crib sheet

We read Steven Brill’s “Class Warfare” so you don’t have to

Eva Moskowitz did not generate the idea for Harlem Success herself; Randi Weingarten has been criticizing her successor, UFT President Michael Mulgrew, to her friends; and former Chancellor Joel Klein thinks that at least two of his former deputies have gone soft on reform in their new school districts. These are among the claims in “Class Warfare,” Steven Brill’s new book on the education reform movement.

Much of “Class Warfare” will be familiar to GothamSchools readers. The book’s main characters include, on one side, former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and, on the other, teachers unions president Randi Weingarten; many of its main plot points center on New York City, and some of the key classroom scenes take place in Harlem.

But the following insights — some of them more solidly sourced than others — were news to us. Here’s a run-down of Brill’s most intriguing New York-related reporting:

The war behind the war: Bloomberg v. Klein

  • On labor issues, Bloomberg sometimes undercut Joel Klein. Klein’s team thought they could get the UFT to sign off on a change in the teacher termination process. But Bloomberg, who was nearing reelection, told them not to push their luck. “The mayor blinked,” the DOE’s one-time labor chief, Dan Weisberg, told Brill. “The mayor just gave up.” Weisberg said he “clashed almost daily” with City Hall over back-channel contract negotiations in 2005.
  • Similarly, Brill reports that in 2006, Bloomberg told Klein and Weisberg to “stand down” on pushing a time limit for teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve. As Klein left office last year, he was still calling for that policy.
  • Bloomberg was weighing a third term even a year into his second, and his education policies reflected that. The 2007 teachers contract included little in the way of substantive policy, an oddity at a time when Klein was setting an aggressive tone at Tweed. In fact, the only major change, a schoolwide bonus program, was spiked this year. “The plan,” Klein told Brill, “was to make some progress in the 2005 contract — which we did, though not enough — and then go in for the kill in 2007. Mike deciding to run for a third term completely killed that.”

What Klein really thought of his proteges and more that you didn’t know about him

  • Klein didn’t think he would be chancellor. Brill reports that a mutual friend suggested that Bloomberg consider Klein, but after their first meeting, Klein “didn’t think he had connected with Bloomberg.” Bloomberg now says he picked Klein because “Jesus Christ wasn’t available.”
  • The animosity displayed between Klein and Randi Weingarten, the teachers union president for most of his tenure, was real. “Joel Klein would come to detest [Randi] Weingarten as much as she detested [Klein ally, PS 49 Principal Anthony] Lombardi and him,” Brill writes.
  • Klein isn’t uniformly proud of his protégés. Former Klein deputies now head school systems in Baltimore, New Haven, Chicago (where Jean-Claude Brizard came from Rochester, N.Y.), and New Jersey. But in some of those places, Klein said his former deputies had not been bold enough. “All of them had big minds, but not all had strong minds,” he told Brill. Brill and Klein do not name names. Among the former Klein deputies now leading education efforts in other cities, at least two have received criticism from proponents of aggressive reform. In Baltimore, Andres Alonso has been positioned as a more collaborative alternative to Klein; in New Haven, Garth Harries, the number-two school official, led an agreement with the teachers union that critics charge included too many concessions.
  • Klein’s pension from his eight years as chancellor is guaranteed at the same rate as city teachers’ — 8.25 percent per year. The benefit structure is costly for the city, as we reported last year. “Who else but Bernie Madoff guarantees 8.25 percent a year permanently?” Klein asked.

What Randi Weingarten thinks of Michael Mulgrew, why Eva Moskowitz started Harlem Success, and more charter school politics:

  • Klein created the idea of charter school co-locations with the precise intention of generating a political fight. He told Brill that he slipped $250 million for charter school co-locations into 2005’s larger-than-ever budget and “nobody noticed.” He also said that his decision to give the UFT charter school space inside a city school building was strategic. “Once Randi’s school was co-located, she could never be against co-location in principle,” Klein told Brill. “She’d have to oppose the specifics of the co-location plan but not the idea.” Since then, the UFT has twice sued the city over the specifics of its co-location plans. The union also received City Council funding this year to plan its charter schools’ exit from their co-located site.
  • Weingarten hasn’t approved of the battle that her successor at the UFT, Michael Mulgrew, has waged against charter schools. Brill writes that Weingarten told friends that she was embarrassed by Mulgrew’s efforts to prevent the lifting of the charter cap in 2010 because she thought the union had already lost. The cap was lifted when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, usually a friend of the union, suddenly threw his support behind the move.
  • The cap probably could have been lifted sooner if the city had made a few concessions. Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch told Brill that she wanted Klein to give up his commitment to co-location as part of the negotiations around lifting the charter school cap in 2010. “If Joel would give up on co-location and look at doing something on saturation, it would sure ease all the tension,” Tisch told Brill.
  • Harlem Success Academy wasn’t Eva Moskowitz’s idea. Brill reports that several hedge-fund managers approached Moskowitz’s husband, Eric Grannis, for advice about starting a network of charter schools; Grannis had previously helped launch the Girls Prep charter school. After Moskowitz critiqued the hedge-fund managers’ plan, they offered her the job — but they told Brill they hadn’t planned to do so before that.

On Race to the Top, including what the Obama administration really thought about New York’s application:

  • The Race to the Top competition was partially inspired by the Gates Foundation. In 2008, the Gates Foundation held a small-scale competition to encourage school districts and teachers unions to work together. When an Obama administration official first proposed the idea of having states compete for federal funds, they were reminded that the Gates competition had achieved its aim of fomenting collaboration.
  • Race the to Top could have been three times bigger. When Obama administration officials approached David Obey, a member of the House of Representatives who controlled the appropriations committee, he wasn’t happy that the competition would annoy the unions and that his state, Wisconsin, was unlikely to win. So he cut the initial proposal of $15 billion (out of $100 billion being distributed to schools) down to the $5 billion that made up the first Race to the Top competition.
  • Other states were supposed to beat New York, which came in second in Race to the Top’s second round. New York’s win — after a dismal showing in the first round — came largely because the state and its teachers unions agreed to toughen teacher evaluations (the same evaluations that are now being disputed in court). Federal officials were shocked to see that the people hired to evaluate Race to the Top applications gave so much credit to union collaboration in New York. They were also distressed that Colorado and Louisiana, which had reshaped their laws in response to the competition, had not made the cut — to the point that they considered changing the rules after the competition was over. Politics K-12, Education Week’s education politics blog, has the complete run-down on the rankings shakeup that Brill writes caused “near-panic” at the U.S. Department of Education.

Rubber rooms, Wendy Kopp and LIFO, and more miscellaneous extras:

  • The number of teachers removed from the classroom on misconduct charges is tiny and falling. In the year after the city closed the rubber rooms that housed teachers accused of misconduct, Brill reports that just 155 teachers were removed from the classroom, down from 250 to 300 teachers a year before that.
  • Teach for America tempered its opposition to “last in, first out” layoffs, which would have heavily affected its members, out of pragmatism. “It should be obvious how I feel but we have to work with these school systems and teachers every day,” TFA founder Wendy Kopp told Brill.
  • Capacity is a big problem. Brill describes how top Harlem Success staff members quit midyear, citing the toll of their long hours and high-pressure jobs on their relationships and bodies. Meanwhile, the superintendent of Pittsburgh’s schools told Brill that even if he replaced the weakest 3.5 percent of his teachers each year with better teachers, he would be able to “refortify” only a third of his workforce in a decade. And that’s in a system with just 2,200 teachers, compared to nearly 80,000 in New York City.

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”