This is worth having a conversation around.
By JACOB GERSHMAN
December 1, 2009
As long as Mayor Bloomberg is rolling up his sleeves for a brawl over the new teach ers-union contract, it's time for him to take a swing at another problem that's festered too long: the radicalization of New York's public schools.
A growing number of city schools aim to foster resentment and rage among the most uneducated students. Under the guise of "social justice," the fomenting of racial and socio-economic grievances has supplanted the teaching of basic skills. The result is an even wider gap in learning between the poorest minorities and other students.
The corruption of the curriculum is getting harder to conceal. In the wake of the ACORN scandals, it's more obviously problematic that ACORN is affiliated with three city schools -- including two in Brooklyn bearing the group's name: ACORN Community HS and the ACORN HS for Social Justice.
Karen Watts, the principal of the ACORN HS for Social Justice in Bushwick, seems sensitive to the group's bad publicity: She says ACORN no longer has any involvement with the school. But that's news to Debra Burgess, the school's parent coordinator -- who told me the school's "philosophy" is based around ACORN: "We do have to follow their philosophy, and their philosophy is 'reform and change.' "
Watts says she's aware of no political advocacy in the classroom. Latasha Farmer, an English teacher who lectures her students about the dangers of standardized testing and gentrification, is more candid. "Politics has always been part of the education system, period," says Farmer, whose school Web page shows a student decorating her classroom door with anti-war slogans.
But teacher activism goes far beyond ACORN. Social justice is the guiding academic principle of more than a dozen city high schools, particularly in the newer crop of smaller schools started by community groups.
* On the home page of Bushwick Community HS, you'll find a large illustration of Che Guevara wearing a graduation cap.
* Last year, the principal of Vanguard HS in Manhattan hosted a "radical math" conference at his school. The event, according to the program, featured a presentation by a teacher at Performing Arts & Technology HS about "how to use the history of the Black Panther Party to fuel an algebraic curriculum."
* The city honors Columbus Day by closing its schools, but at the Bushwick School for Social Justice, students are taught a . . . different perspective. "Our commitment to providing a high-quality, college-preparatory education for our students is critical to our social-justice mission, which is alive in so many ways in our classes. For example, during a unit on the Age of Exploration, our global-history students put Christopher Columbus on trial for his crimes against humanity," wrote a senior Bushwick teacher in a recent job posting.
* At Banana Kelly HS in The Bronx, the social-justice agenda has extended into its discipline policy. The school is experimenting with "restorative justice" techniques -- in which misbehaving or truant students aren't punished but instead asked to participate in trust-building exercises to help them "acknowledge their feelings."
How well is that going? Well, one Banana Kelly student recently posted a YouTube video titled "OnePeriodinBananaKelly." Recording what appears to be a stroll around the school during the middle of the day, the nine-minute continuous clip offers a glimpse into a school utterly lacking in supervision. Bedlam reigns in the hallways, while students play dominoes in the classroom. At no point does a teacher or administrator intervene.
The irony in all of this is that voices who speak most passionately about the inequity of the school system and the plight of disadvantaged students are the ones digging a deeper hole.
While some of these schools boast improved graduation rate and Regents test scores, their SAT scores -- the most objective indicator of future academic success -- are atrocious.
According to College Board data from this summer, the average SAT score for New York state students under the lowest family-income bracket was 1276. Black students in the state averaged 1257. The schools listed in this column (except Bushwick Community HS, for which I could not find data) posted average scores between 983 and 1141.
The mayor and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein could change this overnight. A clampdown on teacher activism requires no fancy legal or political footwork -- just a directive from the top.
"Klein can literally do it with a stroke of a pen. He could put it into the chancellor's regulations and make it clear that indoctrination, from the left or right, will be regarded as an ethical breach," says the Manhattan Institute's Sol Stern.
A spokesman for the city Education Department waved off any concern: "We don't submit schools to political tests. We ask them instead to teach our students to be avid learners and critical thinkers, and we hold them accountable for how well they do that."
Translation: It's not our problem. firstname.lastname@example.org