“…there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” – The Prince, Chapter 6, by Niccolo Machiavelli
Niccolo Machiavelli by Santi di Tito, courtesy of Wikipedia
How does a state function when its prince has a mountain of moral and ethical rectitude and not an ounce of political sense?
New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio learned this lesson the hard way this Friday, as the far more politically adept princes of Albany reached a bipartisan budget deal that slapped the mayor in the face.
Earlier, DeBlasio acted on a campaign promise to put a leash on the charter movement in New York; a movement run rampant under his predecessor. This was following his earlier push to tax rich New Yorkers to pay for universal pre-kindergrarten programs for all city children. In the latter, DeBlasio went at odds with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who introduced his own Pre-K program into the state budget that didn’t require additional tax revenue. At any rate, DeBlasio would get what he wanted, albeit through more capitalist means.
Then he decided to get personal—and stupid.
Blindsiding just about everyone, the mayor on February 27 announced the closing of three charter schools. The three were part of about 12 that were approved in a frenzy of activity in the waning days of the Bloomberg administration, of which two were in the Success Academy network run by former city councilwoman and frequent education critic Eva Moskowitz. DeBlasio made a point of singling out Moskowitz during his campaign, making her the poster child of everything wrong with education reform and the charter movement.
In the wake of the decision, Moskowitz staged a rally in Albany with the support of the Governor, an act that crowned her with legitimacy that DeBlasio wished he had. The Albany minions quickly moved to silence the new mayor’s power by creating a budget deal that not only forces the city to provide space for charter schools, but also orders it to pay rent for the private building that house charters.
Andrew Cuomo comes off as the savior of New York schoolchildren, Eva Moskowitz as the Virgin Mary, and Bill DeBlasio as the demon out to unravel the whole sanctified process.
DeBlasio did not lose because he didn’t have right on his side. He lost because he didn’t have enough political might to buttress his right.
As an Italophile of the first order, the mayor obviously overlooked the writings of the foremost political philosopher of the Italian Renaissance, Niccolo Machiavelli. Therefore, let’s look at DeBlasio’s failings through the pages of The Prince, the seminal work of power politics, and see where he can do better:
“…the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.” – Ch. 6
DeBlasio woefully underestimated the forces that benefit from the charter school movement, from the parents to the operators to the businesses that fund them and the civic institutions that make their bureaucratic process easier. Under Bloomberg, these people have always been at the table of power—putting them at the kids’ table requires political finesse and (dare I say) Machiavellian subterfuge. The mayor exhibited neither.
“A prince being thus obliged to know well how to act as a beast must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from snares, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize snares, and a lion to frighten wolves.” Ch. 18
You have to hand it to Eva. As much as she makes many peoples’ blood boil, she is an astute political operator. The minute she heard of the closings, she made sure her kids (along with their parents) were ripped from school and sent straight to Albany for a rally. The sea of cute children and weeping parents was a PR masterpiece. The addition of the governor sealed the deal; it neutered the DeBlasio narrative of any righteous indignation.
“…the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.” – Ch. 3
Andrew Cuomo, contrary to what DeBlasio might think, is not running for re-election. He is running for the Presidency. Thus, he doesn’t need to—nor does he have to—listen to his constituency: a people who will vote Democrat even if their candidate is caught in bed with farm animals. Cuomo is pandering to the swing states, where the education reform movement has been in full swing and maintains a solid popularity.
So when Cuomo saw what he thought was a power grab by the mayor, his action was swift, shady and merciless. A bipartisan deal is like two stab wounds, in the front and in the back…and you’re not sure which hurts more.
“The first opinion which one forms of a prince, and of his understanding, is by observing the men he has around him.” – Ch. 22
The mayor conducted a campaign that used commercials and live broadcasts to great effect. Yet upon his administration, why was there not a single coherent ad campaign to “prepare the ground” in military terms? Not a single ad, bulletin board, radio spot, etc. to whip up support. DeBlasio’s PR machine in the campaign didn’t make a dent when confronted with the charter closings, and it speaks volumes of the people who work under the mayor.
