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What I Saw in the Schools

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What I Saw in the Schools

Twenty years on the New York education beat Autumn 2015
Education

MARCUS YAM/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX
In the early 1990s, the press rarely reported on the negative impact that the teachers’ contract had on the performance of New York schools.

I started writing about public education because of what I saw, up close and personal, at P.S. 87 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the elementary school my children attended from 1987 to 1997. P.S. 87 was then regarded as one of the city’s best schools, and it still is. Yet it was at this elite school, favored by the neighborhood’s middle-class parents, that I first glimpsed the harm done to children—particularly, poor children—by a retrograde teachers’ contract and the dominance of progressive-education ideas in the classroom.

I can still recall the shock I experienced one morning in September 1991 after dropping my boys off at P.S. 87’s schoolyard. I lingered for a few minutes, chatting with some other parents, when I noticed a bent man in dirty, tattered clothes, wandering around the yard as if in a stupor. Wondering if a derelict had gotten into the schoolyard, I asked one of the parents if she recognized him. She responded with an ironic grin: “Don’t you know? That’s Malcolm, one of our new teachers.”

Incredulous, I headed off to Principal Jane Hand’s office. It was all true, Hand confirmed. Malcolm was now a teacher in good standing at our K–5 school. She had to hire this deeply troubled person because of the seniority-transfer clause in the labor agreement between the city and the United Federation of Teachers. The contract required principals to post half of their schools’ teacher vacancies at the end of each year and offer the positions to applicants with the greatest seniority in the system. Hand didn’t even have the right to interview Malcolm (who had transferred from a Bronx elementary school) before he showed up on the first day of school.

The principal’s explanation was unsettling, though I wasn’t exactly an innocent about the corrupting power of municipal labor unions. As a high-level staffer for city council president Andrew Stein, I had written articles (under his byline) that exposed the sweetheart contract between the city and the union representing school custodians. It marked the beginning of a crusade by Stein’s office that eventually led to significant reforms curbing some of the custodians’ worst abuses, including being allowed to hire their wives as secretaries.

Still, a big difference existed between the damage done to the schools’ physical infrastructure by the small custodians’ union and the damage done to kids because of the UFT contract. Principal Hand said that she didn’t dare give Malcolm a classroom assignment—the parents would have rioted. So she relegated him to yard duty and patrolling the lunchroom, where he joined several other dysfunctional but fully salaried teachers in make-work. The abuses went far beyond seniority transfers, as I soon learned after immersing myself in the contract’s bizarre work rules. The 200-page agreement governed every aspect of the daily management of schools, making it nearly impossible for principals to remove grossly incompetent teachers and erecting other obstacles to improving classroom instruction.

Article 6 of the contract was titled “Hours.” It stipulated that the length of the workday for teachers was the same as for students—six hours and 40 minutes. Since the school calendar had no more than 180 days, this effectively meant that teachers could get away with working fewer than 1,200 hours per year. At a (current) maximum teacher salary of $106,000, that would come to almost $90 per hour. Not a bad deal. Many dedicated teachers worked longer hours, of course, but this mind-boggling provision of the contract enabled a slacker culture, even in “good” schools like P.S. 87.

The contract’s lockstep pay schedule for teachers undermined teacher quality and productivity while wasting taxpayer money. Teachers received automatic longevity raises for each of their first eight years on the job and then again at 10 years, 13 years, 15 years, 18 years, 20 years, and 22 years. I never met a single official from the union or the city education department who could give a rational explanation for the timing of these pay increases.

Teachers also qualified for additional pay (all pensionable) by accumulating 30 or 60 college credits beyond the required master’s degree. The problem was that any course in any subject qualified for the raise. This provision turned into a racket, since fluff courses offered by providers looking for cash (including the UFT itself) were deemed acceptable. Yet the contract provided no special pay incentives for a teacher accumulating academic course work that might actually prove useful in a classroom—say, a history teacher learning more history or a reading teacher learning what the scientific literature says about how best to teach reading to young children.

In those years, education-beat reporters rarely wrote about the UFT contract’s grimy details. I decided to step into the vacuum and started publishing articles—in City Journal and elsewhere—showing how the contract hurt schools and students. I often referred to it as the “we don’t do windows” contract. I knew my articles were getting read in the right places after then–UFT president Randi Weingarten attacked me in the union newspaper as a “demagogue.” At the same time, officials in Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration asked me to brief them on the most problematic clauses in the contract as they prepared to negotiate a new agreement with the UFT. Unfortunately, Mayor Giuliani was unable to get any significant concessions from the union.

