Sunday, August 30, 2009

Pressure-cooker kindergarten

Pressure-cooker kindergarten Boston Globe Christine Gerzon is the epitome of a kindergarten teacher: warm and wise, quick to get down on her knees to wipe a tear or bandage a boo-boo. She can rhapsodize for hours about a single leaf and philosophize convincingly about the pedagogical uses of papier-mache. “I teach because it’s my calling,” she says. “It’s my life purpose.” Patti Hartigan August 30, 2009 -- Pressure-cooker kindergarten

A new emphasis on testing and test preparation -- brought on by politicians, not early education experts -- is hurting the youngest students.

Christine Gerzon is the epitome of a kindergarten teacher: warm and wise, quick to get down on her knees to wipe a tear or bandage a boo-boo. She can rhapsodize for hours about a single leaf and philosophize convincingly about the pedagogical uses of papier-mache. “I teach because it’s my calling,” she says. “It’s my life purpose.”

Yet two years ago, after 38 years as an educator, she threw up her hands and retired. (Her last job was at the Harrington School in Lexington.) She couldn’t stand the pressure.

Pressure? This is kindergarten, the happy land of building blocks and singalongs. But increasingly in schools across Massachusetts and the United States, little children are being asked to perform academic tasks, including test taking, that early childhood researchers agree are developmentally inappropriate, even potentially damaging. If children don’t meet certain requirements, they are deemed “not proficient.” Frequently, children are screened for “kindergarten readiness” even before school begins, and some are labeled inadequate before they walk through the door.

This is a troubling trend to an experienced educator like Gerzon, who knows how much a child can soak up in the right environment. After years of study and practice, she’ll tell you that 5-year-olds don’t learn by listening to a rote lesson, their bottoms on their chairs. They learn through experience. They learn through play. Yet there is a growing disconnect between what the research says is best for children -- a classroom free of pressure -- and what’s actually going on in schools.

Take the example of a girl who was barely 5 when she entered Gerzon’s classroom. She didn’t know her ABCs, but one day in class she made up a song and taught it to the other children. But because of new requirements, “I had to send a letter to her parents saying that [she] is not proficient,” says Gerzon. “You tell me that [she] is not proficient in language skills!” The Concord resident, who usually exudes a gentle presence, bristles. “It’s destructive, even abusive. That’s a pretty strong word, but what do you call it when you take a group of children and you force them to do something that they are not developmentally ready to do? What do you call that? It’s abusive.”

Psychologist and early childhood expert David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child and The Power of Play, echoes Gerzon. When children are required to do academics too early, he says, they get the message that they are failures. “We are sending too many children to school to learn that they are dumb,” says Elkind, a professor emeritus at Tufts University. “They are not dumb. They are just not there developmentally.”

* * *

It’s been more than two decades since Robert Fulghum published the oft-quoted (and oft-mocked) essay “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” The piece describes a bucolic world of wonder, a place for cookies and afternoon naps.

That world is long gone.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit advocacy group Alliance for Childhood, based just outside Washington, D.C., issued a report titled “Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in Schools,” drawing from nine new studies of public school classrooms around the country. Kindergartners in the studies spent four to six times as much of the school day being drilled in literacy and math as they did playing.

Recess has been truncated or has disappeared entirely in some schools, a double whammy, since children are stressed out by the demands and also deprived of their major stress reliever. The report cites study after study showing increasing stress, aggression, and other behavior problems, and even breakdowns.

Roz Brezenoff taught kindergarten in the Boston Public Schools for 36 years, retiring five years ago. “I have heard stories of kids having what they call psychotic breakdowns in kindergarten, kids who are distressed because they are ‘kindergarten failures’ because they can’t read and they can’t write,” she says.

To be sure, many children thrive in an academic environment, and some parents seek out institutions like the Edward Brooke Charter School in Roslindale, which bills itself as “unapologetically college preparatory.” Teachers there assign nightly homework in kindergarten. But many children that age are not ready for that kind of work, and all are being held to new standards.

These changes grew out of attempts to solve another problem: a disturbing gap between higher-achieving white students and minorities who were falling behind. The state’s Education Reform Act of 1993 led to the establishment of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Tests (MCAS), given to all public school students in the state every year from Grade 3 through 8 and in Grade 10, to identify schools and districts where student performance is not improving and to hold those schools accountable by state watchdogs. As a consequence, says J.C. Considine, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, “some districts have developed more challenging but appropriate curricula for kindergarten. But many others have curricula, schedules, and expectations that would have been seen in first grade or beyond 10 years ago.”

Around the same time, neuroscientists were discovering a period of rapid brain development between birth and age 5. These advances helped launch the “brainy baby” business, a flood of products that promised to turn tiny tots into budding geniuses. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor of education at Lesley University in Cambridge, says that “parents are misled by Baby Einstein,” the brand that sells books, DVDs, and flashcard “games” aimed at helping very young children get ahead. “They are misled by a marketing culture and a school culture that tells them achievement in early childhood is children sitting at tables doing work sheets.”

Then came the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which links federal funding for schools to performance on standardized tests beginning in the third grade. Its passage “put the nail in the coffin” for the old ways, says Ed Miller, coauthor of the Alliance for Childhood study. “Faced with serious sanctions, they weren’t going to say, ‘OK, let them play and do all the things they used to do,’ ” Miller says. “Instead, we have to put them in testing boot camp well before third grade.”

President Obama has repeatedly emphasized the importance of early childhood education and has committed $5 billion to early learning programs. Yet it’s still unclear exactly what changes the administration will make to No Child Left Behind. “The challenge is to attune the learning experience to how children are at that point in their development, rather than trying to make them something they aren’t,” says Carol Copple of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a Washington, D.C., accreditation group. “We need to make the schools ready for the kids, not make the kids ready for the schools.”

* * *

Some educators are struggling to bridge the gap between best practices and the politically driven demand for accountability. Teacher Michael Kenney sits cross-legged on the floor of his cheerful classroom at the Thomas J. Kenny Elementary School in Dorchester. It’s time for reading, and a teacher’s aide leads some of the children to another room to read out loud to them. These youngsters aren’t ready to read yet, and Kenney and principal Suzanne Federspiel have decided that a reading lesson would only frustrate them. “There is more pressure for children to be readers by the end of kindergarten, and we try to put the pressure on us, not on them,” Federspiel explains.

Addressing the remaining students, Kenney pulls out a fly swatter with a hole cut in the middle. “In our classroom, this isn’t a fly swatter, it’s a word swatter,” he says. “I want to find a word, so wham, boom, I swat it!” He whacks the word “the” on a large text mounted on an easel. The children giggle, and for the next 10 minutes, they take turns swatting words. Their glee is infectious, and their swats are precise.

Later, it’s time for a writing workshop, and a little break. “If you are done with your drawing and your sentence, you get 20 minutes to play,” Kenney says to resounding cheers. “But do a good job, capiche?” In unison, the children respond “Capiche!” In the housekeeping area, two girls are dressing up in hospital scrubs. A boy crawls around the room, meowing like a cat. No one bats an eye.

This is a place of creativity and joy, but it’s a tenuous balance. “I try to mix the fun and the lessons,” Kenney says. “But we are testing them so much that I barely have time to teach the curriculum. These are 5- and 6-year-olds, and there is so little time for them to be kids.”

Ben Russell, assistant director of early childhood education for the Boston Public Schools, is struggling to find the right formula, too. “Some kids aren’t ready, and I fear for those kids.” Children who struggle in kindergarten are the ones who grow to hate school and who will likely continue to fall behind, he explains. “What becomes of kids who are not reading at the third-grade level?” asks Russell. “We use those numbers to create prisons. And that is a tragedy.”

* * *

Leadership comes from the top down in schools, but even the most enlightened principals and other administrators are bound by state and federal requirements. “In my mind, the expectations for our kindergartners should be a little higher, but that doesn’t mean the practice should be more rigid,” says Valerie Gumes, principal of the Haynes Early Education Center in Roxbury. After 21 years in the field, she says, she is weary of the demands to assess, assess, assess. “I’m not opposed to standards, but the amount of time we spend doing these assessments

. . .” A pause. “It’s really criminal.” A sigh. “But I’m not in charge.”

