Monday, May 19, 2014

Mulgrew's Myth

No wonder so many softballs were thrown at President Mulgrew tonight in the seminar. I don't recall a single question from a high school teacher. Was there one?

I did spot the high school Vice President and a Chapter Leader in the studio audience. But it was one PS question after another. Either way, it would have just been another softball.

Mulgrew opened with his own myth. That the UFT doesn't want a contract that hurts the children we serve. But, this one does! My question of - Why is there nothing about class size reduction in this contract? Which I submitted 15 min before the start on their online form but was not asked. I suppose if I asked - Why is there nothing to reduce the testing of our students in this contract? Or, Why is there nothing to bring back enriched curriculum with arts, music, and electives? I suppose these wouldn't have been asked either. And, for us teachers: Why is there nothing to reign in bully principals? 

I have always asked myself, Would I stand for my own children to be educated in this way? With class sizes so large, with high concentrations of high need students, with stripped curricula? This has always been the driving force behind not being able to keep my mouth shut about this system.

Instead of a meaningful discussion we got redundancy; another rehash of Unity contract propaganda. How many times was he asked if retro was paid after one retires? How many references to the career ladder combined with a murky mix of Prose schools?

There should have been a rebuttal afterward from an opposition caucus. But, let's be real. This crowd is so insecure it has to rig everything in advance. There's no way they will allow an intelligent dissenting opinion to penetrate the ditto head culture. They are counting on most of the members to say "F---k it!," Hold their noses and check the "Yes" box.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Send Mulgrew Back to the Bargaining Table - Why I Vote NO

There's money
I get waiting for the retro, but raises should begin right away. 
Speaking of raises we are talking 18% over 9 years. That's not fair and it sets the bar way too low for our other brother/sister unions who have to follow our pattern.

ATRs deserve full due process. These teachers should be rotated back into a position to become a regular teacher. Why the UFT agrees to keep them in a special category is truly sad. This contract offers them Due Process LITE, expedited firing process. We cannot stand for that.

Enshrining Danielson and MOSL - Anyone who plans on staying more than a couple of years has to take this seriously. This contract does nothing to get rid of evaluating teachers by test scores. The teachers union in Tennessee are getting rid of test score eval. Why can't we?

Backdoor Merit Pay - in the guise of Master Teacher, etc. Undermines solidarity by creating a teacher caste system. 

What's Missing? Class Size Reduction, Guidance Counselor Case Load Reduction, Wrap Around Services for Families, Brining Back Curriculum the children of the 1 percent enjoy: electives, music, art, PE...

We need to do this morally, as professionals who care for those we serve. Our students deserve everything we want for our own children to have in a school. If the parents get behind us, we cannot lose. But, this contract makes us look like defeated patsies. 

Take this opportunity to stand as a proud professional with convictions by saying NO, we and our students deserve better.

In solidarity,


John Elfrank-Dana
UFT Chapter Leader
Murry Bergtraum High School

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Hatchet Principal

The "Hatchet Man" in the parlance of the business world is a manager brought in for the specific purpose of mass firings of staff. As a manager in the hotel business before becoming a school teacher I was aware of these people. A hotel would bring such a person in with the full support for him/her to "do what had to be done."

Management gives the Hatchet Man the necessary time to flush a significant number of staff out the door. Then, after enough of the bloodletting has occurred (not too difficult if the union is sluggish and bureaucratic, or indifferent), the management finally concedes to the union complaints. "Ya," they say, "the guy was no good." So, they can him. But, the damage is done - mission accomplished. He goes off and finds another hotel looking for a hatchet guy. After all, that's his specialty and there's always enough demand. Meanwhile the management and union get to pretend they were the good guys after all, they got rid of him- didn't they?

In the parlance of the NYC Department of Education we have the "Closer Principal." It's a title anointed to those who have a reputation for belligerent staff relations. When it was announced we would get Lottie Almonte, the blogosphere was a buzz with speculation. Death Watch for Murry Bergtraum was published on Ed Notes Online. She had a reputation coming out of Brooklyn schools for far less than collaboration and veracity in staff relations.

