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17th October
2003

First Published in The New York Sun, October 17, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

William Gates came to town recently bearing a $51 million gift to help create new small high schools in New York out of the much larger failing ones, schools that parents and students alike have come to loathe and fear. To me, it looks like Mr. Gates is finally getting revenge on his old nemesis, the schools chancellor, Joel Klein, who led the Clinton administration’s antitrust effort against Microsoft. 

    To say that New York City’s high schools are in trouble is an enormous understatement. Unfortunately, the answer to fixing the high schools will not be found in slicing and dicing all of the existing schools into new cutesy themebased mini-schools. 

    The answer to our high school dilemma will come when we fix the education that we are providing to our children, from kindergarten through the 8th grade. It is a sad reality that while small victories can sometimes be realized working with older students, it is exceedingly difficult for these kids to “catch up” once they arrive in high school. 
    The enthusiasm for these small schools is understandable, at least on the surface.After all,smaller seems better than bigger, and the big schools have been synonymous with failure and violence. However, the Daily News recently demonstrated no difference in test results between the old big schools and the new mini-schools. Unquestionably, there will be success stories, but the path the city is choosing,the advice they are taking, and the personnel they are selecting almost ensure that there will be far more failures than successes. 

    One has to be suspicious of schools such as the Acorn High School for Social Justice (affiliated with Acorn,one of the city’s most radical political groups), the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice (immortalized by Heather Mac Donald for offering Hip-Hop 101 and instructing children in the fine art of graffiti), and the Academy for Careers in Sports (that substitutes courses such as History of Basketball for more traditional academic offerings). 

    Lurking behind the small schools is another agenda. Many of the key supporters of the mini-schools are also among the loudest advocates for ending Regents exams — and all objective measures of accountability. They favor the use of “portfolios,” “roundtables,” and other subjective assessments — devices that, in practice, are meaningless. 

    There is good reason why the small school advocates seek to avoid giving students objective exams. These “activists” know full well that they are unable to deliver the goods.“Theme-park” schools, as parent activist Melanie Cissone derisively refers to them, may be more entertaining, but there is little evidence that they can provide what society expects and employers demand. 

    The moving force of the “small school” movement in New York is New Visions for Public Schools, an organization that has been setting New York City’s public school education agenda for nearly 15 years. Incredibly, when Rudy Crew was chancellor,the chairman of New Visions,Richard I.Beattie,served as Mr. Crew’s personal attorney in negotiating terms of his contract with the Board of Education.

    New Visions is at the very epicenter of what I term the “University-Institutional Complex,” the permanent government that runs the schools regardless of who is chancellor.Like all of the “non-profits”in this cabal, New Visions is growing fat with city contracts.In other words,set the agenda and profit ever after. 

    One would think that the groups that have been so influential in creating the culture of failure in New York’s schools would have been banished when Mayor Bloomberg and Mr. Klein took over. But in the “new” Department of Education, they are prospering beyond their wildest dreams. 

    New Visions was given a foothold (now a stranglehold) in the Bronx by Norman Wechsler, who, until recently, was the Bronx borough high school superintendent. He presided over those schools during the last few disastrous years in this borough of broken dreams. 

    Last year, the first of the large schools that he reorganized,James Monroe High School, had the distinction of spawning the first of what promises to be a long list of mini-schools that will be placed on the Schools Under Registration Review list of the state’s most troubled, failing schools. 

    Mr. Wechsler was tapped to become one of the 10 “super-superintendents,” but at the 11th hour, he was dropped from consideration, and replaced by his thinly qualified deputy, Laura Rodriguez. Not surprisingly, Mr. Wechsler now works for New Visions. 

    As the Regional Instructional Superintendent of Region 2, which covers the eastern Bronx, Ms. Rodriguez has largely staffed her team with high school division retreads, some from the radical fringe of the anti-testing crowd. She is said to be intent on breaking up every high school in her region into dozens of mini-schools. To accomplish this, she selected Eric Nadelstern as her deputy. 

    Mr. Nadelstern is a familiar figure among the anti-testing activists. He was principal of the International High School in Queens,which followed a strict anti-testing policy. As the head of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of 30 “alternative” schools that rejected testing in favor of subjective assessments, he frequently criticized any effort to demand higher performance measured by objective criteria. 

    When his school converted to charter status and the State Education Department demanded that his students take the exams, Mr. Nadelstern and his group took the State Education Commissioner to court — and lost. In the Bloomberg/Klein regime, it is not unusual to empower those at the fringes of the “progressive” ideology. 

    Mr. Gates would have done our children — and Mr. Klein — a much bigger favor by focusing his efforts on the critical early childhood years. Our children would be infinitely better off if a coherent educational agenda were established, and the philanthropy we accepted supported that agenda rather than dictated our priorities.In a perverse way, Mr. Gates may be helping to ensure the schools chancellor’s ultimate failure.

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

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