Teaching Moment

Photo: Patrick McMullan

Joel klein is quick. Last week, when improvements on scores on a federal math test for public-school students came in strikingly smaller than the results from state tests, the school chancellor whipped out a dozen spiffy multicolor PowerPoint charts and graphs interpreting the numbers in the city’s favor. Klein was correct that New York deserves substantial credit: Since 2003, the percentages of math-proficient fourth and eighth graders are up significantly, no matter who’s doing the testing. Klein also found good news in the demographics. “Whose blacks are on top?” he said. “Our blacks are dramatically outperforming everybody else.”

Klein does sincerely care about education, but his inartful choice of words points to one of the problems with the ongoing overhaul of the public-school system: The obsession with tests too often treats kids as data points. And though it’s good that test scores are moving in the right direction, it remains unclear whether kids are learning more, even as the numbers gain power. Mayor Bloomberg wants to use student performance as a factor in teacher tenure, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is borrowing from the city’s data-driven approach to shape national policy.

All of which makes Beth Fertig’s book well timed. Why Cant U Teach Me 2 Read? attaches names, faces, and unruly lives to the vast, opaque changes roiling the city’s public schools. Fertig, a reporter for WNYC radio, doesn’t pretend that her three main characters represent all 1.1 million kids in grades K through 12. Yamilka, Alejandro, and Antonio all have learning disabilities; they’re all from poor immigrant families; and they’ve all left the school system unable to read. There’s a scary night in which Yamilka pinballs around on the subway for hours because she can’t decode the station names, and a thrilling scene where Alejandro—after receiving tens of thousands of dollars in court-mandated remedial-reading instruction—buys a book for the first time, at 22.

Thousands of other public-school kids of every background also struggle learning to read, and Fertig illuminates the complexities of Bloomberg and Klein’s attempts to upgrade instruction. One unlikely player is Jim Liebman, a Columbia law professor. Motivated in part by his admiration for humanist educational reformer John Dewey, Liebman earnestly joins Bloomberg’s educational revolution and finds himself in charge of designing a computer system called aris that’s supposed to be the ultimate tool in monitoring student progress but is seen as the enemy by many teachers. Talking about one frustrating element of aris—which ideally could steer earlier help to kids like Fertig’s trio, but was still unfinished after three years and $80 million—Liebman says, “It turned out to be a much more complex task than any of us thought.”

Just like many things the city is trying to do. Bloomberg, the I.T. mayor, has had some big successes dragging government into the digital era. But while 311 worked, the 911 revamp is incomplete and overbudget. Tech-based educational reform is somewhere in the middle. There are good macro-level intentions behind the mania for metrics. What Bloomberg and Klein are still trying to figure out is how to apply the numbers to lift actual flesh-and-blood individuals, starting with principals and teachers. If they can get closer to that elusive mix of art and science in the next four years, they’ll deserve an entire brick-and-mortar library’s worth of books devoted to the triumph.

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Teaching Moment