One Enemy Is Inside the Tent
September 2, 2003
By Sol Stern
NEW York City's 1.1 million schoolchildren are about to enter a brave new world of progressive education dogma and ritual.
In an unprecedented revolution from the top, the old dysfunctional Board of Education and the 32 community school boards have been relegated to the ash heap of history. The Board of Education headquarters building at 110 Livingston St., the most notorious symbol of the ancien regime, has been sold off to the highest bidder.
Almost every school principal and teacher in the system will be receiving daily marching orders through a top-down, authoritarian chain of command originating from the city's new Department of Education, located just a few yards from City Hall.
As one of the supporters of the state legislation that gave Mayor Bloomberg control of the city's schools, I can't honestly complain that this was more than I and other education critics had bargained for.
Recognizing that more radical school reforms such as vouchers and privatization were politically impossible in New York, some of us opted for mayoral control as a second best reform strategy. We knew there were risks. But our assumption was that a strong mayor (hopefully someone cut in the Giuliani mold) would appreciate that he would be held politically accountable for the condition of the schools.
We thought that such a mayor would then have sufficient incentive to take on the system's vested interests and cut through the morass of bureaucratic regulations and union work rules blocking improvement.
Presumably we should be criticized for forgetting about the law of unanticipated consequences. On the other hand, no rational person could have anticipated that Mayor Bloomberg would allow a true believer in progressive education like Deputy Schools Chancellor Diana Lam to dic- tate curriculum and pedagogical approaches for virtually every city classroom.
Certainly not after Bloomberg had explicitly supported a more traditional phonics-based pedagogy in a speech commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday last January. And certainly not after Lam's failure to raise the performance of the Providence, R.I., school system with a total of 56 schools in her previous job.
Whatever the reason for Bloomberg's strange loyalty to Lam, the fact is that she is now in the process of crafting one of the most remarkable progressive-education coups in the history of American K-12 schooling.
In June, each of the city's 80,000 teachers was given a CD-ROM (total cost: more than $1 million) which they were expected to study over the summer. It is a jargon-filled primer on what the city Education Department considers as the only proper approaches to the teaching of literacy and mathematics.
For example, the CD-ROM announces, as if it were an un- disputed pedagogical truth, "Children make contributions to their own learning when they are given ownership and choice."
During the summer recess, almost all of the system's principals and thousands of teachers were coerced or bribed into seminars for some more brainwashing. In these sessions (run by professors at progressive-education bastions such as Columbia University's Teachers College), it was made clear that every single literacy and math class in the city must hew to the same topics and utilize the exact same teaching methods.
It was also stressed that each literacy and mathematics class be the exact same length and be given at the same time in every school in the city.
In the introduction to the CD-ROM, Diana Lam assures teachers that she is interested in encouraging "lively conversations and dialogues with colleagues across the city." In fact, it is now abundantly clear that the last thing Lam's Education Department is interested in is dialogue - with teachers, principals or the public.
Existing literacy programs stressing phonics that were previously working well in low performing schools (such as "Success for All") were dumped by Lam without so much as a hearing. The new preferred curriculum and methodology are being imposed across the board; principals and teachers will raise objections at their professional peril.
The 2,000 literacy and math "coaches" hired for every school by the central administration are in the schools not only to instruct classroom teachers in the proper techniques, but will likely report any dissenters to the authorities - just as the block captains do in Castro's Cuba.
This is progressivism with a totalitarian face. A sincere founder of progressive education like John Dewey must be turning over in his grave.
And it can't work: Decent principals and teachers will become demoralized by the relentless micromanaging from City Hall and will inevitably revolt. The only question is how much damage Diana Lam will be allowed to inflict on our schools and on our kids before Mayor Bloomberg wakes up.
Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author of "Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice."
©2003 New York Post
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