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5th March

First Published in The New York Sun, March 5, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

There is no question that the pernicious practice of social promotion, the passing on of failing kids from grade to grade based on their age rather than their performance-needs to be ended. This has been an issue raised again and again for the past quarter century, kept alive largely through the efforts of Herman Badillo, who has been a lonely voice for the restoration of high standards to our public education system at all levels. 

    Had Mr. Badillo been elected mayor instead of Michael Bloomberg, and if he were running the schools, I have no doubt that the school system would look greatly different from the ultra-“progressive” touchy-feely model put in place by Chancellor Klein and his deputy for teaching and learning, Diana Lam. 

    That’s why it saddens me to see Mr. Badillo allowing himself to be used as a prop to defend Mr. Klein’s wrong-headed promotional policy. 
    Moderates and conservatives should not be fooled. There is no “ending” of social promotion here. For 12 of the 13 public school grades, over 90% of the school population, it will be business as usual. Only thirdgraders will be impacted, and with very good political reason. However, politics can never be an acceptable rationale for making educational decisions. That may sound naïve, but education is one area where we need a little bit of old-fashioned integrity. 

    In previous columns, I have been critical of the City Council Education Committee chairwoman, Eva Moskowitz. In the absence, for the first time in memory, of an independent Board of Education, her committee should provide much needed oversight to a structure that centralizes power in the hands of one politician in an unprecedented way. 

    Up until this week, Ms. Moskowitz has largely failed to exploit this opportunity. Her one moment in the sun, the well-publicized hearings on union contracts, added nothing to the public dialogue that wasn’t already well known. But on this issue, Ms. Moskowitz has finally hit the mark. Waiting until third grade to hold over children is simply too late, she states. Much too late. 

    “Good teachers can easily identify students who need extra help as early as kindergarten,” the principal of one of the city’s highest-performing inner-city schools for 20 years, until her retirement in 1999, Lorraine Skeen said. “Some children, often those born late in the year and younger than most of their classmates, can benefit from repeating kindergarten or first grade. That’s the time when intervention does the most good.” This is exactly the strategy used in the best private schools. 

    However, Department of Education policy is explicit. Children in kindergarten through second-grade are not to be held back “except in extraordinary circumstances.” 

    Ms. Skeen emerged from retirement last year to take a job as one of the Department of Education’s “Local Instructional Supervisors,” in charge of a dozen schools in the poorest areas of the East Bronx. “I thought that real reform had come at last,” she said. 

    However, after a few months, she quit in disgust, outraged by the heavy-handed micromanagement of the schools, and the weak curriculum choices that she feels doom any effort to improve pupil performance. 
    Why is the chancellor so interested in the children in this year’s third grade? I can only conclude that this is a cynical effort to artificially inflate the scores on next year’s all-important fourth grade state reading test. By removing the lowest scoring children from next year’s fourth-grade, 15% to 20% of the total enrollment, these scores, the first that the mayor must take full responsibility for, will increase dramatically. 

    These scores will be released in the summer of 2005, just months before Mr. Bloomberg faces his one and only re-election bid. You can be sure that those numbers will be highlighted, and the manipulation that created them pooh-poohed. This wouldn’t be the first time that Tweed ring has tried to manipulate test results to cast their programs in a favorable light. 

    This is exactly what Mr. Klein and Ms. Lam attempted to do with the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, claims that were devastatingly debunked by the educational historian and 
NAEP governing board member, Diane Ravitch. 

    Ms. Ravitch, who usually takes a tough stance on social promotion, has parted company with Mr. Klein on his plan. At the center of her concerns is the curriculum issue. The Klein/Lam reading curriculum has already been rejected by the state and federal government as not being based on scientific research, at the core of the Bush administration’s heroic effort to boost reading scores. “Why should the kids pay the price if it turns out that they are the victims of educational malpractice?” Ms. Ravitch asked. 

    Of course, once Mr. Bloomberg is safely re-elected, this year’s holdovers will be promoted to fourth grade regardless of their test scores, as Mr. Klein has already conceded. 

    A better way to handle this year’s third graders was suggested by the United Federation of Teachers president, Randi Weingarten, and endorsed by Mayor Koch, another strong foe of social promotion. 

    Under current plans, third graders will be held over if they “fail” either the math or the reading test. Thus, children who were performing acceptably in one subject area will have to repeat the work in both. 

    Ms. Weingarten suggested putting these children in smaller “conditional” fourth-grade classes, where they can stay on level on the subject they passed and get extra help in the one they failed. This strategy could enable some pupils to catch up and be promoted to fifth grade. The downside for Mr. Bloomberg? Those children will have to take the fourth-grade test next year. 

    Finally, it appears that a major casualty of the administration’s plans is the summer-school program. These plans have not yet been firmed up, but it may be that the extra five weeks of instruction will be restricted to failing second- and third-graders. This will limit the program to perhaps 30,000 children, down from as many as 300,000. 

    Make no mistake about it: Our most at -risk students in every grade benefit from what amounts to a longer school year. These children were getting additional instruction in a structured setting, exactly what many of them need most. The alternative is a wasted summer. Those of us who believe in the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP)–type charter model of a longer school day and school year should strongly advocate for expansion, not the shrinkage, of the summer school program. 

    As a high school student in 1965, I campaigned for Mr. Badillo in his successful effort to become the Bronx Borough president. His political evolution as a moderate mirrors my own. So that’s why I think that if he takes a closer look at the Klein plan, he will see that it leaves much to be desired for the million or so children who will continue to be blindly pushed ahead.

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

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