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Dick Levins, Scientist, Marxist, Mathematical Ecologist

January 23, 2016 pm31 4:34 pm

When I was a boy I always assumed that I would grow up to be both a scientist and a Red. Rather than face a problem of combining activism and scholarship, I would have had a very difficult time trying to separate them.” — Richard Levins, Scientist, Marxist, Mathematical Ecologist, Puerto Rican Independence activist, friend of Cuba… who died this past Tuesday.

These are just some notes I collected. It’s worth hunting down his work, his articles, his talks – many are available on the web – to begin to gain some understanding of this remarkable socialist and scientist. That’s what I have just started to do, and I encourage you to do the same.

Levins was a professor at the Chan School of Public Health at Harvard.  His work combining population genetics with climate change, with advanced mathematical modeling, anticipated today’s leading-edge research by decades.

He was fascinated and devoted to Cuba:

“I first went to Cuba in 1964 to help develop their population genetics and get a look at the Cuban Revolution. Over the years I became in­volved in the ongoing Cuban struggle for ecological agriculture and an ecological pathway of economic development that was just, egalitarian, and sustainable.

“Progressivist thinking, so powerful in the socialist tradition, expected that developing countries had to catch up with advanced countries along the single pathway of modernization. It dismissed critics of the high-tech pathway of industrial agriculture as “idealists,” urban sentimentalists nostalgic for a bucolic rural golden age that never really existed. But there was another view, that each society creates its own ways of relating to the rest of nature, its own pattern of land use, its own appropriate technology, and its own criteria of efficiency.

“This discussion raged in Cuba in the 1970s and by the 1980s the ecological model had basically won although implementation was still a long process. The Special Period, that time of economic crisis af­ter the collapse of the Soviet Union when the materials for high-tech became unavailable, allowed ecologists by conviction to recruit the ecologists by necessity. This was possible only because the ecologists by conviction had prepared the way.”

His daughter, Aurora Levins Morales wrote:

I feel incredibly fortunate to have been his child.   My father came from a long line of Jewish radicals.  He became fascinated with biology at an early age, and it was always integrated with his political passions.  He became one of the world’s most influential ecologists and philosophers of science.  He also played a significant leadership role in the Puerto Rican independence movement of the 1950s and 60s, and for more than fifty years, helped to develop Cuban science, mentoring generations of ecologists, teaching and advising.  He was raised by a feminist grandmother, and was a strong ally to women, starting with my mother, but extending to many women scientists whom he mentored and supported, and to me, his daughter.  And, he would want me to add, he spent a period of his life as a blacklisted farmer in the mountains of western Puerto Rico, and won second prize for carrots.

You can read his blog at Richard Levins . com, or look at the Facebook page set up for him.

I only met him once, and briefly, but I gave away my first copy of Dirt, the Erosion of Civilizations (David Montgomery, 2007), and I think that copy eventually got into Dick Levins’ hands. I heard, second hand, the reaction of someone who met him and was asking about ecology – he was amazed, Levins was going on and on about worms!  That’s from Chapter 1 of “Dirt…” Makes me feel like a shared something interesting with a great…

Here’s a talk on left and right radicalism from 1995, half an hour. He really is so clear… Take a look.

Here’s an obituary/tribute from Jacobin magazine, by a physicist and activist living near Boston.

His page at the Harvard School for Public Health will soon be taken down. Here’s what it says today:


Richard Levins


John Rock Professor of Population Sciences

* Please take notice that Professor Richard Levins is deceased.

This web page will be removed in the very near future, so
readers are encouraged to honor/capture the remaining
links to his references at this time.

Department of Global Health and Population

665 Huntington Avenue
Building I Room 1109
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617.432.1484


Richard Levins is an ex-tropical farmer turned ecologist, biomathematician and philosopher of science whose central intellectual concern has been the understanding and influencing of processes in complex systems, both abstractly and as applied to evolutionary ecology, economic development, agriculture and health. He has carried out this program at the theoretical level by framing the problems of adaptation to the structure of the environment in space and time, the metapopulation concept for interpreting populations in biogeography, human physiology as a socialized physiology, and the interpenetration of model building as juggling the partially opposing requirements of realism, generality and precision.