Anthony Colannino, principal of the MacArthur School in Waltham, objected this spring when the state began requiring schools to administer a standardized test to kindergartners whose first language isn’t English. “If you gave this test to the general population, people would be beating down doors,” he says. “There would be an outcry. If they gave it to my kid, I would say, ‘Tell me what day you are giving it, and he will be absent.’ ”

In fact, Colannino has a 5-year-old son who is about to enter kindergarten in Woburn. He says that his son, like many 5-year-old boys, is spontaneous and active. And since children are now expected to sit quietly for at least part of the day in many kindergarten classes, Colannino is more than a little worried. “He is curious and asks a lot of questions, and my wife and I are concerned,” he says.

What does it say when an elementary school principal fears that his own child won’t thrive in kindergarten? And what is the new emphasis on academics doing to the children? The Alliance for Childhood report contains chilling statistics. In Texas, the rate at which kindergartners were held back rose by two and a half times from 1994 to 2004. And in 2007, a 6-year-old girl in Florida was arrested for having a temper tantrum in school.

And what of Christine Gerzon’s former student, the girl who failed the official proficiency tests but who showed so much potential? “She’s still struggling,” Gerzon says sadly. (The teacher has kept in touch with the girl’s family.) Students get labeled young, at a time when their ability to perform can vary widely from day to day, and it’s hard to shake those labels later on. Children’s impressions of school, too, are formed early, and when they feel like failures at 5, it’s hard to turn that around later. The city of Boston recognized this last year when it formed a public-private partnership with United Way called Thrive in 5, an umbrella agency that is conducting a citywide effort -- starting support and play groups, distributing flyers about health and other kinds of resources, and more -- to help parents prepare their young children for school.

But these grass-roots efforts can only go so far. Early childhood experts have been publishing books, releasing reports, and testifying before Congress, with little change in public policy. Why isn’t anyone listening? “It’s not the educators, it’s the politicians,” says Russell of the Boston schools. “The schools don’t make the decisions. The politicians are making the decisions to meet political needs.” There is also an element of fear among educators, especially in a troubled economy. “You have to be willing to get your wrist slapped a little bit,” says Russell. “If the folks who know what’s right don’t talk about it, we’re never going to get anywhere.”

And now is the time. The Obama administration has pledged billions, but some experts remain wary that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is proposing policy that sounds like No Child Left Behind. “I think he has bought into the standards and testing model,” says Miller. “What we need is a whole reassessment and change of direction.”

Meanwhile, more and more children are “failing” kindergarten, according to the Alliance for Childhood report -- and missing out on the kind of early schooling that does help develop 5-year-old minds. Winifred Hagan is a former kindergarten teacher and a vice president at the Cayl Institute in Cambridge, a nonprofit that sponsors conferences for principals and fellowships for the study of early childhood education. She worries that vulnerable kids are being sent down a path to failure inside a system that was created to meet purely political goals. “Kids are spending hours of their day sitting with pencils and tracing dotted lines,” she says. “And we call that education? We are kidding ourselves.”

>Patti Hartigan, a former Globe reporter, blogs about education at
2009 The New York Times Company

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Eli Broad: 'We're In the Venture Philanthrophy Business'

0 0

* The Wall Street Journal


* AUGUST 28, 2009,

'We're In the Venture Philanthrophy Business'

The business mogul and Democratic donor talks about education reform, and 'democratization of the arts.'


Los Angeles

"The unions no longer control the education agenda of the Democratic Party," billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad tells me. I'd say that's debatable. But to the extent it's true, the party has Mr. Broad, a ≠self-described moderate Democrat, to thank. The founder of two Fortune 500 companies (real estate giant Kaufman & Broad, now KB Home, and financial service firm SunAmerica, purchased by AIG in 1999) he is devoting his retirement years to philanthropy primarily K-12 education reform.

The Broad Foundation funds charter schools, including KIPP academies and the Green Dot network, as well as Teach for America. It trains reform-minded school administrators. And it offers financial rewards to urban school districts that improve performance through initiatives like merit pay for teachers. Mr. Broad tells me, "we're at a golden moment now," with a president and an education secretary who, he says, agree with his reform agenda.

The son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, Mr. Broad grew up in Detroit where he became the youngest person in the state of Michigan to pass the CPA exam. Since retiring, he and his wife Edythe, whom he met there, spend much of their time figuring out how to give away the $2.1 billion of the foundation that bears their names.

I sat down with Mr. Broad, a dapper gentleman of 76 with a full head of white hair and a handsome pocket handkerchief, one morning earlier this month at his foundation's headquarters in the Westwood area of Los Angeles. His office walls are covered with the biggest names in modern art (more on this in a moment), and his shelves are filled with photos of him and his wife posing with the biggest names in politics. I'm sitting closest to a shot of them with the Clintons.

Mr. Broad is not much for small talk, but then he has a lot he wants to accomplish. We begin with urban education. "Let's talk about why we have the problem to begin with," Mr. Broad says. He tells the story of how American education experienced a great leap forward after World War II with the GI Bill, which he calls "the biggest voucher program in history."

But for at least the past 30 years, American education has remained stagnant as other countries have moved ahead. "A classroom today in America, and the school day today in America is not different than it was 50 or 100 years ago. You still have a 10-to-12 week summer recess or vacation which goes back to an agrarian era. You still teach the same way. The classroom looks the same. The only difference is in some classrooms instead of blackboards you've got whiteboards with marker pens."

One of the biggest problems, he believes, is the apathy of American public when it comes to education. "Perception lags reality," he explains, "and their perception is what America used to be, not where we are now."

Last year Mr. Broad and Bill Gates gave $60 million for an initiative called ED in '08, which was supposed to make education a priority issue in the presidential campaign. On a scale of one to 10, Mr. Broad says the effort ranked a two. While it failed to "change the mindset" of the American people on education, he takes some comfort in the fact that the candidates talked about "standards, a longer school day, a longer school year in some cases, better teaching, and incentive compensation and charter schools."

But Mr. Broad is not waiting around for Washington to solve the education crisis. In 2002 the foundation launched the Broad Superintendents Academy, a 10-month management training program to prepare people from business, nonprofits, the military and government backgrounds to take leadership positions in urban public education. The theory is that people with experience in efficiently managing large organizations are the best ones to put in charge of unruly public school districts.

The 2009 class even includes Brigadier General Anthony J. Tata, a former deputy commanding general for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. Robert Bobb, who was appointed emergency financial manager of the Detroit Public Schools a few months ago, is also a graduate of the program. He made headlines recently when, in order to cut back on payroll fraud, he requested that workers pick up their paychecks in person. More than 200 "employees" failed to show up.

Despite the proliferation of graduates of this program and another similar one for recent law- and business-school graduates, Mr. Broad has only sent one person to the Los Angeles Unified Public School District in his own backyard. The foundation won't waste talent on districts that don't want real reform. "If we put 10 fellows in there, they'd leave because they'd have to work with a terrible bureaucracy, a regressive teachers union and a mayor that talks a good game but isn't really interested in taking over the schools."

Which brings us back to the unions. Mr. Broad says that he doesn't blame teachers for organizing. "If you have poor management that's not doing the right job, you end up with unions filling the void and . . . page after page of work rules and thicker and thicker contracts. If you have strong management and the teaching corps is relatively pleased with the relationships, you do not end up with a strong regressive union."

In one of the foundation's brochures, you will find a picture of New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein embracing then-United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. The two are at a ceremony in which Mr. Broad awarded the city $1 million for improving student performance. Mr. Broad cites Ms. Weingarten's acceptance of a merit pay program for teachers in New York, albeit one based on school rather than individual performance. "Look, is Randi the second coming of Al Shanker?" Mr. Broad asks, referring to the UFT founder, whom many consider more moderate. "I don't know. But Randi is the most progressive national labor leader you'll find in education."

Mr. Broad tells me in no uncertain terms that it is time to get rid of education schools "they're the lowest ranking students at a university." And he is enthusiastic about all the change that is possible when urban school districts go bankrupt as Oakland, Calif., did a few years ago "or what happened in New Orleans, which is the equivalent of bankruptcy."

