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21st May

First Published in The New York Sun, May 21, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

Mayor Bloomberg acknowledged on his radio show last week that his Department of Education was looking like the “gang that couldn’t shoot straight,” following the testing foul-ups that are undermining his effort to “end” social promotion. 

    The mayor is said to be livid over matters going back to the controversy over the curriculum, the Diana Lam scandal, the special education crisis, and now the testing and social promotion disaster. 
    The tumult over the “ending” of social promotion is a case in point. Social promotion seems to be the kind of thing that is ended periodically, only to rise like a phoenix. 
    It was in January 1998 that Mayor Giuliani got up at the State of the City Address and vowed to have the chancellor end social promotion. 

    The following year, a program to end social promotion was put in place, so that moving on to the next grade would be based on standardized test results. 

    The 1999 program put in place by the “other” Rudy, Chancellor Crew, was more comprehensive than the plan at the center of the controversy today. 

    It encompassed more grades, and was designed to apply to every grade. When the Miami-Dade school board hired Mr. Crew as its new superintendent earlier this week, his role in “ending social promotion” in New York was a big part of their rationale. So what happened? 

    The educational establishment chipped away at the implementation. It did so by allowing “alternative” promotional criteria, such as portfolios, to supercede standardized test results at the discretion of teachers and principals, who took their direction from superintendents who, by and large, didn’t agree with using standardized tests to make promotional decisions. 

    Lest you think that anything has changed, that is happening again today. 

    It is many of the same progressive folk who are now in firm charge of the Department of Education’s instructional side. As Yogi Berra said: “It’s déjà vu all over again.” 

    A new handbook has been distributed to teachers and principals. It removes from the school the final authority to make promotional decisions. 

    It reflects how far the mayor and chancellor have traveled from the common-sense, back-to-basics approach that Mr. Bloomberg articulated in his campaign. 

    Even if these new rules were smart and rational, it is far too late in the school year to be changing policy. The sense that the Department of Education is “making it up as they go along” is increasingly pervasive. 

    Any child who fails either the reading or math portions of the third-grade standardized tests is put into a three-level appeals process. Most test scores come as no surprise to the teacher or the parent, and have historically not been appealed. 

    Now teachers must provide portfolios and the like for every failing child, even if there is no question that the scores reflect the child’s work. 

    This then must go to the principal who ratifies or reverses the teacher. Then the appeal is reviewed by the local instructional superintendent, who hypothetically may have to look at hundreds of cases. People who have better things to do are being drowned in paper. 

    Such is the state of the current reform. Many of those who are attacking the policy today were on hand back in 1998, offering the same reasons why such an initiative would be unnecessarily cruel to the children by destroying their self-esteem. 

    The difference is that this time the mayor and chancellor have handed their opponents the sword with which they are eviscerating their efforts. 

    Unfortunately for the mayor, the problems don’t end there. The administrative side of things is going as badly as the instructional side. 

    Two weeks ago, the Tweed bureaucracy insisted that there was no longer a backlog of special education evaluations. It’s just a data entry problem, they said. 

    This week, under fire from the chairwoman of the City Council Education Committee, Eva Moskowitz, for not providing required data on school construction projects, it was “just a printing error.” 

    Next time, it may well be that the dog ate their homework. 

    Is it, therefore, really surprising that in a recent poll, the New York Times found that a majority of New Yorkers are dissatisfied with the mayor’s signature issue, his handling of the schools, and that Mr. Klein is the first chancellor to ever poll a negative rating? 

    Mr. Bloomberg expended much political capital over Mr. Klein’s programs. 

    His firing of his appointees to the Panel for Educational Policy over the social promotion issue, while delighting a number of our city’s editorial writers, may ultimately lead to revisiting aspects of the education law that will diminish his authority and that of future mayors. Such legislation has already been introduced. 

    Most troublesome of all is the fact that the mayor, who promised us that his business acumen would enable him to run the schools without a huge influx of new dollars, has now joined the ranks of those who believe that throwing money at the schools will fix them. 

    Mr. Klein put the shortfall in aid from the state at $18-billion over the past 10 years, a radical position even in the world of those who always have their palms up. 

    The only way forward is for the mayor to personally take this situation in hand. 

    A good place for him to start is at the beginning, reviewing his own early positions and make changes that reflect the solid thinking that he originally brought to the table.

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

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