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29th November

First Published in The New York Sun, November 29, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

Two events in the past year have given new hope for the public schools here in New York and throughout the country. It was hoped that mayoral control of the Board of Education (now renamed the Department of Education) would mark the beginning of a new day of accountability. As I have pointed out on these pages over the past few months, little more than the name and address have changed.

The other cause for hope was the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which many hoped would result in an education system that would better respond to the critical needs of poor children who typically are among the lowest performing students.

In my column last week I enumerated a number of problems with this new law. Friends, we are just scratching the surface.
Among the problems I mentioned was the lack of a rational standard to identify “failing” schools.This job has been left to the states, which have adopted widely varying definitions of failure. New York State’s particularly moronic formula has resulted in some of the city’s better schools being stigmatized as failing while some of the very worst were passed over.

Part of the proposed remediation for the failing schools is to allow children to transfer to better schools. Particularly in states like New York, where far too many schools were unnecessarily labeled as failures, the important concept of neighborhood schools is being put at risk. The last time neighborhood schools were challenged in New York was when busing for integration was advanced during the 1960s.The results were disastrous.

Thus far few have taken the city up on the offer to move their kids.The press in New York has taken this to mean that somehow the school system has failed to convey this new right to parents. They simply cannot accept the simple truth that most parents prefer, in fact demand, neighborhood schools. But as the daily drumbeat in the press, combined with misguided pressure from the federal Department of Education goes on, parents are likely to be pressured to abandon their core beliefs in community schools. Sometimes it seems that the powers-that-be won’t be satisfied until every child is attending schools outside of their own neighborhood.

The parents of children in these failing schools may not be moving their children out, but these children are alternatively entitled to special enrichment in the form of tutoring. This could be a good thing. We need to remember that the No Child Left Behind Act targets only poor children. It was argued that more well-to-do families have the option of making up for the inadequacies of their children’s schools by engaging private tutors. Aren’t poor kids entitled to the same consideration?

The program was designed by Congress to give parents a choice between a number of private venders. But some of New York City’s local school districts have themselves gone into the tutoring business, and are capturing most of this federal money. These districts have systematically shut out the private companies from using school buildings to conduct their programs and prevented them from making presentations to groups of parents. There are apparently cases of parents being told that if they choose the district program, they can drop off the paperwork at their child’s school. But should they elect to use the private company, the paperwork must be brought to the District Office, often miles away.

Michele Rodriguez, a member of Community School Board 10 in the northwest Bronx, left a meeting of parents organized by the district shaking her head. “I couldn’t believe how hard district officials were pushing their own program, and was shocked that the other venders weren’t invited to make presentations as well. Parents were given no real choice.”

This is unfair competition, and it is not what was intended by Congress. The local districts, which have not done a very good job in the first place, ought not be allowed to profit from their own ineptitude. Tutoring is best done by the private sector. Those doing the best job will prosper in the marketplace. Congress needs to act, but in the meantime, Chancellor Klein would do well to take the districts out of the tutoring business.

I recall being amused by an article in the New York Times a few years ago describing a Board of Education program run by Lehman College to tutor uncertified teachers to help them pass the state teaching exam. At the time, Lehman had one of the lowest percentages of its own education graduates passing that test. I found it ironic that the college appeared to be prospering from its own failure. It appears that the same strategy is at play with the remedial tutoring for poor children. Leave no bureaucrat behind.

The buzz in the schools is that the reason the districts are getting into the tutoring business is the fear of vouchers. Using private companies to provide federally subsidized tutoring is seen by some as a precursor to a larger scale voucher program. They view getting into tutoring as playing defense.

Unlike many of my friends, I am not totally sold on vouchers as the cure-all for what ails the schools. The competition we need is not between schools, but between philosophies and methodologies.

Those in the system must understand that their goal is a well-educated child, not self-preservation. If a dose of private enterprise Stanley Kaplan style will turn failure into success, so be it. The best way to make this tutoring program work is to give all eligible parents vouchers that can be redeemed by any of the approved venders on the state list.

Unfortunately, you can expect to see even more pressure on the districts to get into the tutoring business. The teachers union has recently won a key decision that mandates that “per-session” work done by teachers after school or on weekends count towards computing pensions. Expect a rush by senior teachers to sign up for this work.Those extra few thousand dollars they may earn this year tutoring will add extra dollars to their pensions year after year until they die.

Finally, another key area in the new law that Congress did not forthrightly address is a national standard for curricula.

We have a tradition in this country of looking at education as a purely local concern.We want community values reflected in our schools. But this must not come at the cost of ignorance. News organizations last week seized on an international study of what young adults know about geography. Americans do not fare well compared to other nations.A large number of them couldn’t even locate the Pacific Ocean. Why? Because nobody is telling all school districts that they must teach geography. Some do, some don’t.There has to be a better way.

Even a theorist as educationally conservative as E.D. Hirsch strongly supports national standards. America is among the most mobile societies on earth. We move between communities and between states with great frequency as befits a free country. There ought to be a clear expectation of what a child of a certain age should know, and what skills he or she should possess. I am not talking about creationism versus evolution. I am talking about things like vocabulary, math skills, basic geography, and historical facts.

One entity that recognizes this is the Defense Department. The base schools run by the military have a uniform curriculum so that children who move from, say, Alabama to California can pick up exactly where they left off. There is a line between over-centralizing and common sense. By ignoring the issue, Congress does a disservice to the children not lucky enough to attend schools run by the military.

With Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, revisions of the original legislation can be expedited. If it can be done in a bipartisan way, so much the better. But it must be done.

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

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