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3rd January

First Published in The New York Sun, January 3, 2003
By Andrew Wolf

Recently, 2,117 students representing 673 school teams gathered in Atlanta, Georgia to take part in the National Scholastic K-12 Grade Chess Championships, sponsored by the U.S. Chess Federation.

The results of the tournament were particularly gratifying for Middle School 118 in the Bronx. Each of the three grades in the school finished “in the money” (teams competed only among others in the same grade). Their sixth grade squad finished first in the nation, the seventh graders finished second, and the eighth grade entrants finished third. That is a remarkable showing from a virtually allminority school located in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

In fact, this was by far the best showing of any New York middle school. And many of the best schools in the city were represented at the tournament. These included the well-regarded schools of District 2 (located for the most part on the east side of Manhattan) such as P.S. 6, P.S. 116, P.S. 124, P.S. 158, P.S. 183, the Manhattan New School, the New York City Lab School, and M.S. 104. The Hunter College Campus School fielded one of the largest teams at the tournament, and many private schools such as Dalton, Horace Mann, Spence, Collegiate, and Ramaz also participated.
Aside from their remarkable performance at this prestigious chess meet, M.S. 118 seems to be, at least in the context of New York City public middle schools, a much better-than-average academic performer. According to the New York City Department of Education’s “Similar Schools Achievement Comparison,” M.S. 118 is ranked “far above average.” In reading, it ranks 60th of 220 middle schools in the city.

But if the federal government, the state Education Department, and the city’s new Department of Education get their way, parents of students attending this school will be pressured to take their kids out of M.S. 118. You see, the bureaucrats have decided that M.S. 118 is a “failing school,” and the students are thus entitled under the No Child Left Behind Act to move on to a better-performing school.

For M.S. 118 to win a national chess championship and have good test scores, but still be considered a “failing school,” goes right to the heart of what is wrong with our educational system, and why most reform efforts are doomed.

This is the system that takes a championship school and turns it into a dog. The federal government leaves it to the state, the state screws up, and the city nods its head in acquiescence. Meanwhile, pressure mounts to convince students at this quality school to leave.

Most of the blame should be assigned to the New York State Education Department. The new federal law foolishly gives the states the power to designate which are the failing schools, with no clear standard. Rather than evaluate the average scores of the students in each school, New York has set artificial goals that put better schools like M.S. 118 at a distinct disadvantage.

To demonstrate just how perverse this methodology is, another school, M.S. 254, less than a mile away, ranked 212th in reading in that same universe of 220 middle schools. It did not win any chess trophies. In fact by any measure it is one of the worst of the worst-achieving of the city schools. But low performance means low goals, and low goals mean that this truly failing school doesn’t make the state’s hit list.
M.S. 118 is on the list because it didn’t meet its goal in math. Nevermind that it is still comfortably in the top half of all city public schools administering the state’s eighth grade math test. On that list, M.S. 254 ranks deep in the bottom quartile.

The parent of a child attending M.S. 254 does not have the right to demand a transfer to M.S. 118, where the percentage of children reading at grade level is more than three times higher. But, hypothetically, a child at M.S. 118 could be placed in M.S. 254.

Schools that do not have enough children qualifying for free lunch do, however, get a free ride. They can’t be considered as failing schools, even though the city Department of Education may rank them “far below average” on its similar school comparison listings (the closest thing we have to a real measure of school performance). According to state regulations, there are no goals for these schools. Only schools with a considerable population of poor children are certified as “failing” schools. Everyone else, presumably, lives in Lake Wobegon — where, as humorist Garrison Keillor quipped, “All the children are above average.”
Dozens of early childhood schools in the city are also excluded. As far as the state of New York is concerned, failure can occur only in the fourth and eighth grades or in high school. Although studies suggest that the most critical time in a child’s academic development occurs during the pre-Kindergarten to second grade years, schools covering only grades below fourth grade are not evaluated at all by the state. The school unfortunate enough to have to actually administer the fourth grade tests to those it had no prior responsibility for educating will end up taking the hit for the incompetence of others.

Yes, this is indeed a system that takes a championship school like M.S. 118 and labels it a failure, encouraging its students to leave while ignoring some real problem schools. Meanwhile, the students at failing M.S. 254 are truly trapped.

That is not to say that all is rosy at M.S. 118. The school’s highly regarded principal recently retired. Why? Because this “failing” school was doing so well that the principal was given a bonus. The city’s poorlyconceived bonus system has had a huge unintended consequence. Many of these achieving administrators are taking their bonuses and promptly retiring. The system bases their pension on their final year’s income, bonus included. This has enticed scores of the best, most experienced principals to retire prematurely.

There is validity and logic to freemarket ideas like this, but they must be planned with some forethought. Chancellor Joel Klein has developed a similar program for superintendents that presumably will also reward the best of them right into early retirement.

In the final analysis, we need to really examine all aspects of the school system with a careful, critical eye. The ideology we apply to correcting the system must be matched with prudence, lest we be overwhelmed by unintended consequences.

Chancellor Klein needs to take a zero-sum approach. When the state makes a boneheaded mistake, like labeling good schools as failures, and vice versa, he must not lie down and take it, but assert our city’s interests. The City of New York used to lead in matters of education. Now it takes direction from bureaucrats in Albany, the wonderful folks who made upstate New York into an intellectual and cultural wasteland.

When the federal government advocates wholesale transfers of students, threatening to destroy the few remaining good neighborhood schools in our city, it is time for the chancellor to take action. He could go to court, like Los Angeles is contemplating, to avoid the negative effects of some of the more ill-conceived aspects of the new No Child Left Behind Act.

Mr. Klein must take the leadership in fighting the inane regulations that have made the champion kids of M.S. 118 pawns in a game where everyone ends up losing.

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

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