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30th November
2007

First Published in The New York Sun, November, 30, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

Two seemingly unrelated news stories intersected the Thursday before Thanksgiving, and the result was a public relations disaster for the Department of Education. But things might have been worse. Coverage of a troublesome third story, which happened simultaneously, seems to have fallen through the cracks.

When the Department leaked word of a squad of lawyers hired to find ways to dismiss low performing teachers, led by a former prosecutor, the story quickly grabbed attention. That such a legal effort had been underway for years with mixed success didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of reporters.

At the headquarters of the United Federation of Teachers, where normally chilly relations with Tweed had warmed considerably in recent months, the disclosure of what was termed the “gotcha squad,” felt like a slap.

Timing is everything, after all, and Tweed’s timing couldn’t have been worse. As my colleague Elizabeth Green had reported that morning, the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test for New York and other major cities were to be announced that morning, and the results for the city were not impressive, though Chancellor Klein tried gamely to present the results in the best possible light.

The president of the teachers, Randi Weingarten, however, was seething over the “gotcha squad” story. She scheduled her own press event just before the chancellor’s. Her assertion that the story was leaked by Tweed to divert attention away from the flat test scores being released in Washington was not lost on the press.

So when the reporters trudged up Broadway to meet with the chancellor, the tone of the day had been set. The traditional PowerPoint presentation didn’t seem as compelling, and skepticism was in the next day’s headlines and reinforced by commentators and bloggers.

Then, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the chancellor took the unusual step of sending out nearly 100,000 emails to the entire staff, spinning the scores once again to, as Deputy Chancellor Christopher Cerf put it, “remind them of how much they are achieving on behalf of the children of the city even if others would prefer to ignore the power of their work.”

All this was over real issues. Flat test scores and how to weed out incompetent teachers are both legitimate topics - far more so than, say, whether or not pupils should be allowed to carry cell phones, though that has certainly captured the public’s imagination. There was even, briefly, a plan mooted to build lockers outside of some schools to house the phones while students are in class.

Then came the idea of giving cell phones, air time, and ringtones to students as a reward for academic achievement. This is an initiative coming from the Department’s new “Chief Equality Officer,” Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist. He wants to give students these special phones so that pupils can receive messages of encouragement from the likes of rap star Jay-Z (who dropped out of high school) and basketball star LeBron James (who skipped college). But the cell phone plot has thickened.

Advertising Age recently reported that an entrepreneur named David Droga is in negotiation with the Department of Education to give special phones to all students. The initiative is called the “Million Program,” a reference to the number of students in the public schools. These special phones would be “packed with learning tools such as a thesaurus, spell checks and an extra-help tip line to each student.” Mr. Droga was presenting his plan at a conference sponsored by Advertising Age in midtown, as Ms. Weingarten and Mr. Klein were entertaining the education reporters downtown.

According to Advertising Age, “The more a student uses these learning applications, the more rewards - discounts for movies, sneakers, clothes and music downloads, as well as air-time minutes and text messages - are unlocked. Additional incentives for achievement and attendance, including congratulatory voice-mail messages from, say, Derek Jeter or a wake-up call from Jay-Z, are also planned.”

How will this be financed? Through advertising. “After all, the phones, while provided for free to the students, won’t be completely without cost. As such, marketers will be able to infiltrate the students’ world through ‘responsible’ sponsorships.”

A similar idea was considered and rejected before. In 1994, the New York State Legislature banned Chris Whittle’s Channel One from state classrooms. Mr. Whittle proposed to put a free television set in every classroom in exchange for an agreement that would require students to watch a short news program - complete with commercials - each morning. The uproar over the commercialization of the classroom killed it. My guess is a similar result will greet the Million Program should it actually win backing from the Department of Education.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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