide training, professional development, seminars, etc. Hold their asses to the fire with these sweetheart contracts until there is evidence of major overhauls in their education departments. It’ll be a long process, but we’re willing to bet that out of it will come high-quality teachers who will stay in the system for a long time.

Just remember to pay them adequately, otherwise they will go elsewhere. That’s the price you pay for intelligent, well-trained teachers: they usually won’t stand the bullshit for long.

Stop the “Fear Culture” of communication at the DOE

This may be the most important task you can accomplish as Chancellor.

For a long time, the draconian regime of your predecessor has rhapsodized about the need for greater collaboration, communication and team-building. Yet in private, especially amongst the administrators of all-too many buildings, a culture of fear and suspicion has arisen. Complaints, suggestions, and even legal union grievances have been met with back-stabbing, reprisals and vengeful acts that demonstrate the basest venality…

(Sorry, got poetic with the vocabulary. You following all this, Chancellor?)

You, and only you, can put a stop to this. If we can see you leading by example, taking advice, compliments and criticism professionally and courteously (from teachers, parents, administrators and even students) and offering a sense of safe and fruitful dialogue, it would be a wonderful first step in creating real cohesion within our system.

I keep going back to him, but it bears repeating. Your predecessor cared little about public opinion, nor the opinions of those who toiled under him. He was often curt and even combative in interviews and press conferences. In last year’s testing fiasco, he even pointedly showed up late to community meetings in the ultimate display of cowardice.

Chancellor Black, you seem like a smart, eloquent woman. Only by using that intelligence to understand the system, its flaws, its accomplishments and its future can you succeed. Look at Rhee: she was even more stubborn about her dictatorial ways, and look at where it got her.

We bust our butts for these kids every day. The concerns addressed here have been shouted, mentioned, whispered, e-mailed and texted for many years now. It is high time that we finally find the common ground to create viable solutions to our educational problems.

Chancellor Black, we at the Neighborhood wish you the best of luck in leading this great school system. Thanks for hearing us.

PS. Did Joel leave any booze in the desk? You may need it every once in a while. Hope he left the good stuff.

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