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Back to Basics
By Anthony Coles
Now that Mayor Bloomberg has control of the schools, what should he do with it?
His first and most important decision is choosing a chancellor. He should find somebody from outside the system, unconstrained by existing relationships or by vested interests in certain programs or approaches. The new chancellor must be unafraid to shrink the bureaucracy radically and transfer much of the old Board of Edís functions to the individual schools.
Second, the mayor and new chancellor should establish a uniform core curriculum for most schools, to replace the current jumble of approaches and programs.
Todayís curriculum is a mishmash that reflects the growth of progressive and alternative educational programs, the heated disputes about phonics versus whole language, new math versus old math and the now-tired debates about how to teach history and whether to legitimize Ebonics. It is not sufficiently focused on basic skills, particularly in elementary and middle schools.
Chicago, the first major city to give control of the school system to the mayor, rightly made an easy-to-follow, back-to-basics curriculum a core priority. And in the first three years after mayoral control, Chicago students increased their test scores in every category, at virtually every grade level. The number reading at grade level rose about 15 percentage points over three years.
But expect a rush to the barricades if Mayor Bloomberg so much as hints at reassessing the curriculum. Various influential advocacy groups view schools as incubators of political ideology rather than of actual skills. And the teachersí union holds firm to the dogma that what happens in the classroom is nobodyís business but the certified professionalís in front of the blackboard.
Chancellor Harold Levy made some progress here: He worked with the unions to impose more prescriptive reading and math curricula in the Chancellorís District, comprising about 45 of the cityís worst schools. The Success for All system (which emphasizes heavy drilling and frequent testing of students, along with carefully prescribed lesson plans for teachers) has significantly boosted reading performance in those schools, where nothing else has worked.
The mayor wonít need task forces to come up with new curricula: There are plenty of battle-tested models, in math as well as English, that can be put in place by this September.
Not every school should have to follow the curriculum to the letter. But the goal should be to give every teacher a clear road map, free of cant and multicultural relativism, of what every student should learn.
While they fix whatís being taught, the mayor and new chancellor must confront whoís doing the teaching. As long as our school system refuses to reward the best teachers with even a dollar more than the incompetent teachers--as long as it bases all compensation on years of service and largely useless continuing-ed classes (many taught by the union)--how can we take seriously the proposition that it embraces excellence?
Sure, no merit-pay system is perfect. But the lack of a Holy Grail reward system hasnít stopped the private sector from implementing plans that are as fair and objective as possible--because the private sector understands that even imperfect plans are very good at encouraging better performance. And principals have a powerful incentive accurately to reward teachers who are doing a good job: The principalsí own performance (and compensation) depends in part on the quality and success of the teachers in their schools.
The teachersí union will only be dragged into any merit-pay plan kicking, screaming and suing. Its antipathy is so intense that, in the summer of 2000, the union leadership rejected a pay hike for all summer-school teachers, because those whose studentsí learning improved would have also gotten merit bonuses.
Change the debate from teacher quantity to teacher quality: The ranks of New York City teachers include far too many duds and not enough decent teachers. Fully 40 percent of city teachers recently required to take the basic teacher certification test--a measure of mere competence, not excellence--flunked.
0ur goal should not be to hire as many teachers as possible, but to hire as many smart, promising teachers as possible, rewarding excellent teachers, improving the performance of the others and weeding out the dead wood.
And we must make sure the best teachers actually teach. Thousands of effective, mostly senior, teachers are now on administrative, supervisory or union duties, or sabbatical. Little of this is as important as being in the classroom.
The system should learn from its successes. Two charter schools, the KIPP Academy and the Bronx Preparatory Academy, are among the several public schools that, by forging a disciplined school culture and focusing relentlessly on fundamentals, have put low-income children who might otherwise fall through the cracks on the path to college. In particular, the Bronx Preparatory Academyís stunning success in teaching math is a model worth cloning.
