Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

In Bratton’s Defense

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Police commissioner Bratton has decided to take time off his busy schedule of ticketing pedestrians to show off his managerial experience in reversing former commissioner Kelly’s controversial plan of flooding high crime areas with rookie cops. This policy was titled Operation Impact, and like a sledgehammer used to drive in a nail, you could say it lacked a little subtlety. In Bratton’s own words,

“I want to change the dynamic of kids coming out of the academy and immediately being put into Operation Impact assignments, where they really have an almost single-minded focus and really don’t get a full flavor of the job.”

Effectively, thrown into situations where their goal is to beat heads, they learn to beat heads, not police. While I do appreciate the fact that such measures force people to appreciate the power of the police, I have argued indeed that there is more to policing than suppression. Bratton is arguing, conversely, that it not only doesn’t help the community, but it doesn’t help the cop become an effective cop.

There’s a philosophical simplicity to Kelly’s policy: Find bad area, flood it with cops. But rotating rookies is easier than rotating veterans – as indeed it takes time to learn a neighborhood – so simple necessity dictated that the least-experienced personnel were sent to the most difficult situations. I can think of another place where the same has occurred: Public schools.

Former mayor Bloomberg’s restructuring of the school system and his Small Schools initiative led to a lot of personnel change and a strong need for new leaders: Creating 300 new schools meant there needed to be 300 new principals, and an acute lack of math and science teachers needed to be rectified. To get these people, initiatives like Leadership Academy and Teach For America incentivized and trained people to fill those roles.

When I was working in the school system, I was within schools that Bloomberg had closed down due to poor performance and re-opened as Small Schools. What struck me, however, was how many teachers and administrators were on the first years at their jobs. I started under a Leadership Academy principal that had four years’ experience teaching, who had hired a Leadership Academy assistant principal who had two years’ experience teaching, and under them were more than a dozen first- and second-year teachers, mostly from Teach For America and Teaching Fellows. Together they made up the lion’s share of the pedagogical staff. This staff was tasked with turning around one of the poorest-performing student bodies in the city. Some of them weren’t just new to teaching, but also new to New York City, and were barely older than the students themselves.

What I learned in such an environment was how to hop from fire to fire on a budget of zero dollars – for lo and behold nobody knew how to do a budget – not how to develop a lasting or effective plan. I was hired as a computer coordinator – a visionary but unfunded mandate by Bloomberg – but, without education or training in teaching and lacking a teaching license, was tasked with teaching several classes in computer science. When I asked the AP if she could help me develop good patterns for classroom control and curriculum planning, she asked, “what are you doing wrong?” as if the next words out of my mouth would end up being on a future letter of dismissal. She certainly learned some managerial techniques in her workshops.

I muddled through. We all did. We made mistakes. We learned to manage crises when what should have been going on was learning to teach. This became evident after a year when, having largely solved the major problems – inter-school fights, poor attendance, lack of discipline; things you can just throw safety personnel at and muscle down – the school hit a brick wall at getting students to actually pass classes. That required teaching skills. For that the teachers required administrative support, and for that the administrators required experience. Instead, desperate to avoid getting a B or a dreaded C in the system-wide school report, they started “creatively” grading the Regents exams and finding every way to give extra points to students struggling to graduate.

This got them a special investigation, but lowering the standards to meet the bar was something that went on throughout the system. The next school I worked at, the cycle was similar: They could just barely fix the problem of student discipline, but actually raising grades was beyond them. 20 year old teachers were teaching 21 year old students, inexperienced principals shielded themselves from responsibility through the hire of equally inexperienced assistant principals, and the general impression was that it was the world’s most stressful stage production and we were all ad-libbing.

In both schools the physics teacher was either laid off or forbidden from teaching physics because “too few students passed the class.” Lesson learned: If there is any difficulty, drop it and pad their credits elsewhere. Regents courses in the hard sciences like chemistry and physics were replaced with earth science and forensics(!), which are basically biology and chemistry without math or formulas. The accepted method for teaching math changed twice in four years, leading to a kerfuffle over which textbooks to use. It truly was the blind leading the blind, punctuated occasionally by consultants who would exhort us to treat the school more like a business.

Bloomberg first crowed that his initiatives were working back in 2005 when tests scores showed improvement, until critics noticed that the standards had slipped. When the standards returned in 2013, students city-wide did dismally. Indeed, to me, his take on solving the education crisis can be illustrated adroitly with his ill-considered choice of Cathleen Black as chancellor: A management fast-tracker with little experience in education.

Bratton’s analysis is sound: To send the least-experienced cops into the worst situations is to invite disaster. Would that we could learn this lesson in the schools, too.

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