Sunday, July 29, 2007

UFT Deal with Green Dot: New Low for UFT Leadership?

From TJC:

In April and May 2007, the UFT leadership was preparing to wage a fight to "put the public back in public education!"

Only a few short weeks later, the UFT leadership announced it was going to link arms with a charter school company, Green Dot, and help it enter the New York City charter school arena. So much for championing public education! Charter schools are completely private entities except for one feature: they get their money from the public coffers. So the public foots the bill, but all the decisions are outside of public accountability.

The UFT leadership reached this decision in a totally undemocratic manner. It was never even brought before the Unity-monopolized UFT Executive Board, let alone the Delegate Assembly where there would at least be possibility for independent voices to speak, although the outcome of any vote would be whatever Unity wanted.
On June 28, the UFT announced this decision in an email to chapter leaders and delegates. . Instead of calling it a charter school company, Weingarten's email calls Green Dot a "non-district public school operator." The Green Dot Company calls itself "Green Dot Public Schools," an utterly Orwellian title. Sort of like Coca Cola Soda renaming itself "Coca Cola Health Beverage" without changing its ingredients
This union-written screed was chock full of coded language with union busting significance. It calls Green Dot's working conditions "progressive," including "a full and fair disciplinary process based on an independently mediated 'just cause' standard." In other words, all that is necessary to fire a Green Dot employee is that Green Dot has "just cause" to fire him or her. As inadequate as our UFT protections are, this is far less protection. To call this "full and fair" reminds me of when I was recently shopping for underwear and I had to look out for pieces described as "cottony" that were 100% synthetic.
The next "progressive condition" in the UFT email is even better: a "professional work day rather than defined minutes." Get it? Instead of having a limited work day- like 6 hrs 50 minutes - , at Green Dot you work as long as the boss tells you to! And getting screwed like this is called a "professional work day." Last I looked, a real professional hits the golf course the moment he or she decides to call it a day! Wanna bet whether Green Dot teachers are going to be doing that?

Another "progressive condition" is "flexibility to adjust the contract in critical areas over time." The "flexible" contract generally means employee working conditions are subject to change, and changes are always to the advantage of the boss. The changes may in fact seriously hurt all employees or, more often, certain groups of employees.
By collaborating with Green Dot, the UFT leadership is promoting these inferior working conditions in other New York City schools that compete with other UFT members' schools for funds and for students. By abetting Green Dot's entry into New York, the UFT leadership is undermining all of our working conditions. But it looks like as long as the Green Dot teachers' dues go into the UFT coffers, the leadership isn't bothered by what happens to our working conditions.
The email quotes Green Dot CEO Steve Barr, "Green Dot has had great success in working with the unionized teaching force in Los Angeles." What Weingarten's email doesn't say, and what the article in the July 24 New York Times ("Union-Friendly Maverick Leads New Charge for Charter Schools" p. A1) reveals, is that what Barr actually did was to break the LA teacher's union (United Teachers Los Angeles) in the schools it took over, and set up what is apparently a company union. The way the NY Times article describes it, Barr has "driven a wedge through the city's teacher's union" and has been "welcoming organized labor - in contrast to other charter school operators - and signing a contract with an upstart union." Later in the article, Barr is described as "splitting the larger teachers union." Sounds like union busting to me. The Times also says that Weingarten's decision to work with Green Dot's Barr has "embarrassed United Teachers Los Angeles" and notes that some UTLA officials "have been fighting him tooth and nail." So rather than stand in solidarity with the UTLA, Weingarten is supporting the CEO who is busting their union.
In L.A., the Green Dot teachers have a 33-page contract "that offers competitive salaries but no tenure, and it allows class schedule and other instructional flexibility outlawed by the 330-page contract governing most LA schools." The lack of tenure speaks for itself. Here again "flexibility" is an anti-union code word. Examples of flexibility might include no guaranteed lunch period, teaching four or five classes in a row, no daily preparation period, mandatory conferences at the boss's discretion and working evenings, holidays, summers and weekends. Needless to add, these teachers have no defined benefit pensions and it is a matter of conjecture what their medical benefits are.
The UFT leadership's support for this union-busting outfit shows how completely and utterly our union leadership has given up any pretense of identifying with, let alone fighting for, our interests as working teachers. They have been emboldened by their escape from paying any political price whatsoever for the awful 2005 contract, and by their overwhelming victories in both the 2006 contract and the 2007 citywide elections. They now feel they can do whatever furthers their quest for influence and prestige as leaders of a wealthy, famous organization. The fact that this organization began as a labor union is receding in the historical distance.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Union-Friendly Maverick Leads New Charge for Charter Schools

Posted at:

Comment by George Schmidt, Schmidt, publisher of Substance newspaper in Chicago:

(By the way, when there is no tenure, the main targets of firing and harassment are the outspoken teachers who want to change the system, or who criticize the boss, NOT the lazy, incompetent teachers, who are portrayed as the chief beneficiaries of tenure.)

You'll get better education coverage in Substance than in the NY Times.
Send $16 to:
5132 Berteau Avenue
Chicago, IL 60641-1220

By Sam Dillon

LOS ANGELES — Steve Barr, a major organizer of charter schools, has been waging what often seems like a guerrilla war for control of this city’s chronically failing high schools.

In just seven years, Mr. Barr’s Green Dot Public Schools organization has founded 10 charter high schools and has won approval to open 10 more. Now, in his most aggressive challenge to the public school system, he is fighting to seize control of Locke Senior High, a gang-ridden school in Watts known as one of the worst in the city. A 15-year-old girl was killed by gunfire there in 2005.

In the process, Mr. Barr has fomented a teachers revolt against the Los Angeles Unified School District. He has driven a wedge through the city’s teachers union by welcoming organized labor — in contrast to other charter operators — and signing a contract with an upstart union. And he has mobilized thousands of black and Hispanic parents to demand better schools.

Educators and policy makers from Sacramento to Washington are watching closely because many believe Green Dot’s audacious tactics have the potential to strengthen and expand the charter school movement nationwide.

“He’s got a take-no-prisoners style,” said Jaime Regalado, the director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “He’s channeled the outrage of African-American and Latino parents into the public space in a way that’s new.”

Charter schools are publicly financed but managed by groups separate from school districts. Most other major charter organizations have focused on opening easier-to-run elementary and middle schools, not taking over devastated high schools.

Mr. Barr says, “We want systemic change, not to create oases in a desert.”

And while most charters have nonunion teachers and are often called union busters by opponents, Mr. Barr, a former fund-raiser for the California Democratic Party and co-founder of Rock the Vote, prefers to work with organized labor. Teachers at Green Dot schools have a contract, though one less rigid than at other Los Angeles schools.

Mr. Barr’s posture, as well as promising results at some of his schools, has attracted teachers to his side, even while splitting the larger teachers union, some of whose officials have been fighting him tooth and nail. Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, is working with him to put a Green Dot school in the South Bronx.

That alliance embarrassed United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents some 40,000 teachers. A. J. Duffy, its president, said in an interview that his union had allowed work rule waivers for some Los Angeles schools, but had erred several years ago by ruling out an arrangement with Green Dot.

“We could have and probably should have organized the Green Dot schools,” Mr. Duffy said. “They started with one charter school, now have 10, and in short order they’ll have 20 schools in Los Angeles, with all the teachers paying dues to a different union. And that’s a problem.”

The union representing Green Dot teachers, Association de Maestros Unidos, has a 33-page contract that offers competitive salaries but no tenure, and it allows class schedule and other instructional flexibility outlawed by the 330-page contract governing most Los Angeles schools.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who worked in the Clinton White House and is co-director of Education Sector, a research group in Washington, said, “Green Dot is mobilizing parents in poor neighborhoods and offering an alternative for frustrated teachers, and that’s scrambling the cozy power arrangements between the school district and the union to a degree not seen anywhere else.”

Mr. Barr has not just used his charters to challenge the district. He is also an ally of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat who has also battled the Los Angeles school district, seeking mayoral control.

The district superintendent , David L. Brewer III, met with Mr. Barr several times last spring to discuss his proposals for Locke, but those talks broke down.

“Mr. Brewer has said he continues to be interested in partnering with Green Dot,” said Greg McNair, who leads the district’s charter school division.

Green Dot is part of a new wave of nonprofit, high-performing charter chains that have grown rapidly with philanthropic financing, in Green Dot’s case especially from the Broad and the Bill & Melinda Gates foundations. Others include the Kipp Schools, in 18 states, and Achievement First, with 12 schools in New York and New Haven, said Ted Mitchell, head of the NewSchools Venture Fund, a San Francisco group that works with several chains.

Mr. Mitchell said that only Green Dot was mounting such an aggressive challenge to the local school board. “Many charter organizations try to induce different behavior by providing examples of good new schools,” he said. “But only Green Dot is trying to provoke a school district to behave in radically different ways.”

Some people voice skepticism about Green Dot’s methods. Clint Bolick, a lawyer who has represented many charter schools, said: “If union bosses start patrolling their hallways, that’ll be the death knell of charters, as it has been for public schools. There has to be a genuine perestroika for Green Dot’s approach to work.”

Tactics aside, the chain has had promising results. An early high school that Green Dot founded, Ànimo Inglewood, has raised the percent of students proficient in math by 40 points since 2003, and 79 percent of its students from the class of 2006 went on to college. Green Dot keeps enrollment in its high schools below 525. Incoming freshmen who need it remedial tutoring get it, and thereafter pursue a college-prep curriculum.

Three years ago, Mr. Barr negotiated with district officials about overhauling Jefferson High School, a dropout factory in downtown Los Angeles. When the talks bogged down, Mr. Barr concluded he needed clout.

Green Dot organized a parents union, and its members, buttonholing neighbors in supermarkets and churches, collected 10,000 signatures endorsing Jefferson’s division into several smaller charter schools.

Mr. Barr marched from Jefferson High with nearly 1,000 parents to deliver the petition to district headquarters. The authorities refused to relinquish Jefferson, but the school board approved five new charters, which Green Dot inaugurated last fall, all near Jefferson and drawing students from it.

Green Dot’s recent organizing suggests that many teachers are as frustrated as parents.

Locke, designated a failing school for much of a decade, is awaiting its fourth principal in five years. This spring, Mr. Barr drew up a charter plan and began meeting with teachers to explain it. He envisioned using the Locke campus for smaller schools that emphasize college prep and give teachers more decision-making authority.

He invited Frank Wells, Locke’s principal, to tour a Green Dot charter in May, a day on which Education Secretary Margaret Spellings would be visiting. Before parents, teachers and the secretary, Mr. Wells denounced the district as using Locke as a dumping ground for incompetent teachers.

“I went to Locke thinking I could turn it around, but I ran into a brick wall,” Mr. Wells said.

On May 7, teachers began circulating a petition endorsing Green Dot’s plan for Locke, and more than half of Locke’s 73-member tenured staff members signed. Bruce Smith, an English teacher who gathered signatures, said most young teachers were eager to sign; older teachers were reluctant.

“Among the people who opposed us, nobody said, ‘The district is doing a great job here,’ ” Mr. Smith recalled. “It was mostly, ‘What about our job security?’ ”

The district authorities accused Mr. Wells of fomenting the revolt, dispatched guards to escort him from the building, and dismissed him, Mr. Wells said. Binti Harvey, a district spokeswoman, declined to discuss Mr. Wells.

A decision by Locke’s teachers to break with the district would be an embarrassment for the school district and the teachers union. Both began lobbying the teachers. Last month, the district rejected Green Dot’s petition, saying 17 teachers had withdrawn their endorsement, leaving it without the majority necessary to comply with a charter conversion law.