If people in the education world think Mr. Broad likes to throw his weight around, they should talk to people in the art business. Over the past 40 years, the Broads have built up one of the biggest private collections of contemporary art. (Several Jasper Johns paintings are hanging in his office.) He is a trustee of The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and of The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

But it is the Los Angeles County Museum where the Broad influence has been most strongly felt. He gave a $60 million gift for an addition there the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, which opened in February 2008. The assumption was that he would be giving them his collection too. Instead, he announced that he would be holding on to his art and lending the museum the pieces it wanted to display. He laments that many museums only put out a tiny percentage of their collections. And he worries that small museums, in particular, suffer under the current system.

"Museums do not share their collections with other museums unless they get something in exchange. The Metropolitan will deal with the Louvre, but will they send their stuff to Memphis? No." The foundation has made over 7,000 loans of its works to over 400 institutions. "I think other museums ought to be doing likewise."

By all accounts it was Mr. Broad's wife who first became interested in collecting. But it is his sensibilities that have driven the foundation's mission. "I believe in the democratization of the arts," he tells me. "What do I mean by that? I think museums with some exceptions have a responsibility to educate a much broader public. And all too often, museum directors and curators are more interested in what their peers think or collectors like myself think than educating a diverse public." And then the businessman comes out: "I think museums, if you'll look at their attendance versus their budgets, it's sometimes hard to justify, the size of their budget versus how many people they're really serving when looking at other, you know, human needs."

Earlier this year, Mr. Broad bailed out the Museum of Contemporary Art, which was in dire financial straits. He pledged $30 million if the institution could come up with some matching funds. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, a bid to drum up more support for the museum, Mr. Broad wrote: "This is not a one-philanthropist town." But looking around Los Angeles, one would be forgiven for thinking so. Mr. Broad has funded projects like the redevelopment of Grand Avenue, saving the historic Disney Hall, bringing the Ring Cycle to the Los Angeles Opera and starting the Broad Art Center at UCLA.

Mr. Broad says he is not in the "check-writing charity business. We're in the venture philanthropy business." Which is to say, he wants to see results. Even in areas that are outside what he really knows, he has found people he trusts to give him advice on where his money can have the greatest impact. He's given hundreds of millions of dollars, for instance, to fund research on embryonic and adult stem cells and genomics at universities from Harvard to UCLA.

Philanthropy on the West Coast is different, Mr. Broad has noted in the past. Los Angeles itself has fewer supporters of its civic institutions than New York or Boston or Chicago the city is spread out and the residents' roots are not so deep. But the newness is not necessarily a problem, as Mr. Broad sees it. "I think our foundation and other [Western] foundations are younger. I think our behavior is very different. If you look at the great Eastern philanthropies, they've been there a long time. The founders are long gone. Some of the entrepreneur spirit disappears when you have a lot of senior grant officers who don't want to make mistakes, who are risk adverse."

Mr. Broad lets out a little laugh. "Bill Gates doesn't worry about getting fired. I don't worry about getting fired. So, we're willing to make investments knowing that some are going to fail. I don't see that spirit of risk-taking at a lot of the great Eastern philanthropies."

Still, Mr. Broad takes his inspiration from those original East-Coasters. Paraphrasing Andrew Carnegie, he tells me: "Who dies with wealth, dies in shame."

Ms. Riley is the Journal's deputy Taste editor.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Obama Being Dubbed "Obush" as he loses his base

Thanks to Susan Ohanian

Democrats making themselves indispensable to corporate interests

Michael T. Martin

I donated a couple hundred dollars to Obama's Arizona primary campaign in February (2008), so I was aboard fairly early. Donated a little more later on. But in recent weeks I've begun posting on the internet calling it the "Obush administration." It appears I was just a little early. So this is not some NEA concoction.

There is an interesting phenomenon occurring beyond just education. Obama is losing the support of his political base across the board. Recent polling on Obama shows a drop in his approval ratings but the drop is not coming from the teabaggers etc. It is coming from independents and liberals showing disapproval over his policies.


The Civil Rights groups are aghast at his continuation of the Bush domestic spying program, the Human Rights groups are aghast at his continuation of the Bush torture program, the health care groups are aghast at his catering to opponents, and educators are aghast over his continuation of Bush education policies.

Glenn Greenwald of Salon states that the Obama administration advocates "The primary tactic of Democrats should be to be more indispensable to corporate interests so as to deny the GOP that money and instead direct it to Democrats. The overriding strategy is to scorn progressives while keeping them in their place and then expand the party by making it more conservative and more reliant on Blue Dogs. Democrats should replicate Republican policies on Terrorism and national security -- not abandon them -- in order to remove that issue as a political weapon."

The result has been what New York Times columnist Frank Rich titles Is Obama Punking Us? and one popular Progressive blogger notes: "Obama mobilized a whole lot of young people who have great expectations and disappointing them could lead to all sorts of unpleasant results. Success is about more than simply buying off some congressional liberals or pleasing the village. It's worth remembering that a third party run from the left is what created the conditions for eight long years of Republican governance that pretty much wrecked this country."

So the Arne policies of continuing the Bush administration are just part of a stated Obush strategy across the board to diss those who elected him. I have some friends who are Naderites who are chortling like crazy now. But I don’t think it is funny. The entire premise of democratic society is to elect people who will represent their constituency. The Obush administration is not just threatening public education, it is more like a threat to the entire concept of democracy.

— Michael T. Martin
EDDRA list

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

LA school board approves school choice plan


LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Board of Education voted Tuesday to adopt a controversial resolution that could turn a third of the schools in the nation's second-largest school district over to private operators.

The proposal, which gives Superintendent Ramon Cortines 60 days to develop a plan, was approved 6-1 after a contentious four-hour public hearing and board debate..

The LAUSD, which has more than 688,000 students, already boasts the highest number of charter schools of any school district in the country. About 150 of its 800 schools are run by nonprofit educational groups.


Monday, August 24, 2009

Biased and One Sided Article on Rubber Room and ATRs

From the New Yorker

Annals of Education

The Rubber Room

The battle over New York City’s worst teachers.

by Steven Brill August 31, 2009

One school principal has said that Randi Weingarten, of the teachers’ union,“would protect a dead body in the classroom.”

One school principal has said that Randi Weingarten, of the teachers’ union,“would protect a dead body in the classroom.”




New York City;

Temporary Reassignment Centers (Rubber Rooms);

United Federation of Teachers (U.F.T.);

Joel Klein;

Randi Weingarten

In a windowless room in a shabby office building at Seventh Avenue and Twenty-eighth Street, in Manhattan, a poster is taped to a wall, whose message could easily be the mission statement for a day-care center: “Children are fragile. Handle with care.” It’s a June morning, and there are fifteen people in the room, four of them fast asleep, their heads lying on a card table. Three are playing a board game. Most of the others stand around chatting. Two are arguing over one of the folding chairs. But there are no children here. The inhabitants are all New York City schoolteachers who have been sent to what is officially called a Temporary Reassignment Center but which everyone calls the Rubber Room.

These fifteen teachers, along with about six hundred others, in six larger Rubber Rooms in the city’s five boroughs, have been accused of misconduct, such as hitting or molesting a student, or, in some cases, of incompetence, in a system that rarely calls anyone incompetent.

The teachers have been in the Rubber Room for an average of about three years, doing the same thing every day—which is pretty much nothing at all. Watched over by two private security guards and two city Department of Education supervisors, they punch a time clock for the same hours that they would have kept at school—typically, eight-fifteen to three-fifteen. Like all teachers, they have the summer off. The city’s contract with their union, the United Federation of Teachers, requires that charges against them be heard by an arbitrator, and until the charges are resolved—the process is often endless—they will continue to draw their salaries and accrue pensions and other benefits.

“You can never appreciate how irrational the system is until you’ve lived with it,” says Joel Klein, the city’s schools chancellor, who was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg seven years ago.

Neither the Mayor nor the chancellor is popular in the Rubber Room. “Before Bloomberg and Klein took over, there was no such thing as incompetence,” Brandi Scheiner, standing just under the Manhattan Rubber Room’s “Handle with Care” poster, said recently. Scheiner, who is fifty-six, talks with a raspy Queens accent. Suspended with pay from her job as an elementary-school teacher, she earns more than a hundred thousand dollars a year, and she is, she said, “entitled to every penny of it.” She has been in the Rubber Room for two years. Like most others I encountered there, Scheiner said that she got into teaching because she “loves children.”

