First Published in The New York Sun, September 29, 2008
By Andrew Wolf
For the past six-and-a-half years I have frequently occupied space on these pages sounding off on everything from nepotism in Bronx politics to politically induced fear of eating French fries or Frosted Flakes. Most often I have written about our schools.
I came to this task with a point of view, influenced by the events of 1968 and 1969, turbulent years for society, but particularly for New York’s schools.
The city’s power elite, centered around well-meaning philanthropists and non-profit think tanks, believed that they had the answer to fix what they perceived to be a troubled school system. The answer they had, and imposed upon our children, was decentralized “community control.” It didn’t work.
Today there is more fiddling with the schools than ever. Shortly after I began writing for the Sun, a new model, mayoral control, was put into place here. Because there were few restrictions on what the mayor could do, this initiative could have gone in a number of directions. And in fact it has gone in a number of directions, repeatedly changing the organization chart of the school system at all levels.
There will be those who disagree with me, but evidence suggests that a dispassionate analysis of these last six years shows a stunning lack of academic progress, even as we poured mind-boggling increases in taxpayer dollars into the school system.
After the mayor announced the first of his three major restructurings, I wrote on February 7, 2003, “Anyone who believes that New York’s children will do better under this system simply because there will be 10 mega-districts, rather than the 32 smaller districts that currently exist, is delusional. The children and their teachers couldn’t care less. What will make the difference is what goes on in their classrooms. That is where the change is needed, and that is precisely where nothing will change.”
That summarizes the past six years of mayoral control and the 35 of decentralization that preceded it. Reform must take place in the classroom in the form of better instruction and curriculum, conveyed to students by well-trained and literate teachers, using teaching methods known and proven to be effective.
The problem with education, I have concluded, is not structural but instructional, and can be traced directly to our schools of education where, by and large, only “progressive” touchy-feely pedagogy is taught.
If our pupils are taught mathematics using constructivist, “progressive” curricula such as “Everyday Math,” they are doomed to fall behind by recognized global standards. Ask Robert Feinerman, who chairs the math department at Lehman College and is the “chair of the chairs” of City University math departments. Or ask the mathematicians at N.Y.U.’s Courant Institute. They will attest that the math taught in New York City schools is inadequate to prepare our students to compete in the global economy.
It doesn’t matter whether the mayor or a Board of Education is in charge or whether a school is funded directly by the government or by parents clutching government issued vouchers.
It doesn’t matter if a school is a charter, or a conventional public school, or a parochial or private school. It makes little difference whether the teachers are organized. There is nothing in any of this that can compensate for inadequate instruction, and it will come to haunt us as a society in years to come.
We must not be fooled by boasts of “historic” test score gains on state standardized exams. It has become clear in recent years that these tests have been rigged, made easier and easier in an effort to make bureaucrats and politicians look better and better.
If we truly want to fix the schools, change is required in the top leadership of the State Education Department to restore integrity and professionalism to the testing process in our state, so we can once again use tests for the purpose for which they were intended - not as a device to determine which schools to punish or which politicians to reward, but rather a tool to inform teachers as to how to provide the correct academic assistance for their students.
If the events on Wall Street in the past few weeks teach us anything, it is that no system is so perfect that it couldn’t be improved. Fiscal oversight by the City Comptroller and independent and impartial oversight over testing and assessment, two of the most frequently mentioned proposed “tweaks” to the system, should pose no threat to the mayor if indeed the system works.
Rather than protect the status quo, we should be demanding renewed focus on world-class instruction in our schools. And that’s change we can believe in.
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