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26th September

First Published in The New York Sun, September 26, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

Remember these three words: schoolbased option. These are the words that strike fear into the hearts of Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, Deputy Chancellor for Instruction Diana Lam, and the other leaders of the Tweed cult that is running our city schools in neo-Orwellian style. 

    It is fashionable in some corners to knock the United Federation of Teachers as the source of all that is evil in the public schools. I have never shared this belief. Perhaps, because members of my family and many of my friends are educators, I have a more intimate perspective on the lives of teachers.

    I know that there a number of teachers who are simply “putting in time” in what they perceive to be a civil service job, marking off the days until retirement. But, for the most part, teachers have chosen their profession because they love children and want to do right by them. 
    Most teachers I know work long hours, well beyond the scheduled day and school year. In New York, they must work in sometimes intolerable and often downright unsafe conditions. They and their principals get little support and are often undermined when trying to handle discipline problems and disruptive students. Believe me, teaching is not an easy job. 
    As for the union, it must be remembered that whatever evils lurk in their contract didn’t appear there by magic. The offending provisions were agreed to, retained, and sometimes initiated by those who sat on the other side of the negotiating table. And this wasn’t the result of political payback. In the past quarter-century, the UFT has endorsed just one successful candidate for mayor: David Dinkins. 
    This past week, the collective bargaining process began for a new teachers’ contract. In her statement opening negotiations, the UFT’s president, Randi Weingarten, offered a radical new approach, one that has already resonated even among critics of her union and has shaken Tweed to the core. 
    She proposed a pilot program that would eliminate virtually all of the much-criticized union rules in as many as all the schools in one of the 10 regions. In exchange, schools would have greater latitude in setting their own educational plans. At the center of this is the concept of the “school-based option,” which lets teachers and their principal, in consultation with parents, develop programs, approve or reject teacher transfers, construct schedules, et cetera in a way that specifically addresses the needs of their school. 
    Of course, nothing could be further from the way things are now being done in the school system since the Tweed gang came on the scene.Teachers and principals are being mercilessly micro-managed right from the top. I am told that even some of the 10 “super-superintendents” that run the 10 new regions are chafing under inflexible, ideology-driven dicta that are beginning to make New York’s classrooms resemble religious cults. Things are so controlled that even class trips must be approved by the regional superintendents, each of whom is responsible for over 100 schools and thousands of classes.This is madness. 
    Several years ago, the UFT, along with the chancellor then, Rudy Crew, developed a new instructional model for 40 of the city’s failing schools in the Chancellor’s District. The school day was extended — and, yes, teachers in those schools were compensated for that time — and children were taught to read using a program called “Success for All.” The gains made in these 40 schools were so impressive that the program won national attention and acclaim. 
    Rather than try to expand this program, one that was proven to work right here in New York City, the Chancellor’s District program has been abandoned by Mr. Klein and his education guru, Ms. Lam. It was discarded entirely for ideological reasons. The Tweed ring has attacked Success for All as being “scripted.”This is certainly true. Using this program, teachers literally read from a script. This may not be what many of them had in mind when they entered the profession. But teachers opted into the Chancellor’s District knowing that the reading program had a proven track record. 

    What distresses so many teachers about the Klein–Lam program is that it replaces some of the most fundamental aspects of traditional classroom teaching with programs that are not grounded in a record of success. Teachers are upset about controls over the use of the blackboard 
(don’t), the kind of wall hangings (must conform to strict guidelines), and seating (never facing the front of the room) that are not based on any scientific research, but on ideology. The spontaneity blackboard use permits is exactly what Ms. Lam and her ideological followers are trying to remove from the classroom. 

    That Ms. Weingarten and the UFT are advocating traditional instruction may surprise some, but they are actually following a long tradition of union concern over the spread of the so-called “progressive” instructional fads that date back to the days of Albert Shanker. 

    Shanker was an enthusiastic supporter of the work of Professor E.D. Hirsch Jr. Mr. Hirsch is the nation’s leading critic of the progressive methodology, the exact ideological opposite of Ms. Lam. But Mr. Hirsch has the science behind him, while Ms. Lam has little more than blind faith in the magic of covered blackboards, reading rugs, and rocking chairs in the classrooms. 

    What Ms. Weingarten is beginning to sketch out is a model that recognizes that the key components of education begin and end in the classroom. It would be useful if the UFT were to flesh out its ideas and create a specific alternative to the Klein–Lam group-think. Perhaps it is that alternative which should be presented to voters in a citywide referendum, rather than the simplistic “lower class size” proposal that the union is now trying to place on the ballot. 

    If we combine the marginal effects of better management and business practices with the enormous impact of good instruction based on sound scientific research, we may develop a “school-based” model that will really change New York’s classrooms.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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