Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Stop School Closings!

The DOE is closing Brandeis High School. Please go the link to an article on this terrible situation from the New York City Independent Media Center. Now is the time to get involved to stop this cancer before it spreads to kill us all.

Video here.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Reclaiming Public Education and Reclaiming Democracy: Opposing the UFT’s Position on School Governance and Mayoral Control

(Given at the UFT Delegate Assembly by Michael Fiorillo, Chapter Leader, Newcomers HS, February 4th, 2009)

Dear Delegates.

I'd like to thank Randi for the opportunity to speak at length today, and I'd like to thank Emil Pietromonaco and Carmen Alvarez for their openness during the Committee proceedings.

There has been a lot of talk about how open the Governance Committee meetings and hearings have been, and I agree that they have been open and collegial. But in spite of that openness, the process was fatally flawed. It was flawed because, rather than developing and describing a vision of public education that represents and actively models democracy, the Committee hamstrung itself at the beginning by being overly concerned with political expedience and how its report would be perceived and spun by our enemies on the editorial boards and elsewhere.

Now of course we understand that compromises would have to be made during the actual negotiating process, but by starting off this process by not demanding a full loaf, we're guaranteed to just get crumbs.

The deeper reality of our situation is that school governance and mayoral control of the schools is not and never has been a response to the failings of the previous system, or to the needs of children, but is instead the primary vehicle for privatizing the schools.

Mayoral dictatorships of urban public school systems are a national phenomenon that has brought with it the closing and reorganizations of schools in favor of non-union charter and contract schools, and the diminution of services and opportunities for broad ranges of the public school population, particularly special education students an English language learners.

Mayoral dictatorships of the urban school systems nationwide have brought along with them attacks on tenure, seniority, working conditions and academic freedom. It has brought about a system with total disregard for parent input and the developmental needs of children.

Mayoral control of the urban school systems has been brought to us by the same people who brought us the financial crisis that now threatens massive layoffs and further cuts in services to children and families. Its has been brought to us by the same people who have sought to privatize what is called by Wall Street – in their actual words – "the Big Enchilada" – the last remaining bulwarks of public government, the schools and Social Security.

Privatization and private government. Of the schools, the highways, the water systems, the prisons. Even war-making is being privatized. And rest assured that as we speak the very same people are paying to find out how they can charge us for the air we breathe.

But it doesn't have to be this way. This union can take a stand against the efforts to destroy public education by using its power to bring democracy back to the school system in New York.

The ICE governance plan calls for real limits to executive power over the schools. It calls for direct elections of some central board members and all district superintendents, for why should minority residents in New York City, as in the other four largest cities in the state, be denied the democratic input that citizens in every other school district enjoy?

The ICE governance plan calls for no more waivers for the Chancellor, superintendents, principals or assistant principals. It calls for a minimum of five years classroom experience for anyone who would presume to be an educational leader, so that teachers will no longer have to suffer the attacks of arrogant no-nothings who lack any background in working directly with children in urban schools.

The ICE plan calls for change. You may have noticed how the American people have recently voted for change in our country. Let's bring that change to our schools. Let's not vote to validate the failure of a system where teachers can't tell where the incompetence ends and the malice begins. Vote to reaffirm democratic principals. Vote for change.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Testimony of Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education, New York University, Hearings of New York State Assembly Committee on Education, February 6, 2009

I am a historian of education on the faculty of New York University. My first book was a history of the New York City public schools, entitled The Great School Wars. It was published in 1974. It is generally acknowledged to be the definitive history of the school system. Since then, I have continued to study and write about the New York City school system.

When the Legislature changed the governance of the school system in 2002, I supported the change. I supported the idea of mayoral control. I looked forward to an era of accountability and transparency. From my historical studies, I knew that mayoral control was the customary form of governance in our city's schools for many years. From 1873 to 1969, the mayor appointed every single member of the New York City Board of Education. The decentralization of control from 1969 to 2002 was an aberration.