His mathematical research has had the goal of making the obscure obvious by finding the appropriate ways to visualize complex phenomena. He developed the use of signed digraphs, time averaging and pre-image sets for qualitative analysis of complex systems. A major goal is the integration of evolutionary ecology and critical social theory into a broad epidemiology that can prepare for surprises. Current research examines the variability of health outcomes as an indicator of vulnerability to multiple non-specific stressors in human communities, interactions among herbivores and their natural enemies in multispecies systems on citrus trees, and short term (transient) dynamics of model epidemiological and pathological systems.

His theoretical interests have been applied to problems of community development as part of the Board of Directors of OXFAM-America and chair of their subcommittee on Latin America and the Caribbean from 1989 to 1995. Working from a critique of the industrial-commercial pathway of development, he promoted alternative development pathways that emphasize economic viability with equity, ecological and social sustainability and empowerment of the dispossessed. As part of the New World Agriculture and Ecology Group, he has helped to develop modern agroecology, concentrating on the whole-system approaches to gentle pest management. The “Dialectical Biologist,” co-authored with Richard Lewontin, presented the authors’ approach to the study of the philosophy, sociology and history of science.

He studied plant breeding and mathematics at Cornell University, farmed in Puerto Rico and obtained his doctorate in zoology from Columbia University. He has taught at the University of Puerto Rico and the University of Chicago before coming to his present position as John Rock Professor of Population Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health. Levins is currently on the Advisory Board of the International Society for Ecosystem Health and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has received awards as a pioneer of the ecology movement of Puerto Rico, for his long term contributions to the development of ecological agriculture in Cuba, and the Edinburgh Science Medal (Scotland) for contributions to science and the broader society. He has received awards as a pioneer of the ecology movement in Puerto Rico, for long term contributions to the development of agricultural ecology in Cuba, the Edinburgh Science Medal(Scotland) for contributions to science and the broader society, the Lukacs 21st Century Award for contributions to statistical and mathematical ecology, and an honarary doctorate in environmental science from the University of Havana.


Ph.D., 1965, Columbia University

#TomPorton, Hero Teacher, retires

January 7, 2016 am31 8:29 am

I’ll save the comments for later. These are Tom Portman’s words. Please read. – Jonathan

To all my friends and supporters:… It is with mixed emotions that I announce that I will be retiring from the New York City Department of Education on February 1, 2016.

Looking back on 47 years in education (46 in the James Monroe building), I see a mosaic of thousands of faces…students, parents, colleagues. I have so many great memories of those years, from the excitement of the classroom, to the applause for shows I directed, to the impact of my many school and community projects. My heart is filled with so many great relationships that came from those years…so many of which I maintain even to the present day.

It is because of the joy I feel when I think of my teaching career that I have such mixed emotions about retiring. And yet, as this new year began and I took inventory of my daily routine, I realized there was a need to make a change in my professional life.

First and foremost, I do not feel that I have the same impact on young people that I have had in the past. The reason I continued teaching at Monroe for so many years was the fact that I really thought I was making a difference in the lives of my students, not only in the classroom, but especially through my work in school and community activities. It was that energy and excitement of creating and working with motivated, committed young people that kept me young and vital.

However, beginning this school year, my opportunities for continuing that impact have been lessened to the point where each day has become a struggle. For over 35 years, I began each day with my Leadership class, where I was able to create a core of 40-50 students who would facilitate a wide variety of school and community events in the Monroe Campus. Now, with that class programmed away by the current administration, making those events continue becomes harder and harder. I realized this during the past several months where I struggled to continue such projects as the Blood Drive, the Thanksgiving Community Dinner, the World AIDS Day commemoration, and the Holiday Caroling Celebration. Although I made them happen, each event was met with no support from the current administration.

