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Saturday, December 8, 2007

The NY City Department of Education: Is It Real or Is It Parody?

Note: It seems that more and more, I hear about readers who mistake certain GBN News parodies for reality. The last thing I want to do is to create confusion among NY City parents; the DOE does that well enough on their own. The following, I hope, will serve as a clarification of my parodies and of their purpose and meaning. Hint for blog readers: If it says “GBN News” at the top of the article, it’s parody. If it doesn’t, all responsibility for inaccurate, misleading or confusing information rests solely with the DOE.

It is both an occupational hazard and an intended purpose of parody that it may be mistaken for reality. I write education news parodies for the NY City Public School Parents Blog as “GBN News”. But when I look at what comes out of the NY City Department of Education these days, I realize that their reality is often more outlandish than my parodies.

The school Progress Reports (“report cards”) that were recently issued are a case in point. In my wildest imagination, I could never have come up with a “grading” system in which schools with positive quality reviews get D’s and F’s and are consequently closed, schools that are on the state failing list get A’s, and a school that received national recognition under NCLB gets a D. The idea is so far fetched that it is not even credible as parody.

Some time ago I wrote a piece based on last year’s fiasco in which high priced DOE consultants Alvarez and Marsal, to save money, had eliminated numerous bus routes in the dead of winter. With little notice, they had stranded countless children in the cold, and told children as young as five that they should use Metro Cards instead of school buses. I reported that in another move by Alvarez and Marsal, “The traditional ‘lunch period’ will be eliminated from all New York City schools, to be replaced by an as yet undisclosed academic activity period.” I had Chancellor Klein praising the plan as eliminating a cost-ineffective program and improving test scores, and Mayor Bloomberg responding to criticism by saying, “Schools are for learning, not for eating”. Some blog readers reported that they actually believed this at first, and one said, “I also think Klein and Bloomberg would do these things”.

In a somewhat darker vein, I recently wrote a parody in which Blackwater, USA was hired to take over school security from the NYPD. The idea, I wrote, came out of a meeting between Chancellor Klein and President Bush, in which “The President was said to have told Mr. Klein that if Blackwater could take over the Iraq war so successfully from the US military, it could do the same for the NY City Police Department in the war against cell phones.” One reader was so disturbed that he actually asked a Deputy Chancellor and a City Council member if the story was true.

In writing parody, I strive to straddle the line between reality and fiction, to demonstrate how porous that line can sometimes be. But while in one sense I feel gratified that these parodies were effective enough to be believable, it is more than a bit unsettling that people have gotten used to a reality so bizarre that they can accept the parody as truth.

For us public school parents, the world of the DOE can only be described as “Kafkaesque”; rational rules no longer seem to apply. Three times in six years, the entire school system was reorganized. Districts were folded into regions, then regions broken back up into districts. Control was centralized, then decentralized again. Parents and educators were consulted - after the changes had already been made.

The DOE treats cell phones like weapons, banning their possession and enforcing the ban with metal detectors. The Mayor rejects the City Council’s authority to overturn the ban because his control of the system comes from the state; yet, when convenient, he rejects state authority because the DOE is a “city agency”.

School evaluations are based on questionable data, which are wrapped up into a single letter grade by an $80 million supercomputer (ARIS); then those grades fuel a punitive system that can cost a principal his or her job, close a school, or inexplicably deny resources to the failing schools that need it the most. Meanwhile additional millions are spent on no-bid consultant contracts, yet funded state mandates to reduce class size, which could truly boost student performance, are flagrantly ignored.

Given all this, it’s really no surprise that my parodies sometimes get taken seriously. But the real parody is what Bloomberg and Klein have done with Mayoral control of the schools. Whether or not absolute power corrupts absolutely, it certainly can divorce those who hold that power from reality. Accountable to nobody, the Mayor and Chancellor take their advice, not from stakeholders like educators and parents, or from experts in the field, but from people in the business world like Jack Welch and Eli Broad.

While some of these educational dilettantes may be well meaning, none of them, including the Mayor or Chancellor, have any background in education. They listen to no one with the educational knowledge or common sense to tell them that their “reforms” are only a parody of sound educational practices. Meanwhile, our children must try to get their education in what has sadly become a parody of a school system.


jonathan said...

Thanks for the clarification. I was genuinely frustrated by a parody post a few months ago.

When my father says "True story..." I know I'm getting a joke. And even if I didn't, it would take maybe 20 seconds to figure it out.

With GBN, sometimes it is not so obvious... I wonder if you read the archives, if any of the GBN's would be so close to what has actually happened that they would be unsuitable as parodies today?


Anonymous said...

So just to be clear, when you say the system "has become a parody," you're saying it was in better shape before mayoral control? Please cite a single piece of student achievement data that supports that conclusion. While you're at it, could you also clarify your own background in education?

Gary Babad said...

A couple of points in response, then I suggest you read further down this blog for much more information.

1. With all the massive upheavals in the system, recent NAEP test scores are basically flat for the time that Bloomberg and Klein have been in power. All this for no progress? The sort of disruptions in our kids' educaition they have caused have ended up as merely change for change's sake; and yes, that sort of gratuitous change does have a negative effect on the system, not to mention on those that have a stake in it.

2. I don't claim to be an expert on education; as a parent I speak as one of the "stakeholders" I mention that they never consult with. I do, however, hold a certification in elementary ed, and as a social worker and therapist, spent many years working with children and families, often dealing with educational issues within and about schools. I see from a parent's perspective as well as that of a mental health professional, the results of the DOE (and NCLB) policies on children. And if you read more of this blog, you will see much written by experts such as Diane Ravitch and Leonie Haimson, who make many of the same points.

Anonymous said...

Just wait until you see the results that Photeine "Photo" Anagnostopoulos brings to bear. You haven't really seen mismanagement (or an utter parody of management) until you have seen this woman operate.