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4th August

First Published in The New York Sun, August 4, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

Could it be that just a few short years ago, at the top of the list of news stories in our city and state were the machinations surrounding the lawsuit filed by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity to “adequately” fund New York’s schools?

I have written on this topic in this space perhaps a dozen times during the past six years, each time cautioning that the idea that merely spending more money will result in better outcomes. But for all our spending –and education expenditures have increased in the city by 79% in just six years - the pace of improvement, if any, is negligible.

It is fashionable in some quarters to blame the teachers’ unions. Certainly they have prospered under the current regime. Teacher salaries in the city are up an average of 42%. But that doesn’t account for the 79% rise in costs. Neither does an increase of 5,000 teachers even as the system lost 60,000 students explain why parents still maintain that class size averages haven’t been decreasing at a proportional rate.

The problem isn’t now nor has it ever entirely been that we are spending too little. The problem is that we aren’t spending what we have well. The fiscal crisis should be our wake-up call.

One culprit in this saga is a notoriously under-funded agency, the State Education Department. Here is truly a case where a little investment in the right place, combined with independence and integrity, could save billions, and lead to those better outcomes we all seek. The truth is that the common thread between the failures of the old Board of Education and the Tweed Courthouse have an Albany element.

Whatever faith any of us may still have in the idea of mayoral control - and it’s hanging by a thread - is based on the twin pillars of presumed better management and real accountability, and the mayor and chancellor are onto something when they try to link data and policy.

In this case data comes in two flavors: test scores and graduation rates. Test scores have come under a lot of criticism of late. Critics charge that test prep strategies have often replaced classroom instruction. The progressive education ideologues that have shaped school policy for decades go further, bemoaning the cruelty of the testing regimen. But the reliance on subjective assessments such as portfolios, etc. is a formula for disaster.

Tests aren’t cruel, they are essential. Properly administered, they can be used to drive the instruction of individual children. Fairly analyzed, the will inform broader educational policy. In New York State, our tests are poorly designed, crudely administered, and deceptively graded. They are useless.

As for the graduation rates, they are now nothing more than politically negotiated fiction.

All this can be laid at the feet of the State Education Department and the Board of Regents. It is not, contrary to popular belief, the governor who appoints the State Education Commissioner, but rather the Regents. I would respectfully suggest that the time for new leadership and tough standards have now arrived.

For all the billions going to feed the educational beast, only a pittance goes to the State Education Department. Without adequate resources to oversee the local districts, and provide testing devices and accurate data that are up to the standards we should demand in the Empire State, we leave the districts, large and small, to their own devices.

And that has contributed to the overall explosion in school spending. We have no idea where or how the money is spent, and whether certain strategies are more effective than others. Good programs should be mandated, poor ones eliminated. Fixing the schools has become synonymous with increased funding, yet time and again we prove just how misguided this approach is.

School funding has become a $20-billion misunderstanding. We are at a moment in time when fiscal circumstance may force a reassessment of policy. We should not squander the opportunity to really improve the schools while acting in a fiscally prudent way. One strategy might be to appoint a new “Zarb Commission,” totally independent of the educational establishment, to dissect the system. Somehow I don’t think we’d find conclusions that would permit schools to make promotional decisions for June based on a test given in January, or a high school math exam where 30 points out of 87 yields a passing score.

We don’t have to wait for such a commission to be appointed. The Regents can start taking charge today to fulfill their mandate for New York’s children. Are they up to the challenge?

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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