Here's What the Business Ethic Produces in Leadership
NEW YORK CITY's schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, has been quietly grading principals from A to F, based almost solely on how their students perform on state tests.
The dangers of such a limited management evaluation tool are clear from taking a look at Brooklyn Technical High School, a public school where test scores are great but the principal is at war with many of his teachers. The result has been repeated management problems that have undercut popular student activities, including one of the finer Shakespeare programs in the city, the student newspaper, the debating, chess and robotics teams and more.
Brooklyn Tech is one of a handful of elite city high schools, including Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, that require an entrance exam for admission. So of course, virtually all of these great testers at Brooklyn Tech pass the state exams for a high school diploma.
That does not mean Brooklyn Tech is well managed. Indeed, longstanding tensions between the veteran principal, Dr. Lee D. McCaskill, and his staff spilled into the open in October, with news reports that several teachers accused him of repeatedly sending sexually explicit e-mail messages from his school computer to staff members. (Dr. McCaskill declined comment through a spokesman, and the matter is under investigation. He did provide written answers to some of my questions.)
And while Dr. McCaskill's supervising superintendent, Reyes Irizarry, continues to praise him, particularly his expansion of music and sports programs, Brooklyn Tech teachers, students, parents and alumni, in scores of interviews, describe a principal who controls his school largely through fear and intimidation.
They say he keeps such a tight grip on the student newspaper, The Survey, that there have been six faculty advisers in six years and that what used to be a provocative paper published six times a year is now dull and came out just twice last year.
Howard Gleich, the building's union representative, says the principal so heavily censors The Survey, it's hard to get an issue published. Richard Fulco gave up as an adviser because, he says, he heard only criticism. Marie Manuto-Brown, the current adviser, says several student articles that seemed fine to her were rejected by the principal, who, she says, told her, "We don't need to bring attention to negative behavior."
In June, the principal had all 4,000 copies of the year's final issue destroyed. Dr. McCaskill says it was because the adviser mistakenly sent a "preliminary" draft full of grammatical errors to the printer. Others say it was because the adviser mistakenly included a piece that the principal wanted censored, by Lakinda Gittens, criticizing "disrespectful students" who "spit on the floors" and "urinate in the fountains." Whichever, student journalists like Tabatha Roman were bitterly disappointed. "It was done and he ripped it up," she says. "I think it was bad it was censored."
Special events for the best and brightest are constantly bungled by Brooklyn Tech's administration. Several city high schools — including Stuyvesant, Thomas Jefferson, Science Skills and Ralph McKee — were among 290 schools competing at the national robotics championship in Florida April 25-27. Not Brooklyn Tech.
Though Brooklyn Tech's team was at school over the April vacation finishing its robot, though the alumni association underwrote the trip, though students took suitcases to school on April 24 and Richard Williamson was already at the airport, Dr. McCaskill called off the trip an hour before departure time. He says "it was revealed" that an assistant principal "without knowledge of the principal" had arranged the trip. He said the assistant principal was "appropriately disciplined."
Like many other parents, Barbara Kariya says she found it unbelievable that the principal claimed not to know, when students had worked on the robot for months. She says he could have found a way to make the trip work. "It's such a dysfunctional school," she says.
Several city high schools sent full squads to the national scholastic chess championships in Louisville, Ky., last April. Not Brooklyn Tech. Though students had raised enough money from bake sales and a student government grant, though a parent and teacher agreed to chaperone, Dr. McCaskill would not let them go. He has given contradictory reasons. To me, he wrote that the club adviser "did not file a request to attend."
But as Kelly Wilmeth, a parent, points out, the principal was well aware of the trip because she'd written him weeks before asking him to find a way to make it work. And Dr. McCaskill answered her, writing that he would not let students "miss three days of school" or give a teacher-chaperone permission to miss a scheduled parent-teacher conference.
