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The Great Transformation
I lived through the great transformation which turned schools from often useful places (if never the essential ones school publicists claimed) into laboratories of state experimentation. When I began teaching in 1961, the social environment of Manhattan schools was a distant cousin of the western Pennsylvania schools I attended in the 1940s, as Darwin was a distant cousin of Malthus.
Discipline was the daily watchword on school corridors. A network of discipline referrals, graded into an elaborate catalogue of well-calibrated offenses, was etched into the classroom heart. At bottom, hard as it is to believe in todays school climate, there was a common dedication to the intellectual part of the enterprise. I remember screaming (pompously) at an administrator who marked on my plan book that he would like to see evidence I was teaching "the whole child," that I didnt teach children at all, I taught the discipline of the English language! Priggish as that sounds, it reflects an attitude not uncommon among teachers who grew up in the 1940s and before. Even with much slippage in practice, Monongahela and Manhattan had a family relationship. About schooling at least. Then suddenly in 1965 everything changed.
Whatever the event is that Im actually referring toand its full dimensions are still only partially clear to meit was a nationwide phenomenon simultaneously arriving in all big cities coast to coast, penetrating the hinterlands afterwards. Whatever it was, it arrived all at once, the way we see national testing and other remote-control school matters like School-to-Work legislation appear in every state today at the same time. A plan was being orchestrated, the nature of which is unmasked in the upcoming chapters.
Think of this thing for the moment as a course of discipline dictated by coaches outside the perimeter of the visible school world. It constituted psychological restructuring of the institutions mission, but traveled under the guise of a public emergency which (the public was told) dictated increasing the intellectual content of the business! Except for its nightmare aspect, it could have been a scene from farce, a swipe directly from Orwells 1984 and its fictional telly announcements that the chocolate ration was being raised every time it was being lowered. This reorientation did not arise from any democratic debate, or from any public clamor for such a peculiar initiative; the public was not consulted or informed. Best of all, those engineering the makeover denied it was happening.
I watched fascinated, as over a period of a hundred days, the entire edifice of public schooling was turned upside down. I know there was no advance warning to low-level administrators like principals, either, because I watched my first principal destroy himself trying to stem the tide. A mysterious new deal was the order of the day.
Suddenly children were to be granted "due process" before any sanction, however mild, could be invoked. A formal schedule of hearings, referees, advocates, and appeals was set up. What might on paper have seemed only a liberal extension of full humanity to children was actually the starting gun for a time of mayhem. To understand this better, reflect a minute on the full array of ad hoc responses to wildness, cruelty, or incipient chaos teachers usually employ to keep the collective classroom a civil place at all. In a building with a hundred teachers, the instituting of an adversarial system of justice meant that within just weeks the building turned into an insane asylum. Bedlam, without a modicum of civility anywhere.
This transformation, ironically enough, made administrative duty easier, because where once supervisory intercession had constituted, a regular link in the ladder of referral as it was called, in the new order, administrators were excused from minute-to-minute discipline and were granted power to assume that incidents were a teachers fault, to be duly entered on the Cumulative Record File, the pedagogical equivalent of the Chinese Dangan.
There was a humorous aspect to what transpired over the next few years. I had no particular trouble keeping a lid on things, but for teachers who counted upon support from administrative staff it was a different story. Now, if they asked for a hand, often they were pressured to resign, or formally charged with bad classroom management, or worst of all, transferred to an even more hideous school in expectation they would eliminate themselves.
Most, under such tension, took the hint and quit. A few had to be pushed. I remember a magnificent math teacher, an older black woman with honors and accomplishments to her name, much beloved and respected by her classes, singled out for public persecution probably because she acted as an intractable moral force, a strong model teacher with strong principles. Daily investigative teams from the district office watched her classes, busily took notes in the back of her room, challenged her style of presentation openly while children listened. This went on for two weeks. Then the administration began to call her students to the school office to interrogate them, one by one, about the teachers behavior. They coached some kids to watch her during her classes, coached them to look for any telltale signs she was a racist! Parents were called and offered an option of withdrawing their kids from her classes. Broken by the ordeal, one day she vanished.
When my wife was elected to the district school board, one of her first actions was to gain access to the superintendents private files without his knowledge. Some of those records concerned details of official cases of harassment. Dozens of employees had been similarly purged, and dozens more were "under investigation" in this gulag on West 95th Street. Contacting these people in private, it became clear to me that, they were far from the worst teachers around. Indeed some were the best. Their relative prowess had emboldened them to speak out on policy matters and so marked them for elimination.
One principal, whose school was the most successful reading environment in the district, received similar treatment, ultimately sentenced to an official Siberia in Harlem, given no duties at all for the two years more he lasted before quitting. His crime: allegedly striking a girl although there were no witnesses to this but the girl, a student who admitted breaking into the light-control panel room in the auditorium where the offense is supposed to have occurred. His real crime was his refusal to abandon phonetic reading methodology and replace it with a politically mandated whole-word substitute.
I escaped the worst effects of the bloodbath. Mostly I minded my business trying to ignore the daily carnage. In truth I had no affection for the old system being savaged, and chaos made it easier for me to try out things that worked. On balance, I probably did my best work during those turbulent years as a direct result of the curious smokescreen they provided.
But accounts are not so simple to balance overall. If I regarded run-of-the-mill school administrators as scared rabbits or system flunkies, the reformers I saw parading daily through the building corridors looked like storm troopers and made my skin crawl.
On several occasions, energetic efforts were made by these people to recruit my assistance as an active ally. All such appeals I politely refused. True belief they had, but for all of it they seemed like savages to me, inordinately proud of their power to cause fear, as willing to trample on the decencies as the people they were harassing as indecent. However, it seemed just possible something good might actually emerge from the shakeup underway. About that, I was dead wrong. As the project advanced, schools became noticeably worse. Bad to begin with, now they mutated into something horrible.
What shape began to emerge was a fascinating echo of the same bureaucratic cancer which dogged the steps of the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions. Do-nothing administrators and nonteaching teachers multiplied like locusts. With them came an entirely new class of school-teacher, one aggressively ignorant, cynical, and often tied to local political clubs. New categories of job description sprang up like weeds.
My own school fell victim to a politically correct black gym teacher imported from New England to be its principal. Two schoolwide riots followed his installation, mass marches on city hall transpired in which local politicians instrumental in the mans selection used schoolchildren as unwitting cadres to lobby their favorite schemes in newsworthy, childrens crusade fashion.
A small band of old-fashioned teachers fought rearguard actions against this, but time retired them one by one until, with only an occasional exception, the classrooms of Community School District 3, in one of the most prosperous neighborhoods on earth, became lawless compounds, job projects for the otherwise unemployable.
I need to wrap this up so we can get on with things. I have to skip the full story of the Hells Angel math teacher who parked his Harley Hog outside the door of his classroom, and when the principal objected, told him in front of startled witnesses that if the man didnt shut his mouth, the number-crunching cyclist would come to his home that evening, pour gasoline under his front door, and set his house on fire. I have to skip the hair-raising stories of not one but three junior high teachers I knew quite well who married their students. Each, spotting a likely thirteen-year-old, wooed the respective girl in class and married her a few years later. They took the more honorable course, hardly the outcome of most teacher-student romances I was privy to. I have to skip the drug habits of staff in each of the buildings I worked in and other lurid stuff like that. In the midst of the unending dullness of institutional schooling, human nature cracks through the peeling paint as grass through cement. I have to skip all that. Suffice it to say, my life experience taught me that school isnt a safe place to leave your children.
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