Perdido 03

Perdido 03

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The NY Post Gins Up The Great Teacher Scandal Of 2015

The following is a guest post by Harris Lirtzman, former Director of Risk Management for the New York City Retirement Systems in the NYC Comptroller's Office from 1996-2002 and former Deputy State Comptroller for Administration from 2003-2007.

The NY Post is having a case of the vapors bad by even Postian standards (here, here and here). Chalkbeat is in a tizzy. The only reason that the Daily News isn’t apoplectic is that the Post “owns” the story about the young woman who claims to have earned a high school degree without having done anything to “deserve” it. Carmen Farina must be summarily thrown to the wolves or, better yet, into the nearest volcano, for presiding over the scandalous practices in her very own schools that led teachers and administrators to begin “cheating” and “failing” their students. Thanks to the Post we even know the very minute when all this nefarious stuff began: 12:00:01 a.m., January 1, 2014—the millisecond after a Mr. William de Blasio became mayor of New York City and took control of the City’s school system.

We all have been told that education reformistas don’t do anything unless it is “data driven” and informed by “evidence-based practice.” Sadly, the media outlets that reformistas use to make their case to the public about the failures of public education, the “monopoly power” of teachers unions and the awfulness of bad, vampire teachers (“bad” because they belong to unions and “vampires” because they get health care and pensions) prefer to panic the public by telling stories using the old propaganda technique of the “Big Lie.” The “Big Lie” is something so astoundingly audacious that people believe it when they would dismiss a smaller lie as foolishness. We teachers, trained to value “facts” and “critical thinking,” try to refute reformista propaganda with evidence and reason and are surprised when the “Big Lie” sweeps away everything that stands before it. Our best bloggers are doing what they can but reformista propaganda is well-funded and tenacious. Public school teachers need to find an effective way to tell a counter-narrative that resonates with the public but which is true to our professional and personal values.

We all have “stories” to tell and it is only by weaving them together persuasively into a counter-narrative that we have any hope of countering the flood of “Big Lie” propaganda that washes over us each day. Here is my “story,” simply one of thousands that we can frame fully and quickly if we are going to defend public education and protect our profession.

I was a special education teacher in a high school in the Bronx from 2009-2012. During my tenure "conversation" with my principal in December 2011, which was an irregular one to say he least, I expected to be denied tenure because I had been raising serious questions within my school about widespread violations of student IEPs. I’m certain that my advocacy on behalf of my students was what precipitated the “tenure conversation” five months before anyone else in my school had the “conversation” that year but here’s what I was actually told:

Principal Grismaldy Laboy: "Mr. Lirtzman, your passing rates are low and are not consistent with the memo that I sent around to teachers last year that our school would have a 70% pass rate for each class."

Untenured Teacher Harris Lirtzman: "I have only failed two students for academic reasons in the last year. I have failed students who never attended my class. If a student came to class, made any reasonable effort to do the work and turned in anything that indicated some grasp of the basic elements of algebra, the student got at least a 65. Any student I failed was for attendance reasons."

Principal Laboy: "I don't, and the DOE doesn't, distinguish between absentee and academic failures."

Untenured Teacher Harris Lirtzman: "You are aware that I have a first period integrated algebra class. Several students never attended my class after the first week or appeared erratically during the term. They were "Long Term Absent." I worked closely with the attendance teacher here to get the kids to school on time. What else should I have done? Stand in front of their homes at 6:00 every morning and kidnap them?”

Principal Laboy: "Mr. Lirtzman, if you'd been able to make your classes more engaging they would have come."

Of course, conversations like this have been going on all around the City for the last ten years. My chapter leader sent the “grade quota” memo the principal distributed to central UFT and the district
superintendent as evidence for teacher coercion by administration to pass LTA students and, well, just about any student. Nothing. Not a surprise.

Now I can think of many reasons why Carmen Farina should resign—primarily her abject failure to sweep Tweed clean of the nest of reformistas filling up every corner of the place. But because of her willingness to allow some teachers in some cases to use multiple measures to evaluate their students? Because administrators began to press teachers to pass students without regard to attendance or academic performance only eighteen months ago? I think not.

In a conversation I had this morning with Geoff Decker, the reporter at Chalkbeat writing the stories about Farina and the “cheating scandal,” he asked me whether I thought Farina was “lowering the stakes” in the schools. I tried to explain to him that Farina hasn’t lowered the stakes in City schools because she can't lower the stakes in City schools even if she wanted to: the State sets teacher and principal evaluation standards tied to student test scores and the Renewal and other schools on the State "struggling" school list all use graduation rates, credit accumulation and other accountability measures to assess performance.

