Sisyphus at City Hall

Bloomberg is learning that education reform is just not that easy

By Gabe Pressman
|  Wednesday, Jun 15, 2011  |  Updated 7:05 PM EDT
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Sisyphus at City Hall

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Mayor Michael Bloomberg

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Sisyphus was a king in Greek mythology, condemned to roll a huge boulder up a hill -- only to see it roll back slowly. He had to repeat this through eternity.

The ancient Greek monarch could be compared to Mayor Bloomberg in his ceaseless effort to improve New York City’s educational system. The big boulder keeps rolling back. And it doesn’t seem -- the educational authorities and the mayor have learned much from this phenomenon. Could it be that they’re doing something wrong?

It certainly seems so. The latest statistics from the New York State Education Department show that only 37 percent of of the students who entered high school in 2006 left adequately prepared for college. And, among minority students, the percentage was even lower.

The Regents have launched a statewide effort to realign standards with college readiness. Also, the new figures underline what The New York Times calls "a racial achievement gap’’: 13 percent of black students and 15 percent of Hispanic students statewide were deemed college-ready after four years of high school. This contrasts with 61 percent of white graduates and 56 percent of Asian-Americans, according to the Times.

I spoke to Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the Board of Regents. "We need kids to be doing college work," she said. "We must increase standards. Is it unreasonable for parents to expect that their youngsters will be ready for college work? We have to be honest with them and with the kids, too. We need something to tell us where we are and what has to be done. That’s the only way to correct the problem."

Tisch spoke fervently: "We must not write kids off at an early age."

What Tisch and the Board of Regents are saying, in effect, is that we’ve got to change a lot in our approach to education. Our kids have to learn more. They need teachers and a program that will accomplish that.

Mayor Bloomberg and his chancellors have apparently been obsessed with statistics. But that clearly hasn’t worked. The state’s highest educational authority, the Regents, are telling us that. We know now, too, that the heavy emphasis on test scores in our school system leaves a lot to be desired.

Teachers have taught to the test. Parents have virtually been excluded for the last nine years from the educational process.

It’s time for revolutionary change. The need has been recognized at the Board of Regents. City Hall needs to understand this need too.

Our municipal Sisyphus can push his rock up the hill if he recognizes the need for new approaches to the educational crisis. The original Sisyphus was stubborn too and his defiance didn’t do him any good. But Bloomberg still has an opportunity to find better ways to improve the system.

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