Having observed the current system since it was created, however, I have become convinced that it needs major changes.

It needs change because it lacks accountability. It lacks transparency. It shuts the public out of public education. It has no checks or balances. It lacks the most fundamental element of a democratic system of government, which is public oversight.

Never before in the history of NYC have the mayor and the chancellor exercised total, unlimited, unrestricted power over the daily life of the schools. No other school district in the United States is operated in this authoritarian fashion.

We have often been told by city officials that the results justify continuation of this authoritarian control. They say that test scores have dramatically improved. But no independent source verifies these assertions.

The city's claims are contradicted by the federal testing program, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The federal tests are the gold standard of educational testing.

New York City is one of 11 cities that participate in the federal testing program. On the NAEP tests, the city's scores were flat from 2003-2007 in fourth-grade reading, in eighth-grade reading, and in eighth-grade math. Only in fourth-grade math did student performance improve, but those gains had washed out by eighth grade. The eighth-graders were the product of the Children First reforms, yet these students showed no achievement gains in either reading or math. The federal tests showed no significant gains for Hispanic students, African American students, white students, Asian students, or lower-income students. The federal data showed no narrowing of the achievement gap among children of different ethnic and racial groups.

The SAT is another independent measure. This past year, the city's SAT scores fell, reaching their lowest point since 2003, at the same time that national SAT scores held steady. The students who take the SAT intend to go to college; they are presumably our better-performing students. Yet the SAT reading score for New York City was an appalling 438, which is the 28th percentile of all SAT test-takers. The state SAT reading score was 488, much closer to the national average than our city students.

Are graduation rates up? The city says they have climbed from 53% to 62% from 2003-2007. The state says they have climbed from 44% to 52% from 2004-2007. Either way, the city's graduation rate is no better than the graduation rate for the state of Mississippi, which spends less than a third of what New York City spends per pupil.

We must wonder whether we can believe any numbers for the graduation rate, because the city has encouraged a dubious practice called "credit recovery," which inflates the graduation rate. Under credit recovery, students who failed a course or never even showed up can still get credit for it by turning in an independent project or attending a few extra sessions. A principal told the New York Times that credit recovery is the "dirty little secret of high schools. There's very little oversight and there are very few standards." (NY Times, April 11, 2008). Furthermore, the city doesn't count students who have been discharged; these are students who have been removed from the rolls but are not counted as dropouts. Their number has increased every year. Leaving out these students also inflates the graduation rate.

We have all heard that social promotion was eliminated, that students can't be promoted from grade 3 or 5 or 7 or 8 unless they have mastered the work of the grade. Nonetheless, a majority of eighth-graders do not meet state standards in reading or math. And two-thirds of the city's graduates who enter CUNY's community colleges must take remedial courses in reading, writing, or mathematics. These figures suggest that social promotion continues and that many students are graduating who are not prepared for postsecondary education.

The present leadership of the Department of Education has made testing in reading and mathematics the keynote of their program. Many schools have narrowed their curriculum in hopes of raising their test scores. The Department's own survey of arts education showed that only 4% of children in elementary schools and less than a third of those in middle schools were receiving the arts education required by the state. When the federal government tested science in 2006, two-thirds of New York City's eighth grade students were "below basic," the lowest possible rating. These figures suggest that our students are not getting a good education, no matter what the state test scores in reading and math may be.

The Department of Education, lacking any public accountability, has heedlessly closed scores of schools without making any sustained effort to improve them. Had they dramatically reduced class sizes, mandated a research-based curriculum, provided intensive professional development, supplied prompt technical assistance, and taken other constructive steps, they might have been able to turn around schools that were the anchor of their community. When Rudy Crew was Chancellor, he rescued many low-performing schools by using these techniques in what was then called the Chancellor's District. Unfortunately this district—whose sole purpose was to improve low-performing schools–was abandoned in 2003. There may be times when a school must be closed, but it should be a last resort, triggered only after all other measures have been exhausted, and only after extensive community consultation.

