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7th October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 7, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

Last March, in this space, I got into a bit of a dust-up with the public television establishment over the content of two programs on education then being produced, and their sponsorship. I suggested that they were a form of infomercial, funded by foundations to advance the educational programs they favored and financed.

I am an aficionado of the cooking programs that appear on public television.These are sometimes produced with funding from companies in the business of selling cooking items. While pioneers such as Julia Child did what she did with little or no regard to her underwriters, I have noted recently that many of the hosts promote the products of their funders. So the Italian chef, sponsored by the olive oil company, will drown his or her concoctions in extra virgin oil.
This I don’t mind, because it is all so transparent and, after all, these are only cooking shows. Of greater concern is the sponsorship of programs that purport to be news.

Back in March, I criticized two programs. One was the Channel 13 offering “New YorkVoices,” specifically a series on the New York City Leadership Academy. Both the Leadership Academy and the series are funded by the same source, the Wallace Foundation.

The other program was Hedrick Smith’s “Making Schools Work,” which aired on Channel 13, Wednesday night. Among the funders was the Eli Broad Foundation, frequently criticized here for its ideas about public education. Much of the Smith program was expected to be devoted to reforms favored by the Broad Foundation.

My column in March caught the attention of John DeNatale, Channel 13’s executive producer and director of local programming, and Mr. Smith, both of whom wrote letters to the Sun clarifying their relationships with their funders. I have no reason to doubt the honesty of either man, and events since then have eased some, though not all, of my concerns.

When I criticized New YorkVoices, a program I have appeared on in the past, I assumed that I would not be asked to return. To its credit I was asked back, and I appeared in a segment two weeks ago criticizing the new small high schools. I noted that when host Raphael Pi Roman “teased” an upcoming segment of the Leadership Academy series he noted that the Wallace Foundation funded both the program and the Academy.This is an important disclaimer.

As for that most recent episode, broadcast last Friday, I’m not impressed with what I saw. When Alexandra Anormaliza, the principal of the newly created International High School at Prospect Heights, was asked how she handles the disparity of abilities, particularly in mathematics, to meet the needs of all of her students, she reverts to politically correct educational theology.

“What we don’t ever want is tracked classes in any subject,” she asserts,“Because in this particular school what it would look like if we tracked the math is probably a bunch of kids with light skin in the advanced math class and a bunch of kids with darker skin in the lower level classes. And honestly I don’t believe in segregation… I think that tracking leads to segregation and we don’t want that I our school.”

Mr. Smith’s program is hard to pin down. It is rare that two hours of prime time, even on public television, is devoted to education, so much more the shame of this missed opportunity. But it appears that Mr. Smith has bought into Anthony Alvarado and the mythology surrounding the “District Two Miracle,” hook, line and sinker. The school Mr. Smith highlights as making incredible gains is in Chinatown.There is no miracle at play in coaxing high performance from a school with an increasing population of Asian students.

Mr. Alvarado’s critics here were omitted from the program.Nor did Mr.Smith properly disclose that Elaine Fink, Mr. Alvarado’s deputy and frequent defender during the program, is also Mrs. Alvarado. Nor did he point out that Lauren Resnick, another Alvarado booster, has received millions in staff development contracts resulting from her association with Mr. Alvarado.

Mr. Smith noted the participation of Australian staff developers hired by Mr. Alvarado because of the “high literacy rate” down under, but failed to note that the Australian government, alarmed by recent declines in academic performance, has recently named a reading panel to investigate the very pedagogies Mr. Alvarado imported here. Mr. Smith did acknowledge Mr. Alvarado’s failure in San Diego, which led to his firing, and the removal of his boss, Alan Bersin, from the top educational post there. While the professional development costs mandated by Mr. Alvarado were mentioned, Mr. Smith fails to note that these costs plunged the school district into a sea of red ink.

Mr. Smith will insist that the heroic portrayal of Mr. Alvarado, a favorite of the Broad Foundation, has nothing to do with the money that the foundation put up to produce the program. I have no reason to doubt his word, but somehow I’d feel better if the olive oil company sponsored these programs and the Broad and Wallace Foundations were underwriting “Lidia’s Italian Table.”

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

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