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18th January
2008

First Published in The New York Sun, January 18, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

Nothing will grab a headline faster than rating schools with a letter grade. We saw it here in New York City when the Department of Education recently assigned grades to all of its schools. Last week, the national trade newspaper, Education Week, released its “grades” for each of the 50 states. Astoundingly, on the top of the list with a composite total grade of “B” in this “Quality Counts” evaluation, is the State of New York.

A closer examination of these results clarified the situation. Education Week used a weighted average of six components to arrive at their final grade. Only one of these components has to do with academic results, the one labeled “K-12 Achievement.” The rest of the components basically fall into the category of evaluating state education policy for good intentions, measured by such things as how much money is spent on their schools, and whether it is spent in an “equitable” way.

As far as K-12 achievement is concerned, New York State received a “C-,” to my reckoning more in line with reality, although still perhaps a bit generous. This put the Empire State just above the national average of “D+,” a grade that should reveal the depth of the failure of the “progressive” education establishment that has been setting academic policy in most American schools for decades.

As progressive educators are prone to do with our children, giving high grades for good intentions rather than performance is much like the fuzzy math being taught in thousands of American schools - including ours here in New York City. Points are awarded for coming up with clever alternate ways of solving a problem, rather than arriving at the right answer.

So much of New York State’s number one ranking overall can be attributed to its good intentions by increasing the billions it is pouring into our public schools. The fact that our B-plus spending is yielding C-minus results doesn’t seem to faze the folks at Education Week.

As far as I’m concerned, the number one state is Massachusetts. It leads the pack in academic achievement as evidenced by its sweep of top scores in the fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading NAEP scores released last year.

Education Week recognized this by giving Massachusetts the nation’s highest score in academic achievement, a “B.” Although Massachusetts spends generously on their schools, they seem to be getting a much higher return on their investment than we do in New York, which is well ahead of the Bay State in its ability to pick the taxpayers’ pockets.

The difference is that Massachusetts recognized that there is a link between curriculum and results. Massachusetts set what appear to be the nation’s highest academic standards, demanding more from students and teachers.

Teaching a rich curriculum doesn’t cost more than teaching the watered down “mile wide and an inch deep” standards prevalent in most other states, including New York. Regrettably, public policy on education has come down to battles over structure and funding rather than instructional content and methodology.

In New York State much of the debate is about money, defined by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. The increase in public expenditure for education over the last decade - which has ballooned spending on the schools in our city by more than 50% in the past six years alone - has failed to produce better results in the classroom.

New Jersey ranks higher than New York in the Education Week school funding formula, also driven by court mandates. The Garden State is now arguably bankrupt, facing a huge fiscal crisis that Governor Corzine is trying to fix with a proposal to increase tolls on the state’s highways.

In the latest number of City Journal, Sol Stern contends that free market solutions such as charters and vouchers are also failing to deliver the hoped-for results. These are structural changes that, if not combined with instructional reform, are also doomed to disappoint.

The biggest impediment to change may be a monopoly, but not the one that the choice movement targets. The real villain is the monopoly on instructional policy promulgated by the nation’s schools of education.

It is that monopoly that must be broken for choice to have any meaning, just as it is for increased funding to yield results. This is the lesson that liberals and conservatives must begin to learn.

Once we come together to address those concerns, we can achieve results better than the D-plus American schools we now have, provide real choice, and not bankrupt taxpayers in the process.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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