Also, in the past, I was given time during the day to coordinate school and community projects, which were considered valued parts of our school community. Now, based on new programming by the current administration, it has been made virtually impossible for me to find the time to keep my projects going. As an English teacher, having to teach more classes, especially those based on EngageNY, the Common Core English curriculum that allows students to go through high school without reading a single complete novel, play, or biography, is torture for me. I’m sure my former students will attest to the fact that my classes were always filled with my own enjoyment of the subject matter and my ability to bring unique and creative materials (films, music, art) into the classroom. Now, having all materials dictated by an outside source, the joy of teaching English has all but vanished.

Finally, going to school each day and facing an atmosphere wherein my very presence is greeted with animosity by my supervisor is not a pleasant experience; and one that I have decided not to continue.

For those of you who know me well, you know that my workaholic personality will not allow me to stop working. I am currently searching for venues in which I can continue to impact the lives of young people and, at least in some manner, continue the humanistic education upon which I have built my teaching career. I certainly welcome suggestions from those of you with ideas about places and/or positions where I could continue this next segment of my career.

Thanks to each and every one of you who has been part of the mosaic which has been my career at Monroe. I hope to continue those thousands of relationships which are so meaningful to me and which have kept me committed to the Monroe tradition for so many years.

For more info, see the “I support Tom Portman” facebook page, and this article from the NY Post and this interview from 20 years ago, when the State broke up James Monroe HS. Here’s a petition to have Tom’s voice heard.

Who closed the Bronx’s high schools? by Lynne Winderbaum

January 3, 2016 pm31 9:38 pm

by Lynne Winderbaum, retired ESL teacher, JFK HS, and former Bronx High School UFT District Rep

I wrote an intro piece on the destruction of the large high schools in the Bronx last week – Lynne, a chapter leader than district rep through this process, has much more to say – Jonathan

One day in the early 2000’s the flyers began to appear in all teachers’ mailboxes at Kennedy HS. Headlined “21st Century Grants”, the finer print announcing that the Gates Foundation and other corporate philanthropists were encouraging teachers to imagine a different way of delivering instruction. To “dream” of changing education as it was. In return, they would offer seed money to flesh out the idea and further money down the road if the ideas were judged feasible. Teachers were invited to attend a meeting for further information and the time and place were on the flyer. I surmise that some Kennedy teachers were intrigued by the offer to start a new and different school because BETA, Bronx Theater, and Law & Finance all sprang from Kennedy staff (Marble Hill, now housed at Kennedy was proposed by a group of teachers and an AP from Morris). In addition, Chapter Leaders and principals of six Bronx High Schools were personally asked to attend by the Bronx HS Superintendent, Norman Wechsler, who was interested in pursuing the Gates grants. My principal, Gino Silvestri and I were not asked to attend, probably because we were not playing well at the time. In retrospect, the lack of that invitation probably saved Kennedy from earlier closing as you will read below.

At the time Norman Wechsler took the helm of the Bronx HS Superintendency, there were no schools on the SURR (Schools Under Registration Review) list. Within a short time, there were five. While I in no way blame Dr. Wechsler for this since the demographic, educational, and economic factors that made some Bronx high schools so dismal were already in motion, but it certainly explains the atmosphere in the early 2000s that made the “small school” innovation so attractive. It was a timely gift that could make it seem that “reform” was afoot. Dr. Wechsler produced charts, graphs, and reports touting the educational superiority of the small school. One day as JFK Chapter Leader, I was out with my UFT District Rep. David Shulman. While he made a stop and I remained in the car, he handed me a pile of data supplied by the Bronx Superintendents office and asked me to look at it. It surely made small schools seem like the answer to failing schools.

When the meeting took place to get the “21st Century Grant” process rolling Walton, Columbus, Stevenson, Evander Childs, were among the schools that attended with principals and their UFT Chapter Leaders. The motive for their attendance was to learn about designing their own small schools and the grant process. Attendees I know always maintained that this was the agenda of the meeting. Several years later the Department of Education took the position that by attending the meeting, the principals and Chapter Leaders agreed to the closing of their schools. Eric Nadelstern from the Bronx Superintendent’s office and John Soldini, then UFT VP of Academic High Schools remembered that the intent to close and replace the large high schools with small schools was made clear at that meeting. Others who were there were incredulous at the announcements of intent to close schools because they did not remember the meeting that way.

