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7th February

First Published in The New York Sun, February 7, 2003
By Andrew Wolf

Back in the days when Chancellor Klein and I attended New York City’s public schools, desks were bolted to the floor, little boys wore ties to school, girls were forbidden to wear pants, and teachers stood in the front of the classroom and directed the lessons. Now I don’t miss the old-fashioned desks, nor do I think that the ties or the skirts had any impact on student achievement. But I do think that the old-fashioned teacher-directed methods did influence the success that so many of us enjoyed during the period that was indeed the “good old days” of New York City’s school system.

Today our schools adhere to the “child-centered” movement, which commands that children should direct their own education, teachers becoming mere facilitators. This is the predominant ideology in practice across the country today, including and especially in New York. And we have ample evidence that it hasn’t been working.
Anyone who believes that New York’s children will do better under this system simply because there will be 10 mega-districts, rather than the 32 smaller districts that currently exist, is delusional.The children and their teachers couldn’t care less. What will make the difference is what goes on in their classrooms. That is where the change is needed, and that is precisely where nothing will change under the new structure established by Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Klein.

This has been clear to many of us since Diana Lam was brought on as deputy chancellor for instruction late last summer. Her educational ideology is built totally on progressive dogma such as whole language, fuzzy math, and bilingual education.

She stays in one place just long enough to wear out her welcome and then moves on. Her initial success in Chelsea, Massachusetts, culminated in a bizarre run for mayor of Boston. She then went on to Dubuque, Iowa. In San Antonio, Texas, her next stop and the largest district (58,000 pupils) Ms. Lam has led, she was paid handsomely to get out of town. She moved on to Providence, Rhode Island, a district less than half the size, for a short, contentious tenure. She spent much of last spring pursuing a similar job in Portland, Oregon.

The move to New York has increased Ms. Lam’s annual salary from $170,000 to a cool quarter-million, the same salary as Mr. Klein. Her predecessor, Judith Rizzo, got about $175,000 to do the same job. Is there any difference in educational approach? Ms. Rizzo tapped into the same tired ideology and educational theorists, such as Lauren Resnick, who directs the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, as does Ms. Lam. After recognizing that Chancellor Crew was wasting millions on the Pittsburgh programs, his successor, Chancellor Levy, stopped the bleeding. Now we’re back to promoting the same programs that failed in 1999.

Ms. Lam was responsible for choosing the 10 regional superintendents that Mr. Klein promised would be an “educational juggernaut.” This group is more like an educational “muggernaut,” and it our city’s children who are being mugged.

Manhattan’s District 2 is often held up as the panacea of urban educational reform. Unquestionably, among New York City’s school districts it is one of the top performers. But are the higher scores a result of good pedagogy or favorable demographics? The evidence strongly points to the latter. Since the boundaries of the districts were drawn nearly 35 years ago, entire upscale communities such as TriBeCa and SoHo have grown and thrived within the boundaries of District 2. In addition, the huge growth in immigration from Asian countries has added thousands of high-performing students to district schools. Also, District 2 has employed clever strategies that go so far as to cherry-pick the best students from other districts. It is unlikely that the city will be able to increase scores by kidnapping students from Scarsdale and Great Neck.
When the mayor and chancellor announced the names of the 10 regional superintendents at a press conference last month, Mr. Klein gushed over Shelley Harwayne, the current District 2 superintendent and the choice to lead Region 9. Mr. Klein said, “We all know what you’ve done.” What exactly is it that she has done? She has managed to land in a district where the children will succeed (relative to less-privileged districts) despite the questionable whole language and fuzzy math programs that she favors. When so many children come to school in kindergarten already reading, and have parents ready, willing, and able to shell out up to $150 an hour for math tutoring, it’s tough to fail.

At the press conference, Ms. Harwayne looked to me like a deer caught in the headlights. She has to realize that the new districts over which she now has responsibility, Districts 1 and 4 in Manhattan and District 7 in the Bronx, represent a totally different challenge.

That the District 2 ideology doesn’t travel well has been definitively proven by the abysmal performance of District 10 in the northwest Bronx. They have been slavishly following the District 2 methodology for several years now. The last two literacy coordinators and the current math coordinator in District 10 all came from District 2.

But District 10 continues to languish near the bottom of all city districts in both reading and math. Only 27.7% of District 10 students meet the standards in reading, as opposed 67.5% in District 2. In math, things are even worse. Only 24.7% of District 10 students are at grade level as opposed to 66% in District 2. Yet the superintendent of District 10, Irma Zardoya, has been promoted to one of the 10 regional superintendent positions along with Ms. Harwayne.

But if Ms. Zardoya, who has led low performing District 10 for nearly nine years, is advanced, why not Claire McIntee of District 26 in Queens? Her district is the best in the city and significantly outperforms even District 2. In District 26, 74.7% of the students are reading at grade level, and 75.3% meet standards in math. So why was Ms Zardoya promoted and Ms. McIntee let go? In a perverse form of social promotion, it’s not what you accomplish but the crowd you hang with that gets you ahead.

Ms. Zardoya is not the only one of the 10 new regional superintendents with ties to District 2. Gloria Buckery, Judith Chin, Carmen Farina, and Michelle Fratti all served as principals of schools in District 2. Including Ms. Harwayne, that makes six of 10 in the network. The rest of the 10 are largely considered nonentities who also pose no ideological threat to Ms. Lam’s hegemony.

In the shuffle, some of New York’s top educators have been passed over, largely because they are independent thinkers more willing to depart from the progressive orthodoxy. Aside from Ms. McIntee, they include Vincent Grippo of Brooklyn’s District 20 — not good enough to make Ms. Lam’s top 10 but just offered Ms. Lam’s position in the Philadelphia school system. Pat Romandetto of Manhattan’s west side has been a top performer as has John Comer of Brooklyn’s District 22; both were passed over. In the Bronx, Marlene Filewich and Betty Rosa, who lead the two top-performing districts in the borough, have been passed over in favor of Laura Rodriguez, whose prime expertise is in bilingual education, a program the mayor asserted he will end.

What I fear is that Ms. Lam and her 10 little dwarfs, marching in pedagogical lockstep, will lead our children over the cliff. I would feel better about the new structure if it were led by 10 top performers who were unfettered by ideology and unafraid to question the status quo.

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

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