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23rd May
2003

First Published in The New York Sun, May 23, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

This week, the city’s Department of Education released the scores on the fourthgrade and eighth-grade reading tests administered by the state, and the news is not good for Schools Chancellor Klein and Mayor Bloomberg. Scores, at least for the fourth grade,went up by a respectable amount. Put in the context of the upward movement since 1999, it seems that the strategies advanced by two former chancellors, Rudy Crew and Harold Levy, are, at least to some extent, working.

This takes some of the edge off Mr. Klein’s oft-repeated refrain that the system isn’t working. The impressive fourth-grade figures certainly raise the bar for him come next year, when he — and Mr. Bloomberg — must assume responsibility for the instructional programs that will be in place by September.
Particularly impressive this year are the fourth-grade results in the Chancellor’s District, established by Mr. Crew. The schools in this district were among the most chronically
low-performing in the city. It is clear that, at least for the fourth grade, the experiment was a success.

The design of the program came from the collaboration between the chancellor and the teachers union. Teachers in the Chancellor’s District received higher pay in exchange for an extra period of instruction for the children. The idea that there is a connection between compensation and time put in on the job is not a concept usually associated with the United Federation of Teachers. The spirit of cooperation that went into the creation of the Chancellor’s District demonstrates the importance of collaboration between school officials and teachers, one that has apparently been shattered in recent weeks.

As part of the restructuring plan, the Chancellor’s District will be dissolved and its winning fourth-grade program abandoned. This is unfortunate, since there are so few success stories in urban education today.
As for the eighth grade, the news is dismal everywhere. The precipitous drop off in scores — not by any means unique to New York City — reveals an intrinsic failure of American schools. What the scores suggest is that a number of strategies, if applied consistently, can bring children to the point of a basic understanding of the mechanics of reading. Further success, however, must be based on something
more, something lacking from both the current system and from the plans of Mr. Klein. That is the type of content-based education that allows a student not just to decode a passage, but put what he or she reads in a larger context that leads to real comprehension.

The “progressive” or “child-centered” education orthodoxy holds that children must “learn how to learn,” constructing their own knowledge.This concept, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to
work — as evidenced by the precipitous drop in scores, particularly among children from low-income families. It is up to the education system to make up the deficiencies in vocabulary and enrichment that is typical for these children. It is here that we fail.

The words content-based knowledge are conspicuously missing from the Children First initiative, and until we start to hear them, we should not expect to see eighth-grade scores improve. Similarly, we will not see improvements in high school performance, which is reliably predicted by where a student is in the eighth grade.

Mr. Klein often reminds us that only one-third of eighth-grade students meet state standards in reading. Improving this will require a radically different approach.

Our current morass is dramatically demonstrated by a graph of the eighthgrade tests statewide over the past five years.What is striking about this graph is that you see an almost flat line. I say “almost flat” because there is actually a slight downward tilt. In other words, across the state, in schools rich and poor, over five years, we aren’t even treading water in our strategy to bring eighth-graders up to grade level.
There is something systemically wrong with conventional education
strategy. We need a different game plan, and the only one I have found that shows promise is E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Curriculum. But the current instructional leadership, starting with Ms. Lam, is totally committed to the status quo.

That’s why it is so misleading for Messrs. Klein and Bloomberg to accuse those who question the restructuring of the school districts of defending the status quo. It is the mayor and chancellor who are defending the failing instructional status quo, which is far more significant to the academic performance of our children than whether we have 32 districts or 10 regions.

That’s why the concessions made Wednesday to State Senator Frank Padavan, maintaining some semblance of a school district office, is such an empty gesture. Mr. Padavan is no fool. He realized that his proposed legislation is going nowhere, so he grabbed what he could. The fact that the mayor is now negotiating is a recognition on his part that the structure he put in place goes beyond his legal authority.The action now turns to the court case brought by State Senator Carl Kruger and joined by Assemblyman Steven Sanders and the principals union.

The Padavan compromise actually makes things worse. Wouldn’t it have been easier if the mayor had begun negotiating the structure before he began tearing down walls and firing staff? The bad feelings that his high-handed actions have created diverted the discussion from where it belongs: what goes on in the classroom.

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

 

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