Of course the SURR schools were ultimately closed by the state. But the Gates grants that led to the closing of the large Bronx high schools was a NYC effort. Christopher Columbus HS fought the attempt to close it down with a vengeance. Teacher Christine Rowland, speaking the language of data that the Department of Education spoke, made an unforgettable presentation at the Department of Education. Randi Weingarten was there, I was there, and fortunately Michelle Cahill of the DOE was there and was receptive. Columbus got a reprieve. When Cahill left, no one was listening anymore. The die was cast. The other schools all were slated for closure.

The process of implementing the small schools was not fixed, it evolved. Initially, in order to get the grant money, there was a very detailed process. A group of staff members, students, parents, and community organizers imagined a themed school, wrote a proposal and presented it in front of a panel of Department of Education and UFT representatives. I was put on many of those panels. Proposals that seemed well-thought out, staffed, and inclusive received seed money. Down the road they had to pass muster with a higher level of sponsors to get the green light and the bulk of the money. The early small schools all came through this process. Most of them were crowded into the schools that attended the grant meeting clearly in an attempt to phase them out. Schools like Kennedy, Truman, and Lehman initially only got one each.

When these schools opened there were immediate problems. So many resources were being poured by New Visions to administer these schools that a selective and advantaged system was being created while the schools that housed them, and the students they served became second-class citizens. So many laptop computers were lavished on the small schools that the principals balked at funding the host schools’ libraries. The faux marble desks rolled in while the old graffitied desks graced the classrooms of the host school. To accommodate mid-day lunch periods for small school students, the host school’s students were scheduled to eat lunch as early as 9:25am. At Stevenson, there was even a separate priority entrance created to allow for small school students to enter more quickly in the morning while the host school students waited on long lines outside. Waivers were granted to allow small schools a two-year exemption on accepting special education students. And even after the waivers expired, the special education students were not the high-needs children displaced to the large high schools. The English Language Learners were not the recent arrivals who were displaced to the large high schools.

Soon, the displacement of high-needs children bore its predictable fruit. The small schools looked like magic institutions with higher graduation rates and fewer disciplinary problems. The large schools offered a complete array of special education and ELL services. They took troubled students without screening them out. As a result, their statistics began to show the impact of the small school movement. They were deemed failing. The more high risk students sent to the large high schools, the more the higher achieving students gravitated to the small schools, the clearer the fate became for the remaining large schools.

Of course the teachers in the ill-fated schools did not take the threat to their schools lying down. Groups immediately formed at Walton, Stevenson, and schools such as New School for Arts and Sciences. They studied performance indices, produced impressive cases for keeping their schools open, and quickly learned to speak that data language which they hoped would persuade the Department of Education that they filled a need for certain students in our city. The problem was, no one at the Department of Education was willing to meet with them. Calls and emails to the Department of Education were futile. As Bronx Dist. Rep at the time, I called Frank Volpicella, now the VP of Academic High Schools. He told me to go through Leo Casey to set up a meeting at the DOE. The teachers were ecstatic at the prospect of getting a hearing. Dr. Casey told me to email his contact, Peter Dillon at the DOE and meetings would be arranged. Every school had a meeting set and at the appointed time, they appeared downtown with their Powerpoints, data, and their passion to save their schools.

Unfortunately, it turned out that Peter Dillon, Julius Cohen, and the other representatives of the DOE paid scant attention to the presentations because, it turned out, they had no power to save the schools. They were the Department’s SMALL SCHOOL advocates and ended every meeting by handing the teachers brochures on how to start their own small schools. It was all very disappointing that the crestfallen teachers’ hard work and evidence were ignored. The intent of the teachers to save their schools and faculty was for nought. The UFT had sent them to meet with folks who had a vested interest in closing them down and redirecting their efforts.

