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16th December

First Published in The New York Sun, December 16, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

Those who care about academic standards in the state of New York got a bit of bad news late last week when the state’s Board of Regents voted to put off much needed reform of high school math standards for another year.

This is another example of the “can’t do” attitude that has infected the education establishment in the Empire State. What the educrats have managed to do is take New York, once looked on as the nation’s educational leader, and made us a backwater. The southern states, once derided for their low academic standards, are leaving New York in the dust.
Some years back, tinkering to fix something that wasn’t broke, the state decided to abandon its high school level subject-by-subject math curriculum and tests, rolling it into two subjects, Math “A” and Math “B.” The traditional course consisted of a year of Algebra, followed by a year of Geometry and then Advanced Algebra and Trigonometry.

This was an excuse to water down math instruction, which is what happened. When combined with the incompetence of the State Education Department when it comes to creating tests, the disaster that befell students in 2003 should have come as no surprise. After two thirds failed the Math A Regents exam,a blue-ribbon commission was appointed.

The panel, which included a number of educators who insist on high standards in the teaching of math, proposed a return to the traditional subject-by-subject approach. Earlier this year, the Board of Regents accepted this proposal, to begin in September of 2006, with the first tests administered in June of 2007. This gave the State Education Department two years to prepare the exams.

Apparently this isn’t enough time. Last week the Regents agreed to delay the implementation of the math curriculum by yet another year.This is a sell-out of the students who, after all, only get one chance for a superior education.We’re not reinventing the wheel here. We are actually restoring a curriculum that was in place for generations, right into the 1980s.

Concerns have been raised that upon leaving eighth grade, students are not prepared to take a real course in Algebra.There is reason to believe this, since these are the students who have been shortchanged by so-called “fuzzy math” programs in elementary and middle schools. But that won’t change next year or the year after. Until it becomes clear to the educrats that “fuzzy math” in grades K-8 cannot prepare students for the kind of mathematics coursework our children must complete if America is to remain competitive, we will never see real reform.

The way to fix the math crisis is to bite the bullet. That is something that the State Education Department is unable and unwilling to do. The Regents, by delaying implementation to the 2007-08 school year, has ratified this pernicious “can’t do” culture.

Deputy Education Commissioner James A. Kademus, who runs the state’s K-12 efforts on a day-to-day basis, insists it will take two years just to prepare the tests. This is an admission of incompetence, but not unique. In less than a month, under the No Child Left Behind regulations, the state is assuming all annual testing in math and English Language Arts for grades 3 through 8. It will take the State Education Department, in this computer age, eight months to grade these tests.

The conventional wisdom, upheld by the courts, holds the state of New York responsible for the state of the city’s public schools because not enough money has been allocated. It is true that every child in the state is being shortchanged. But it is not by a lack of funds (both the state and city have dramatically increased education spending in the past decade), but rather by a lack of leadership. If the state can’t re-implement a course of study that should be familiar to most math teachers, if it can’t design a test in less than two years, and if it can’t even grade exams for eight months, then it is time to find new leadership.

Mr. Kademus is leaving. There is little reason to believe that he will be replaced by the kind of educational leader that New York needs. It is clear that the state doesn’t take itself seriously when it comes to running our schools.On Sunday, the education department advertised for a replacement for Mr. Kademus.The salary offered is “up to $141,547.”

Let’s put this salary into perspective. High school principals across the state now often earn more. The superintendents that Mr. Kademus and his successor must oversee almost all earn more, in some cases nearly twice as much. In New York City, hundreds of educrats, at the Tweed Courthouse and the regional offices and even in some schools, make more.

If we’re serious about getting a top individual with a “can-do” mentality, then we must be willing to pay for it. Otherwise expect another bureaucrat adept at delay and making excuses.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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