Three critics of Chancellor Joel Klein’s tenure sat before an audience of teachers bright and early on Saturday to answer the question: what has improved and what has worsened in the last eight years?
The occasion was a symposium held by the newly-founded Meier Institute, named after Deborah Meier, an educator and MacArthur recipient who opened some of the city’s first alternative small schools. Meier, a vocal critic of Klein’s policies, opened the event with a panel of people who’ve regularly looked on the chancellor’s work with skepticism: Director of New York University’s Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, Pedro Noguera, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew and Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez.
Asked about the ups and downs of the last eight years, here’s some of what they said:
I think a lot has improved in New York City because I go to lots of schools that are doing better, lots that are focused on learning. I’ve gone to schools that have turned around that are doing a better job than they were, such as Hillcrest High School. That said, it’s a highly punitive culture. This attempt at closing schools is a sign of a system that blames educators. I don’t believe the Department of Education has a helping strategy for schools. They have a closing strategy for schools, they have a threatening strategy for schools…
On the negative, I have a very very difficult time with what this administration has done with completely closing the community out of the education discussion. I believe that schools are stronger when the community around the school is actually engaged in a meaningful manner and it’s something that we have a complete disagreement with this current administration. The focus on standardized testing as being the only benchmark is something that is going to actually destroy a lot of childrens’ lives in the long run. Those are two of the things that are probably the most troubling. On the positive side, the ability for schools to go out on their own and try to figure it out, I think has been sort of something that they [the DOE] did not plan. I have been in schools, as has Pedro, that really have decided to go out on their own. But I don’t think it’s something they planned. It’s easier to get people on payroll now, much faster…I’m trying to be positive.
There’s definitely been some positive aspects, not necessarily as a result directly of the policies of the current administration. First of all, the biggest was the final resolution of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s lawsuit, which allowed a huge infusion of money that was long-due to New York City public schools. Also, as American cities are being reintegrated and as the middle and upper classes are moving back from the far-off suburbs, there is an increasing attention to public education by those middle and upper middle classes. The mayor, in essence, is carrying out that policy. All the working class in the city will to some extent benefit from all the attention given to public education that hasn’t been given in the past. On the other hand, I think there has been an enormous assault on the democratic nature of public education. My wife worked for many years as a teacher at Boys and Girls High School. She decided she wanted to change and is now teaching in the Nyack system. She cannot believe the difference between how the parents of the Nyack district run their district. The principals and teachers live in fear of the parents, compared to Boys and Girls High, which was a completely different situation. In the last 10 or 15 years in all the major cities, mayoral control and domination by the local officials over the parents has occurred. So you have two public school systems. One of the suburbs and rural America, then the public system of the cities, where there is no democracy, where it leads to open corruption in all kinds of ways. Finally, New York City students are doing worse in terms of critical thinking and being able to use their education to challenge what’s going on. They’re being taught to be obedient thinkers and I think that’s a fundamental negative of what’s happening in our city.