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6th December
2002

First Published in The New York Sun, December 6, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

Next month, Schools Chancellor Klein is set to announce the results of phase one of his “Children First” initiative. This is the blueprint designed to pull the public school system up from years of failure and mediocrity, and give our kids the quality education they deserve.

But why wait until then to find out what Mr. Klein is up to? A math professor at New York University, a particularly astute observer of our city’s educational scene, has already figured out what the chancellor will propose.

Bastiaan Braams comes to New York from the Netherlands. He is a research professor in the Department of Mathematics at N.Y.U.’s prestigious Courant Institute, where he does research in magneto-fluid dynamics and teaches courses with titles such as “Parallel Algorithms in Scientific Computing and Many Body Problems.” If this isn’t rocket science, I don’t know what it is. Mr. Braams has also read a great deal about education, and he has a Web page that provides annotated links to a large collection of articles about mathematics and science curriculum as well as broader educational issues.
Mr. Braams, like many mathematicians and scientists across the country, is concerned about what passes for mathematics education in our nation’s K-12 schools. These mathematicians and scientists have seen the new “reform” mathematics programs in action, and they see little concern for teaching mathematical procedures, and a lot of concern for making kids feel good. Getting the right answer is not a priority.

Together with parents and educators, these mathematicians and scientists have formed organizations such as Mathematically Correct to focus attention on mathematics curricula. In New York City, parents, mathematicians, educators, and others formed NYC HOLD, for Honest Open Logical Debate on mathematics education reform. Mr. Braams is co-editor, with parent activist Elizabeth Carson, of the NYC HOLD Web site (www.nychold.com). So I was curious to see what Mr. Braams’s take was on the chancellor’s “Children First” initiative.

Mr. Braams has identified a common thread that works its way through nearly everything Mr. Klein has put into place since arriving last summer: a reliance on private foundations and the money they supply to provide direction on critical curriculum issues.

This is a mistake of gargantuan proportion. Rather than set an agenda and solicit private funds, it is the foundations and their educational ideology that give direction to the program. Mr. Braams suggests that perhaps $100 million may come to the system over the next four years by this route. But he points out that this is only about 0.25% of the school budget.

This is truly staggering. Apparently, $100 million in private funds can leverage as much as $50 billion that will be spent by the city to educate our children over the next four years. Mr. Braams notes that this funding is “a triviality in the whole of things, but a massive boost for the prestige of Joel Klein.”

While hobnobbing with the rich and powerful at cocktail parties in the Hamptons with Caroline Kennedy-Schlossberg at his side may be satisfying for Mr. Klein, it does precious little to help educate the children.
But this is not just a question of private money being wasted. Rather, hundreds of millions of dollars are now being squandered on contracts for professional development and consulting services. Powerful interests want to keep this largesse coming.

There really are two “Children First” initiatives. There are the public meetings which, as I pointed out in a recent column, have been compromised, if not actually rigged, by groups with a stake in maintaining the status quo. Mr. Braams feels that the result of this public effort will be a laundry list of familiar motherhood and apple pie generalities: “That parents and others demand high standards for all students, that we want excellence throughout the K-12 system, that basics are important, and more such agreeable platitudes.”
But Mr. Braams suggests that this public effort is a Potemkin Village. The chancellor, suggests Mr. Braams, will
rely for the specifics of his proposals primarily on secretive “working groups” — there seem to be at least two of these, one on literacy and one on numeracy — that are actually writing the plan that could be released as early as January 6.

These groups, Mr. Braams said, “appear to be working without a public agenda, and without even the names of the members being public knowledge.” I have called the chancellor’s office repeatedly to learn more about these panels and their members. The press chief for the Department of Education, David Chai, first denied knowledge of the panels and then retreated into the time-honored strategy of dodging calls.
The name of one member of the numeracy panel has surfaced, a name that is probably typical of the membership and instructive of the pitfalls of allowing insiders who do business with the school system to set policy.

Lucy West is the former math coordinator of District 2 on Manhattan’s east side. She is one of the gurus of the constructivist or “fuzzy” math programs that have made District 2 the epicenter of a citywide parental revolt over mathematics instruction. She recently left this post to become a private consultant.
What makes Ms. West a math expert? Is it perhaps her 1984 B.S. in Counseling Services and Theatre Arts from Empire State College? Or maybe it is her Masters in Education from the Bank Street College of Education, where almost every educational fad has received a warm welcome?

Real mathematicians and scientists, those with doctorates in the field, like Mr. Braams, aren’t sitting at this table. They don’t believe in the pathetic nonsense that passes for math in the eyes of the K-12 education community. The fix is in.

Mr. Braams predicts that the specifics for math will include only fuzzy math programs. For reading, look for “balanced literacy,” which is the code name for the whole language wolf in phonics sheep’s clothing. The overall standards, Mr. Braams predicts, will come from the Pittsburgh Institute for Learning and the New Standards Project.

In addition, Mr. Braams predicts that “a noticeable feature of the curricular direction in literacy and mathematics will be its claimed need for expensive outside consulting, professional development, and other services, and the associated contracts will mainly remain within a known, small community.”
This is probably good news for Ms. West’s nascent consulting firm, and every other participant in the city’s “University-Institutional Complex,” the same folks who have been pulling the strings in the schools for over a generation.

Here’s a suggestion for Mr. Klein and Mayor Bloomberg: Cancel the numeracy commission and the literacy commission and start fresh with panels composed of true subject-matter experts, without a stake in subsequent contracts for educational services.

Meanwhile, my money is on Mr. Braams. I think he has found a way to predict the future with uncanny accuracy. Now we can all relax during the upcoming holiday break secure in the knowledge that nothing much will change.

© 2002 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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