Mayor's System Fails the Test

By Gabe Pressman
|  Friday, Apr 8, 2011  |  Updated 10:13 AM EDT
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Mayor's System Fails the Test

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New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg

Even when his schools chancellor resigns after barely three months in the job, Mayor Bloomberg won’t admit he made a mistake.

It’s his pattern. This is a mayor who has little humility and much hubris. Modesty is not his strongest suit.

Bloomberg went further than he usually does when he said he takes "full responsibility for the fact that this has not worked out," but he still would not say he was wrong.

Bloomberg has now appointed Dennis Walcott, his deputy mayor for education, to run the schools. Walcott, an amiable man who has no outstanding credentials as an executive, might make a good caretaker. He is a man who has shied away from controversy.  He’s not an initiator.

Bloomberg has said often that he wants, ultimately, for his administration to be judged by the progress he makes in improving the city school system.

Under his first schools chancellor, Joel Klein, and Black, the mayor claimed he was having great success. He touted improved testing scores as evidence of the progress wrought by centralizing the school system under City Hall’s control.

But rating students and teachers on the basis of test scores is flawed.

As we have pointed out here, many teachers, in the interest of preserving their jobs and being promoted, have concentrated on teaching to the test -- that is, preparing their students to pass reading and math exams by drilling them on expected questions. Subjects like science, music, languages are not given high priority.   

Mayor Bloomberg is not an educator. He’s a businessman who believes in numbers. That’s why tests that measure performance by numbers have been so important to him. But education involves much more than numbers.

I can remember the teachers who most influenced me as a child. They instilled in me a love of learning for its own sake. We had exams, too, but the essence of a good educational system is how much it inspires youngsters to learn. And the best teachers then -- and now -- are those who inspire their kids.

Under Klein and the brief reign of Black, consulting with parents had a very low priority. They were treated as irritating outsiders in the educational process.

That’s how Leonie Haimson sees it and she wonders whether Walcott will turn that around. Haimson’s organization, Class Size Matters, has tried hard to get education officials to focus on its agenda. But she says there’s been no sympathetic ear to any parents priorities at City Hall.

“A quarter of the schools in the system have waiting lists for kindergarten and the mayor thinks that’s a good thing!” Ms. Haimson says. “And actually, it’s just the opposite. It shows how little he understands the system. It’s a rat race to get your child into a decent school. Class sizes are going up. They aren’t addressing the problems that parents really care about.”
                    
What is most unusual about this political drama today is that Bloomberg did not back up his appointee. In the past, when aides got unfavorable press, he usually defended them.

In this case, just after a Marist poll reported that her approval rating had sunk to 17 percent, the mayor made her walk the plank.

These are tumultuous times for Bloomberg and the school system. In the controversy over the education of our 1.1 million school children, we can only hope that the mayor is learning something.

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