Targeted for turnaround in NYC

February 7, 2012

New York City teacher Megan Behrent describes why Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to "turn around" her school sacrifices a rational approach to helping students.

'TIS THE season for school closings in New York City.

In what has become an annual tradition, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his puppets on the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) celebrated the holidays with the announcement that another 25 schools in New York City are slated to be closed completely or undergo grade truncations (primarily to remove middle school grades from formerly K-8 schools).

Hearings are currently underway in the affected schools around the city, and on February 9 the PEP is slated to vote on the fate of these schools. The majority of the PEP is appointed by the mayor, and the only time that mayoral appointees to the panel threatened to vote against the wishes of the mayor, they were fired and replaced.

It's a pretty safe bet as to which way the PEP will vote this time.

A trip to the PEP is like a trip to Versailles, pre-French Revolution. As hundreds of eloquent and passionate speakers fight for their schools, members of the panel play games or text friends on their Blackberries and mentally plan their next cocktail party. You can almost hear them muttering, "Let them eat cake," under their breath.

Parents, students and teachers join in an "Occupy the Schools" protest against proposed closures in early February
Parents, students and teachers join in an "Occupy the Schools" protest against proposed closures in early February (Mike Fleshman)

As a result, since the 2003 implementation of mayoral control of the schools, more than 100 schools in New York City have been phased out--an "accomplishment" that in any rational system would be evidence of the failure of the mayor and his PEP puppets. In the Orwellian world of the Department of Education (DOE), however, this is claimed as a success: a victory for those who believe that destroying schools and the communities they serve is the best way to improve education.

So it should come as no surprise that Bloomberg is now targeting another 33 schools, including my own, as part of a strategy that makes schools nothing more than collateral damage in the mayor's all-out war on teachers and our union.

Finding ourselves at the confluence of Obama's Race to the Top initiative and Bloomberg's Children First, we have become victims of the anti-teacher (and anti-public education) agenda that masquerades as "education reform." These 33 schools are now facing Bloomberg's "turnaround" model in which the entire staff of a school is removed and forced to reapply for their jobs--with the provision that a maximum of 50 percent can be rehired.

What you can do

New Yorkers should join a protest to occupy the Panel for Education Policy meeting on February 9--to open it up as a democratic forum for parents, students and teachers. Meet at 5:30 p.m. at Brooklyn Technical High School at 29 Fort Green Place in Brooklyn.

For more information, e-mail [email protected] or visit the Occupy the DOE website.

Why is this happening? Because Bloomberg wants to completely eliminate due process from the new teacher evaluation system that is being negotiated. Thus, schools like mine are being held hostage in Bloomberg's war on teachers and our union.

IN JANUARY 2010, my school, along with another 32 others, became a casualty of New York state's Race to the Top application when state officials deemed it "persistently low-achieving" (PLA)--because our four-year graduation rate was slightly below the city's average.

This designation is a byproduct of the New York's application for federal Race to the Top funds, which require states to identify such PLA schools and impose one of four models to restructure the school as a condition of receiving school improvement grants.

As a result, my school became a "transformation" school--arguably, the least draconian of the four models. We were given three years to raise our graduation rate and required to implement a variety of changes, including piloting a new teacher evaluation system. The evaluation system has been contentious since its inception, because for the first time, it requires test scores to be used to determine 20 to 40 percent of a teacher's annual evaluation.

While mandated by state law, much about the new evaluation system was left up to negotiations between the New York City Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT)--the union that represents more than 100,000 educators and support staff in New York City's public schools. The fallout has made absolutely clear the impossibility of any "collaboration" with management when it comes to our rights.

On December 31, the city's DOE officials walked out of negotiations with the UFT despite a deadline imposed on them by the state that threatened the loss of all Race to the Top funds should they fail to reach an agreement.

The sticking point? The UFT wanted some semblance of fairness for appeals by teachers deemed "ineffective" two years in a row. An unpublicized change in the law means that, whereas in the past the burden of proof was on the DOE to prove that a teacher is incompetent in order to take away his or her license, it is now up to the teacher to prove that they are, in fact, competent.

The stakes are high. Without an appeal to an impartial source in these cases, teachers effectively lose all due process and become victims of the whims and vagaries of administrators.

With millions of dollars in funding at stake, Bloomberg went on the offensive. Unable to reach an agreement through negotiations, he reached into his union-busting arsenal and announced the newest weapon in his war on our schools--33 schools which had been deemed "restart" or "transformation" were now to be subjected to the draconian "turnaround" model (made famous in Central Falls, R.I., in 2010), complete with the firing of the entire staff and the maximum 50 percent rehired provision.

Bloomberg used his State of the City address to put forth this proposal. The next day, even before the staff at my school had been given the details of the plan, we were asked to distribute to students a letter to their parents that was an unabashed piece of anti-union propaganda.

