Sunday, July 26, 2015


I read this disturbing article from Capital NY  on Friday.  The city and UFT could negotiate to possibly replace the teachers in 62 "struggling" schools.  Here is the part of the clearly biased, anti-teacher piece that most concerned me:

Major teacher turnover in dozens of schools is not an initiative that most would associate with the U.F.T. But Joseph Viterriti, a professor of education policy at the CUNY Graduate Center, said this could be an occasion for the union to flaunt its progressive credentials.

Progressive now means test and punish teachers.  It is the status quo after years of teacher bashing from No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

NYC Educator, as usual, beat me to the punch by showing how the advice to the UFT from the good Dr. Viterriti to offer up more teachers as sacrifices at the altar of education reform is a terrible idea. Unfortunately, our union has proven over and over how progressive our leadership is and they will more than likely throw more teachers under the bus in struggling schools to save themselves. It probably is too late for this year but expect many to have to reapply for their jobs in 2016.  What is the alternative?

How about trying to be a labor union?

On day one in an alternate universe UFT, after the 2016 UFT election when Mulgrew is ousted and there is a real union leader as president, things would change in a hurry. Besides cleaning house by dismissing most of the loyalty oath signing Unity faithful and opening up union positions to senior, qualified people (like comp time) and having elections for the District Representatives, we would need to change the whole conversation around education as quickly as we can.

We would immediately call for a South African style truth commission, as was recommended at the end of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's third term by my friend Marc Epstein, to expose what really occurs in the schools. Marc and I used to discuss this idea before he proposed it on Diane Ravitch's blog. A year and a half later conditions are now worse in the schools thanks to state legislation and a Chancellor who tries to have it all ways. If Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Farina say they won't cooperate with a truth commission, we would tell them good luck in the 2017 reelection without union support.  In terms of the schools, it hasn't much mattered whether a "progressive" or a billionaire is in charge of the city. According to City Hall, Albany and DC, teachers are to blame for inadequate student progress. It is high time we expose this fallacy and tell the whole truth about what is going on in our schools.

Schools in New York City basically fall into two main categories.

One group consists of schools who have no difficulty meeting their state statistical objectives. If schools in this category have a decent administration, they have pretty much survived school reform and many of their teachers might not even know what is going on in the rest of the system. If they have a UFT Chapter Leader like Arthur Goldstein from Francis Lewis HS or Kit Weiner at Goldstein in Brooklyn, they will offer to help members in less fortunate schools..

The rest of the schools are the schools that have to work in creative ways to meet their state mandated targets. These schools are almost always filled with large numbers of higher needs students (English language learners, students with interrupted formal education, overage-under credited [high school term] pupils, over-the-counter admits, special education students, free or reduced rate lunch kids). Schools labeled struggling usually contain many pupils who might not be motivated to learn for a multitude of reasons. We will focus our truth commission mostly on these schools although I am sure many of the top flight schools have stories to tell also but don't want to bring attention to themselves.

We then must divide schools that have more high needs students into two categories: Those who know how to play the game and those who don't know how to play the game. Those who haven't figured out how to play the numbers game are usually in trouble.  Now they are labeled "struggling" by the state. In the past, they were closed and reopened under new names.

By playing the game, some might think I mean cheating to meet state mandates but this is not necessarily the case. There are many ways to play the data game to make miracles appear in student statistics.  Some examples I have seen or heard of are schools that are excluding or strictly limiting the number of higher needs students described in parenthesis above that they admit. These schools are also famous for not replacing students who are counseled out or move out of the area.  This is the charter playbook.

There are many other ways to cook the books. Some schools narrow the curriculum so that all they do is teach to the state tests. This is not exactly motivating a love of learning but it could lead to success in having students pass standardized tests. Now onto more ingenious solutions from our high schools in New York City.

I have worked in the high schools for 29 years.  In that time I have heard many stories about creative ways to cook the school books.

I was told about one high school that took all of the students who had failed a Regents and put them in a separate class. They give the class a fancy title and instead of studying that subject, they did Regents review but the pupils still got course credit which they aren't supposed to get in a review course. If the school was undergoing a Quality Review, the teacher went back to teaching the real subject for a day or two until the reviewers from outside left.

