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The School Reform Miracle That Wasn't


Editor's Note: Bridging Differences is back today after a week's publishing break.

Dear Deborah,

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.


Nuts. I don't get to use my Masters Tournament analogy today, where we talk about Phil Mickelson's and Tiger's thought processes; each going into Sunday, behind by a near-impossible 7.

Although,... the image of Kenny Perry graciously congratulating Angel Cabrera seems apropos. Losing what seemed his to take, Perry was clearly deeply upset with himself. Yet, he talked mainly of Angel's well fought victory and his own thrill at the quality of the competition.

Would that public educator-advocates showed such class.

Yet, Diane, you were speaking of swill. Indeed, the type offered up by the status-quo-lovers gags me: this perennial bit where we 'trace the money'. Its the same formula used here in Ohio to monthly hound David Brennan, to make him a national pariah.

For those who don't know, David Brennan was a manufacturer who became inordinately frustrated with the education of his applicants and workers. As a remedy, he began schooling them after hours at his factory on his dime. The workers were so pleased with the results they asked if their spouses and families could be brought in. That's when Brennan got involved with the charter movement here in Ohio.

Yet the charter movement threatened (in theory) the size of the bankroll controlled by the officers of the State Teachers Association. This man had to be stopped! Bad enough was he peeling kids out of the state system along with their state subsidy dollars; worse, he was showing that these kids could learn!

So, off trot the SEA leaders to meet with their buddies down the street at the Dispatch and the Beacon-Journal. Good socially conscious investigative reporters that they are, they knew to look for the money.

So began a regular narrative on the evil capitalist stealing from the schoolchildren of Ohio. Today, all sides of the political fence recognize David Brennan as a thief. In theory.

Investigative journalism is critical to our society. Lazy, under-educated journalism threatens it.

OK, so the money explains a little bit about Al Sharpton. Maybe. Rev. Al is pretty good at getting money; if $500,000 is all it takes to encourage him to lean one way or the other, I'm pretty sure some good money from George Soros and MoveOn could be found to bring him back to the fold.

Meanwhile, we are constantly reminded that "all this money in corporations" could be used to improve schooling.

Apparently only if it is donated directly to the PTA or some status-quo advocacy group.


Excellent piece.

While Oscar and Felix may have their hearts in the right place, attempting to close the achievement gap in NYC, their strategies to date have proven to be nothing short of fraudulent. In fact, one could easily contend NY's attempts at gaming the system are as bad as the practices of a number of (southern) states with their thresholds for “proficient” on their NCLB tests.

The mystery to me is that Secretary Duncan has apparently swallowed the NYC data without examining the NAEP scores or more carefully researching their graduation "practices." The information reported by you in your Times op-ed piece is not new. It’s been available and reported on already, especially the test scores. Inexcusable.

Thank you, Diane.

Hi All... hope this finds you well.

Interesting story Ed... and again people can certainly all see things differently!

Here are some of my thoughts about the good mannered folks at Augusta;

"Hootie Johnson, say those people -- black and white, male and female -- was long known as one of the most progressive, forward-thinking white businessmen to come out of his time and place. He just does not like to be pushed.

But others say Johnson may have finally come face to face with the contradictions of a life in which he stood for equal opportunity in the public sphere at a time when many did not, yet was also at ease belonging to private clubs where South Carolina's white male elite met without blacks or Jews or women."

Well...so much for golf.....

What is going on in New York, Detroit, Chicago, Washington and other cities around this nation has huge implications for all Americans....

Always want to look deeper when folks do things to.. "other peoples" children that would not be tolerated in more well off and advantaged areas.

be well... mike

Golf. What a waste of time, money and nature...

Thank you, Diane, for telling the truth about the Mayor's new clothing.


You can play golf till the day you die. It is a GREAT leisure time activity. I learned to play as a young boy and still enjoy it six to seven days a week into my 60's.


