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13th June

First Published in The New York Sun, June 13, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

When all sides declare victory, it’s the little guy who’d better watch out. That’s the case with the settlement announced Tuesday between the city’s Department of Education and a group of state legislators and unions. The lawmakers and unions had sued the city over the structural changes Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Klein are making to the school system.

In their zeal for change, Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein apparently couldn’t wait to negotiate a proper structure with the state Legislature and the governor. Instead, the mayor and the chancellor announced their replacement of the 32 community school districts with 10 regions, and even made key appointments to the top positions in the new configuration, before a commission created by the Legislature to study the issue had a chance to come to any conclusions.
When a Brooklyn Democrat, Senator Carl Kruger, showed some initiative and commenced a lawsuit, many were quick to condemn Mr. Kruger and those who joined his lawsuit as “obstructionists.” It was charged that they benefited from district-office patronage. In reality, the patronage issue was put to rest by legislation passed in a special session at the end of 1996. Since that time, the chancellor has been able to exercise almost total control over the districts. What the legislators were really protecting was their prerogative to write the law and set the rules. In their view, Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein exceeded their authority under the law passed last summer that established mayoral control.

The mayor did an end run around the Legislature, believing that it is easier to act unilaterally than it is to collaborate. This is the mayor’s style, as exhibited in his solo restoration of popular budget items recently in which he passed up negotiations and joint press conferences with the City Council. This strategy may win publicity points, but it comes at a price. The council members want to take credit for some restorations as well, so they are demanding more, going so far as to make noises about passing their own budget — possibly over Mr. Bloomberg’s veto.

So it is with the schools settlement. Everyone is declaring victory, but the administration’s victory will come at a price.The school system’s bureaucratic structure will, under the terms of the settlement, become even more complex. On top of the 10 instructional regions, six administrative regions, and 113 local instructional networks, the 32 community school district offices will remain, albeit in a diminished form.
The idea of layering another structure on top of what has already been established is another hallmark of the Bloomberg management style — never admit a mistake, never reverse course. If your reading program is found not to comply with federal law, don’t drop it; simply add another program that you believe will pass muster on top of it. If you find that your deputy chancellor for instruction is a controversial figure who has left a trail of failure and ill will
across the country, don’t change horses; insist that all is well.

Wouldn’t it have been easier for Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein to negotiate the new structure, hold hearings, and get a law that doesn’t require carrying old, useless baggage? The way things turned out, Mr. Klein gets to keep his regions, but he will have to deal with the remnants of the old district structure. This will bite him up the road; seldom has there been a bureaucracy that doesn’t grow bigger.

What’s more, all of this controversy over structure has diverted discussion from the real issue. No change in structure will have much effect on the teaching and learning that goes on in the classroom.The instructional strategies that are being touted by the Tweed Ring are nothing new. They are the same strategies that many districts have already tried in one form or another, and they have failed.

Those of us who believe that a greater emphasis must be put on phonics instruction in the lower grades were disappointed with the initial choice of instructional materials. And we don’t see how imposing a second, unrelated program on top of the first, as the chancellor has done, will do anything but cause more confusion among teachers, who are already unhappy with having to learn a new curriculum.

Many of us also believe that we cannot abandon teaching computation and algorithms, and resort to fuzzy math as we have done, if we are to maintain a supply of mathematically proficient scientists and engineers.
These are the “curriculum wars” of which Mr. Klein is so consistently dismissive.The Tweed Ring may have succeeded in changing the structure, but in the classrooms, where it counts, we will still be following the “progressive” education orthodoxy that brought us to our current, sorry state in the first place.

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


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