We then turn to the many high schools who offer elaborate credit recovery programs. Some have been documented. Does anyone think Flushing, Bryant and John Dewey are isolated schools doing what students term "easy pass"? We also have principals who grant credit for students who are able to fog a mirror or sometimes even that test isn't necessary and transcripts just change by magic like at Jamaica.  From the information that has come to us at various meetings over the years, the vast majority of New York City high schools fall into playing the credit scheme game in one way or another. Only some are exposed.  Would most agree that it is the tip of the iceberg? Regents cheating is a little more complicated these days but we're pretty sure it goes on.  We just looked and we found some at Richmond Hill.

In addition, there are so many administrators out there who we have been told have passing percentage quotas for teachers.  If a certain number of pupils don't pass, the teachers get in trouble. Teachers have to document contacts made to failing students.  Teachers end up saying, "Why bother failing students? It isn't worth the effort and backlash." Many undeserving students pass.  Why do many administrators want to get rid of senior teachers and hire newbies.  For many it has nothing to do with the added salary on the budget and more to do with how easy it is to compel new teachers to pass almost everyone. Why is replacing entire teaching staffs is such a preferable school reform option?  New, non-tenured teachers are more likely to be pushed to pass just about anyone.

It is the rare principal that has to resort to outright fraud because there are so many weapons at their disposal to pass as many students as they need to in order to make the statistics appear positive. They even have data specialists these days whose job is to massage those numbers.

My favorite story was told to me about an attendance office staff in an unnamed school that figured out how to lower the denominator on the school's cohort ratio.  When certain student discharge codes are used, a school doesn't lose credit for a kid who is no longer at the school. Traditionally, a pupil who moved out of state or out of the country was the best kind of discharge because it reduced the denominator on the cohort. If a school had 100 seniors and one left the country, nobody dropped out. The school's graduation rate was then be based on 99 seniors. There was also no way for a computer to trace a foreign discharge but how did a school get multiple students to move out of the country or state?

It was as simple as using the copying machine when one kid left the country and then skillfully whiting out the date and name of the student on a school letter from a foreign country and putting in the name of a different pupil who had dropped out.  When I asked if they worried about an audit, the answer was that they didn't have to be concerned because the auditors usually only looked at a few of the discharges so they wouldn't be concerned that ten kids moved to India if the school had a significant population from that country. Do you think the auditor was going to call India? (Before anyone gets any ideas on turning this over to the Commissioner of Special Investigations or the Office of Special Investigations, the person who told me of this scam is no longer with us and it supposedly happened many long years ago.)  I don't even know how true this story is but I'm fairly certain scams like this are going on all the time as the stakes attached to student progress are just too high.  The public should know about all of them and the union should be exposing them loudly.

In my alternate world with a real union leadership we would have a public confession of every school's sins.  We hide nothing. We would be ready for the editorials from the Post and the Daily News that would say the cure for all of this cheating is to start more charter schools so we can have more school choice.  The answer to the Post's editorial board is easy.

Markets and competition do not work in public education as they only encourage cooking the books. More competition leads to more game playing.  (Someone get this message to democratic socialist Bernie Sanders please. He just voted for more test and punish.)  Add to this the fact that research has shown that children who come from poverty are at a huge disadvantage as they start school compared to their middle class and rich peers.  The American value of equality of opportunity does not exist in our education system and it is made worse by competition which favors those who can play the system.

The federal government originally became involved in school funding to try to fix the inequity of resources. Resources have not been equalized and having schools play with numbers to save principal and teacher jobs is resulting in kids receiving meaningless high school diplomas. All one needs to do to confirm how a NYC high school diploma does not signify a whole lot in most schools is to look at the remediation rates in community colleges at CUNY for NYC high school graduates. Those rates have not moved much after twelve years of school reform in New York City and they won't improve no matter how much pressure is put on teachers and how scripted the lessons are.

All that is likely to occur in what are now called "struggling" schools is a proliferation of new and old ways to play the numbers game

Instead of playing the game, how about we level the playing field by insisting that students in NYC get the same resources as students in Great Neck, Long Island? How can class sizes in the city still be going up when the Campaign for Fiscal Equity suit was settled in 2007 and lowering class size was one of the ways to fix the equity problem?  How can city schools be budgeted with a 10-15% cut from full funding when state aid is flowing and the city is swimming in black ink? This all needs to be investigated and exposed.  We can start to have the conversations about how to improve student outcomes when the resources are the same for everyone.

A truth commission would be a good way to turn the discussion on its head. Don't hold your breath waiting for the UFT to call for one.* They would rather have their seat at the table with the politicians who want to fire teachers and tell us to play nice with administration..

That is why I am hoping for an alternate universe.