“…it should be borne in mind that the temper of the multitude is fickle, and that while it is easy to persuade them of a thing, it is hard to fix them in that persuasion. Wherefore, matters should be so ordered that when men no longer believe of their own accord, they may be compelled to believe by force.” – Ch. 6
This battle could have been won, and won easily. The DeBlasio administration made the assumption that the goodwill generated from the campaign and the election still carried over into the spring.
What happened was the thaw that unleashed the fickle multitude.
DeBlasio never made a point to win the hearts and minds of his supporters. This was largely due to going into battle without a wellspring of hate towards Eva Moskowitz in general and charters in particular. He was haranguing the masses without the masses.
The smoking guns are there, and they are plentiful: The recent allegations that Success Academy cherry-picks students and excludes students with special needs. The studies that show charters don’t really outperform other public schools when measured accurately. The high rates of student and teacher turnover. The uneven distribution of resources, funds and support. The bully tactics used when charters share space with public schools, only to see public schools swallowed up by charter monoliths.
DeBlasio never even bothered to launch a campaign for support of charter closures. On the other hand, campaigns funded by fronts for the Koch brothers, et. al. sprang up all over the television dial, showing smiling, happy children of various ethnicities with teachers who were just integrated enough…all praising the value of charter schools and tearfully pleading with the mayor to not take that away.
The counter argument is there, and well documented. So why no buildup of support?
The people need to be reminded, or “persuaded by force” in Machiavelli’s words, of the supposed evils of charter schools. This episode shows just how fickle New Yorkers can be when it comes to the education of our children. It took some well-placed media ops to overtake the message and the battle.
Mr. DeBlasio, you got played, plain and simple.
If you want to institute the reforms you think are necessary, learn from this debacle. Line up your allies. Whip up support by any means necessary. Use the resources at your disposal. Win the PR war.
Most importantly…be ruthless and merciless to your enemies.
The time for congenial debate and finding “common ground” is over. The opposition doesn’t bother with such niceties, and neither should you. Play the game, and play it well. Play to win…at all costs.
In other words:
“Hence it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed.” – ch.6
By the way…I have a spare copy of The Prince on my bookshelf if you need it.
Why Pain is Necessary: A Response to the Proposed NYS Reading Standards
The late great comedian George Carlin mastered exposing the use of language to control society.
One of his best routines involved the evolution of the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He chronicled how early in the century, in the World War I era, this condition was simply known as “Shell Shock.” Later in the century it evolved into “Battle Fatigue”, with Carlin pointing out how the addition of syllables made the condition seem less frightening. Ultimately, he ends with PTSD, which makes a harrowing condition seem more and more antiseptic and banal.
In a similar way, the proposed New York State Standards, especially in reading, may control events through omitting a phrase. Ultimately, this omission can have disastrous consequences.
In September, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) released new draft New York State P-12 English Language Arts and Mathematics Learning Standards for public comment. These new standards were the work of two committees of teachers and parents who spent two years reworking over half of the Common Core Learning Standards to better meet the needs of New York’s students.
Many praised the new standards, and with good reason. Much of the redundancy of standards, especially among reading informational and literary text, was streamlined to make the standards more flexible and manageable. In mathematics, the distinctions between certain courses, particularly Algebra I and II, were clarified to give teachers better direction. In all, this revision kept the spirit of the CCLS largely intact, which was a relief to many, including myself.
To really understand the changes, I decided to look at the ELA and Literacy (in Science/Social Studies) standards side by side, seeing them evolve grade by grade. The work done in the K-2 grades really hit the mark: It allowed rigor in language foundations while emphasizing hands-on activities and creative play. Most importantly, it emphasized, as in the past, the ability to read “grade-level text”, maintaining the need for a solid grounding in the basics of reading and writing.