Five years later, when the death sentences for each of these schools was to be proclaimed at the kangaroo PEP (Bloomberg’s Panel for Educational Policy) hearings, the same person who channeled these teachers to Dillon, Cohen, et al, was loudly railing against the school closings. At this point the support was five years too late. When the teachers were fighting the school closings, the UFT was counseling them that “this was the wave of the future and they should get on board”. In fact, New School for Arts and Sciences came out with such a good small school proposal involving a work-study partnership with the Hunts Point Market that it was co-opted by New Visions in a memorable meeting at Maria del Carmen Arroyo’s office. New Visions took the proposal and promised no jobs to those who designed it. Christine McMurray and her group of dedicated teachers from Stevenson worked hard to propose a small school in accordance with the DOE’s advice. It fell on deaf ears. Columbus fought its second closing sentence as hard as the first. But there was no Michelle Cahill this time. The demise of the historic Bronx high schools was unstoppable.

Under Mayor Bloomberg and Joel Klein there was a frenzy to close large high schools. The irony was that as there became fewer and fewer large high schools to serve the high needs populations, they had nowhere to go but the new small schools. Many of those started to fail as well. The system was in turmoil with schools opening, closing, and faculties that used to be stable in their schools being relocated constantly.

The process for creating the small school had undergone a total transformation under Bloomberg and Klein as well. In lieu of an orderly process of presentations by a teacher-led committee of stakeholders that had to earn the grants on the strength and viability of their proposals, there was no process. Small schools were just created by the Department of Education to place in phasing out schools. They were being formed out of whole cloth without participation from the community. There was actually one meeting at Morris that I remember where John White gathered community members and asked them what kind of school there would want in the space opening in the building. The stakeholders offered some vocational training suggestions, but it was pro forma and the DOE went ahead with creating something of their own. In the original model the principals and teachers would work in the schools they designed. In the Bloomberg-Klein model the idea for a school came first. Then they chose a principal. Then they began to hire a staff. Since the contract calls for a Union representative on the hiring committees to staff these schools, I was on many of them. We interviewed applicants who had nothing to do with the planning of these schools. This was as far away from the original idea behind the 21 Century Grants as could be.

There’s lots more to the story and somewhere on old CDs I have my union newsletters written at the time documenting how the closures were hurting the large school students. I’ll miss Kennedy High School. It was a great school in the Bronx that was made to fail, as were others, by the concentration of high needs students in their schools as a result of the “reform movement”. For sure, lots of money was made off public education funding by private corporations. But to the extent that so many of that movement’s assumptions have now been discredited, that the large schools with their traditions are gone forever, and education has not drastically improved, we have sacrificed a generation of students on the altar of “reform” and they will not get a second chance at an education.

2 years in, 2 to go – it’s time, it’s past time, for de Blasio to clean house

December 31, 2015 pm31 2:39 pm

Top priority should be cleaning house, now.
Get the remaining Kleinies and incompetents out of Tweed.
Audit principals with high staff turnover.

As 2015, de Blasio’s second year as mayor, closes, there’s not a lot to look back on. And that’s good. It’s one of the few good things I can say about his impact on the schools.

  1. No destructive new policies. Nothing got worse. (In sharp contrast to EVERY year that Bloomberg was in office)
  2. We have a contract. The money came late, and not enough, but it was money, and far better getting it than continuing with our 2009 rate of pay. The mystery health savings are troubling, and may come back to hurt. The expedited process for firing one group of teachers is patently unfair, though it does not seem to have come into play, at least not yet. PROSE, allowing different contracts in different schools, should offend every unionist’s sense of union. But these are (at least for now) far smaller concessions than the ones I voted against in 2005.
  3. Universal pre-K. I don’t care how imperfectly this has turned out so far. Universal pre-K is a Good Thing.

But this is so much less than we expected! Bloomberg, Klein, and Walcott wreaked so much havoc, did so much damage! There is massive amount of repair to be done. And yet there is no repair going on. Even the UFT leadership sees this. For the first year, year and a half, they were talking about the better tone at Tweed and at City Hall, but even they now bemoan the fact that the better tone is not filtering down into the schools. Shortly after de Blasio took office, Mulgrew chided me at an Exec Board when I spoke about “undoing the damage” of the Bloomberg, Klein, Walcott years. Now he has adopted the language himself.