I contacted the United Federation Teachers Brooklyn Borough office which confirmed the worst of what we were hearing. We had just managed to remove a troublesome principal, Andrea Lewis. The response from our Manhattan UFT Borough Office was to wait and see if we can play nice. Furthermore, our principal's boss, Marisol Bradbury, is reported to have had the same management style when she was principal. Given her aloof style, compared to other superintendents, it's no surprise. So, complaints up the chain of command are futile. They only signal that the principal is doing her job.

The Bloodletting - The aftermath of 2012-2013

After the first year, over 51 staff members left, mostly voluntary in the form of transfers, hastened retirements and voluntary excess. This out of about 170 total staff in the building. No complaints from the Department of Education, not even UFT headquarters. Every instructional Assistant Principal, every secretary, every guidance counselor and dozens of teachers at the top of their game, including our staff developers and Broad Science Prize winner - GONE! With this I gave her the name "Lottie Neutron", as the neutron bomb kills people but leaves buildings in tact.

The school's Learning Environment Survey, with 100% of the staff participating, says it all with regard to our Closer Principal's leadership with the majority of staff saying they don't trust her nor think she's competent. Now the trust question was removed from this year's survey. The results won't be available until the fall. It's a safe bet the numbers will be worse for the school's administration.

The school is named for a former President of the NYC Board of Education - Murry Bergtraum. The family is still prominent in city politics. Closing the school would mean the name would have to change. The school, one of the best in the city from the 1970s-1990s, took a nose dive when it become a dumping ground for the Bloomberg/Klein educational policy (2001-present) of closing large schools and sending kids whose parents have no plans to get them into a new small school.

Finally, we are in the shrink-down phase. The name Murry Bergtraum will remain outside on the wall but it will now be a campus hosting 4 schools. To make this happen the DoE had to gut staff. Keep in mind we also had a large percentage of senior staff in the building. We were an expensive lot. Union dues are the same for brand new teachers as they are for veterans, so the UFT has no automatic incentive to protect senior staff. Voluntary retirement is preferred, as ATRs (unassigned, fully benefited teachers who roam as substitutes- there is a no layoff clause in the contract) are a political headache for both the DoE and UFT.

On the Horizon
Just as the Hatchet Man's performance is not based upon employee satisfaction or retention -nor customer satisfaction really, the Closer Principal's performance won't be based as most principals' will be, i.e. on student test scores. For she comes for a specific purpose- to clear the decks and make room.

A high number of "Ineffective" ratings for staff this spring should also garner another wave of bloodletting. With minions of the principal in the form of brand new Assistant Principals of questionable experience or credentials to lead seasoned educators, seeing the glass half empty when they come to observe a lesson, citing dissent as unprofessional, punishing teachers for not staying beyond contractual time for meetings, using canned phrases in post-observation reports to teachers, referring to web sites for staff that request help, not making themselves available to model lessons, and you see there's no plan to develop the staff. They become the Closer Principal's Goon Squad.

The students suffer as much as the staff. The school has been in a state of programming and security chaos for the last year and a half. Special education violation abound and reports have been filed with New York State by whistle-blowing staff members. Does all of this pass muster with Chancellor Farina, who said she wanted to see more "joy" in the schools? Nothing but silence from her thus far.

Will this pass muster with a mayor who has a Progressive brand? If the teachers' union doesn't pressure the mayor to do away with these bully principals what incentive does the mayor have? School closings re supposed to be on the outs. So, what about the league of closer style principals out there? How do you change the culture of a bureaucracy that valued teacher bashing the last 12 years?

The majority of the staff at this point would welcome a shut down of the school. The misery is that palpable. Such is the work of the "Closer." What place does the Closer have in a de Blasio educational policy?

Lastly, I get no personal satisfaction exposing anyone's failings in public, and no less for Lottie. On a personal level she has been mostly friendly. But, her professional role has caused staff and students much harm at our school. It's my obligation to note it for the record in the hopes that someday an enlightened chancellor and union president will take notice.