The Legislature owes it to the people of New York City to make significant changes in the governance of the New York City public schools.

First, the governance system needs checks and balances. Having the chance to vote for the mayor once in four years is no check or balance, nor does it provide adequate accountability. The school system needs an independent board, whose members serve for a fixed-term, to review and approve the policies and budget of the school system. This board would hold public hearings before decisions are made. It would review the budget in public and give the public full opportunity to express its concerns.

Second, the performance of the school system should be regularly monitored by an independent, professional auditing agency. This agency should report to the public on student performance and graduation rates. Those in charge of the school system should not be allowed to monitor the system's performance and to give principals and teachers bonuses for higher performance. Such an approach does not produce accountability; instead, it only encourages principals and teachers to find creative ways to boost their test scores and graduation rates.

Third, the leader of the school system should be appointed by the independent board, not by the mayor. The chancellor's primary obligation is to protect the best interests of the students. If elected officials say that they must cut the schools' budget, the chancellor should be the voice of the school system, fighting for the interests of the children and the schools. If the chancellor is appointed by the mayor, his first obligation is to the mayor, not the children.

There are many challenges facing the New York City school system. Many of the students that it serves are disadvantaged by poverty, are English language learners, or have special needs. Changing the governance of the school system will not solve all the problems of educating more than one million students.

Nonetheless, the Legislature must learn from experience. It should correct the flaws in the law passed in 2002. That law went too far in centralizing all authority in the Mayor's office and in excluding the public from any voice in decisions affecting their communities and their children. It is time to change the law.

Thursday, February 05, 2009


News and Editorial by James Eterno; UFT Chapter Leader; Jamaica High School

The February 2009 Delegate Assembly overwhelmingly endorsed the UFT Task Force on School Governance Report that favored a continuation of a "modified" version of Mayoral control of the schools for the next six years. The current State law on NYC school governance sunsets in June and must be renewed or altered by the State Legislature or the system would revert back to a seven person Board of Education. (The Mayor would only have two appointees and that Board would pick a Chancellor who would answer to the Board and not the Mayor if we return to the old system.)

If the UFT proposal becomes law, the Mayor would still select the Chancellor and the Chancellor would still control the day-to-day operations of the school system. There is only one major difference in the law as compared to what we have now. The Mayor under the Task Force proposal would only appoint five members of the new 13 member Board of Education, or whatever they are going to call it, as opposed to the eight he currently appoints. However, since the Board of Education (called the Central Education Policy Council in the UFT Report) would have no say on who the Chancellor is, the new Policy Council could easily be ignored by a Chancellor the same way Chancellor Joel Klein simply disregards the local Community Education Councils under today's governance system.

The UFT report correctly points out on page 22 in describing the local districts under the current law: "CECs have not been able to exercise the powers and duties afforded them under the law, including the ability to have a say in a district's budget and policies as well as school zoning and closings." What makes anyone think that under four more years of Mayor Bloomberg and potentially Joel Klein, they wouldn't just disregard a Central Board in the same way they now spurn the local boards?

The UFT says not to worry because their proposal has an appeals process in it, but in reality it isn't much of a change from what we have now. Under the proposal, there could be an appeal to the State Education Commissioner if the Chancellor does not obey the education law. Also, a monitor can be appointed by the state if the Chancellor continues to violate the law. The monitor would have to issue a report within 30 days and then someone could go to court for relief based on what is called an Article 78. It should be noted that under current law someone can go to court and file an Article 78 or can make a complaint to the State Education Commissioner.

To pull out all the stops to get this through the Delegate Assembly, Randi had the minions prepared and oh did they come through. First, Staten Island Borough Representative Emil Pietrmonaco was called on by Randi and he presented a Power Point highlight show on how wonderful the Governance Report is. Then, Vice President Carmen Alvarez stepped in to say some positive points about how the report impacts on special education. This was followed by Randi calling on Unity stalwart and full time Staten Island Special Representative Jackie Bennett to sing the Report's praises and then Randi called upon Bronx Borough Representative Jose Vargas to add his one and a half cents worth of support. Four speakers in favor and none against; now that's a democratic union.