“Before Bloomberg and Klein, everyone knew that an incompetent teacher would realize it and leave on their own,” Scheiner said. “There was no need to push anyone out.” Like ninety-seven per cent of all teachers in the pre-Bloomberg days, she was given tenure after her third year of teaching, and then, like ninety-nine per cent of all teachers before 2002, she received a satisfactory rating each year.

“But they brought in some new young principal from their so-called Leadership Academy,” Scheiner said. She was referring to a facility opened by Klein in 2003, where educators and business leaders, such as Jack Welch, the former chief executive of General Electric, hold classes for prospective principals. “This new principal set me up, because I was a whistle-blower,” Scheiner said. “She gave me an unsatisfactory rating two years in a row.Then she trumped up charges against me and sent me to the Rubber Room. So I’m fighting, and waiting it out.”

The United Federation of Teachers, the U.F.T., was founded in 1960. Before that, teachers endured meagre salaries, tyrannical principals, witch hunts for Communists, and gender discrimination against a mostly female workforce (at one point, there was a rule requiring any woman who got pregnant to take a two-year unpaid leave). Drawing its members from a number of smaller and ineffective teachers’ groups, the U.F.T. coalesced into a tough trade union that used strikes and political organizing to fight back. By the time Bloomberg took office, forty-two years later, many education reformers believed that the U.F.T. and its political allies had gained so much clout that it had become impossible for the city’s Board of Education, which already shared a lot of power with local boards, to maintain effective school oversight. In 2002, with the city’s public schools clearly failing, the State Legislature granted control of a new Department of Education to the new mayor, who had become a billionaire by building an immense media company, Bloomberg L.P., that is renowned for firing employees at will and not giving contracts even to senior executives.

Bloomberg quickly hired Klein, who, as an Assistant Attorney General in the Clinton Administration, was the lead prosecutor in a major antitrust case against Microsoft. When Klein was twenty-three, he took a year’s leave of absence from Harvard Law School to study education and teach math to sixth graders at an elementary school in Queens, where he grew up. Like Bloomberg, Klein came from a world far removed from the borough-centric politics and bureaucracy of the old board.

Test scores and graduation rates have improved since Bloomberg and Klein took over, but when the law giving the mayor control expired, on July 1st, some Democrats in the State Senate balked at renewing it, complaining that it gave the mayor “dictatorial” power, as Bill Perkins, a state senator from Manhattan, put it. Nevertheless, by August the senators had relented and voted to renew mayoral control.

One thing that the legislature did not change in 2002 was tenure, which was introduced in New York in 1917, as a good-government reform to protect teachers from the vagaries of political patronage. Tenure guarantees teachers with more than three years’ seniority a job for life, unless, like those in the Rubber Room, they are charged with an offense and lose in the arduous arbitration hearing.

In Klein’s view, tenure is “ridiculous.” “You cannot run a school system that way,” he says. “The three principles that govern our system are lockstep compensation, seniority, and tenure. All three are not right for our children.”

Brandi Scheiner says that her case is likely to be heard next year. By then, she will have twenty-four years’ seniority, which entitles her to a pension of nearly half her salary—that is, her salary at the time of retirement—for life, even if she is found incompetent and dismissed. Because two per cent of her salary is added to her pension for each year of seniority, a three-year stay in the Rubber Room will cost not only three hundred thousand dollars in salary but at least six thousand dollars a year in additional lifetime pension benefits.

Scheiner worked at P.S. 40, an elementary school near Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town. The write-ups on Web sites that track New York’s schools suggest that P.S. 40 is one of the city’s best. I spoke with five P.S. 40 parents, who said that Scheiner would have had nothing to “blow the whistle” about, because, as one put it, the principal, Susan Felder, is “spectacular.”

Scheiner refused to allow me access to the complete file related to her incompetence proceeding, which would detail the charges against her and any responses she might have filed, saying only that “they charged me with incompetence—boilerplate stuff.” (Nor could Felder comment, because Scheiner had insisted that her file be kept sealed.) But Scheiner did say that she and several of her colleagues in the Rubber Room had brought a “really interesting” class-action suit against the city for violations of their due-process and First Amendment rights as whistle-blowers. She said that the suit was pending, and that she would be vindicated. Actually, she filed three suits, two of which had long since been dismissed. And, a month and a day before she mentioned it to me, the magistrate handling the third case—in a move typically reserved for the most frivolous litigation—had ordered Scheiner and her co-plaintiffs to pay ten thousand dollars to the city in court costs, because that filing was so much like the second case. This third case is pending, though it no longer has a lawyer, because the one who brought these cases has since been disbarred, for allegedly lying to a court and allegedly stealing from Holocaust-survivor clients in unrelated cases.

It takes between two and five years for cases to be heard by an arbitrator, and, like Scheiner, most teachers in the Rubber Rooms wait out the time, maintaining their innocence. One of Scheiner’s Rubber Room colleagues pointed to a man whose head was resting on the table, beside an alarm clock and four prescription-pill bottles. “Look at him,” she said. “He should be in a hospital, not this place. We talk about human rights in China. What about human rights right here in the Rubber Room?” Seven of the fifteen Rubber Room teachers with whom I spoke compared their plight to that of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay or political dissidents in China or Iran.

It’s a theme that the U.F.T. has embraced. The union’s Web site has a section that features stories highlighting the injustice of the Rubber Rooms. One, which begins “Bravo!,” is about a woman I’ll call Patricia Adams, whose return to her classroom, at a high school in Manhattan, last year is reported as a vindication. The account quotes a speech that Adams made to union delegates; according to the Web site, she received a standing ovation as she declared, “My case should never have been brought to a hearing.” The Web site account continues, “Though she believes she was the victim of an effort to move senior teachers out of the system, the due process tenure system worked in her case.”

On November 23, 2005, according to a report prepared by the Education Department’s Special Commissioner of Investigation, Adams was found “in an unconscious state” in her classroom. “There were 34 students present in [Adams’s] classroom,” the report said. When the principal “attempted to awaken [Adams], he was unable to.” When a teacher “stood next to [Adams], he detected a smell of alcohol emanating from her.”

Adams’s return to teaching, more than two years later, had come about because she and the Department of Education had signed a sealed agreement whereby she would teach for one more semester, then be assigned to non-teaching duties in a school office, if she hadn’t found a teaching position elsewhere. The agreement also required that she “submit to random alcohol testing” and be fired if she again tested positive. In February, 2009, Adams passed out in the office where she had to report every day. A drug-and-alcohol-testing-services technician called to the scene wrote in his report that she was unable even to “blow into breathalyzer,” and that her water bottle contained alcohol. As the stipulation required, she was fired.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the U.F.T. until this month (she is now the president of the union’s national parent organization), said in July that the Web site “should have been updated,” adding, “Mea culpa.” The Web site’s story saying that Adams believed she was the “victim of an effort to move senior teachers out” was still there as of mid-August. Ron Davis, a spokesman for the U.F.T., told me that he was unable to contact Adams, after what he said were repeated attempts, to ask if she would be available for comment.

In late August, I reached Adams, and she told me that no one from the union had tried to contact her for me, and that she was “shocked” by the account of her story on the U.F.T. Web site. “My case had nothing to do with seniority,” she said. “It was about a medical issue, and I sabotaged the whole thing by relapsing.” Adams, whose case was handled by a union lawyer, said that, last year, when a U.F.T. newsletter described her as the victim of a seniority purge, she was embarrassed and demanded that the union correct it. She added, “But I never knew about this Web-site article, and certainly never authorized it. The union has its own agenda.” The next morning, Adams told me she had insisted that the union remove the article immediately; it was removed later that day. Adams, who says that she is now sober and starting a school for recovering teen-age substance abusers, asked that her real name not be used.

The stated rationale for the reassignment centers is unassailable: Get these people away from children, even if tenure rules require that they continue to be paid. Most urban school systems faced with tenure constraints follow the same logic. Los Angeles and San Francisco pay suspended teachers to answer phones, work in warehouses, or just stay home; in Chicago they do clerical work. But the policies implemented by other cities are on a far smaller scale—both because they have fewer teachers and because they have not been as aggressive as Klein and Bloomberg in trying to root out the worst teachers.