John Elfrank-Dana
UFT Chapter Leader
Murry Bergtraum High School

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Murry Bergtraum High School - The Takeaway

Murry Bergtraum has been in the press yet again. This time in response to a prior NY Post article two weeks ago about the school's so-called "Blended Learning" program. The article today was about a bunch of letters written in defense of the program and school's administration but many written riddled with grammatical errors. It makes one wonder how the administration let this happen, as we know it was orchestrated from the school's principal-appointed Brand Manager. Why weren't the letters at least proof read? They were sent to Chancellor Farina as well as the NY Post reporter, Susan Edelman. This madness is symptomatic of the larger failure of education reform in the city.

It's important that we not forget the background that got us here.
Setup for Failure: Murry Bergtraum has been a school that has been setup for failure since the early days of the Bloomberg administration. High academic and social need students were dumped on the school throughout the closing process of other schools. Bloomberg wanted the small schools to have a good shot at success so students whose family had no plan were sent to large schools like Bergtraum and Washington Irving. Diane Ravitch cogently explains how Bergtraum has become a nerve ending for the failed Bloomberg and Klein educational policy.

Lack of Security: In the last three and a half years the school has been under siege from incompetent administration that failed to provide enough security to ensure a school tone conducive to success. Teachers have complained and I have filed numerous security grievances and complaints that not enough was being done to reign in the school's worst behaving students. You can witness numerous fights online at various social media sites.

Incompetent Administration: Three years ago we saw the infamous bathroom "riot" in response to then Principal, Andrea Lewis' misguided attempt to punish students for fighting by banning use of the restroom for the rest of the day for 2300 of their classmates. That's how the students heard it over the PA anyway. She was removed in August of 2012. Now we have suffered through the worst school opening in Murry Bergtraum's history this year with botched student programming and a principal, Lottie Almonte, who just never takes responsibility for anything. And like the School of NO, PS 106, in Queens scandal, staff who could escape did. Over 51 staffers at Bergtraum including: all assistant principals of instruction, all the secretaries and other teachers and guidance counselors, most at the top of their game, ran to the welcoming arms of other schools over the summer never to look back. Staff polls on both principals have shown a strong vote of no confidence only to fall on the deaf ears of Bloomberg's Department of Education.

Curricular Gimmicks Rather That Solutions That Work: Rather than reducing class sizes, adjusting the admissions policy so students with high academic and/or social need come from the neighborhood so families can be integrated into their schooling and receive social services, we got gimmicks. The latest is so-called Blended Learning. But, when you blend anything you need at least two parts. In this case it should have been traditional classroom instruction with computer-based instruction. That's not what was happening. Instead, students were given a log-in to an online class and sent their way with a deadline for them (or whomever they hire) to complete the online packaged lessons. Before that was the Leadership Academy 3 years ago which, like the current "Blended Learning" program was a credit recovery scheme that failed to meet state requirements.

The spin will be from pro-charter folks that is shows how public schools can't work. The spin will come from anti-teacher union groups that the school's teachers are to blame. But, given the facts presented above and the accounts embedded therein from those of us who lived it those biases just won't get off the ground.

The fact is that many of our students write well, and are going to have successful careers in college and the work place. It's a big school. There's well over a thousand young people in that building. But, the struggling students in numbers too large have not been served as they needed to be. They shouldn't be sent half way across town to go to school, they need more social services and their homes need support. They need small class sizes and real curriculum. Just like the kind of schooling the children of President Obama and NY State Ed Commissioner King receive.

But, ed reform in NYC and most of the rest of the country has been reduced to a high stakes numbers racket where district administrators look the other way to give principals the message - "get the numbers up any which way you can." Teachers are pressured to pass at least 80 percent of their students or else face the consequences of possible U or Ineffective ratings. The teachers union has been less than aggressive at reigning in bully principals in recent years. "Just transfer if you don't like it" seems to be the implicit and sometimes direct response to staff from the UFT. The result, our students get junk education and when the evidence hits us in the face like those letters in the NY Post did this morning everyone is talking and anticipating- what's next?

