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Friday, December 14, 2007

Playing the Blame Game

Erin Einhorn reported yet another story in today’s NY Daily News about Principal Bennett Lieberman’s “dumb down your classes” staff memo at Central Park East. (For the original story, see the NY Daily News article or my previous posting on this site, "Campbell's Law: No, It's NOT Soup.") According to her story, at the same time Lieberman was getting dressed down by High School Superintendent Francesca Pena and Chancellor Joel Klein, he was busily chastising his own teaching staff for releasing his memo to the media. The Daily News reported that Lieberman accused the unknown whistleblower of “causing harm to the school and giving students the impression that [he] thinks they’re dumb.”

The reason for emphasizing students' pass rates, even at the expense of threatening teachers and suggesting that they lower their expectations, relates directly to the DOE's new Progress Reports. On high school reports, three major factors in a school's ratings are the percentage of students in each of the 9th, 10th, and 11th grades who accumulate ten or more credits in a given year, since this is seen by the DOE as highly predictive of graduation. Of course, pass rates and credit awards are not determined by a common standard or test and can be manipulated at the school level by "dumbing down" classes, thereby increasing the school's Progress Report score and its corresponding letter grade.

Rather than simply admit to an error in poor wording if not outright bad judgment, Leadership Academy graduate Lieberman goes after the individual who had enough courage in his or her convictions to take his outrageous memo public. It’s encouraging to know that many teachers in the system still believe in their kids and their vocation, who reject notions of merit pay based on high-stakes testing and are willing to help shine a light on such travesties as inflated pass rates by dumbing down classes. Maybe there still are reasons to hope, to know that there are many teachers who just want to be left alone to do what they do – inspire and teach.

On the other hand, the Leadership Academy appears to be teaching its principals-to-be the same invaluable leadership skills demonstrated by veteran practitioners like Chancellor Klein and James Liebman: create systems and metrics, relevant or otherwise, to hold everyone else maximally accountable while foreswearing any accountability of your own. As one pithy aphorism says, “To err is human. To blame it on someone else shows management potential.”

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