A letter from School Chancellor Dennis Walcott explained:

[U]nfortunately many of the conditions the UFT insisted on would have made it harder for us to replace a poor-performing teacher with someone who will better serve our students. As a result of our inability to get the UFT to agree to real accountability, the State Education Department suspended your school's grant funding.

The letter went on to explain the benefits of the "turnaround" plan, which was described as an admittedly "aggressive" plan that would nonetheless allow the DOE to "screen existing staff using rigorous standards for student success, and to re-hire a significant portion of those staff," thus "enhanc[ing] the quality of teaching and learning in your school."

In other words, the letter placed the blame for the situation squarely on the teachers--while relying on those very same teachers to distribute this blatant anti-teacher propaganda to our students in order to tell them how awful we are.

Furthermore, in its infinite wisdom, the DOE disseminated this information at the end of the day on a Friday before a long weekend--and before the staff had been apprised of any of the details. As a result, students were sent home in a fog of confusion amidfinals and one week before Regents Exams, when the last thing they needed was to worry about the future of their school. So much for "children first."

THE IDEA that removing 50 percent of teachers in a school would be anything but devastating and disruptive to a school is insane, but it fits in with the general logic of education reform--according to Bloomberg and Walcott. In this dystopia, eliminating schools improves them. So, too, does eliminating teachers apparently make them better teachers.

It's amazing how "concerned" Bloomberg was a few months ago about the disruptions caused by layoffs if seniority provisions weren't eliminated. In that case, he argued this would have a destabilizing effect on schools with a large number of newer teachers who would thus be disproportionately affected. When it comes to my school, however, firing half the staff of my school is not destabilizing, but progress.

As a high school English teacher, I can't help thinking that this is what Orwell's 1984 (perhaps it should be republished as a DOE guidebook) refers to as "doublespeak" and/or "doublethink." It is a symptom of the complete lack of a rational or equitable impulse in what passes as educational policy

Of course, the whole proposal is completely illegal, potentially violating both city law and the UFT contract. To get around this small detail, the masterminds at Tweed (as the building that houses DOE headquarters is known) found an ingenious loophole. They could "turn around" the school if they pretended to close it, and reopen it one day later, thus doing an end run around the contract, and allowing them to ignore job protections and seniority rules in order to displace staff at will.

As a consequence, my school (and the other PLA schools in the city) will close on June 30 and reopen the next day--in the same building, with the same students, but with a new name and new number. Because our school will then have been officially "closed," we would supposedly no longer have any claim to a job in the school and would become ATRs (Absent Teacher Reserves, who maintain their current salary, but are shuttled around the city as substitute teachers).

Sure, we would be allowed to reapply for our jobs--with the understanding that, at most, 50 percent of us would be rehired. And we were advised to begin preparing portfolios so we could demonstrate our effectiveness and begin the arduous process of competing against our coworkers for jobs that we have been "highly effectively" performing for years.

In invoking the school closing argument to carry out what is, in effect, a "turnaround" model (in the federal government's education jargon), the DOE has run into some problems justifying what they're doing.

At least seven of the schools, including mine, have received As or Bs on the report cards that the DOE gives schools. As a result, even the New York Post, usually the vulture of the anti-union and anti-teacher movement, has questioned the DOE's logic.

As an example, my school is a PLA school because our four-year graduation rate is below 60 percent (it's 59 percent). We got an A on our report card five years ago and Bs every year since. Our "college readiness" statistic is the same as the city average (which is based on standardized test scores).

That we are suddenly deemed a school to be closed demonstrates the hypocrisy and absurdity of determining a school's worth by such capricious standards. It says far more about the failure of the DOE than it does about my school.

To justify this about face, Walcott has argued, "It's not just the letter grade--and the letter grade is extremely important, we take great pride in the letter grade...but you also have to take a look under the hood."

Which is precisely my point. These reports and evaluations of schools don't tell the whole story. For years, activists demanding an end to school closings have been making this very case.

So what is made clear by the DOE and Walcott is that, despite the blind spots of their own evaluation system, an F is enough to close a school, yet an A or B will not guarantee that it stays open.

THE REALITY is that the "data" cherished by education reform demagogues says little about what really goes on in a school. When we look at graduation rates and test scores, and then assign a letter grade to a school, we miss what's most important about what's happening inside the walls of that school. What disappears are the students who attend it--their needs, their hopes and their aspirations.

If you look at my school on paper, you will find a student body made up of more than 3,000 students with a graduation rate that is only a few percentage points below the city average. Dig a little deeper, and you will see that more than 40 percent of our students are classified as "English language learners" by the DOE--though they should more accurately be referred to as "emergent bilinguals" so as to acknowledge the fact that they already speak two languages.

In absolute terms, this means that my school has the largest number of emergent bilinguals in the city (about 1,300 at last count). Many of these students are recent immigrants who have understandable difficulty graduating in four years.

