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1st July

First Published in The New York Sun, July 1, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

Despite the many criticisms I have made of the educational reform effort in New York City, I have often noted that there is one area in which Chancellor Joel Klein and I are largely in agreement. That is the need for standardized testing.

Where he and I part company is on just how these tests should be administered and analyzed.This was the underlying subject of a public hearing earlier this week conducted by the chairwoman of the City Council’s education committee, Eva Moskowitz. This hearing showed the best and the worst of the system.
An unintended consequence of mayoral control of the schools is suspicion. Are the test results, upon which the mayor asks to be evaluated, accurate? Was the test made easier? Perhaps scored differently? Has the population taking the tests been manipulated? Have the principals and teachers been pressured into unreasonable amounts of test preparation to goose the scores?

Not only were this year’s tests high stakes for the mayor, but for Ms. Moskowitz as well. She is making a bid for the presidency of Manhattan. If she wins, she may well become mayor one day. If she loses, in the future her name may be most often preceded with the phrase,“whatever happened to?”

The resulting political tension is both healthy and distressing. We want public officials put on the hot seat and forced to explain themselves. But when it comes to issues such as education, where the stakes are so high, we want to maintain an aura of nonpartisanship. In her zeal, Ms. Moskowitz subjected the current head of the Department of Education’s testing and assessment division, Lori Mei, to a blistering cross examination.

When asked to what she attributes the gains in test scores, Ms. Mei, as an official of the administration, can only be expected to praise the policies of her superiors. But her predecessor, Robert Tobias, raised questions about the way that the tests could have been manipulated and possible mistakes in how they are interpreted. It is easier for Mr.Tobias, who now is a professor at New York University, to share his experience and expertise than for Ms. Mei, who is, after all, part of the current administration.

As a result of this public hearing, a healthy dialogue on the results of the test results has emerged.
Appreciating its importance, Mr. Klein has weighed in with a useful idea.We wrote about it on these pages more than two years ago. He proposes an “independent” entity established to evaluate and study test results, modeled after the Consortium on Chicago School Research. That group, established in 1990, includes representatives of various schools of education in the Second City, as well as the teachers union and other stakeholders.

Such an entity would be most welcome here, though one has to keep one’s wits, as many seemingly “independent” entities are not so independent.

Mr. Tobias, for example, is employed at New York University. The Steinhardt School of Education at NYU has a number of Department of Education contracts and is in negotiation for some lucrative new ones.

More than three years ago, even before the mayor assumed control of the schools and Mr. Klein became chancellor, I wrote of a “University Institutional Complex” that has controlled the New York education establishment.This is a sort of “permanent government” that remains as boards and chancellors come and go.

Despite the revolution of mayoral control, the same persons who controlled things in the year 2000, the year 1995, and the year 1990 call the shots today.They are more powerful than ever.

The structural aspect of the school reform in New York is dictated by a group called New Visions for Public Schools.These are the individuals behind the failed small schools initiative. They have had enormous influence on the schools through the administrations of Chancellors Quinones, Green, Fernandez, Cortines, Crew, Levy, and now Klein.

The ideological aspects of instruction are dictated by theorists from Columbia University Teachers College. It is their progressive educational schemes that are mandated, even in the face of hard scientific evidence that they don’t work.They have always influenced our schools. But never before has departure from their constructivist ideology left teachers who disagree subject to discipline, as they today. Tens of millions have flowed to Teachers College, which now charges $1,250 to send one “staff developer” to one school for one day.

When the mayor got flak from members of the Panel for Educational Policy over his plan to end social promotion, he fired those who disagreed. But even Mayor Bloomberg wouldn’t dare fire one of the opponents, Augusta Kappner, the president of Bank Street College of Education, a key member of the “University Institutional Complex.”

In establishing our own entity to examine testing, we need real independence. Therein lies the problem for Mr. Klein in executing his intriguing proposal.

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

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