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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 11/07/2011

A history of failed reform

This was written by Marc Epstein, who was a history teacher at Jamaica High School in Queens, N.Y., for the past 15 years, and a former dean of students. Since the “phasing out” of Jamaica began this year he is currently a member of the “absent teacher reserve,” along with about one half of the Jamaica faculty. They are assigned to different schools each week. His articles on school violence, curriculum, and testing, have appeared in Education Next, City Journal and a number of New York newspapers. He contributed to “A Consumer’s Guide To High School History Textbooks.” Epstein has a Ph.D in Japanese-American diplomatic history.

By Marc Epstein

If you follow newspaper accounts about school reform, you can’t help but notice that various school reforms that have inundated public education over the past decade of mayoral control of the New York City public schools have failed.

For years we heard that under the leadership of former Chancellor Joel Klein, appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, corporate-driven school reform had achieved big improvements in standardized test scores.

The boast that reading and math scores had achieved miraculous breakthroughs vanished when Harvard Professor Dan Koretz did a study for the Board of Regents, indicating that the examinations were ineffective. In response to the study, the Board of Regents recalibrated the scores downward. The education miracle was a mirage.

That wasn’t the end of the bad news. The New York Times reported that 75 percent of the incoming freshmen to New York’s community colleges required remedial instruction.

In another Times article detailing one of those remedial programs, Michael Winerip quoted Nikita Thomas, a forlorn freshman at LaGuardia Community College who had graduated from Bedford Stuyvesant Tech High School. Thomas was compelled to take remedial courses in reading, writing, and math. “Passing the Regents [exams] don’t mean nothing…The main focus in high school is to get to graduate; it makes the school look good.”

Another signature component of Bloomberg’s reforms — small school performance, principal empowerment, and school staffing — can now be included on the list of failures.

Breaking up comprehensive high schools and replacing them with four or more small schools inside the old high school buildings was supposed to be the magic bullet that reversed decades of abysmal graduation rates. This was the thinking that prompted Bill Gates to support the concept with hundreds of millions of his philanthropic dollars.

When Gates abandoned the concept because of meager results and exorbitant costs, former chancellor Joel Klein continued his costly agenda, claiming that New York City was the exception to this failed idea. Klein cited none other than Gates to prove his point. His defense of small schools appeared in a Forbes opinion commentary in 2008.

“The Microsoft founder acknowledged that one of the foundation’s signature efforts during the past decade--helping to create new small schools across the country--had not significantly improved student achievement in most of those schools.

Gates cited one significant exception: New York City.

Here, new small schools have replaced chronically failing institutions, and, in many cases, have dramatically turned around student performance. Gates praised these schools for achieving graduation rates consistently above 75% — often twice the rate of the schools they replaced and nearly 20 points higher than the citywide average. Fifteen percent of all students drop out of school here, while only 5% of those from new small schools do.”

These claims have vanished along with Klein, who now runs the education arm at News Corp. According to an analysis by Rachel Monahan of the New York Daily News, the small schools created by Bloomberg prepare students for college at a rate far below the traditional schools, although the small schools can claim higher graduation rates.

“On average, the new schools graduate roughly 70% of students in four years. But just 12% of students who graduate are prepared for college. In contrast, similar schools founded before Mayor Bloomberg assumed office graduate on average 64% of students — but 17% are college-ready.” When confronted with these numbers the current schools chancellor, Dennis Walcott, admitted the system had to do better and that the students were up to the task.

But the latest news on student performance would indicate that being college ready is the least of the education mayor’s problems. The just released National Assessment of Educational Progress scores for fourth and eighth graders indicates that New York’s reading scores remained flat, while math performance declined. New York has the distinction of being the only state in the country to post a decline!

If the Bloomberg–Klein emphasis had been on ensuring that students were “middle school ready,” we wouldn’t be discussing meaningless high school diplomas and remedial college courses.

So when Newt Gingrich applauded Joel Klein’s “brilliant” performance as chancellor at an education forum attended by four of the Republican presidential candidates and hosted by Klein and Paul Gigot, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page editor, it’s apparent that the participants neither knew nor cared much about the actual results that school reform has visited on the nation’s largest school system.

The business model of school reform was supposed to be the guiding principle informing the multiple reorganizations of the state’s largest bureaucracy that employs over 100,000 people. Smashing the old culture was imperative for Bloomberg, who proclaimed that he wanted to be remembered as the education mayor.

To that end, principals were given unprecedented control over their schools, including the hiring of teachers. But reformers encouraged hiring young, lower-paid, teachers over more senior faculty on the faulty assumption that the veterans were ineffective (not to mention more highly paid).

As a result the system has become clogged with roaming senior faculty members who’ve been evicted from the obsolete high schools. Instead of placing them in other classrooms in a rational manner, they have been labeled deadwood and incompetent by Bloomberg, while the myth of the younger, more vibrant and successful teacher has been perpetuated.

The small school results should have put an end to this fiction, since new teachers mostly staff the small schools. Instead the lunacy of having over 1,000 teachers travel to a new school each week, and attend mandated interviews in schools that won’t hire them because they are too “expensive,” continues.

In another age, revelations that school reforms are little more than a series of phony claims that cost an extra $100 billion in taxpayer money would have resulted in some sort of political retribution. There would be cries for repealing the mayor’s dictatorial control of the schools, or cries for an investigation. Today, this is a one-horse political town.

Six years ago ,The New York Times asked Tom Wolfe to comment on Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s proposal to build a multi-billion dollar football-Olympic Stadium over Manhattan’s West Side rail yards.

The project never got off the ground. The opposition was too fierce for even Bloomberg’s considerable political clout and personal fortune to overcome.

But Wolfe’s take on New York is well worth noting if you want to make sense of the chaos that has come to define the New York City school system.

Wolfe argued, tongue in cheek, that even though the stadium project was a wildly indulgent waste of money that could best be used elsewhere, we should go ahead with it anyway since New York has ceased to be a city that really produces anything.

For all intents and purposes, it has become a giant amusement park; “Twenty first century New York is fast becoming what Marshall McLuhan saw … almost forty years ago; a one industry town, strictly the pleasure dome business, with a single sales pitch, ‘You’re Gonna Love Gothamland.’ ”

If you accept Wolfe’s view, and I do, you can begin to understand Bloomberg’s seemingly endless dismantling of the public schools over the past 10 years as one big Gothamland extravaganza. Education has nothing to do with it.

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