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20th June

First Published in The New York Sun, June 20, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

Unmarked vans from a private courier service were sent out last week by the Department of Education to deliver the news to lucky families whose children were admitted to the gifted programs around the city. Now comes news that the results undermine the whole rationale of the Bloomberg administration for restructuring the popular programs.

A front-page story in yesterday’s Times told the tale. After a second round of restructuring last year failed to increase the numbers of minority children, a third attempt was undertaken this year. Only children scoring in the top 5% of a nationally normed I.Q.-type test were to be admitted to the programs.

So few made the cut that the number was expanded to 10%. But these children, it turns out, come from districts with more white and Asian students, not from districts with large black and Hispanic populations. In three districts, so few qualified that no gifted class can be formed.

Lessons should be learned from Chancellor Klein’s endeavor to provide “equity” to the city’s gifted and talented programs. After years of effort to undermine existing programs because they were not diverse enough, the “fair” system devised by the Education Department appears to have resulted in even less diverse results. We shouldn’t be surprised. Improved results will come not from more manipulation or empty rhetoric, but from more and better instruction.

There has been a lot of talk lately about how the reform of the public schools is somehow a civil rights initiative. This is nothing new; policy wonks have been engaging in similar conversations for years. But this is wrong-headed thinking.

So consumed are we with “narrowing the gap” that the only real strategy put forward by the educational establishment is lowering the bar for everyone. The most mediocre gains are interpreted as great victories. And in some cases attempts to be inclusive and fair end up backfiring in a dramatic way. This apparently is what happened to the gifted program this year.

Here’s the long and short of it. Groups don’t take tests, individual children do. Strategies to provide equity by pouring undirected funds into schools to “equalize” performance of the subgroups are doomed to failure. Rather we need to appropriately fund each individual child to maximize academic potential regardless of race or economic standing.

Thus a struggling reader should be enrolled in a program that has been proven through research to make a difference - regardless of the background of the child. Similarly children who are advanced in their academic potential are equally deserving of the appropriate resources to best develop their gifts.

The Department of Education’s “fair school funding” initiative, which I am sure Chancellor Klein would describe as central to his “civil rights” agenda, does the opposite, as does the state’s toxic “contract for excellence” formulas that are causing so much budget contention now. Once you get into the business of politically negotiating “dollars for equality,” no one will ever be satisfied that they are getting enough.

Since Mayor Bloomberg talked us into giving him control of the schools in 2002, we have seen a 79% increase in spending for education and some 5,000 more teachers put on the payroll even though the schools are serving 60,000 fewer students.

With numbers like that, conventional wisdom would suggest stupendous improvement. But test scores on the most reliable exams (such as the NAEP and SAT) are flat. If we had worked backward and determined the best strategies to meet the needs of our individual students, perhaps we would have a great deal more to show for our investment.

New Yorkers have caught on to the crisis at Tweed. Lost in all the minutiae of the New York Times poll released earlier this week on Mayor Bloomberg’s performance is this tidbit: in October, 2005, 19% of voters thought that his performance on education was the best thing Mr. Bloomberg achieved since taking office. Now that number is down to just 5%.

If the mayor and Chancellor Klein think that they will somehow redeem their vision by linking up the Reverend Al Sharpton, things must certainly be worse than even I suspect.

The chancellor co-chairs a new activist group with Rev. Sharpton identifying education as a “civil rights issue” to be “remedied” by structural reform including mayoral control, free market solutions, and limiting the power of teachers’ unions.

Mr. Klein can hardly claim to have created a model here in New York worthy of replication nationwide, given our poor results and soaring expenditures. “Why is Joel Klein traveling the country when after six years in office he failed to deliver the goods here in New York?” Herman Badillo asks. Mr. Badillo, who is widely credited with turning around Gotham’s public colleges during his tenure as Chair of the Board of Trustees of the City University, suggests a different approach: raising academic standards and level of instruction for all - One City, One Standard.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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