At this point the magnanimous Randi allowed Michael Fiorillo from ICE to give his minority presentation. Michael did a great job. First, he thanked Emil and Carmen for the way the governance committee was run. Then, he spoke about how Mayoral dictatorships over schools are occurring in many cities and the real agenda is to attack teacher tenure and teacher unions with a goal of reorganizing schools and privatizing and charterizing schools. He went on to say that the people who suffer the most under this type of system are the students with the greatest needs in special education and Limited English Language learners. Michael also talked about a lack of democracy in the UFT proposal as the public at large would not vote under any part of this new system and he presented the ICE proposal for a more democratic governance structure from the school level on out, including School Leadership Teams selecting administrators and no waivers of education requirements for anyone who wants to be an administrator. Only experienced teachers need apply for Chancellor. Michael was received fairly well.

One speaker against was enough so Randi followed Michael by calling on UFT Chief Operating Officer Michael Mulgrew. Guess where he stood on the issue? He said that we would have to fight for funding if we had a democratic governance system. He added Mayoral control means more money. Randi then called on New Action's Michael Shulman who basically said the report had mostly excellent proposals in it but he opposed it because it called for renewed Mayoral control.

Then, Randi pointed to Tom Bennett who spoke in favor of the report and then yet another Unity speaker was summoned who praised the report. This was followed by Randi calling on Middle School Vice President Richie Farkas who said that we can't have democratically elected school boards because they might not do the right thing. He gave some extreme examples from District 24's past. Randi then called on Bronx High School District Representative Lynne Winderbaum who of course praised the plan for having a high school district. Then Randi called on another speaker in favor of the report and when this one was finished I couldn't take it any more and raised a point of order saying that Roberts' Rules says the President is supposed to try to alternate between those in favor and those opposed to a motion in selecting speakers in a debate.

Randi had the audacity to say that she doesn't know which side people are going to be on when she calls on them. This was a tall tale of epic proportions that shows how naive she thinks the delegates in general and me specifically are. Emil, Vargas, Farkas, Mulgrew, Winderbaum, the Bennetts are all known members of Unity Caucus and many people know that caucus obligations require Unity members to support Caucus policy in union forums.

Furthermore, Farkas and Mulgrew are on the Administrative Committee as well as on the Executive Board so they already voted in two other bodies in favor of the Report. By then I was enraged and simply read the following from Roberts' Rules in a section called "President and vice-president." It says under the duties: "To try to alternate between pro and con when conducting a debate on a motion." Randi heard me read this and ruled me out of order! UFT democracy in action!

However, I won the point in reality as two of the final three speakers she called on were not in favor of the Governance Report, including Peter Lamphere who Randi confused with Kit Wainer and Marilyn Voight Downey who said that we are settling for next to nothing in this report. Peter then made a motion to table the Report so we could discuss it in our schools. That motion was defeated and the Governance Report then passed with very little opposition.

Winning an argument with Randi Weingarten is not that difficult but getting the word out so our members understand that six more years of Mayoral control will be a disaster for us will be much tougher. We urge everyone to read the ICE Governance Report and also to read our latest leaflet to see what might have been if we had a union that believed in democratic school governance at all levels. It would be wise for us to pick up this battle in other more receptive forums.

In other DA news, I must admit I was a little late but I did catch the monthly, "The Sky is Falling" speech from Randi about the economy, the need to take action in support of the federal stimulus plan, lobbying the State and the giant rally for our fair share on March 5. Randi compared it to the 1999 rally where a coalition of unions put 100,000 people on the streets and showed that then Mayor Giulliani was unfair to city workers. I'll be there and please join me but as we said in our special report last week, it's not going to be easy to mobilize demoralized members in many schools. Do you think the teachers at Brandeis, which was closed yesterday, are going to want to support a UFT rally?