You're right about Hootie. He represents everything wrong about the old and present South. He's an embarrassment to how business as usual is too often conducted in this country.

Once again Sam Dillon has an interesting piece on education in this morning's New York Times. It references Diane Ravitch's thoughts on Obama's plans for reauthorizing NCLB. The article also has Obama/Duncan thoughts for national standards worth perusing.


Over at the Core Knowledge blog, Ben F. asked why we encourage young people to distrust everything they read. He argued that we should give them materials that they can trust and learn. They should not have to question the authenticity or truth of the text at every moment.

I agree with him. Here is the paradox. On the one hand we encourage in young people an attitude of skepticism towards everything. On the other, we fail to exercise skepticism ourselves. We lap up fads, buy and sell success stories, and nod at each bullet point on a PowerPoint presentation.

And here's the real catch: those who are taught to be skeptical of everything will in the end be skeptical of nothing. It is empty skepticism. I have known more than one person who distrusted everything about the government, school system, etc., but then fell for some pyramid scheme.

How can we educate young people so that they will be in a position to sort out truth from distortion? They need enough information (committed to memory and accessible through books and other resources) that they can exercise good judgment about what to believe or question. They need good logic so that they can recognize fallacies, loopholes, incomplete data. They need teachers whose own convictions and misgivings are based on much knowledge, thought, and experience.

If we offer this, maybe the next generations of adults will not fall so quickly for false success stories. Maybe even the search for a success story will be less rewarding to them than a difficult search for the truth.

Diana Senechal

Diana, what a great question! Of course we can never teach all people the 'right' amount of skepticism. People come in a spectrum of innate analytical propensity (different from ability).

There is also always that time factor. We can never read everything. Diane's exposure of some of New York's gimmicks is one step in many people learning. I didn't know it; I did know that the states all used different graduation measures and that Sec. Spellings had taken steps to unify reporting methods, and that Sec Duncan looked to be following up.

If we are to teach people to be more careful, though, I can recommend nothing better than the physics lab. There one confronts the stark reality of human beliefs and expectations vs. physical natural reality. We don't put enough students into good physics labs.

Mike, thanks! I do get to use my Masters analogy.

First, we must not confuse the future with the past. Few Americans did not intensely cheer on Tiger in his improbable 1997 Masters victory. His Sunday march to an 18 under, 12 stroke margin, victory is certainly the greatest sporting event of my life; few who watched would say much otherwise.

Tiger did all the hard prep work, all the intense practice and study and he excelled when it counted.

This Sunday, he and Phil showed that winning spirit once again. They didn't declare victory out of their reach; they didn't give in to the past 3 days; they didn't suppose that victory would come only if the leaders fell apart. They went out there and worked harder than anyone else that day. They've showed before how that late effort can win.

This isn't to point fingers. Its to say, lets stop focusing on the few, the homeless, the infirm, those bit by racism, etc.; and start focusing on how to get above average urban Americans into those good paying engineering, financial, pharmaceutical, marketing, design jobs.

Being honest about graduation rates is one step.

Admitting that the leadership of Detroit education (dropout rate 65-75%) needs fixing is another.

Hi All...

Don't really get the golf story Ed...

seems to me Tiger spends hours at practice because he has a passion for golf... not the same as putting in time for something that one doesn't really love...in my case that would be a physics lab... :)

wonder if schools might want to spend some more time helping kids find their gifts?

"lets stop focusing on the few, the homeless, the infirm, those bit by racism, etc.; and start focusing on how to get above average urban Americans into those good paying engineering, financial, pharmaceutical, marketing, design jobs." ( Ed )

Can't buy this logic either Ed.
There are many magnet schools in many of our urban areas that already do this Ed.... check out some of there scores on all kinds of "tests".
Detroit remains the poorest city in America.

Detroit has around 160,000 students.
Chicago has over 400,000 students...84% of who are low income!
New York City- over 900,000 students.
Philadelphia- around 175,000 kids...70% of which are low income!

