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13th February

First Published in The New York Sun, February 13, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

 When public policy starts going sour, smart officials and bureaucrats look to change direction. That was the case with the two great turnarounds in city services of the last generation, public safety and welfare. To those on the outside, it appeared that the education “reform” ushered in when Mayor Bloomberg won control of the New York City public school system would radically change the direction of the system. It is now clear that the exact same problems that beset the old Board of Education continue to plague the schools today. This comes as no surprise to the most perceptive observers of the school system. 

    I don’t like to characterize educational policy as either left wing or right wing, preferring instead to focus on what works and what doesn’t. For some reason, however, folks in the center and the right seem to favor a rigorous traditional approach, and most on the left prefer the softer,“progressive” agenda. It is in that direction that the school system had been drifting in for many, many years, a direction that brought the schools to the point at which Mr. Bloomberg declared them an abject failure. 
    Having run on a “back-to-basics” platform, even going so far as to specifically pledge an end to the city’s failed bilingual program, it was expected that this would be the direction that the mayor would take the schools once he was put in charge. Instead, he installed a curriculum replete with a radical wholelanguage reading program, fuzzy math instruction, and an expansion of bilingualism. Rather than adopt a different direction, the mayor stepped on the accelerator and took us further in precisely the same wrong direction in which we were already moving. 

    Similarly, the discipline and safety policy moved even further in the direction of the touchy-feely crowd who seek to end the violence and anarchy in some of our schools with the mink glove of conflict resolution, counseling, and protecting the rights of the miscreants. Predictably, nothing changed, and things actually got worse, as the newspapers filled with daily horror stories of school violence, intimidation, and weapons possession — and how the system was stacked to let the perpetrators go unpunished. 

    All of this horrified conservatives and moderates. Perhaps Mr. Bloomberg remembered that he was, at least on paper, a Republican, and that he was elected by New Yorkers who reside in the outer boroughs and in the center of the political spectrum. 

    The mayor attempted to satisfy many of those critics by announcing that he would end the dubious practice of social promotion, already “ended” twice before. Clear-headed thinkers such as Mayor Koch and the former City University board of trustees chairman, Herman Badillo, cheered, as they did twice before. 
However, the mayor’s new bosom buddies in New York’s educational left field — up until now delighted with the direction in which things were headed — were outraged. 

    This came to a head on Wednesday with an angry press conference and a letter opposing the social promotion policy signed by a list of 100, many of them the “usual suspects,” those who reliably oppose any effort to “toughen up” the system. 

    The administration is beginning to pay the price for its own lack of ideological ballast. 
    Even those who reliably support tough standards and consequences for the students failing to meet these standards, find fault with the mayor’s hold-over plan. New York’s most knowledgeable observer of the educational scene, Diane Ravitch, puts it this way: “The problem is that the system is imposing an unknown and unproven reading program and a dubious math program on the kids. What if it’s the system that should be flunked, not the kids? Why should they pay the price if it turns out that they are the victims of educational malpractice?” 

    Because of the growing opposition, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein is hinting that there may be an “appeals” process for would-be hold-overs, just as he was forced to backtrack on the curriculum issue in the face of the state and federal rejection of his program as not grounded by scientific research. Where does he really stand?

    Others have suggested that the stated policy of holding back thirdgraders who fail either the math or reading tests, this year is nothing more than a politically inspired effort to boost scores on the all-important fourth-grade test next year. The results of those tests will be made public just as Mr. Bloomberg’s reelection campaign hits full stride. If the lowest-performing pupils are prevented from entering fourth grade, somewhere between 15% and 20% of the total, you can expect the fourthgrade scores to dramatically increase. 

    This cynical perception is borne out from the way business has been conducted at Tweed over the past year and a half. There is an atmosphere of secrecy and deception that frankly has no place in the education system. It started out with the intrigue surrounding the membership and activities of the “Children First” 
panels, continued with the deceptive information surrounding the announcement of the curriculum choices, the quasi-public structure of the Leadership Academy and now the Charter Schools initiative, and even in the lies surrounding the hiring of Deputy Chancellor Diana Lam’s husband to a $100,000 post without first clearing it with the Conflicts of Interest Board. 

    All of the chickens are now coming home to roost. The honeymoon enjoyed by Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein is now over. It officially ended Monday when the mayor’s stewardship of the public schools lost the backing of the editorial board of the New York Times. Just months ago, the chancellor was boasting of the nearunanimous support of the press for his programs. 

    I certainly don’t view the backing of the Times as the be-all and end-all. On education matters over the years, the Times has been consistently wrong. However, when the Times starts to sound like my column in The New York Sun or Sol Stern’s op-ed pieces in the New York Post or City Journal, one must sit up and take notice. The United Federation of Teachers certainly has. It thought that this editorial was so significant that it is gleefully investing $100,000 in its current round of radio commercials, which concludes with a quotation from the Times editorial. 

    The education “reform” we were promised is now a disjointed group of unrelated initiatives coming from bureaucrats who have lost the confidence of the teachers, the principals, the parents, and now the press. The ship is drifting, lost at sea. It needs a whole new direction, and perhaps some new personnel on the bridge.

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

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