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23rd January

First Published in The New York Sun, January 23, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

This is the winter of discontent at the Department of Education. Since the beginning of the year, press coverage of the educational “reforms” of Chancellor Joel Klein and, by extension, Mayor Bloomberg, has been disastrous. Sources tell me that the mayor is livid that the nearly uniform hosannas he is used to seeing in the papers, have given way to mounting criticism.

So sensitive is the new Tweed Ring to these negative reports that the chancellor has even felt the need to directly respond to my columns on curriculum problems, and those of other critics, in a letter to the editor in the January 15 number of The New York Sun and in an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Post. I’m flattered by his attention, but his critics in the press are the least of his problems. In fact, we may be his best friends. 
The underlying negative current in recent press coverage has been the school safety issue.The truth is that despite the prominence that this issue has taken on, the number of incidents compared to previous years hasn’t really increased. This issue took center stage when it became clear that the Children First reform and restructuring actually made it harder to discipline troublemakers. All of the hearings, previously handled by the individual school districts, were centralized in Brooklyn. The result was that few cases were resolved. This opened the floodgates to negative publicity, and the press charged in.

While the mayor and chancellor got kudos for quickly addressing the issue, once this toothpaste gets out of the tube it’s hard to get it back in. The administration identified the 12 most troubled schools and then converted them into mini-prison camps patrolled by teams of real gun-toting police officers. However, unless the program at the “dirty dozen” is permanent, there is little reason to believe that things won’t backslide once the uniformed presence disappears.

Meanwhile, press attention to other noninstructional issues has also caused concern at Tweed. The Daily News raised the issue of the structure and management of the Leadership Academy,established to train new principals. Noting that the organization is a set up as a “independent” nonprofit organization, despite being run by Mr. Klein, the News revealed that the businessman brought in to run the academy — at a salary that some suggest exceeds $400,000 — is the focus of a lawsuit that charges he ran the broadband telecom company he formerly headed into the ground.

Robert E. Knowling Jr. ran the California-based Covad Inc., before being tossed out in 2000, after the firm was forced to declare bankruptcy.Two of his top Covad aides have surfaced in jobs at the Leadership Academy. If his reported salary of $400,000 a year is even close to the truth, Mr. Knowling is earning far more than the chancellor himself. The difference is that the salaries of the chancellor and all city employees must be published in the City Record, a regulation that does not apply to the “private” Leadership Academy. According to the News, Mr. Knowling also has gotten the services of a city-paid car and driver.

After a year and a half of wholly accepting coverage, the Times ran on January 5 a highly critical piece that raised a wide variety of issues with respect to Mr. Klein’s administrative restructuring.This was the first time that the Times, which had been generally supportive, raised these issues in this way.

However, the worst was yet to come. The leak in the Times two days afterward about the long-predicted state and federal rejection of the city’s reading program unleashed a torrent of wholly deserved criticism, in the Sun, the Post, and the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, not to mention from the influential Republican legislator, State Senator Frank Padavan.

The chancellor has dug in his heels on the issue, while the mayor has tried to change the subject.
It seems unlikely that a whole new policy regarding social promotion would have otherwise been announced just weeks before teachers must, by regulation, send letters to parents of potential holdovers. The guidelines for the new policy, particularly as it applies to grades other than the third, have not yet been clarified despite the looming January 30 deadline.

Questions have been raised about the seemingly convenient choice of third grade as a mandated “holdover” year. If the 20% of the student body scoring lowest are eliminated from next year’s fourth grade, scores on the all-important fourth-grade tests the following year will skyrocket — just months before the 2005 mayoral election, when Mr. Bloomberg will have to answer to the voters on his educational program. The perception that the new policy was designed to “cook the books” was raised in Newsday, the Times, and on WNYC radio’s “Brian Lehrer Show.”

As to the specifics of Mr. Klein’s letter, let me say this.There is a long-simmering national dispute over how best to teach reading. Many researchers in the field believe, as I do, that the “whole language” approach in widespread use in this country for many years has failed the most at-risk among our nation’s children. This research, summarized in the March, 2002 number of Scientific American, demonstrates that a traditional phonics approach is clearly more effective in achieving results with these students.

Shortly before this article appeared, Congress, in almost unprecedented bipartisan unanimity, passed a new version of the federal education law that specifically banned the use of certain federal funds for reading programs unsubstantiated by scientific research. Those who favor the whole language approach, now renamed “balanced literacy,” such as Deputy Chancellor Diana Lam, who has clearly won over Mr. Klein, have their point of view, which I respect. However, their point of view runs contrary to this specific provision of the law.

The dispute between Mr. Klein and myself is not truly about how best to teach reading; it is about compliance with this law. As in many legal disputes, there is a judge or jury that renders a decision. In this case, that final

arbiter was the State Education Department acting under the guidelines set by the federal Department of Education. I did not reject Mr. Klein’s reading program. They did.

They rejected the Voyager “add-on” as “layering,” technical jargon that can be loosely translated as “applying a band-aid.” Ms. Lam was told when she conferred in September with experts designated by the State Education Department that much of her plan was based on “philosophy,” not science.

On Tuesday, Rep. Richard Gephardt demonstrated how one can lose with grace and dignity a day after being defeated in the Iowa caucus. Unfortunately, Mr. Klein has taken his strategy from the same playbook as another candidate, Howard Dean. Many of us, including myself, who disagree with Mr. Klein on this and other issues, still want to see him succeed for the benefit of our city’s children. Had he accepted that in the first place and listened to differing points of view, perhaps he would have been spared the indignity of having his reading program shot down in this way.

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

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