The time has come for DOE to finally shape up

Which is the biggest number: the total count of stars in the solar system, the sum of grains of sand on all Atlantic Ocean beaches, the dollar deficit of the U.S. economy or the tally of useless re-organizations of the city’s school system since the mayor seized it a dozen years ago?

If you picked the last choice, you are off by a whisker. Come back in a few more years and who knows? Every couple of years the city Department of Education has radically transformed itself, but not to fine-tune its operations or build positively on the lessons of research and experience. More in the spirit of camouflaging its long-term goals; not to develop partnerships among educators, parents and policy-makers; more in the mode of a confidence game like three-card monte; not to open but rather block arteries of communication; not to find and deliver the most efficient resources to support educational needs; and more to repel than embrace accountability.

How did the DOE under city Schools Chancellors Joel Klein, Cathie Black and Dennis Walcott fulfill its promise of accountability to parents enraged by hasty school closings, rule-busting class sizes and disclosures of sensitive information about their children? By humoring them with prattle about empowerment and then slamming the door in their faces.

And how have they defined the value of accountability in their dealings with teachers? By robbing them of their traditional rights, stomping on their dignity and laughing at the legacy of their profession.

And what form does the evidence of accountability to principals take? A lot of hot air and tons of “CYA” e-mails. The agency has been run by surgeons specializing in disfigurement, one fly-by-night re-organization after another. Always with fancy but empty job titles, job descriptions and custom-minted jargon. All for the benefit of bureaucrats and to the detriment of consumers and practitioners.

Will the current networks be retained? Will we revert to the old district office system, where people in charge of key areas such as personnel and special education were generally fairly accessible to school-based folks who needed them on the spot? Will the new structure be a hybrid or mutation, or will it be a different house of cards aloft on swamp gas?

We should hope City Hall gets an industrial-strength cleaning of managerial philosophy and Tweed gets a similar overhaul. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s selection of Carmen Farina is a promising sign and a significant injection of cause for optimism. She has had a long career in many capacities, including classroom educator, and is likely to be a dramatic improvement over her immediate predecessors.

She must act with courage, humility and insight to sweep politics and corporate flirtations aside, heed the counsel of legitimate experts and re-institutionalize a DOE as a defender and purveyor of quality education.

We have had enough of the emperor’s new clothes. It is time to get dressed.

Ron Isaac


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