Thursday, January 16, 2003
Bloomie is making more and more fierce noises about dealing with the catastrophe that is NYC public education. Here is the New York Sun's take on his proposals. I'm less worried than they about too much standardization, but equally worried about the lack of competition. It isn't either/or, it's both/and. Every great organization succeeds in part through standardization, and schools are no different. But you need competition because (a) one standard doesn't fit all; (b) that's the only way to keep standards up. McDonalds and Burger King are both highly standardized and have high standards. They wouldn't succeed without them. But without competition, even if they were standardized, the standards would be consistently low.
Anyway, we'll see if tough talk is matched by tough action - and real savings. There's a whole lot of fat in schools administration. And the city is going on a diet. If Mayor Mike can get results by taking on the principals, the custodians, the administrators, and so on, he'll be in a much better position to deal with the UFT in the final round.
Meanwhile, three other points:
(1) Ending bi-lingual ed and reforming special education are absolutely critical to making meaningful progress in improving school performance. They are also absolutely essential to realizing cost savings. But both areas are substantially out of city control and under the control of the courts. Here is an excellent recent book about how the courts have managed to destroy public policy in areas like public education. If the GOP is serious about having an urban agenda, fighting "democracy by decree" has got to be high on the list of priorities. And this has to be handled on the Federal level, because it's Federal courts that are in the way.
(2) Relentless focus on lousy schools means ignoring the problems that can develop at - and destroy - even excellent schools. Check out this article from the NY Times about how a lousy principal at Brooklyn Tech, one of the city's selective high schools (meaning you need to take a test to get in) is ravaging that school. Something similar may be happening at the Bronx HS of Science, an even brighter jewel in the city's crown. The Sun meanwhile, ran an article a few weeks ago (I can't find it on line) about a top-performing chess team at a school with an "underprivileged" student population that is being destroyed, along with the school, because, while performance is improving and is better than comparable schools, it is still below the city average. That's the problem with Klein's current metric: if you grade schools against each other only on student scores, you wind up rewarding lousy schools with good kids (and good parents) and punishing schools that may be doing everything right with a difficult population. Of course, with robust competition, you wouldn't have to guess which schools were doing well; they'd be the ones gaining students.
(3) We want to open up the schools to new blood and get rid of lousy teachers (and especially lousy principals). That much is clear. But we don't want to burn out a bunch of idealistic but unprepared kids in their first year up against the reality of inner-city public schools. The current system is a maelstrom that rewards cynics and cowards more than anyone. And this is what happens when you throw in an idealistic young thing with no practical preparation for the reality of the system. Heartbreaking, really.