We cheered getting rid of the networks. But it’s not clear that the new structures are particularly good. And reëmpower the superintendents? It’s tough to comment on, when there are not boroughwide high school superintendencies. I’m leaving this as a neutral.

My instinct is to provide a laundry list of improvements. And there are many things that could be easily done to make our schools better. But let’s focus on one change, long overdue, that will make other changes possible – it’s time to clean house.

At Tweed there are far too many Bloomberg holdovers, with Bloomberg policies, and Bloomberg attitudes. At the top the scum has been skimmed off, but the organization is due a thorough cleaning.

  • Administrators who have been transferred due to incompetence need to be retrained, or let go. Under Klein, if you were incompetent, but mean, they found a place for you. That has to stop. They could be at Tweed, or in some field office, or foisted on some school.
  • In the schools, many principals were appointed through diploma mills (including the Leadership Academy) and lack management and pedagogical skills. As long as they can make their stats look ok, no one seems to care whether or not they can actually run a school. With 1800 schools, and with most administrators able, and with the issue not being statistics, where should the DoE start?
    Audit the schools with high staff turnover two years in a row. That indicates a problem, which could be an abusive administrator, but is often an incompetent one. (Two years ago Unity refused to make such a list available to our members who need to transfer. We will suggest it again.) And maybe look at schools with large programming changes after October 1. The system does not need principals who do not know how to hire staff, or principals who cannot organize classes for a new school year.

There are only two years left to undo Bloomberg’s damage. Mean, incompetent principals and APs, and Bloomberg-loyal middle level managers should not be allowed to impede progress.



Student-generated problem extensions: Changing Ghost’s Options

December 30, 2015 pm31 3:17 pm

I do off-topic problem solving, as I can fit, with my students. I claim that not knowing what technique or skill to use, and having to figure out what to try, has value, helps develop students at mathematical thinkers.

Now I have students take the problems I gave them, and generate their own problems. Instead of confronting a problem with a pretty solution, they may introduce interesting complexity. They may understand the original problem better. And they really don’t know where they are going. I claim that tackling this sort of problem that you make up, instead of one the teacher gives, pushes mathematical creativity.

I make certain that they can solve the problems they propose, or come close. I give them some time in class to work on the problems (they are grouped in 3s and 4s).  And then they write up their work, using this structure:

  • Original Problem – Understand the Problem
  • Devise a Plan
  • Carry out the Plan
  • Look Back – include the proposed extension
  • Devise a Plan for the extension
  • Carry out the Plan
  • Look Back – include, at a minimum, recommendations for future work, or if the problem is still unsolved, tips for the next people to attempt the problem

There can be more than one plan, as the first often does not work. And this needs to be reflected in the write up. And, importantly, they do not need to complete their problems to do well.

One of the two best problems we solved this year was Ghost the Bunny.

Laura’s pet bunny, Ghost, hops up a flight of 12 stairs. Ghost hops up one step or two steps at a time, and never hops down. How many ways can Ghost reach the top step?

And in each class when we discussed extensions, someone mentioned altering the size of the hops, as an example, so it’s no surprise that several proposals did just that. Here they are:

Ghost the Bunny wants to go up 12 steps. He can jump 1 or 2 steps at a time and has the option to jump up 4 steps only one time on his journey. How many ways of going up are there?

How many ways can Phantom the Ferret get to the 15th step taking 1, 2, or 4 steps? He cannot hop backwards, and every different order of number of steps counts as a different way. Ghost must land on the 15th step, and cannot hop any further.

Laura’s pet bunny, Ghost, hops up a flight of 12 steps. Ghost hops up one or three steps at a time, and never hops down. In how many ways can Ghost reach the top step?

Laura’s pet bunny, Ghost, hops up a flight of twelve steps. Ghost hops up one, two, or three steps at a time, and never hops down. In how many ways can Ghost reach the top step?

Laura’s pet bunny, Nemo, hops up a flight of ten steps. Nemo can hop up any amount of steps at a time, but can’t hop down steps. In how many ways can Nemo reach the top step?

