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20th January

First Published in The New York Sun, January 20, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

Success in education comes in two varieties. There is real success as measured by things such as gaining admission to selective colleges or securing a worthwhile job upon graduation.These are the types of achievement that define a truly successful educational program.

Then there is the phony success of educrats proclaiming victory long before there is any justification for their declarations of triumph. It has hit a new high with the application of Eric Nadelstern to become chief of the Clark County, Nev., public schools.This district, which includes the city of Las Vegas and its explosive population expansion, is the fifth largest in the nation. The successful applicant will earn substantially more than New York’s public schools chancellor, Joel Klein.
Mr. Nadelstern is the New York City Department of Education superintendent in charge of new schools and the so-called “autonomy zone.” The jury is out on both of the endeavors that Mr. Nadelstern runs for the city. The “autonomy zone” is not even a year-and-a-half old. This initiative, which gives the principals of a small group of public schools (mostly new small high schools) significant independence, seems promising on paper, but it is too early to call it worthy of replication elsewhere.

After all, the nature of the contract under which his principals work calls for attainment of certain goals after five full years. That would be June 2009, so we’ve got a way to go before Mr. Nadelstern can honestly advocate the wide prescription of this educational nostrum. Moreover, the schools in the “autonomy zone” are disproportionately composed of new schools, rather than the traditional schools that the majority of our students attend.

The other initiative run by Mr. Nadelstern is the creation of the small high schools, a program that has come under criticism. This has led the mayor and chancellor to slow the expansion of the program, particularly the carving out of new schools from the existing large high schools.

This hasn’t dissuaded Mr. Nadelstern from declaring success, donning the robe of educational sage and attempting to import his extreme brand of progressive pedagogy to the huge Las Vegas district.

It is Mr. Nadelstern’s beliefs that should dissuade the Clark County trustees.He is a frequent critic of standardized testing, as expressed in a letter to the editor of the New YorkTimes on February 7, 2000, “just as the Industrial Revolution was born on the backs of child laborers, so, too, the information age has exacted its toll on our children. Replacing the joy of learning with test anxiety simply hastens the premature end of childhood.”

So opposed to testing is Mr. Nadelstern that he was the first principal to take a school out of the state charter school program, because the state education commissioner refused to thwart the law by exempting his school from mandatory testing requirements. “Who supports charter schools in New York State?” he asked at the time. “The answer: No one.”

As the federal government is trying to move school systems toward scientifically validated programs to teach children to read, the more traditional approaches of intense phonics and direct instruction, Mr. Nadelstern still adheres to the whole language approach.

In The New York Sun of September 30, 2002, Mr. Nadelstern was quoted as saying, “In a traditional instructional model, a teacher stands there and does all the talking, but we found out that that’s not how you teach language.” The report of the blue ribbon National Reading Panel says otherwise, results that have been further bolstered by a similar commission that just released its report in the United Kingdom.

Before blindly accepting Mr. Nadelstern’s claims, I suggest that the Clark County trustees carefully study a much-discussed article in the current issue of City Journal, “City’s Pupils Get More Hype than Hope,” authored by a Manhattan Institute senior fellow, Sol Stern. Mr. Stern delivers the most cogent and perceptive analysis to date of the administration’s efforts to reform the schools.

This is an important article, one that I hope that the mayor and Mr. Klein will make time to read and take to heart. In its honest criticism and impartial analysis, it contains the seeds for real reform, which must always begin with the truth.

Mr. Stern picks apart the statistical results advanced by Tweed, debunking the myth that test scores are on the rise. “The picture of student achievement during the first Bloomberg term,” Mr. Stern writes, “is coming into clearer focus — and it’s not pretty.Aside from fourth-grade math, stagnation or decline has marked every important benchmark test from the early grades to high school exit exams. If not for the expectations that mayoral control raised, one might merely note that the present administration’s results are no worse than those obtained … during the bad old Board of Ed days.”

“Eventually,” Mr. Stern concludes, “the public will wake up and realize that it’s been getting Soviet-style statistics about a brighter future when the factories still can’t produce shoes.”

Hmm … Perhaps Mr. Nadelstein knows what he is doing by trying so hard to get out of town.

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

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