Math, Money, Moxie, and Mosques

Aug 13, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

I had planned to take a vacation break in August, but too many juicy issues have come up for me to ignore. I just can't resist commenting on math, money, moxie, and mosques.

On August 2, a New York Times headline read "When 81% Passing Suddenly Becomes 18%." The article was about changes in the evaluation of New York State standardized math tests. All of a sudden, students and schools that were passing with high marks were now failing. At one elementary school in Gravesend, Brooklyn, ten children who had been designated for the gifted program were now no longer gifted. Somehow their gifts had disappeared. Overall the school's reading scores were down twenty percent, which means that it will probably lose it's A rating. Citywide, reading scores were down a whopping 27% and math scores declined even more, by 28%. This is all happening at a time when principals and teachers are being evaluated for tenure, promotion, and bonuses based on student performance on standardized tests.

The biggest losers in the new ratings are the charter schools, the latest and great panacea for fixing all educational problems. At the Harlem Promise Academy, one of New York City's more prestigious charter schools, proficiency on the third grade math tests dropped off the precipice from 100% passing to only 56%. Charter schools had been outperforming traditional public schools in New York City on state tests. But they are now doing equally as bad on the state reading test and only slightly better in math. Statewide, charter school students perform worse than traditional public school students on both tests.

But not to worry too much. A spokesperson for the city's Department of Education said that everyone would be rated on a curve this year, until the curriculum is adjusted to prep kids for the new tests and scoring rubrics.

However mayors and school chancellors need to worry. Maybe they should be evaluated based on student test scores so Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein can squirm a little. And maybe the entire Race to the Top funding which is based on standardized test performance and the promotion of charter schools is one big grade-inflated fraud.

Speaking about Race to the Top, the federal government just announced special educational grants to encourage "Investing in Innovation." Of course, the grants are all about funding favored and well-connected programs and have little to do with changing anything. Big money went to Teach for America, which is committed to turning the teaching profession into a revolving door "experience" for affluent college graduates while they figure out what they really want to do with their lives, and charter schools, which we just saw are not miracles. The third big winner was Success for All, a reading program out of John Hopkins University developed by the edu-entrepreneur Robert Slavin. Unfortunately, in District 19 Brooklyn where the very expensive reading program was piloted in New York City, it provided Success for None, except of course those collecting the checks. I do acknowledge that some of the smaller grants look interesting as pilot projects, increasing instruction time for students in low-performing schools in Louisville, Kentucky, but I don't think any of them will bring broader change without much more significant funding.

Meanwhile, Denver, Colorado schools are racing to the bottom. It seems the district sold its soul to the devil, also known as the JP Morgan Chase bank. In return, JP Morgan Chase gave the financially hard-pressed school district a low-interest adjustable rate "mortgage." Now the rates have gone up, the interest payments have soared, and the bank wants a $81 million termination fee to let the district off the hook. I think the smart move for the school district would be to do what some many homeowners with toxic mortgages have done, it should default on the loan. Let JP Morgan Chase take over and operate the Denver schools. Let's give the capitalists and entrepreneurs the chance to really show what they can do.

In case you don't know what moxie means, in Yiddish we call it chutzpah, which roughly means gall, nerve, cheek, or impudence. It can be a good thing, but it can also represent outrageous behavior. In this case, we are talking about outrageous. The New York State Education Commissioner ruled that New York City broke the law when it bounced autistic children out of a Lower East Side school building and gave the space to a charter school founded by a group of wealthy investors that wanted to add additional grades. The city's law-abiding mayor and School Chancellor announced they would ignore the ruling. They declared an emergency to protect "the preservation of student health, safety or general welfare" and said this override any legal restrictions on their actions. It is not clear whose health, safety, and general welfare is being protected, the charter school students, the autistic children, or the wealthy and politically influential individuals who want to promote the charter school.

On the last issue, I once again find myself agreeing with Michael Bloomberg. A mainstream Islamic group wants to build a mosque in lower Manhattan to promote inter-religious understanding and brotherhood. It has received all the necessary municipal approvals. However, groups claiming to represent the families of people who died in the attack of the World Trade Center want to stop construction because the mosque would be an insult to the deceased. Republican candidates across the country have launched a national campaign to stop the mosque. They are joined in opposition by some Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, that in the past have championed religious liberty. Mayor Bloomberg continues to support construction of the mosque as well within the traditional religious freedom guaranteed by the United States Constitution. On this issue he has my strong support.