“No Man’s life liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session”.

- attributed to NY State Judge Gideon Tucker

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Joel Klein's New York Schools Stories

Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City public schools from 2002 through 2010, wrote a provocative editorial recently in the Wall Street Journal entitled Scenes From the New York Education Wars.

His observations in the passages below reinforce how obstructive the teachers' union was to his efforts to improve the city's education system.

Teachers are extremely effective messengers to parents, community groups, faith-based groups and elected officials—and their unions know how to deploy them well. Happy unions can give a politician massive clout, and unhappy unions—well, just ask Eva Moskowitz, a Democrat who headed the New York City Council Education Committee when I became schools chancellor in 2002.

Smart, savvy, ambitious, often a pain in my neck and atypically fearless for a politician, Ms. Moskowitz was widely expected to be elected Manhattan borough president in 2005. Until, that is, she held hearings on the city teachers-union contract, an extraordinary document, running for hundreds of pages, governing who can teach what and when, who can be assigned to hall-monitor or lunchroom duty and who can't, who has to be given time off to do union work during the school day, and so on.

The contract defied parody. So when Ms. Moskowitz exposed its ridiculousness, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), then headed by Randi Weingarten, made sure that Ms. Moskowitz's run for borough president came up short. After that, other elected officials would say to me, "I agree with you, but I ain't gonna get Eva'd."

I found that story to be very chilling. As I noted in my recent post concerning Randi Weingarten, union officials attempt to identify themselves with children's education, but they are really just concerned with their own poewr and money. In Weingarten's case, she savagely retaliated against an elected official who merely wanted voters to understand what the teachers' union contract was doing to education in their schools.

Consider Klein's story about Albert Shanker.

Politicians—especially Democratic politicians—generally do what the unions want. The unions, in turn, are very clear about what that is: They want happy members, so that those who run the unions get re-elected, and they want more members, so their power, money and influence grow. The effect of all this? As Albert Shanker, the late, iconic head of the UFT, once pointedly said, "When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of schoolchildren."

When I told my NJ public school teacher friend that story, he flatly refused to believe it. His own union officials have so brainwashed him that he simply can't believe that they don't care about his students. Sometimes denial is hard to accept and acknowledge. To me, Shanker's quote is one of the most telling of any I've heard by a public sector union boss.

Consider the common refrain that "We'll never fix education until we fix poverty." This lets school systems off the hook. Of course money, a stable family and strong values typically make it easier to educate a child. But we now know that, keeping those things constant, certain schools can get dramatically different outcomes with the same kids.

I loved that passage. It's so typical of the liberal mindset to blame society while continuing to pocket taxpayer dollars for poor results. And use an external cause to evade responsibility for their own actions.

At individual schools, differences can be breathtaking. One charter in New York City, Harlem Success Academy 1 (founded by Ms. Moskowitz after she left politics), has students who are demographically almost identical to those in nearby schools, yet it gets entirely different results.

Parents celebrate as they hear that their 4-year-old daughter was awarded a coveted slot at the Harlem Success Academy charter school.

Eighty-eight percent of Harlem Success students are proficient in reading and 95% are proficient in math. Six nearby schools have an average of 31% and 39% proficiency in those subjects, respectively. More than 90% of Harlem Success fourth-graders scored at the highest level on New York State's most recent science tests, while only 43% of fourth-graders citywide did so. Harlem Success's black students outperformed white students at more than 700 schools across the state. Overall, the charter now performs at the same level as the gifted-and-talented schools in New York City, all of which have demanding admissions requirements. Harlem Success, by contrast, selects its students, mostly poor and minority, by random lottery.

Critics try to discredit these differences. Writing last year in the New York Review of Books, the historian Diane Ravitch argued that schools like Harlem Success aren't the answer because, as a group, charter schools don't outperform traditional public schools. Yet even Ms. Ravitch had to acknowledge that some charter schools get "amazing results." If that's the case, shouldn't we be asking why they get much better results—and focusing on how to replicate them?

A full-scale transition from a government-run monopoly to a competitive marketplace won't happen quickly, but that's no reason not to begin introducing more competition. In the lower grades, we should make sure that every student has at least one alternative—and preferably several—to her neighborhood school.

That story and Klein's reasoning about making small steps is a valuable example regarding charter schools. Call them what you will, charter schools are simply affordable private schools. Why wouldn't choice be important? Why wouldn't it make sense to focus on, celebrate and try to replicate even a few charter school successes?

Instead, the union bosses pick on the worst examples of private schools to argue that none should exist. Under that logic, we'd scrap the public school systems and their teachers, too, by focusing on the worst public schools.

As Shanker put it in a surprisingly candid speech in 1993: "We are at the point that the auto industry was at a few years ago. They could see they were losing market share every year and still not believe that it really had anything to do with the quality of the product. . . . I think we will get—and deserve—the end of public education through some sort of privatization scheme if we don't behave differently. Unfortunately, very few people really believe that yet. They talk about it, and they don't like it, but they're not ready to change and stop doing the things that brought us to this point."

I found this, too, to be a chilling quote from Shanker. He must have been quite a capable union boss. He understood reality, but was able to temporarily halt its onset from affecting his union members. Never mind what that did to millions of American children in the process.

My teacher friend expressed at least one reason for the behavior Shanker noted in that passage. My friend notes that he's closer to retirement than he is to commencing his career. So, like the old pilots who favored newer, younger pilots being given a lower starting salary and fewer benefits, he, too, cares little for le deluge after his tenured career is over.

In short, so long as he gets his, he could care less about the fate of his replacements. Trouble is, all of the discussion is in regard to his pension, pay and benefits- not children's education.

Klein's instructive selected quotes from Shanker reveal the simple truth. So long as unions serve their members, unionized teachers won't really care about children's educational success as much as they care about their own economic success.

At least a private school can remedy this flaw by aligning the two for each individual teacher, rather than maximizing average welfare of a group of teachers, regardless of pupil performance

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