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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Andrew Wolf On The Two-Headed Monster Black-Polokow-Suransky,

A Chimera Emerges at the Helm of New York Schools;
Two-Headed Monster Is Apt Metaphor for New Arrangement
By ANDREW WOLF, Special to the Sun, November 28, 2010

Whatever one can say about the state education commissioner, David M. Steiner, Solomon he’s not. He split the baby in half, and he has satisfied no one. But skip that analogy. One would have to go to Greek mythology to look for what he has produced — a two-headed monster, part lioness, part goat, which is known as a chimera and has come to connote an unrealistic dream. Which is apt enough, as the gains are going to prove chimerical.

Cathleen Black may have the waiver needed to get the title of schools chancellor, but she got the less important part of the job. Mayor Bloomberg has suffered his worst political embarrassment since the defeat of his bid for non-partisan elections. As for those who believe that the issue here is substance, they got the short end of the stick.

The way to understand this fiasco is to bear in mind that the most important matter facing the schools is the curriculum. That’s the substance. Who gets to control the schools, how much the teachers are paid, what the ratio is between students and teachers, how long the day is, what the test scores are, these are not the top issues. The top issues are the curriculum, and the methods used to convey it to students. This is instruction, a topic that never was the priority at the Tweed Courthouse.

This is an issue where one needs a real educator, a teacher, someone paying attention to what is being taught. Ms. Black is way out of her depth here. She lacks the credentials to so much as teach a class, which puts her below the qualifications possessed by the actor Tony Danza, who taught but a single class (one fifth the usual class load) in a Philadelphia high school for a year as part of a television reality show. Mr. Danza was required to have an actual licensed educator mentor him for the full year.

If Ms. Black’s mandated deputy, Mr. Polokow-Suransky, is supposed to be the chief educator, shouldn’t he be the chancellor, and shouldn’t the technocrat, Ms. Black, get a title like chief operating officer? Mr. Steiner’s plan has this reversed. Certainly one doesn’t want the educational policy emanating from the administrative office. Are we deciding the way we are teaching children to read or do math to conform to some management imperative?

On top of that, Mr. Polokow-Suransky isn’t much of an educator. His current job at the Department of Education, deputy chancellor for performance and accountability, was previously filled not by an educator but a lawyer. In September, Mr. Polakow-Suransky disclosed the nature of his current work with the Department of Education at a meeting with the president of the Bronx, Ruben Diaz, Jr., and the Bronx member of the Board of Regents, Betty A. Rosa.

Attendees at the meeting were concerned by Mr. Steiner’s admission that his predecessors at the state department of education had been inflating the scores of the tests administered to children in grades three through eight. This was bad news for the city, which saw the “historic gains” boasted of during the mayor’s reelection campaign last year evaporate overnight.

Mr. Polokow-Suransky traveled to the Bronx to explain the situation to an angry Mr. Diaz, who was upset that children in his borough were harder hit than others in the city. Mr. Polokow-Suransky off-handedly admitted that the city was aware of the problems with the test results at least a year before last year’s mayoral election, but did nothing to sound the alarm that something was amiss. Ms. Rosa was outraged.

“Imagine if your bank deposited $100,000 in your account in error,” recounted Ms. Rosa to me, paraphrasing her comments to Mr. Polokow-Suransky. “You may have done nothing wrong, unless you turned around and spent the money you knew wasn't yours. That’s what was done in last year’s mayoral election. The scores that the city knew were inflated were used to give an impression of success that was misleading and even fraudulent. And that was wrong.”

As the city played dumb, Ms. Rosa at least demanded last year that the suspicious test results be withheld. That plea, made before Mr. Steiner’s arrival, fell on deaf ears. The New York Times has noted that 57% of voters who made education their top priority voted to re-elect the mayor, who won by just 5 percentage points. Had just 2.5% known the truth and switched sides, the outcome of the election might have been very different.

So Mr. Polokow-Suransky hasn’t been working with curriculum or instructional techniques and strategies, the jobs of the educational professional. He has been spinning the stats, which remain the biggest question confronting the mayor’s claims on education. And now Mr. Steiner has caved in to the mayor. The brief euphoria in serious education circles, when on Tuesday evening it looked like the state education commissioner would deny Ms. Black her waiver, was just a mirage.

The post of chancellor should go to a person with top education credentials, a distinguished figure up to whom everyone in New York — and the rest of the country — can look as having substance. Instead we have a chancellor with no education credentials who will have by her side a person who has been facilitating the cooking of the books using bogus test scores. What is there in the way of educational substance in his resume to make New Yorkers believe that he will be able to stand up to Ms. Black and the Mayor? As I say, a chimera.

Mr. Wolf is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.

1 comment:

El Diablo said...

I wonder where this chimera is heading? There is a machete especially designed for Mr. Black , and she knows how to use it with impunity.