In every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, and of no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again. —James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Public education is each and every American’s birthright. —Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, PBS, September 30, 2002
At a Stan Kenton record date years ago, I watched a trombonist who kept hitting clinkers on his solo. It went on for some 12 takes, and he never did get it right. That memory of invincible incompetence came to mind as I was reviewing the series of damagingly false notes Chancellor Joel Klein has hit since he took office heralding “Children First: A New Agenda for Public Education in New York City.” Klein was the choice of our chronically self-satisfied mayor, who pledged when campaigning, and ever since, that his administration must be judged on what the public schools will be like when he comes up for re-election.
So much further harm has been done to this city’s long-failing system by Bloomberg’s crucial first mistake—bringing in Klein—that the chancellor should resign before more damage is done. But he is not likely to be gone until and unless there is a new mayor, and I expect that aspirants eyeing City Hall are keeping a detailed account of the Bloomberg-Klein team’s serial record of misjudgments.
I will not focus here on Klein’s ingeniously confusing changes in the reading and math curricula. James Traub has already clearly and devastatingly illuminated how Klein’s choices guarantee more dropouts by teachers as well as students in the Education Life supplement of the August 3 New York Times (“New York’s New Approach”). See also the valuable Sol Stern’s “Bloomberg and Klein Rush In,” City Journal, spring 2003.
As for the Bloomberg-Klein enthusiasm for the all-gay high school, segregation ineluctably leads to further stigmatization. Thurgood Marshall knew that. Moreover, to relieve the school system of accountability for the bullying and other cruel harassment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students—including the many who will be left behind and unprotected anyway in the city’s schools—reveals how simplistically myopic the mayor and chancellor are.
Relentless pressure should be on the principals who don’t stop this viciousness. When I was covering Frank Macchiarola during his chancellorship, I went with him when he became principal of a high school for some time so he could find out what was going on in the trenches. Put principals like Frank in the high schools now, and there’d be no need for an all-gay school. A principal who cannot end bigotry of any kind in a school should be removed.
But the chief indictment of Klein’s chancellorship was displayed for all to see in the July 31 and August 1 New York Times front-page stories “To Cut Failure Rate, Schools Shed Students” and “High School Under Scrutiny for Giving Up on Its Students.”
The ever vigilant Carl Campanile of the New York Post broke the pushout story last November 9. The Times should enter its pieces by Tamar Lewin and Jennifer Medina for a Pulitzer, and the Post should submit Campanile’s reporting as well.
I hope there will be further and frequent team reporting in the Times on what Klein—as long as he’s supposedly in charge—is going to do about this pernicious and pervasive “pushout” educational malpractice that can place so many youngsters in quicksand for the rest of their lives.
And this discarding of students is also a severe test of such civil rights organizations as the NAACP and the Urban League. They ought to be conducting their own investigations of the many thousands of students being pushed out of this city’s public schools because their scores make the principals’ and superintendents’ records look bad. Is the Urban League protecting alumnus Dennis Walcott, now at Bloomberg’s side? Great credit is due Advocates for Children of New York for filing a lawsuit on this betrayal of kids—and for calling attention to this and other malpractices in the system.
What the Times series reported in harrowing detail—including testimonies by pushouts—is that “growing numbers of students—most of them struggling academically—are being pushed out of New York City’s school system and classified under bureaucratic categories that hide their failure to graduate.” And “students [are being] shunted out at ever-younger ages.”
I heard anecdotal evidence about the pushouts last October from Noreen Connell, executive director of the Educational Priorities Panel, but Klein was silent about this disastrous covert policy until the Times series forced his hand. Now he has told the Times (July 31) that he’s going to do something about it because “you’re never going to change the system unless you’re brutally candid.”
To be brutally candid, there is this report in the same issue of the Times: “On June 30 [Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum] wrote to Mr. Klein to express ‘strong concern’ over the high school discharge tracking system recounting her office’s request last September for a breakdown of high school discharges, which was forthcoming only after a nine-month delay—and then yielded what she said was inadequate information.” (Emphasis added.) Gotbaum estimates 160,000 pushouts between 1998 and 2001.
How could Joel Klein not have known? He also didn’t know about the Advocates for Children lawsuit filed in January? He didn’t know that the pushouts and their parents were not being told that under New York state law, students have the right to remain in school until they are 21?
Klein, of course, is not the only one who must be held strictly accountable. Where were the United Federation of Teachers and its members, as well as the principals? Are they still targeting pushouts?
Parents and others concerned with the future of the city should get “Pushing Out At-Risk Students: An Analysis of High School Discharge Figures,” a report by Gotbaum and Advocates for Children. Also, the court papers in the series of class-action lawsuits filed in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York, by Advocates for Children of New York (151 West 30th Street, fifth floor, New York, NY 10001; 212-947-9779). They truly are advocates!
The Times should make the pushout series—with testimonies from some of the pushouts—available in pamphlet form, and, if possible, free. That’ll more than make up for Jayson Blair.
On August 3, Daily News columnist E.R. Shipp reported that Mayor Bloomberg, speaking to educators in Queens, said: “The best is yet to come.” He is his own blackout. To be continued, including a smoking gun the Times left out.