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26th January

First Published in The New York Sun, January 26, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

If your child was mugged walking home from school, the first thing that I suspect you would tell him is to avoid taking the same route in the future. In recent years, New York’s schoolchildren have been mugged — intellectually, not physically — by many of our most notable researchers and academics. And the powers-that-be may be getting ready to do it again.

A new group, the Research Partnership for New York City Schools, is being formed to do “independent research” that would, among other things, evaluate the effectiveness of public school policy initiatives. It would have unprecedented access to data generated by the schools. It is modeled after a similar group that operates in Chicago.

The partnership includes Columbia University Teachers College, New York University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy, the City University, and the State University of New York at Albany. Funding, at least initially, will come from private sources.

This new entity — composed of many institutions that were involved in setting the very policies they are now commissioned to evaluate — could wind up with a virtual monopoly over the school system’s data.

Four years ago, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein announced their first plan to reform the schools. It included a mandatory “uniform curriculum” that featured a strategy to teach reading known as “balanced literacy,” the supposed “balance” coming from a series of workbooks known as Month-by-Month Phonics.

The choices were criticized by a group of seven reading researchers, former members of a panel appointed by President Clinton and the then-Republican Congress. The critics charged that Month-by-Month Phonics “falls short as an effective systematic phonics program. Its effectiveness has not been validated scientifically — the program is woefully inadequate for many reasons.”

Mr. Klein released his own letter of support, signed by 100 local academics in the education field. The moving force behind the effort came from a professor at Columbia University Teachers College, Lucy Calkins, who is the high priestess of the widely discredited “whole language” method of teaching reading. Many of the 100 were beneficiaries of Department of Education contracts, including Ms. Calkins, who charges $1,200 a day to send one of her assistants to just one school.

A year later, the federal government denied funding to the city’s “balanced literacy” program as not being “scientifically validated.” The seven independent researchers were right, Mr. Klein’s 100 compromised academics were dead wrong. Of the “experts” which gave Mr. Klein the erroneous advice, almost a quarter came from Teachers College, 17 from Bank Street, 16 from NYU, and nearly 30 from various units of the City University. Another person involved in the effort to create the Research Partnership, as a member of its Research Advisory Board, is Lauren Resnick, who runs the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh.

Much of the justification for the controversial pedagogy chosen by Mr. Klein was based on Ms. Resnick’s “scholarly research” during the 1990s evaluating the programs put in place by a former superintendent, Anthony Alvarado, in Manhattan’s District 2, which covers the East Side, Chinatown, and TriBeCa.

Ms. Resnick’s “research” was called into question by Lois Weiner, a professor at New Jersey City University. Her paper critiquing Ms. Resnick’s work, “Research or ‘Cheerleading’? Scholarship on Community School District 2, New York City,” appeared in the Education Policy Analysis Archives in August 2003.

Ms. Weiner charged that the business relationship that developed between Ms. Resnick’s institutes and District 2 compromised her scholarship. In a rebuttal to the Weiner article, Ms. Resnick wrote: “There was never a secret about this relationship. Indeed the intent of the … investigation from the start was to link scholars and practitioners in a (then) new form of research and development in which scholars became problem-solving partners with practitioners.”

Further complicating the new Research Partnership for New York City Schools is the fact that its governance board includes not only the chancellor but also Kathryn Wylde of the Partnership for New York City, who has a close relationship with both the mayor and Mr. Klein; Randi Weingarten of the United Federation of Teachers, and Robert Hughes, who heads New Visions for Public Schools, a group that I have described as the “permanent government” of the New York City public schools for the past two decades.

Control over research should not fall into the hands of key stakeholders in the system.

A more transparent strategy would be to bar the participation of any institution that has or might have a business relationship with the Department of Education. Moreover, it should be mandated that the department afford to any researcher or academic entity, for example the Manhattan Institute, the exact same access to data that is proposed for the Research Partnership. Then let the chips fall where they may.

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

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