Thats alot of kids Ed... that also need our best focus.

I must admit that at first I did not see how golf was at all related to NAEP scores. Then I saw exactly where you guys were driving, so to speak. Right at the time in the late 1990s when golf surged in popularity, American student achievement went flat. Just about the time Tiger Woods started winning tournaments, our nation's children started losing in the classroom. Golf up, scores flat. A perfect correlation. Any idiot could have seen the connection, but those morons in the press were too busy harassing David Brennan to bother to report real education news.

Doctors have long understood some of the adverse effects of golf. For example, color blindness that leaves men unable to match a shirt and shorts. And anyone who has watched more than 15 minutes of golf on TV knows that, for many men, golf leads to erectile dysfunction. These side effects are well-known. But the adverse impact of golf on American achievement has been overlooked by the supine media to lazy to check the facts.

Of course, golf itself is not a direct cause. It is merely the catalyst for academic failure. We need more data to understand exactly how golf paralyzes achievement. One possible reason is that golf courses take up a great deal of space where charter schools could be. It is also possible that the overwhelming lure of golf distracts many administrators from their responsibilities at schools. If you are a teacher, ask yourself: Does your principal play golf? How often? What impact is that having on your school?

We already have the NAEP data. Someone must have the Neilson ratings for the Masters Tournament. Arne Duncan, are you listening? Talk about a shovel-ready research project. Someone should stimulate this immediately. And when all of the research is done five years from now, EdWeek can publish the press release under the headline: "Bogey: How Golf Kept America Barely Proficient."

But we all know what will happen after that. Some rich guy who loves golf will found an education reform department at a cash-strapped university. Researchers will spend years re-analyzing the data to try to find some evidence that golf isn't actually as destructive as we know it is. They will issue reports like "A Fair Way to Assess the Impact of Golf" or "Re-analysis of NAEP Data, a Better Way to Slice that Sample" or "Golf and Student Achievement, Bridging the Links." Junk science, but at least it will keep some graduate students away from the greens. Five years after that, EdWeek can report on how some administrators have rediscovered the sport: "Is Golf Still a Four-Letter Word?" "New data from the University of Wheresthat show........."

Then again, maybe not. Education doesn't need another useless controversy where the one who issues the most press releases wins the debate. Let's all just pretend we don't know how destructive golf is to educational achievement. Let's ignore the problem. Let's completely ignore the entire point of Ms. Ravitch's post on golf. Sure, it is rude to hijack her blog, but so what? Let's comment about something entirely different, something completely off topic, like, say, whether Arne Duncan should review the NY NAEP data before he buys into the idea of mayoral control. Anyone want to start on that?

Swift... point heard and well taken.

Can we really imagine that Arne has not bumped into the real data... in Chicago.... in New York... in all our cities?

Seems hard to believe... to easy to really find the data. Too many folks of the stature of Ms. Meier, Ms. Ravitch and many others pointing it our now for years!

Seems to me then... there is another agenda going on in our cities...and i agree with Ms. Ravitch...
"a sad state of affairs".

Do you not think... that these people really know the true story behind the data?

So... any comments on what the real agenda is?

Any ideas on how to oppose this?

be well... mike


I can only speak from my own experience. As a citizen, I am frustrated with the quality of education in the United States. We tax payers pay top dollar for horrible results.

Our children are being "processed" through the school system and it dovetails precisely with the teachers unions' rise to power. I am a big supporter of Ms. Rhee. At least she is trying to make a difference in our nation's worst school district.

Personally, I believe the federal government is also at fault for making schools perform administrative tasks that only create mountains of unread reports. It is my belief we have to bring the schools back to the neighborhood's they served, cut the administration to the bone and allow the principles to run their own schools and get the bureaucrats out of education once and for all.

