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13th April

First Published in The New York Sun, April 13, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

History repeated itself Monday when the mayor and Chancellor Klein released a list of 100 or so supporters of the latest version of his ever-changing educational reform. Rather than listen to their critics and perhaps modify their own position, they dug in and attempted to blunt that criticism with the club of a petition.

That’s what happened in 2003 after a group of eight prominent experts in the field of teaching reading wrote the chancellor that the strategy he selected, Month-by-Month Phonics, was not backed by scientifically validated research and would not pass the scrutiny of the federal government for funding under the Reading First program of No Child Left Behind.

The chancellor, aided by the high priestess of the whole language approach to teaching reading, Lucy Calkins of Columbia University Teachers College, quickly put together a list of 100 “experts” endorsing the Bloomberg/Klein reading program. As I pointed out at the time, just about every person on that list, or the organization they worked for, stood to benefit financially from the adoption of the program. And they did reap rewards in the tens of millions in professional development contracts.

The only problem was that the eight turned out to be right, the 100 wrong. The federal government and the New York State Education Department did reject the city’s program for funding under Reading First the following year.

With test scores flat as a board and graduation rates that have barely budged, the response by Tweed has been to roll out yet another restructuring of the organizational charts. And to bring in “turnaround specialists.” The mayor blames the latest troubles on the teachers union, which clearly does have some self-interest in all of this. But the United Federation of Teachers certainly didn’t give a hugely expensive no-bid contract to the firm of Alvarez & Marsal, which came up with the scheme to “save money” by altering the city’s school bus routes in the dead of winter. Nor do I think that the UFT came up with the plan to hand bus passes for public transportation to 6-year-olds whose yellow bus routes had been eliminated.

When mayoral aide Brian Ellner circulated the initial draft of the letter to the “supporters” of the latest Bloomberg/Klein plan, it included direct criticism of the teachers union and their political supporters. When many balked at signing, the anti-union language was removed. No such restraint existed at the mayor’s Monday press event.

The other enemy, says the mayor, is the press. Maybe I’m reading different papers, but the last I looked, Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein were getting support, at least on many matters, from the editorial boards at the News, Post, and here at the Sun. The Times, as is customary for issues local, barely contributes to the dialogue. Despite this support, the mayor has lost the grassroots public. A recent Quinnipiac poll shows 61% of public school parents favor a return to the old system of an independent central board of education and local elected school boards.

In the face of the mounting opposition to plans that seem so convoluted and Byzantine that one potential supplier characterized them as “building the plane as it flies in the air,” the mayor and chancellor have once again come out with a letter signed by 100 supporters.

As in 2003, nearly every individual or group represented either has a contract with the Department of Education or has matters pending before some city agency, or is the recipient of largesse coming from Mr. Bloomberg ’s own pockets. The city chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People refused to sign. In a letter to Mr. Klein, they explained that they do “not feel that that the Department of Education has fulfilled the needs of the communities we serve and have not had full consultation with communities and parents to complete reform.”

A telling moment came at the press conference when reporters asked whether any of the signatories to the letter themselves had children in the public schools. Only one person, I am told, raised his hand.

My advice to the mayor today is the same as it was when he first won control of the schools. The answer to fixing the schools does not lie in structural change but instructional change. Bring back the Michael Bloomberg who railed against bilingual education and promised us “back-to-basics” instruction. Then I would sign on also.

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

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