We Need a Knapp Commission on Schools

The school system seems to be in the hands of snake oil salesmen

By Gabe Pressman
|  Friday, Oct 1, 2010  |  Updated 5:00 PM EDT
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We Need a Knapp Commission on Schools

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Lamine Cisse, Marjery Pacheco, and Mia McNair sit quietly and wait for their teacher at Harlem Success Academy, a free, public elementary charter school March 30, 2009 in Harlem.

Pity the poor parents of New York’s 1.1 million school children.

The system seems to be in the hands of snake oil salesmen -- telling them that everything is hunky-dory when it isn’t.

A blizzard of statistics has rained down on the citizens of New York -- all purporting to tell them that, as far as education is concerned, things are getting better and better. Now, abruptly, a truer picture is emerging. What looked like incredible improvement has turned into retrogression -- or worse. The word blizzard is apt.

The parents of New York have been getting a snow job from the educrats.

Thus, for the 2009-10 academic year only 25 percent of city elementary and middle schools received A’s---and this was down from 84 percent a year before.

A city official said that going from A to C is “a big wakeup call” -- clearly an understatement! He said parents might not be happy with the news “but I think it’s a fair and accurate picture.”

Really? How can you go from A to C and be trusted with your statistics?

Another aspect of the statistical confusion is that, as the Times reports, charter schools overall received lower grades than traditional schools. This contradicts the charter school proponents, at City Hall and around the country, who tout charter schools as the nirvana of education.  And it surely makes it harder for parents to decide what to do as they look for the best way to educate their children. 

It was just one year ago that the latest statistics showed that 97 percent of New York’s elementary and middle schools earned an A or B on the city’s annual report card. Chancellor Joel Klein hailed the results -- cautiously.  He said he wanted to emphasize that the schools met their “progress targets” but “not by any stretch of the imagination that those schools don’t have a lot of improvement ahead of them.”

The Times noted that those statistics made New York City look like Lake Wobegon, “where all the children are above average.”

Now, it turns out that the statistics were wrong big time.

It makes it easy to understand why Leonie Haimson, a parent advocate, calls the confusing statistics raining down on New York “a travesty.”

Ms. Haimson of Class Size Matters told me:  “You can’t trust any of the data that comes from the Department of Education. There’s not a single statistic that anybody can trust.”

She finds fault with the way the department calculates proficiency. “If parents look to the Department of Education for guidance on what schools are good, they’re lost. They bamboozle the public with figures that are bewildering and untrustworthy.

“And now you have to either believe the education department when they say it’s flawed or believe their earlier version of last year when things were going right. One or the other is wrong. I’m inclined to doubt both. “

And she finds the charter school-public school comparison sad. The charters, Haimson says, are getting a disproportionate share of the city’s money while “children from impoverished homes, homeless youngsters and special needs kids are getting less. And the charters are taking resources and space away from our public schools.”

What we need is an impartial investigation of the school testing and grading system. The Legislature and the incoming governor need to straighten out the mess. An impartial panel, with no vested interest in the current school system, should be appointed. Perhaps it could be led by a retired judge who commands the respect of his peers. Years ago, Judge Whitman Knapp, was a great choice for the commission that investigated police corruption. We need a Knapp Commission for education.

The citizens of New York have a right to see that our educational leaders are held accountable. There’s no time to waste.
 

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