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16th April

First Published in The New York Sun, April 16, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

On Monday, the acting deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, Carmen Fariña, held an informal press briefing, the kind of thing we have come not to expect from the Department of Education. 

Decisions regarding the education of our children have been made largely in secret, and the interaction between the educrats and the public scripted by public relations gurus,both on and off the city payroll. Ms. Fariña has now joined in this effort. 

    An apostle of “progressive” education theology, Ms. Fariña would not concede how dismal a failure the city’s instructional decisions have been. No, there is nothing wrong with the curriculum, she said. We just haven’t sold it right. 
    In fact, she even suggested that the federal officials who have rejected the city’s reading curriculum because there is no proof that it works,simply didn’t understand what the city was trying to do. 

    That is either a remarkable deception or a reflection of self-delusion on Ms. Fariña’s part. State and federal officials predictably rejected a program that they understood totally. “Balanced Literacy” is the new terminology for whole language, which is a well-known and widely understood concept. 

    Many educators, like Ms. Fariña, fervently believe in whole language, in much the same way as religious people believe in the tenets of their faith. But education isn’t religion. 

    Results can be measured and analyzed using scientific methodology, and they have been. Programs such as the one put in place here in New York haven’t fared well when held to those standards, particularly for the children most at risk. 

    Other strategies, particularly those where children face a teacher in the front of a classroom and are taught heavy doses of phonics, have been shown to be more effective in teaching children to read. 

    So what’s a good educrat, a true believer in the brave new button-down world of Tweed to do? Hold a retreat, of course, in essence a religious revival meeting for all of the city’s 10 regional superintendents and 113 Local instructional superintendents that has been scheduled for May 6. 

    Like a sales meeting in private industry, the discussion will never focus on the deficiencies of the product, but rather how to sell that clunker to an unsuspecting public. 

    As I’m working on stitching together nearly two years’ worth of columns on the “reform” of the city schools for my forthcoming book,I spend a great deal of time reflecting on just what conclusions can be drawn from these past two years.What is the real meaning of this “reform” thus far? It is clear to me now. It is the replacement of substance with spin.

    Along the way, a great opportunity to turn the school system around has been squandered, perhaps lost forever. All because at a critical moment a well-meaning Mayor Bloomberg failed to follow his solid gut instincts, and instead ended up taking the system in the opposite direction that he intended it to go. 
    He put his faith in Chancellor Klein, an appointment I first believed was inspired. After all, it was the educrats, people such as Diana Lam and Carmen Fariña, who put the schools into this mess, so it stands to reason that a fresh look from a bright outsider with no in
vestment in the status quo was exactly what the system needed. 

    But rather than take a fresh look, Mr. Klein became imprisoned by the tired ideology of the thankfully departed Ms.Lam,a pillar of all that is wrong with the educational status quo. 

    What Mr. Bloomberg ended up doing is empowering, to an unprecedented extent, those responsible for the decline in our school system in the first place. 

    Like the recent convert who becomes more orthodox than the lifetime believer, Mr. Klein is now a total evangelist for the “progressive” education theocracy. Whole language, fuzzy math, and bilingual classes are not the “back to basics” education ideas promised to us by Mr. Bloomberg. 

    In many ways, the administration is now caught between the sound ideas of traditionalists, among whom are many of the mayor’s political allies, and the “child-centered” dogma of the “progressives” who run the educational establishment. The battle lines between sides in the debate over social promotion provide an example of this dichotomy. 

    The school system owes each child the best, most effective teaching strategies available. Unfortunately,this is not what they are receiving. If the system fulfills that obligation, children have a responsibility to meet certain academic goals. If those goals are not met, there must be a strategy employed to bring that child up to grade level. Certainly one of the key parts of the overall strategy is a tough retention policy. 

    Next week, third-grade students will be taking the citywide reading test on which their futures will hinge. Imposing this requirement so late in the school year, the first in which the controversial and flawed new curriculum was fully in place, added unnecessary fuel to the fires of those who seek to eliminate testing altogether as a measure of student performance. 

    The charade of the tutoring sessions given during the spring vacation demonstrates how the spin has supplanted the substance. Does anyone believe that a child’s abilities can be turned around in a matter of days, two weeks before the test, reversing nearly four years of failure? If the result of the tutoring is the child somehow pushed from the higher reaches of level 1, and being forced to repeat third grade, by answering — or guessing — one or two more correct answers, thus crossing the line into level 2 and a ticket to the fourth grade, what is really accomplished? Is the student really doing better? 

    All of this falls into the realm of spin. New York’s children need and deserve much more. Ms. Fariña’s focus on “spinning” Mr. Lam’s failed strategies, rather than changing course, takes us further from Mr. Bloomberg’s initially sound ideas. 

    On the opposite page is a letter from Richard Kahan of the Urban Assembly in response to my column last week, “The Secret School” planned for Riverdale despite opposition from the local community. Many of the points raised by Mr.Kahan are simply wrong on a factual basis. 

    Region 1, which stretches down to the Yankee Stadium area, lies mainly in the south Bronx, not the north Bronx, as any resident of our borough would know. The information regarding the very well-formed curriculum and its political component comes right off of the school’s Web site, which seems to be shrinking daily as it is being expurgated of this damning information. 

    Finally the central role of Sandra Barros, who has been involved in many radical causes, in establishing this school was also obtained from the school’s Web site. It is gratifying that officials are now backing away from her involvement, but it doesn’t change one simple, central fact. 

    Mr. Kahan and his group are not from our community or borough. He is so ignorant of us that he can’t differentiate between our north and our south. Nonetheless, he, along with people of questionable background, are attempting to impose an unwanted project on a middle-class community that he doesn’t understand or appreciate. 

    Riverdale has struggled with delicate educational issues and problems for many years and is close to finally resolving them in a manner that is helpful to this community and the city as a whole. Mr. Kahan’s project complicates these years of effort. I wish him well, but his school must be placed elsewhere.

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

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