It seems obvious that by making the Rubber Rooms as boring and as unpleasant as possible Klein was trying to get bad teachers to quit rather than milk the long hearing process—and some do, although the city does not keep records of that.

“They’re in the Rubber Room because they have an entitlement to stay on the payroll,” says Dan Weisberg, the general counsel and vice-president for policy of a Brooklyn-based national education-reform group called the New Teacher Project. “It’s a job. It’s an economic decision on their part. That’s O.K. But don’t complain.” Until January, Weisberg ran the Department of Education’s labor-relations office, where, in 2007, he set up the Teacher Performance Unit, or T.P.U.—an élite group of lawyers recruited to litigate teacher-incompetence cases for the city.

“When we announced the T.P.U., the U.F.T. called a candlelight vigil”—at City Hall—“to protest what they called the Gotcha Squad,” says Chris Cerf, a deputy chancellor, who, like Klein and Weisberg, is an Ivy League-educated lawyer. “You would think candlelight vigils would be reserved for Gandhi or something like that, but you could hear this rally all the way over the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Randi Weingarten is unapologetic. “We believed that the way this Gotcha Squad was portrayed in the press by the city unfairly maligned all the teachers in the system,” she says. Weingarten, who was a lawyer before becoming a teacher and a U.F.T. officer, is a smart, charming political pro. She always tries to link the welfare of teachers to the welfare of those they teach—as in “what’s good for teachers is good for the children.”

Cerf’s response is that “this is not about teachers; it is about children.” He says, “We all agree with the idea that it is better that ten guilty men go free than that one innocent person be imprisoned. But by laying that on to a process of disciplining teachers you put the risk on the kids versus putting it on an occasional innocent teacher losing a job. For the union, it’s better to protect one thousand teachers than to wrongly accuse one.” Anthony Lombardi, the principal of P.S. 49, a mostly minority Queens elementary school, puts it more bluntly: “Randi Weingarten would protect a dead body in the classroom. That’s her job.”

“For Lombardi to say that,” Weingarten said, “shows he has no knowledge of who I am.”

Should a thousand bad teachers stay put so that one innocent teacher is protected? “That’s not a question we should be answering in education,” Weingarten said to me. “Teachers who are treated fairly are better teachers. You can’t have a situation that is fear-based. . . . That is why we press for due process.”

Steve Ostrin, who was assigned to a Brooklyn Rubber Room fifty-three months ago, might be that innocent man whom the current process protects. In 2005, a student at Brooklyn Tech, an élite high school where Ostrin was an award-winning social-studies teacher, accused him of kissing her when the two were alone in a classroom. After her parents told the police, Ostrin was arrested and charged with endangering the welfare of a child. He denied the charge, insisting that he was only joking around with the student and that the principal, who didn’t like him, seized upon the incident to go after him. The tabloids ran headlines about the arrest, and found a student who claimed that a similar thing had happened to her years before, though she had not reported it to the police. But many of Ostrin’s students didn’t believe the allegations. They staged a rally in support of him at the courthouse where the trial was held. Eleven months later, he was acquitted.

Nevertheless, the city refused to allow him to return to class. “Sometimes if they are exonerated in the courts we still don’t put them back,” Cerf said, adding that he was not referring to Ostrin in particular. “Our standard is tighter than ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ What would parents think if we took the risk and let them back in a classroom?”

Ostrin’s case may be vexing, but it is a distraction from the real issue: how to deal not with teachers accused of misconduct but with the far larger number who, like Scheiner, may simply not be teaching well. While maintaining that the union in no way condones failing teachers, Weingarten defends the elaborate protections that shield union members: “Teachers are not . . . bankers or lawyers. They don’t have independent power. Principals have huge authority over them. All we’re looking for is due process.”

Dan Weisberg, of the New Teacher Project, independently offered a similar analogy for the other side: “You’re not talking about a bank or a law firm. You’re talking about a classroom—which is far more important—and your ability to make sure that the right people are teaching there.”

By now, most serious studies on education reform have concluded that the critical variable when it comes to kids succeeding in school isn’t money spent on buildings or books but, rather, the quality of their teachers. A study of the Los Angeles public schools published in 2006 by the Brookings Institution concluded that “having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.” But, in New York and elsewhere, holding teachers accountable for how well they teach has proved to be a frontier that cannot be crossed.

One morning in July, I attended a session of the arbitration hearing for Lucienne Mohammed, a veteran fifth-grade teacher. Mohammed, unlike most teachers sent to the Rubber Room, agreed to allow the record of her case to be public. (Her lawyer declined to make her available for an interview, however.) She had been assigned to P.S. 65, in Brooklyn’s East New York section, and was removed from the school in June of 2008, on charges of incompetence.

Mohammed’s case was the first to reach arbitration since the introduction of an initiative called Peer Intervention Program (P.I.P.) Plus, which was created to address the problem of tenured teachers who are suspected of incompetence, not those accused of a crime or other misconduct. P.I.P. Plus was included in the contract negotiated by Klein and Weingarten in 2007. The deal seemed good for both sides: a teacher accused of incompetence would first be assigned a “peer”—a retired teacher or principal—from a neutral consulting company agreed upon by the union and the city. The peer would observe the teacher for up to a year and provide counselling. If the observer determined that the teacher was indeed incompetent and was unlikely to improve, the observer would write a detailed report saying so. The report could then be used as evidence in a removal hearing conducted by an arbitrator agreed upon by the union and the city. “We as a union need to make sure we don’t defend the indefensible,” Weingarten told me. Klein and Weingarten both say that a key goal of P.I.P. Plus was to streamline incompetency arbitration hearings. It has not worked out that way.

The evidence of Mohammed’s incompetence—found in more than five thousand pages of transcripts from her hearing—seems as unambiguous as the city’s lawyer promised in his opening statement: “These children were abused in stealth. . . . It was chronic . . . a failure to complete report cards. . . . Respondent failed to correct student work, failed to follow the mandated curriculum . . . failed to manage her class.” The independent observer’s final report supported this assessment, ticking off ten bullet points describing Mohammed’s unsatisfactory performance. (Mohammed’s lawyer argues that she began to be rated unsatisfactory only after she became active with the union.)

This was the thirtieth day of a hearing that started last December. Under the union contract, hearings on each case are held five days a month during the school year and two days a month during the summer. Mohammed’s case is likely to take between forty and forty-five hearing days—eight times as long as the average criminal trial in the United States. (The Department of Education’s spotty records suggest that incompetency hearings before the introduction of P.I.P. Plus generally took twenty to thirty days; the addition of the peer observer’s testimony and report seems to have slowed things down.) Jay Siegel, the arbitrator in Mohammed’s case, who has thirty days to write a decision, estimates that he will exceed his deadline, because of what he says is the amount of evidence under consideration. This means that Mohammed’s case is not likely to be decided before December, a year after it began. That is about fifty per cent more time, from start to finish, than the O.J. trial took.

While the lawyers argued in measured tones, Mohammed—a slender, polite woman who appeared to be in her early forties—sat silently in one of six chairs bunched around a small conference table. The morning’s proceedings focussed first on a medical excuse that Mohammed produced for not showing up at the previous day’s hearing. Dennis DaCosta, an earnest young lawyer from the Teacher Performance Unit, pointed out that the doctor’s letter was eleven days old and therefore had nothing to do with her supposedly being sick the day before. The letter referred to a chronic condition, Antonio Cavallaro, Mohammed’s union-paid defense counsel, replied. Siegel said that he would reserve judgment.

Next came some discussion among the lawyers and Siegel about Defense Exhibit 33Q, a picture of Mohammed’s classroom. The photograph showed a neatly organized room, with a lesson plan chalked on the blackboard. But, under questioning by her own lawyer, Mohammed conceded that the picture had been taken, in consultation with her union representative, one morning before class, after the principal had begun complaining about her. The independent observer’s report had said that as of just a month before Mohammed was removed—and three months after the peer observer started observing and counselling her, and long after this picture was taken—Mohammed had still not “organized her classroom to support instruction and enhance learning.”