The high stakes connected with reformista accountability—receivership, teacher reapplication to struggling schools and the specter of being dumped into the ATR, administrators with feudal power over professional staff—have resulted in jumped up graduation rates and student test scores for the last decade and forced credit-recovery miracles and minimum passing rates stipulated in contractually illegal quotas onto reluctant teachers since Mayor Bloomberg obtained control over the Department of Education.

When reformistas put teachers’ careers on the line but don't hold administrators accountable for the incentive structures they impose inside their own schools the result is what the Post thinks it “discovered” this week. Tweed spent ten years trying to convince the State that "everything's OK here" because Mayor Bloomberg needed to validate mayoral control. Tweed spent the last eighteen months trying to convince Governor Cuomo and the State Senate that “everything’s OK here” because Mayor de Blasio needed to keep them from taking away mayor control entirely.

At least Chancellor Farina has set up a “task force” to investigate the nonsense that passes for accountability in our schools—though Farina might have written one more “Chancellor’s Regulation” giving Richard Condon and his crew of investigators at OSI even more authority for all the good a task force will do. No one demanded a "task force" at any time during the twelve years that Michael Bloomberg controlled the schools because it served no reformista purpose to do so. My friend, James Eterno, has been calling for a "truth commission" which would expose the institutional corruption and fraud that has infested reformista accountability measures in the City since 2002. Don’t expect to have the “facts” about the Bloomberg administration’s management of the schools revealed any more honestly than the “facts” are being told now about the de Blasio administration’s management of the schools.

Reformista media will continue to tell the “Big Lie” in all its forms to the public. We teachers will try to refute the “Big Lie” with facts and counter-arguments. The audacity and power of the “Big Lie” is a ferocious thing to behold. We must tell ourselves and the public the truth and we must tell the public our stories.

But we always need to understand that our reformista adversaries do and say the things they want to do and say because they can—evidence, facts, truth, fairness and data be damned. Mayoral control of the schools was blissfully wonderful for the NY Post for twelve years. Mayoral control of the schools became a satanic plot that allowed New York City teachers to stop educating their students on January 1, 2014. It is useful for our adversaries to make it so.

The “Big Lie” is powerful and reformistas will continue to use the “Big Lie” against us until we teachers can create a story—a deep and coherent counter-narrative—that the public is willing and able to hear. I don’t yet know how we do that but I do know that if we don’t do it quickly we will become spectators spouting “facts” that no one wants to hear while our schools and our profession are swept away by the “Big Lie” before our very eyes.


  1. Great post Harris. Thank you for writing it and thank you Perdido for posting it. Needs to be shared widely and I will do my best to help in that effort.

  2. Because 70% is or is not an arbitrary number?

  3. Well said Harris! The Post plays to the lowest denominator. Sadly, we are not in the age of free thinkers so the "people" now are stupid enough to fall for whatever the Post spews forth.

  4. Zulma, retired math teacherAugust 6, 2015 at 7:12 PM

    “There are three types of lies -- lies, damn lies, and statistics.”
    ― Benjamin Disraeli

    The above quote is found in the DoE training manual for all administrators who plan to juke the data.

    Great post Harry!

  5. There must be follow through with a massive class action law suit by all teachers who have been discontinued, fired, force into early retirement to show collective standing against systemic institutionalized fraud. The school system is an organization. The systemic fraud has had enormous economic harm to thousands of innocent folks. As such the corrupt practices fit the definition of racketeering and this class action lawsuit fits the RICO statute definition of racketeering. Do not rely on the UFT. The UFT has been in collusion with the DOE. The racketeering originated with the autocracy of Bloomberg / Klein.

  6. This untenured teacher should have asked this principal-'what is the attendance data for the PTA meetings during the school year'?.
    And Mr. Laboy- as principal and leader of this school-if you make your PTA's more engaging-maybe more parents will come.

  7. The big story, teachers are people who stand for social equality. Teachers want a society where everyone eats has clothes and shelter and billionaires be damned if they disagree. Teachers are the nucleus of a nonmarket society. Their work depends on nonmarket social relations of mutual respect and support etc etc.

  8. Nevertheless de Blasio and Farina have done very little to improve learning conditions in these schools --which include very large class sizes in most cases; and have ignored the complaints of teachers about the substandard and fraudulent credit recovery practices.

    1. When BdB won, and appointed Farina as his Chancellor, I remember how elated so many people were. finally, there would be change from the Bloomberg years for educators.
      Then, nothing.... BdB wants Mayoral control, Farina has kept most of the Tweedies from the Bloomberg years. And as you have mentioned, class sizes are still large, and nothing has been done about credit recovery practices.
      Both have been a very big disappointment, indeed. For me, I did expect more from this pair.

  9. NYT posted this:

    At least they mention cheating has tripled since Bloomberg was in office.