Monday, December 12, 2011
Congratulations to Peter Lamphere
Date: Monday, December 12, 2011
Contact: Peter Lamphere, firstname.lastname@example.org
Judge Overturns Arbitrary Unsatisfactory Rating for Bronx Science Teacher
In an oral bench decision Wednesday, December 7th, New York State Supreme Court Justice Paul Feinman granted the petition to overturn a 2009 Unsatisfactory rating for Peter Lamphere, former math teacher and UFT chapter leader at the Bronx High School of Science. The decision is a small step in restoring some of the damage done to the careers of numerous teachers at the prestigious Bronx school, where a deteriorating relationship between Principal Valerie Reidy and faculty has dramatically increased staff turnover accompanied by a decline in the school's national ranking (New York Magazine, December 12, 2011, New York Times, September 15, 2011, Daily News, March 29, 2011, attached).
In the fall of 2007, the math department welcomed a new assistant principal, Rosemarie Jahoda. Soon, however, we found that the newer teachers in the department were being subjected to a level of scrutiny and paperwork that was excessive. As soon as I spoke up about the issue, which was my responsibility as a member of a UFT consultation committee that met with the principal, I immediately began receiving unjustified disciplinary letters. These were quickly followed by groundless unsatisfactory lesson observation reports. I had had a spotless teaching record for my entire previous career, including at Bronx Science.
The case of Bronx Science English teacher Geoffrey Nutter, who was rated unsatisfactory then — presumably — dismissed, brings up at least two issues independent of the question of whether or not Mr. Nutter’s pedagogy was adequate.
Firstly, what possible explanation can be made for the 17-month delay in adjudicating Mr. Nutter’s appeal? Does not the delay and the sudden release of a decision within one week of the publication of the original Riverdale Press article point to an education bureaucracy that is, at best, dangerously sclerotic and/or, as is much more likely the case, a moral and ethical swamp? The complacency with which the DOE issued its decision on the heels of the Press article on the Nutter appeal (after 17 months of doing nothing with it) would be laughable were it not so sad. Apparently, there are recesses of New York City government that are so far beyond the threat of oversight and accountability that the inhabitants therein don’t even consider how their shenanigans might look to the general public. So what’s actually going on in there? Perhaps we really don’t want to know.
Secondly, what kind of a system blacklists an individual for life on the strength of what comes down to one person’s (in this case a notoriously mercurial and vindictive school principal) highly speculative, deeply subjective judgment?
A not so well-guarded secret: principals (not all, but many) U-rate teachers for all kinds of reasons separate and distinct from the teachers’ pedagogical acumen: personality clash; bias based on race, sexuality or ethnicity; political or policy differences; a desire to make room on staff for a friend, friend of a friend, relative of a friend, etc. and, of course, money. (A veteran teacher costs an individual school twice what a brand new hire costs. U-Rate and dismiss a veteran? Ka-CHING! Lots of new money freed-up for whatever.)
Naturally, this is unacknowledged and unacknowledgeable. Rather, fault must be found with the particular teacher’s classroom practice; his/her “pacing” is off; he/she can’t find and produce an obscure rubric, issued months ago, fast enough when asked; his/her style of questioning is faulty; he/she must begin each question with the words “To what extent...”; he/she must never restate students’ questions before answering them.
Another not-so-well-guarded secret: classroom teaching is an exceedingly complicated business and there is no such thing as “perfect” classroom instruction. Mistakes are invariably part of this complicated process.
Additionally, there are many legitimate approaches to the transmission of knowledge. Whatever methodology may be temporarily (and it is ALWAYS temporarily) in vogue within a given district or system ought not to preclude the employment of other methodologies and techniques.
We are living through a dark age in American education. (Many parallels to the McCarthy era, seems to me.) The public, with encouragement from our ruling economic and political elite, has taken its eye off the ball. It seeks to blame public school teachers as a class for the deficiencies of urban public education as a whole. In fact, teachers have little to say over what and how they teach. Mr. Nutter’s experience is case-in-point. In another era, Bronx Science would be pursuing accomplished professionals who had their own ideas about teaching and learning and about life itself. The school would be begging them to stay. In this dark and dull age, by resorting to the blacklist, by enshrining mediocrity, dishonesty and conformity, our urban school policymakers seem to have lost their way.
Post-Mussolini, some wise pundit said, “It’s not enough to have the trains run on time; you have to know where they’re going.” In the case of modern urban education, our policy makers seem to have let the train jump the track altogether.
