Friday, November 16, 2007

Testing the Truth

Today's stories-here, here and here-about the results of the school system's federal tests results, reveal that there's a lot to worry about, and that the vaunted DOE press machine can't disguise an underlying truth: the city's putative school achievements leave a lot to be desired; and critics of the Bloombergistas reforms are more right than not. The results also underscore why it is so important to have independent criticism, and why the top-down governance approach of the DOE is not a panacea by any means.

We come to this issue from a good deal of personal experience. Thrust into teaching over forty years ago, we entered the arena with a healthy skepticism of the bureaucracy at 110 Livingston Street-a building that symbolized the sclerotic nature of the system in the face of new challenges. What we found, however, was that the student population had changed and that the traditional approaches needed to change as well.

Which was why we initially supported the community control movement-the bureaucracy and central control needed to be dismantled and new innovative approaches needed to be tried. We taught classes on the street in opposition to the teacher's strike, and we marched in solidarity with the community's efforts to change the status quo.

What we learned, however, was that the problems that existed were not exclusively structural-the system wasn't the only culprit. A great deal of the challenge was generated by the breakdown of families and a rising drug epidemic. Which meant that any real change had to be two-fold: a community renewal was needed that addressed the underlying social dysfunction; and a systemic change was needed that adapted the educational environment to some of the new challenges.

Instead, what we got in school decentralization was a hybrid system that combined the worst aspects of both centralization and decentralization-and the ensuing three decades saw a continued deterioration of educational achievement. Enter the Bloomberg management gurus, folks who saw the educational system as a problem for management reform.

The problem, as Andrew Wolf and others have chronicled, is that the management experts lacked educational expertise, and the educational experts brought in were full of new age nonsense that was really potentially damaging to the kinds of kids in the educational system. Now, six years later, the chickens have come home to roost, and the attempt to stifle criticism is dangerous to the well-being of students, parents and teachers.

So what we get in the chancellor's response to the test results is, as the NY Daily News calls it, "spin city." As the News says: "Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said the scores from last spring were "good" overall, but critics called them a disappointment." More importantly, the gap between the results from the widely applauded state test results and the federal scores, indicate that the latter may have been watered down, and hence the results hold less meaning.

As Randi Weingarten told the Times: “When scores become so high stakes, then you have to really think about and ensure the reliability of these testing systems,” she said, adding that the federal scores “call into question the reliability of the New York State testing system." What this does is shed a harsh light on all of the pompous posturing of the DOE PR machine.

As one critic points out: "But a range of other educators said the results undercut the city’s reputation as a beacon of school improvement. Michael J. Petrilli, a researcher at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, said the city did not seem to be improving any more than the rest of the state. “That to me seems quite damning to the Bloomberg administration,” he said." This is especially true when Atlanta and Washington showed marked improvement on the national tests.

It also serves to underscore the legitimacy of the criticisms that have been levelled by Diane Ravitch and Andrew Wolf-in spite of all of the woofing done by toadies to shut the critics up. Ravitch's comments to the NY Post, then, need to be taking very seriously: "If New York state says that eighth-grade performance is up, and NAEP says that it's flat in New York for eighth grade, I would trust the NAEP numbers," said NYU professor and education historian Diane Ravitch."

It's high time that the educational reforms launched by the Bloomberg administration be subjected to the most rigorous scrutiny. If sunlight is the best disinfectant than the smoke an mirrors coming out of Tweed needs to be counteracted quickly; and if Wolf is correct about the T&G programs in today's NY Sun, real damage is being done and a thorough review of what's being wrought from Chambers Street must begin immediately.