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19th March

First Published in The New York Sun, March 19, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

The idea of accountability of our school system is clearly one that resonates. No one was comfortable with a system that seemed to stumble along in a self-perpetuating cycle of mediocrity. That is why public clamor finally gave to Mayor Bloomberg what had eluded his predecessors — Mayors Koch, Dinkins, and Giuliani — control over the schools. 

    But, in truth, there is little accountability here. We will only have one opportunity to hold the mayor accountable: on November 8, 2005. One of the unintended consequences of the imposition of term limits is that voters get only one shot to judge Mr. Bloomberg’s effectiveness. There is no guarantee that the schools will even be at the top of the list of concerns that day. 
    We expect our mayors to multitask, so even a lackluster performance in education can be outweighed by effectiveness in dealing with other municipal endeavors. Remember also that elections are contests between individuals. Mr. Bloomberg may be no paragon, but next to, say, a Fernando Ferrer, he may begin to look a whole lot better. 

    So we can’t wait for the election to restore the principle of accountability to the Department of Education. Mr. Bloomberg must do so now. But thus far the mayor has shown little inclination to exercise his own influence to hold the top staff at the DOE accountable for some of the most egregious mistakes and deceptions in the sorry recent history of our schools. 

    The worst mistake that the former deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, Diana Lam, made was not her attempt to get her husband a job, the petty offense for which she was dismissed. Her worst mistake was the imposition of an untried, untested, and largely unknown reading program on New York City’s unsuspecting children, and doing so using deceptive methods. As a professional, she should have known that under federal law, her choice, based entirely on her ideology, would be rejected for funding. 

    Robert Kolker of New York Magazine wrote about the Lam affair this week describing the process that brought her to New York: “Klein had hired her to be a change agent, offering her the job after just a few meetings not because of her educational philosophy but because they clicked. ‘I liked her style,’ he told me last year. Did he know anything about the educational programs she used? ‘No,’ he admitted.” 

    Mr. Klein’s problem is that he finds it hard to admit error. According to published reports, he tried to save Ms. Lam’s job when the mayor demanded her resignation. The mayor prevailed. 

    Rather than change course and abandon the much-derided, federally rejected curriculum, Mr. Klein has become the true believer in Ms. Lam’s brand of “progressive” pedagogy. So it isn’t surprising that he chose another unreconstructed “progressive” to fill Ms. Lam’s shoes, at least temporarily: Carmen Farina, the regional superintendent of Brooklyn’s Region 8. If there was any real accountability in the DOE, Ms. Farina wouldn’t have been promoted, she would have been fired. 

    Ms. Farina is a fine and dedicated educator, but she is also an ideologue who has shown a willingness to use any method to advance her agenda. The former parks commissioner, Henry Stern, observed that that Ms. Farina has three advantages over Ms. Lam: “(1) She is local talent, and has made many friends during her long career in New York City schools; (2) She is being paid about one-third less than Ms. Lam’s $250,000…[and] (3) Her husband is retired, and is not seeking employment in the school system.” Beyond that, as Mr. Stern and others point out, this is a troubling appointment, even on a temporary basis. 

    There is every indication that it was Ms. Farina who was the key advocate within the DOE for the ersatz phonics program chosen by Ms. Lam that has caused so many problems and launched so many deceptions. 

    When Ms. Farina became the superintendent of Brooklyn’s District 15, she brought in Laura Kotch, the literacy coordinator of District 10 in the Bronx as her deputy. It was Ms. Kotch who introduced Month-by-Month Phonics to New York, as I recounted in a column I wrote on February 28, 2003. 

    Just as Mr. Bloomberg came in demanding a “back-to-basics” curriculum, in 1999 the Community School Board election brought in a “back-tobasics” school board to District 10, led by former New York State Attorney General Oliver Koppell. When a horrified Mr. Koppell witnessed the district’s whole-language program in action, he demanded change in the form of more phonics instruction. Ms. Kotch found an obscure workbook series called Month-by-Month Phonics, designed to put a tiny dash of phonics into otherwise pure whole-language instruction. 

    Deceived by the name of the program, Mr. Koppell and his board were fooled, at least for the time being. And what of the scores in District 10 using a program almost identical to that now in use all over the city? Flat as a board. 

    But Month-by-Month Phonics proved itself in one regard. It was effective as a tool to convince politicians with an eye toward restoring traditional instruction that their agenda was being addressed, even when it wasn’t. After all, if it fooled the Harvard-educated former attorney general, Mr. Koppell, certainly Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein could be similarly deceived. 

    A year before Mr. Klein was chosen as chancellor, Ms. Farina and her deputy began using Month-by-Month Phonics in her district, including P.S. 172, the school that she volunteered to use as the backdrop for the announcement of the Klein/Lam curriculum choices. 

    Mr. Klein told the press that P.S. 172 had used the program “and the results have been terrific.” 
    But Ms. Farina certainly knew that the remarkable gains made at P.S. 172 long predated the introduction of Month-by-Month Phonics, but rather took place during the time the school was using “Open Court,” a phonics-heavy reading program much despised by whole-language enthusiasts. Ms. Farina became a key participant in this deception. 

    In the uproar that followed the selection of Month-by-Month Phonics, as reading experts from across the nation were warning — accurately as it turned out — that Month-by-Month would be rejected by federal officials, Ms. Farina became a favored spokesperson for the controversial choice. In an article she authored in El Diario on February 17, 2003, she characterized critics of Month-by-Month Phonics (called “Fonética Mes por Mes” in the article, which was written in Spanish) as “fanatics” and “extremists.” 

    But apparently, those fanatics and extremists were absolutely correct when they warned that Month-by-Month Phonics would be rejected by federal officials because there was no scientific evidence that it worked. 

    Ms. Farina went on to imply that the National Reading Panel had not found that other programs are more effective than Month-by-Month Phonics. This is a remarkably deceptive statement, since the National Reading Panel makes no mention of this very obscure program. This is akin to saying that the American Medical Association has not found that leeches are less effective than antibiotics, when such a comparative study has never been made. 

    In the wake of the Diana Lam scandal, the least the public and the children are entitled to from the Department of Education is full honesty and candor. By selecting someone who was an active participant, along with Ms. Lam, in the deceptions surrounding the curriculum scandal, the exact wrong message would be sent at this most critical moment. 

    It is up to Mr. Bloomberg to restore accountability and honesty to the system now. The public appreciates decisive action, even if it means admitting past missteps.

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

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