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26th March

First Published in The New York Sun, March 26, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

 New York City public school teachers, please pay attention. Chancellor Klein has given all of you a green light to undo what is among the most ridiculous in his grab bag of ill-conceived “reforms.” 

    According to his message to teachers in the first issue of his teacher newsletter, “Connections,” Mr. Klein advises teachers that they can arrange the desks in the classrooms as they see fit. 

    “I don’t support some of the practices that you told me about in some of your emails to me. Whether a ‘mini-lesson’ lasts for 10 or 12 minutes should be left to the professional judgment of the teacher, as should the decision about how and where children sit in their classrooms.” 
    This is no small matter.This goes to the heart of the “progressive” education theology brought to New York by the now departed deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, Diana Lam. Teachers have been instructed that they must not arrange seats in traditional rows facing the front of the room, but rather arranged in groups of four or six, to facilitate the children working in groups. 

    This is a major part of the so-called “child centered” philosophy mandated by educrats empowered by the New Tweed Ring. They believe that children need to “construct” their own knowledge and should not be subjected to “direct instruction” by teachers, who have been admonished by the Department of Education not to be “the sage on the stage,” but rather act as the “guide on the side.” In other words, teachers are little more than facilitators in the child’s quest for knowledge. 

    The spread of this educational philosophy is widely thought to be at the heart of the steady declines in the academic performance of American children that we have witnessed over the past 30 years.This is an outgrowth of a socialist ideal that puts the ability of groups to work together collectively ahead of the academic achievement of the individual, considered a “selfish” concern. 

    Despite the chancellor’s denials, the seating mandate has been aggressively enforced in all grades, even in middle schools and high schools. 

    My advice to teachers is to take the chancellor at his word. If you do not believe in the “progressive” classroom group-think arrangement, test his sincerity by lining the seats up, facing the front of the room, in the traditional manner. If you are pressured to do otherwise, particularly by the “coaches” who have been dispatched by the “regions” to enforce the Tweed mandates in the schools, you should report such pressure to the chancellor. 

    Given the awful climate of fear that exists in New York’s public schools, independent-minded teachers who accept the chancellor’s instructions at face value would be well advised to inform their union rep as well before they start moving the desks. 

    This is one of unintended consequences of the way Mr. Klein has pursued “reform.” Rather than break the United Federation of Teachers, he has strengthened it by sending the message that the only protection that teachers have from the capricious whims of top-down management is their union. At no time since Ocean Hill-Brownsville, when teachers were being removed because they belonged to the “wrong” racial or religious group, has morale been lower. 

    The “Connections” newsletter is an attempt on the part of the chancellor to do an end run around the union, trying to win the hearts and minds of teachers directly. The hope is that he can convince them to divest voluntarily themselves of their “work rules,” hardly a realistic goal given the real tension that the Tweed Ring has created. The UFT predictably overreacted, filing an “unfair labor practice” grievance against the Department of Education over certain portions of the newsletter. 

    In truth, it is unlikely that the newsletter signals any real change in the vision of Ms. Lam. Mr. Klein has become a disciple to her philosophy. How else then can he explain the choice of Carmen Fariña as Ms. Lam’s acting successor? 

    Parents tell me that shortly before leaving her post as regional superintendent of Brooklyn’s Region 8, Ms. Fariña decided to eliminate the purchase of textbooks in science and social studies. The use of “content area” textbooks is considered old-fashioned by the “progressive” crowd. How does this square with the “back-tobasics” promises Mayor Bloomberg made to us on the campaign trail? 

    Well, I’m glad to be called old-fashioned. Until Mr. Klein empowers educators who promote the use of textbooks, see nothing wrong with teachers writing on blackboards, and encourage a direct instruction environment where students actually obtain knowledge and information from instructors actually (gasp!) standing in the front of the room, he will doom yet another generation of New York City children to failure. The “connection” that counts most is not the one between Mr. Klein and the teachers, but one between the teachers and their students.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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