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19th September

First Published in The New York Sun, September 19, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

The schools have been open for two full weeks now, and Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have been busy giving themselves high fives about the successful opening. How successful has the opening really been? You be the judge. A fetish was made about the delivery of books and materials for the first day of classes. “For too many years,” said the mayor, “we heard stories about books not being in classrooms in time for the first day of school. I am proud to say that we made good on our promise in January, and here they are, ready for Monday’s classes.” Yes, most books and materials were delivered on time. But most of these were books for classroom libraries to encourage independent reading — nice to have in place the first day of school, but hardly the centerpiece of the first couple of week’s classroom activity. 
    The cost of this new efficiency, however, was that scores of back-office people who normally processed new employees were dispatched to the schools to count the books and make sure they were distributed to classrooms. Because of this diversion of resources, 5,000 new teachers didn’t get their first regular paychecks this past Monday, 10 times the number than were similarly inconvenienced last year. New teacher retention is one of the key problems in schools across the nation, particularly here in New York City; one quarter of this year’s crop can be expected to leave by next September.This won’t help. 

    Of course, that part of the story never made it into the mayor’s press release.Instead, it boasts, “The preparedness of the City’s schools is due to the effectiveness of the newly reorganized structure of the school system,completed this year as part of the Children First reform agenda.” One would think that it is a bit premature to tout the effectiveness of the new structure before the first child arrived in class. In light of the payroll foul up, we have a long way to go before declaring victory.But we can ask those who have already had to deal with the new structure: the principals and teachers. They are not so quick with their praise. 

    According to the union representing the principals, their members have fewer resources and a much more difficult line of communication with their superiors. Instead of being able to take problems of all types one level up to their superintendent, principals now must deal with three separate bureaucracies, four if you count the 32 vestigial community superintendents. The message that principals seem to be hearing most frequently is “the voice mail box of the person you have called is full. Call back later.” E-mails from principals go unanswered, often unopened for days. 

    And what about the classrooms? Many New Yorkers are getting their first taste of classrooms organized using the purest of “progressive” education ideology, and they don’t like what they see.The strict enforcement of rules that require that desks be arranged so as never to face the teacher in the front of the room, forbidding the use of blackboards by teachers,and other nonsense, has resulted in a gulag-like atmosphere of inflexibility. The president of the United Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, says this threatens to turn teachers into “robots.” 

    Talk is beginning to resurface that the programs and materials chosen by the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, Diana Lam, the high priestess of this progressive theology, will not pass muster for funding under the new No Child Left Behind law. That law requires that reading programs be backed by scientific research, and no such research exists to back up the hodgepodge of conflicting components Ms. Lam has put into place. 

    But whether the program runs into legal trouble or not, the Lam program is quickly becoming a source of public derision, as evidenced by press accounts of the seating and blackboard mandates. Stories abound of gestapolike enforcement at the school level by coaches reporting to the regional superintendents and outside consultants, brought into the system at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. The Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern called this “progressivism with a totalitarian face.” 

    As far as the students are concerned, don’t tell the high school students still scrambling for placement at this late date that the opening of school went as smooth as silk. The Office of High School Admissions was closed by the chancellor this summer as part of his reorganization plan, and thousands of still-unplaced students were told to report to newly formed regional “transfer centers.” Meanwhile, seats seemed to evaporate as larger high schools were replaced with the new, smaller boutique theme schools so much in vogue. 

    In many schools this recentralization has led to grossly overcrowded classrooms, resulting in thousands of UFT class-size grievances. When the orders come down in favor of the union, and they will, thousands of children are likely to be removed or turned away from their neighborhood schools. Principals have already been told that they may not reject children sent to them by the regional offices. Children moving into buildings across the street from their neighborhood school will be turned away and bused elsewhere, as the buses from elsewhere drop off children from outside the neighborhood. 

    Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein are about to find out that the honeymoon is over.The fawning support they have enjoyed thus far from many corners will likely give way to the reality — and enormity — of the new problems that their “reform” has unleashed.

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

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