Marc Epstein, a teacher for many years at Jamaica High School (targeted for closure) here describes the Bloomberg years in New York City public schools and how difficult it will be to unravel the changes he imposed:
Bloomberg’s School Disaster
When Mayor-elect de Blasio announced Carmen Farina as his choice for schools chancellor and pointedly added that she was an educator, a metaphorical puff of white smoke appeared on the horizon for most of the city’s 75,000 schoolteachers.
That’s because after a succession of four chancellors over the past 13 years who had no professional education experience, it was if the Babylonian Captivity of the papacy had finally come to an end with Farina’s succession.
The hope is that Farina, with 40 years of experience that includes two decades in the classroom and another two decades holding administrative positions as principal, district superintendent, and deputy chancellor, has a fair idea of what has gone on in the school system over the past 12 years of mayoral control.
But there is also a fair amount of anxiety. The fear is that political forces outside of the school system reaching as far as the White House have a vested interest in seeing to it that unraveling public education continues unabated.
There’s even word from Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan helped put the kibosh on one of the candidates on de Blasio’s short list for chancellor.
Within hours of the Farina appointment the editorialists began espousing their anti anti-Bloomberg position. Anyone who might seek to undo Bloomberg’s accomplishments is a regressive Neanderthal according to the Wall Street Journal, Daily News, and New York Post.
Should Farina maintain the status quo, the fate of public education in New York City will be sealed. What’s more, she will enjoy the accolades of the media, a media that has become heavily invested, both figuratively and literally, in the narrative put forth by Michael Bloomberg about business solutions and data driven decision-making.
That’s because Bloomberg, with his vast wealth intact, despite having spent more than $600 million dollars on his mayoralty, will continue to shape the narrative with commissioned dynastic histories and the use of his own news empire.
In addition, Rupert Murdoch and his Newscorp, which includes the Wall Street Journal and New York Post, are heavily invested in the “education revolution.” Murdoch boasts former chancellor Joel Klein as his vice-president in charge of education operations too.
So if this to be the party line, and Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Farina want to begin undoing the damage of the past 12 years, they would do well to expose the train wreck that has become the New York City school system under Michael Bloomberg sooner rather than later.
For the past 12 years New Yorkers have been treated to a steady drumbeat over the airwaves and in print that posits that Mike Bloomberg was able to housebreak an unresponsive, unmanageable, sclerotic public school system and head it in the right direction.
He accomplished this by taking on the teachers union, introducing business-tested management techniques, creating a new kind of school principal purposefully chosen with little classroom experience, but trained in these business techniques, reconfiguring the school districts, closing failed schools and creating hundreds of new schools that offer a wide variety of school choices to parents who could shop schools to their heart’s content.
The numbers would determine all decision-making on the macro and micro level, because numbers don’t lie. Principals were given control over their budgets so they could run a school unencumbered for the first time.
And, every editorial page, intellectual journal, and radio wordsmith, bought Bloomberg’s spiel hook, line, and sinker. They’ve bought it despite irrefutable reports of poor student test performance, record numbers of students entering college unprepared, and an on-time graduation rate of 3% at New York’s community colleges. What’s more, they celebrate a budgeting system that gives the principals an incentive to hire younger, cheaper, inexperienced teachers, over more senior teachers that Bloomberg wants pushed out of the system.
The simple truth of the matter is that all of Bloomberg’s claims are counterintuitive. Numbers were manipulated in the service of his prejudices and ideology. The multiple reconfigurations of the state’s largest department actually destroyed institutional memory, and hence accountability.
State education laws regarding services are flouted with impunity. English language learners and more advanced ESL students are denied mandated instruction. The “litigate and be damned” attitude has defined the operatives at the Tweed Courthouse.
The only ones held culpable in Bloomberg’s education universe were the average teachers, and that was good enough for the pundits and Wall Street. But culpability should never be confused with accountability!
A young schoolgirl drowns on an improperly chaperoned field trip and the assistant principal who was supposed to go on the trip is let off the hook because he was busy with the school budget. Oh, there were no parental consent slips either.
Before Bloomberg, heads would have rolled possibly as high up as the chancellor, but for Joel Klein it was just another day at the beach.
A student becomes ill but is left unattended because there is no nurse in the building and the Dean’s office was instructed not to call 911 for fear that an emergency call would damage the school’s safety record being monitored in the new data driven accountability system.
It turns out the student suffered a stroke and was left permanently impaired. Her name disappeared from the enrollment list, and it was only because a lawsuit was brought against the city, and the illegal memo was leaked to the Daily News by someone in the school that the story saw the light of day.
An investigation was conducted. The chancellor promised a full report. But in Bloomberg’s universe, time heals all wounds. Nobody was held to account or lost their job. No report assigning responsibility was issued, and the city quietly settled the lawsuit.
Two weeks ago science experiment went terribly awry. All the facts aren’t in, but it appears all sorts of safety regulations were ignored.
But that’s to be expected when you have supervisors who haven’t been seasoned by years of experience or are petrified by honest reporting because they fear that bad news could lead to the demise of their school.
This has become a school system that simply can’t handle the truth. I’ve been writing about the schools for a decade, and for the first time my name has been sent to a conflicts of interest board about the content of my writing.
It’s not because I’ve become rich doing it, mind you. It’s because a thuggish ethos has became part of the DNA of the New York City schools and you speak your mind at your peril. Learning, inquiry, and dissent are being systematically flensed from the classroom and the schoolhouse in much the same manner it was done in totalitarian societies.
The net result is that the school system that Mayor de Blasio inherited is not a “mixed bag” of good innovations and things that need tinkering with, but a $25 billion dollar a year city department that is in a death spiral.
Large bureaucracies fight their battles with the tools they are given. Time and again history demonstrates that a bureaucracy can be bent to the will of the political forces running them in ways that are inimical to its mission and its very existence.
During the Korean War it seems that the generals running the war had far less intelligence capabilities at their disposal than they had when they were fighting WW II.
So what did they do?
An expert in army intelligence during this period once told me, “they fought the war they had with the tools that they were given. That’s the nature of bureaucratic organizations.”
Which brings me back to the New York City school system. My belief is that the breakdown in accountability, the widespread dissemination of doctored statistics, and the predisposition to hold the classroom teacher responsible for everything that has gone wrong in the schools has deeply compromised institutional memory. And without institutional memory, a bureaucracy of this breadth is doomed.
As a consequence, nothing short of a South African post-apartheid style commission that examines the past decade of mayoral control will suffice.
This is imperative because a well-funded chorus of writers and journalists continue to churn out a hagiography of the Bloomberg era, and portray it as a Golden Age of public education when all the evidence indicates that there has been no progress at great expense to the children and taxpayers of New York.
It should be composed on one level of well known people whose impartiality is beyond reproach and include representatives of all segments of the teaching, clerical, and administrative pool.
If the past 12 years are simply papered over, and Bloomberg’s gutting of the school system is treated as a “work in progress” that wasn’t completed because three terms as mayor didn’t give him enough time, then Farina and de Blasio will ensure that a once great system now at its tipping point, plunges over the public policy cliff.