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New York Ponders How to Spend $700 Million in Federal Money for Schools

By Gabe Pressman
|  Wednesday, Sep 15, 2010  |  Updated 1:38 PM EDT
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New York Ponders How to Spend $700 Million in Federal Money for Schools

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BERLIN - SEPTEMBER 18: A teacher tends to fourth-grade children in a classroom in the elementary school at the John F. Kennedy Schule dual-language public school on September 18, 2008 in Berlin, Germany. The German government will host a summit on education in Germany scheduled for mid-October in Dresden. Germany has consistantly fallen behind in recent years in comparison to other European countries in the Pisa education surveys, and Education Minister Annette Schavan is pushing for an 8 percent increase in the national educaiton budget for 2009. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

New York has just won nearly $700 million for school --  from the federal "Race to the Top" funds.

But before we break out the champagne and celebrate, let’s consider some of the questions raised by this generous gift from Washington.

It is by no means certain how the money will be spent. Mayor Bloomberg and education officials prodded the State Legislature to make certain education policy changes to qualify for the funds. Among the tweaks: increasing the number of charter schools and evaluation  of teachers based on standardized test scores.

As we have reported, the validity of test scores has been challenged in recent months. There are allegations, not disproved, that some teachers simply teach to the tests, that many children are being trained to pass tests but that basic education is lacking. And there is a big discrepancy between state test numbers and standard federal test scores.

New York’s  scores had been inflated for years and, this year, finally, state officials said it was time to correct the false numbers. In 2009, 77 percent of students met or surpassed standards in English and 86 percent in math. Now, after Albany’s drastic action,  we’re down to 53 percent passing in English and 61percent in math. How this disturbing situation was allowed to develop has yet to be explained -- but the important thing now is to establish a reliable and honest system for  creating and scoring tests.

There is also heated debate over the effectiveness of charter schools: Proponents tout wonderful results. Detractors fervently insist that public schools are just as good.

Meanwhile, a just released poll shows that President Obama’s educational program is losing support among Americans. The survey, by Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa International, finds that just 34 % would give Obama an A or B on his education policies, compared with 45% last year.

Diane Ravitch, educational scholar and historian, told me: “If you don’t have trust in the scoring system, how can you correct the things that are wrong? If your thermometer is broken, how do you treat the patient?”

Ms. Ravitch is skeptical of the competitive idea behind “race to the top.”

It seems to me that she’s right -- education of a youngster can’t be measured like fluctuations in the stock market. Basically, education involves the exchange of ideas between students and teachers. Our kids aren’t robots and our teachers need to be encouraged to treat youngsters with humanity and kindness.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, an admirer of New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, says: “What New York is doing is telling the truth. What has been happening all over is that states were dumbing down the standards.”

Let’s hope he’s right and that whoever did the dumbing down here has repented and is now trying to raise us up. We should approach the future with hope -- but healthy skepticism.

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