The majority of the transcript of the twenty-nine previous hearing days was given over to the lawyers and the arbitrator arguing issues that included whether and how Mohammed should have known about the contents of the Teachers’ Reference Manual; whether it was admissible that when Mohammed got a memo from the principal complaining about her performance, her students said, she angrily read it aloud in class; whether it was really a bad thing that she had appointed one child in her class “the enforcer,” and charged him with making the other kids behave; whether Mohammed’s union representative should have been present when she was reprimanded for not having a lesson plan; and whether the independent observer was qualified to evaluate Mohammed, even though she came from the neutral consulting company that the union had approved.

When the bill for the arbitrator is added to the cost of the city’s lawyers and court reporters and the time spent in court by the principal and the assistant principal, Mohammed’s case will probably have cost the city and the state (which pays the arbitrator) about four hundred thousand dollars.

Nor is it by any means certain that, as a result of that investment, New York taxpayers will have to stop paying Mohammed’s salary, eighty-five thousand dollars a year. Arbitrators have so far proved reluctant to dismiss teachers for incompetence. Siegel, who is serving his second one-year term as an arbitrator and is paid fourteen hundred dollars for each day he works on a hearing, estimates that he has heard “maybe fifteen” cases. “Most of my decisions are compromises, such as fines,” he said. “So it’s hard to tell who won or lost.” Has he ever terminated anyone solely for incompetence? “I don’t think so,” he said. In fact, in the past two years arbitrators have terminated only two teachers for incompetence alone, and only six others in cases where, according to the Department of Education, the main charge was incompetence.

Klein’s explanation is that “most arbitrators are not inclined to dismiss a teacher, because they have to get approved again every year by the union, and the union keeps a scorecard.” (Weingarten denies that the union keeps a scorecard.)

Antonio Cavallaro, the union lawyer, admitted that the process “needs some ironing out.”

Dan Weisberg says that because of the way cases are litigated by the union it’s impossible to move them along. He notes that, unlike in a criminal court, where the judge has to clear his docket, there is no such pressure on an arbitrator. One of Weisberg’s main concerns is the principals, who have to document cases and then spend time at the hearings. “My goal is to look them in the eye and say you should do the hard work,” he says. “I can’t do that if the principal is going to be on the stand for six days.”

Daysi Garcia, the principal of P.S. 65, is a Queens native and is considered by Klein to be a standout among the principals who attended the first classes of the Leadership Academy. She told me that, despite the five days she had to spend testifying, and the piles of paperwork she accumulated to make a record beforehand, she would do it again, because “when I think about the impact of a teacher like this on the children and how long that lasts, it’s worth it, even if it is hard.”

The document that dictates how Daysi Garcia can—and cannot—govern P.S. 65 is the U.F.T. contract, a hundred and sixty-six single-spaced pages. It not only keeps the Rubber Roomers on the payroll and Garcia writing notes to personnel files all day but dictates every minute of the six hours, fifty-seven and a half minutes of a teacher’s work day, including a thirty-seven-and-a-half-minute tutorial/preparation session and a fifty-minute “duty free” lunch period. It also inserts a union representative into every meaningful teacher-supervisor conversation.

The contract includes a provision that, this fall, will allow an additional seven hundred to eight hundred teachers to get paid for doing essentially no teaching. These are teachers who in the past year—or two or three—have been on what is called the Absent Teacher Reserve, because their schools closed down or the number of classes in the subject they teach was cut. Most “excessed” teachers quickly find new positions at other city schools. But these teachers, who have been on the reserve rolls for at least nine months, have refused to take another job (in almost half such cases, according to a study by the New Teacher Project, they have refused even to apply for another position) or their records are so bad or they present themselves so badly that no other principal wants to hire them. The union contract requires that they get paid anyway.

“Most of the excessed teachers get snapped up pretty fast,” Lombardi, the principal of P.S. 49, says. “You can tell from the records and the interviews who’s good and who’s not. So by the time they’ve been on the reserve rolls for more than nine months they’re not the people you want to hire. . . . I’ll do almost anything to avoid bringing them into my school.” These reserve teachers are ostensibly available to act as substitutes, but they rarely do so, because principals don’t want them or because they are not available on a given day; on an average school day the city pays more than two thousand specially designated substitute teachers a hundred and fifty-five dollars each.

Until this year, the city was hiring as many as five thousand new teachers annually to fill vacancies, while the teachers on the reserve list stayed there. This meant that, in keeping with Klein’s goals, new blood was coming into the schools—recruits from Teach for America or from fellowship programs, as well as those who enter the profession the conventional way. Now that New York, like most cities, is suffering through a budget crisis, Klein has had to freeze almost all new hiring and has told principals that they can fill openings only with teachers on the reserve list or with teachers who want to transfer from other schools.

Even so, the number of teachers staying on reserve for more than nine months is likely to exceed eleven hundred by next calendar year and cost the city more than a hundred million dollars annually. Added to the six hundred Rubber Roomers, that’s seventeen hundred idle teachers—more than enough to staff all the schools in New Haven.

The teachers’-union contract comes up for renewal in October, and Klein told me that he plans to push for a time limit of nine months or a year for reserve teachers to find new positions, after which they would be removed from the payroll. “If you can’t find a job by then, it’s a pretty good indicator that you’re not looking or you’re not qualified,” he said.

In Chicago, reserve-list teachers are removed from the payroll after ten months. Until December, the head of the Chicago school system was Arne Duncan, who is now President Obama’s Education Secretary. Duncan has consistently emphasized improving the quality of teachers by measuring and rewarding—or penalizing—them based on performance. “It’s my highest priority,” he told me.

Leading Democrats often talk about the need to reform public education, but they almost never openly criticize the teachers’ unions, which are perhaps the Party’s most powerful support group. In New York, where Weingarten is a sought-after member of Democratic-campaign steering committees, state legislators and New York City Council members are even more closely tied to the U.F.T., which has the city’s largest political-action fund and contributes generously to Democrats and Republicans alike. As a result, in April of 2008 the State Legislature passed a law, promoted by the union, that prohibited Klein from using student test data to evaluate teachers for tenure, something that he had often talked about doing.

Scores should be used only “in a thoughtful and reflective way,” Weingarten told me. “We acted in Albany because no one trusted that Joel Klein would use them to measure performance in a fair way.”

Reformers like Cerf, Klein, Weisberg, and even Secretary Duncan often use the term “value-added scores” to refer to how they would quantify the teacher evaluation process. It is a phrase that sends chills down the spine of most teachers’-union officials. If, say, a student started the school year rated in the fortieth percentile in reading and the fiftieth percentile in math, and ended the year in the sixtieth percentile in both, then the teacher has “added value” that can be reduced to a number. “You take that, along with observation reports and other measures, and you really can rate a teacher,” Weisberg says.

In a speech in July to the National Education Association, a confederation of teachers’ unions, Duncan was booed when he mentioned student test data. But he went on to say that “inflexible seniority and rigid tenure rules . . . put adults ahead of children. . . . These policies were created over the past century to protect the rights of teachers, but they have produced an industrial factory model of education that treats all teachers like interchangeable widgets.”

Duncan’s metaphor was deliberate. He was referring to “The Widget Effect,” a study of teacher-assessment processes in school systems across the country, published in June by the New Teacher Project and co-written by Weisberg. “Our schools are indifferent to instructional effectiveness,” the study declared. Under the subhead “All teachers are rated good or great,” it examined teacher rating processes, and found that in districts that have a binary, satisfactory-unsatisfactory system, ninety-nine per cent of teachers receive a satisfactory rating, and that even in the few school districts that attempt a broader range of rating options ninety-four per cent get one of the top two ratings.

The report lays out a road map for “a comprehensive performance evaluation system,” and recommends that for dismissals “an expedited one-day hearing should be sufficient for an arbitrator to determine if the evaluation and development process was followed and judgments made in good faith.” Lucienne Mohammed’s lawyer spent the equivalent of a day disputing whether she should have been familiar with her training materials.

In seven years, Klein has increased the percentage of third-year teachers not given tenure from three to six per cent. Unsatisfactory ratings for tenured teachers have risen from less than one per cent to 1.8 per cent. “Any human-resources professional will tell you that rating only 1.8 per cent of any workforce unsatisfactory is ridiculous,” Weisberg says. “If you look at the upper quartile and the lower quartile, you know that those people are not interchangeable.”