It wasn’t until Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2005 negotiation with the UFT that the outrageous seniority-transfer clause was removed. Weingarten later confided that it had become untenable for the union to continue defending the contract provision that forced principals to hire teachers like P.S. 87’s Malcolm. Still, as an experienced negotiator, she managed to get the administration to reduce teachers’ out-of-classroom duties as a quid pro quo for the union’s “concession” on the transfer clause. Thus, the schools now had even more of a “we don’t do windows” contract.

I soon realized that the self-serving and counterproductive teachers’ contract paled in significance to the strange new instructional ideas that some teachers were bringing into their classrooms. I knew that P.S. 87 adhered to the philosophy of “progressive education,” but I had only the vaguest idea of what that would mean for my kids. Initially, what I saw in the early-grade classrooms pleased me somewhat. The children seemed happy as they worked together in groups and moved around the room from one workstation to another. It was all very warm and communal, far from the rigid classrooms of my own childhood, where students sat at desks lined up in straight rows facing the teacher. But as much as I liked P.S. 87’s “open” classrooms, I began to wonder if the progressive-ed shibboleths that I was hearing at the school actually made sense.

Many of my sons’ teachers were trained at Columbia University’s Teachers College or the nearby Bank Street College of Education. At these citadels of progressivism, future educators were inculcated in the “child-centered” approach to classroom instruction. All children, in this view, were “natural learners” who—with just a little guidance from teachers—could “construct their own knowledge.” By the same token, progressive-ed doctrine considered it a grave sin for teachers to engage in direct instruction of knowledge (dismissed as “mere facts”). The traditional, content-based instruction that had worked so well for my generation of immigrant children from poor and working-class families was now dismissed as “drill-and-kill” teaching that robbed kids of their imagination. Progressives also rejected the old-fashioned American idea, going back to the Founders, that the nation’s schools should follow a coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum that not only included the three Rs but also introduced children to our civilizational inheritance.

My kids’ classrooms became a laboratory allowing me to observe the toxic effects of putting romantic theories of child development into practice. There was no common curriculum at P.S. 87, no essential texts that students were expected to master. Most teachers invented their own lessons as they went along. My older son was lucky to have a (rare) fourth-grade teacher who believed in offering students historical facts and demanded that they read books and write formal book reports. But other teachers meandered from one subject to another, preferring that children do “hands-on” projects.

For example, my older son’s third-grade teacher devoted months of class time to building a Japanese garden alongside his students—the entirety of their math instruction for the duration. I was told that the students were doing lots of “measurement.” Apparently, this was an acceptable application of the progressive-ed principle of “constructivism”—meaning that kids always learn best by doing.

Some P.S. 87 instructors believed that studying math could be socially and politically redeeming. A math homework assignment created by my younger son’s fourth-grade teacher required him to calculate the exact percentage of Arawak Indians living on the island of Hispaniola who perished because of Christopher Columbus’s depredations. The assignment ended by asking the students to answer: “How do you feel about this?” Indeed, urging children to express their feelings seemed more of an educational goal at P.S. 87 than building their knowledge. In one social studies assignment used by several teachers, students were encouraged to visit neighborhood stores to detect signs of racism and then report back how they felt about it.

P.S. 87 was known as the William Tecumseh Sherman School; the Union general’s name is emblazoned over the school’s entrance. I once asked my younger son and some of his fifth-grade classmates if they had learned anything about the famous American warrior. They had no idea who Sherman was, nor had they been taught anything about the Civil War. I reported my discovery to P.S. 87’s principal, Steve Plaut (Hand’s successor), and wondered why the school’s name hadn’t been used as a teaching tool to educate students about arguably the most important event in American history. Plaut’s answer: “It is important to learn about the Civil War, but it’s more important to learn how to learn about the Civil War.” At my younger son’s graduation ceremony that year, the principal congratulated all the students for having “learned how to learn” and expressed confidence that they would continue to be “critical thinkers” for the rest of their lives. Nothing was said about what the graduates had actually learned during their years at P.S. 87.

The education scholar and University of Virginia professor E. D. Hirsch, Jr. showed me just how upside-down this approach is. Hirsch argued that all truly great “critical thinkers” start out by mastering a substantial body of knowledge. Beginning with his 1987 bestseller Cultural Literacy and in other books over the next two decades, Hirsch made it clear that my sons’ teachers—most of them, at least—had abandoned common sense in favor of education fads that were backed by no evidence and that actually did damage, particularly to minority children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. Relying on consensus findings in cognitive science, Hirsch revealed that denying disadvantaged children access to relevant background knowledge and a content-rich curriculum doomed them to falling further behind in reading comprehension. Thus, the most devastating consequence of the no-curriculum, no-knowledge doctrines that I first observed at P.S. 87 was that they widened, rather than reduced, the gap in intellectual capital between middle-class children—whose families supplied some of that capital, even if the schools didn’t—and those from poor families, where the home environment was often dysfunctional and not conducive to learning.

