Last week Chancellor Farina and Mayor de Blasio released to great fanfare something called the “School Renewal Program” intended to provide long-needed help to 94 struggling public schools around the City. The School Renewal Program is intended to demonstrate to teachers, parents and the public that the Mayor and the Chancellor have finally developed a coherent alternative to the Bloomberg Era’s primary reform strategy—hold schools strictly “accountable” and close the ones that “fail,” usually by fiat but with an occasional nod to public participation. Their Program intends to shower resources and love onto these schools but will also hold them to unspecified “accountability” measures that may still result in closure if they haven’t improved within three years.
The Chancellor, the mayor and the UFT spent the last eleven months declaring that the new cooperation among them would show the people of New York and the rest of the country that “school reform” can be accomplished without recourse to Bloombergian autocracy and school closings. The unveiling of the School Renewal Program demonstrates, however, that nothing has changed about how the City’s education policy is really made except the sweetness of the way that Mr. de Blasio, Ms. Farina and Mr. Mulgrew talk to each other. Tweed is still “Tweed.” The kinder, gentler UFT will still support programs that hurt teachers and harm students.
The first school to be the subject of the program is the long-ailing Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. Let us count the ways that nothing has changed in how the City’s schools are run and its teachers treated except that the people who run them are different people and the things they say are said more nicely:
1. Last month, NYSED Commissioner John King declared B&G to be "over time" with regard to a turnaround plan from the City. King said that it was understandable that the City would be delayed because of the contract negotiations but demanded a plan from Tweed for B&G within two weeks.
2. Tweed has not changed under the new administration except for its new but overwhelmed Chancellor. Tweed specialized in "one plan fits all" strategies in situations that require nuanced and specialized approaches to the problems each failing school faces. It still does and always will because the Mayor de Blasio was unwilling or unable to appoint a tranformational Chancellor and to sweep the senior and middle echelons of the place. Our "new" Tweed is still the "old" Tweed with a handful of different names at the top of the same memos it still sends by lightning bolt to superintendents and principals—this time, however, B&G got its memo in the newspapers.
3. The Mayor was neutralized around education issues during the spring charter fight with Eva Moskowitz and after Tuesday's election and controls City education policy only by sufferance of Andrew Cuomo, NYSED, the Regents, John King and the Republican State Senate. What has happened at B&G is going to happen very soon to a school near you.
4. The School Renewal Program has few details but in usual Tweed style is rapidly taking shape at B&G only after it was announced with great ceremony. It seems to consist of three pieces: a version of the Harlem Children’s Zone/Cincinnati wraparound services model which has had limited and not entirely scalable outcomes in improving student performance, a version of the failed "Chancellor's District" from the late 90s and early 00s to flood struggling schools with additional BOE/DOE resources, which even its architect, former Chancellor Rudy Crew, recently declared a disaster because of its "one size fits all nature" and today's announcement of the adoption of the federal "turnaround" model for school staff.
5. The new principal at B&G received a sweetheart deal to induce him to take on the job: he is "executive principal" at B&G, which gives him an automatic $25,000 bonus, while retaining a new title created for him--"master principal"--at his former school, Medgar Evers Prep. He has the right to transfer back to MEP after one year, he is required to spend one day a week at MEP and he publicly declared that "MEP is really my heart." All guaranteed to get teacher, administrative, parent, community and student buy-in to whatever changes he makes at B&G before he cashes his check and goes back to the school he really loves.
6. This new principal at B&G has already been purging the register of students with poor performance and attendance but particularly with low numbers of credits, forcing them into transfer schools to "goose" his numbers. This includes a student like the president of the junior class.
7. The Program, to the extent that it is a program since “program” implies a coherent set of interventions that meet the specific needs of a troubled school while establishing a framework that can be applied across the system, is another example of the top-down, hurry up, “here-it-is and-be-quiet” approach built into Tweed’s DNA. The entire process has been improvised without input from any real teachers, administrators, parents, students or community groups. We expect that from Tweed but when the Chancellor, the mayor and the head of the UFT announce a “program” that embeds a “wrap-around” model for B&G it would be reasonable to think that the health, social service and other community organizations which will be expected to “wrap-around” B&G might be consulted before being wrapped-around.
8. The surprise announcement yesterday, of the federal "turnaround" model for staff, whereby all of B&G’s teachers must reapply for their jobs—the terms of the process secretly negotiated by Tweed and the UFT in an MOU that leaves many questions unanswered—appears to create an entirely new classification of teachers, somewhere between fully appointed staff members and ATRs, who have certain placement rights but do not appear have the full set of contract protections. UFT members at B&G have not been thrown to the wolves but rather to barking dogs and feral cats.
The result: an entire School Renewal Program concocted in panic and in the dark, around a conference table at Tweed with our union fully present, with the 'details" fleshed out under duress by NYSED and John King, all coordinated by a weak Chancellor and a mayor who wouldn't know what goes on in a real school if a member of UNITY took his right hand and a member of MORE took his left hand and walked him through one.
Teachers of New York City, welcome to Tweed’s new motto: "At least we're not Bloomberg!” Welcome to Tweed’s new educational strategy: “We no longer do what Michael Bloomberg tells us to do; now we work for Andrew Cuomo, NYSED and the New York Times."
My friends, this is our future and it will be put specifically into state legislation by April 1, along with an explicitly punitive revision of APPR, by our education warrior governor and his education cheerleaders, the Republican New York State Senate. Do not count on the Democratic New York State Assembly or the Board of Regents, nominally under the control of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, to protect us because the Regents, individually and collectively have little reason to believe that Speaker Silver can or will protect them from the Governor and Senate.
Here’s the real lesson from the mess that is the School Renewal Program. It took our union leaders exactly five days to reveal their new strategy after the drubbing they took in the election: there is no new strategy. They will continue to lie down with the Lion, Andrew Cuomo, and with the Lamb, Bill de Blasio, to placate the Lion in the hope that it will not eat us and to retain their ever-important seats at the big table. The problem, which even they have not yet awoken to, is that they've been relegated to stools at the children's-table where they may not speak but are allowed to listen to the adults talk while they nod with complacent and hopeful smiles to whatever the Lion wants to say.