The reality is that all accepted research on language acquisition shows that it takes at least five to seven years to become academically proficient in a language--if the students are already proficient in their own language, which is not always the case for those whose formal education was interrupted.

As one teacher at my school explained recently, the reason students don't learn faster is "because they're human, with human brains." And the scientific consensus is that human brains take five to seven years to develop academic proficiency in a second language.

This is the "data" that the DOE loves to ignore.

But leave it at that, and you'll still miss what is so special about a school like mine--what eludes the "data sets" used to evaluate any school.

Beyond every piece of data on a page, there's a story. A school like mine has more than 3,000 stories. Many of those stories begin in Albania, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh, the Fujian province of China, Pakistan, the Dominican Republic, Tibet and Mexico. Many of these stories involve limited access to schooling. They are stories told in at least 37 different languages.

To be privy to such diverse and amazing stories on a daily basis is the highlight of being a teacher. No data can ever encapsulate the amazing lessons one could learn from the student population in my building. There's no space on a school report card to measure the joy of watching "emergent bilinguals" (also known as human beings) compare village life in Bangladesh and China, or to watch students share their ideas, cultures and histories at the myriad events that provide the space in which genuine multiculturalism thrives.

To reduce all these stories to a school's graduation rate is to ignore everything that is fundamental in education. Far from increasing accountability, it puts pressure on schools to ignore what students need in favor of what looks good on paper.

For example, the state doesn't take into account our five- or six-year graduation rate. This puts pressure on a school to graduate students as soon as possible--even if there are students who might benefit from staying a fifth year to improve their English language skills (and thus avoid having to pay for costly remedial classes at CUNY).

Thus, in yet another bit of twisted Orwellian logic, improving our "college readiness" (a new criterion being used to judge schools) could make us even more persistently low achieving and vice versa.

The latest attack on the 33 schools is yet more proof that none of the policies governing education today has anything to do with students, their parents or the communities in which they live.

Along with 32 other schools, the staff, students and parents in my school have become pawns in the mayor's war against our union, held hostage by interests that have nothing to do with education and everything to do with the privatization of our schools. This free-market ideology promotes competition instead of collaboration and Wal-Mart-style skills, rather than genuine critical thinking and inquiry.

BLOOMBERG HAS made it clear that he will wield school closings as a political tool to combat the UFT, no matter what the cost. At the same time, we must acknowledge that the UFT itself has paved the way to the current crisis with concession after concession.

The UFT's acceptance and endorsement of the change in state education law that led to this new evaluation system is a case in point. At the time, the UFT argued that, because the DOE was forced to negotiate with the union on the implementation of this system, this was a step forward that would lead to a more objective system of evaluations.

So much for that.

The DOE has made it clear that this type of collaboration is not one that will result in a real voice for the UFT. Furthermore, the UFT has already agreed to the use of test scores in evaluations and to an expedited procedure for getting rid of teachers who are given an "ineffective" rating two years in a row--no matter how bogus the charges.

It's important that that the UFT has held its ground in the current standoff, but the reality is that the stakes are high because we've already given so much ground. To give in further could lead to the end of job security and tenure in any meaningful way, resulting in a scenario in which any abusive or anti-union principal could use the new system to target union activists or dismiss people at will.

While the media's frenzy over the "bad teacher" narrative has made teacher evaluations a politically precarious issue, the reality is that the entire approach is based on the distorted view of "education reform" that has dominated public debate.

Why do the majority of teachers leave within the first five years? What can we do to support new teachers rather than evaluate them into oblivion? How can any teacher be the best s/he can be with 150 students and no budget for classroom supplies?

These are questions we should be asking. In addition to funds, what schools really need is a greater sense of collaboration and support, not an evaluation system that is based on the myths about the "bad teacher."

In this regard, the nation of Finland, where one of the best educational systems in the world eschews evaluations altogether, points the way forward. It focuses on recruitment and creating a professional atmosphere in schools in order to foster genuine collaboration and support among teachers. Not surprisingly, it is far more effective at retaining good teachers and providing the encouragement and support that they need to thrive.

Despite all rational evidence to the contrary, the education deformers plod forward with their project of privatization, competition and the complete destruction of our schools. On its own, this picture looks bleak.

But the Occupy movement has provided a ray of hope that has inspired a new generation of radical educators to take their struggle beyond the classroom to fight for quality public education for all. Occupy the DOE--the public education working group of Occupy Wall Street--is organizing to prevent business as usual and reinsert the public into debates about public education.

When they say a school should "phase out," we should say, "Occupy!" When they close schools, we should re-open them.

For all too long, being a teacher has meant being on the defensive, being a target for the privatizers' agenda for education. But no longer. It's time to take back education from the control of the 1 percent and fight for a public education agenda for the 99 percent.

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