Seventeen months ago, Geoffrey Nutter asked the Department of Education to reverse unsatisfactory ratings he had been given by embattled Bronx Science High School principal Valerie Reidy. He’s still waiting for an answer.
Mr. Nutter’s resume reads like the biography of a well-known writer.
The author of three poetry books, Mr. Nutter has won multiple awards for his work, including the University of Iowa’s 1993 Academy of American Poets Prize, presented by then-Poet Laureate Mark Strand. He has been published in numerous anthologies, including The Best American Poetry, and currently works as an adjunct poetry professor at New York University. He will begin teaching a class at Columbia University this spring. Before he begins, he expects to submit his fourth book to his publisher and travel to France, where he will read from one of his collections at the International School of Paris.
Yet the 43-year-old could not seem to satisfy administrators at the Bronx High School of Science, where he taught English from 2008 to 2009 and received three unsatisfactory evaluations.
He is one of at least seven Bronx Science teachers who told The Press they left the school because of what they see as Principal Valerie Reidy’s tactics of retribution, unfair and unannounced evaluations and abusive criticisms.
First, a group of teachers from the math department who in May 2008 filed a complaint with the Department of Education alleging that Assistant Principal Rosemary Jahoda harassed them. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein rejected fact finder Carol Wittenberg’s conclusion that Ms. Jahoda harassed certain teachers. Then, eight of the school’s 20 social studies teachers chose not to return this year.
Mr. Nutter’s situation is not unique. And his careful notes, records and appeal to the Department of Education to reverse his unsatisfactory ratings illuminate the complaints of many others.
Mr. Nutter received his first unsatisfactory evaluation a month after he began teaching at Science, on Oct. 3, 2008. He said he was never told he would be evaluated — a violation of the teachers’ union contract, according to United Federation of Teachers spokesman Peter Kadushin.
In a phone interview last week, Ms. Reidy did not deny the allegation.
“The UFT is concerned about that,” Ms. Reidy said of her practice of not informing teachers, but added that school staffers have a pre-observation conference where they meet with administrators to formulate goals and plan for their lesson, which should prepare them for what is to come.
“We don’t want to see a dog-and-pony show, we want to see what the kids see,” Ms. Reidy said.
Mr. Kadushin said pre- and post-observation meetings are part of evaluations, but actual observations, “have to be announced.”
Mr. Nutter got negative ratings for lax grading policies and failing to ask his students thought-provoking questions about readings.
But he said Ms. Reidy asked him to begin all questions with “To what extent,” a phrase that became a running joke at the school because it was used so often. He said he was also told not to clarify or rephrase students’ answers by repeating them, a practice that he thought showed he was listening carefully.
After each evaluation, Mr. Nutter said he met with the principal and the head of the English department and received a “storm of criticism” which left him “in a state of shock.”
Ms. Reidy agrees that the conferences got “very heated” and in Mr. Nutter’s last observation report from April 2009 wrote, “You clearly failed to understand that this was a conference to assess your teaching ability not my leadership ability. Your demeanor and comments were inappropriate and insubordinate.”
Ms. Reidy said teachers who put in the time and effort required find the conferences worthwhile. She said Mr. Nutter didn’t read or grade some of his students’ work and was ill-prepared and unfocused — allegations Mr. Nutter denies.
Retired English teacher Helen Kellert, who worked at Science from 1989 to 2009 called Mr. Nutter “brilliant, conscientious [and] dedicated.” She said intellectual teachers who were less focused on structure were often penalized.
“A U from Bronx Science became a badge of honor for one’s intellectual integrity,” she said.
But others contend that Ms. Reidy has been targeted because she’s a woman.
After The Times reported that numerous social studies teachers left the school prior to this school year, Ms. Reidy met with students to explain their departures were for numerous reasons and took questions from students.
First-year social studies teacher Jon Cruz, who has coached the school’s debate team for seven years, said when his class discussed the meeting and recent media reports, students made a connection between their unit on gender and politics and Ms. Reidy’s situation.
“I definitely think it has a lot to do with Valerie’s gender,” Mr. Cruz said, adding, “There’s a double standard that’s given to female leaders as opposed to male leaders.”
He said many of the schools’ problems have been resolved and he wanted to look forward.
“Every new decision that is made by the principal is greeted with … a deep suspicion no matter what I think because of things that happened a while ago,” he said.