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21st October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 21, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity continues to press its case against the state of New York,trying to enforce the judgment it has won to force the state and city taxpayers to increase spending for education in Gotham by $5.6 billion annually. With the promise of a windfall on the horizon, a couple of familiar players weighed in on how the money, if it ever materializes, should be spent.

Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University Teachers College, was tapped by the Council Speaker Gifford Miller to head a commission to plan the spending spree. Anthony Alvarado, the former schools chancellor, was enlisted and paid handsomely — $75,000 thus far — as the executive director.

The fly in the ointment is that the CFE money doesn’t exist. Governor Pataki has appealed the decision by State Supreme Court Judge Leland DeGrasse, an effort that may well tie the matter up in court for years.That hasn’t stopped Messrs. Levine and Alvarado from offering some outrageously self-serving prescriptions.
This commission was formed in the midst of Mr. Miller’s effort to become mayor.The speaker decided that proposing ways to spend this phantom largesse was good politics. If you can’t give voters real pork, pretend pork is the next best thing.The first portion of the report was released during the heat of the primary campaign,the second portion, released Tuesday, just three weeks before what Mr. Miller hoped would be his showdown with Mayor Bloomberg. The final report will be issued in time for the inauguration, though Mr. Miller, his jackleg commission, and his reports have long since become irrelevant by the will of the voters on September 13. Even among Democrats, he came in last.

So what do Messrs. Levine and Alvarado use their public mandate to do? Recommend that $2.5 billion — repeat, billion — of the money taxpayers may be forced to hand over be spent on “laboratory schools” where educators can “test” new teaching techniques.

The truth is that there is no shortage of studies that suggest the best ways to teach children, particularly how to teach reading. There is so much research that in 1997 Congress authorized the appointment of a blue-ribbon, non-partisan National Reading Panel to sort through some 100,000 studies going back 30 years. After a Herculean effort, in 2000 the panel issued its report.

The problem for Messrs. Levine and Alvarado is that this report debunks all they hold dear, programs like whole language known as “balanced literacy”and the “workshop model”of classroom structure. The panel concluded that intense phonics instruction and direct instruction by teachers is the most effective way of teaching reading, particularly for at-risk children.

The proposal to use these public funds for more studies seems a tawdry effort on Mr. Levine’s part to feather his own nest at Teachers College, a parting gift to the institution whose presidency he is leaving July 1, 2006.

What Mr. Levine proposes doesn’t help students. It helps his buddies in the university/institutional complex, the troublesome “permanent government” that ruled the schools before Mr. Bloomberg assumed control over the education system and many people feel still does.What the Levine/Alvarado “Lab School” boondoggle would do would be to divert to such institutions as Teachers College money that, if found, should go to the classroom.

So like evangelicals pushing “creationism” to replace the teaching of evolution in the classroom, Messrs. Levine and Alvarado reject those pesky scientific studies. On January 28, 2004, Mr. Levine, writing in the Daily News, protested the action of the federal government rejecting the city’s application for Reading First funding. What right does the federal government have, argued Mr. Levine, to subsidize only programs backed by scientific research? Well, it seems that the federal No Child Left Behind Law prevents these funds from being used for programs not validated by scientific research.

Messrs. Levine and Alvarado reject the science because it doesn’t conform to their “progressive” ideology. After Sol Stern, the Manhattan Institute senior fellow who has studied these issues for years, called the Lab School scheme “laughable,” Mr. Alvarado told my colleague, Deborah Kolben, that he challenges Mr. Stern to provide “the science he believes exists that has been proven to be effective for low-income, lowperforming urban youth.” Where has Mr. Alvarado been this past decade as the scientists deflated the whole language balloon?

The stakes for Teachers College are high. Mr. Levine’s associates currently charge our supposedly cash-starved public schools $1,200 to send one staff developer to one school for one day.This has brought Teachers College tens of millions in public funds, suggesting why even the possibility of Campaign for Fiscal Equity largesse is such an attractive target for Mr. Levine and his cohorts.

The statewide NAEP scores released Wednesday are already being cited to challenge the Teachers College “progressive” model. This is a learning moment that suggests we should be encouraging a return to traditional instruction, as Mayor Bloomberg proposed when he first tried to win control of the schools.

The Levine Commission started as a gimmick to win votes for Gifford Miller’s attempt to defeat the mayor. Maybe the lesson for Mr. Bloomberg is that a return to his initial “back-to-basics” inclinations, 180 degrees from Mr. Levine’s philosophy, would be most welcome. This is the kind of experiment that is most likely to pay off for New York’s children.

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

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