(Not so) Swift,

Your attempted play on words comparing golf to education, while appreciated for the effort, is par for the course on the truth. You have clearly hooked one out of bounds and must return to the tee to hit a provisional ball. You will be of course penalized two strokes for your errant performance.

What's so great about golf? Think about it. Unlike most professional athletes who get enormous contracts based on their past performances and then coast through their guaranteed contracts, golfers get paid only for their current efforts. If they work hard and perform well they make a nice paycheck. If they don't perform, not only do they not get the big check, they run the risk of losing their access to even being on the tour for the following year and making nothing. Pay for performance. Now there's an idea I can easily embrace - in golf and education. Good performance, nice check. Lousy performance, minimal check and you’re shown the door. When you’re playing golf and with children’s lives both make a great deal of sense to me.



I too am a big supporter of Commissioner Rhee. I applaud her efforts because she's putting children first and she's fighting the true "evil empire" (not the Yankees) - teacher unions. She is a hero and a pioneer contrary to the opinions of a number of “prominent” individuals in the field. Jealousy? Quite possibly. She’s attracted quite a bit of attention for attacking the status quo, in and of itself very threatening to people who have been in the industry for decades.

While the AFT has at least made some concessions on behalf of their students, the true ogre, the NEA, has done nothing, except of course in an effort to protect the status quo, their monopoly in public education. The NEA has demonstrated over and over their myopic narcissism (if that sounds redundant, well…). They don't give a rat's behind about children, whose interests they're supposed to serve. Nope. I believe they're not even truly interested in their membership, other than the money they collect from their dues. They’re out to show the world they’re more important than even the first four estates (the media of course being number four). They’re extortionists to the letter. The only reason they even put an effort into protecting one of their incompetent members is for show. They want all their members to believe they are paying good money for protection from the mob. Their real interest lays in how much purported power/purpose they can garner from all those dues. Unions were once very beneficial to teachers but now the shoe is on the other foot, in their membership's $$$$$=power.

Mike, I held this response overnight, thought to rewrite it. Now reading Swifty's comedic attempts (better served warmer with less vinegar), maybe I'll go ahead and work at the nuance of Sharpton's message. It goes to your later question, "So... any comments on what the real agenda is?". Apologies for the lack of 'gentle tone'. Here goes:

No, no Mike, you probably won't get it.

You won't understand why I gave up what would have been cake shots studying business or humanities or law in college to instead sign up for one of the hardest degree programs anyone anywhere can take.

You won't understand why I gave up the high school valedictory position for a 2.5 college grade average at the end of 80-90 hour study weeks.

You won't understand the feeling of dread I and many others gathered in the pits of our stomachs as we made the trip back to University of a Sunday evening, to face the unrelenting workload of the weeks to follow. You won't grasp the feeling of helplessness and failure Nathaniel Fick describes on One Bullet Away as liberal arts majors face the discipline of DI's at the Officers Candidate School. You don't even recognize the endlessly boring hours of putting and pitching and lifting that Tiger puts in. Or the unimaginably impossibe training those Navy Seals endured.

And you certainly couldn't grasp walking away from a generous government salary to take on tougher challenges, hoping not to take a job, but to create jobs.

Apparently you don't follow that, when you are behind, you take advantage of every opportunity you can. Be it picking litter with snakes and rats crossiing your feet, marching a reflectorized pole cross hill and dale on land survey, pounding steel bar after bar into asphault road surface, or working endless hours for free in order to get some experience and recognition.

Or, especially, taking advantage of free public education where all one has to do is show up to a warm dry building and stay half awake 6 hours a day.

I know that isn't easy for all kids. I do think many more of the 110,000 kids who drop out of DPS each year are at least as able as the 50% of Appalachian students here who go on to college.

Passion and love are great. Yet passion and love can be found in unlikely places; in jobs one did not expect to pursue, in responsibilities unintended. Passion is frequently found in challenge. Surveys show these kids want for challenge.