I might have given up writing about progressive education, particularly after my sons moved on to high school, except for a new development in the city’s schools. In June 2002, the state legislature gave control of the New York City education system to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. I was an early advocate for mayoral control, arguing that the existing Board of Education was helplessly mired in bureaucratic inertia and incapable of bringing about needed reforms. The board was also rife with corruption, as its seven members and the six elected officials who appointed them traded in political favors more than they watched out for the education of the city’s 1.1 million schoolchildren.

Now the billionaire mayor and his newly appointed schools chancellor, Joel Klein, had total authority over the schools and would start with a clean slate. Since they had no stake in the reading and curriculum wars, I assumed that they would make decisions about which instructional approaches worked best in the city’s classrooms, based solely on the evidence. Unfortunately, Bloomberg and Klein focused their early reform efforts primarily on the structure and management of a system of 1,000-plus schools—no small feat. They left the issue of instruction in the hands of a small group of lifetime progressive educators. Diana Lam and Carmen Fariña (Klein’s first two appointees to the crucial position of deputy chancellor for teaching and learning) were backed by a mayor who not only controlled the entire school system but had also proclaimed that “a standardized approach to reading, writing and math is the best way to raise student performance across the board.”

The true believers seized this opportunity to impose their education ideology on virtually every one of the city’s elementary and middle schools. For the first few years of the Bloomberg administration, hundreds of thousands of children were force-fed progressivism. Students found themselves set loose in the classrooms and expected to “construct their own knowledge.” Nothing quite like it had ever happened in American urban education.

Representatives of the deputy chancellor’s office fanned out through the schools to make sure that all teachers followed the new party line. One Department of Education manual gave classroom teachers their marching orders: “Your students must not be sitting in rows. You must not stand at the head of the class. You must not do ‘chalk and talk’ at the blackboard. Your students must be ‘active learners’ and they must work in groups.” DOE inspectors visited schools to ensure that every classroom in the early grades had rugs on the floor, which purportedly helped create the “natural” conditions necessary for young children to learn.

As if this browbeating of teachers in constructivist theory wasn’t sufficient, the DOE also awarded millions of dollars in teacher-training contracts to the Teachers College Reading and Writing Program headed by Lucy Calkins, a leader of progressive-ed pedagogy. Calkins’s instructional model, “balanced literacy,” became the new buzzword in the schools. Classroom teachers were expected to follow Calkins’s prescriptive lessons, based on the assumption that all children are “natural readers and writers.” Among other things, this meant that there was no need for explicit instruction in phonics, previously recommended by a congressionally mandated scientific study (the National Reading Panel) as the best way to teach reading to young children.

In truth, there was nothing “balanced” about Calkins’s program; nor was there a shred of evidence that it had ever improved reading and writing for children in urban schools. But Calkins was a personal friend and colleague of Deputy Chancellor Fariña. A few years later, the Teachers College professor penned a testimonial to Fariña for her role in transforming the city’s classrooms during the early years of the Bloomberg administration. It was a glorious time, Calkins wrote, “when sound practices in the teaching of reading and writing became the talk of the town—the subject of study groups and hallway conversations in every school.”

I mocked the absurdity of the new education regime, calling it a “dictatorship of virtue.” The sudden turn of events in the schools also led me to have second thoughts about mayoral control of education. Yes, it was important to have one elected official with the authority to bring about needed reforms. But what if that official was imposing ruinous educational methods in the classrooms? What recourse did citizens and parents have, other than waiting for the next election?

But a potential silver lining soon appeared behind the doors of the DOE. A 2008 New York Times profile of me focused in part on my criticisms of the Bloomberg administration. The reporter, Jennifer Medina, wrote that “Mr. Stern’s criticisms can be irksome to members of the city’s Education Department, but they are heard.” Medina also elicited this comment from Chancellor Klein’s press secretary: “Sol is a pundit, and pundits have lots of ideas. Some of his have been helpful.”

Klein, it turned out, had read my articles on Hirsch. More important, he immersed himself in Hirsch’s works and soon scheduled several meetings with the education scholar. Klein has since acknowledged that leaving the instructional side of the Bloomberg administration’s reform agenda in the hands of Lam and Fariña was the biggest mistake he made as chancellor. During his last two years in office, he made a remarkable and honorable effort to reverse course.

