04/10/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

King Klein Keeps Them in Line

The New York City Department of Education operates like the Court of the Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. There are lavish rewards for those who kowtow to the ruler, but if subordinates step out of line - "Off with their heads!"

Joel "King" Klein is monarch of the DOE; like hereditary monarchs from Europe's feudal past, it makes no difference that he does not have the qualifications to do the job. That is because his job is not really to run a school system that strives to educate over one million children. That would require a tremendous amount of experience, judgment, and the ability to listen to advice and weigh alternatives, all qualities that he apparently lacks. Instead, what "King" Klein seems intent on doing is running established schools into the ground, dismantling them, either breaking the unions or driving them into complicity, and silencing all internal dissent.

It is not clear what "King" Klein, and his liege lord, New York City Mayor Michael "Money Bags" Bloomberg, will do to replace a school system, flawed as it may be, that took decades to build. My best guess based on their past statements and actions is a network of small privately operated more or less "outsourced" educational entities (not quite schools and not quite factories) staffed by inexperienced administrators and teachers willing to follow directions, teach from scripts, work for less, and keep their mouths shut so they get paid. Maybe King and Money Bags will bring in McDonalds, Wal-Mart or a similar high quality enterprise to coordinate their program so these companies can better prepare our children to be indiscriminate consumers of junk food and plastic crap and minimum wage workers in 21st century jobs.

Before being anointed New York City Schools Chancellor by Bloomberg, Klein was a lawyer in the anti-trust division of the United States Attorney General's office during the Clinton presidency and miraculously made the jump from government employee to chairman and chief executive officer of one of the world's wealthiest media companies, in the process becoming a very rich man. King Klein and Mayor Money Bags apparently believe their wealth and power give them a direct connection to God, so they share the Supreme Being's omniscience and have the divine right to govern the schools by whim.

One of King Klein's primary tasks is keeping employees in line, silencing dissent and questioning. Subordinates have no authority. When the State Board of Regents allowed Bloomberg to appoint a Schools Chancellor without any qualifications, it insisted that qualified educators be placed in charge of curriculum and instruction. What has followed is a stream of high profile temporary appointments. The best known was Carmen Fariña, a career New York City teacher and school administrator who was continually embarrassed by her lack of influence and being forced to implement policies that ran counter to the student and teacher friendly programs she initiated during a lifetime in the schools.

Silencing and intimidation permeates what remains of the school system. Principals of schools designated for reorganization are told that their next appointment is contingent on quietly acquiescing to the destruction of their schools and the public demeaning of their students and staff as failures. Veteran teachers fear they will be displaced when schools are closed, forced into retirement, sent to the "rubber room" to serve out the rest of their careers as go-fers, or assigned to purgatory as glorified over-the-quota substitutes.

I received the following post from a former student who is currently a New York City high school teacher. This teacher writes about the demoralization affecting teachers and students in schools that are threatened with being closed.

I teach in a school that was given an 'F' grade by New York City two years ago. We had our union representative in the building to talk to us today in an effort to get some of the grant money that the federal government is handing out. New York State just published a list of 35 of the lowest performing schools that need to be 'reformed' based on graduation rates and regents scores. Our school was placed on this list, despite moving from an F to a C this year. The message is clear: big schools must go.

What message does this send to our students? How are students going to learn in an environment that they have been told is failing them? How are students going to learn in an environment in which the conversation in the teachers' lounge is not about great ideas for lessons, but have you sent out your resume yet to get off this sinking ship?

Nobody from Tweed [the Department of Education's office] or the State has stepped foot into our school since these lists came out. They have not spoken with our students and they don't know anything about us. Yet they feel they know enough to make a decision that will displace and disrupt the learning of over 3,500 students and the lives of 300 teachers.

John Dewey is probably the preeminent educational philosopher in the history of the United States. A major tenet of his teaching is that students learn from their entire school experience, not just from the official school curriculum. We can preach to them as much as we want about democracy and critical thinking, but when they see that our schools are run top down and that teachers and administrators who question are ignored or punished, they quickly learn to keep their mouths shut and to adjust to life in a dictatorship.

I recently read the New York State Agenda for Reform that calls on schools to prepare students for active citizenship in a democratic society and for 21st century careers. It is full of noble sentiments and high idealism, but ignores what is really happening to the schools in the evil kingdom operated by King Klein and Mayor Money Bags.

New York City desperately needs other elected officials, its media, the unions, and a mass movement of teachers and students to resist what is happening and to declare that when it comes to school reform, "the emperors are naked."