Our DA Leaflet…

Mayoral Control:

Bad for Teachers, Students, Parents and Communities

One of the major planks in the corporate agenda for education is to put large urban school systems under dictatorial mayors who are free to shut out parent and teacher input while undermining the union, especially at the school/chapter level. To continue this policy, even with checks and balances, invites disaster.

Mayoral Control Has Been a Disaster for Teachers:

Attacks on tenure, seniority, working conditions and the professional status of teachers. Teachers don't know where incompetence ends and the malice begins. Throughout the United States, mayoral control of the schools has been the vehicle for privatizing

public education, bringing in charter and contract schools that are overwhelmingly anti-union, and that have few or none of the protections and benefits that UFT members expect and deserve.

Mayoral Control Has Been a Disaster for Students:

Students subjected to a stultifying, stress-filled regime of high stakes testing, with the wholesale loss of classes and activities that are unrelated to test prep. Science, art, music and physical education have all been cut back to meet the single-minded focus on testing in math and reading.

Time and again, mayoral control has shortchanged students, whether it was the fiascos with bus routes, cell phones, or the willful chaos they've brought to Special Education.

Mayoral Control Has Been A Disaster for Parents:

Over and Over, Bloomberg and Klein have shown their contempt for parents, ignoring them, patronizing them, and creating an opaque, impenetrable system where it's impossible to even get a phone call returned, let alone remedy a problem.

Mayoral Control Has Been a Disaster for Communities:

Under mayoral control, the reorganization and closing of schools, many of which have served their communities for generations, has accelerated, and there has been no opportunity to give communities any voice in the process. As a result, the democratic process itself has been harmed, and the community fabric has been undermined.

The UFT Must Do Better!

The UFT Governance Committee wasted a golden opportunity to stand up for democracy by failing to call for a return to some form of school governance procedure enjoyed by the overwhelming majority of communities in the state and nation, namely, direct elections of school board members. Rather than come up with a governance system that would serve our and the students best interests, the committee started off with the assumption that our vision would be rejected by the press and other critics; that we had to water it down before we could even formulate a better vision. Not that we shouldn't be willing to compromise when actual negotiations over governance begins, but was it wise to eliminate what we really wanted before we were publicly engaged?

Members of ICE (The Independent Community of Educators) participated on the Task Force, and repeatedly pointed this out, but to no avail. We could not support a position that in reality will mean more attacks on teachers, students and communities. Consensus means agreement is reached by all, not majority rule. We urge you to read the ICE minority report on school governance.

Independent Community of Educators (ICE)


Dear Delegate,

At the helm of our system are a Mayor and Chancellor who know little about education and care more about test scores, do little for our public schools, and care more about privatization and charterization. There has been more damage heaped on our students, their education, our profession, and our professional lives than at any other time in the history of public education.

We need to minimize the roles of politicians, make a Chancellor accountable to us, and put experienced educators back in academic leadership roles. The UFT recommended governance plan does not do that, ICE's plan does.

Please consider substituting or amending the UFT report when voting this afternoon.

The major points included in the ICE recommendations, missing from the UFT plan.

ICE proposes:

SLTs appoint their principals.

The SLTs of a District select their Superintendent.

The DOE must be politically neutral and not tied to any one political office.

A Central Board will be made up of one member elected from each borough; one appointee from each of the borough presidents, three Mayoral appointees and a UFT representative. The Central Board will appoint a Chancellor.

Evaluations of schools and students should be based on multiple measures and should be used for gathering information in order to provide support.

All schools provide the core curricula subjects, performing and visual arts, health and physical education, career and technical education, and technology.

The school leadership committees will determine how funds are spent.

All contracts will
be put out to open bid and made public via the Internet.

All registered voters and parents are eligible to vote for district councils and a representative to the Central Board from their borough.

Chancellors, district superintendents and supervisors must have a minimum of 5 years classroom experience, no waivers granted.

Thank you.