Ghost the bunny needs to hop up a flight of 12 stairs. Ghost can jump 1 and 2 steps at a time, 1, 2, and 3 steps at a time, 1, 2, 3, and 4 steps at a time, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 etc. How many ways can Ghost hop up for each set of numbers? What about for any set of numbers?

Thoughts on these problems?  On this activity?

I will share more of the extensions in the coming days. Some students, you will see, moved much further from the original problem…

Who closed the Bronx’s high schools?

December 27, 2015 pm31 12:27 pm

There’s a story that has to be told. It needs details. It needs to include conversations, arguments, protests, planning. It needs exact dates. I can’t do all of that. It needs to be told better than I can tell it. But I can start.

In recent years, nine Bronx academic comprehensive high schools were closed and three were down-sized, two sabotaged so badly that I assume they will be retargeted for closure. Also, three Bronx vocational high schools were closed, and the fourth was down-sized.

No large or medium-sized Bronx high school has escaped unscathed (save Bronx Science, which serves relatively few Bronx kids)

The usual narrative says that Bloomberg and Klein did this.

The usual narrative is (mostly) wrong.

Bloomberg and Klein completed, enthusiastically, viciously, work that was started by others. Let’s see who they were.

When I began teaching (substitute in March 1997), it was hard for me to wrap my head around the huge number of high schools in the Bronx. I came from a high school that served three towns. The city next door had three high schools for the whole city (plus a tiny alternative high school, plus a tiny arts school ).

But the Bronx! DeWitt Clinton, Walton, John F Kennedy, Christopher Columbus, Theodore Roosevelt, Evander Childs, Harry S Truman, Herbert Lehman, South Bronx, Morris, Adlai Stevenson, William Howard Taft. Then there were the vocational schools: Grace Dodge, Samuel Gompers, Alfred E Smith, Jane Addams. Each one of these schools was bigger than the entire district where I had been educated.

And there were more schools. Bronx Science, which I knew was mostly kids from other boroughs. There were Bronx Regional, University Heights, and a handful of small, alternative schools of one sort or another. I became more familiar with at least the names of the alternative schools when I worked summer school at Bronx Regional in 1999. And I learned about another batch of schools: New School for Arts and Sciences. Monroe Academy of Visual Arts and Design. Monroe Academy of Business and Law. These were some of the mini-schools that replaced James Monroe HS, closed in 1994 for poor academic performance. That made three schools I knew of that had been closed:  Andrew Jackson in Queens (I had an intern at a previous job from there), George Washington in upper Manhattan and James Monroe.

James Monroe had been closed when Giuliani was Mayor and Cortines was Schools Chancellor, but I don’t know the details, and suspect the decisions were made by the State at least a year earlier. The mayor must have been Dinkins, but this was before Mayoral Control.

Then I heard about Morris High School. Morris is a beautiful building, with a spectacular auditorium, and in 1998 the State began to close it. Eventually it was replaced by four mini-schools, one per floor.Enrollments were capped, and Morris kids started showing up at other high schools in the Bronx. In 1998 the Governor was Pataki and the Mayor was Giuliani, and the Chancellor was Rudy Crew, though I don’t know how much any of those three were involved.

Next, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The closings began in 2002, after Bloomberg’s election, and days after Joel Klein replaced Harold Levy, but the plans had been in the works for several years, and I believe (but do not know) that it was the State that had made the crucial decisions. Each school was replaced with mini-schools. In the case of Taft, some of those mini-schools have since been closed. At Roosevelt, one of the mini-schools is on the Renewal List, which may mean it is also being targeted for closure.

But the next batch of schools has a clearer group of assailants. Again, the planning pre-dates Bloomberg/Klein, although they gladly signed on. In this case the impetus came from a huge grant from Bill and Melinda Gates. They paid, a lot, to experiment on our kids. And yes, the Mayor and the Chancellor agreed. Their pointman was Eric Nadelstern. But none of this happens without the enthusiastic support of UFT President Randi Weingarten.

