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22nd August

First Published in The New York Sun, August 22, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

News has been sparse from the far-flung outposts of New York’s public school empire, a calm before the storm and the disaster that many fear will begin to engulf our children when they return to class in September. The little news received, filtered out of the Tweed fortress by the most active network of rumor and gossip in recent memory, only confirms the worst fears. The buzz in the regional offices, the regional operating centers, and Tweed itself has become a far more reliable source of information than the educational leaders themselves.

When you read between the lines and take a closer look at the little hard and accurate information that trickles out of Tweed, you get a different picture than the one being painted by Chancellor Joel Klein and his deputy for teaching and learning, Diana Lam.
It will take years before we have the hard data of test results to prove who is right and who is wrong in the curriculum debates. Unfortunately, unlike the monetary losses of corporations, the model that Mayor Bloomberg is fond of comparing the school system to, losses of years of good instruction are a lot harder for children to make up.

The results of recent standardized tests are not a report card on Mr. Klein and Ms. Lam but rather on the work of Mr. Klein’s predecessors, Rudy Crew and Harold Levy. Reviewing these, one can conclude that the significant gains citywide on tests in the lower grades reflect that the strategy developed by Mr. Crew,and largely continued by Mr.Levy, has been successful in teaching many of our children the mechanics of reading.

Their program was based on targeting the most at-risk students with remedial work in summer school, even in the lower grades, an after-school remediation program called “Project Read,” and the establishment of a Chancellor’s District of profoundly failing schools where teachers, in exchange for more pay, worked a longer day and taught younger children to read using a highly scripted but apparently effective program called “Success for All.”

The fact that the Tweed Ring is abandoning this program did not stop Ms. Lam from taking credit for its success. In a remarkably intellectually dishonest opinion piece that ran last week in the Daily News, Ms. Lam had the chutzpah to declare that New York’s “reading plan is working.” She bases her claim on the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, a voluntary exam given to compare the progress of students in the nation’s cities.This test was administered to a sampling of fourth-grade classes more than six months before Mr. Klein and Ms. Lam took over the old Board of Education. New York City and Houston were shown to have the most effective programs among the six largest urban centers.

Now unless Mr.Klein was lying on January 21, when he stated that the city has been “using something along the lines of 30 different reading programs,” the results of the NAEP test reflect that diversity.This is certainly no more an endorsement of Ms.Lam’s controversial program than it is of any of the other 29 programs then in use. And what if Ms. Lam, as many of us feel, has chosen the wrong one of the 30 alternatives? She concedes that Houston did just as well, but with a “scripted” reading program that she has specifically excluded. But many of our New York City schools used such programs.How much of New York City’s success can be attributed to those schools?

Since the beginning, the presentation of the new “balanced” reading program has been less than honest. Mr. Klein made his aforementioned remarks at P.S. 172 in Brooklyn, implying that the use of Ms. Lam’s program there was responsible for the impressive gains in test scores. It didn’t take much research to ascertain that the increases came long before the programs being touted by Ms. Lam were put in place there.Those gains resulted from the use of the same “scripted” program used so successfully in Houston, “Open Court.”

When seven prominent reading experts questioned the Klein/Lam strategy,the department quickly assembled a group of 100 of their own “experts” to endorse the program. I have seen Mr. Klein recount this, using his hands as if they were a scale: “Seven on one side, 100 on the other.” The trouble with Mr. Klein’s assessment is that there is more than one thumb on this scale.The seven critics had no interest other than their own academic studies.The 100 supporters virtually all have a financial interest in the adoption of Ms. Lam’s initiative. Now their ship has come in. Tens of thousands of dollars are being sucked out of most New York City schools, tens of millions systemwide, in the biggest professional development boondoggle in the history of our nation’s schools.

The lack of honesty appears to have moved from the reading program to personnel decisions as well. Three weeks ago The New York Sun ran a story about the employment of Peter Plattes, Ms. Lam’s husband, as a $100,000-a-year “regional instructional supervisor” in the Bronx’s Region 2. This was denied by a spokesperson from the Department of Education, Kevin Ortiz, who claimed Mr. Plattes was a “volunteer.” In a story the following day in the Daily News, this morphed into “temporary volunteer.”

This provoked howls of laughter that could be heard from the Region 2 office on Zerega Avenue in the Bronx to the Department of Education personnel complex in the bowels of 65 Court Street in Brooklyn. Mr. Plattes, who assumed his position in June, was never presented to anyone as other than a permanent part of the Region 2 landscape. It appears to be common knowledge throughout the department that he was already processed for payroll, applied for state administrative certification, and had been assigned a Department of Education “file number,” and was to receive his first check (including retroactive pay) last Friday.

Once the reporters started nosing around, the department furiously backpedaled and may have attempted to erase Mr. Plattes’s records from city computers. The overriding problem here is that the department failed to bring its intention to hire Mr. Plattes to the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board, required even for “volunteers” who are close relatives of top city officials (hence the characterization of Mr. Plattes as a “temporary” volunteer). Since the day our reporter arrived at his office in the Bronx, Mr. Plattes has not reported to work.

Finding out the real story here should be high on the agenda of the special investigator for the schools, Richard J. Condon. If personnel records can be altered to spare Mr. Klein and the mayor political embarrassment, what might they do with test scores, so easily presented in deceptive and manipulative ways, as Ms. Lam so ably demonstrated in her Daily News piece? Nor should we count on candor from the “gurus” and “experts” who are getting rich and will continue to do so as long as their multimillion-dollar contracts keep coming.

The old Board of Education certainly had its shortcomings, but at least the presence of competing factions on an independent board insured a degree of integrity that seems to be lacking at Tweed.

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


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