Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Principals Riot

Douglas Avella was removed from his classroom at Intermediate School 318 after students handed in blank standardized exams to protest high-stakes tests last week.
This was the lead for a story on Saturday. What happened was that this teacher may have been involved in getting kids to protest a practice test. Here is Thursday's story.
More than 160 students in six different classes at Intermediate School 318 in the South Bronx - virtually the entire eighth grade - refused to take last Wednesday's three-hour practice exam for next month's statewide social studies test.

Instead, the students handed in blank exams.

Then they submitted signed petitions with a list of grievances to school Principal Maria Lopez and the Department of Education.

"We've had a whole bunch of these diagnostic tests all year," Tatiana Nelson, 13, one of the protest leaders, said Tuesday outside the school. "They don't even count toward our grades. The school system's just treating us like test dummies for the companies that make the exams."
There are a couple of things you should notice about the original article. First the teacher was not accused of leading a boycott of a real test just one of the many practice tests that schools think is a good idea, because they believe practice tests up test scores. Second virtually the entire class participated. No one can do this if there is not a clear grievance on the part of these students.

What we have is a teacher who does this amazing thing, he teaches kids how to find their voice. His reward is that he is quickly removed from the school and sent to the rubber room. Apparently he is considered a danger to students. But of course he is not a danger to students he is a danger to a principal. Is there even a pretense any more of the rubber room as anything other that a political gulag.

Today I heard a story of another principal sending the chapter chair and the UFT delegates to the rubber room on the same day. Another obvious political move. When I first started in the system this type of thing did not happen. People in the rubber room were usually pretty crazy, or had done something bad. I remember defending a teacher when I was chapter chair who was crazy, but who was never sent to the rubber room. The rubber room was small. I think that the local superintendents were hesitant to send people there. This acted as a restraint. Something has changed, and I am not sure what. I am guessing that the chancellor has been pushing this tool and that principals have been trying to prove to their bosses that they are tough. Sending people to the rubber room is a good way to prove how tough you are in today's environment.

The UFT is upset about the chapter chair and delegates being sent to the rubber room. When most of the teachers were sent their the UFT didn't care, but now they care. They have put themselves into this position now they need to suffer the consequences.

When I first joined the UFT it was an organization that was dominated by one party, but that had some dissidents on the executive board. The UFT is as undemocratic as the DoE so it drove them craze that dissidents were on the board. In a move that would make Joel Klein proud the UFT changed its constitution to make it virtually impossible for anyone to win an election to the board except the approved slates.

The problem the UFT has with the rubber room is that it thinks the same as the DoE. An organization built on power politics and undemocratic principals finds it hard to fight these same principals in the DoE. They are hoisted by their own petard.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Joe Stalin where are you now

I appreciate some really well thought out comments on my last post. It has kept me thinking about the issue. When Stalin ran Russia he just killed people he didn't like or people who got in his way. After he died the leadership became more subtle. Instead of death they sentenced people to Gulags or another great Soviet institution the mental institute. If you disagreed with the leadership, you must be crazy. This approach to justice is one of the major things that separates the Soviets from the United States.

When this country was founded the leaders realized that people in power inevitably used their power to suppress dissent. This is why they created Habeas Corpus and the right to a speedy trial. In the United States you can not be held in jail for two or three months without being formally charged. If you give leaders the ability to do this you create a create temptation for leaders to say someone did something but not really charge them. With out the right to a speedy trial it becomes too easy for powerful leaders to keep someone out of the public debate indefinitely. No matter how much Bush-Cheney may argue that we are in a crisis and should suspend these rights most Americans realize that this is a dangerous thing to do.

Somehow when it comes to labor law we forget the constitution. The parallels are inescapable. The chancellor says we are in a crisis, he needs to suspend Habeas Corpus. He then gives principals almost unlimited power to send people to a gulag. Once there the prisoners are not charged in a timely manner and when they are charged they are not given a speedy trial. The justification for this is protecting the students and empowering principals to rid themselves of bad teachers.

The result of course is almost identical to the result of all other dictatorships. This power is used to rid the system of people who challenge the leaders or threaten the power of a leader. It is sometimes used to get rid of bad people but it is also used to get rid of good people who are a threat. This is a failure of some leaders, but more importantly it is a failure of a system with no constitutional guarantees. The drafters of the constitution knew that men would use power badly if not restrained by law.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

All the News That's Fit to Print

Lately the rubber room has become a hot news story. The big part of the story has been over the amount of money being spent to pay teachers who are not doing anything. Everyone is finally admitting that it is a broken system. Joel Klein feels the union is causing this problem, the UFT feels it is Klein and the principals who are using the system to get rid of people they can't get rid of legally. The Daily News seems to feel that most of the people in the rubber room are guilty so they should be gotten rid of. No one reports on how many people in the rubber room are ultimately found innocent. If they did there would probably be a bunch of statements to the effect that so few people are guilty because of UFT trickery and a bad contract that makes it impossible to get rid of bad people.

In general politicians blame evil lawyers for their own shortcomings. If police can't convict someone it is the defense lawyers fault. If corporations are forced to pay large claims for injured people, it is the lawyers fault. If doctors are convicted of malpractice, it is the lawyers fault. Of course cops plant evidence to quickly close cases, innocent people are sentenced to the death penalty, corporations hide bad things about their products to increase profits and almost no doctor is ever removed for being incompetent. Yet it is all the lawyers fault that these people are held accountable.

Government has deep pockets and can therefore often wins just because it can outlast individuals. It often doesn't matter that a person is found innocent if they are financially or psychologically devastated by defending them self. Teachers appear to be screened from the financial part because they have the UFT to defend them. Unless the UFT does a bad job.

The reason that the rubber room is in the news is that there are a group of people who have decided to sue the UFT for not defending them. These same people have reached out to NPR and have helped create a documentary about the rubber room. This is ultimately the only power that people have against government or large unions.

The part that no one seems to want to talk about is the decision to devote so little resources to solving the issues around the rubber room teachers. It takes months before you are even charged and then it takes months or years before a trial is even set. While you are waiting you go through a series of grievance steps that are a joke and that I would suggest should be eliminated except they do give you an opportunity to get out of the room for a day.

Most rubber room cases could be solved quickly if someone would actually investigate. No one is suggesting that teachers who endanger kids should be in a classroom, but in many cases this is not the issue. The first woman I met in the rubber room had been accused of falsifying a doctors note. This did not endanger kids and should not have been a reason to remove her from a classroom. On the surface this would seem to be a pretty easy case to investigate. You call the doctor and find out if the note was forged. If he/she says it wasn't the case is over. This took eighteen months to solve. In all of that time this teacher was kept out of the classroom. And yet it is the teacher that is blamed not the systemic failure of the DoE to resolve cases quickly.

I am outraged by the waste of money that is used to support the rubber room. But I know who is to blame, the Klein-Weingarten deal that created the absurd system now in place. Lets hold the people who created this system responsible for this waste of money.