Hold your heads up high students and staff of Murry Bergtraum. You are stronger for what you have endured.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Memorable Teachers and Danielson - A letter to my supervisor

Hi Nadine,

As I reflect on the exercise you gave us at a recent department meeting- to discuss in small groups teachers in our past that had an indelible impression on us as students and then evaluate them in terms of the characteristics of the Danielson, I reach an interesting conclusion.  I think the expected outcome would be that these teachers in my past would have had effective and highly effective marks in many of the instructional domains 2 and 3. Perhaps they did. But, none of that kind of technical skill stayed with me. They were a handful of teachers who had a profound impact on me and they were across disciplines: music, social studies, psychology. And what made them so accessible to me I don't find a place for on the Danielson Framework. If there is a nook, it's a relatively insignificant one. This points to a problem I have with the Danielson Framework- it reflects in the inhumanity of the current educational reform movement. 

Conversely it was the humanity and honesty that these educators lived every day in the classroom that made me putty in their hands. Such people had the qualities for a genuine relationship with me. They knew me. I was not some data point that could be broken down into components for differentiation. I was a whole human to them. Of course they knew their content and exercised enough classroom management to keep things moving. But, it was the simple things they did and said. My 8th grade social studies teacher was openly critical of Nixon and the War in Vietnam and that we should all so see the new musical, Hair. These were bold statements to make in right-wing St. Louis. My high school music teacher saw my passion for playing drums and devoted herself, perhaps to a fault, to my musical advancement and promotion. And a psychology teacher I had as a senior who had a sensitivity to what young people my age were going through offered a number of insights that told us we were going to be ok. 

However, as I reflect on these teachers and hunt that Danielson Framework I don't see a place to hinge what made them special to me. Sure the Framework does a good job out outlining what would be logically expected of good mechanical instruction. But, it cannot capture the qualities of the art of teaching and the honesty required to be the teacher/artist. 

Danielson doesn't recognize teaching as an art. There's no room for creativity. Her educational universe is bland and superficial. I realize she had not spent many years herself as a full-time teacher to experience this kind of depth of the profession. She was very mobile rapidly ascending the bureaucratic ladder becoming an expert at everything except aerospace (or, was she an astronaut too?). How could she have possibly experienced the nuances of the profession as did Jonathan Kozol or Frank McCourt. Both of these seasoned teachers emphasized authenticity in the character of the educator. 

We have to welcome our students with unconditional positive regard. Yet, we have to expect they have come from homes that have prepared them to be civilized enough to function in a room with youth so as to not detract from a collective effort at discovery. I am happy to report that the vast majority of students want to learn in this way. The problem is that too many lack the academic skills to do so. Many came from homes where they were not read to by their parents and were physically punished. Adding to these problems were the social promotions and over-testing of the Bloomberg/Klein administration. Learning became just one damn test after another and everyone went to the 9th grade when you hit 14 years old regardless of one's reading level. They have learned to hate school over the years. They learned the the principal requires an 80 percent passing rate from teachers and, therefore, if they just showed up enough they'd get their 65 and pass. 

Add to that unrealistic expectations placed on teachers and the disconnect between how we are evaluated and the reality we know as educators and the atmosphere becomes toxic. We are expected to bore our kids to death covering the breadth of the subject area to get them past the Regents at the expense of the depth that can captivate young minds for subject matter.  In contradictory fashion we expect critical thinking to meet Common Core requirements but do so in a mode of accountability that the joy of discovery is irrelevant. 

Honesty and humanity make an authentic educator. As someone who prescribes to Albert Einstein's belief that "it's the art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge." I was encouraged by NYC Schools Chancellor Farina's statement that there's not enough joy in our schools today. Only in an atmosphere that values humanity and honesty can we nurture the joy that comes with discovery. The current educational regime for which you choose to be a functionary strangles any prospects for such joy. I can only be grateful I didn't go to high school in this age of hyper accountability and inhumanity. I suspect also that these memorable teachers would not have been allowed to be the humans they were.

In all sincerity,


p.s. Can I submit this article as an artifact for a Danielson Domain credit? 

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Danielson's Once Size Fits All Rubric and Teaching Impoverished Children

Again another scientific study showing the impact of social deprivation from poverty impacting a child's prospects for success in school and in life. Exposure to 30 million fewer words for poorer kids by age 3!

