N.Y.C. Reforms Rely on ‘Insecurity and Fearfulness’

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To the Editor:

Regarding your In Perspective article “N.Y.C. District’s Management Theory: More Power to Schools” (Nov. 28, 2007):

If there is anything that most New York City school professionals and parents, not to mention kids, say to me is that they’ve never felt so intimidated, powerless, and deprofessionalized. That your article’s author and I should travel around to city schools and discover such different systems is thought-provoking.

Under the current chancellor, Joel I. Klein, New York City schools have experienced at least three major destabilizing overhauls, each undoing the last. Clearly, this is either a plan gone awry or “on purpose.” Here’s my theory: At the heart of the city’s strategy of reform is a belief that insecurity and fearfulness, not empowerment, produce results. Trust produces laziness, while the expectation that Big Brother is watching brings out the best in us.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of such a philosophy, it’s not, to quote the article’s title, “more power to schools.” Even if you mean “principals” and not “schools” (which, after all, include more than principals), it simply isn’t so. I was a principal in New York City for a long time (from 1975 to 1993), and there are few freedoms principals enjoy today that I didn’t have a decade ago.

I respect the flattering words of David Weiner, the principal of Public School 503 in Brooklyn, in your story, but do you think he or others would dare to tell less complimentary views about the new regime? Were you able to find a single critic among those who work for the city’s department of education, not just from the usual outsiders?

All this reminds me of the stories folks used to tell (and still do) when they came back from visiting an authoritarian regime, stories about smiling children and happy workers. “Eventually the State will wither away and democracy will flourish. But first they need to shake them up, send a message,” we heard. School systems have always been mini authoritarian regimes; alas, they still are, only more so.

Chancellor Klein’s oft-quoted remark about lighting a fire under the feet of professionals is a telling choice of words. The phrase comes from the world of torture.

Deborah Meier
Steinhardt School of Education
New York University
New York, N.Y.

Vol. 27, Issue 16, Page 29

Published in Print: December 19, 2007, as N.Y.C. Reforms Rely on ‘Insecurity and Fearfulness’
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