When Brooklyn Tech's debate team was to compete in the state championships last spring, school officials so badly messed up (as you might guess, the principal says no one filed the proper paperwork) that James Wai, a senior, paid $560 out of pocket for hotel rooms. But Dr. McCaskill resisted compensating Mr. Wai, says Robert Hardmond, a former debate adviser.
Finally, in July, a parent went over Dr. McCaskill's head to Charles Amundsen, a deputy superintendent, to get James Wai his $560.
The principal seemed bent on killing a popular Shakespeare program taught by Alice Alcala, a rare teacher to stand up to him. Ms. Alcala is one of 10 teachers trained in Shakespeare each year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Suzanne Youngerman of BAM says Ms. Alcala was "a model" for other teachers.
Brooklyn Tech students clamored for the course. In the spring of 2001, Ms. Alcala had three classes of 34, and turned away 40 applicants. She gave up weekends for two months to rehearse students for "The Taming of the Shrew." The Royal National Theater of Britain gave two workshops at the school. Jim DiBenedetto, the school's arts coordinator and football coach, says, "The Shakespeare program is one of the best things that ever happened to Brooklyn Tech." Wing Mui, who took the course and is now at Amherst College, calls it "hugely successful."
Dr. McCaskill claimed there was lack of interest and killed the program the next year.
Ms. Alcala persisted. She appealed over his head to a senior superintendent, Rose DePinto; she got the support of two student petitions; and last fall, six days into the semester, after she and a second teacher, Louise Maher-Johnson, filed grievances, the principal backed down, switching student schedules to allow her two Shakespeare classes.
But Ms. Alcala seems to have paid a price. On Oct. 4, 2002, the day the stories on the sexual e-mail appeared, Dr. McCaskill's assistant principal for English visited Ms. Alcala's class and gave Ms. Alcala her first unsatisfactory rating in 28 years as a teacher. (Dr. McCaskill says the rating "had no relationship to any news article.")
Mr. Irizarry, the superintendent, disagrees with such harsh assessments, saying that Dr. McCaskill has been "extremely supportive" of the performing arts and pointing out that there are "three annual productions beyond Shakespeare, which engage more than 1,000" students. "Dr. McCaskill may have made decisions about course offerings and curricula that were unpopular among some staff," Mr. Irizarry says, "but these decisions have been consistent with the mission and vision of Brooklyn Technical High School and have created a stronger academic school."
And friction. At most city high schools, it is rare to have one conciliation hearing a year (a mediation between a teacher and administrators over educational issues). Brooklyn Tech has had four in a year and a half. One involves Todd Friedman, an English teacher who has served as a mentor for new teachers and written curriculums for the Academy of American Poets. He was disciplined by the principal for teaching "Continental Drift" by Russell Banks, a novel that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A parent friendly with the principal complained that it was "pornographic," and Dr. McCaskill agreed. The principal ruled that from now on, Mr. Friedman's book selections must be approved by the assistant principal, Tracy Zoughlami.
A mark of a good manager is consistency, but that appears missing at Brooklyn Tech. Ms. Zoughlami has assigned students "Secrets" by Nuruddin Farah, a novel every bit as sexually explicit as "Continental Drift." (In the first 17 pages there are descriptions of a 10-year-old boy having sex with an older girl; group masturbation; and a man having intercourse with a cow.) And Ms. Zoughlami has taught Amiri Baraka's poem "Somebody Blew Up America," which describes 4,000 Israelis staying home from work at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 — a far more controversial work than "Continental Drift."
It is this management style that prompted outstanding teachers like Bob Black, a chemist and inventor of an anti-graffiti coating; Vito Bonsignore, an English teacher; and Milton Diaz, a language teacher, to leave Brooklyn Tech in recent years. All have done better. Mr. Black teaches at Barnard College, Mr. Bonsignore and Mr. Diaz at Stuyvesant. All say they loved Brooklyn Tech's students and would have stayed, except they could no longer bear working for Dr. McCaskill.
Evaluating a Brooklyn Principal, Measure for Questionable Measure
New York Times
Jan. 15, 2003
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES