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My Response to “The risks of forcing out Jean-Claude Brizard”

April 10, 2011

This last Tuesday I read an article by Mary Anna Towler in Rochester’s City Newspaper about what the Rochester City School District stands to “lose” if our Broad-trained Superintendent, Jean-Claude Brizard, is forced out. Given that Brizard’s name has been floating around Newark, NJ, Boston, and Chicago as a future possible leader, this article was timed interestingly. For those of us observing this revolving door of educational leaders who jump from city to city (sounds a lot like the ‘dance of the lemons’ scenario used by pro-deform leaders when inaccurately describing how they can never fire experienced teachers, left only to wait impatiently or force the more expensive ‘bad’  teachers to transfer between schools) it will be interesting to observe and learn from this situation.

Towler wrote in the article,

Once again, the rumors (or reports, depending on whom you’re talking to) are flying, that Rochester Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard is looking for another job.

Brizard makes an attractive candidate, so it wouldn’t be a surprise that other districts would take a look at him. (What do we want, a superintendent with such a lackluster reputation that he’s not on anybody’s radar?)

And given the controversy in this district, and the push from teachers and from some parents to get rid of him, he’d be pretty dumb to not be considering his options.

I’ve cited my own concern about Brizard – his communications and leadership skills – but I’ve been clear that I think he’s an exceptionally good superintendent, with enormous potential.

So let me pass on this warning:

The last thing the Rochester school district needs right now is a change in superintendents. It’s not that it would be hard to get another good superintendent; driving Brizard out – which is what this would look like – wouldn’t dissuade strong candidates from applying. Anybody administrator in urban education is familiar with the contentiousness of managing a city school district: the pressure from parents and unions, the divisions on school boards. Offsetting them are the exciting challenges and rewards of educating the nation’s neediest students. (And for superintendents, the pay’s not bad.)

So whenever Brizard leaves, we’ll find another superintendent. For many people, the sooner he leaves, the better. I disagree. I think some of his reforms are essential. They aren’t popular, but they’re important. If he’s forced out, we can say goodbye to changes in things like teacher evaluation and seniority. I think the district can come up with reforms in those areas that protect teachers’ right to due process. I also think if Brizard leaves soon, we won’t hear any talk about those reforms for quite a while.

And for some segments of the community – including, notably, City Hall – letting Brizard be forced out will reinforce the sense that the School Board doesn’t have a clue about what it’s doing. The board renewed Brizard’s contract only five months ago, with only two of the seven members voting “no.”

Unless School Board members know something about Brizard’s performance that the public doesn’t know, they ought to be supporting him a lot more vocally than they have been so far. Much more than their own reputation is at stake.

And by the way, want to see a renewed push among some state legislators for mayoral control? Force Brizard out. That’ll do it; I’d bet on it.

As I read the article, I grew increasingly frustrated. I’ve grown tired of the wide array of media sources, ranging from mainstream corporate media to self-proclaimed ‘alternative media’ news, who support corporate, pro-privatization forces’ onslaught against meaningful change and progress in public education. Partially out of frustration and partially out of recognizing the opportunity to educate others, I wrote the following response:

Ms. Towler,

This is one of the most intellectually dishonest assessments of Brizard’s tenure I’ve heard yet. I’m a teacher in the Rochester City School District and I organize as a member of the Community Education Task Force and the Parent and Community Coalition for Educational Change. I’ve heard my fair share of arguments on Brizard and his reforms as well as what will supposedly happen if he leaves. There are several glaring inaccuracies and flat-out mistruths in your argument that require investigation, interrogation, and scrutiny.

This appears to be part of another round of political gamesmanship being hustled on our community regarding Brizard’s value and worth so as to protect the pro-privatization business elites, partisan media slicksters, and self-interested School Board members who have chosen to hedge their bets on Brizard’s political fate.

You state, “Brizard makes an attractive candidate, so it wouldn’t be a surprise that other districts would take a look at him.” Brizard’s name has been floating in other areas for the same misguided reasons why many without a critical analysis of where Brizard comes from (Broad Foundation) continued to support him here. While it is certainly true that other districts may be eyeing Brizard, I personally can attest to the fact that educators and community members in many school districts throughout the country recognize, rather than minimize, exactly how toxic Brizard’s philosophies and style of leadership are for a district. As the growing frustration with Brizard from the community has built up, more and more people in other places have identified Brizard and his baggage as an unwanted liability, not an asset to be fought after. That we have School Board members who hold more of a vested interest in Brizard’s reputation and public relation skills instead of the reality of his initiatives, programs and stewardship of our district is deeply concerning. As you know, protective egos and political reputations run thick in this town and we seem to have elected officials, media figures, and others struggling to prop up this crumbling deck of cards rather than honestly assess their gross errors in judgement and be real with the people about a better direction in terms of leadership.

False dichotomies also do your argument little justice. You state, “What do we want, a superintendent with such a lackluster reputation that he’s not on anybody’s radar?”. Our choice is not between a superintendent that no one pays attention to and a rising rock star in ill-informed corporate education reform who knows how to spin public relations together with his colleagues in corporate media. How about a progressive, community-centered superintendent who knows how to cooperatively work together with schools, parents, students, labor and community? Before you jump and say, “who would that be?” or “do we even have viable options like that locally?” we all should look closer within schools and within our community for potential leaders who respond to community needs and are willing to share decision-making with others.

Your suggestion that any changes to teacher evaluation and seniority will not occur if Brizard leaves represents a truly ahistorical and irresponsible assessment on your part. We know that conversations surrounding teacher evaluation will still occur regardless of whether Brizard is present or not. If we work to secure a more progressive, competent leader the conversation will be less likely to focus on placing increased weight, consequence, and value on high-stakes standardized test scores. Such a leader would work together with grassroots parents and community in order to advocate for changes on the state level that more appropriately fit our students’ needs.

In the future, before you make arguments you should seriously consult sound educational research. Close to no sound research supports the notion that teacher evaluation, pay or job security should be based on standardized test scores, especially at the rate that Brizard and his Broad Foundation colleagues are attempting to force. Doing so shows a reckless disregard for what research supports as a more trustworthy gauge of true student growth and achievement: project-based learning, performance based tasks, and research skills to name a few. Brizard has consistently rejected such proposals in favor of using high-stakes standardized test scores as a primary marker of student learning as well as teacher effectiveness. Brizard leaving does not mean that “…we won’t hear any talk about those reforms for quite a while” it just means that we can work towards a more reasonable conversation about systemic issues in education without bullying, manipulative rhetoric, and dishonest misuse of data.

I don’t doubt that mayoral control advocates will leap upon the opportunity to point out the current School Board’s incompetency (let us not forget that you entered into and advocated for mayoral control as well in these opinion pages) In fact, I agree that “…the School Board doesn’t have a clue about what it’s doing.” However, the School Board should not continue to make excuses for Brizard’s utter disregard for anything but what his wealthy circles inform him to do. A truly responsible School Board would lead him out and would have begun a search within our district for a more responsible, progressive match to student, parent and grassroots community needs.

As far as School Board commissioners not advocating for Brizard vocally, I’m not sure what that would look like given the majority of the individuals on the board that we have now who either directly, explicit support Brizard or support him behind the scenes in other ways. Whether “School Board members know something about Brizard’s performance that the public doesn’t know” is a worthy question, which we can’t necessarily answer here. However, we can based on evidence in district and at the board, say that Board members have shielded Brizard from true scrutiny, transparency, and ultimately accountability for him and his administration’s actions.

State legislators are likely going to push for mayoral control regardless at this point, given that Richard’s bought the mayoral election together with your papers’ endorsement. It seems Machiavellian and insincere to falsely incite fear that if our community rightfully stands up together and rejects Brizard’s agenda, that we will aid the push for mayoral control. Whether Brizard is here or not, the proponents of mayoral control want control of district finance, contracts, and patronage positions by eliminating the main vehicle in education by which there is any possibility of democratic mobilization of community rights.

Finally, I suggest you come over to Central Park, Scio, N Clinton, Joseph, Jefferson, Genesee, Columbia in order to ask parents and community what they really think about Brizard. You should know that a sizable chunk of our community has legitimate and serious doubts about Brizard and his agenda, especially given the events of the last few months. The sooner you stop dismissing that and understand that we can secure much better leadership without you and others attempting to leverage the supposed political consequences of Brizard’s likely upcoming departure, the better. Until then, it would be intelligent for you to research your arguments and stop regurgitating the local political machines’ talking points, smugly wrapped up in camouflaged rhetoric.