The Rubber Rooms house only a fraction of the 1.8 per cent who have been rated unsatisfactory. The rest still teach. There are fifty Rubber Roomers—half of one per cent of all New York City teachers—awaiting removal proceedings because of alleged incompetence, as opposed to those who have been accused of misconduct.

“If you just focus on the people in the Rubber Rooms, you miss the real point, which is that, by making it so hard to get even the obvious freaks and crazies that are there off the payroll, you insure that the teachers who are simply incompetent or mediocre are never incented to improve and are never removable,” Anthony Lombardi says. In a system with eighty-nine thousand teachers, the untouchable six hundred Rubber Roomers and eleven hundred teachers on the reserve list are only emblematic of the larger challenge of evaluating, retraining, and, if necessary, weeding out the poor performers among the other 87,300.

While Mohammed’s hearing was lumbering on in June, the newsletter of the Chapel Street Rubber Room, in Brooklyn—where Mohammed had spent her school days since 2008—was being handed out by two of its teacher-editors. They were standing under a poster of the room’s mission statement: “TRC”—Temporary Reassignment Center— “Is a Community.” The newsletter’s banner exhorted its readers to “Experience. Share. Enrich. Grow.” Articles included an account of a U.F.T. staff director’s visit to Chapel Street and an essay by one of the room’s inhabitants about how to “quit doubting yourself,” entitled “Perception Is Everything.”

The walls of the large, rectangular room were covered with photographs of Barack Obama and various news clippings. Just to the right of a poster that proclaimed “Bloomberg’s 3 Rs: Rubber Room Racism,” a smiling young woman sat in a lounge chair that she had brought from home. She declined to say what the charges against her were or to allow her name to be used, but told me that she was there “because I’m a smart black woman.”

I asked the woman for her reaction to the following statement: “If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances to improve but still does not improve, there’s no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences.”

“That sounds like Klein and his accountability bullshit,” she responded. “We can tell if we’re doing our jobs. We love these children.” After I told her that this was taken from a speech that President Obama made last March, she replied, “Obama wouldn’t say that if he knew the real story.”

But on July 24th President Obama and Secretary Duncan announced that they would award a large amount of federal education aid from the Administration’s stimulus package to school systems on the basis of how they address the issue of accountability. And Duncan made it clear that states where the law does not allow testing data to be used as a measure of teacher performance would not be eligible.

Duncan has fashioned the competition for this stimulus money as a “Race to the Top,” offering four billion dollars to be split among the dozen or so states that do the most to promote accountability in their schools. “That could mean five hundred million dollars for New York, which is huge,” Weisberg says. “But New York won’t be able to compete without radical changes in the law.” Such changes would have to include not only the provision forbidding Klein to use test scores to evaluate teachers (which Weisberg is most focussed on) but also provisions, such as those mandating teacher tenure, that are at the core of the teachers’-union contract. Klein has already come up with a debatable technical argument that the testing restriction won’t actually disqualify New York from at least applying for the money (because the restriction is about using test scores only for tenure decisions). Still, having that law on the books would obviously undercut an application claiming that New York should be declared one of the most accountable systems in the country—as would many provisions of the union contract, such as tenure and compensation based wholly on seniority.

We’ll soon see whether the lure of all that federal money will soften the union position and change the political climate in Albany. If it does, Bloomberg and Klein—who are determined reformers and desperate for the money—would have a chance to turn the U.F.T. contract into something other than a straitjacket when it comes up for renewal, in October. The promise of school funds might also push the legislature, which controls issues such as tenure, to allow a loosening of the contract’s job-security provisions and to repeal the law that forbids test scores to be used to evaluate teachers. If the stimulus money does not push the U.F.T. and the legislature to permit these changes, and if Duncan and Obama are serious about challenging the unions that are the Democrats’ base, the city and the state will miss out on hundreds of millions of dollars in education aid. More than that, publicly educated children will continue to live in an alternate universe of reserve-list teachers being paid for doing nothing, Rubber Roomers writing mission statements, union reps refereeing teacher-feedback sessions, competence “hearings” that are longer than capital-murder trials, and student-performance data that are quarantined like a virus. As the Manhattan Rubber Room’s poster says, it’s the children, not the teachers, who are fragile and need to be handled with care.

ILLUSTRATION: Richard Thompson

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ravitch: Obama's Awful Education Plan

Obama's Awful Education Plan

By Diane Ravitch

No group had greater hopes for President Obama and his promise of change than the nation's teachers. Poll after poll showed that they despised President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) law with its demand for testing, testing, testing. When asked, teachers said that NCLB was driving out everything except reading and math, because they were the only subjects that counted. Science, the arts, history, literature, geography, civics, all gave way to make more time for students to take practice tests in reading and math. In some districts, the time set aside for practice tests consumed hours of every school day.

NCLB was a failure, and not just because teachers didn't like it. Test scores inched up, but no more than they had before NCLB was passed. Scores on college-entrance exams remained stagnant. Just last week, the ACT reported that only 23% of the class of 2009 was prepared to earn as much as a C average in college. ACT tests over a million students, not only in reading and math, but also in science and social studies. ACT found that more than three-quarters of this year's graduates--who were in fifth grade when NCLB was passed--are not ready for college-level studies.

Part of the problem is that the tests on which so much attention is now lavished are low-level. Students don't have to know much to pass them.

Another part of the problem is that the states have been quietly but decisively lowering their expectations and passing students who know little or nothing. New Yo rk State's tests have recently been deconstructed and shown to be a sham. Diana Senechal, a New York City teacher, demonstrated on ( a few days ago that she (or anyone) could pass the New York state examinations in the middle school grades by guessing, not even looking at the content of the questions but just answering A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D, in order. Frederick Smith, an independent testing expert, determined that virtually every student got enough credit on the written portion of the state tests to be able to guess randomly on the multiple-choice questions and pass (

So, what is the Obama administration now doing? Its $4.3 Billion "Race to the Top" fund will supposedly promote "innovation." But this money will be used to promote privatization of public education and insist that states use these same pathetic tests to decide which teachers are doing a good job. With the lure of all that money hanging out there to the states, the administration is requiring that they remove all restrictions on the number of privately-managed charter schools that receive public dollars and that they use test results to evaluate teachers.

This is not change that teachers can believe in. These are exactly the same reforms that President G eorge W. Bush and his Secretary Margaret Spellings would have promoted if they had had a sympathetic Congress. They too wanted more charter schools, more merit pay, more testing, and more "accountability" for teachers based on those same low-level tests. But Congress would never have allowed them to do it.

Now that President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan have become the standard-bearer for the privatization and testing agenda, we hear nothing more about ditching NCLB, except perhaps changing its name. The fundamental features of NCLB remain intact regardless of what they call it.

The real winners here are the edu-entrepreneurs who are running President Obama's so-called "Race to the Top" fund and distributing the billions to other edu-entrepreneurs, who will manage the thousands of new charter schools and make mega-bucks selling test-prep programs to the schools.

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Progressives Abet Obama-Fraud: Don't Confuse Medicare with Single-Payer

Progressives Abet Obama-Fraud
Don't Confuse Medicare with Single-Payer


Whether intentional or not, the liberal “single-payer” promoters have greatly confused the public by equating single-payer, universal health care coverage with “Medicare For All.” Ironically, it looks like they will get what they have called for; again, unintentionally.

With the long predicted demise of any “public option” or government sponsored program that would compete with the private sector, plain vanilla Medicare-for-all is targeted to become the gold standard for coverage under the basic private policies to be offered to all Americans (whether you like what you have now or not). Take a good look at what that means in practice.

As I have attempted to explain in previous articles (“The Myth of Medicare for All ", (see, by itself, does not cover annual physical exams, dental care, routine eye exams or eyeglasses. There is no coverage for hearing aids, annual physical exams, or foot care. Medicare participants must pay 50 per cent of an outpatient therapist’s charge for mental health services. Other services and supplies not provided by Medicare include acupuncture, chiropractic services, several laboratory tests, long-term care, orthopedic shoes, prescription drugs, shots to prevent illness, and some surgical procedures given in ambulatory surgical centers. (You can see the entire list of “What’s NOT Covered by Part A and Part B” in the US Department of Health and Human Services booklet entitled “Medicare & You.”) For those items that are covered, there is a charge of at least 20 per cent of the medical provider’s costs, and a deductible that must be met.

