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6th September

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

I was pleased to hear from schools chancellor Joel Klein this week thanking me for sending him a copy of professor E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s book, “The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them.” He reports that he read it and “found it to be helpful.”  Unfortunately, before he read it he hired as his chief educator former Providence, R.I. schools superintendent Diana Lam, who, early evidence suggests, faces 180 degrees from Mr. Hirsch. Now all I can suggest is that he lend the book to Ms. Lam.

This book would make better reading than the National Education Association’s self-flagellating curriculum for 9/11, a document that reflects the “progressive” philosophy that dominates the educational establishment. I suspect that this missive would be more to Ms. Lam’s liking.
It is disappointing that after being brought in as an outsider to reform New York’s school system, Mr. Klein has hired consummate insiders, most notably Ms. Lam, who appear to buy into the same philosophies that have failed so consistently over the past 30 years. We may not know her position on the 9/11 curriculum, but we do know her position on other controversial issues. Mayor Bloomberg has frequently been critical of bilingual education, and suggested that its elimination would be a key element of educational reform when he controlled the school system. Well, now Mr. Bloomberg is in charge, but Ms. Lam, his chief educator, is a strong supporter of bilingual education. How does that square?

The other two legs upon which Ms. Lam’s philosophy stands are constructivist, or “fuzzy,” math and “balanced literacy.” To find dissenters who can tell you what’s wrong with fuzzy math, one need only turn to the faculty of NYU’s Courant Institute — or the math teachers at Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science. As for balanced literacy, that’s just a term educrats use to deceive parents and politicians to maintain what are largely the same “whole language” programs that have been banned for funding by the federal government.

The prevailing progressive philosophy, advanced by the schools of education, foundations, New Visions, the NYU Center for Education and Social Change, and others, has failed. At the center of this are people like Ms. Lam who carry out the philosophies of the university-institutional complex at great personal financial reward.

Ms. Lam has run four school systems in the past decade. At San Antonio, Texas, the largest system she ran (58,000 students, not even 6% the size of New York’s system), the school board paid her a reported $781,000 (including benefits and legal fees) to get out of town. $200,000 of the sum was for the “reputational injuries, pain and suffering, and mental anguish,” she allegedly suffered, according to a 1998 Education Week article that quotes from the agreement between Ms. Lam and the San Antonio school board.

Scores did go up at San Antonio and Providence — but this is likely meaningless. The entire Texas testing program has recently come under attack by scholars studying the efficacy of the tests. Walt Haney, a professor at Boston College, has extensively studied the results there and concluded that, “the Texas miracle is more hat than cattle.” How much Ms. Lam’s district benefited from the laundry list of tricks employed statewide to give the illusion of success and improvement is unclear. But I doubt this subject got much attention during Mr. Klein’s one meeting and few phone calls with Ms. Lam before offering her the job.

Mr. Bloomberg had best not delude himself that better management will turn the schools around. Where the change must take place is in the classroom, the place where teachers and children actually connect. Mr. Mayor, you can fix the infrastructure and streamline the budget, but if you don’t change the teaching methods employed in the classroom, don’t expect better results.

The progressive educators cannot be further empowered at this critical moment in the history of New York’s schools. It’s time to clear the decks and try some new approaches. Some of these new approaches are the very ones we abandoned a generation ago. But those were the bad old days, when the New York City public school system was the envy of the nation, when teachers fought to get in instead of out, and when our kids actually learned to read and do math.

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

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