Lombardi is aware of his reputation in union circles; he’s just never thought that teachers and the union were one and the same. “I don’t want to come off as a tyrant,” he says. “This job is often lonely. When you tell a teacher ‘This is not good enough,’ it becomes painful. Everybody’s in favor of reform—until they’re the ones being reformed. But I knew what I had to do.”
In his first year at P.S. 49, Lombardi wasted little time trying to create, as he describes it in management-speak, an “alignment of expectations and accountability.” Loosely translated, that means the teachers couldn’t shake him off with a stick. “We went from having a principal visit a classroom three or four times a year to having him there all the time,” remembers Mary Shannon, a third-grade teacher. “That was very nerve-racking at first. The constant scrutiny—every time the door would open, your heart would sink and you’d turn red.”
The UFT rep had a busy time of it, too. “There were a lot of emergency meetings at the time—‘He’s coming into my room, he’s looking at my lesson plan,’ ” Shannon says. “But he knew the contract up and down and wasn’t really doing anything wrong. And the big difference is, all the kids knew him, said hello to him, wanted to show him their work.”
It helped that with every new edict came extra training for the teachers. Lombardi took the unusual step of adding a professional period each week, and rearranged the other planning periods so teachers in each grade could meet together, sharing tips. And four years ago, when Shannon suggested the school use the Teachers College literacy approach, he let her lead the way. “When I first heard about this, I thought it was nuts,” Lombardi admits. Parents also wondered why there was no textbook—how the teacher knew how well the child was doing if they were just reading books. “But then I saw it made sense to make sure a child understands what they’re reading. But it’s not for the weak-hearted. It challenges the teachers to view the students as readers and writers.”
“It is a lot of work, a lot of prep time, a lot of being intuitive about kids, a lot of record-keeping so you don’t forget what you’ve learned about a student,” says Lillian Licitra, who teaches fifth grade. “But after a few months, teachers enjoy it because the children are reading without frustration, which is keeping them motivated. And the one-on-one conferencing makes the kids feel special—it’s like they’re getting their own private tutoring.” Lombardi has to stay proactive, too, helping teachers make time for spelling or grammar lessons when the students are falling behind.
Shannon notes that it takes a lot of fine-tuning. “As soon as you say, ‘Oh, I finally know what I’m doing,’ they send you something new,” she adds with a sigh. On the other hand, she prefers a philosophy to a script. “Teaching out of the Basal Reader,” she says, “is one of the most boring things you can do.”
This year, P.S. 49 is following Klein’s edict to launch Everyday Math, a program that stresses real-life examples over rote computation, and is finding it’s similarly demanding. “Oh, God, it’s pretty challenging,” says Susan Dowling, a fifth-grade teacher. “Let’s say it’s about multiplication. First, you teach them what multiplication means, then you play a game, then you meet with a kid or two on the side while keeping an eye on the rest of the class. It’s more about sifting through the lesson—it’s up to you to see what your class needs.”
Klein has supplied most schools implementing the new programs with coaches to train teachers. The P.S. 49 math coach, Elisabetta Bamonte, was trained on Everyday Math for just two weeks before turning around to assist teachers. Recently, she faced off with parents at a meeting in which she had to explain why their children aren’t learning, say, actual times tables. But the parents, she says, were less worried about the quality of the program than their ability to help their kids.
“A lot of the homework,” Bamonte reassured the parents, “is for children to go home and explain it to their parents.”
What would Lombardi really need to be the boss of his school? He dreams of having a way to grade teachers with more than just an S or a U. He’d also like a full review of tenure. “The labor force needs some protection—there should be checks and balances to make sure a principal is fair,” he says. “But the contract shouldn’t allow poor practices to go on in classrooms.”
Klein has done his own digging into the UFT contract. He wants to override seniority and move the best teachers into the worst schools, and to change the notorious Circular 6 rule that keeps teachers from having to provide discipline in the halls and the cafeteria. He wants to regulate teacher sabbaticals, and merit pay for the best teachers—and, while he’s at it, wipe out the Great Society–era system of standardized pay altogether. “Every year, we’re short in math, science, English, and special-ed-certified teachers,” Klein says. “And one way to deal with that would be pay differentials. Anybody in industry would do that—I mean, that’s the way colleges do it.”
Never mind the curriculum: These changes would forever transform the schools’ teaching culture. Weingarten understands this, as does the mayor. Even if he doesn’t get everything he wants, Bloomberg is betting on a new generation of teachers to buy into it.
“A lot of the yelling and screaming is simply people’s abhorrence of something new,” the mayor says with a shrug. “They’re afraid. Sometimes justifiably so, because they’re not doing anything and they’re going to get caught. But if you get a bunch of teachers who want to collectively make a difference, they’re not going to listen to the contract. They’re going to do it because they want to. Will you get every kid ready for Harvard, Yale, or Princeton? No. Can you do certain things to give the basics to virtually—well, almost every kid, because there are just some who just, you’re never going to get there? Yeah, that you can do. I think that is a realistic expectation—to have them reading at eighth-grade level.”
It’s a little sad that such a modest goal can send a school system into a frenzy. Which is, of course, Bloomberg’s point.
“In the end, I will get reelected by an overwhelming majority and there will be very few people running against me, because the schools will be better,” he says.
A pause. Then his eyes brighten.
“It’s already certainly better than what it was.”