Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Gaming the Schools

In the NY Post this morning comes this: "A group launched more than a year ago to conduct independent research on the city school system's practices is - well - re-launching.
Since its inaugural conference on Oct. 7, 2007, the Research Alliance for New York City Schools has disappeared into a fund-raising, leadership-seeking cocoon...Some have voiced concern about the alliance's ability to remain independent, since Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and UFT chief Randi Weingarten will sit on its board."

Yuh think? Which takes us back to another Post missive by Marcus Winters-an editorial in favor of maintaining mayoral control a few days ago: "The issue of mayoral control is much bigger than any one mayor. The real question is what setup makes the most sense for governing a large urban school system. In that light, most arguments against reauthorization just crumble."

And what arguments are those? It seems that the debate over what form of governance system should be maintained hasn't even begun-although there have been some trenchant criticisms of the Bloomberg era. So while the Op-ed author is right-"Under mayoral control, by contrast, no school reform sees the light of day without at least the mayor's implicit approval. If voters and parents don't like what's going on in city schools, they know whom to blame. If they approve, then they know whom to praise"-there a big gulf between a critique of how the Bloombergistas have utilized their control, and complete reversion to an older system.

It all comes off as another Bloomberg-driven straw man. And severe crticisms continue to pour in. In this morning's NY Daily News, Juan Gonzales dramatizes additional waste at the DOE; and underscores the fact that contracts are being let with absolutely no accountability to the tax payers-other than the nuclear option of throwing the mayor out on his pencil holder: "Send it by courier" has become a favorite catch phrase at the school system's Tweed Courthouse headquarters these days. Tweed educrats are on track to spend $5 million this year for private couriers - more than double the messenger tab before Schools Chancellor Joel Klein took over in 2002 - a Daily News review of city budget records shows. The biggest share of that increase is coming from Klein's office of assessment and accountability, the controversial new division that oversees student testing."

And as one Tweed critic points out: "The Department of Education is out of control," said Leonie Haimson, head of Class Size Matters, a parent advocacy group. "It's unrestrained by reality," she said. "Here we're told there's a financial crisis and schools will have to cut budgets, but this element at Tweed keeps mushrooming with spending. "They're bringing stuff in my school by courier from downtown," one principal said. "Bulletins, memos, fancy color brochures, sometimes they come in on hand trucks. It's astounding because none of this stuff helps us teach our students."

Unaccountability at the Office of Accountability-priceless: "They've got all these people feeding information into computers, tweaking numbers to produce a grade for a school that is totally useless," another principal said. "It's like some Kafkaesque novel."

Information is power in evaluating school performance. Here's how Winters diminishes this argument: "Still others argue that the mayor shouldn't have control over so much information pertaining to the schools. They charge that the Bloomberg team manipulates data via a sophisticated marketing operation and worry that future mayors could do so as well. They say that we shouldn't reauthorize the law unless it includes the creation of an outside organization, similar to the federal General Accounting Office, that would be the official arbiter of "truth."
An outside auditor might not be a bad thing, but it's hardly required. Exactly what data isn't available now?

Winters goes on to point out: "Yes, the administration has trumpeted somewhat misleading numbers, such as gains in the percentage of students meeting particular benchmarks. But press releases from the Department of Education are hardly our only source of information. The state and city report mean test scores overall, by subgroup and by school, and provide this information to parents, researchers and journalists on the Web or by request. Researchers at a variety of think tanks and universities have independently gained access to student-level data and are using it to study the city's schools."

But the fact still remains that the DOE is spending millions to not only tweak the numbers, but to also spin results in a blizzard of misleading statistics-which is precisely why the monitor, and a truly independent one at that, is needed. Most folks can't keep up with Tweedle Dee; and the unmonitored spending is inexcusable in this fiscal climate.

Winters ends with the continuing resort to his straw man argument, and goes after unnamed educational critics in the most unprofessional fashion: "Yet most people believe that the reforms are working - that is, they are unconvinced by the dissenters' arguments. The dissenters point to this fact as proof of a coverup - a claim that defines arrogance.That said, naysayers are welcome to argue that this administration is unresponsive and that the recent reforms have been unproductive. The benefit of mayoral control is that such people know exactly where to address their displeasure. Their issue is with the mayor, not with mayoral control."

So bring on the review process-with all of the attendant zeal that is needed to combat the true source of arrogance-Tweedle Bloomberg and Tweedle Klein.