The Underside of Bloomberg's School Reform

How the Mayor's Top-Down Revolution Locks Out Communities

5. Placement in the "New Beginnings" disruptive student program is arbitrary, with teachers requesting removal and principals making the final determination. The 16 schools, already serving 930 high school students, are run by the Office of School Safety, which contracts out with organizations like the Police Athletic League and the YMCA. Students get two fewer regular credit courses a day than their mainstream counterparts and are theoretically returned to their original schools after short stays. Yet there are no written placement criteria, and the assigned nonviolent students are chosen mostly because of "attendance, cutting and hall-walking problems," according to a program supervisor. Despite an upside of classes as small as 10 to 1 and parent consultations prior to placement, the program's wide discretion makes it likely that behavior tolerated in one high school will lead to removal in another.

6. The layoff of hundreds of paraprofessionals flies in the face of the mayor's stated desire to protect classrooms. While 625 of the 864 laid-off, UFT-represented, paras have already been rehired, their terminations were a transparent attempt to punish Weingarten, who's stonewalled the mayor on a host of labor fronts. As brutal as the simultaneous layoffs of school aides and family assistants were, that action did not involve vital in-classroom positions like paras. Weingarten was so "burned," as she put it, by the para layoffs that she indicated a possible willingness to sacrifice teacher sabbaticals to protect them. Though she never put a formal sabbatical offer on the table, Bloomberg et al. never pushed it either. She is now grieving the administration's unilateral denial of almost all sabbatical applications. Declaring that a busted city can't afford to finance a year off with two-thirds pay for hundreds of teachers makes sense; firing paras doesn't.

7. As innovative as much of the instructional reform is, training principals already on the job and supporting teacher creativity are hardly Bloomberg priorities. Jill Levy, whose union represents most of the system's supervisors, testified at a city council hearing that her principals and assistant principals were getting no targeted training in the new standardized math and reading curriculums mandated for their schools. Weingarten tells teachers that the lockstep curricula "forces you to abandon the successful instructional practices you've developed over the years." These complaints have been confirmed by fair observers. Klein's excellent Leadership Academy is focused on trainees, not principals in the field. Klein may have nothing to do with the classroom excesses exposed in the tabloids—like banning blackboards—but he still needs to make it clear how much he values creative teaching.

Ninth graders at Murray Bergtraum High School are reading Monster as their first assignment—butt plugs, rapes, suicides, and all.
photo: Cary Conover
Ninth graders at Murray Bergtraum High School are reading Monster as their first assignment—butt plugs, rapes, suicides, and all.

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Second of a Two-Part Series

Part One: The 10 Best Bloomberg School Reforms

8. The 2002 Bloomberg/UFT contract granted the largest raises in history in exchange for puny increases in teaching time; the next negotiations cannot repeat that disaster. To get his mayoral control bill out of Albany, Bloomberg was forced to sign off on the 2002 contract by Assembly Speaker and UFT hostage Shelly Silver. It did nothing about the most odious elements of the contract-salary scales that equate gym and geometry teachers and seniority transfers that allow bad teachers to move from school to school. It did include a change in the procedures for dismissing teachers for misconduct that has improved the numbers—with cases charged going from 95 in the 2002 school year to 143 in 2003 and cases closed going from 188 to 261. Terminations, as well as forced resignations and retirements, were up. While misconduct cases are moving more quickly, Klein says "if you're trying to terminate a teacher for incompetence, that's still a very protracted process."

9. Overcrowding is undercutting the Bloomberg reforms, provoked in part by Bush's No Child Left Behind. Federal law allows students to transfer from failing to better schools, which has triggered chaotic congestion in some schools. While Chicago is denying most transfers and still getting Bush's federal aid, New York State officials required the city to approve the transfers and Klein complied, initially at least, with some enthusiasm. The UFT has filed a mountain of class size grievances—partly related to the federal transfers and partly to the space crunch afflicting selected schools. George Sweeting of the Independent Budget Office says that last year—before the transfer policy went into full effect—the citywide class average "looks like" it declined a "little less than half a kid." Another example of a damaging mandate is the state legislature's ban on Parent Association officers serving on the new community councils, which parent leaders like Robin Brown say will disqualify the most activist parents.

10. Real concerns about the new curriculum are bubbling up from apolitical professionals who genuinely support the reforms. Klein's press office selected Murray Bergtraum High School in Manhattan for a Voice visit, yet teachers and administrators there expressed concern about the first book they were required to read aloud to ninth graders, Monster. A finalist for the National Book Award, Monster is filled with rape, stabbings, suicidal talk, and even a reference to the insertion of a butt plug. Lily Vero, one of the teachers using it at Bergtraum, says the officials who picked Monster don't want fairy tales, "so instead we're reading a book that will keep them up at night." Author Walter Dean Myers insists that 13-year-olds are ready for it, adding that "teachers who are embarrassed by it" aren't embarrassed "when they turn out classes of nonreaders." Far beyond Monster, there is also considerable unease in the schools about the core phonics program; Klein needs public forums where every stakeholder feels comfortable freely reacting to the new curriculum.

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