The “Nadelstern” Years: Radical Educator, Change Agent or Mis-Guided Idealist?


The old Board of Education was like a mass of silly putty, no matter how you jab it, stick in a finger here and there, it always returned to it’s original shape. It was impermeable to change.
On the edges a few radical principals created their own worlds based on the needs of kids rather than the bureaucratic needs of adults.
Ed Gottlieb was an elementary principal in District 3, a radical in his politics and in his educational philosophy, leader of the War Resisters League International, a poet, a prescient innovator. Breakfast programs, use of manipulatives, open classroom, Ed, under the radar, ran an exemplary school with a generation of followers.
Fred Koury was both on the UFT Executive Board and created City-As-School, an alternative high school in the West Village in which students earned credits through off-site internships.
I first met Eric Nadelstern at a UFT meeting, with the Chapter Leader and a group of teachers, they were asking the union to support a new way of hiring teachers. Instead of  principal’s choice and the seniority transfer plan Eric and his staff wanted a committee, made up of a majority of teachers, to hire all teachers. The plan spread from one little school on La Guardia College campus to more than half of the schools in the City.
Eric and his teachers not only collaboratively chose their staff they developed a peer review system in which teachers evaluated other teachers.
A coalition of schools, with Eric, Peter Steinberg, (a UFT activist and founder of Fanny Hamer, a small high school)  and other principals formed the Performance-Based Assessment Consortium, forty schools that won a waiver from the state commissioner, schools would create a portfolio/roundtable system in lieu of Regents and Regent Competency Tests. When a subsequent commissioner refused to renew the waiver Eric and the Consortium challenged the commissioner in court, and lost.
I admired Eric for his conviction, and was amazed that he survived and wasn’t fired by the bureaucrats who drove the seemingly unchanging beast, the Board of Education.
Eric’s recent career will be debated for years. Has the “small school revolution” created more effective schools? How dysfunctional are large high schools? Does autonomy lead to anarchy? Do networks build sustainability?  Does the reliance on data improve classroom instruction? Does the cycle of school closings, new school creation create more effective education for kids?  What is the impact of the alienation of classroom teachers and the “permanent revolution” with the teacher union?
Universities and foundations will host conferences, scholarly articles will be written, doctoral dissertations and lengthy tomes with dense statistical analysis will parse the “Nadelstern” years.
For the thousands of teacher who are or have been or fear they will be ATRs Eric is the “devil incarnate,” for the so-called reformers he is the carrier of the flag.
I’ve been enormously impressed and hugely disappointed in small high schools. I have wandered through too many “dropout mill” large high schools and wondered how Hillcrest and New Dorp recreated themselves into effective, student-centered large high schools, against the currents of Tweed.
Some small high schools do miracles with traditionally at-risk kids while others are completely dysfunctional.
The Klein regency is being replaced by the Black years (or, maybe months) and, followed by whomever.
I’m proud of my contributions to the world of education and teacher unionism and accept that each “new thing” overwhelms the last “not so new thing.” As the world speeds up new ideas are replaced by newer ideas at a dizzying rate.
Diane Ravitch should be a model for us all, her latest book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” documents her reflections on schools and schooling and the path that radically changed her views.
Will Eric defend his views, or, as the years pass, like Ravitch, have “second” (or, third) thoughts?”
The “Eric as ‘devil incarnate’ or savior” debate will fade as chancellors and mayors and initiatives rise and fall. Instead of long days and long nights and the triage of the moment he can write and teach and reflect.
I think Eric understands that years from now the name “Nadelstern” will evoke the creations of his artist wife Paula , education ideas are fleeting, art is forever.

Quilt by Paula Nadelstern



7 responses to “The “Nadelstern” Years: Radical Educator, Change Agent or Mis-Guided Idealist?



  2. Peter,
    The notion of ed reform in this system has been successful in pockets where many of the pundits will spin their views on their experiences and perceived outcomes.
    I will have to say that Eric has afforded me opportunities to not only put some of my radical ideas into action but created an environment where I was encouraged to push my thinking while maintaining my identity and dignity as an educator.
    May he be remembered as a doctor who created a prescription for the malaise of a system that will never have one remedy or cure for the dysfunctions that will ultimately return and mutate if effective medicine is not administered and monitored.
    In short
    We are far from healthy but not as sick as we used to be


  3. charlie glassman

    I have known Eric for about 20 tears first as a colleague at IHS and now as a good friend. As principal of IHS, he was years ahead of his times creating an empowerment zone within the school, trusting and empowering teachers who ran with that trust to do some remarkable things with kids. From that idea, came the creation of all the small schools, the empowerment of principals, and the opportunity for students to have a choice in the school they attend and to be much better served than i their large zoned high schools. Eric’s retirement is our loss and one we really cant comprehend right now.


  4. Pingback: Remainders: A suggestion on the semantics of “last in, first out” | GothamSchools

  5. “Eric is a radical, as a principal he challenged the orthodoxy, created an exemplary school, with teacher peer review! . . .
    I have significant disagreements with Eric but it is only through intellectual engagement that we can find answers.”

    Not really. It is usually through either happy accidents or truly great minds (or merely great ideas, which would actually be happy accidents in that case) that hugely elusive answers are found. We just have to be smart and honest enough to acknowledge them when they surface.

    This isn’t intellectual debate anyway. This is fishing in an echo chamber, or onanism.


  6. Pingback: Online Education in America » Blog Archive » Remainders: A suggestion on the semantics of “last in, first out”

  7. I do believe that networks build reliability, sustainability, and accountability. Large schools can thrive and prosper just as well as small schools, but just like New York and other large cities must have many precincts for their police departments, while small towns will have one police department, so large schools must have multiple points of quality assurance.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s