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17th January

First Published in The New York Sun, January 17, 2003
By Andrew Wolf

Mayor Bloomberg could go down in history as having done for the city’s schools what Mayor La Guardia did to revive the city as a whole back in the 1930s. Or yesterday’s big speech on education could mark the beginning of a disastrous political debacle for the businessman-turned-mayor. As usual, the devil is in the details.

The mayor painted a lot of broad strokes when he gave his speech Wednesday morning. His serious tone was right on target. But his plan was devoid of detail. In terms of organizational structure, the creation of 100 or so local networks directly supervised by “local instructional supervisors” is right on the money. Less clear to me is what role the 10 “regional superintendents” will play. Most importantly, however, as Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute has pointed out, Mr. Bloomberg proposed these far-reaching changes without the usual whining for more money.
Perhaps more important than the organizational changes will be the curriculum reform. The mayor plans to impose a uniform curriculum on all but the 200 “top performing” schools. This is a great idea — but it needs just a bit of revision. Schools don’t fail to perform, students do. Within the high-performing schools are many children who are not doing well under the current successful programs. And in the not-sogood schools there are thousands of children who are achieving at high levels. Isn’t it time we start looking at individual children?

Much of the philosophy behind the Bloomberg initiative comes from the experience of the city’s Chancellor’s District, which imposed a highly structured reading program, Success for All, in each of its schools with some success. It is easy to say that we’ll use Success for All or another similar reading program in a majority of New York’s schools and that this strategy will breed consistent performance. But perhaps there are some children at high-performing P.S. 6 on Manhattan’s Upper East Side who could benefit from such a structured program. Similarly, higher performing students at lower performing schools may not be challenged enough by this type of scripted instruction. A better idea is to give principals at every school the flexibility to provide the right kind of instruction suited to the needs of individual children.

Mr. Bloomberg rightly places responsibility on parents to guide the education of their children. But there are aspects of his plan that could encourage an adversarial relationship between parents and pedagogues. The mayor proposes that a “parent coordinator” be placed in each school. If the principal selects this person to be a member of his or her management team, the plan has merit. But we must guard against a
plan that will bring the kind of corrosive “parental control” long advocated by the left-wing stalwart and Children First consultant Norm Fruchter and his Alinskyite allies.

By and large, there has been little parent interest in joining School Leadership Teams, despite the $300 stipend used to entice their participation. Plans that are afoot to have these teams evaluate principals could well force educators to make tough decisions based on political, not educational, concerns. The huge parent majorities on the current principal selection committees are a wildly unsuccessful strategy for choosing the best principals. So why would a similar strategy be helpful in evaluating them?

Rather than trying to increase the institutional power of parents, we should be creating programs to train interested parents to monitor and help with their children’s homework. We don’t need to empower parents; we need to empower their children.

We must treat parents with respect and never underestimate their importance. But Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein must not overestimate parents either. They need to carefully explain their program in clear language. Their first effort toward this end demonstrates how disconnected they are with the average parent. This week, a dense two-page, single-spaced letter was sent home to parents from the mayor and chancellor discussing the speech. It appeared to me to be written at a level reminiscent of a college textbook. So, on a whim, I ran this letter through my word processing program to evaluate its readability. The Flesch-Kincaid grade level of the letter was 12.0 and it scored 34.6 of 100 on the Flesch Reading Ease Scale, where higher is better. It is recommended that most documents for general public consumption be written at a seventh-grade level.

On one final point, the mayor is wrong. In Wednesday’s speech, Mr. Bloomberg said: “There is no Golden Age to reclaim. The ‘good old days,’ sadly were never anything but the old days.” The mayor being a Boston native, I don’t think he appreciates that there is reason for nostalgia about the good old days of our city’s schools. This city set the highest standards for teachers, enforced by tough testing and interview procedures, and had pay scales that were modest but were still higher than those of the surrounding suburbs. There was a time when a teacher who pronounced the word ask as “ax” would simply not have been allowed to teach.

Those teachers were famous for finding the talent within a student population just as afflicted by poverty as the one we have today. They helped those children achieve remarkable things.

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

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