Tuesday, March 23, 2004

The Consequences of Failure

Last week, bypassing the usual political procedures, Mayor Bloomberg ended social promotion for the third grade. His methods and his policy have generated a great deal of heat. (Lots o' links here.)

First, the policy. Is it good to hold back third graders who fail the grade and fail summer school, who are hopelessly behind their peers? Is it good for the kids to hold them back? My cousin Marcus made it to eighth grade before anyone realized that he could barely read; his dad always thought he should have been held back until he mastered the basics. But, on the other hand, kids who are held back don’t necessarily get what they need, face greater social stigma, and are more likely to drop out. I have mixed feelings.

So, I asked a friend from the neighborhood who teaches second grade in a hardcore city school. She said that holding them back doesn’t help and promoting them doesn’t help. By the time they get to third grade, it’s too late. She said that the kids in her school are behind middle class kids even by Kindergarten. Nevermind the ABCs or numbers, these five year olds don’t even know how to hold a book, because they have never done so before. She said these kids need intensive work in mandatory nursery schools.

Her answer makes a great deal of sense to me, though I could see some political benefits from holding the kids back. It could generate pressure on parents and the schools to deal with the problem more seriously at an earlier age.

Second, the politics. The Mayor pushed forward this policy only after replacing three members of the panel that approves his decisions. Parents who came to state their grievances were only given a limited amount of time to speak. Many have complained about Mayor Mike’s autocratic method for putting forward this policy.

Urban schools are run differently from other city government functions like sanitation or probation or road repair, which are directly under the mayor's control. At the turn of the century, public school system were established and organized under a separate governing structure, boards of education. The idea was to insulate schools from the corrupt bosses who ran the cities at that time. (For a well written discussion of the Progressive movement and schools, see Tyack and Cuban's Tinkering Towards Utopia.)

During the sixties, a layer of direct democracy was added to this system with locally elected school boards and citizen review.

After years of bureaucratic growth without political checks and corruption by local school boards, urban schools are a mess. In the 90s, many cities moved to mayoral control. The idea is that here is one guy who will be forced to be accountable; unlike the bureaucrats, he has to be reelected. He can integrate city services better. He can manage the budget better. Sure he might not have any experience with schools, but the president has no miliary experience and we expect him to be commander in chief of the armed forces.

So, where do I stand on the Mayor’s strong armed methods? I think I want to see what happens. I want to see if mayoral control over the schools will make a difference. If it means less direct democracy and more reliance on representative democracy, that’s fine for a while. It’s an experiment this mayoral control, and I want to see how it plays out, so I'm willing to give him extra room to move. It’s not like the old system worked all that well.

If Mayor Mike fails to make progress, come election time, he'll won't be promoted for another term.

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