02/29/2012 05:00 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2012

Educating for Democracy: The Problems with Mayoral Control

A preliminary report by the Independent Commission on Public Education (ICOPE) with the support of the Coalition for Public Education (CPE) compared the present public school governance under Mayor Michael Bloomberg using the business model to one in which education is regarded as "a human right." The report, written by a number of education specialists and activists including Sam Anderson, Barbara Barnes, Cecilia Blewer, Warren Miner and Ellen Raider, takes to task the Mayor's method of "reforming" the school system as ineffective, dehumanizing to the students, and creating an increasingly two-tier school system, racially and ethnically segregated as "The New Jim Crow" in New York City. The complete report will be available in March at

In a carefully argued analysis of the Mayor's method of evaluating "successful" and "failed" schools, the ICOPE document points out that reliance on quantitative data derived from standardized tests is a severely flawed if not totally discredited method of evaluation of teacher competence. Using the business model in which education is a "commodity" and students are "consumers" misunderstands and distorts the delicate, complex, and very difficult process by which students learn.

In order for students to learn effectively, they need to understand what is being taught them and why, retain a significant amount of what they learn from one class to another, apply this knowledge to higher levels of a discipline, and, having mastered the skill or material, be equipped to innovate it with new ideas. The formulaic system of standardized testing does none of this. Evidence of its failure is the high percentage of New York high school graduates who need to take remedial classes in math and writing upon entering college.

But the ICOPE report not only criticizes the Mayor's business model but looks more broadly at education as a human rights issue. They quote from the words of Martin Luther King: "An individual's ability to attain his or her right to education is affected by his or her rights of food, housing, and dignity..." The report argues that all children should have equal access to quality education and be given the opportunity to fully develop their personalities.

The report further advocates for all parents to be able to be participants in decisions affecting their children's education, that both children and their parents be treated with dignity, that public schools in New York City be given an equitable distribution of resources according to their needs, and that students receive a "global education" and a core curriculum which includes the study of citizenship.

I believe that the Bloomberg Administration is well aware that its approach to public education has been a failure but specifically a failure for those who, in the Mayor's estimation, "don't really count": the poor of all minorities, the "difficult" students who don't fit neatly into his corporate model of education, and the teachers who rebel against an anti-learning system of instruction.

Those constituents who count are the ones whose children in school are least bothered by standardized tests because they can either ignore them or regard them as a necessary nuisance which most of their children easily pass because of the usual cultural and economic advantages they enjoy that fit well into the test mentality.

If these schools that "count" which include those that have enriched, not impoverished, curricula, have the freedom to teach the best way they can, and have the resources to do so, were burdened by the same regimen of testing that so many others are they would let Bloomberg know in a way the Mayor would heed their objections. They would never be treated in the disrespectful way parents, students and educators are treated at his rubber stamp PEP (Panel for Educational Policy) hearings, ignoring what they have to say. The schools that "count" and can enjoy human rights are those of the privileged, either through wealth or exceptional talent and those are the ones that the Mayor is really thinking about when it comes to his "success."

I would point out that the privileged must realize that there is such a basic obligation of citizens in democracy to "promote the general welfare" and that although their children are being -- at least in their minds -- well-educated although I would call it through "exclusivist education," the future for their children will be a bleak one in an increasingly dysfunctional society for them as well as for "the others." It will become a quasi-totalitarian state where "public safety" becomes more important than individual rights. In other words, the treatment that now exists that brutalizes and marginalizes people of color will expand into the general population unless those "people who count" realize that in a democracy a harm to one will eventually be a harm to all.