July 22, 2003

Accountability in the NYC school system

Ronald Brownstein writes a Washington Outlook column for the Los Angeles Times. The column of July 21, 2003, Failing Schools Need Courses in Readin', Writin' and Accountability (also here in case the LAT link disappears) made some laudatory references to the performance of NYC schools chancellor Klein in his focus on accountability. I think it useful to provide a counterpoint.

Ronald Brownstein wrote:

Joel I. Klein, the accomplished attorney who was Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's unconventional choice as schools chancellor last year, understands he can effectively educate the 1.1 million students in his care only if he shatters the cozy arrangements that have kept the New York City school system focused more on providing jobs for adults than on opportunities for kids. After 11 months on the job, Klein has the scars to prove his commitment to that cause. [...]

In conversation, it's apparent his greatest challenge is to impose more accountability for results on principals, teachers and the rest of the school system's 150,000 employees. "In public education," he says in a measured understatement befitting his days as a federal prosecutor and an assistant attorney general under Clinton, "the normal merit approach to service is very limited."

It's achingly ironic that Klein's headquarters is now in the 19th-century courthouse built near City Hall by legendary political boss William Tweed. Tweed's power rested on a patronage system that guaranteed jobs for even his most unqualified supporters. Klein presides over a $12-billion system whose work rules and union contracts make it dauntingly difficult for him to fire even the most incompetent. Last year, Klein initially hoped to remove 50 principals in woefully under-performing schools; he was only able to dismiss one. Just 132 of the system's 78,000 teachers last year were removed for inadequate performance.

The article goes on to argue that, besides accountability, also more resources, and specifically federal funds, are required in order to help schools make the grade.

Brownstein is correct to point out that so far there is little to show for chancellor Klein's focus on accountability. Where our new chancellor has made an impact is in the choice of a system-wide mandated curriculum for reading and mathematics, and here the result is entirely negative. In a secretive Children First process a K-5 mathematics curriculum, Everyday Mathematics, was selected that was twice rejected in the California textbook adoptions process. For reading the chancellor and his deputy decided upon "instruction based on classroom libraries" (what may safely be understood as "do as you like whole language") supplemented by a program that has phonics in the name but that was severely criticized by reading researchers; later a further supplement to the supplement was identified. Recently the chancellor also decided to preserve New York City's failed bilingual education program. There will be a relentless focus system-wide on the subjects of reading and mathematics, with no apparent concern for science, history, or the arts. Finally, chancellor Klein's personnel decisions to-date, including his choice of deputy chancellor for teaching and learning and his choice of which of the 32 local district superintendents to promote to one of the 10 newly created regional superintendent positions, give not much hope for his future focus on accountability.

For ongoing commentary on the state of mathematics education in New York City, please visit New York City HOLD.

Posted by Bas Braams at July 22, 2003 01:31 PM