2010-05-14 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Commentary By Howard Schwach

This is the second of a series of columns detailing the words of a new book on education by one of the most knowledgeable educational historians in the nation.

There are books that need to be read by anybody who is interested in the forces that impact their life.

“The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education,” by educational historian Diane Ravitch is another.

Ravitch worked in the federal education department under Bush One and was instrumental in pushing for standardized testing and charter schools.

She has taken a long, hard look at what has happened to American education in the past ten years, however, and come to the conclusion, as have I, that there is little education going on in today’s schools.

I am going to let Ravitch speak for herself. What follows are quotes directly from her book.

How many columns will it take to tell Ravitch’s story? I am not sure, but keep reading and, at the end, you will be convinced that everything going on in the New York City public schools today is smoke and mirrors, designed to look as if the mayor had really done a splendid job with the schools, when in fact he and his management team have destroyed education.

Lessons from the San Diego experiment, in which former New York City District 2 Superintendent Tony Alvarado, who left the city in personal disgrace, tries his balanced literacy plan on an entire city. (page 62);

[Although San Diego said that it had a curriculum] the city never implemented the state’s framework for subjects such as the arts, literature, history, civics, science, foreign language and other subjects. It had chosen instead to focus on “intensive professional development” for teachers and administrators. San Diego emphasized how teachers should be teaching at the expense of what students should be learning. Consequently, many teachers expressed frustration over what they viewed as the enforcement of loosely defined teaching strategies that sidestepped content and had been developed without their input. One teacher asked why kindergarten students had to have a three-hour literacy block when her kids did not even know how to hold a book. The former Teacher of the Year spoke contemptuously of the regimented language, the scripted talk. Teachers were not allowed to question the leadership’s strategy even though they knew that their students were not learning. A high school teacher spoke with derision about the three-hour block of time for genre studies. “Everyone knew that the class was for dummies,” he said, “and the kids felt stigmatized.”

Bringing the business model to New York City (page 69):

A year later, in 2007, [Chancellor Joel] Klein launched another reorganization of the school system, the third in four years. He declared his earlier program of tight centralization a success, abolished the regions, and eliminated all direct supervision of the schools. Superintendents retained their titles but were not expected to visit schools unless directed to do so by the chancellor or in response to falling test scores. There was no public discussion or review of the sweeping changes in school governance. It was announced and done. To accomplish this reorganization, Klein relied on outside consultants, including Sir Michael Barber of England and the corporate restructuring firm of Alvarez and Marshall. Barber, who had been a key advisor to the government of Tony Blair, urged a strategy of top down accountability, plus market strategies that included choice, competition, school autonomy and incentives.

All of the major decisions in the school system that affected children were made at headquarters. For example, the DOE gave a $15.8 million no bid contract for eighteen months to Alvarez and Marshall to devise cost-cutting measures. A & M executives rearranged the school system’s bus routes in January, 2007 with disastrous consequences. Thousands of children were stranded without transportation on the coldest days of the year. Children as young as five were suddenly ineligible for school bus service and were to take a public bus to school. Siblings were sent to separate bus stops. The resulting confusion was not only a major embarrassment for the DOE, but one of the rare occasions when Tweed was criticized by the city’s tabloid press. After the 2007 reorganization, no school supervision was needed, because the Department of Education intended to judge every school solely by its results – that is, whether it raised test scores.

At headquarters, new job titles proliferated, mimicking titles in the corporate sector. Instead of superintendents and deputy superintendents, there were chief accountability officer, chief knowledge officer, chief talent officer and senior achievement facilitators. Most of the high-level officials at the DOE were not educators. Large contracts were awarded to companies that specialized in test preparation activities, such as Princeton Review and Kaplan Learning. Test scores in reading and mathematics became the beall and end-all in grades three through eight. Reading and mathematics were the only subjects that mattered because they were the only subjects counted for city, state and federal accountability. A study in 2008 revealed that only four percent of the city’s elementary schools met the state’s requirements for arts education. By 2009, nearly a third of the schools had no art teacher. Because accountability was restricted only to reading and mathematics, there was little reason for elementary and middle schools to pay much attention to subjects that did not count, such as the arts, physical education, science, history and civics.

Although I initially supported the mayor’s takeover of the schools, I was increasingly disturbed by the lack of any public forum to question executive decisions and by the elimination of all checks and balances on executive power. Next week, what the reading scores really mean.

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