Sincerely,

Mark Friedman

Community Education Task Force

I posted as a comment and emailed the response to Mary Anna Towler. She responded “thanking me for my thoughtful response” and encouraging more comments, dialogue etc. She also offered to have an agreed-upon version in the print edition for next week. I accepted and edited the piece, which should come out next week in print. After Towler asked if I was a teacher in district, I stated that I am a Rochester City School District teacher and fired back an email, “If I don’t have a job shortly after this gets printed, I’d like to do an interview if possible.”

This brings me to a teachable moment in which I have to make important decisions. I’ve made what many might consider increasingly risky choices in my efforts to advocate and struggle for progressive, community-based, grassroots public education. My activities have become rapidly more public and more widely known among interested parties. While I’m certainly not a household name nor a celebrity in education organizing, I’ve willingly and knowingly assumed a heightened level of risk that any conscious person would be concerned about. I’ve painstakingly deliberated over how to be as intelligent and strategic as possible while continuing my work in the struggle. I’m finding that being prepared for any number of outcomes to scenarios is both challenging and necessary. I’ll continue to build and grow together with allies while doing everything I can to mount defenses against the very real potential consequences for my political actions.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan Middleman, M. Ed. permalink
    April 10, 2011 6:54 am

    Thank you so much for shedding the harsh light of truth on the situation. It was well written and professional, attacking the article point by point. You are a very brave person for saying such words. I often watch CNN and yell at the TV screen when they discuss educational matters with the likes of Bill Bennett and other “reformers.” I wish I could be on there to rebutt their false promises. Just keep good documentation of your accomplishments in case the powers that be come after you.

  2. Peter_Rotten permalink
    April 10, 2011 7:14 am

    I’ve recently stumbled across your blog and am currently enjoying it. It has become even more relevant when I realized that you teach in a district close to me.

    Your decision will not be an easy one. It reminds me of a line from Brighton Beach Memoirs: “You did the right thing, you showed you have principles … but can this family afford principles right now?” Good luck with your decisions. I’ll try not to sway you either way.

  3. rick mangone permalink
    April 10, 2011 7:23 am

    Mr Brizard was a city teacher and went thru the ranks in New York. He is well respected and someone the UFT has had for the most part a good relationship with. The question is has he drunk the cool-aid that the reformers are pushing? His record indicates that he may in fact be a disciple of the corporate agenda and therefore suspect.

    • markfriedman1 permalink
      April 10, 2011 10:27 pm

      @ rick mangone
      He was on the corporate reform boat long before he came to Rochester, New York. Regardless of what kind of reputation or relationships he may or may not have had, I spent a significant time investigating him and by asking parent, teacher, and community allies in Brooklyn. They indicated that they were not surprised he had proceeded in the direction he has, given his track record both in Rochester and in NYCDOE.
      Brizard is a Broad-trained Superintendent and his record indicates that he IS a disciple of the corporate agenda. Just take a look at his history and other leaders who have come out of the Broad Institute (or are sympathetic to Broad-policy reforms) and you’ll see there is very little speculation at this point where many stand on the crucial issues.

  4. Zulma permalink
    April 10, 2011 8:39 am

    As long as Mayor Moneybag is in office, any chancellor that Bloomberg chooses will be forced to drink the kool-aid of education deforms. Even Brizzard had a decent relationship with the UFT, it is impossible to maintain it because will not allow it. The mayor is determined, in a very maniacal manner, to end his 3rd term breaking the spell/voodoo of those mayors whose 3rd term in office was unfortunate. Therefore, the newly hired (picked) chancellor, Walcott, will soon face his own career demise when he has no choice but to make decisions based on the mayor’s agenda – closing schools, co-locating charter schools, izone implementation, SpEd changes (SESIS), more no-bid contracts, the giant white elephant (ARIS), and the dreaded, inaccurate, Progress Report.

  5. Michael Fiorillo permalink
    April 10, 2011 9:44 am

    Congratulations on your efforts to save public education from the privateers, and on your personal courage in publicly standing up to these well-financed bullies.

  6. April 10, 2011 8:13 pm

    Great work Mark! As I’ve mentioned to you, I think this is some of your strongest writing yet. It is our job, though tiring it may be, to keep challenging the dominant ill-informed/-informing narrative with the truth of what’s really going on with so-called “reform” in urban districts across America. I only hope other district teachers will do as you have done, step out of their security zones, and stand up for what is in the best interest of the students and families with whom they work.