But a newly elected board of education is to reconsider the petition in August.

Mr. Barr says that if he does not win the chance to use the Locke campus for his new charter schools, he will surround it with Green Dot’s next 10 charter schools, which are to open nearby in 2008, supported by a $7.8 million donation from the Gates Foundation.

“If the district doesn’t work with me, I’ll compete with them and take their kids,” Mr. Barr said.

— Sam Dillon
New York Times

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Steve Orel: December 20, 1953 – July 7, 2007

Posted at Susan Ohanian's web site:

The world has lost a brave warrior in the battle for justice. Rectal cancer had spread to his liver and he lost his last battle for life in the rainy early morning hours on July 7, 2007.

He was 53 years old. While in his teens, Steve left his comfortable world in Los Angeles, California and made his way, ultimately, to Birmingham, Alabama. He started as an organizer for the National Lawyers Guild, helping to establish the Peoples College of Law, a progressive, non-profit, community-run law school in Los Angeles. Along the way, he worked in slaughter houses and ship yards, organizing the unorganized for better wages and working conditions.

While in LA he also worked as an organizer for the SEIU and then, arriving in Birmingham, as an organizer for ACTWU, going beyond his specified duties to assist textile workers whose plants had been shut down due to NAFTA. Eventually, laid off himself, he turned to his love of teaching, in honor of his mother, to become an adult educator.

He finally found his calling in the Woodlawn section of Birmingham, founding the World of Opportunity (WOO), a non-profit, free adult education school with the motto, “Teaching to and learning from the whole person.” The WOO has assisted hundreds of “pushed-out” students in getting their GED certificates, with many going on to local colleges. There is also a nursing program, for students wishing to obtain their nursing assistant certificates.

Steve’s belief in the students’ abilities and the respect and admiration he showed them was the basis for WOO’s success. Upon first meeting a potential student at the WOO, he would use humor to overcome initial stiffness and lack of trust, stubbornly refusing to continue with the interview until he raised a smile from a broken face. Steve was told he had “a way of looking past what’s on the surface and seeing what a person is really like.”

Statements from friends and family from across the world included: “Those who led a life like Steve leave so many positive memories and victories that the immediate loss will be overcome by a legacy of courage, creativity and vision…” “Your actions have changed [personal] histories, and opened minds, bridging barriers among people of all walks of life.” All of these things resulted in Steve and the WOO receiving many awards and accolades. Though he refused to take personal credit for any of this, it was his vision and unique gifts that earned them.

The honors included: The “John Dewey Award,” Presented by the Vermont Society for the Study of Education in recognition of the extraordinary professional, civic and political courage in exposing and resisting the harms of high stakes testing and exemplary commitment to social justice; the “Southern Hero” award presented at the Birmingham City Council meeting by SouthernLINC Wireless in appreciation for outstanding community service and leadership; 2006 Libarary Champion award presented by the Jefferson County Public Library Association; One of the 25 top Good Small Schools, based on a study of over 3000 small schools in the United States by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
More information on this last honor can be found at:

Steve’s story and the story of the “522 Pushed-Out Kids” has been presented in several publications, including, “Silent No More - Voices of Courage in America”

Heinemann (2003); Susan Ohanian, “What happened to recess and why are our children struggling in kindergarten?” McGraw Hill, (2002); and, -“Divided We Fail - Issues of Equity in American Schools” Danny Miller, Editor, Heinemann (2005).

He was preceded in death by many beloved friends and family members: his beloved father, Ben Orel; his beloved father-in-law, Glen P. Creel; his beloved Aunt Rochelle and Aunt Estelle; Uncle Ben; Cousin David; Dr. Dan; and beloved friend, Alan.

His Birmingham family and friends: He is survived by his beloved wife, Glenda Jo and his beloved son, Justin; his mother-in-law, Annie Jo Creel, sister-in-law, Lisa Stevens and his beloved niece, Kayla Jo Stevens, his Uncles L.M. & Cob; his beloved Father Charles; the beloved WOO folks, Mary, Jerome, Denita and Tara; friends, David & Kathy;

His Los Angeles family: His beloved Mom, Jeannette Orel, Sister, Judy Ravitz, Brother-in-law, Kenny Ravitz, His beloved cousins, Mark, Dorothea, Andrew & Landon; Les & Dianne, Noah & Jonah; Debbie, Bianca & Alexa;

His West Coast and in between Friends: Barbara & Gary; Larry & Janet; Janet & Debbie; Ross & Linda; Forey, Danny & Luke.

Steve also enjoyed the love of his canine family: Percy Jo, Max, Boomer, Shmangie & Shmatta.

Understanding that individuals alone cannot accomplish what needs to be done, he always kept the words to this song in his head and heart:

“Step by Step the longest march, Can be won, Can be won.

Many stones can form an arch, Singly none, singly none.

And by union what we will, Can be accomplished still.

Drops of water turn a mill, Singly none, singly none.”

(The United Mineworkers song)

The following poem, sent by a friend and written by an unknown Native American, truly expresses how Steve would want people to think of him:

Don’t stand by my grave and weep,

For I am not there.

I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow

I am the diamond’s glint on snow,

I am the sunlight on ripened grain,

I am the gentle autumn’s rain,

In the soft hush of the morning light

I am the swift bird in flight,

Don’t stand by my grave and cry,

I am not there,

I did not die.

Steve urges all of you to get a colonoscopy!

In lieu of flowers: Please contribute to:

The World of Opportunity (WOO)

7429 Georgia Road

Birmingham, Alabama 35212

One more time:

[Warmest peacebuilding greetings,

Steve Orel]

A Memorial will be held at Temple E-Manuel, Hess Chapel , 2100 Highland Avenue South, Birmingham, Alabama 35205. Ph: 933.8037

On: August 7, 2007 at 11:00 a.m.

A hand-in-hand remembrance will be held at the World of Opportunity

7429 Georgia Road

Birmingham, Alabama 35212

On: August 8, 2007 at 12:00 p.m.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Sol Stern - Grading Mayoral Control

Commentary will follow on ednotesonline.

Grading Mayoral Control
Lauded in the press, Bloomberg’s education reforms are proving more spin than substance. Parents are losing patience.

Sol Stern
Summer 2007

Mayoral control, the hot new trend in urban school reform, began in Boston and Chicago in the 1990s. Now it’s the New York City school system, under the authority of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, that’s become the beacon for education-mayor wannabes like Adrian Fenty of Washington, D.C., and Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles. Influential philanthropic foundations, such as the Los Angeles–based Broad Foundation (headed by Bloomberg friend and fellow billionaire Eli Broad) and the Gates Foundation, are investing in Bloomberg as the model big-city mayor who uses his new executive powers over the schools to advance a daring reform agenda. Meanwhile, the national media’s positive coverage of mayoral control in Gotham is adding to the luster of a possible Bloomberg presidential run.

For New Yorkers, though, the original appeal of mayoral control was entirely parochial. The old Board of Education—with seven members, appointed by six elected city officials—offered a case study of the paralysis that sets in when fragmented political authority tries to direct a dysfunctional bureaucracy. New Yorkers arrived at a consensus that there was not much hope of lifting student achievement substantially under such a regime. The newly elected Bloomberg made an offer that they couldn’t refuse: Give me the authority to improve the schools, and then hold me accountable for the results.

So on June 12, 2002, Bloomberg appeared at the mayoral-control bill-signing ceremony alongside Governor George Pataki. The bill would “give the school system the one thing it fundamentally needs: accountability,” said Bloomberg. The new governance system won enthusiastic support across the political spectrum, from conservative think tanks to the New York Times and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), whose members got a huge pay raise.

Just five years later, that consensus has fractured. Some state legislators representing the city, including influential Assembly education-committee chair Catherine Nolan, promise a tough review process when reauthorization of mayoral control comes up in 2008. There’s also a significant demographic divide on the benefits of the reform. Business leaders, editorial boards, and many education experts remain enthusiastic. Constituents at the grass roots, however, feel increasingly frustrated. More than two dozen parent groups and district education councils have passed resolutions opposing Schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s latest school reorganization plans. According to the Quinnipiac poll of city residents, Klein’s favorability rating has fallen to just 37 percent, and a majority of New Yorkers want something like an independent board of education or a commission with oversight powers.

Stirring public unease is the realization that what Bloomberg really meant by accountability was one election, one time. If you didn’t like the way that mayoral control was working under Bloomberg, you could vote for Democrat Freddy Ferrer in the 2005 mayoral election (Bloomberg’s last, because of term limits). But what could you do after that election? Bloomberg’s suggestion: “Boo me at parades.”

The arrogance of that response demonstrates how little Bloomberg really seems to care about accountability. In fact, his Department of Education routinely undermines accountability with a public-relations juggernaut that deflects legitimate criticism of his education policies, dominates the mainstream press, uses the schools as campaign props, and, most ominously, distorts student test-score data. Without transparency, real accountability doesn’t exist.

Admittedly, any mayor taking over the city’s dysfunctional school system would need an effective information campaign to win public support for the wrenching changes necessary. But Bloomberg also wants to conquer new political frontiers. If he does run for president, it will be partly on his education record.

That ambition has driven the administration’s media operations on education. It’s why the Department of Education’s communications office is 29-strong, four times as many employees as worked in the press office under the old Board of Ed. And that doesn’t include the city hall press operation, which often joins in promoting new education initiatives, or the substantial public-relations and marketing services that the administration has received from companies, either pro bono or paid for by third-party private contributions.

Recently, for example, the Fund for Public Schools—ostensibly an independent, not-for-profit organization that raises private money for the schools—launched a two-month ad campaign bolstering administration claims that reading and math scores were rising and calling on New Yorkers to “help keep the progress going.” The full-page ad that ran in the New York Times on June 7 didn’t mention, though, that Klein was the fund’s chairman or that the mayor’s friends, including the Broad Foundation, had helped pay the $1 million cost of the ad campaign.

Such media spin has become so commonplace that it’s producing a backlash among New Yorkers who might otherwise be on the mayor’s side, such as David Bloomfield, president of the citywide education council for high schools and a Brooklyn College professor who trains future public school principals. (He’s also the author of a Manhattan Institute study advocating charter school legislation.) An early mayoral-control enthusiast, Bloomfield was recently asked by an education department official to make suggestions for redesigning the department’s website. His response: “The website should be transformed from a mayoral campaign vehicle to something really useful to parents and other members of the public. . . . Instead it’s all buttercups-and-roses, smoke and mirrors. Why is there never any bad news? Just press releases on the home page taking credit for the sun rising. . . . The website is a perfect example of what makes everyone so mad about the way the Mayor has handled the schools: data manipulation, grandiose claims, and almost no way to find out that a third (or is it more?) of our schools are failing under No Child Left Behind.”

The most notorious case of Bloomberg’s data manipulation occurred during the 2005 mayoral race. In May of that year, city hall bused education reporters to P.S. 33, a poor, predominantly minority school in the Bronx, where Bloomberg congratulated the children, their teachers, and Principal Elba Lopez on a miracle: 83 percent of the school’s fourth-graders scored at grade level on the 2005 reading test, compared with only 35.8 percent the previous year—an unheard-of one-year gain of close to 50 percentage points. The school’s score was just 4 percentage points below the average for the state’s richest suburban districts. Further, the mayor announced, the percentage of the city’s fourth-graders passing the state’s reading test had risen by a “record-breaking” 10 points in just one year.

If Bloomberg had really introduced accountability into the city’s education system, the implausible P.S. 33 scores would have raised red flags at the education department and perhaps even prompted a fraud referral to the city’s Special Commissioner of Investigations. Instead, the mayor got the political boost that he sought, with front-page headlines hailing the “historic” gains. Almost no commentary pointed out that fourth-grade reading scores rose by almost 10 percentage points in the rest of the state, too, suggesting that the 2005 test might have been easier than the previous year’s.

The “miracle” eventually unraveled, but only after Bloomberg’s reelection. When the 2006 scores arrived, they showed that the P.S. 33 fourth-graders, now fifth-graders, had plummeted back to a pass rate of 41 percent on their reading tests. Principal Lopez, meantime, had retired, with a pensionable $15,000 bonus for her school’s 2005 scores. After I published an article about the suspicious scores in the Autumn 2006 City Journal, and after Andrew Wolf published another one in the New York Sun, the DOE launched an internal investigation. Last December, Klein concluded that enough evidence of possible fraud existed to ask DOE counsel Michael Best to make a referral to the city’s Special Commissioner of Investigations. But the counsel’s office somehow forgot to do it, according to DOE press secretary David Cantor. The referral was finally made, but only after another inquiry by Wolf in early June.

Fred Smith, a former Board of Education statistical analyst, further discredited the 2005 reading scores in the Sun. Using information obtained from a Freedom of Information request, Smith concluded that 4 percentage points of the citywide 10-point test-score rise resulted from the DOE’s exclusion of 2,170 students who spoke another language at home, and of another 3,000 students with reading difficulties who had been held back in third grade because of the administration’s (salutary) new policy of ending social promotion. As Smith concluded, “Much of 2005’s publicized record-setting increases were a phantom—a case of addition by subtraction.”

But the DOE never looks back and never concedes error. In fact, Klein and his deputies now compound the previous distortions by boasting that on their watch, there has been an overall rise of 12 percentage points in the number of students passing the state’s fourth-grade reading test. Even if true, it would be only a modest breakthrough, an average yearly increase of 2.5 percentage points. But it isn’t true. The only way that the DOE can justify the claim is to borrow a 5.9-point reading-score increase that occurred between 2002 and 2003, credit for which ought to go to Klein’s predecessor, Harold O. Levy, or to no chancellor at all.

Consider: Bloomberg took office on January 1, 2002, but he didn’t win control of the schools until June 12 of that year. Klein wasn’t appointed until August, and then he spent the rest of the year studying the system and appointing task forces to advise the administration on how to restructure the schools. By the time the chancellor finished studying, students were taking the 2003 fourth-grade reading test. The system was, in effect, operating on autopilot during the year that the students recorded the healthy 5.9 percentage-point improvement.

At the time, Klein knew that he couldn’t convincingly claim credit for the 2003 test scores, and he didn’t even hold a press conference to celebrate them. Four years later, the fourth-grade reading scores have inched up by another 7 percentage points, only half the average yearly increase achieved under the tenures of Chancellors Levy and Rudy Crew. But to avoid that invidious comparison, the mayor and the chancellor simply take the 2003 result and add it to their own column.

The administration has dissembled even more egregiously on math scores. Granted, the 2007 math tests brought some good news, with the city’s fourth-graders improving by 3.2 percentage points—one point ahead of the state as a whole—and the city’s eighth-graders bumping up by 6 percentage points, compared with the state’s rise of 5 points. Once more, however, this modest gain wasn’t good enough for the potential presidential candidate who wants to be known as the “education mayor.” So the press release issued by city hall claimed that “since 2002, the first year of the Bloomberg administration,” elementary- and middle-school math scores went up by a total of 27.8 percentage points. The release didn’t mention that two-thirds of the fourth-grade gain was earned during the 2002–03 school year and, again, ought to have been credited to Levy or to no one. Further, the press release mixed up city and state test scores to arrive at its figure—a violation of every rule of psychometrics.

Education historian Diane Ravitch, author of the definitive history of the New York City public schools and a nationally recognized expert on testing and standards, finds this cooking of the books appalling. Says Ravitch: “Whenever new data appear about test scores or graduation rates, they are immediately massaged and packaged by the public-relations department at the Department of Education. With all its faults, the old Board of Education did have a research department, where conscientious, nonpartisan researchers tallied up the good news and the bad news and gave it straight to the public, without adding self-serving praise or toying with the interpretation of the numbers.”

The only education numbers that can’t be manipulated are those that tell how steeply education spending has increased under the Bloomberg-Klein regime. In the past four years, total expenditures on city schools from all sources—state, city, federal, and private—surged from $14 billion to $18 billion yearly, the greatest increase in history. The new funding allowed the system to hold the equivalent of 15 extra days of school per year and to hire thousands of extra teachers.

There’s no denying that there have been some improvements since Bloomberg and Klein announced the first set of mayoral reforms in 2003. In addition to the gains already mentioned, eighth-grade reading scores, flat for the past eight years, jumped by 5 percentage points in 2007 (though scores went up by even higher amounts throughout the state, again suggesting an easier test). Fourth-grade math scores are up by a total of 7.7 percentage points overall in four years, and eighth-grade math scores are up by about 12 points. But considering the extra $4 billion spent, plus the 15 additional days of school, that hardly deserves to be regarded as a major achievement for either the mayor or the institution of mayoral control.

Even if the administration’s claims about test scores were accurate, it would still be difficult to know which of its structural or instructional initiatives should get credit for the improvement. That’s partly because Klein’s Department of Education does no research on which programs work and which do not, and partly because within just three years, he and Bloomberg have flip-flopped on their plans for the school system’s structure. The first phase of mayoral control was all about top-down centralization; in the second phase, the rallying cry is market incentives and autonomy for the principals.

Bloomberg presented his first school reorganization plan in a dramatic Martin Luther King Day speech in 2003, seven months after taking control of the schools. The city’s 32 community school boards would be shut down, the mayor announced, and replaced with “one unified, focused, streamlined chain of command,” running directly from city hall to the chancellor’s office, then through ten powerful regional superintendents reporting directly to the chancellor, and finally down to each school’s principal. From now on, the mayor said, “the chancellor will dictate the curriculum and pedagogical methods” in all but 200 schools.

“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.

Sometime after the mayor’s reelection, Bloomberg and Klein launched another radical restructuring of the system. The administration maintained its public posture that the first reorganization was working perfectly. But Klein’s planners at the Tweed Courthouse were quietly preparing the ground for a 180-degree change. Klein hired three new deputy chancellors with reputations as strategic thinkers and a bent for systems management; all were Ivy League law school graduates who, like Klein, had clerked at the Supreme Court, though they had little or no education background. Klein also brought in a host of management consultants, including Sir Michael Barber, a former education advisor to British prime minister Tony Blair and now a partner at the consulting firm McKinsey and Company, where he specializes in “performance management systems.” As one former DOE official put it, the new brain trust “stopped talking about education. It was all about systems and incentives.”

Klein soon become convinced that the best way to drive improvement in test scores was to create financial and other incentives for each of the important actors in the system—principals, teachers, even students—to work harder and more effectively. In fact, with the encouragement of Alvarez and Marsal, a high-priced consulting firm hired by the DOE, Klein created a new office in the Department of Education: the “Market Maker.” From operating like a regulated, command-and-control economy, the system would go almost overnight to something that, on paper at least, would work like Adam Smith’s invisible hand. It was all theoretical, of course. There were no precedents to consult and no research to back it up, because no one had ever tried to simulate a market system within a big-city school district—certainly not so swiftly.

But Sir Barber was telling Klein that the only way to make a radical transition in a big system like New York’s was to push through changes quickly before the special interests mobilized—somewhat like the “shock therapy” that some Western economists once advocated for former Soviet bloc countries transitioning from state socialism to free markets.

Bloomberg administered the first big shock in last January’s State of the City speech. Market-based accountability, he explained, would rest on four pillars. The city’s 1,450 principals would throw off the shackles of central bureaucracy and become independent CEOs, running their schools as small enterprises. Principals would be rewarded or fired based on a sophisticated new data system that tracked their students’ progress on test scores as they advanced through the grades. Tenure rules would be reformed, making it possible to apply market discipline to the teaching labor force. And school-funding formulas would be equalized: each student in the school system would be funded with the same base dollar amount, with schools getting higher funding levels for immigrants still learning English and for special-education students.

Each of these reform proposals contains considerable potential for good. Giving principals more autonomy is certainly preferable to dictatorship. More data on student performance are always welcome and will, if trustworthy, lead to more accurate performance evaluations of principals. Reforming tenure is worth exploring, since the rules for weeding out bad teachers are broken. Finally, equalizing funding for students, an idea first proposed by the Fordham Foundation last year, is not only a matter of elementary fairness; it can also provide needed aid for poorly performing schools, and it ensures that competition among schools takes place on a level playing field.

Unfortunately, the latest reorganization plan is already falling apart. The administration has applied reasonable-sounding reforms with little appreciation for the culture of the schools. One glaring example is the equitable-funding plan. The administration decided to count teacher salaries against each school’s new budget under the proposed funding formula. Since teacher salaries are based largely on seniority, this would penalize stable schools with long-serving staffs.

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.

One of the two remaining parts of the second reorganization, the principals’ empowerment initiative, gives educators only an illusion of the free market that they would need to manage schools as businesses. This became clear on a recent spring afternoon at the Grand Hyatt New York. In an event organized by Klein’s Market Maker office, all the city’s principals were invited to the luxury hotel for a celebration of their impending liberation from central bureaucratic control. Ushered into the hotel’s huge ballroom to the beat of a live jazz band, the principals were treated to a video starring New York City public school alums Henry Kissinger, Spike Lee, and Joan Rivers, plus a half-dozen of the most adorable, well-spoken children presently attending city schools. The alums and the kids recounted charming stories about their schools’ dedicated principals, and Spike Lee narrated a separate segment explaining the principals’ new roles in the reorganization. After the video, Klein told the principals that they were about to become results-oriented CEOs with the managerial and pedagogical skills to drive the next phase of Bloomberg’s turnaround of the schools.

The soon-to-be-empowered principals then got to wander through the hotel’s exhibition halls, transformed into a supermarket of education service providers. The educators got a taste of the services that they would soon be able to buy for their schools to replace those currently supplied by the central bureaucracy. In turn, the 14 providers competed against one another to sign up the principals, now in control of their own budgets, as customers.

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.

What’s left of the mayor’s new reorganization plan is the sophisticated data management system, developed by Columbia Law School professor James Liebman. It promises to go further in charting how much students in the city’s schools are learning than any tool available in any school system in the country. Kudos are certainly in order for Bloomberg, Klein, and Liebman. But after the past five years’ experience with the education department’s public-relations machine, there must be guarantees that all these data will be completely transparent, available to all, and free of manipulation.

When the state legislature begins debating the reauthorization of mayoral control next year, one question that it will surely have to consider is whether mayoral control can deliver true accountability. The only way to ensure this is to create an independent agency with the authority to mine all the education department’s data about test scores and graduation rates, to do research about which programs are working, and then to make all that information available to the public on a regular, timely basis. No sane person would want to go back to anything like the discredited Board of Ed. But without a guarantee that an independent research agency will be created and properly funded, extending mayoral control would be an invitation for the next politically ambitious mayor to keep undermining the credibility of the public education system that is so essential to our democracy.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Sorry Thomas Friedman, The World Is Round

Ohanian Comment: The following is an excerpt from Stephen Marshall's new book, Wolves in Sheep's Clothing: The New Liberal Menace in America. This issue of the "flat world" is very relevant to education. After all, Thomas Friedman spews his same glib pro-capitalist, pro-globalist message about the schools. Margaret Spellings is given to quoting him. And, more importantly, these issues of globalism are something we need to come to grips with--both as teachers and as moral human beings.

