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On Education: A Civics Lesson on Checks, Balances and Rubber Stamps

March 17, 2004 | by MICHAEL WINERIP | New York Times

MONDAY night, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel I. Klein gave the one million schoolchildren of New York City a civics lesson. This three-hour course had no official title, but many possibilities come to mind. "How to Stack a School Board in One Day." "Voter Manipulation for Beginners." Or perhaps, for the more historically inclined, "How Democracy Worked in the Old Soviet Union."

Supposedly, the 13-member board, the Panel for Educational Policy, had gathered at the High School of Art and Design to discuss and vote on the mayor's new plan to hold back third graders if they fail a standardized reading or math test. Politicians love this idea. It means they can say: "No longer will there be social promotion. No longer will children be passed along without mastering the basics!"

Sadly, the research over the last 25 years is clear: it sounds lovely but doesn't work and is very expensive. The last time the city tried mandatory retention, the program was such a disaster - under Mayor Edward I. Koch in the 1980's - it became the model for what not to do. Students held back did no better than similar low-performing students who were promoted. And 40 percent of those retained eventually dropped out, compared to 25 percent of low performers not held back.

Critics of mandatory retention - and most who filled the auditorium Monday were critics - say the money is better used to improve education starting in kindergarten, including reducing class size. (This year, class size has increased citywide in every elementary grade.)

During the meeting, the chancellor repeatedly emphasized how much thought went into the new policy, and mentioned that panel members had been given thick packets to study.

Sadly for the mayor and the chancellor, by Monday morning, after finishing their homework packets, 8 of 13 had decided to vote against the mayor's proposal. This was amazing, considering that under the reorganization giving the mayor control of the schools, he appointed 8 of 13 panel members.

What's a mayor to do when his rubber stamp says, "No"? As long as the name Michael Bloomberg is remembered, children will know the answer to that question. Dump three opposing members and add three yes votes. Which is how the mayor spent his Monday afternoon. The result would make a perfect question for the third-grade math test: "What's the fastest way to turn an 8-5 deficit into an 8-5 victory?"

An important civics lesson when stacking a board: it's best to be unfailingly polite. Mr. Klein had planned to allow an hour of comment, but people were so outraged, he permitted two and a half hours. He even thanked the three panel members who had been forced out. "Each of these people," Mr. Klein said, "has served this panel and this city with distinction."

Distinction, extinction, what's the difference? When it came time to vote, Natalie Gomez-Velez of the Bronx beat the chancellor to the punch, and moved to table the motion. Mr. Klein ignored her, but then his counsel, Chad Vignola, said voting on her motion was the democratic thing to do. (For those keeping track, Mr. Vignola recently resigned for his role in the Diana Lam ethics flap, but is staying on until Mr. Klein finds a replacement; apparently it takes longer to find one new legal counsel than three new education panel members.)

Even with his rebuilt board, the mayor was taking no chances. He had one of his yes votes, David Chang, who was away on business, hooked up on video remote from Japan. However, the hookup was so bad, Mr. Chang appeared to vote the wrong way once. As his image broke up, and formed again, Mr. Klein kept asking, "David, are you there?"

IN the end, as any smart New York third grader now knows, if you take away three no votes, and add three yes votes, you get mandatory retention. However, it was still surprising to see in person. The panel has two student members. Grown-ups think it's cute including students; it makes the adults seem open-minded and the children's votes don't count anyway.

But these two - both casting symbolic votes against the mayor - were furious. "This is hypocrisy," said Christine Cruz, a senior. "It was not something children should see."

It is what they mean when they say children grow up fast in the big city. Afterward, the mayor's yes votes all exited quickly, while the no votes stayed behind to tell reporters that this was more shocking and smellier than a sudden wind shift at the Fresh Kills landfill.

Mr. Klein and Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott did return to answer reporters' questions. They said they were making this tough decision for the benefit of the children. "We now have the whole system focused properly," Mr. Klein said.

Reporters had many civics questions. They wanted to know how long the three new members - a city housing director, a lawyer for the city hospital system and a bridal store owner - had spent studying those packets Mr. Klein was so proud of. "Just today," Mr. Walcott said.

They wanted to know why three panel members who had planned to vote no were forced to resign, when Augusta Souza Kappner - the lone mayoral appointee who actually was permitted to vote no - was allowed to stay. Was it possible, they asked, that even the mayor was too ashamed to fire Dr. Kappner, president of Bank Street College, one of America's premier educational institutions?

Mr. Walcott said Dr. Kappner had made clear she was voting no several days before, while from the other three, "we couldn't get a clear answer."

And if the other three had made their no votes clear sooner, would the mayor have kept them? "I don't deal with conjecture," Mr. Walcott said.

Mr. Walcott emphasized that panel members served at the mayor's pleasure, and the reporters asked where the checks and balances are when you can kick anyone off the panel who disagrees with you.

"The mayor has said when he runs for re-election, that he should be held accountable," Mr. Klein said.

That was the night's final lesson. It may not be as sophisticated as what Madison, Jay and Hamilton constructed in the Federalist Papers, but at least the children now know Mr. Klein's vision of checks and balances. Every four years, come election time, there's a check and a balance, and until then, just say yes, or be gone with you.

E-mail: edmike@nytimes.com

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Parents can refuse to allow their child to take the State high stakes tests. Hand in this letter to your principal [other formats: .pdf .odt .doc]. En Español: [otros formatos: .pdf .odt .doc] Send your child to school and ask that an alternative activity be planned for him/her during the 6 days of testing.

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