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14th March

First Published in The New York Sun, March 14 , 2003
By Andrew Wolf

In the months since I began writing this column, I have met, spoken with, and established correspondence with scores of teachers, administrators, parents, political leaders, and scholars with a deep knowledge of education issues. Within this group there is often disagreement as to the exact direction the school system should take. But among the varying viewpoints there is one area of nearuniversal concern: the secrecy and lack of transparency surrounding the mayor’s educational reforms.

In a city that insists on public hearings, or “sunshine,” for things as trivial as adding a sidewalk café onto an existing restaurant, the total restructuring of our schools — arguably our city’s most important civic endeavor — is being undertaken in total darkness.
Despite the lofty sound of the city’s new educational slogan, “Children First,” the interests of the children have taken a back seat to the interests of the educational ideologues, the progressives who have dominated what goes on in New York City classrooms for a generation. This is not the result we would have seen in an open process.

Chancellor Klein says that he doesn’t want to get bogged down in the nation’s “reading wars,” but that is the fate of all superintendents and school boards across the country. Many of us who are dissatisfied with the results of our schools place much of the blame on the powerful role that progressive, or child-directed, educational programs have played in city schools. This is the position shared by the education experts who have the ear of President Bush. That is why the No Child Left Behind law demands scientific research to prove effectiveness before reading programs are eligible for federal funding. This is a problem for the wholelanguage-based programs favored by the progressive education establishment. These programs have, for the most part, failed.

Whether he likes it or not, Mr. Klein has set himself and the Bloomberg administration up for a fight with the Bush administration over the city’s new uniform reading curriculum. If the city loses this struggle, the mayor and Mr. Klein will look like bunglers. Even worse, if the city wins, it will be our children who lose.
It was no accident that when the mayor first announced his educational plan he specifically promised a phonics program. That is what the
federal government demands, because the research demonstrates that phonics-based programs are the only ones that achieve consistent results among low-income children.
Month-by-Month Phonics, the program selected by Mr. Klein’s controversial instructional guru, Diana Lam, puts so little heft on the phonics side that it is actually being championed by the city’s most notorious whole-language advocates.

Mr. Klein set himself up for this debacle. Instead of openly debating the merits of competing programs, decisions were made by a closed group whose uniform outlook ensured a predictable outcome. The city’s Department of Education would not even reveal the membership of the Children First panels that were set up to consider the curriculum options until forced to do so by a Freedom of Information Law request.
Bas Braams, the knowledgeable and feisty NYU math professor who demanded the names of the panelists, also asked for the details of their meetings. When he finally learned that these panels had no charge, took no minutes, and came to no conclusions, he was horrified. It now seems clear that the highly touted Children First initiative boiled down to nothing more than a few informal bull sessions. We will never know for sure the secret process that resulted in Mr. Klein’s questionable selections.

The open process we insist on to build that sidewalk café simply does not extend to open meetings to decide the academic future of over a million New York City school children. If there was such an open debate before the city set its course, perhaps Mr. Klein would have had the kind of input that might have helped him avert the looming educational disaster that many critics now feel is inevitable.

With no research confirming the effectiveness of Mr. Klein’s chosen programs, the city’s strategy seems to be creating a mythology around P.S. 172. That is the Brooklyn school that Mr. Klein implied owed its success to using the reading and math programs that he and Ms. Lam selected for use throughout the city. In an earlier column, I revealed that this was highly deceptive. Particularly in reading, there is not a scintilla of evidence that Month-by-Month Phonics, in place at the school for just a few months before last year’s testing, can take credit for the success.

This week I learned that there is even more reason to doubt P.S. 172’s fitness as the model school. It appears that P.S. 172 attracts a significant portion of its population through a magnet program designed to attract academically advanced children. While there is nothing wrong with programs that fill empty seats with bright children, using this atypical population as a Potemkin Village is immensely dishonest.

If somehow the state’s education department and the federal Department of Education buy into any of this as research and approve Monthby-Month Phonics, it will then be time for parents to go to court, just as they have done over the city’s failure to comply with the school-transfer provisions of the No Child Left Behind law. After all, what is the advantage of changing schools if the wrong program is in use in every classroom?

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

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