By Stephen Marshall

Now every true revolution has a scribe, someone who is able to channel the zeitgeist into a passionate, living chronicle that fuels the insurgency and propels it to its ultimate historical destiny. The French Revolution had Voltaire, the American had Thomas Paine. For the new capitalist revolution, there is New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. I know this because as I walk through the business class cabin of my United Airlines flight, passing all the young legionnaires of the jet-set globalist contingent, I count four copies of his bestselling book, The World Is Flat, and that's just in the first three rows. Seeing the books reminds me that Friedman was the only major figure to refuse my interview request. It's a drag, because there is probably no other liberal who fits the description of a wolf in sheep's clothing than America's preeminent globalization advocate.

Friedman was one of the first A-list liberals to peddle the idea that Iraqis would treat American soldiers as liberators. He believed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein represented the very best aspects of American liberalism. Six months after the invasion -- the same week I was interviewing Sgt. Hollis in Samarra -- Friedman declared, "This is the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the U.S. has ever launched -- a war of choice to install some democracy in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world." Like so many of his other liberal peers, Friedman denied there was economic dimension to the conflict. This war was different from past wars that their generation had protested. "U.S. power is not being used in Iraq for oil, or imperialism, or to shore up a corrupt status quo, as it was in Vietnam and elsewhere in the Arab world during the cold war," wrote Friedman in his column.

And yet, as many Iraqis told me during my time in-country, the imposition of democracy from a foreign power seemed to contradict the very essence of political freedom. Especially when the Americans were doing everything in their power to control the new system. Overwhelmingly, Iraqis seemed to believe that the creation of an authentic democratic structure would mean adoption of Islamic (sharia) law, which a great majority of them want. But for American liberals like Thomas Friedman, sharia represents a major failure; it would mean having spent billions to liberate a society only to see it retreat from the secular freedoms imposed by its former dictator.

To protect itself from this outcome, the United States stacked the newly liberated nation's political deck with as many pro-Western Iraqis as possible. But this only strengthened the convictions of many who saw the invasion and its promise of delivering true freedom as a wedge to open Iraq for U.S. corporate and military goals. A few days before leaving Baghdad, I listened to Rana al Aiouby, a young Iraqi translator, argue over tea with Hesham Barbary, an Egyptian businessman who had come to cash in on the new reconstruction contracts.

"So the Americans came here to save the Iraqi people?" al Aiouby asked incredulously.

"Partially," Barbary replied.

"They didn't come here to help the Iraqis. Everyone knows why the American came here ... because their economic system just collapsed. So they have to help themselves, and even if they'll make a disaster for the others, just, they want to survive. That's it."

Voices like Rana al Aiouby's are not present in Thomas Friedman's real-time history of globalization. They can't be. Prowar liberals like Friedman, architects of the new millennial liberal project, cannot afford to second-guess the motives driving America's War on Terror. From the outset, Friedman believed implicitly that Bush's Iraq War plan was a high-stakes gamble based on ideological motives, "the greatest shake of the dice any president has voluntarily engaged in since Harry Truman dropped the bomb on Japan." Others echoed the sentiment -- "This is Texas Poker," as arch-conservative Robert Novak put it -- pushing the idea that Bush had risked billions of dollars and thousands of lives like some Vegas roller. The analogy is instructive. Who bets the house on an abstraction? No one. So we're to believe that Bush and Cheney went for broke to bring democracy to Iraq? That's insanity. This is an administration so mired in cronyism and conflicts of interest that to believe they would take such a huge bet on a political ideal is delusional. And yet that is exactly what the pro-war liberals have done. The question is: why?

In Friedman's case, I believe it is because he implicitly understands that America is facing an insurmountable challenge to its global economic hegemony. His research for The World Is Flat brought him around the world to investigate the new paradigm emerging in transnational business. What he finds is that the old vertical ("command and control") systems are being replaced by horizontal ("connect and collaborate") ones and, in the process, blowing away walls and ceilings that were once integral to the rigid hierarchical structure of global commerce. He first made this discovery in Bangalore, India, where menial data entry and phone operator jobs in the accounting and banking fields are now being performed by English-speaking workers. This has been going on for years but, as Friedman explains, he was too busy covering the War on Terror to notice. It's not until Nandan Nilekani, the CEO of Infosys -- India's equivalent to Microsoft -- tells him "the playing field is being leveled," that Friedman realizes what he has stumbled upon.

Over and over again he exclaims: the world is flat, the world is flat, the world is flat! Capitalism is undergoing its new revolution, one that will be as transformative as "Gutenberg's invention of the printing press, the rise of the nation-state, or the Industrial Revolution."

But, like all revolutions, this one will have its winners and losers. Of the former, most obvious are corporate CEOs who will fatten their bottom line by tapping into the vast reservoir of cheap foreign labor. On the other side is Joe Six Pack, who will suffer from a net loss in American jobs. Much of the success of Friedman's book lies in his dire warnings to Americans that they are on the verge of a major crisis. Not only are hard-working, low-wage Indian workers stealing their jobs, but hard-working, tech-savvy Chinese students are increasingly taking seats in top undergrad and graduate college programs. And, Friedman frets, if America doesn't wake up, it will face a potentially disastrous decline: Or, as Infosys's CEO Nilekani later explains, the American middle class "has not yet grasped the competitive intensity of the future. Unless they [do], they will not make the investments in reskilling themselves, and you will end up with a lot of people stranded on an island."

So what does his support of the invasion of Iraq have to do with his The World Is Flat thesis? Everything. Like any good writer, Friedman understands that America loves a disaster movie, but only if it has a happy ending. So while the outlook may be grim for average workers, he is careful to paint a picture that is ultimately reassuring. The coming storm, he explains, will catalyze the transformation of America. "Each of us as an individual, will have to work a little harder and run a little faster to keep our standard of living rising." But this is never applied to the realm of U.S. foreign policy and how it might be shaped by these new threats to U.S. supremacy. Instead, a sort of delusional picture of globalization is presented, one in which the government plays no role whatsoever. And in this omission, in his obscuring of such an obvious force in world finance, we are given a hint at the lengths to which Friedman will go to deny the truth. Placing his Iraq coverage side by side with The World Is Flat, the message is that government is driven by a mission to liberate and democratize the world, the vast majority of whom will, like the post-Saddam Iraqis, joyfully embrace American-style capitalism. Not only is this a verifiably distorted vision of reality, it is a dangerous one. Because it keeps the millions of readers who bought Friedman's book from understanding why so much of the world has turned against America. And how dire the consequences of this ignorance will prove to be.

Pox Americana

Slipping into my window seat, I smile to myself. There, in the adjacent seat pocket, with a gold sticker shouting its status as "the bestselling nonfiction book in the world today," is another copy of The World Is Flat. I nod hello to the young female executive sitting next to me and pull out the book I have brought along. It's a thin essay by the 75-year-old Marxist intellectual Samir Amin that issues its own grim warnings about the future of our globalized world. Titled The Liberal Virus: Permanent War and the Americanization of the World, the cover photo shows a Chinese kid dressed in army fatigues, standing on the Wall of China holding a Coke can.

If Thomas Friedman is the prophet of 21st century capitalism, then Samir Amin is his anti-Christ. But to hear Amin tell it, Friedman is the only one leading humankind into the depths of Hell. Writing from Dakar, Senegal, where he runs the Third World Forum, Amin's thesis is essentially that liberalism, if allowed to continue on its path of creative destruction, will lead to an apocalyptic end. He likens the globalizing force of liberalism to a virus that has destroyed all ideological competitors and that is now making its final assault on its host species. According to Amin, the ethic of liberalism -- "Long live competition, may the strong win" -- is now ravaging societies of the Third World, causing further "social alienation and pauperization of urban classes."

It's nothing new from the far, far left. There are shelves full of books by anti-globalization writers from the developing world. What made me pick up Samir Amin's essay, though, was the striking specificity of his warning. In Liberal Virus, he argues that liberalism's most decisive effect will be to divide the world into an apartheid system that sees 3 billion peasant farmers pushed from their land and forced into the cities where they will die. This, he explains, will result from the implementation of a 2001 World Trade Organization (WTO) mandate that all agricultural markets be opened to the expansion of commercial agribusiness producers. Without the ability to make a subsistence living from their own land, half the world's population will have to migrate to the urban centers where there is no work for them. And thus, he concludes, they will be trapped in an "organized system of apartheid" on a global scale.

"What is going to become of these billions of human beings, already for the most part, the poor among the poor?" Amin asks. You don't have to be a red-blooded socialist to intuit his answer. "Capitalism," he concludes, "has become barbaric, directly calling for genocide." In this drive to satisfy the insatiable hunger for new markets of its Western clients, the WTO is sanctioning a process that will "destroy -- in human terms -- entire societies." Writing in a style that starkly contradicts Friedman's cheery cartoon of the flat world, Amin paints an ominous image of capitalism as a force that is in constant need to consume itself and the communities that lie in its path. Through his eyes, the agents of globalization bear an eerie resemblance to the Borg that battle Star Trek's Jean Luc Picard and his Enterprise crew. American liberalism echoes the Borg with the claim that it only seeks to "improve the quality of life for all species" through the spread of democracy while simultaneously warning the world that "resistance is futile -- you will be assimilated." But that is not to say Amin views liberalism as the victor. Rather, he describes it as a "senile system" that ultimately cannot stop the horror of its destiny.

Again, it isn't hard to find doomsday prophecies about the evils of capitalism. But what is interesting about Amin's book is that he offers an explanation for the phenomenal success of Friedman's ideas. Expanding his metaphor, Amin describes the liberal virus as one that "pollutes contemporary social thought and eliminates the capacity to understand the world, let alone transform it." So there is a kind of delusional episode occurring within the mass American psyche, one that has obscured what Amin terms "really existing capitalism" and replaced it with a fictitious model based on an "imaginary capitalism." According to Amin, liberals like Thomas Friedman conjure the illusion of a system that is inherently just and self-regulating while, in reality, it only creates permanent instability and requires constant intervention and protection by the armored shield of the state. "The globalized 'liberal' economic order," he writes, "requires permanent war -- military interventions endlessly succeeding one another -- as the only means to submit the peoples of the periphery to its demands."

I started reading Amin's book a few weeks after finishing The World Is Flat. And what struck me was that his description of the forces driving globalization was far closer to that of Sgt. Hollis, the tank commander I met in Iraq, than to Thomas Friedman's. What's more, his theory about the impact of the liberal virus on our ability to interpret the world drove me back into Friedman's book, where I found a quote that basically mirrors Amin's. Just before the halfway mark, Friedman writes: "The perspective and predispositions that you carry around in your head are very important in shaping what you see and what you don't see." Of course, he's not applying this to himself. Rather, it's a blunt critique of the fearful, knee-jerk reactions that American politicians and union leaders have thrown up to "protect" the U.S. economy from a genuinely "open" market. But the point is that, as we well know, everyone is the captive of their perspective. It frames and defines our worldview. Hence, for Friedman, the liberal business columnist, globalization = good, while for Amin, the African Marxist intellectual, globalization = bad. And for millions of readers who aspire to be a part of the new capitalist revolution, Friedman's vision is far more appealing than Amin's. Who can blame them?

But what if he's wrong? What if Friedman is as short-sighted and ill-informed as the military and government leaders who claimed to have had no forewarning of the Sept. 11 attacks? Beyond the sheer tactical breakdown of that day, much of the blame for the failure rests in a kind of voluntary blindness assumed by a great majority of Americans. It was that myopia that prevented so many brilliant and influential foreign policy analysts, defense experts and journalists from foreseeing the coming threat. And they continued to ignore the messages being sent from the developing world, collectively evading the difficult work of questioning what aspects of American foreign policy might have brought on such an attack, even after thousands of Mexican soccer fans chanted "Osama" at a post-gill match against the United States. Proving how little he has learned from his worldly travels, Friedman repeats the hollow mantra in his book, describing the terrorists as "angry, frustrated and humiliated men and women." And not far behind them, in his estimation, are the anti-globalization protesters -- comprised mostly of Trotskyites, anarchists and old hippies -- who are influenced by a heavy dose of anti-Americanism and defined by their denial of the inevitable triumph of flatness, arguing over the moot point of "whether we globalize." Naturally, Samir Amin is one of these people.

And herein lies the most troubling aspect of Friedman's popularity. He, and his readers, assume that anyone who opposes globalization from the side of the developing world -- either violently or ideologically -- is driven by a deep sense of shame at their poverty and inability to keep up with the West. But, at least as it applies to Samir Amin, nothing could be further from the truth. What Amin is articulating is a detailed warning about the same globalized world for which Friedman is such a wide-eyed proponent. But Friedman, and the millions who buy his books, is immune to it, because from his perspective, the forces of liberalism have only left enriched and industrialized societies in their wake. And this is precisely the kind of shortsightedness that crippled the West's ability to understand, or indeed prevent, the 9/11 attacks. In the somber days after al Qaeda hit New York and Washington, D.C., Americans like Friedman were unwilling to identify the causal forces that had inspired the terrorists. "Why do they hate us?" Friedman rhetorically asked in his column. Because of our freedom, he answered. Because, the liberal answered, we are liberals.

It would be easy to attribute Friedman's blockbuster sales to his orgiastic, gee-whiz, look-ma-no-hands celebration of all things corporate -- he never fails to name-drop his favorite brand names, from eating a Cinnabon while waiting to board a Southwest Airlines flight on the way to see his daughter at Yale to the 3M logo'd cap being worn by the caddy of an Indian executive who uses a distant HP skyscraper as a tee-off marker. Or to the fact that it is easy and very profitable to scare the shit out of an entire generation of Baby Boomers by essentially telling them their kids are in a neck-and-neck race to the top of the global food chain and, guess what, they're losing. In those respects, the book is a brilliant and well-conceived product. But I believe there is a much deeper significance to Friedman's success. And it has to do with the fact that America has reached a stage in its quest for global dominance in which it has no choice but to aggressively and openly tap these impoverished countries for cheap labor. And Thomas Friedman has come to put a lipstick smile on that old, twisted visage.

Scribbling notes on a drink coaster as the plane climbs past 10,000 feet, I think of Thomas Friedman writing his book in his own spacious business class seat on Lufthansa. Looking out of my window, I suddenly realize how he came so easily to his revelation. There, below me, the dark blue Atlantic Ocean stretches west for 1,000 miles and darned if it doesn't look flat. I wonder how much of Friedman's worldview has been shaped by the rarefied company of billionaire CEOs he keeps. Perhaps he has fooled himself into thinking that the invisible hand of liberal economics still softens to caress the weary shoulders of the poor, offering the opportunity for all people to reach the heights of corporate domination. We'll never know. What we do know is that it's been a long time since the champions of free market capitalism pretended to have any priority other than their quarterly profits and year-end bonuses. Of course, many of them have started making noises about the environment and poverty, but never in a way that will actually bring them to analyze root causes of these global ills. Until that happens, we can assume that it's mostly PR. And in this regard, Friedman plays a very important role as a kind of useful idiot. If capitalism is the sport of wolves, then the kind of happy-go-lucky globalization heralded by Thomas Friedman is the sheep's clothing. It's a sheath to cover the glint of their blade.

Copyright © 2007 Stephen Marshall from the book Wolves in Sheep's Clothing by Stephen Marshall. Published by The Disinformation Company, Ltd.

Stephen Marshall is a writer and award-winning filmmaker. A founder of Guerrilla News Network, he is co-author of the book True Lies (Plume) with GNN colleague Anthony Lappé. He is the director of the feature film This Revolution, documentary features such as Battleground: 21 Days on the Empire's Edge, and controversial, politicized music videos for the Beastie Boys, Eminem and 50 Cent. Over the span of his career, he has traveled and worked in more than 80 countries. He lives in New York City. Visit

— Stephen Marshall

Thursday, July 05, 2007

So Much Paperwork, So Little Time to Teach

July 4, 2007
On Education

Allison Rabenau celebrated an inauspicious milestone on the otherwise unremarkable day of Oct. 18, 2004. Six weeks into her first year as a teacher, she finally taught a class.

Ms. Rabenau had left a long career as a stage manager in the commercial theater to learn how to teach English as a second language to immigrant children in New York’s public schools. The only problem, she quickly discovered, was that the avalanche of paperwork and other assignments meant she actually got to teach only sporadically.

In a perfect, if dispiriting bit of symmetry, her initial year at Public School 123 in Harlem ended the same way it began. Ms. Rabenau lost the last six weeks of the spring term to prepare, administer, then score a standardized test for English fluency.

Essentially, her teaching year, and her students’ learning year, had run only from mid-October to mid-April, with numerous interruptions even then. During the time when the students were entitled to instruction in English, they were sitting in other courses that they may or may not have understood.

Being a newcomer to the profession, by way of the alternative track of the Teaching Fellows program, Ms. Rabenau assumed the fault lay with her alone. Except that in her next year, the pattern repeated itself. (Well, O.K., she did manage to convene the first real class on Oct. 7, 2005, a mere five weeks along.)

In the spring of 2006, she came up with a strategy to help her students’ writing. She had them become pen pals with her cat, whose photograph adorned the classroom and was the subject of plenty of classroom chatter. The arrival of the annual English-fluency test, with all of its attendant duties, scuttled that plan.

But it gave birth to another idea. Less inclined after a second futile year to blame only herself, Ms. Rabenau set about surveying other teachers of English fluency for a research paper in her graduate studies at City University of New York.

The results, which she assembled in the summer of 2006, told her that her frustrations were shared. The situation was most acute for teachers in schools that did not have a staff administrator to handle the voluminous paperwork required for English language learners, as the students are called.

Teachers in such schools were responsible for completing more than a dozen different forms, evaluations, assessments and reports that came variously from the levels of district, city, state and federal government, and grading standardized tests.

Teachers like Ms. Rabenau were also repeatedly conscripted within their schools to substitute for absent colleagues, to proctor exams in other classes and to chaperon field trips.

“I’ve worked with opera singers and Rockettes, so I know what stress is,” said Ms. Rabenau, 44. “And when I was a stage manager, I did plenty of paperwork. But this frustration was unlike anything I ever felt because the stakes were so much higher.”

Ms. Rabenau makes no claim that her research paper is defensible as social-science scholarship. She approached a modest sample of 150 teachers and received responses from 24. Still, her findings at the very least suggest an endemic problem with consequences for both teacher morale and student achievement.

Wojciech Schneider, who participated in the survey, started teaching at a kindergarten-through-Grade 8 school in the Bronx after more than a decade of instructing adult immigrants in English.

Even with such experience, and with a supportive principal, he scrambled to deal with nearly 100 students spread across three levels of fluency and all nine grades. He was able to teach them for only about 60 percent of the supposedly allotted classroom time.

“It was a reality check for me, to have the number of students I was supposed to serve and on top of that all the paperwork,” said Mr. Schneider, 36. “It was like trying to swim and stay afloat, and I was feeling this strong pull downward from all the other things that did not entail teaching.”

Jim Knox, 55, took up teaching after a career in health care administration, making him an expert of sorts in bureaucracies. As the sole instructor for about 60 elementary school students learning English in the Bronx, he lost so much class time to other tasks that eventually his principal arrived at an inventive and perverse solution: Mr. Knox would steal time from himself, teaching the day’s class in periods designated for preparing the next day’s lessons. “Systemically,” Mr. Knox said of the conflicting demands on teachers like him, “it is absurd.”

Before hearing the response from the Department of Education, it is worth making one point. Ms. Rabenau, Mr. Schneider and Mr. Knox offer no sense of being complainers or goldbrickers. If anything, as accomplished professionals who came into New York’s public schools and specifically the education of immigrant children because of a certain idealism, they are the kind of teachers the department ought to be holding onto, not giving reasons to leave.

The Education Department put forward Andrés Alonso, the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, to deliver a long, detailed and aggressive defense of the city’s track record with immigrant students. (Since that session, on June 20, Dr. Alonso has become the chief executive of Baltimore’s public schools.)

“The bottom line is outcomes for us,” Dr. Alonso said.

THE department delineated those outcomes in a 23-page PowerPoint presentation chart it supplied subsequently. The data indeed showed that English language learners were performing better on basic skills tests and Regents exams, as well as in promotion and graduation rates, during Joel I. Klein’s tenure as chancellor.

The improvements, though, also have coincided with New York State’s raising of graduation requirements and with the federal No Child Left Behind law, which forces schools to show the progress, or lack thereof, of student subgroups, including those with limited English. So any credit has to be shared.

When it came to addressing the experiences of teachers like those in Ms. Rabenau’s research paper, Dr. Alonso recalled his own experiences teaching English as a second language in Newark. He did not express a surplus of sympathy.

“It was part of my job that was no different from my weekly routine,” he said, referring to the paperwork. “The bottom line is, are the kids being promoted, are they passing the Regents, are they being mainstreamed? We should be tremendously skeptical of anecdotal data.”

As for Ms. Rabenau, she resigned during the school year and will be leaving New York soon for Bangkok to teach at an international school. Perhaps the schoolchildren there will get to correspond with her cat.

Samuel G. Freedman is a journalism professor at Columbia University. E-mail:

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

NEST+m: An Allegory

Not only does this article tell the full remarkable story of NEST, it is one of the most insightful pieces on the methods use to "cream" the best kids while keeping out the unwanted, along with the tactics used to remove the kids who somehow slipped through the cracks. I happened to run into Jeff Coplon at a party last week. He said it was his first article dealing with education. An auspicious beginning indeed.

The “Stuyvesant of the East” has become one of the most sought-after public schools in the city. It got that way by leaving much of the public out. . . and subjecting those who got in to abuse.

By Jeff Coplon

As light faded on the first arctic day of winter, a band of 40 die-hard parents huddled on Seventh Avenue, outside Region 9 headquarters of the Department of Education. Mostly white and middle-aged, armed with signs and certainty, they stood shivah for a dream foreclosed on the Lower East Side: the notorious NEST+m, a school for the best and brightest in all New York.

Braced against the slicing wind, they chanted against the ousting of their founding principal, the feared and revered Celenia Chévere, and grieved for the motto she once posted outside her office door:

A public school with a private-school mission.

The sign dripped with hubris, but it had wooed the striving classes well. Since the troubled birth of New Explorations Into Science, Technology & Math, in 2001, its parents had tithed body and soul and disposable income—for their children, to be sure, but also for the urban impossibility: a truly great public school. In NEST they’d found a hothouse with record test scores, free of the usual tawdry concessions—sardined classes, peeling paint, creeping illiteracy.

Now, after some nasty infighting and a crackdown by the chancellor, their school had been turned inside-out. For the old guard, everything precious seemed dead: small-group advisories, split-gender math and science, the Sarah Lawrence–size seminars, the prepster dress code. Demoralized, the stalwarts had coined a different sort of slogan: Just another DoE school.

When a school loses the culture that made it distinctive, “people imply that it’s a law of history … that it died a natural death,” says Deborah Meier, founder of the seminal alternative school Central Park East. “If we actually track it back, it may have been murdered.”

Last fall, as NEST imploded, its PTA president emeritus moved her son to a private high school. “I feel like I’ve been robbed,” says Emily Armstrong, “and there’s nothing I can do about it.” She has a theory about why NEST’s enemies sought to strangle it in the cradle and kept at it till they won.

“It’s all race and class,” she says wearily. “It’s nothing else but that.”

This is more than the story of a renegade educator or a bold experiment come undone. It’s about the push-and-pull between excellence and access—and about the unlucky children who get trampled along the way. Who owns the city’s schools? Was NEST a beacon of meritocracy, or an island of privilege that barred students who needed it most?

“NEST,” says Granville Leo Stevens, of the Independent Parent Organizations, “is an allegory.”

NEST was designed to help solve an age-old dilemma: how to keep what was left of the city’s middle class—with its skilled progeny and open checkbooks—inside a school system seen as second-rate. Without moneyed white people, went the presumption, the schools would flatline into irrevocable failure. The classic strategy was to keep funneling the most resources and best teachers to zoned schools in predominantly white areas. In mixed or changing neighborhoods, more of a sanctuary was needed: the gifted program.

In 2000, Chancellor Harold Levy hit upon another approach. Taking a page from the private model, Levy imagined a constellation of “rigorous” schools spanning kindergarten through twelfth grade, one for each borough. A K-12 would finesse the system’s weakest link: the stand-alone middle school, a torture chamber that sends many a middle-class family heading for the exits. NEST would be the chancellor’s prototype. He placed it in Community School District 1, a compact trapezoid in the Lower East Side and East Village that for years had bled its best students to District 2, its richer neighbor. Levy aimed to lure those families back with an innovative school to rival anything uptown.

The chancellor knew that his brainchild would need a lightning rod, a leader driven and unyielding. He chose Celenia Chévere, a petite firebrand with boundless energy, a blinding smile, and a hair-trigger temper. From her start as a lowly teacher’s assistant in the late seventies, she’d become one of the most coveted—and controversial—principals around.

After raising two daughters as a single mother (enrolling the younger one, at great sacrifice, at Calhoun), Chévere knew the value of a superior public school. In 1986, when a freestanding gifted program sounded radical, she founded Lower Laboratory in District 2. Ten years later, on East 106th Street, she opened the Young Women’s Leadership School, an oasis of Oriental carpets and nunnery quiet against the raging picket lines of now and the NYCLU. Yet despite her brilliance as a “starter,” Chévere never stayed in one place too long. She ran a building like Hubie Brown coached a basketball team, with an overbearing manner that soon wore thin. “If you did not conform,” says a source who worked with her in East Harlem, “she would destroy you.”

The principal was 55 years old when Levy called; she figured she had one start-up left in her. NEST would be her legacy.

To her devotees, Chévere offered something irresistible: a safe haven from mediocrity, without Dalton’s tuition or Larchmont’s taxes. Equal parts Mary Poppins and Captain Bligh, she believed that discipline and a spoonful of phonics could propel her charges to “leading roles in science, politics, and industry—indeed, in every realm of society,” as NEST’s “Mission and Vision Statement” grandly claimed. They would get there the old-fashioned way—though Chévere had studied at Bank Street, a progressive stronghold, she had come to favor traditional schooling over what she called “loosey-goosey” reformism. Her students diagrammed sentences and learned long division; NEST would be the first school in the city, public or private, to use the acclaimed Singapore Math.

For Levy and Chévere, the case for NEST was self-evident: a bright idea, an avid clientele.

Which made it all the more startling when it blew up in their faces.

For NEST, geography was destiny. At the time of the school’s birth, the Lower East Side was a stew of new Asian immigrants, working-class Puerto Ricans, the Jewish mandarins of Grand Street, and the nouveau-funk professional set lusting after a bargain co-op. But even as the neighborhood simmered and changed, one thing stayed the same: the feeble schools of District 1. The local school board, riven with political strife, was disinclined to provoke its constituents (or highlight its own failings) by allowing a seat of privilege to be dropped into the neighborhood. On January 30, 2001, the board voted to establish NEST as a “school of choice” for any district student, subject only to a lottery and racial quotas.

The resolution alarmed Chévere. For NEST to work as planned, she had no use for students from failing local schools; she needed children who matched her template: dogged workers who thrived on structure and racked up 3’s and 4’s (at or above grade level) on the standardized tests. How could she run a college-prep school without families committed to college? How could she guard her standards without winnowing wheat from chaff?

Although Chévere declined to be interviewed for this story, she wrote the following: NEST+m was designed to be a college-preparatory school with admissions standards … That part of the mission and vision was one of my non-negotiables and was very clear from the start.

But the hot-button issue was on the table: Who would get into NEST, and who would be left at the courtyard gate?

The first public meeting was held that spring at the site chosen for the fledgling K-12: Junior High School 22. Built in 1959 as a three-story Mondrian of blue and gray metal panels, it was twinned from the start to Baruch Houses, a mammoth high-rise project that opened the same year across Columbia Street. By the time NEST went on the drawing board, only a couple of hundred students were still warehoused at the junior high. Plexiglas windows bathed rats in a yellowish half-light; the parking lot was a drug bazaar. The school was ready to die, and be reborn.

As she listened to the speakers, Gladys Ortega, a day-care provider who lived at Baruch, could scarcely believe her good fortune. Her daughter and niece were heading into seventh grade, and now they’d have a fine new school across the street. At the meeting, she recalls, Councilwoman Margarita Lopez said, “‘The only reason I’m letting this school come in my district is because my kids deserve the best.’ And Celenia said, ‘I have no problem with that.’ We clapped, and we were so happy—we had a celebration.”

But Chévere most certainly did have a problem. With hindsight, the flashpoint was inscribed in fine and damning print on NEST’s brochure: “A K-12 College Preparatory School in RoHo.” Unfortunately, the Hispanic neck of the Lower East Side already had a name: Loisaida, the old Puerto Rican barrio. RoHo stood for “Right on Houston,” but Rosie Mendez—now the neighborhood’s councilwoman, then a Lopez aide—parsed another meaning: educational gentrification.

Over the next few months, Chévere did all she could to discourage the locals. Of two dozen sessions where NEST applications were distributed, twenty were held at the 14th Street Y, at the cusp of District 1 and the whiter, wealthier District 2. “It was like trying to catch a moonbeam,” says Margarita Rosa, executive director of the Grand Street Settlement. Rosa’s deputy, Pablo Tejada, ran a Beacon program after school and on weekends at JHS 22, serving close to 2,000 children, youth, and adults. Although he saw Chévere weekly that spring, Tejada says, he couldn’t get NEST brochures until after the deadline. When parents pressed to learn more about the school, Rosa says, they were “treated very, very rudely and given the runaround … It was an atmosphere that basically said, ‘Certain people need not apply.’”

Lopez was pushing for access to NEST. According to Armstrong, the councilwoman announced that every child at Baruch had a guaranteed spot at the new school. As summer approached and few acceptance letters made their way to the project, the backlash began: Leaflets blasted NEST as racist. There were death threats, and smashed windshields in the parking lot. “I’m one of them,” Chévere plaintively told the Times, referring to her Hispanic critics. “But they don’t see me as that. They see me as elitist.”

For those who’d watched students languish at the old junior high, it must have been unbearable to feel locked out as the renovated building filled with light and air and shiny programs. Their children had been cheated for too many years, and they laid claim to NEST as payment past due. “There’s a fitting sense of ownership between a community and a community school,” says Lisa Donlan, first vice-president of District 1’s Community Education Council. “And when the building is emptied out to put in something new, people feel that they’ve been displaced.”

In June 2001, the school board called upon NEST to rescind its 150 acceptance letters and hold a lottery, a stance supported by the NYCLU. Chévere—thanks to a loophole unearthed by Chad Vignola, the chancellor’s counsel—held firm; the admissions policy was her bedrock.

In actuality, even with the principal’s screens, NEST’s first class was fairly diverse. (If only by default. Middle-class white people tend to make for reluctant pioneers.) According to the DoE’s year-end register, 59 percent of its students lived in District 1. The school’s white population stood at 39 percent—far greater than the white contingent districtwide, but still leaving room for a good number of Hispanic and black working-class families from Loisaida, including a few from Baruch. More than 80 percent of the student body qualified under Title I for free or reduced-price lunches. “Practically every kid who walked through that door got accepted,” claims Armstrong.

It wasn’t quite that simple. By and large, the neighborhood students who got into NEST were not coming from a troubled nearby school like P.S. 15—they were coming back to District 1 from Catholic schools or District 2 variances. The young flotsam from District 1’s shipwrecks could not possibly meet Chévere’s standards.

With the neighborhood’s neediest shut out, Lopez mounted a demonstration outside the school, and rumors spread that a human chain would disrupt opening day. Chévere was forced to do what she hated most: to compromise. She suspended her requirements and accepted ten additional students, mostly seventh-graders. Among them were Gladys Ortega’s daughter, Krystal, and her niece, Jasmin Aglada.

When school started, Chévere divided the seventh grade into the “A-class” and the “B-class.” The A-class had five children, most of them white. The B-class was composed of twenty or so students from the immediate neighborhood, nearly all of them Hispanic or black. Some of them were quick and able, if less than enamored with the NEST uniform (polo shirts and khaki slacks or skirts from the Lands’ End catalogue) and its Sisyphean homework loads; others lagged tragically in basic skills.

“It was clearly racial steering,” Mendez says. “I often wonder whether we did those kids any service. Their life was hell.”

The B-class became the principal’s white whale, her sour obsession. According to one of its teachers, Chévere would declare, “I’m going to torture them until they leave.” She ordered the B-class students cited for every conceivable infraction, no matter how picayune. “She told me to write up anyone for anything,” the teacher says. “If a kid looked tired, if he didn’t have a belt on, if his hair wasn’t washed …” Chévere forwarded the paper barrage to the Administration for Children’s Services. When besieged parents came to the school, the teacher says, Chévere held ACS over them as a threat: Withdraw their children, or else.

“For Celenia,” Armstrong allows, “one kid who couldn’t do the work was one kid too many.”

Not everyone was cowed. Jasmin Aglada, a ponytailed slip of a girl, says that Chévere “thought she could break me into pieces. Not me. I was going right at it with her.” Aglada was suspended three times that year. For a solid month, she used a windowsill for a desk in history class. When she and her classmates failed to do their homework, she says, Chévere would “call us stupid, worthless … that we’re going to work at McDonald’s mopping the floors.”

A number of the Lopez group somehow lasted two years, through the eighth grade. None stayed for the upper school.

Despite its rocky start, NEST’s early days seemed full of promise. Armstrong was working toward “a new paradigm of a quasi-public school” with true economic diversity, where “maybe 40 percent or half the kids were white” and “the haves would support the have-nots.” The PTA subsidized the annual senior trip to Italy for any student who couldn’t afford it. When Daniela Cassorla’s father died in October of her senior year, leaving her on her own with a grandmother with Alzheimer’s, NEST teachers and parents guided her through the college-application gauntlet. The PTA, said Cassorla, now at Columbia, “basically formed this family that I didn’t have.”

Armstrong kicked off each parent orientation with a blunt reminder: Public education is not free. To help raise $100,000 per year, each family was prodded to give at least $500 or the equivalent in labor. The money paid for state-of-the-art science labs, Ikea benches in the hallways, air conditioners in every classroom. For a big job, like a $30,000 makeover of the lunchroom, Armstrong would tap one of her Wall Street “high rollers,” and—voilà!—a college-style cafeteria came to be.

