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10th October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 10, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

How much money will it take to educate a child adequately in New York City? That’s the subject that will soon be considered by dueling commissions, one appointed by Governor Pataki, the other by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the plaintiffs in the successful lawsuit that had alleged that not enough money is being spent on education. 

    We might as well establish commissions to determine the number of angels that can stand on the head of a pin. For some, there will never be enough money. For others, anything is too much. The real answer to the money dilemma is to spend the least amount to get the job done. To determine that, we need to take a hard look at not just what’s allocated, but how it’s spent.
    There seems to be little correlation between educational expenditures and results. At least that’s what I can see in a recent study completed by the New York City Independent Budget Office. According to the IBO, “spending on ‘direct services to schools,’ by far the largest functional category, grew to $10.7 billion from $7.2 billion, a nearly 49% increase.” 

    This is a huge increase. To put it in perspective, New York’s increase alone is three times the entire school budget of San Diego, Calif. So why haven’t scores increased as well? Because simply throwing money at schools will not automatically increase the performance of our children. How you spend it is far more important than how much. 

    What portion of that increase reached the classrooms? Teachers won salary increases during this period, as did administrators, but not to the tune of 49%. Books and materials didn’t seem more plentiful. Where did the money go? 

    I can accept the argument that lower class size should, at least on the surface, result in improved performance by the students. However, experience shows that this is not quite so simple. California is a wonderful example. 

    Class sizes in California were significantly decreased by the Legislature. Most agree that the initiative failed to deliver. Whatever advantage was gained by smaller class sizes was lost by the classroom presence of the less-than-adequate teachers that were hired. 

    The new regime at Tweed boasts that money has been transferred out of administration and into the classroom. If so, it’s invisible to most of the principals to whom I’ve spoken. Expensive new levels of bureaucracy have replaced the old, and it’s not clear by any means that any savings has resulted. 

    But one area of spending has dramatically increased. Hidden in the money that Tweed insists is going to the classroom are the huge amounts spent on the “professional development” of teachers. “Experts” from Columbia Teachers College are paid as much as $1,000 a day to “work” with teachers. A private company called A.U.S.S.I.E. Inc. (yes, they’re from Down Under) provides similar services, charging the bargain basement rate of $900 a day. 

    An examination of A.U.S.S.I.E. is instructive. It apparently has new contracts with at least eight of the city’s 10 new regions, as well as with the Department of Education. The owners of A.U.S.S.I.E., Greg and Diane Snowball, must be pinching themselves. In their wildest dreams, they couldn’t have conceived that they’d be milking the biggest cash cow in the educational world. 

    To service the beast, they’ve hired an army of “staff developers,” who appear to be ordinary teachers who’ve escaped from the nasty job of actually having to teach children. Many of their staffers are Australians that A.U.S.S.I.E. recruits through their Melbourne office. Teachers need to be certified, but who checks the credentials of those working for these independent contractors? 

    What do New York’s street-smart teachers think of these imports? Here’s a sample from a high school math teacher in the Bronx: 
    “Last week, in the ‘staff development’ at [my school], we were told that [the time spent in] our math classes are to include … 25% ‘teachercentered’ [instruction], including going over homework and the presentation of new work, 50% group work and 25% ‘sharing and writing.’” 

    When pushed hard, the math consultant admitted that not everything can be taught this way all the time. His “balanced approach” is to do the mandated method four days a week: 
    “Many teachers have been using group work for years, but not for everything …. We are treated as if we are too ignorant to know how to teach and must be led around by the nose and told step by step exactly what to do.” 

    My fear is that if Tweed is given yet more money, nothing will filter down to the students, but our friends from Australia will have even more money to throw a few extra tons of shrimp on the barbie. 

    When the commissions consider funding, they should pay at least as much attention to eliminating the waste and getting the money we are already spending back into the classroom before resorting to throwing more good money after bad.

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

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