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18th June

First Published in The New York Sun,  June 18, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

The city may be short of money, but now that Mayor Bloomberg has been given control over the public schools, there will be one resource he’ll have in abundance — advice on how to run them.

Much of this advice will come from a source that I call the University-Institutional Complex, the group that really controls education in this town. Just as President Eisenhower warned us of the Military-Industrial Complex that drove up defense spending and shaped American foreign policy, the University-Institutional Complex controls much of what really goes on in the city’s classrooms.
The monthly calendar of the Board of Education lists the major contracts (those over $100,000) that feed this hungry beast. Millions go to big institutions such as Columbia Teachers College (which has created some of the worst educational theories), the Bank Street College of Education, NYU, and the City University. Millions more go to smaller institutions such as Boricua College, Mercy College, and the National Conference for Community and Justice. Taxpayer funds are given to a variety of reading and math gurus, non-profits, and publishers. No questions are asked about whether any of these programs work. This month, the calendar lists about $55 million in these contracts.

But if these folks had the answers, our kids wouldn’t be in the pickle that they’re in. The common thread is that while there is a profit motive in advancing these programs, profit is never tied to performance.
Thus, the Board of Education has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in “whole language” literacy programs, which are so discredited that the new “No Child Left Behind” federal education law specifically forbids the continued funding of these programs. The whole language purveyors of the Univer
sity-Institutional Complex are now busy recasting the program as “balanced literacy” in the hope that they can keep their gravy train running by injecting just enough phonics instruction in their programs to make them acceptable for continued funding.

Education Week has reported that Reading Recovery, another very expensive literacy program advanced by the University-Institutional Complex and used in many New York City schools, is also under fire as researchers charge that it simply doesn’t produce results.

But what constitutes a good result? Testing of children between third and eighth grade is now required in order for states to qualify for federal education funds. This should be a good thing. But the problem is that those who administer the tests aren’t particularly adept, and they are testing the wrong things. For example, the Regents are administered by the State Education Department — those wonderful folks who found it necessary to censor and rewrite passages of great works of literature before they could be used on Regents exams.

Perhaps it’s time to look at a different testing philosophy. If we really want tests to help the children by evaluating the work of the schools and teaching staff to encourage accountability, the mayor and his new chancellor should insist on a methodology known as “value-added” testing.

Value-added testing recognizes the fact that schools don’t take tests; children do. Rather than measure this year’s fourth grade against last year’s fourth grade, baselines are established for each child as they enter the system, and their growth in different subject areas is measured each year. By evaluating the growth of the children in a class, a school, or a district, far more useful information can be obtained to measure just how well we are doing — from the child on up.

We may well discover that some of the schools and districts that we currently celebrate as models of effectiveness may not be doing quite as well as we think — much to the distress of the University-Institutional Complex. Currently, District 2 on the east side of Manhattan is held up as the paragon of excellence — even as parents there protest its so-called “progressive curricula” such as constructivist (more fondly known as “fuzzy”) math.

But perhaps it is the upscale demographics of the district that make it look so much better than lower-performing districts covering poorer neighborhoods. That is what Professor Lois Weiner of New Jersey City University suggested in a paper presented at a conference of the American Educational Research Association in April. Professor Weiner wonders whether the hype of the high scores has obscured hard questions about District 2’s “ability to diminish achievement differentials that correlate closely with race and poverty.”

In other words, District 2 seems like the ballplayer who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. Can we really compare the performance of the child of well-to-do professionals on the upper east side with that of a Dominican kid in Washington Heights who stepped off the plane at age 11 having never seen the inside of anything that you or I would consider a real school? Perhaps the child in Washington Heights may advance further in the next school year than his more prosperous counterpart on the east side. Shouldn’t her teachers, her principal, and her district get credit for the individual gains she made? Instead they are penalized because this child came into the system late, and lacked the kind of strong foundation often available to the more affluent.

The system of value-added assessment is currently in use in Tennessee and Dallas, Texas, and has been adopted by the state of Florida. We should adopt it here in New York City in order to actually measure the effectiveness of our programs, rather than let results be skewed by the advantages that some students carry with them from home.