A visiting principal was bowled over by a jewelry studio with an acetylene-torch station: “I’ve never seen that in the DoE; I’ve never seen that in a vocational program. The dance studio was awesome—there were five girls doing classical ballet, and whoever was teaching them knew what the hell they were doing. They have a room dedicated to displaying student art—it’s damn near like a museum.”

There were smaller touches, too: incandescent lighting, scented candles, flowers and mini palm trees, wall trim in gray and lavender. Lavatories sparkled. Late in the day, if she found a scuffed custom floor tile (despite her rule that all students wear sneakers), Chévere could be spied rubbing out the mark with her foot. Here, she liked to say, was “a school I would have wanted my daughters to attend.”

She had no bigger fan than Levy’s successor, Joel Klein. As parents remember it, Klein hoisted a glass of wine at a school reception that first spring, declaring, “I wish all schools could be like NEST, and I wish all my principals could be like Celenia.”

True, the place could seem icily surreal at times, a nigh-Stepford production. You didn’t go up the down staircase at NEST. No food was flung at the NEST Café; no teenage couples dared hug in the hallways. Chévere knew each child on a first-name basis and each grade on that child’s last report card. She ruled her kingdom with an iron fist inside a chain-mail glove. “You think I’m the Wicked Witch of the West?” she’d say. “I’m the Wicked Witch of the West, East, North, and South all together, because I care about your future.” She wasn’t one for wiggle room. Bring your 5-year-old three minutes after the 8:15 bell, and you’d get bawled out by the principal for all to hear. (“Every morning was a heart attack,” says Elizabeth Langwith, one tardy mother.) Let your adolescent girl go without socks one day, and she’d be verbally garroted by the dean of discipline. It wasn’t rare, after dismissal, to see a child sobbing outside the building within a circle of friends, the day’s hurts spilling over.

But the old guard saw no evil: They kept their eyes on the carrot strung to the principal’s stick. Chévere “really cared about those kids—a lot,” says Lisa Ludwig, whose daughter moved to NEST from City and Country. “She used to say, ‘Your world is getting harder and harder. You can get into the college of your choice, but you have to do the work. You have to be the best.’”

“Celenia took regular kids and made them into gifted and talented kids,” says Armstrong, whose own daughter is now thriving at Wesleyan. “She gave them discipline and standards and Singapore Math … all the things that were her hallmarks.”

Or as Amanda Uprichard puts it, “Celenia was like a rock star, and we all were like her bandmates.”

In the savvy-parent grapevine, no strong school stays secret for long. By NEST’s second year, 400 applicants vied for 75 spots in the ninth grade alone. In year three, middle-class families poured in from private schools, brownstone Brooklyn, even haughty District 2. District 1’s share ebbed to 40 percent, while the proportion of free-lunch students dropped by half.

“She wanted that look,” a former NEST teacher says. “I remember a meeting where Celenia said, ‘We need to get more Asian kids. We want to look good when people walk around [on tour], and we want to have the higher math scores.’”

For Chévere, the shifting demographic paid dividends. After logging mediocre scores in its first two years, NEST soared in the standardized tests in 2004, with 92 percent earning 3’s or 4’s in English Language Arts (ELA) and 90 percent in math. It was around then, the same teacher says, that the principal took to crowing about her “Stuyvesant of the East.”

In its fourth year, NEST reached a tipping point: a white population of 53 percent. For the first time, District 2 students outnumbered those from District 1, and by a large margin; a sixth-grade teacher dismissed the bulk of her class for car-service pickup to the Upper East Side. It was as plain as the row of student-body photographs outside the PTA room, with less contrast year by year. NEST had become an upper-middle-class enclave—and a hot ticket.

On an assessment day for kindergarten hopefuls, the tension in the room “was just explosive,” says Sean Grover, a psychotherapist who worked with dozens of NEST families. “The competitiveness of the parents to get their kids into that school—I don’t think there’s anything like it.”

Generally speaking, there are two ways to grow a school with great “numbers,” as they say in the trade. One is the Jaime Escalante approach: to spur children at all levels to excellence, as in Stand and Deliver. At Harlem Village Academy, a charter school with an open lottery, nine of ten students live at or near the poverty line. Most enter at least two years behind grade level. Last year, 96 percent of the seventh-graders passed the state math test.

The other path, taken by all gifted schools and many others, is to cherry-pick the top students. Educators use an evocative word for this process: creaming. At NEST, according to Lana, a former middle-school teacher who asked that her full name be withheld because she still works in the system, sixth-grade applicants from low-performing schools in District 1 were scratched on the spot: “We were told to just mark it and they would be weeded out right away.”

Last November, in a DoE leak if ever there was one, a Times article exposed what Klein called a “stark and different” favoritism in NEST’s use of parent interviews. At issue were some provocative notes in NEST files for rejected kindergarten hopefuls: Dad has limited English. Student has serious health concerns—not a match. For critics, here was proof that Chévere’s social Darwinism shut out immigrants, the disabled, and any mother of three who could not “juggle her life for our vision.”

As unsavory as all of this might seem, however, it was business as usual among the city’s selective schools. Principals know the perquisites of affluence, from tutors and fancy preschools to better prenatal care. They want to share the bounty of that wealth, namely the higher scores that flow from it. “School people have really clumsy and crude indices for guessing how kids are going to do,” notes Norm Fruchter, the author of Urban Schools, Public Will. “So they use family characteristics as a proxy.”

NEST wasn’t exceptional in this, merely brazen. When Katy Stokes brought in her son for an assessment in 2004, a glance at her application told the tale: a Swarthmore grad married to a Williams alum, both attorneys, good Chelsea address. Before a word could be uttered about seamless curricula, the interviewer lent Stokes a peek at her notation. There it was, the key to a golden door: A perfect fit.

Though Chévere was often denounced in District 1 as a racist, “I don’t think she was,” says Dolores Schaefer, former president of the district’s school board. “But she definitely was class-oriented.” In any case, no principals need policy to freeze out the darker or poorer; their screens do it for them, as surely as water finds its level. Until Klein’s dream of “1,400 great schools” is realized, the hunt for a good one will remain a round of musical chairs. For every seat taken by a Katy Stokes, a less-than-perfect fit will find herself on the floor. The music quickened at NEST after Klein anointed it a gifted-and-talented school in 2005, and the de facto became official. By spring 2006, its District 1 population would fall to just 24 percent.

To hurry the trend, the administration evicted those deemed too lazy or urban or rambunctious. (As hard as we tried, Chévere wrote, we weren’t successful with every child.) Every selective school “counsels out,” but few seemed to do so with such frequency or gusto. At, Pamela Wheaton says, “We got more complaints from parents about NEST than about any other school in the city.”

I spoke with half a dozen families whose stays at NEST ended badly in the Chévere era. They all told variations of the same harrowing account, of draconian discipline and crushed spirits. In the lower school, the pressure ratcheted up as a child approached third grade, the first standardized-test year; there was zero tolerance for late bloomers. Black and Latino boys were disproportionately targeted, a pattern confirmed by teachers who were there. Chévere’s bludgeon of choice, they agreed, was the “student-alert notice.” If the principal “didn’t like the student or the student’s family,” says Lana, “she would … come in and say, ‘You need to send home a student-alert letter, and it needs to be about x, y, and z.’”

Roberta Korus and Stephen Ward seemed like perfect fits: an entertainment lawyer and a Mercy College professor, the model white professional couple. Their son Ben entered NEST in 2002, and the couple was so impressed that they moved back to the Lower East Side from Astoria. Their second son, Gordon, enrolled in 2004.

The winds changed that November, when Korus challenged Chévere over the principal’s midyear cancellation of an after-school program. As chair of the PTA’s after-school committee, Korus said she flouted a gag order and called a parent meeting on the issue. She didn’t yet realize it, but she’d stepped over a fateful line. (As Robin Dillon, another parent who crossed swords with Chévere, would say, “They had a good list for families and a bad list, but I didn’t find that out until we got on the bad list.”) Less than two weeks later, Gordon came home with his first “student alert.” During snack in the yard, the kindergarten teacher wrote, Gordon yanked on the hood of a classmate’s coat…

Three days later came another notice: Gordon was given an extended time-out in art class for shouting out 4 times.

And a week after that: Gordon was found mutilating an eraser. Further he showed no remorse.

And twelve days after that: Gordon threw Legos at a classmate.
L’affaire Lego led to a sit-down with the assistant principal and the school psychologist, Korus says, “where they told us [Gordon] needed serious psychological testing.” Her son was a fidgety, outgoing, physically playful boy, not exactly a NEST poster child. But he hadn’t been tagged as a problem, according to Korus, until after she transgressed.

The blizzard resumed: Gordon put a paper clip in his mouth and refused to take it out. He disrupted class meetings by “making shapes with his body similar to yoga positions.” He took his shoes off repeatedly; he touched other children’s shoes. On March 14, 2005, after a superheroes game in the courtyard, another kindergartner complained that Gordon had hit him. Though no injury was reported, Chévere leveled a four-day in-school suspension on the 5-year-old. He spent the balance of the week segregated from his classmates, even at lunch.

After that, his mother says, Gordon’s “self-esteem was a mess.” That fall, they moved their sons to P.S. 110, “just two blocks and a world away from NEST,” Korus says. Mostly Hispanic, their new school logs the best test scores of any non-screened school in District 1. And Gordon, Korus says, has gotten back to his old self, though it took him a while to adjust. For the first month or two, he’d come home each day and proudly announce, “Mom, I didn’t go to the principal’s office!”

When Korus looks back at NEST, and at the demoralized parents she knew there, she remembers their “unspoken fear … that if the NEST thing didn’t work out, they were going to have to move or to put their kid in private school.” Therein lay Chévere’s leverage: middle-class desperation.

It wasn’t easy being principal of the Stuyvesant of the East. The creaming and racial profiling, the purging of the slow or troublesome, the two-week immersion preps before standardized exams—all had jacked up NEST’s scores, but none guaranteed supremacy. To go from good to great called for sterner measures.

On the afternoon of the eighth-grade state ELA exam in January 2004, a middle-school teacher—who asked that her name be withheld to protect her current job with the DoE—stopped by the principal’s conference room to say good-night. Seated around the rich dark-wood table, she recalls, were the principal and her administrative cadre. Spilled out before them were stacks of ELA test booklets and the original answer sheets, says this teacher, whom we’ll call Randy. No one seemed to be bothered by the DoE protocol that finished tests be promptly sealed and sent off to the region.

As Randy moved to leave, Chévere told her, “‘You’re not going home. You’re going to stay and help us look over all the kids’ answers,’” she says. “I felt very much like they were asking me to change answers, and I refused.” The conversation ended—and so, a few months later, did Randy’s career at NEST.

We cannot know exactly what Chévere and her staff were doing that afternoon, but the school’s numbers give pause. On the 2003 ELA, 35 percent of NEST’s eighth-graders tested at or above grade level, not much better than the citywide average. In 2004, the school’s new crop of eighth-graders—the ones whose tests were allegedly “looked over” by Chévere’s staff—made a quantum leap. Of 31 students, all but one—or 97 percent—met the standard.

The following year, a special-education student named Jennifer, who asked that her last name be withheld, got some unusual marching orders from the NEST office. In January 2005, she says, she was told to stay home on the day of the eighth-grade ELA exam. Randy, the former middle-school teacher, says this was common practice at NEST; special-needs students would take the test instead on a makeup day, with no outside monitors present.