    In solidarity,
    Tim

  7. markfriedman1 permalink
    April 10, 2011 10:18 pm

    Thanks for the support everyone. I appreciate everyone’s positivity and solidarity, as we can’t build an alternative movement for progressive education based in resistance if we don’t support one another.

  8. mariasallee permalink*
    April 11, 2011 7:22 pm

    Good luck with it, Mark. I have been using a pseudonym for the very reason that telling the truth can sometimes come with other consequences that maybe I, personally, can’t afford. At the same time, the fear of speaking up feeds into the system that allows non-educators to somehow reign as experts.

  9. April 19, 2011 10:37 am

    I’m a semi-retired Chicago reporter (ex-UPI Broadcast Bureau Chief) recently assigning myself the education beat. I was unaware of the epidemic of parent vs. school board litigation, teachers union aggravation, and litany of parental gripes, FAPE foul-ups, IEP kids and pesky privitizing problems. What is missing from your account are some specifics on Brizard’s policies which adversely effected particular students. No names need be used. I’m also curious about this notion of retaliation for speaking out. Who got hurt by saying what? If you can throw some specific horror -or happy- stories my way, it is likely they match ones here. I’ll take that pass and run with it to Hizonner Emanuel’s new school team.
    {BTW; I’m a big fan & friend of several Rochester musicians, among them the amazing Connie Demick, Bruce Diamond & friends, Charles Jaffe and the late Colorblind James. Do they still teach music in pubic schools?)

  10. April 19, 2011 10:41 am

    Addendum/correction: I trust you caught my typo in last line; should read PUBLIC. Jeez
    maybe should stay retired. No pun intended!)

    • markfriedman1 permalink
      April 20, 2011 8:35 pm

      Hey Jay, great to have your interest. I can actually put up a whole list of articles that I’ve been compiling regarding questions of Brizard’s policies, to help provide more context and detail. If you’re curious about retaliation, look into the story of Marilyn Patterson-Grant, as her lawsuit and case against Brizard and the district raised a lot of questions in that area. There are countless stories of teachers, especially toward the later half of Brizard’s tenure here in Rochester, that received none-too-subtle warnings that their questions and actions would be met with swift retribution. One such teacher, who is also a union rep, emailed Brizard regarding some kind of critical question on a program or initiative Brizard had advanced (I’m going from memory here). When the teacher emailed a question that was interrogative and critical in the manner of questioning, Brizard responded back to the teacher’s supervising administrator strongly advising for the teacher to be reprimanded. The teachers questions were not disrespectful nor a personal character attack. When I asked about this situation to other teachers who were more familiar with the situation they responded stating that Brizard’s response seemed draconian, caustic, and wildly out of line.

      Again, I’m going from memory on that situation but that was not an isolated scenario, which is where the reputation of tyranny and a dictator-like leadership style came from.

      Just out of curiosity, when you said “I’ll take the pass and run with it to Hizzoner Emanuel’s new school team”, could you provide some more detail on that? I’m hoping to understand with clarity what you’re planning with that move.

      As far as reference articles with more details here are a few written by allies in Chicago, Rochester, and NYC (all three areas Jean-Claude Brizard has worked in) I can certainly provide more info with more details. Of course, be sure to check back here at Failing Schools as well to learn more:

      http://www.newstips.org/?p=3656

      http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2011/04/webliography-jc-brizard.html

      http://pureparents.org/?p=17130

      http://pureparents.org/?p=17109

      http://ednotesonline.blogspot.com/2011/04/theres-april-brizard-hitting-chicago.html

      http://thecherrycreeknews.com/news-mainmenu-2/1-latest/5838-parents-group-hits-back-at-billionaire-broads-influence-on-education.html

Trackbacks

  1. My Response to “The risks of forcing out Jean-Claude Brizard” (via Failing Schools) « Transparent Christina
  2. Parents United for Responsible Education » Blog Archive » Rochester’s “loss” is really Chicago’s
  3. Is Supt. Brizard’s Chicago Honeymoon Over Before It Started? | NY-ON.us
  4. Is the Chicago honeymoon over for Supt. Brizard, before even starting? « Parents Across America

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