The School Reform Miracle That Wasn't
Editor's Note: Bridging Differences is back today after a week's publishing break.
We in New York City were treated to an amazing show in early April. A group that calls itself the "Education Equality Project" held a conference and attracted such stellar educators as Arne Duncan, Joe Biden, Newt Gingrich, Margaret Spellings, and Michelle Rhee. The conveners of the conference were New York City's Chancellor Joel Klein and the Reverend Al Sharpton. The purpose apparently was to talk about how important it is to close the achievement gap between whites/Asians and Blacks/Hispanics. On this count, no one disagrees. The problem, as ever, is how to accomplish this laudable goal.
Chancellor Klein and Reverend Sharpton (dubbed "the odd couple" by the New York City media) have the answer: more testing, merit pay, and charter schools. This combination and a willingness to knock down the teachers' unions, derided as "adult interests" whose agenda conflicts with "children's interests," are the key strategies that they believe will lift up the scores of poor and minority students and close the gap.
There was a bit of an embarrassment for the EEP a day or so after the conference concluded** when columnist Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News published an article saying that a hedge fund in Connecticut that was interested in obtaining control of various gambling enterprises in New York State had generously contributed $500,000 to "encourage" Rev. Sharpton to get interested in improving education. It seems that the money was contributed to some group called Education Reform Now, which passed it on to Democrats for Education Reform (an advocacy group for charters, also headed by a hedge-fund zillionaire), which passed it on to the Education Equality Project or maybe directly to Reverend Sharpton's organization, the National Action Network. Being somewhat unsophisticated about how that kind of money gets passed from one hand to the next, I am not sure about the money trail, but Mr. Gonzalez nailed it.
What is the evidence for the formula offered by Klein and Sharpton? The great success of New York City under the reign of Mayor Bloomberg. This celebration made me think that it was time to publish a critique of the miracle of New York City. I sat down and wrote an article for The New York Times, debunking the Bloomberg-Klein claims and showing that the test scores and graduation rates have been artificially inflated. My article appeared on Friday, April 10.
Sad to say, Secretary Duncan—who likes to expostulate about the importance of data—swallowed the New York City claims without any verification. As I showed in the article, Secretary Duncan has been on a crusade to persuade the nation's urban mayors that they should follow Mayor Bloomberg's lead and they, too, can push through radical reforms without dissent. They, too, can close public schools and replace them with charter schools. They too will see great results.
The only missing piece of his argument is that New York City has not achieved great results. Instead of truly raising the graduation rates with better-prepared students, it has been gaming the system, practicing "credit recovery," whereby students get graduation credits for courses they failed or never even attended. The city further boosts the graduation rate by adding in GED students and not counting students who were discharged (many of whom were actually dropouts). As a result of all this gamesmanship, the graduation rate keeps climbing, yet 3/4 of the graduates who enter our local community colleges need to be remediated in basic skills. Remember that social promotion was eliminated? Not.
This is not improved education. It is statistical legerdemain.
Why do people swallow this swill? There are many reasons, but most of them come down to the supine media that is too lazy to check facts. And, of course, there is our complacent, compliant, and complicit State Education Department, which loves to claim victory, even when kids are learning nothing.
What a sad state of affairs.
**P.S.: I got the date wrong for the publication of Juan Gonzalez's article in the New York Daily News. It appeared on April 1, 2009. The conference co-sponsored by Chancellor Klein and Rev. Sharpton started the following day.