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A Bronx Science Experiment

Reidy observing a class.  

Reidy felt she was ideally suited to solve these problems. In her own science classes, she had used what teachers called the “guided discovery” method, in which students aren’t lectured at but instead led through a lesson Socratically, so they develop their own understanding of the material. In math, students aren’t drilled but asked how they might try to approach a particular problem—say, figuring out exactly how two lines intersect. “I don’t want to know the answer, I want to know the process. I want to see how you think. You might come up with a convoluted way of doing it, and then I can say you did a great job but here’s a shortcut you may choose to use.”

Reidy lights up when she talks about guided discovery; she believes it links back to the laboratory or “inquiry”-based learning encouraged by Bronx Science’s founders. But the method is highly scripted and can make teachers used to lecturing feel more like robots than educators. “What I find is when you have teachers with a lot of alphabet soup after their name, they take the college approach: ‘I’m going to come in and expose you to my brilliance,’ ” she says. “But real teaching is tight. This is not, ‘We’re going to have a loose conversation about the information, and then you can go home and teach yourself.’ You’re Socrates. You have to steer them to the solution.”

She devised a two-part strategy: Those new teachers who couldn’t or wouldn’t teach her way would not get tenure; the older, set-in-their-ways teachers would retire sooner or later, making room for young ones she could train herself (Reidy generally hires new, unmolded teachers, not experienced teachers who have earned tenure elsewhere). She promoted new assistant principals she felt would embrace her approach and be a model for others. She even handed out copies of her old biology lesson plans and suggested teachers take a pointer or two from them. “I’ve learned this over time, I’m good at this,” Reidy says. “The sequence of the questions has to be well thought out—because they’re building to a conclusion. The wording is important. I’ll often say to teachers, ‘Change this word. You noticed no hands went up? Change this word.’ ”

“There are lots of good schools out there. Go interview there.”

In May 2005, a group of Bronx Science teachers started distributing leaflets outside the school, slamming Reidy’s approach. Chief among her critics were chemistry teacher Robert Drake and ­social-studies teacher Mel Maskin, the union chapter leader. That school year, the United Federation of Teachers filed 25 grievances against Reidy. The majority of the objections involved the guided-discovery method. But there were other criticisms.

At a faculty meeting, Reidy was reported to have explained the school’s SAT-prep courses by saying students who “speak Asian” needed them. And after receiving an honorary doctorate from the College of Mount St. Vincent, she was said to be telling people to call her “doctor” (she later denied that). Drake seized on this and began handing out buttons labeled QUACK. “Somehow I crossed her, though I still do not know how,” Drake later said. “I had 30 years of college experience as a research chemistry professor and several excellent years at Bronx Science before my fall from grace.” The protest caught on with students, and one junior reportedly accused Reidy of trying to get him to say he was coerced by Drake into protesting. Drake left the school that summer, as did a steady stream of teachers, about fifteen each year over the next several years. One of them, Bryan Sans, who left in the middle of the 2006–2007 school year, reportedly accused Reidy in his resignation letter of promoting a “culture of fear.”

A number of tenured teachers began to feel threatened; Reidy wasn’t leaving them alone as her predecessors had. “Teachers who had been perfect and had no problems whatsoever—suddenly everything they did was wrong,” says one social-studies teacher who left last year. “There’s some sort of social aspect missing with her,” says Bill Boera, who retired in 2007 after eleven years in the guidance department. Boera says he came back from a prolonged sick leave to find his office had been turned into a conference room; he also had to file a union grievance just to take Ash Wednesday off. “She doesn’t connect with people well.”

Another round of “quack” protests came in early 2008, after Reidy demanded teachers standardize what they teach among classes and give diagnostic pretests. When Reidy moved to squelch the protests, she only made things worse. Some 200 students held signs reading “We Love Our Teachers” and “I’m a Doctor Too, a Ph.D. in My Rights.” “She went after some of the brightest and the best teachers—people who could actually think,” says Helen Kellert, whose students were upset because she had been criticized by one of Reidy’s assistant principals for showing a video of The Merchant of Venice. “They said in class, ‘We’re not going to take this.’ And I just looked at them and talked about the French Revolution—about how we stand up to certain regimes.” Later, ­Reidy had Kellert investigated by the Department of Education for inciting the students to protest (Reidy says she believes Kellert falsely told her students that she was being fired). “It went nowhere,” Kellert says. She took early retirement a year later. “I started quoting Louis XIV—the style is the person. It was as much substance as style. The petty dictator digs in, learns a few rules, becomes savvy, and manages to slip through.”