For a year plus, I've watched you make everything about money. (Even while you apparently wouldn't be caught dead learning finance or economics). Well, money is important. The way to get more money is to earn it from the world. The way for urban youth to begin to earn it from the world is to go on and get decent paying jobs. Those jobs take education. They can't get those jobs if they drop out of school.

I now live in a place where those jobs do not exist. Not for many miles. Those youth all live within a few miles of many, many such good paying jobs; People from here move there to get them. The gap between those kids and the good jobs is not mileage, class, race, or creed. The gap is education.

Hi Ed... hope this finds you well and certainly glad you held your responce overnight....

It is interesting Ed that you can pigeon hole people so easily in such a black and white manner.... with out any real knowlege of the other.

You seem to be able to tell what it is i can and can't understand.... and you seem to suggest that those of us that actually have spent decades in classrooms... with kids of all sorts ... do not really know what it is to work long and hard hours....

"Must quote Ms. Meier on this one Ed...
"The enormous disrespect for practitioners and education scholars—and ordinary parents with kids in our public schools—makes it easier. They are written off as less than the “best and brightest.” Plus "self-interested".

Ed... it certainly isn't just money...you may have missed many of the other factors i have mentioned...

my writing over time have included things talked about here by Diane and Deb.
others ideas too have been mentioned in my writings.....

I lean heavily on the work of...

Linda Darling-Hammond....Stan Karp....Monty Neil....Alfie Kohn....Theodore Sizer... George Wood...Richard Rothstein... Susan Ohanian...David Owen..Cornell West...Johnathan Kozol...Marian Wright Edelman....Russell Ackoff...

to name a few....

please share the reading you are doing Ed... be glad to look at it.... always open to learning....

be well... mike


In the for whatever it's worth department I thought Joel Klein's letter in this morning's New York Times was nothing short of pathetic. It was a very feeble attempt at discrediting your op-ed piece from Monday on the false claims of success in the New York City public schools.

His references to NAEPs, New York Regents, high school graduation rates, etc. clearly indicated his defensive posture. Does he honestly believe New Yorkers are incapable of seeing through his and Bloomberg's facade?

Klein shamelessly misrepresented your argument; he claimed that you were calling for a return to the "bad old days." If a system of checks and balances is a return to the "bad old days," then apparently we have left democracy far behind.

Diana Senechal

Hi All...

Diane i think you hit it:
"then apparently we have left democracy far behind."

I do not think there is anyone here who is content with the state of our schools today.

The key question.... whether we are talking about STANDARDS in our STATES or who runs our schools.... in my mind is......

Education Secretary Arne Duncan's pledge to put more big-city mayors in charge of their school districts would exclude democratic forms of school governance and let big businesses decide the fate of public schools.

From:The Corporatization of Public Education by Andy Kroll

Before an audience of big-city mayors and school superintendents in late March, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered an early - and troubling - indication of his vision for the future of public K-12 education in the United States.

Duncan told audience members at the Mayors' National Forum on Education in Washington, DC, that more mayors need to take control of low-performing, urban school districts, and that he was prepared to do whatever it takes to shift leadership of urban districts from school boards to City Halls. "I'll come to your cities. I'll meet with your editorial boards. I'll talk with your business communities," Duncan said. "I will be there."

Right now, seven major cities have complete mayoral control over their public school systems, including Washington, DC; New York, and Chicago, where Duncan spent eight years as the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools system working under Mayor Richard Daley. These districts under mayoral control, Duncan explained, are more stable and benefit from stronger leadership. "Part of the reason urban education has struggled historically is you haven't had that leadership from the top," Duncan said. "Where you've seen real progress in the sense of innovation, guess what the common denominator is? Mayoral control."

This is a move..far away from any local control and democracy.

What do you think.... would this fly in our towns outside of our urban area's?

Is this the future direction of creating
"21st century schools"?

be well... mike

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