Sol Stern on mayoral control


    I posted Sol Stern's recent article in the City Journal "Grading Mayoral Control" at Norms Notes. It is a good summary/history of the issues that have arisen since Bloomberg took control of the schools.

    Stern was a supporter of mayoral control in the beginning. He was also a severe critic of the UFT, blaming many of the ills in the school system on the teacher contract, something Joel Klein has also consistently done. But politics makes strange bedfellows and Randi Weingarten has embraced Stern, even giving him space in the NY Teacher.

    Stern focused his original criticisms of Klein over the adoption of what he called a progressive curriculum, instituted by Diana Lam and enforced by her successor Carmen Farina. I won't get into the details here. But teachers reacted as much to the dictatorial nature of the forced implementation as to the ideas of how to teach.

    Stern says:
    “Dictate” is exactly what Klein did for the next three years. The city’s principals were deemed so deficient in pedagogical understanding that Klein and his lieutenants would tell them how to arrange the chairs, the desks, the rugs, and even the bulletin boards in their classrooms. But Klein’s directions on more important matters did not inspire confidence: for example, he imposed a reading program that progressive educators favor called Balanced Literacy (a euphemism for the “whole language” instructional approach), despite the lack of evidence that it works for disadvantaged children.

    I know teachers that believe in balanced literacy, which they say is very different from the whole language approach, which has been discredited in many places for the lack of phonics and structured language teaching. One of Stern's points has been that phonics should be taught, an approach that seems as rigid as Klein's. I was a big fan of phonics teaching, but as a teacher I made the choice as to what extent it was necessary. I eschew any system where teacher choice is minimized.

    Ironically, Stern supports "Success for All," one of the most dictatorial, rigid, non-teacher input (and expensive) programs out there. He writes:

    To his credit, Klein approved the inclusion of several providers with substantive academic programs. One of these was the Success for All Foundation, which features the scientifically tested reading program that Klein unwisely dumped from dozens of schools in his first year in office. But it soon became clear that the program didn’t have much of a chance to sell its goods in Klein’s new supermarket. When I visited the hall in which SFA staffers were making their presentation, it was practically empty. Nervous principals, shell-shocked by this latest reorganization, decided to play it safe and go with one of the providers that knew its way around the DOE headquarters, rather than with an out-of-town organization like Success for All. Several sources also confirmed that providers had offered jobs to some of the supervisors departing the school system—on condition that they sign up as customers the principals whom they used to supervise.

    It's class size, stupid!
    I have heard teachers refer to Success for All as a "Nazi" program. Well, maybe that's going a bit too far. I mentored Teaching Fellows for a few years; one of the schools was using the program. All activities in the school would stop for an hour and a half and all personnel, including out of classroom people and cluster teachers would be part of the program. Thus, the sizes of the reading groups were drastically reduced.

    Duh! There's the scientific basis Stern refers to. Small groups work, not necessarily the program itself. Scientific studies would cite a control group where, say balanced literacy were used with the same student/teacher ratio as SFA. Bet we would see similar results.

    The morning would start with some kind of music piped throughout the school and kids would be marched to their classrooms. Teachers complained that they often worked with students that were not in their class but for just the SFA period. After about an hour and a half the music would start and everyone would be marched back. I often thought they could sell a CD called "Best Marching Songs Success for All."

    Stern attributes the lack of interest in SFA from Nervous principals, shell-shocked by this latest reorganization. But even principals who knew the program from the days when former Chancellor Rudy Crew forced it into every school in the former Chancellor's district, also rejected it as too expensive for what they were getting - just another program for profit. They chose not to go with SFA because they could get more for the buck elsewhere.

    Stern has also pushed the program being offered by Kathleen Cashin, one of the 4 super superintendents left from the regions, claiming her program was the most rigorous. But she ended up with the lowest total of schools of all 4, while Judy Chin, considered the least rigid, got the most schools. Many Principals seem to have voted with their feet for the least restrictive environment. And that will probably end up being an illusion too.

    Another irony here is that the UFT leadership with Randi Weingarten leading the way, partnered with Crew in implementing the SFA program with the support of the UFT run Teacher Centers. When the UFT complained about the rigid programs implemented by Klein, SFA teachers had a good laugh. Oh, the hypocrisy!

    I have one more bone to pick with Sol Stern over his article when he says:

    The Bloomberg administration must have known that the UFT would have to protect its senior teachers. Along with a coalition of activist groups that opposed the entire reorganization, the union began organizing a massive City Hall protest rally. The mayor initially hung tough: he called his own mini-rally, attended by 100 supporters, attacked the “special interests” blocking progress in the schools, and likened the UFT to the National Rifle Association.

    But the next morning, the mayor was breakfasting with union president Randi Weingarten. After a weeklong negotiation, the administration took both the new funding proposal and the tenure initiative off the table for the next two years—by which time Bloomberg will be packing to leave City Hall. The mayor may have been right about the “special interests,” but his retreat had plenty to do with politics and his own interests. A big fight with the teachers would have damaged his reputation as the “education mayor” and threatened his potential White House run.

    Th UFT gave the impression of protecting senior teachers, who were not really protected, as all the ATR teachers and the inability of so many to find jobs in the Open Market System have proven. Who really blinked? As previous posts here have pointed out, Weingarten wanted as little to do with a rally as Bloomberg.

    Who blinked first?

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