Indeed, Bloomberg should create a crack team--call them educational venture capitalists--to single out exemplary schools ready to be scaled up and then, without tinkering with the original product, to reward these schools with the sincerest form of flattery: imitation.
There are many other areas where reform is urgent:
--The teacher-certification system, which requires aspiring educators to slog through a series of largely irrelevant education courses to get certified.
--Social promotion, which advances students to the next grade when they have not acquired the skills necessary to perform the work of that grade--and so sentences them to falling further behind each year, with a high chance of dropping out. This practice has not ended: Many students who flunk remedial summer school are promoted anyway.
--The two-tier, dual-language educational system, in which students who speak other languages at home (usually Spanish) are trapped in second-rate classes in all subjects for years, often for their entire school careers. The four-year high school graduation rate among Hispanics is under 40 percent, and less than 27 percent of the students in the cityís elementary school bilingual programs attain English proficiency.
The English immersion model is working in California--just as it worked in New York for previous waves of immigrants. Californiaís proportion of Latinos with reading-test scores above the 50th percentile rose from 21 percent in 1998 to 35 percent in 2001. For math, the increase was from 27 percent to 46 percent.
--Special education for kids seen as difficult to educate is another second-class system an academic black hole from which students rarely graduate. Once assigned to special ed, a student has about a 2 percent chance of returning to mainstream education.
Since 1975, the cityís special-ed population (largely African-American and Hispanic) has grown 370 percent, from 35,000 students to 161,000. Yet a recent study found that only 15 percent of special-ed students actually met the stateís criteria as being learning-disabled.
The mayor should insist that the system distinguish the truly disabled and students who are behavior problems. The former should go into special ed; the latter into a ďSecond Opportunity School,Ē like the Wildcat Academy in The Bronx, which effectively educates students with disciplinary problems.
On the model of the NYPDís Compstat, the best accountability model ever implemented in this city, the mayor should create a Schoolstat program to evaluate principals and superintendents based on results. When a districtís truancy rates are rising, dropout rates are high, test scores are falling--when its students are stuck forever in bilingual or special ed, or other warning signs are flashing--someone needs to be called on the carpet to tell his supervisors his plan to fix the problems.
As with the Compstat model, every school superintendent should be required to attend a regular Schoolstat meeting with the chancellor to evaluate the performance of the schools in his district. And Schoolstat meetings must apportion acclaim as well as blame, since success deserves praise--and real rewards.
The mayor should not forget school choice. The cityís parochial schools offer generous financial aid, and a handful of families have been lucky enough to win lotteries for private-school scholarships. But for the middle- or low-income family that canít afford private school tuition, thatís just about where the options end.
A committed mayor and chancellor can make a big difference by reforming the schools from the top down, but only competition can spark sustained ingenuity from the ground up. Thatís why Bloomberg should lobby the Legislature to give city charter schools a much fairer share than the two-thirds of per-student funding they now get. The new chancellor should also welcome competition and implement a publicly funded voucher plan.
Public schools will always educate most of our students, but there is no reason to insulate those schools from the benefits of innovation and energy that come with competition--and no reason why the government, rather than parents, should choose where children go to school.
The city also needs to create more elite schools at all levels, beyond Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech. Adding more competitive high schools, as well as middle and elementary schools, would not only set a standard for the entire system, but also help retain middle-income families who now leave the city only because theyíre dissatisfied with the public schools and canít afford the private alternative.
No silver bullet can completely fix a system so large, complex and chronically mismanaged. But this reform agenda will take the mayor a long way toward achieving the success that all New Yorkers wish him.
Yet no one should underestimate the ferocity of political opposition from the teachersí union and its allies in Albany--the bilingual-ed and special-ed establishment; the politicians who use school jobs as patronage posts; the politically connected suppliers and consultants with school contracts. All these special interests will fight for the status quo with every means at their command. Itís the mayorís job to fight for the one interest that has no power: the children.
Adapted from the Summer issue of the Manhattan Instituteís City Journal.
©2002 New York Post
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