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5th December

First Published in The New York Sun, December 5, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

 According to the office of City Comptroller William Thompson, the Department of Education has overspent its budget for professional service contracts by more than $200 million. Since only $150 million or so was budgeted in the first place, this is a remarkable increase in nonclassroom spending for a system that the courts have ruled does not spend an adequate amount of money educating our children. Much of this sum is directed to “teaching the teachers,” rather than children. 

    Even for our billionaire mayor, this is real money, enough to fund about 30 charter revision campaigns. How did our friends at Tweed manage to spend so much, so fast, and why? They are pouring money down the black hole called “professional development.” This is the very favorite expenditure of the “progressive” education establishment. For those who don’t understand what this is, allow me to explain.
    Since the teaching methodologies they have imposed on unsuspecting children and their parents haven’t been working, and they have total religious conviction that their programs are absolutely the one and only way children should be taught, then it must be the teachers who are not executing these “perfect” programs correctly. How could it possibly be the fault of the educational ideology they believe in so fervently? 

    So the answer to getting the children up to speed is to fix what the “progressive” educational establishment sees as the real problem: educate those stupid teachers. By subjecting the teachers to an endless program of professional development, maybe those dullards will finally “get it” and be able to implement failed pedagogy like whole language and fuzzy math correctly. 

    So we train our teachers during the summer, train them in weekly sessions after school, even during time that the teachers union had agreed to spend teaching the children, train them during the school day in their classrooms and even pull them out of their classrooms for more training and give the classes over to substitutes. We plant our teachers in front of computers for more training, issue them thick binders of detailed instructions to follow, and create expensive CD-ROMs to train them interactively.We hire coaches to train them within the schools and hire others to train the coaches. 

    At what point does the school system get down to the business of teaching the children, not the teachers? When do we start spending these hundreds of millions of dollars on instruction that benefits the children directly? 

    There was an interesting item in the news earlier this week about one program run by Lucy Calkins of Columbia University Teachers College, the intellectual center of the radical touchy-feely wing of the progressive education movement. This is the place where ideas such as the mandatory rug on the floor and the teacher in the rocking chair got their start. 

    One of Ms. Calkins’s contracts with the DOE is to train educators in her reading and writing program. The contract calls for Ms. Calkins’s Reading and Writing Institute to supply “all books, pamphlets, notes, instructional materials and other materials” necessary to conduct her training. This contract is worth $1.8 million a year for three years. 

    However, Ms. Calkins has refused to provide sufficient materials for all of the teachers, claiming that this wasn’t part of her agreement. We can leave it at this point for the lawyers to sort out. Perhaps Ms. Calkins is right, or perhaps, as the Daily News suggested in its article, she is looking to boost sales of her book, “Units of Study for Primary Writing,” which sells for $149 a copy. For a book this expensive, it seems to selling unusually briskly on

    Last winter, the instructional strategies to teach children to read that were put in place by Schools Chancellor Joel Klein came under attack by a group of seven of the nation’s most prominent reading experts. They charged that the Klein program did not conform to the findings of the latest scientific research. None of them had any financial stake in the school system, which gave their well-researched concerns special credibility. 

    It was Ms. Calkins who organized the response of 100 education “experts” to offer support to Mr. Klein. As I pointed out at the time, virtually every one of the 100 or the institutions they were affiliated with was a recipient of DOE largess. Defending Mr. Klein and his controversial curriculum seems to have worked out just fine for Ms. Calkins, her institute, and her highend publishing career. 

    However, it may have worked out even better for another signatory to Ms. Calkins’s letter, Diane Snowball. Ms. Snowball hails from Down Under and runs a private company with her husband, Greg, called Australian and United States Services in Education (Aussie). 

    In Bronx Regions 1 and 2 alone, the total of their contracts for just this year certainly approaches and perhaps exceeds $10 million. Aussie is also working for six other New York City regions, as well as for the DOE itself. An enormous amount of money is being funneled to it, nearly enough to place an additional teacher in every New York City public school. So who are these Aussies that they should be rewarded so lavishly? That’s a question being asked in schools all over the city. 

    I started doing some research, and what I found was fascinating. I searched on “Diane Snowball” for mentions in the American press, going back a quarter-century. I could find only four citations. One was a passing mention of a children’s book she wrote; one was an article in the real estate section of the New York Times discussing temporary New York housing arrangements for Aussie’s foreign workers, and one was the article I wrote about Aussie in the October 10 edition of The New York Sun. A search of a national newspaper that intensively covers the education scene, Education Week, yielded just one mention more than a decade old. 

    A search in the foreign press, even in Ms. Snowball’s native Australia, was equally sparse. However, I did find one nugget, an article that appeared in the Age, a newspaper published in Melbourne, in February 2002 titled, “U.S. Learns Three Rs the Aussie Way.” 

    “Why are Australians so good at literacy?” the article asks. “Mrs. Snowball says teachers trained here [Australia] and in New Zealand acquire skills that their American counterparts lack.

    “‘They [Americans] really finish their teacher training not knowing how to teach children how to read and write,’ she says.” 

    Ms. Snowball goes on to express her disdain for the testing of children. “‘You can’t fatten a pig by weighing it,’ says Mrs. Snowball.” 

    For a company that has such large contracts, it seems odd that it and its leadership have thus far flown under the press radar. Perhaps it is the pigs that never get weighed that end up flying. My advice to Comptroller Thompson is to look carefully at the Aussie contracts to make sure that it isn’t our money that’s flying away.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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