Over 70 percent of Murry Bergtraum students come from these households. 

But, there's no lever on the Danielson rubric to take this into consideration. No need for reducing class size, no need for increased services. Just whip the teachers harder! More frequent spritzing of learning boards! More observations. Inquiry circles so you can go round and round in an endless cycle of pointless discussions regarding curricular gimmicks like data, differentiation, common core learning standards and workshop model. 

Here's another factor. Do this experiment. Ask your students to raise their hands if they were NEVER hit by their parents. I guarantee you it will usually represent a special minority in your class- most if not all of your best students (academically and/or behaviorally). The lack of verbal communication is usually accompanied by more frequent physical punishment. For a study on it's impact on education see Murray Strauss

I have no information that Charlotte Danielson ever taught a student population like ours. I believe her limited teaching experience was in the suburbs. If anyone has information to the contrary do let me know.

Our students need us to face the truth. They need to work harder because of their upbringing as well as an impoverished educational system. Our parents are not perfect even though they loved us as best they could. I believe this is true across the spectrum. But, the study indicates a clear problem when a simple solution- eliminate the effects of poverty on holding these kids back. Now, we just have to figure out how Pearson, McGraw, and other ed vendors can make money fighting poverty, so politicians and ed bureaucrats will get on board. 


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Murry Bergtraum High School - A Case Study for the Mayor Elect

Foreword: What started off as a reply to a member regarding the missing teacher comments from the report cards and their distribution in the middle of the school day- creating much tension and animosity, as expected towards the faculty by several students grew into a blog post. In other words, just another administrative debacle in what is amounting to the most chaotic year in Bergtraum's 30+ year history, and right after its first "F" on the school report card. Or, is it deliberate? 

...I wonder if Principal Almonte did this deliberately (report card debacle)? I can't believe it. I find her actions more and more inexplicable. We were warned in the blogosphere the summer of 2012 that she was coming in as a closer. Notice how she is silent regarding the collocation of a Moskowitz kindergarten coming in Bergtraum, while several other principals speak out against collocations. Were the warnings true? Is she here to put us down?

The solution to collocate the old Bergtraum out of existence, ironically, acknowledges what I have been saying all along - that no school that was sent high academic and social needs kids in large number from half way across town will be successful. So, a breakup/shrink out of Bergtraum can be ONE response to that. Except, in the DoE's plan the teachers play the roll of the fall guy, not its own misguided policies and, perhaps, incompetent/sabotaging school administration (expect a lot of Ineffective ratings this year). 51 from the faculty and administration, out of about 150, left last year. Most fled by getting jobs elsewhere, hastened retirements... The large number of teachers excessed by the principal in June was never approved by the network, and therefore, never official. No attempt was made by the administration to update these teachers- hence many were surprised when they learned in August they were never in excess. Is the principal's goal another 50 to leave this year?  

Look at the action steps from the Manhattan Superintendent's Early Engagement meetings with some staff last month- Inquiry Teams! I could have told her- "Been there done that- the last 7 years." Perhaps it was deduced from the advise of teachers new to the school this year- several attended these sessions. Or, is it that she knows the plan is to phase the school out? My reference to the issue of trust in principal's competence and veracity (painfully revealed in the LE Survey of last year and our own in-house survey this year ) and how no reforms are going to work unless that issue is resolved apparently fell on deaf ears with the superintendent. We got an "F" for security as well. There too, the Department of Education sees no need for change... Stay the course! Sorry to sound so conspiratorial. However, when information is not shared with us, when there's no other explanation than this is deliberate mismanagement that connects all the dots- where does that leave you? Remember, the backdrop is the mayor's statement that he'd fire half of the teaching force if he had his druthers. Add to that the great union busting effect of shrinking large schools - many new small schools have no UFT chapter, and it makes sense for the agenda of the Moskowitz' and other privatizers.

Meanwhile a program that was working - Freshman Academy, and a highly functional department, social studies, were decimated this year. The leaders of the academy and department fled the school- chased out by the principal. Why would what works (at least works better than anything comparable in the school) be deliberately undermined by the school administration? 

