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Does the Ghost of George Steinbrenner Run the New York City Schools?

Posted: 09/12/11 01:38 PM ET

Between 1982 and 1995, George "Boss Bluster" Steinbrenner completely mismanaged the New York Yankees. The team won no pennants, churned through thirteen managers (although some were repeats), and signed countless expensive free agents, including Steve Kemp, Ed Whitson, and Danny Tartabull, who failed to perform in pinstripes. Meanwhile Steinbrenner insulted his players and even hired a private detective to spy on one of the team's stars. It was not until 1995, when Steinbrenner withdrew from active involvement in the management of the team, that stability in the form of homegrown young players (Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, and Andy Petite) and a long-term manager (Joe Torre) brought another round of success. Today it seems that Boss Bluster's management style, tossing money at the problems and blaming other people for your failures, is alive and well in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's New York City Department of education. Maybe Steinbrenner's ghost is running the New York City school system.

As schools reopen this week, students and teachers return to 22 public schools that were originally slated to be closed because of poor student performance on standardized tests. The schools, teachers, and students were granted a reprieve in May and are supposed to be reorganized under the RESTART program. The reality is that the New York City Department of Education, with support from the Obama administration and federal Race to the Top money, is setting up failing schools to fail again.

The schools were supposed to receive up to $6 million in federal money over three years to improve lower-than-average graduation rates. However little of that money will actually go to the schools or directly aid students. Most of the money will go into the Department of Education general fund or to pay private management companies like New Visions for Public Schools, Urban Assembly and Generation Schools to provide consultants to advise principals and magically turn the schools around. These organizations will make recommendations about the hiring and dismissal of principals and teachers and will train principals to "write-up" teachers so they can more easily be dismissed. One principal, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to criticize a program that would be evaluating his performance, said, "Restart is the wrong word, because they are not changing anything."

Most of the schools on the RESTART list are there because the Bloomberg administration changed the student population to channel better-performing students into new smaller high schools or because of changing community demographics. For example, John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, which is based on the ideas of educational philosophy John Dewey, was once the pride of the public school system. When it opened in 1969 its student population was largely White, overwhelmingly middle class, and college directed. Today those students attend Leon M. Goldstein High School for the Sciences at Kingsborough Community College and a majority of Dewey's students are Black and Latino, many from low-income housing projects that ring south Brooklyn.

There are no short cuts and miracle cures when it comes to educational improvement. Schools will improve when conditions for students and their families improve and when the United States invests in teachers rather than simplistic solutions. A recent New York Times article reported that students in high-tech schools did not perform better on standardized assessments than students in regular schools. Studies continually show that students in charter schools do not perform better than similar students in public schools. Miraculous improvements on standardized tests have now been shown to be the result of changing student answers and other forms of cheating in Atlanta, Washington DC, Texas, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

"Trickle Down" does not work in economics and it does not work in education. If New York City and the federal government want instruction to improve in pubic schools, they need to put the money directly into the schools. One place to start would be to rehire aides and parent coordinators let go in the most recent round of budget cuts.

Another thought, maybe we do need to resurrect Boss Bluster. Once he calmed down in 1995 and the Yankees had some stability, the team went on a major winning streak with thirteen straight playoff appearances and four World Championships.