Working with the Core Knowledge Foundation, Klein set up a three-year pilot study, matching ten schools using the Hirsch curriculum in grades K–2 against a demographically similar group of schools that followed the standard “balanced literacy” program. The findings showed a statistically significant gain in reading comprehension for students in schools favoring the explicit teaching of knowledge through a planned curriculum. Not surprisingly, Calkins and Fariña complained about the pilot study’s methodology.

Klein left the DOE in 2010. I am convinced that had he stayed on through Mayor Bloomberg’s third term, he would have used the pilot study’s results to nudge more schools toward adopting the Core Knowledge curriculum. Even so, more than 70 elementary schools now use that program, mainly because the Bloomberg administration signed on to the new Common Core State Standards, which call for schools to adopt a grade-by-grade curriculum that is “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge.” Since Calkins’s balanced literacy program clearly fails to meet that standard, the education department stopped recommending it.

For the past two decades, New York City has been one of the nation’s most important laboratories for urban school reform. I have written about most of the issues that provoked so much contentious debate here: mayoral control; the rise of charter schools and the unfortunate closing of many Catholic schools; the creation by the Bloomberg administration of hundreds of new small schools; the attempts to link teacher evaluations to student test scores. I leave it to future education historians to decide how much the schools have actually improved because of these particular reform efforts.

But there’s no need to wait for the historians’ verdict to know that the city has come up far short of fulfilling its historical mission to equalize opportunity through the public schools. Academic improvement has been negligible; the racial achievement gap has not narrowed. The city’s eighth-grade reading scores on the gold-standard National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests have barely budged over the past 12 years. Years of reform and a doubling of education spending have brought little payoff for children in poor families.

Looking back, I now see a causal connection between this overall education failure and the resistance to ordinary common sense that I first witnessed in the schools on two crucial issues—the counterproductive teachers’ contract and the domination of progressive education in the classroom. The most important lessons I learned at P.S. 87 are that teachers matter and that the content they teach in the classrooms matters even more.

New York City still needs sweeping changes in the teachers’ contract; teachers should be rewarded for the hard work they do and the knowledge they bring to the classroom. As for what teachers actually teach, it’s hard to improve on the statement issued by the Campaign for Knowledge, a new education-advocacy group founded by E. D. Hirsch, Joel Klein, David Steiner (former New York State education commissioner), and Chester Finn (president emeritus of the Fordham Institute):

Without a solid foundation of content knowledge built from the first days of a child’s school experience—in history, science, the arts and more—the ambitious goals of raising academic standards and improving student outcomes simply cannot be met. . . . Our elementary schools must make building knowledge their top priority. And every major effort in American education—from curriculum development to testing and accountability to policymaking—should ensure that schools and teachers are encouraged and supported to do exactly that.

The campaign hopes to influence the national debate on curriculum and content knowledge; its message is particularly relevant at this moment in the city’s education history. Because of Bill de Blasio’s election as mayor, Gotham public schools are again poised to become a laboratory for failed educational progressivism. At his inauguration, de Blasio promised a new era of “social justice” for the poor—a worthy objective. He then inexplicably chose as his schools chancellor Carmen Fariña, who proved, in the early years of the previous administration, that she has no clue about how to improve education for poor children.

When results of state tests in reading and math were released in June and predictably revealed no significant academic improvement or narrowing of the racial achievement gap, de Blasio and Fariña called a press conference and conjured some statistical gains out of whole cloth. Fariña’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, Phil Weinberg, offered the preposterous claim that this “improvement” came about because the Common Core Standards now ask students to “construct their own knowledge.” In fact, the Common Core document contains not a single reference to the progressive-ed doctrine of students constructing their own knowledge.

At the beginning of the new school year, de Blasio and Fariña spun yet another fantasy about school improvement. They announced a plan to get 100 percent of all second-graders reading at proficiency level by 2026. According to the administration, this miracle will happen because the education department will hire 700 additional “reading specialists”—one for every elementary school in the city. Chancellor Fariña didn’t reveal what the reading specialists will know that the thousands of current reading teachers don’t already know. We can guess, though, that they will be expert at Lucy Calkins’s balanced literacy and other progressive-ed fads. Indeed, Fariña has already hinted at finding some way to bring her friend and former colleague back into the schools.

It’s back to the future in the New York City classrooms, for at least as long as Bill de Blasio remains mayor. Progressives continue to betray the disadvantaged children whom they profess to champion.

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