I recently found myself reflecting on a class I took in college that examined emotional and behavioral disabilities. One of the behavior modification methods discussed was pointing one's finger as a visual reinforcer in tandem with a verbal reinforcer being given to a child. I remember being outraged by this, "who wags their finger at a child?" I queried. Fast forward 11 years later, and I probably wag my finger on a daily basis. Although my repertoire of behavior modification techniques includes positive reinforcement and other tricks, a simple, "No, no," along with a slight finger wag, sends a brief, but easily understood message to my students.
As surprised as I have been to find myself wagging my finger to correct a thrown toy or an excited push for the jungle gym, I was even more surprised this month to find myself wagging my finger at New York City Schools' Chancellor Joel Klein.
At this month's Panel for Educational Policy (The Panel has replaced the old Board of Education here in New York City under Mayoral Control) Chancellor Klein engaged in an exchange with panel member, Patrick Sullivan, regarding the merit of Mr. Klein's focus on charter schools at a time when all of the data is showing charters are not the panacea Klein and other "reformers" make them out to be. This was particularly relevant because this meeting was to focus on changes to Chancellor's Regulation A-190. This regulation governs the closure of a school or a co-location of a charter school within a public school building.
- Klein and Bloomberg's own school report card accountability system shows NYC public schools dramatically outperform charters in the city.
Mr. Klein postured that, "... the debate between district schools and charter schools is a false one," and that anyone who engages in this debate is, "... just playing politics." He went on to say that good schools should be replicated, regardless of whether they are public or charter. To a person who may not be intimately associated with Chancellor Klein's policies and ideology, these may sound like benign statements. But, to those of us who have been the victims of his misguided infatuation with charter schools, these statements were astounding. His actions, sadly, have not and do not support this message.
My school was forced to co-locate with a charter school three years ago. The co-location has been nothing short of a disaster that has drained our resources in a myriad of ways. What is most troubling, is that my school is an "A" school, according to Klein's school report cards, and performs better than 95 percent of elementary schools in New York City by every measure. So, during public comment time, I had no choice but to approach the microphone, raise my finger, and explain to Chancellor Klein and the Panel that I had taught all day, took three trains to the Bronx to attend the meeting, and could guarantee that neither my interest nor my motivation was politics. I further pointed out to Mr. Klein that if his statements were true, he would be supporting and replicating the great accomplishments of my school, but instead, he is squeezing us out of our own building, stifling our growth, subordinating our students, and limiting our programs and services in favor of an untested charter school, that by the way, is run by the son of a hedge-fund billionaire who has donated millions to the school reform projects Mr. Klein holds dear. I charged, "That, is politics."
As I walked away (and retracted my finger), I thought to myself, "Did I just really wag my finger at Mr. Klein?" After all, he is for intents and purposes my boss. I rationalized; when I say, "No, no," with a finger wag, my students generally stop their undesirable behavior, perhaps Mr. Klein will take a cue from the students he is charged with serving.
For eight years public school educators, parents and students in New York City have suffered through the hallmarks of the neo-liberal education reform movement; we have been inundated with Mr. Klein's endless pro-charter rhetoric, we have watched obscene amounts of our money poured into so-called accountability measures and ill-planned restructuring, all while slashing our school based budgets and demonizing teachers and their union.
To "wag the dog" is to divert attention from what is really happening onto something else, often divisionary, rooted in crisis, or irrelevant to the real facts. To "wag the finger" is to point out an error in judgment so that the behavior might cease. I can only hope that wagging my finger at Mr. Klein while he wags the metaphorical dog might bring a level of awareness that could stop the misinformation madness that is causing the miseducation of our youth. The truth is, while Mr. Klein is charged with improving our public schools, he is slowly but surely undermining and dismantling them. You need only to look at my school to know the truth; with little to no support from Mr. Klein our teachers, staff, students and families are doing their best and getting it right, while our chancellor allows our current and future programs to be diminished and compromised by a charter school invasion.