It’s time to tell the story, but I need to ask others to fill in the details. Weingarten and Gates’ NYC people chose to preemptively shut down large Bronx high schools, and create mini-schools. There was no legal requirement, no State mandate. She did this over the objections of her members in the schools, and over the objections of her elected chapter leaders in the schools. Stevenson, Walton, Columbus, South Bronx, Kennedy, Evander.

The massive Bronx high school closures of the early 2000s required full support from the UFT leadership. Weingarten and Unity Caucus gave their full support to this destruction.

The story does not end there. Mini-schools get created like crazy in 2002, 03, 04, 05….  Columbus and Kennedy were initially down-sized, not phased out. But at this point Klein and Bloomberg picked up the ball. Their henchman, Nadelstern, was joined by new bureaucrats, reformers with little real teaching or school leadership experience, some from Teach for America themselves. I can think of Suransky and Sternberg, but there were others. They targeted the vocational schools (now called Career and Technical Education, or CTE, schools.) They eventually retargeted Columbus and Kennedy, and killed them off. They got mini-schools into Clinton and Lehman, and even Truman. And they began shutting down mini-schools inside old Bronx high schools, including some that they themselves opened.

Klein and Bloomberg our the clearest villains in this story. Their intent was bad, beginning to end. There is no mitigating detail, no tragic misunderstanding. The Bronx was a target.

It could be said in defense of the State Education Department and the Regents and Morris, that there was some good intent. I’m not sure.

It could be said in the case of the Weingarten and her people at the UFT that they had some sort of noble goal, or they were blinded by Gates’ money or his flattery, but were too stupid or short-sighted to realize how harmful this was.

But Gates?  Rich guy, liked an idea, threw money at it, saw that it failed, and walked away. “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.” But his obligation to remediate the damage he caused? There is none. Unforgivable.

Eric Nadelstern. Our own Peter Pettigrew. He actually knew something about education. But he saw the destruction of Bronx high schools as a stepping stone in his career. When Klein stepped down, he must have seen the Chancellor’s Office as his… When Bloomberg not only passed over him, but chose educational-know-nothing Cathie Black, and appointed Nadelstern (botching his name) as her tutor, well, I let myself smile a little. He’s now teaching at Teacher’s College, though I don’t understand how, without the usual credentials.

Now, there’s a lot to this story. One blog post is not enough. There are details that need adding. Others need fixing. Documents that need referencing. But I got the rogues right:

  • New York State (need names)
  • Bill Gates
  • Randi Weingarten (need names of her team on this)
  • Eric Nadelstern (add associates)
  • Joel Klein
  • Michael Bloomberg



Extending Problems

December 24, 2015 am31 10:13 am

In my mathematics classes I try to carve out a day or half a day here and there to do off-topic problem solving.

The usual routine in a math class is: teacher teaches new topic, skill, fact, etc, and then the students solve a bunch of problems or answer a bunch of questions applying that skill or fact.

But there is something missing…  Students don’t have to select what skill or tool or fact to apply. They just pick the one they were just taught, or the one before that. In fact, year end or semester end exams are a little better, but still the students are picking from a group of related skills, and the questions posed usually make obvious which tool to use.

That’s where the off-topic problem solving comes in. What if I ask a group of you a question, unrelated to what we did yesterday, seemingly out of left field, that requires only math that you already know, but without any of the usual cues about what tool to use?  That’s what I do. Questions mix counting, arithmetic, organization, and visualization skills. They require reasoning, planning. In a better world, with a less dense curriculum, I would do a whole lot of this.

With freshman classes I have a few favorite problems. Each asks “how many” which is a question we don’t ask nearly often enough. Ghost the Bunny. The checkerboard. How many subsets. We solve maybe two of these in the fall. A few years ago I started asking kids to turn in a write up of the problem, including process and solution.

But for the last two years I have asked the students to go further… to devise their OWN problem, as an extension of something we have already done. This year, they extended Ghost the Bunny, or the Checkerboard.

Laura’s pet bunny, Ghost, hops up a flight of 12 stairs. Ghost hops up one step or two steps at a time, and never hops down. How many ways can Ghost reach the top step?

How many squares are on an 8 x 8 checkerboard?

What would your students come up with? (I’ll tell you mine in a follow-up post)


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