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25th October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 25, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

Is the campaign for president winds to a close, there is little discussion on issues relating to education, with the one exception of the  amount of funding of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Even in this area of contention, the gap between the president and Senator Kerry is surprisingly small. The Democratic nominee promises to fully fund NCLB. The president’s current budget proposal falls $7 billion short of what the Republicans look upon as a funding “ceiling,” rather than a mandate. Beyond fully funding the current authorization, Mr. Kerry would add an additional $3 billion. 
These are relatively small amounts in the context of the federal budget.Total education spending in New York City alone approaches $15 billion each year, so even a $10 billion increase spread among all the states and territories isn’t that huge.

Despite what the courts have said, we have demonstrated here in New York that large increases in funding do not necessarily translate to better outcomes for our students. Basing the education debate on money alone is a dead end.

Campaigns are rarely the best time to get answers about future policy. After all, Mayor Bloomberg promised that if he secured control over the city school system, he would end bilingual education and promote “back to basics” instruction. Instead, he has expanded bilingual programs and made an unprecedented commitment to “fuzzy” math and whole language–based “balanced literacy.”

The president takes much of his advice from G. Reid Lyon. Mr. Lyon is chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch within the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institute of Health. He is a leading voice among those who believe that educational policy should be driven by scientific research. This premise was written into NCLB, one that tripped up the mayor and Chancellor Klein earlier this year when the federal and stategovernments refused to fund the city’s balanced literacy reading program on the grounds that it failed to comply with that mandate.

Who has Mr. Kerry’s ear? That’s not entirely clear. Education Week has just conducted an online chat with Robert Gordon, who represented the Kerry campaign on education. Mr. Gordon, who is one of the senator’s senior domestic policy advisers, comes to Mr. Kerry after serving on the campaign of Senator Edwards, now Mr. Kerry’s running mate. Clearly a supporter, but likely not a Kerry intimate.

While the teachers’ unions clearly have influence with Mr. Kerry, he has nonetheless supported a number of positions that are an anathema to them. The Massachusetts senator supports higher pay for teachers in areas of shortage such as science and math. He believes that new teachers should only be hired after passing rigorous tests, presumably more difficult than those currently used. Moreover, Mr. Kerry would insist on “fast, fair procedures” to remove inept teachers.

So far, so good. But lacking any other clues as to the nuances that may drive education policy in a Kerry presidency, a number of disturbing items surfaced in a recent online interview with Mr. Gordon.

One questioner asked whether Mr. Kerry would increase “funding for research and development on teaching practice and professional development where teachers learn how to encourage inquiry-based classrooms, critical thinking, and project-based learning that deepens understanding of concepts…”

This jargon reflects the prevailing “progressive” education philosophy that I believe is at the root of the low performance of our nation’s children. Either Mr. Gordon was unaware of this, or more likely and ominously, he chose to reassure the questioner when he replied, “The issues that you have highlighted are critical ones, as schools strive to implement standards without narrowing instruction.”

A teacher asked Mr. Gordon what Mr. Kerry’s position was on the use of student portfolios as an alternative to standardized tests.After outlining a number of harsh criticisms of testing as an assessment device, Mr. Gordon praised the use of student portfolios as “a serious approach that ought to be given much more careful consideration.”

When Mr. Gordon, speaking on Mr. Kerry’s behalf, says, “We can’t turn our schools into testing factories where teachers and students just worry about tests all day long,” he plays directly to the anti-testing crowd. His remarks are fighting words to those who believe that objective testing is the only accurate way to measure student performance.

From the standpoint of instruction, it is more than likely that Mr. Kerry will be a reliable defender of the status quo, simplifying education issues to mere dollars and cents. This is how it turned out, far more surprisingly, with Mayor Bloomberg.

Should Mr. Kerry assume the presidency next January, it would come as no surprise were the next secretary of education a New York Democrat named Joel I. Klein, a man very much in line with the thinking expressed by Mr. Gordon two weeks ago.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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