THE BLOG

Putting New York's School Reform in Perspective

03/12/2012 05:20 pm ET | Updated Sep 14, 2012

In case you haven't noticed, hunting public school teachers is currently the sport of choice for a passel of politicians, education philanthropists, and members of the Fourth Estate, from Maine to Hawaii.

You have the sense that if wildlife preservationists don't step in soon, the teacher may go the way of the Dodo bird.

For those of you who don't live in New York, it's likely that you haven't heard the cacophony of sounds emanating from the mayor's office, the teacher's union, and the news media, following the release of teacher rankings based on students' performance on state English and mathematics examinations for grades 4-8 spanning the years 2007-2010.

The teacher's union unsuccessfully argued that the test results were wildly inaccurate, and releasing them could serve no useful purpose, and do much harm. Reputable testing experts confirmed those claims. The courts did not agree.

Mayor Bloomberg claimed he hadn't acted in bad faith by going back on an agreement not to release the data. The courts made him do it.

The press demanded the results in their freedom of information filings, claiming the "public's right to know" transcended other considerations. Transparency was the watchword of the day.

The margin of error on the tests was as much as 53% on the English examinations and up to 35% on the math exams. Basic data collection on the numbers of children tested, class enrollment, and gender distribution were inaccurate when teachers compared the published data with their class lists.

The state admitted that the tests were poorly structured measurements of student achievement, and lacked validity. But the editorialists maintained that it was the right step in the right direction, and all things considered, should be published. Once they were published, the declared them "beyond valuable," "beyond essential."

Perhaps sensing that Pandora's Box was about to open, Bill Gates wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, just three days before the results were made public. Gates, arguably the single most influential advocate of the movement to grade teachers with "value added" assessments, cautioned against shaming teachers lest the results be used punitively rather than as a corrective tool for improving inadequate teachers.

Throwing caution to the wind, the tabloids immediately began publishing names and pictures of the "worst" teachers in the system, at the same time claiming that the publication of the scores was designed to help these teachers improve! They must not have read Bill Gates' column.

The blowback that followed the data dump prompted Merryl Tisch, the chancellor of the State Board of Regents, to suggest that a change in the state law might be advisable to protect the names of the teachers from public view, while still utilizing the test scores to evaluate their performance. But this may be a case of closing the barn door after the horse is out. For his part, the mayor has already indicated that he would oppose any change to the law.

Now that the "furies" have been let loose, I thought it might be useful if we stepped back and viewed this contretemps through a different lens, and place education reform in New York in its proper perspective.

For the first 50 years of the 20th century much was accomplished in New York City. Schools, subways, bridges, tunnels, airports, highways, and skyscrapers, transformed the landscape. The numbers are staggering. It included over six hundred new schools, six major bridges, and four tunnels connecting New York to New Jersey and Manhattan to the outer boroughs of the city.

When completed, the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero will have taken over thirteen years to plan and build since 911. The Empire State Building took less than two years. The 2nd Avenue subway, first begun in the 1970s won't complete its 8.5-mile construction until somewhere around 2050. It took less time to build over 600 miles of track and tunnels in the first fifty years of the 20th century.

When it comes to education the differences are palpable too. Instead of building schools, the "education mayor" takes pride in closing over one hundred and twenty five schools over the past decade, with promises of more to come before he leaves office in 2013.

Three hundred small schools have been located in closed comprehensive high schools, many of them landmarks almost a century old. If you work in one of those building you are reminded of what they once were, and the hollowed out shells they've become. You sense what Rome must have been like during its inexorable decline.

Despite claims of great success, remediation rates at the city colleges belie the validity of the increased graduation rates. In addition, about two hundred charters have opened under Bloomberg's tenure.

All things considered, you'd have to say that a sclerotic city has replaced what was once the nation's most vibrant metropolis, despite massive increases in public spending.

When you place education reform in this mix, a very different picture emerges. It isn't the great civil rights issue of the century. To call it that is an affront to those who fought, sacrificed, and even died to overturn racial segregation. It isn't the failed performance of the city's teachers that has led us this state of affairs. It is little more than the failure of publicly elected leaders to hire capable employees to carry out rational public policies.

Teachers didn't decree that students who make no academic progress can remain in school until the age of 21. Nor did they abolish the rigorous testing and hiring practices that existed under the defunct Board of Examiners and substitute a meaningless state teacher licensing examination process.

They didn't set policy that allows felons to go from jail to school and back to jail on a revolving door basis without establishing special programs that attempt to address soaring underclass crime rates. Teachers didn't make it all but impossible to expel a student. Teachers didn't foolishly destroy differentiated diplomas because to offer non-college bound programs to minority students was likened to racial profiling. Teachers didn't rip shop classes out of buildings. Teachers didn't dumb down the tests in order to inflate graduation rates. Neither did they invent phony "credit recovery" programs that allow students who hardly ever attended a class get credit for it by completing meaningless projects.

Large bureaucracies, which is what an urban school system is, among other things, are like an amoeba in the hands of the people in charge. Push it left, it moves left; push it right, it moves right. Split the amoeba in half and you'll have two amoebas. That is precisely what the school system has become, a socially engineered amoeba that has been pushed, pulled, and divided for decades.

The feigned outrage of politicians and reformers at the teachers, who have had their responsibilities increased over the past five decades, while their authority and legitimacy have been eroded in an inverse proportion, is nothing more than a macabre exercise in political nihilism.

This treacherous assault on a vital public institution is little more than what Joseph Conrad described as, "Personal impulses disguised as creeds." I predict it will come back to haunt its perpetrators.

"... We but teach bloody instructions, which being taught return to plague the inventor." -- Macbeth by William Shakespeare.