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9th July
2004

First Published in The New York Sun, July 9, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

  As the criticism of Mayor Bloomberg’s stewardship of the schools escalates, the public relations machine at the Tweed Courthouse is accelerating its effort to crank out evidence of an alternate reality. It is beginning to wear thin. 

    Mr.Bloomberg’s best moment since taking over the schools happened earlier this year when he acknowledged the failure of his safety and security policy and adopted a new “tough” stance. 

    He dispatched teams of police to the 12 most dangerous “Impact” schools — quickly dubbed the “dirty dozen,” later expanded to a “not-sosweet 16”— and cut crime in those schools by half. This made fine theater,but didn’t change much at the other 1,200 schools, many quite dangerous. The crime rate in the Impact schools, despite the significant police presence, is itself cause for concern. 

    Nevertheless, the mayor, with Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly at his side, declared victory last week. The fight against violence in the schools has now been “won”on the 6 o’clock news, at least until the next incident. 

    And there will be incidents, in part due to the size of the system and to the underlying disciplinary code,which is more concerned with “student rights” and “due process” than the safety of the pupils who come to school to learn.This policy is in place. 

    A similar press victory was declared June 28 when the Department of Education disclosed that 45 principals had been “fired” from their posts. The press release hit the desks of education reporters at 5, a sign that the Tweed was to limit the opportunity for follow-up. Some information did emerge, nonetheless. 

    Many of the principals on the list weren’t fired at all, but had actually left months ago. Some weren’t even appointed,but rather were“interimacting” principals. One was imported from Albany,given a $10,000 signing bonus by Chancellor Joel Klein’s Leadership Academy,and dispatched to Franklin K. Lane High School, long one of the city’s most troubled,to restore order.He didn’t succeed,and resigned in March.He still was included on the list.Others insist that they weren’t fired but were voluntarily retiring, including one principal stricken with cancer. 

    Most notable was that names were released at all. Reporters covering the education beat have grown accustomed to having to resort to Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain basic public information from the Department of Education — and waiting for months for a response. Usually, personnel matters such as this are routinely and often properly denied as not being covered by the law. 

    Imagine the surprise of the reporters when they were invited,actually urged by Department of Education officials to file freedom of information requests for the list, and that those requests were honored within minutes. 

    After two of the newspapers published the names, and the union representing the principals threatened a lawsuit, the chancellor solemnly placed the blame on the press for forcing his hand to release the list. 

    The truth is that there are no more“firings”this year than years passed; there is no new “get tough” policy, but rather a “get nasty” policy that has only succeeded in further demoralizing the workforce. What we are seeing is smoke and mirrors. 

    Next you will see an explanation of the shrinking “end” of social promotion, the mayor’s muchheralded initiative. This was a limited program from the get-go, affecting only the third grade. Hundreds of thousands of students,failing in other grades, will continue to be pushed ahead. 

    Initially, it was estimated that 15,000 thirdgrade pupils would be held back, as opposed to only 5,000 last year. But this figure has diminished. We were told that more children than expected passed the tests,and only 12,000 would be held back. Technicalities saved another 1,500, and still another 1,500 won their mandated appeals. We are now down to 9,000, and summer school has barely begun. 

    By the time the re-tests are given at the end of the renamed “Summer Success Academy,”expect several thousand more to win their ticket to the fourth grade. My prediction is that there will be hardly any more third-graders held back this year than last. 

    If you consider that as part of the new policy holdovers have virtually been eliminated in kindergarten through second grade, the years when most experts agree that holding children back does the most good, it may well turn out that more students than ever will be passed along to the next grade. So much for the “end” of social promotion. 

    If we are really going to fix the schools, wouldn’t we be better off with real change rather than hype? That is Mayor Bloomberg’s challenge as we enter year three of mayoral control of the schools.

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

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