black box

"Blame em," Klein is urged about teachers union in latest emails

The latest internal Department of Education emails to come to light are mostly dark: The 228 pages released today contain large swaths of blacked-out text.

But between redactions, a few messages stand out — including one in which charter operator Eva Moskowitz speedily outlines an agenda that became the driving focus of former Chancellor Joel Klein’s last year in office.

Urging Klein to be “SUPERAGGRESSIVE in [the] standard of excellence” for schools’ academic performance, Moskowitz wrote, “If folks criticize you for having the bar way too high, you know you are inching closer to success.”

The emails were part of the yield from a massive Freedom of Information Law request filed by the United Federation of Teachers. The union wanted to see the communication exchanged between the city Department of Education and charter school supporters during a period when legislators were under pressure to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in the state. That cap was raised in May 2010.

Hundreds of emails between Klein and charter advocates were released last month, showing that Klein kept careful tabs on the legislative action and was quick to connect advocates with support.

The latest batch of emails — all from December 2009 — are mostly among department officials. The emails that are not redacted — a minority of those included in the release — show that Klein was in the loop on everything from suspicious odors at elementary schools to pitches about new partnerships.

Many of the emails have nothing to do with charter schools but instead reflect the department’s broader policy initiatives, such as the use of data and technology-infused teaching. In one, then-Deputy Chancellor John White pushed another official to secure philanthropic funds for a new data management program called ARIS Local, saying, “If we reduce private ask, I don’t like public procurement we would need to do given exposure on ARIS.”

In another message, after education entrepreneur Tom Vander Ark pitched White on a fully online school, Klein said, “Keep me in the loop on this.” (That school folded before opening.) And when Roland Fryer, the Harvard sociologist who conducted experiments about student behavior in city schools, offered his assistance upon his move to New York City, Klein suggested that Fryer look at an individualized learning program called Time To Know that would be rolling out in city schools.

Charter school advocates do make appearances in the emails — usually to discuss fraught space-sharing arrangements. Backers of Girls Prep, a Lower East Side school, and PAVE Academy in Red Hook, Brooklyn, both kept Klein up to date on their schools’ space crises. And Michael Duffy, then the head of the department’s charter schools office who now runs a charter network of his own, urged Klein to let two schools in the Icahn network remain in public space until the network had constructed a new building.

But no other charter operator or advocate had as many suggestions for Klein as Moskowitz, a former City Council education committee chair who runs the Success Academies Network. Their relationship is no surprise: In 2010, the New York Daily News obtained emails between Moskowitz and Klein that showed frequent communication in 2008 about space-sharing, the teachers union, and charter school politics.

The single email from Moskowitz to Klein included in today’s release — sent Sunday, Dec. 20, 2010 — is barely redacted at all. The subject is “Greetings,” but Moskowitz wastes little time on niceties before launching into a pair of suggestions for the chancellor.

The first suggestion was to raise the bar on what the city considers success — and to close more schools that don’t meet it. “Academic bar and school closures. Want to urge you to be even more aggressive,” she wrote. “Whatever number pick as reasonable double.”

The next spring, the United Federation of Teachers won a lawsuit to halt 19 school closures. But the following fall, Klein’s last as chancellor, he placed 26 schools on the chopping block, far more than in any previous year.

The second suggestion was to take on the teachers union over the issue of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers who are paid but do not have permanent positions. The pool was created under the terms of the city’s 2005 contract with the UFT.

“Would go hard on reserve rooms and unions, showing victiims [sic] kids and talented teachers,” Moskowitz wrote. “Blame em. Every hour of the day.”

In February 2010, a leaked list of the city’s contract demands showed that being able to fire teachers in the ATR pool was a top ask. Klein made the issue the topic of his last message to principals before leaving the department in December 2010.

The city has not won that right in the year and a half since. Last month, Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced that the city would instead offer retirement and resignation incentives to teachers in the ATR pool — something the union had long requested. City and union officials met to negotiate that change for the first time this week.

Moskowitz’s email also presages a personal policy shift. Before 2009, she had focused her network’s school-creation efforts on low-income neighborhoods. But in 2010, she sought space on the Upper West Side, which has more middle-class families.

In her email to Klein, Moskowitz offers one reason why she might want to bring her brand of school reform to the Upper West Side — and, this fall, to middle-class areas in Brooklyn. “Recently visited a high performing traditional public school to see teaching and was utterly appalled,” she wrote to Klein. “The scores are decent bc kids come in well-educated. The teaching was incredibly mediocre and noone minded.”

“If going to leave nyc a fundamentally better place given schools not only in poor neighborhoods but even in more affluent neighborhoods, the bar will have to be SO much higher,” she advised.

Moskowitz’s complete email to Klein is below:


Before I do wanted to broach two topics

1)Academic bar and school closures. Want to urge you to be even more aggressive. Whatever number pick as reasonable double. Whatever bar pick make it higher by at least a factor of 2. Bottom 10-15 percent is NOWHERE near enough. It will take another century if we do not name the standard. Have 4 years — really 3 in politics. If going to leave nyc a fundamentally better place given schools not only in poor neighborhoods but even in more affluent neighborhoods, the bar will have to be SO much higher. Recently visited a high performing traditional public school to see teaching and was utterly appalled. The scores are decent bc kids come in well-educated. The teaching was incredibly mediocre and noone minded.

The way I look at it this is the last chance to be SUPERAGGRESSIVE in standard of excellence. Use all of talk surrounding reform and global economy (being known as chancellor w high academic standards–in addition to taking on system) to pump up that ante. If folks criticize you for having the bar way too high, you know you are inching closer to success.

2) Teaching fellows. Get massive cuts etc. And political heat. But cannot afford (for children’s sake) to crank up talent machine and let that go to waste. Would go hard on reserve room and unions, showing victiims kids and talented teachers. Blame em. Every hour of every day. Pr offensive. Never seen your team do and this is a great issue. Everyone is on your side except union bosses, assuming you make argument. This wld be win win. Set doe up to address reserve issue and help charters w critical talent need. Make it campaign to not let talented people go just bc of intransigence of unions. Obviously I say this bc believe right thing to do but also it will be hard to open up so fast high performing schools wo a system wh really doesn’t care where talent goes if it helps kids get an excellent, free public ed

Have been meaning to reach out on these but got swamped.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”