This new bottom line for benefits, much lower than anything I ever had with my “employer-provided” insurance plans, will be this basic Medicare plan offered to all, served up with blarney that now all Americans have access to the same excellent Medicare that the elderly are so “happy” with. If that isn’t good enough for you, anyone who can afford it will be able to purchase additional coverage, at a much higher price than seniors now pay for the government-subsidized supplemental programs (sometimes called Medicare “Advantage”). According to repeated pronouncements by the President and Congress, these government-subsidized, supplemental programs (that seniors have depended upon to expand their Medicare benefits and make basic medical services affordable) will be eliminated. They constitute the “waste” in the system that the President and Congress repeatedly refer to. They also represent “chicken feed,” compared to the enormous profits the private sector is going to accumulate when we all have to purchase private health insurance policies.

This is what Grampy meant, when he protested that he did not want the government messing around with his Medicare. In spite of the chortling and demeaning commentary by noted liberals on NPR talk shows, Democracy Now, The DR show, and others, Grampy does know that the deduction he agreed the government should take directly from his monthly Social Security check is his premium payment for the government-run Medicare plan. He also knows he could never afford decent medical coverage if he did not make an additional monthly premium payment for the private supplemental (“Advantage”) program. Grampy knows that these supplemental programs that give him the “advantage” of being able to afford the basics of medical care, are on the chopping block and that their elimination (as Obama brags repeatedly) will play a major part in the cost-cutting needed to pay for the new health reform program.
Another cost-cutter Obama often cites is reduction in funding to those hospitals that provide services to the uninsured and poorest citizens.

Of the 165 seniors living in my elderly housing project, I know no senior who has been asked by any pollster how they like Medicare. However, I am sure that no senior who was actually polled ever responded “Do you mean am I happy with my Medicare parts A & B, or do you mean am I happy with my Medicare plus the medicare supplemental plan provided by my private insurer?” Seniors know the difference. Unfortunately, pollsters, as well as most activists and journalists do not. Recently, on a local FM radio program (“Sounds of Dissent, WZBC), a nurse from California, who has been organizing for single-payer health insurance for over 30 years, was asked why she did not explain to the public the difference between Medicare and the “expanded/enhanced Medicare-For-All” she actually wanted to see realized. She responded that it took “too long to say all those words.” She and the rest of the politicians continue to deal in sound bites, often making fun of Grampy’s ignorance and plans to “kill Grammy.”

The blitz and propaganda on both the left and right leave little room for a clear picture of what an alternative health care plan would look like. The worse contribution to the BS I have heard to date came from the President himself. He told the citizens at a New Hampshire town meeting that he wants “all Americans to have the same insurance programs that members of Congress have!” Just how ignorant does he think we are? (If you don’t know what isn’t covered by Medicare, I bet you don’t know what is covered by congressional insurance programs.)

Obama’s healthcare reform is no more a response to the needs and wants of citizen supporters who worked to get him elected, than was his increasing the military spending and expanding the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is, however, a response to an economic crisis that has been growing in the “real economy” for decades. The remedies and options open to Obama are the same as those of his predecessors in similar situations: transfer as much as possible of the wealth, income, labor and resources away from the “consumer” (a/k/a workers, low income and middleclass citizens, elderly, disabled, children, the poor, et. al.) over to the private sector through wage and benefits cuts, through inflation, through outright “bailouts,” through government spending in industrial sectors that could not survive without that intervention (e.g. military weapons, aircraft, corporate agricultural industry, etc.)---all with the great “hope” of returning profitability to real (not bubbles reflecting inflated worthless paper)economic/industrial production. (For more details on this process, please see some of my previous articles in Counterpunch, e.g. “The Multi-Trillion Dollar Question” and “Greenspan’s Higher Power.”)

The point being, that within the context of the “worse depression since the Great Depression,” we are not going to see a health reform plan designed to meet the needs of citizens for affordable, comprehensive medical services. We will see a plan designed to increase profits in the private sector at the expense of the health and welfare of the majority of Americans, with particularly disgusting consequences for the poor and elderly.

Look at what happened with Massachusetts, the “model” for the national healthcare program. As Ellen Murphy Meehan, Director of the Massachusetts Alliance of Safety Net Hospitals, points out in her Boston Globe/NYT article (The State’s Fraying Health Safety Net” 8/10/09) “…hospitals that serve the largest proportion of those newly covered and low-income populations have seen their state-funded payments diminish or be eliminated. By receiving lower rates, they have helped to subsidize health reform. But the consequence of their diminished rates is financial losses and the prospect of the loss of critical services for poor and disadvantaged populations.” She stresses that “as health reform has been implemented, rates have declined for many hospital, and special payments for hospitals that serve a disproportionate share of low-income patients have been eliminated…hospitals located in the state’s poorest urban communities [have been left] with no compensation from Medicaid for the vast amount of care they deliver at rates that are still well below cost.”

Meehan’s focus here is the increased number of poor on Medicaid in Massachusetts. Obama also plans to expand the numbers of poor uninsured on Medicaid, while he cuts “waste” in services for the insured elderly on Medicare. Although these are two very different and separate programs, Meehan’s advise to the Obama Administration in considering Massachusetts as a model is true for both of the Medicare and Medicaid: “Policy makers looking to Massachusetts as a model…[should] reconsider the wisdom of redirecting scarce Medicare and Medicaid disproportionate-share dollars away from hospitals that serve the poor. Expanded coverage must go hand in had with financially stable providers. In the worst-case scenario, coverage that’s financed by eliminating the payments that underpin healthcare services to the disadvantage is a roadmap to rationing of care…healthcare reform will fail in its objectives if it serves to dismantle healthcare services for the disadvantaged that it was designed to serve.” Well, as I said, we disagree on whom healthcare reform is designed to serve, but her warning about rationing is still valid.

No one I know in my elderly HUD housing project is worried about euthanasia, plans to “kill Granny,” or socialized medicine. We do see rationing in the future with the cuts in Medicare “waste” and no proposed replacement for our private supplemental plans. It is frustrating to listen to talk by well-meaning but ignorant “experts” about providing Medicare to everyone, with no discussion of the outrageous inadequacies of Medicare, and no apparent understanding of the pain and suffering caused by the draconian limits placed on coverage in the current Medicare program.

Recently, I graduated from “low income” to “extremely low income” according to the management of my elderly housing project. The change in status was due to expensive dental procedures I needed (root canal and crown) that are among the many essentials not covered by Medicare or by the so-called Medicare Advantage programs. I’ve been around too long to believe as do some, that if we increased the misery of all Americans by putting them on Medicare as it exists, we would suddenly have mass rebellion against it. Without going into what’s wrong with that theory, or a lengthy commentary on American’s growing passivity in contrast with displeased citizens of Europe or Canada, or a reminder of the millions in US and around the world who have protested other policies supported by the Obama administration, or the newer militarized methods planned to keep unruly citizens in their place; the fact is, that is not on Obama’s table of options, yet (stay tuned).

What is actually on the table is not going to be disclosed by the media that have created a real carnival covering hecklers at health care reform town meetings. I do not know who put those protesters up to it, whether organized or not, but Obama is clearly enjoying telling them how misled they are. He seems to savor a real donnybrook rather than disclose what his plan consists of (other than “consumer protections,” “no single-payer,” and “cuts to waste in medicare and hospitals programs” dependent on government funding). Nevertheless, I believe that Obama will get the kind of profitable health care reform he and insurance related business interests want, based solely on what is NOT in his plan.

Barak Obama may be able to get away with that blarney. But, for us, this is no time for sound bites and dismissive putdowns. We need to know what we are talking about, and articulate that vision truthfully, clearly and respectfully to others. When you mess with Grampy and Granny, you cut off your nose to spite your face. Yes, we need single-payer, universal health care coverage for all Americans, as they have in the other leading developed countries. Just don’t confuse that with “Medicare (as it exists) For All.” Or, you are going to get what you ask for, not what we need.

Mary Lynn Cramer, MA, MSW, LICSW, Senior Citizen, has a background in economics and clinical social work, and considerable personal experience with Medicare. She can be reached at