At this point in the Mayor’s remaking of our school system, claims of dramatic academic gains seem built on sand.
Analyses prepared for Assemblyman James Brennan by legislative aide Shawn Campbell demonstrate that the Bloomberg administration grossly overstates the impact that the reforms have had on New York City’s student achievement. State test scores are tainted by the exams’ designed-in flaws. Progress Reports’ school grades are malleable, rising or falling according to administration convenience. Graduation rates are untethered from college and career readiness. They are the end result of suspect strategies called “credit accumulation” and “knowledge management,” not subject mastery and understanding.
But the Mayor has a renewed opportunity to value learning over his well-known data obsession. Like Midas, who confused gold for true wealth, the DOE can redeem the promise of mayoral control by focusing on instruction. A vast literature exists for what works. New funding is promoting necessary research and development. Structural innovations like accountability, teacher merit pay, charter schools, and vouchers show varying, if any, success and, even if effective, have no capacity to directly improve learning. The Mayor’s cheap trick — hands off schools, just measure their outcomes — is an irresponsible abdication of leadership. It betrays his and his Chancellor’s instructional ignorance.
In Beth Fertig’s excellent new book, Why cant U teach me 2 read?, the WNYC reporter shows most of the Chancellor’s minions avoiding classrooms as they distantly crunch numbers. Her main heroes, besides the indomitable students who persevere amid scholastic chaos, are educators outside the system who rehabilitate its human road kill. They use proven instructional methods like Orton-Gillingham for dyslexic students to move pupils from failure to functionality. The road is tortuous — learning is hard for all, the teachers and the taught — but stands in stark contrast to the self-congratulatory mantra of accountability issuing from those at the top.
DOE headquarters staff at the Tweed Courthouse seem bent on “gotcha” tactics, identifying failing schools based on radar readouts, unconcerned about realities on the ground. Instructional support is outsourced. The main educational job at Tweed is to create untested new schools to replace those that are closed. And closure, in the weird, sad logic of these bureaucrats, is deemed success; a system proud of its ashes.
Lost in this technocratic activity is an important change in principals’ habits during the Bloomberg years. A mountain of evidence suggests that instead of frequent in-class observations, principals now remain in their offices poring over data or in meetings with outside data monitors. Or they are wasting time on the road, traveling to yet more meetings as members of a far flung network of schools.
To those who argue that this evidence is only anecdotal, there are three responses. The first is that total classroom observation time is not measured by the DOE, so that the data’s absence is a product of the DOE’s own disinterest. Second, something’s gotta give! With their aforementioned new duties, principals’ time has been reallocated. From what? From their presence in classrooms, lunchrooms, and schoolyards where the kids and teachers are; where essential, non-quantitative data are gathered by every good principal for staff evaluation and coaching, for face-to-face student contact, for knowing what hasn’t been entered into ARIS, the data system used at Tweed to fashion decisions. Finally, this seems to be a national trend. Even The New Teacher Project, an accountability-friendly organization, decries in “The Widget Effect,” its recent report (which did not include New York in its sample), principals’ failure to make adequate visits to the classrooms of new and developing teachers.
Yale political science and anthropology professor James C. Scott describes in Seeing Like a State how public officials create systems to prioritize desired data, obscuring other potentially useful information. That is Bloomberg’s hubris. In depending so much on a monoculture of standardized tests to derive his impressions, he has forgotten — if he ever knew or cared — that test scores don’t equate with rounded learning. Tests do not measure the true heartbeat of intellectual pursuit. If the Mayor wants to change education, not merely schools, he will read Fertig’s book and understand that redemption is found only in a commitment to quality instruction.