*UPDATE--Thanks to Phillip Nobile for pointing out in a comment that the UFT did call for a Truth Commission in 2013 to be convened after Mayor Bloomberg was gone to investigate misdeeds under Bloomberg.  Once Democrat Bill de Blasio took over, we never heard the idea again.  In this piece, we are calling for one to be used to expose what is occurring under the current administration as well as the prior one.  My point is that not much has changed in the schools.  It is still a blame the teacher mentality at Tweed.  The only difference is now the union spin is that everything is beautiful. We need to change the narrative.


Anonymous said...

Dream on. If only we could pull it off.

Anonymous said...

More fuel.

Philip Nobile said...

"A truth commission would be a good way to turn the discussion on its head. Don't hold your breath waiting for the UFT to call for one."

Jim: Looks like you owe Mulgrew a half-apology. He proposed a Truth Commission two years ago at the 2013 Spring Education Conference as the New York Teacher clip below documents. However, you are on to something: he now has no comment on his dangerous proposal and nobody in UFT leadership will disclose what happened to the phantom commission.
2013 UFT Spring Education Conference

Mulgrew: Truth will move school system forward
by Micah Landau | May 30, 2013 New York Teacher issue

Calling it a “pivotal time in the history of our school system,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew focused on the need to rebuild public education in New York City after Mayor Bloomberg in his speech at the union’s annual Spring Education Conference at the New York Hilton on May 11.Mulgrew called for the next administration to appoint a truth commission to investigate what has happened to city schools over the past 11 years under Bloomberg. This independent commission, he said, could address the “unanswered questions” that plague the school system: why so many schools have been closed, why high-needs students have been concentrated in fewer and fewer schools, and why multiple schools were shoehorned into buildings that were already overcrowded. ...

James Eterno said...

This isn't a new idea. Never said it was. The timing now after a year and a half of Bloomberg lite under de Blasio would be pretty good, particularly when the threat of receivership is just encouraging more of the same cooking of the books. We need that truth commission for what is occurring now as well as Bloomberg's time. Nothing much is changing in the schools except the spin the UFT is putting out. I know you have talked about this many times Phil. We should use the idea to threaten to hammer de Blasio.

Anonymous said...

Now that we have this terrific contract under our belt, there is really nothing left for meathead Mike Mulgrew to accomplish. I am sure that his personal strategy is just to sit back, not rock the boat, and collect his $250,000 annual salary. The Unity propaganda machine will ensure his reelection as UFT president, and dues paying members will just keep on paying their dues.
Forget going on strike against New York City, we should go on strike against this sad joke of a union.

Philip Nobile said...

Not to quibble, Jim, but you cracked that we shouldn't hold our breath "waiting for the UFT to call for [a Truth Commission]." As noted, Mulgrew called for one two years ago. Credit where credit is due. I went to the extreme of praising his epistemologically beautiful idea at a subsequent Executive Committee meeting. I did not resist the opportunity to pose 10 questions to be put to Mulgrew under Truth Commission conditions.

One example: "Knowing that VAM is junk and its potential for misuse is high, why did President Mulgrew make it easier for the DOE to fire teachers by agreeing to switch the burden of proof in 87% of the cases from the DOE to teachers accused of incompetence?"

Mulgrew's early endorsement is all the better for us. We can appropriate his concept while exposing his hypocrisy for rejecting it. The Truth Commission is so dead at 52 that nobody including the usually candid and informative Leroy Barr will say a word about it. The UFT's silence is exploitable.

There is more good news. Mulgrew's change of heart means that Unity's dirty hands will not have a chance to muck things up. But anyway, a Truth Commission is pie in the sky. We'd need government cooperation to make it work and nobody in government wants to know the truth about our school system.

Instead, we could launch a giant survey of teachers and publish the results, anecdotes and all, with a view toward triggering some sort of major investigation of DOE corruption, perhaps modelled on Atlanta.

Another avenue to the truths about cheating would be the prosecution of Principal Elvin. What do you think about that? Farina's worst nightmare. These high level wrongdoers should pay for their crimes. Forcing Farina's hand, I am in the process of filing a criminal complaint against Elvin with the Brooklyn DA. Any suggestions?

Anonymous said...

You may get your chance if SCOTT rules against unions. Then non members won't pay dues.

Anonymous said...

GOOD. This joke of a union is taking its membership for granted. Maybe when they see signs of a mass exodus they will WAKE UP.

Anonymous said...

Wisconsin provides the model. Since the teachers don't have to pay union dues, half have quit the union. You think they are any better off without a union?