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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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