At the ELA retake, Jennifer says, there were about ten students in the room: the four or five from her special-ed class, taught by a Chévere favorite named Jennifer Wilen, and four or five more from the mainstreamed population who qualified for extra test time. Wilen sat among her students and read each multiple-choice question aloud, Jennifer says. Then she’d “let us guess, and if we circled the wrong one … she would say, ‘No, that’s wrong—b is the answer.’ I’d erase it and circle the b.” The mainstreamed students raced ahead, shouting answers to one another. (On the day of her state math test, according to Jennifer, the procedure changed a bit. Since Wilen was “a little dumbish about math,” the student says, “she asked the kids who took regular classes for the answer, and they would just tell us, and we would just circle down the answer.”)

Toward the end of the ELA test, Jennifer says, Wilen told her students to cover their tracks by erasing some correct answers and entering wrong ones: “We just erased like two, and that’s it—two answers.”

As it turned out, two erasures might have been conservative. Of ten NEST eighth-graders with special needs, all scored at or above grade level on the ELA that year. Their mean scaled score outshone their general-education schoolmates; it also surpassed the average for any general-ed eighth-grade class at all but three schools in the city. In the math test that year, Jennifer’s test group scored even higher. And NEST’s seventh-graders with special needs did better yet; all seven tallied 4’s on the ELA. (Wilen denies feeding students answers. Asked to explain the unusual scores, she first suggested that perhaps the eighth-graders “did a really good job cheating” on their own, then reconsidered, saying she had “trained those poor little kids beautifully” with a relentless regimen of ELA practice tests.)

When these test results were relayed to Robert Tobias, longtime chief of assessment for the old Board of Ed and now a research director at NYU’s Steinhardt School, his response was unqualified: “Based on a career of 30 years of looking at these kinds of data, I’ve never seen anything like that. It’s one in a million.”

Overall, NEST had a banner year in 2005. With 99 percent of its students scoring at or above the standard in English and 97 percent in math, it outranked all but a handful of schools. Even today, Chévere trumpets her “stellar track record”: “All my students achieved perfect to near-perfect scores on all standardized tests at all grade levels. I’m extremely proud of that achievement.”

But Jennifer derived no pleasure from her pair of 4’s. “If I don’t do something by myself, I’m not going to know it,” she says. That fall, glowing transcript in hand, she was placed in general-ed classes at Health Professions High School and soon fell hopelessly behind. She’s since transferred to a school in New Jersey, but her academic future—and goal of college—remains in doubt.

From the outside looking in, Chévere’s hell-bent drive to be “near-perfect”—and the liberties allegedly taken in pursuit of that goal—seem puzzling. Most students got into the school by testing well in the first place, after all, and the small special-needs group would have limited statistical impact. Under these circumstances, why would any principal push the envelope? While Lana saw the high scores as a “bragging point,” Randy traces a deeper motive for Chévere, a woman who’d burned so many bridges. If NEST performed well enough, it would be “untouchable,” the teacher says. “Her end goal was, ‘I’m going to make this school the best and shut everyone up.’”

And so she did, for a time. The numbers for Jennifer and her classmates leap off a spreadsheet, yet the school was not flagged or brought to account for them. Under Bloomberg and Klein and the senior DoE leadership known as Tweed, gaudy test scores are like the home-run records of the steroid era: great for marketing and certainly preferable to scandal. If one of the top-performing schools in the city was corrupt, what might that imply about the system’s overall progress (however thin) on the standardized tests? If scores could be rigged at such a high-profile school, who else might be fiddling?

With the DoE about to gut the regions and their middle management in favor of “empowerment” and “school support organizations,” NEST serves as a cautionary tale about the peril of weak oversight. Throughout the system, principals will be gaining unprecedented autonomy. They will answer only to Tweed—and Tweed is pleased, first and last, by rising test scores. Last week’s tentative pact with the principals union, featuring bonuses of up to $25,000 for high performance, is a case in point. Simply put, less-scrupulous principals will have both motive and opportunity to fudge on the standardized tests.

Although Chévere was not technically “empowered,” she always functioned ahead of the curve. The region had a minimal presence in her building, the teachers union none at all. And her hubris worked for her—until it didn’t. Until she made one enemy too many, and lost her protection like a Soprano thrust into the cold.

In the end, Chévere wasn’t torpedoed by fishy test scores, or parent backlash, or a palace coup by her harried staff. Her downfall would come via the cousins and friends and little brothers of the children she’d staved off all these years. She’d be done in by the least-powerful people in Loisaida.

As in many a denouement in New York, this one centered on real estate. Because NEST grew incrementally, adding grades each year, the DoE kept insisting that 111 Columbia Street was underutilized. The school countered that sharing space would overload its classrooms and sabotage its unique programming. Three times the building was slotted for co-tenancy. Three times the PTA circled its wagons and held off the onslaught.

And then, a year ago, came a more-formidable invader: Ross Global Academy. The battle was great theater while it lasted, class warfare behind a scrim of cognitive dissonance. In one corner, the platinum-coiffed Courtney Ross, two-time member of the Forbes 400, now paladin of the Lower East Side families she’d recruited for her charter school; in the other, NEST’s pugnacious principal, a generation removed from poverty in Puerto Rico, now raising the moat at her middle-class bastion.

In truth, the two groups were set apart by what they held in common: an uphill quest for a decent education. Charter schools, says Clara Hemphill, author of New York City’s Best Public High Schools, “represent for the African-American community what gifted programs represent to middle-class people on the Upper West Side—that is, a chance to get out of chaotic neighborhood schools.”

Playing their zero-sum game, the NEST community jitneyed to picket Ross’s school in East Hampton and stalked the mayor at City Hall. More than 500 parents and students banged drums and maracas outside Cipriani Wall Street, where Klein was keynoting the black-tie Graham Windham Bicentennial Ball. The PTA officers filed a lawsuit—not merely to challenge the “hostile takeover,” but to revoke Ross’s charter.

On the home front, the stress was getting to Chévere. “There were times I thought, This is crazy, she is out of control. Someone has got to rein this woman in,” Amanda Uprichard says. Parents were advised that blue pens no longer sufficed at the security desk sign-in. Only black ink would do.

When the DoE’s auditors came to check the school’s capacity last spring, according to Tweed, Chévere shuttled students from class to class, à la Mack Sennett, to show there was no room at the inn. It became clear, Klein says, that the principal “was not leading the school in good faith. Look, nobody likes to share space, but we have space needs—we’re in this as a city.” Improbably, NEST had made Courtney Ross an underdog. Even those allergic to charter schools wondered if NEST’s parents, deep down, feared that their darlings would get jostled en route to algebra by some poor black and Latin children. (It didn’t help when a reporter overheard a young NESTer ask his father, “Will the Ross kids be loud?”)

The game was up when NEST enlisted its godfather, the one person who could trump Bloomberg and Klein: Sheldon Silver. By a matter of yards, NEST fell inside the Assembly Speaker’s home district—geography turned destiny once more. With Silver controlling the fate of a bill to lift the charter school cap, a mayoral fixation, Klein couldn’t afford to antagonize him. (According to Armstrong, the line in the sand was drawn at a tense meeting in the NEST library: “Shelly stood up and pointed to Houston Street and said, ‘My district ends here, Joel.’”)

Finally, the chancellor blinked, sticking Ross into a guest room at his Tweed Courthouse. Victory, though, was Pyrrhic for NEST. “The chancellor was so pissed at Celenia that she was gone,” says a former Chévere supervisor. “How can you run the system if a principal can defy you like that?” Last June, the DoE disclosed that Chévere had been charged with misconduct—in connection with her building’s audit—and that her tenure at NEST was done.

Under Chévere, NEST was just “too good,” Armstrong says. “Other schools hated her because she made them look bad. She made the chancellor look bad, and she made District 2 look bad—all the wrong people.”

The 61-year-old principal had already filed for retirement, so she left with her pension intact. And even in exile, she would have a last laugh. When results of the 2006 standardized tests came in last fall, 99 percent of NEST’s students, grades three through eight, had scored at or above the standard in English. In math, the school did better yet: a perfect 100 percent. It was a sterling performance, better than Anderson, or Lower Lab, or any other school in the city. Chévere had finally reached the mountaintop, by hook or by crook.

Still, she paid a price for her defiance: the juice to anoint a successor and preserve the culture she’d created. She’d made the fatal error of believing her own motto. Under Chévere, Klein says, “the NEST people were used to getting their way, as if this were almost something in the nature of a private school, and it’s not. It’s a public school.”

Olga Livanis, Tweed’s choice as NEST’s new sheriff, is bloodless and oblique: the anti-Chévere. A former assistant principal at Stuyvesant, she’s a company woman who goes strictly by the book. But in her quiet way, Livanis is doing what she can to exorcise her predecessor’s stubborn ghost. After a raucous PTA meeting last fall, Livanis had the cops called to clear the building, and then triggered a DoE audit of the PTA’s books. In January, in a moment fraught with symbolism, Livanis ejected Emily Armstrong, the school’s very first “pioneer parent,” from the building as Armstrong stuffed envelopes for a senior-class fund-raiser.

It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the Chéveristas move on or age out. The families who stay may find a gentler place, if a more conventional one. Whatever her flaws, the founding principal had “a very clear vision,” Elizabeth Langwith says, “and I haven’t seen that yet from [the Livanis] administration.”

As the dust settled at NEST, Klein unveiled a policy to inject “reliable standards” into admissions for the gifted-and-talented sector. Beginning this fall, all gifted schools and programs, including NEST, will be using the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test, or olsat, given in nine languages, and, secondarily, the Gifted Rating Scales, an early-childhood teacher evaluation. The new process will be “a huge leap forward” in fairness and transparency, according to the DoE.

Yet while everyone likes equity, it’s not clear that Klein’s road map will get us there. To begin with, objectivity and fairness are two different things. (The entrance test for Stuyvesant is purely objective, yet it hardly seems fair that only 3 percent of its students are Hispanic and 2 percent are black.) Though Tweed doesn’t advertise the fact, the olsat is an IQ test. And like virtually all IQ tests, as Tobias notes, it boosts children from the “majority” culture (the white middle class) and handicaps those from the inner city—no matter if they take it in Spanish or Haitian Creole or Bengali.

So what is a chancellor to do? Racist inequities in our society are so vast and deeply rooted that any selective institution will reflect them. Absent a mass campaign to recruit disadvantaged students, the typical gifted classroom will continue to resemble Cape Town circa 1985. Good intentions notwithstanding, a by-the-numbers admissions won’t magically integrate next fall’s kindergarten at NEST or anyplace else.

These days, according to the DoE register, NEST is about as diverse as the other top gifted enclaves in the city. As of March 16, white students were 57 percent of the school’s population. Asian students accounted for 21 percent, while the Hispanic and black contingents—who represent nearly three-quarters of New York’s public-school population—had dropped to a combined 22 percent. At last count, barely one in five students hailed from District 1. Under Klein’s new admissions process, in fact, NEST is barred from giving preference to children from the neighborhood.

Of the many NEST parents I met, old guard or new, few voiced much concern about their growing homogenization. They steered me instead to the undercounting of their mixed-race families, or to the 29 languages spoken in the building. One lower-school parent, an Asian psychoanalyst, tells me that her best friends at NEST include a Cuban-American magazine editor and a black bank officer who speed-skates on the weekends. “We had this big joke,” the woman says, “that we’re not the kind of diversity this neighborhood wants.”

Gentrification has done its work swiftly inside the squarish building on Columbia Street. It took all of seven years for NEST to morph from dumping ground to avant-garde vision to another gated community for the multiethnic, middle-class elite. Meanwhile, District 1 struggles on. In 15 of its 24 schools, a majority of students tested below grade level in English last year, on their way to the wrong side of the city’s grim 50 percent graduation rate. The schools’ ancient assumption—that a rising middle-class tide would lift all boats—has never seemed more dubious than it does today near Houston and Avenue D.

— Jeff Coplon
New York Magazine