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29th September

First Published in The New York Sun, September 29, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

Last year, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein announced the results of the state and city reading tests in a press conference at a Bronx elementary school, Public School 33. In this ancient building they announced that a great miracle had taken place. While scores rose in every elementary school grade citywide, nowhere did they rise more than in this virtually all-minority school, where nearly every child is so poor that he qualifies for free lunch.

This was an event of significance, taking place as the campaign for Mr. Bloomberg’s re-election was heating up. The announcement of the “historic gains” in reading scores was so powerful, that for all intents and purposes, it removed education as an issue that could be pursued by the mayor’s Democratic opponents.

P.S. 33’s remarkable scores last year became the symbol of the success of the mayor’s Children First initiative. The percentage of children reading at grade level in the third grade rose by 13.9%, to 47.9% from 34%; in the fifth grade rose by 30.5%, to 85% from 54.5%, and in the fourth grade rose by an astounding 46.7%, to 83.4% from 36.7%.

It is unlikely that the mayor or Mr. Klein will return to P.S. 33 this year. That is because this school has now become a symbol of the reality of Children First, not really reform but rather a massive, unprecedented public relations effort with no real achievement behind it.

Virtually all the gains of the previous year at P.S. 33 have been wiped out, according to the latest test scores released this past week. While third-grade scores in the school rose by a respectable 4.8%, the results in the fourth and fifth grades were disastrous. Nearly 36% fewer fourth-grade students passed this year than last, while in fifth grade the pass rate plummeted to 41.9% from 85%. So much for miracles.

If one examines results from the last testing prior to the establishment of the mayor’s Children First program, the exams taken in the spring of 2003, P.S. 33 children performed better than they did this year. In 2003, over all three grades, 50.5% of children were on grade level, a figure that has now declined to 47.1%.

Beginning with the first testing after the institution of the mayor and chancellor’s program in reading in 2004, scores have increased citywide by 6.4%. Since the current testing program began in 1999, about 25% more children are reading at grade level, most of the increases coming during what we’re told was the “old, failed system.” The Department of Education is trying to take credit for increases in the 2003 testing, the last year that the old programs were used.

The short-term improvement is welcome, but prospective employers and institutions of higher learning are not interested in fourth-grade scores. They look at the completed package at the conclusion of each child’s K-12 schooling. Education is not a sprint; it is a marathon. By the time our children get halfway around the track, they are already tiring.

A pattern of improved scores in the elementary grades and declining performance in the middle grades cuts across all schools, public, private, parochial and even charter schools. While the overall results are better in schools where children come from privileged backgrounds, the decline is still evident.The results released last week in New York state gave this well-known trend new emphasis as this was the first time the state administered tests in each of grades three through eight.

What is it about American schools that is breeding this culture of decline and failure? I agree with the noted educational theorist E.D. Hirsch Jr., who points to the removal of content learning from our nation’s schools, beginning in the earliest grades. It is one thing to be able to decode simple reading passages, such as those on fourth-grade tests that speak of general things like making friends and playing in the park. By eighth grade, these passages are more complex, requiring contextual knowledge to be fully understood.

New York City public schools, like most in America, have removed structured textbook learning in history, geography, science, music, and art in favor of large “literacy” blocs, where the reading of fiction greatly predominates. Learning is achieved in small groups working on “projects,” rather than as a whole class under the direction of a teacher. This prevalent teaching methodology is the common thread that directs our national march toward mediocrity.

That is why history will not remember Mayor Bloomberg as the “Education Mayor.” Rather he and Chancellor Klein will be recalled as the ultimate public relations spin doctors, trying and ultimately failing to camouflage yet another decade of educational failure.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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