After second grade, however, the phrase “grade-level text” disappears.
From third through twelfth grade, the the entire standard for text complexity is stricken altogether. In grades 3 through 5, the phrase “grade-level” was replaced with “a variety of” to describe text level comprehension that would meet the standard. For example, whereas RF.5.4a used to read:
“Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding.”
Under the proposed changes it would now read:
“Read a variety of text levels with purpose and understanding.”
A similar change happens in RF.5.4b, which addresses fluency. It used to read:
“Read grade-level prose and poetry orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression on successive readings.”
It would now read:
“Read a variety of prose and poetry orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression on successive readings.”
(NOTE: The Literacy in Social Studies/Science Standards did not leave out text complexity for grades 6-12. I am not sure if that was intentional or an oversight of the committee.)
The committee’s rationale was “so that the teachers have the opportunity to choose texts that meet each students’ needs effectively in order for each child gain success.” When I looked to find where the old text complexity standard was, usually R.10, it stated that “Text complexity standard to be moved to supporting guidance.” I headed to the anchor standards to find said supporting guidance, where I found the following:
“The ELA Committee decided that this standard would be more appropriate as guidance for instruction instead of a student achievement expectation. The committee would like to see text complexity guidance included in an introduction.”
In that statement, the committee rendered all the reading standards utterly useless.
First of all, this omission of text complexity assumes that grade-level standards are entirely based on skills that scaffold as the child gets older. Thus, drawing a conclusion from Slaughterhouse Five is essentially the same as drawing one from The Cat in the Hat. Identifying a causal relationship in Ramona and Beezus is basically the same as from Hamlet. Nonsense. Since older children are expected to read more nuanced and complicated texts, then text complexity has to be scaled just as much as reading skills or strategies. Having only a partial standard in skills and none in text complexity is just as good as not having a standard at all.
Furthermore, the lack of standards in text complexity presents false levels of promotion and achievement for students. The student who achieves promotional criteria may not necessarily be reading at or even near their grade level. How fair is this for a child who ultimately reaches high school with a literacy rate so far behind that they can never master the texts needed for college and beyond.
This is particularly true for students with special needs. Much of the rationale of omitting text complexity must lie in the need to level the playing field for struggling students by allowing student choice in texts to demonstrate standards mastery. Unfortunately, as admirable as this may sound, it defrauds the student of an authentic assessment of their abilities. Also, those students with Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, that feature grade-dependent text and vocabulary in their annual goals would find their programs essentially obsolete, denying students needed support in the lofty pursuit of giving students choice.
Finally, let us return to George Carlin for a moment.
Carlin’s goal in his routine was to show how language was used to mollify the shock, pain and discomfort of everyday life. “Shell Shock” becomes the less painful “Battle Fatigue” and the even more harmless “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” The problem, as Carlin hints at, is that making the term less painful does not make the pain go away. It simply gives the public enough piece of mind that it can be ignored or handled by someone else.
The lack of text complexity also has to do with such pain, and apologies if I begin to sound like a sadist. Learning, by design, is a change from the status quo, and any change to the human condition is inherently painful. Some changes, like death or war, are more painful than others. Some changes affect the mind or the emotions more than the body. Whatever the form, learning involves a level of pain, however light, that is necessary for student development into functioning adult citizens.
By allowing so much student choice, and placing no standard on text complexity, the committee has in essence alleviated much of the pain of learning. Yes, learning needs to be guided by the needs of students. Yes, learning can and should include elements of joy and fun. However, avoiding needed pain in order to make the experience more effective in the short term will cause that student unbearable agony in the long term:
I humbly ask the Board of Regents, Commissioner Elia, and Governor Cuomo to reconsider removing text complexity. In pursuing the equitable education of today, do not consign our bright students to the agony of a dim future.
That “shell shock” helps more than you think.
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