The high need students should have good community high schools close enough to home so that social workers and attendance teachers could make visits to several students' homes a day (see details in SchoolBook article). Also, that parents can easily come to parent association meetings and  to the parent/teacher conferences. The school has been a ghost town on these occasionsIf a student is strong enough socially and academically, let them commute to school. Bergtraum could be a good neighborhood school serving Smith and Rutgers houses as well as the Lower East Side and Tribeca area.  You'd have a diverse student population with plenty of 3s and 4s (higher level students) to balance out the others, as well as no one racial group dominating the population. 

Where were the Bergtraums during the 10 year dismantling/sabotaging of their school? Silent and even rubber stamping the closure of schools and collocation of Moskowitz here on the Panel for Educational Policy. Murry Bergtraum was a union man from what we were always told. Now, Judy Bergtraum, a Bloomberg appointee to the PEP has voted for the collocation of the union-busting Eva Moskowitz in the school that bears her father's name. 

The onslaught on the UFT members of the school continues unabated. If Principal Almonte believes that an F school cannot have Effective teachers, you will see an inordinate number of Ineffective ratings of teachers under a tunnel vision application of the Danielson rubric. Combine it with the programming chaos this year and its discontinuity for student and teacher programs. The result is guaranteeing failing grades on tests used as part of the teacher evaluation when compared to more functional peer schools. Furthermore, it assumes the faulty premise that teachers have the lion's share of responsibility for student success ignore much research that the home accounts for four times or more impact on student success than teacher quality. But, studies be damned- we are told time and again "instruction is the problem here". Of course, it can and always should be improved. But, we will not be scapegoated for failed DoE policies that account for the systemic setup for failure at the school.

The lessons for a mayor elect intent of changing the course of educational reform are the following: 

Community Schools:
The needier the student population, the closer physically families need to be to the school. The corporate agenda is to atomize us. Make us consumers and cogs in their workforce. Communities can germinate democratic movements that can threaten their power. So called "school choice" is largely a sham for many students in NYC who get one of their TWELVE choices.

Genuine Collaboration:
Trust is a prerequisite for collaboration between the school's leadership and staff and is essential for the implementation of reform. Give School Leadership Teams real power over school budgets. C-30 hiring committees made up of school stakeholders that select administrators the final word instead of just a recommendation. 

School Democracy:
Only transparency and shared decision making can produce such trust. The finger of accountability runs up the chain of command, not down. Dictator principals, a hallmark of Bloomberg/Klein ed policy, need to be sent packing. Public schools in a democracy must not be modeled on corporate hierarchy. Where else will young people learn about democratic structures? Not at work, not in the family. School is what's left.

Leadership Responsibility:
School leaders need to adopt the Harry Truman model- "The buck stops here." Our principal confuses passing the buck for "empowerment" of her staff. She took no responsibility for the school's programming debacle. Strong teachers don't become administrators very often. When principals learned that they would be held responsible for Regents passing rates those worth their salt got out of city schools. The creation of more small schools created a huge void for administrative positions that needed filling. Many of the most mediocre of our profession rushed to get their administrative certificates. No wonder it's hard to find administrators who can demonstrate responsibility.

Leadership that Walks the Walk:
We call repeatedly for our principal and assistant principals to teach a class of their own so they can lead by example; show us (I am from Missouri - the "Show Me" state) what Effective teaching looks like. No dice in the new technocratic Danielson rubric interpretation system. The principal explained all the administrators' time is now spent becoming experts as evaluators. I call them Compliance Clerks, not educators. God forbid they actually have to demonstrate they can do what they expect of us!  Again, see what I said in the last paragraph- the many of the most mediocre educators become administrators to fill the demand created by the explosion of small schools and exodus of the capable who knew the new accountability on the horizon was a sham. 

If Bergtraum High School is to die Mr. Mayor Elect, don't let it die in vain. Instead, understand what really happened here. If Bergtraum will be resurrected in a new way while embodying the spirit of excellence it once had, come talk to us, the students, parents and teachers about how that can happen. All we ask is that you give us a real chance at success. 

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