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11th June

First Published in The New York Sun, June 11, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

Now begins the time for the accountability on schools that we were promised by Mayor Bloomberg. The first test results under the new Department of Education are not good news. And the mayor, instead of acknowledging the disappointing results, is regrettably making excuses for them, doing himself exactly what he used to criticize the old Board of Education for.

The most troublesome results — on fourthand eighth-grade English Language Assessment tests administered by the State of New York — show a nearly three-point drop in the fourth grade. This breaks a trend established during the previous four years of steady growth.In 1999, just 32.7% of the city’s fourth graders tested at grade-level in reading.This rose to 52.4% by last year. But this year, under the new “reform” program, scores dropped for the first time since the baseline was established. 
In January of 2003, Chancellor Klein and his now departed deputy Diana Lam announced the establishment of a uniform “curriculum” at P.S. 172, a Brooklyn school that had been making remarkable progress.They suggested that the programs they chose to put in place citywide, “Month-by-Month Phonics” and “Everyday Math,” were responsible for the school’s success on standardized tests.

The programs had only recently been put in place there. The reading program that drove the impressive gains at the school was McGraw-Hill’s “Open Court,” a program heavy on phonics and direct teacher instruction — the exact opposite of Mr. Klein’s and Ms. Lam’s “balanced literacy” philosophy.

Since then, in any event, two test cycles have passed, so it is reasonable to say that the P.S. 172 fourth-grade test results now reflect the use of the balanced literacy approach. Scores dropped by six points, more than twice the citywide decline. Using Mr. Klein’s “model school” rationale, all of our schools can anticipate tough times ahead using his program. But that should surprise no one.That is why “balanced literacy”was rejected for funding by the federal government as not validated by scientific research. It has repeatedly been demonstrated not to work in studies nationwide.

What we need in the schools are results.What we are getting is public relations hype. According to the Daily News, the announcement of the results of the city-administered reading and math tests was “rushed out ahead of schedule to try to offset the bad news on the state’s fourthgrade reading test” at the direction of City Hall.

The results of the state test were reportedly held back for weeks in anticipation that just maybe there might be some good news coming out of the city tests.The headline on the press release issued by the Department of Education last Thursday didn’t even mention the fourthgrade tests, but rather led with “New York City Students Show Significant Gains in Mathematics Exams this Year…” Is this manipulation what the mayor means by accountability?

The decline in the city, measured as compared with the state as a whole, discloses that much of the “broader statewide decline,” referred to by Chancellor Klein in his press release, took place right here. If city scores are omitted, the rest of the state is nearly flat. This was noted by the state education commissioner, Richard Mills.

While the eighth-grade scores of city children improved slightly statewide and here in the city this year, over the five years between 1999 and this year, no gains were made. This is a disturbing statistic that mirrors a national trend and suggests that there is a fundamental problem with the strategies we are employing in our middle schools across the nation. Why is this?

Many of us who believe in traditional instruction point to the de-emphasis of contentarea instruction in middle school grades. We are simply not teaching history, geography, science, art, and music to our children in a rigorous way. These subjects are often tossed together into “blocks” called “humanities,” taught by generalists rather than subject-area specialists. We have abandoned the use of textbooks and the organizational rigor they can bring to the classroom.

The results of the city-administered ELA tests in grades 3,5,6 and 7 are flat,suggesting,but not yet confirming, potential problems with the instructional program. Mr. Klein’s press release highlighted gains in the city-administered math tests and downplayed the disappointing reading-test scores. Math scores have been tracking up, but not because the children are doing better. The test has been greatly simplified to conform to the new “fuzzy” math instruction, and students can even get credit for reaching the wrong answer.

We wanted accountability, and now it is the mayor who must hold the bureaucrats in his Department of Education accountable for the reading mess. No longer is there talk of gains of 10%, 20%, even 30%, the kinds of figures that the 113 Local Instructional Superintendents were demanding of principals early this school year.

One thing is for sure: Next year’s fourth-grade scores will go up. But not because of better instruction, but because choosing third-grade as the only holdover year insures that next year’s fourth-grade will have a minimum number of low performers.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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