Perhaps then the city school system will not be so quick to adopt questionable programs like fuzzy math. If demographics guarantee that pupils in District 2 will perform better than pupils in other districts, regardless of the programs used to teach them, we run the risk of trying to replicate ineffectual methodologies that appear successful in District 2 elsewhere, inviting disastrous results.

Mathematicians maintain that “fuzzy math” holds back advanced students. This program downplays teaching kids long division or manipulation of fractions. Instead it encourages “touchyfeely” group discussions on how to solve problems. Unless a child has a firm grounding in the basic algorithms, that student will likely fall behind in advanced algebra, possibly precluding that child taking courses in pre-calculus, calculus, and advanced placement calculus in high school. The assistant principal in charge of Stuyvesant High School’s math department, Daniel Jaye, argues that students taking constructivist math curricula such as the Connected Math Program are at a disadvantage when it comes to enrolling in the fast track math programs at the elite public school.

“If these students are from one of those math programs that doesn’t provide them with a solid background in algebra, then they will be at a disadvantage in terms of getting into the higher level courses,” said Mr. Jaye. “Therefore they will also be at a disadvantage when applying to colleges looking for the most advanced math courses.”

In fact, the Board of Education is heavily invested in many of these “progressive” or “child centered” programs advanced by the University-Institutional Complex. These downplay the traditional teaching of facts, figures, and formulas, and instead maintain that children will gather their own wisdom if we just “teach them to learn.” The Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald calls this strategy “Anything But Knowledge.”

If the mayor would suggest that the new chancellor adopt the rigorous core knowledge curriculum devised by University of Virginia Professor E.D. Hirsch Jr., the University-Institutional Complex would be horrified. Mr. Hirsch believes that teaching actual knowledge is what encourages a child’s interest in his studies.
That made perfect sense to people like the late Albert Shanker, the United Federation of Teachers leader who was able to cut through much of the faddish nonsense that afflicts the school system. He was a supporter of Mr. Hirsch’s work.

But the University-Institutional Complex has influenced each of the top educators who have occupied the chancellor’s office, who have all pursued “progressive” policies, and who all failed to achieve educational results. Perhaps they were so mesmerized by the University-Institutional Complex that they pursued these strategies against their better judgment. Or perhaps the establishment is so entrenched that we no longer know where the line between it and the Board of Education begins and ends.

Such may have been the case in the relationship between Rudy Crew and the extremely influential group New Visions for Public Schools. New Visions may well be the ideological epicenter of the University-Institutional Complex, and it receives millions of dollars in Board of Education contracts. That did not stop its founder and chairman, attorney Richard I. Beattie, from acting as Mr. Crew’s personal attorney by negotiating the contract of the chancellor-to be and the aborted renewal of that contract, an evident conflict of interest.

New Visions helped come up with the concept of “School Leadership Teams,” a term we hear a great deal about in discussions of the new governance structure. Missing from this discussion is the fact that a vast majority of the parents on these teams were chosen in parent elections in which less than five percent of the school’s parents participate. We have been quick to demean the elected Community School Boards for exactly the same reason — low interest and participation. Also rarely mentioned is that many members of the leadership teams volunteer only because the post comes with a $300 annual tax-free stipend. Yes, we are paying parents to “volunteer” in their own children’s schools.

Who decided that half of these teams would be made up of parents, against the objections of the many who advocated that they be dominated by school staff? It was Rudy Crew, then the chancellor. His decision necessitated a $12-million contract to “train” those parents. New Visions competed for this contract, but was aced out at the last minute by another member of the University-Institutional Complex, the Urban League. And who was running the Urban League? A former member of the Board of Education, Dennis Walcott, now Mayor Bloomberg’s point man on education.

I hope that Mr. Bloomberg will approach his new responsibility for the schools by wiping the slate clean, not blindly accepting the failed ideas of the University-Institutional Complex. We need to get this money, hundreds of millions of dollars, back into the classroom, now more than ever. Mr. Bloomberg needs fresh strategies to refocus on the classroom. That means getting back to basics, taking power from district offices and returning it to teachers and principals, and removing the interference of central board bureaucrats who are too invested in the failed status quo, which is to say the University-Institutional Complex.

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

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