First Published on the Public Advocate’s Corner October 29, 2008
By Andrew Wolf
Shortly after I began writing a regular column for The New York Sun six-and-a-half years ago, the mayor was given control of the New York City public schools. During that period I have written around two hundred columns on the schools, most of which discuss various aspects of mayoral control.
I am by nature a skeptical fellow, and the story of the educational “reform” that has taken place since then has given me much to be skeptical about. Unfortunately, last month the Sun published its final issue, so now is as good a time as any to reflect on this remarkable story that I have followed since the beginning.
By the statistics, mayoral control has failed, as Diane Ravitch has previously pointed out in this space. Test results on the most reliable measures are flat, despite an unprecedented influx of funds – a 79% increase in the education budget in just six years.
But mayoral control has failed in a more profound way. Desperate to show “progress,” a laundry list of structural reforms has been implemented by the gang at the Tweed Courthouse. Most of these have to do with providing incentives to principals, teachers and students. If you want to believe that teachers will only do a good job if we give them the chance to earn an extra $3,000 bonus for higher test scores, than I have a bridge to sell you.
Most teachers I know desperately want to do a good job. Meeting with success makes the life of the teacher more rewarding. No small bonus, or even large bonus could ever replace that satisfaction. That is why they became teachers rather than, say, stockbrokers. Teachers are doing a bit better financially than they were in the past, but this is not an easy way to make a living.
The idea that students will be motivated by giving them cash prizes or, more perversely, cellular telephones that they aren’t allowed to bring to school with them, sends the wrong message. We have to imbue in our young people an appreciation for the value of learning – as a way to help them succeed financially, sure, but even more for the enrichment it gives to their lives.
The changes we need are the ones that have been ignored. We are following an empty curriculum that leaves even the brightest students woefully deficient in the sciences, history, geography, music and art.
We are training teachers to use methodologies, such as “balanced literacy,” that have been proven ineffective with the most at-risk students, while jettisoning strategies with much better track records and far more promise.
We have institutionalized a “fuzzy math” curriculum that leaves our students woefully deficient to meet the technical challenges they will face in the global economy of the twenty first century.
In trying to impose a “business model” on our schools, we have failed our children in a profound way. We then use the “creative accounting” of inflated test scores and never-ending test prep to “prove” that the schools are bringing “profits” for the huge investment in public capital that is being poured into them.
It is all an illusion, reinforced by a public relations army spending ten times more to sell their product us than the old Board of Education did.
If we have learned nothing else during the last few weeks, it is that the Bloombergian “business model” doesn’t even work in the business world. Why should we think that it works in the far more complicated world of education?
Ironically, greater gains were made during the years that Rudy Crew and Harold Levy ran the schools under the old Board of Education. If I had my druthers, I would let the current law sunset on June 30, 2009 and go back to the drawing board, building on the old system largely run by teachers and educators, rather than the Tweed “business model” of lawyers and MBAs.
ANDREW WOLF frequently wrote on topics related to Education for the much-missed New York Sun. He is Editor and Publisher of the Riverdale Review and Bronx Press Review, two community weekly newspapers published in The Bronx.