Friday, October 21, 2005

Educated Guess

The Sun did a great piece yesterday on the question of whether or not NYC school test scores have actually risen. Here's Julia Levy's great lead:
Although Mayor Bloomberg counts record leaps in student test scores among his highest achievements, new national data suggest that better teaching or smarter students may have nothing to do with those gains. The city and state tests could simply be easier.
We've felt all along that the trumpeting of the scores, certainly expected in an election year, might create the impression of educational progress even though the substantive pedagogical results do not back up the claim. Remember that the Department of Education spent the better part of two years pursuing progressive education nostrums that have been shown to be unhelpful for raising achievement levels for low income children. So the expected Daily News editorial defense today of the Bloomberg-Klein regime is really beside the point.

All of this has been artfully pointed out by the Sun's Andrew Wolf. We remember when the Times did a story on the young turks who were recruited to the Ed Department. All were definitely part of the "best and the brightest" Ivy League brigade but not a single individual had any actual educational policy experience. We guess that Joel Klein didn't want to feel isolated.

The reality is that there are quite a few fairly intractable problems with the current system. A number of them inhere not to the schools themselves but derive from the challenges brought by the particular student population that needs to be educated. In many unfortunate ways the system has not seen any dramatic improvement in the thirty years since Richard Lipsky left his elementary school Valhalla for greener pastures. That being said, these unique challenges mean that the school bureaucracy needs to be able to react to the challenges in a creative fashion.

This gets us back to the issues we've raised about the mayor's lack of entrepreneurial instincts when it comes to public policy making. We've always felt that Mike Bloomberg was just the right guy to wrest mayoral control of the schools away from a sclerotic BOE. At the same time, does anyone think he is the right guy to really shake things up-and fire-up those in the system to follow and be inspired by new innovative teaching methodologies?

The irony is that the kind of school change that is needed – and we'd definitely include a voucher experiment here – is more likely to be produced by a Giuliani-like change agent than by a Bloomberg-style manager. That is precisely why Bloomberg, the manager, has been able to continue Giuliani’s successes in crime fighting, while no one really believes that Mayor Mike would have been able to radically transform the way we police this city.

The kinds of changes needed in the NYC educational system are those can infuse the system's frontline soldiers. The structure will not be transformed, however, by a top-down managerially controlled system of policy changes. Certainly the kind of bland competence that exemplifies both Bloomberg and Klein will not be able to shake the systemic changes that are needed.

Which brings us to our critique of Bloomberg's "above politics" glorification. Our response is, So what? He's not beholden to the teachers, the principles, the custodians or the parents. Again, So what? How does this vaunted freedom from the special interests translate into a better educational system if the unencumbered man lacks the vision and the passion to promote the needed changes?