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Autumn 1997
   
My Public School Lesson
Sol Stern
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As I arrived at my younger son's elementary-school graduation last June, I swore that this time it would be without tears. Sure, I'd lost it during the identical ritual for my first son four years earlier. But now I was a more jaded public-school parent. To no avail: I started choking up with emotion as soon as I spotted my ten-year-old, clad in his first-time-ever white shirt and tie, marching into the auditorium with his beaming classmates.

It was a decade since our older child had been lucky enough to get into this same school, P.S. 87—the William T. Sherman Elementary School—on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Then as now, it was one of the city's "hot" public schools, deemed by Parents Magazine one of the country's ten best elementary schools—public or private. Two New York Times profiles puffed it as one of the few public schools white middle-class parents still clamored to get their kids into. It looked like that Holy Grail of urban public education: a school that provided a quality education to a racially and economically mixed student body.

But was it, really? Certainly the graduation ceremony displayed the city's diversity at its energetic best, I thought, looking round at my son's many black and Hispanic friends, some of whose parents had immigrated from Ethiopia, Ghana, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic. The parents of his classmates ranged from high-powered lawyers and well-known writers to custodians, factory workers, even welfare mothers. The eloquent valedictorian was the daughter of two professors—one Indian, the other Jewish—and the niece of the New York Times's executive editor. It all looked like exactly the cosmopolitanism my wife and I had hoped for when we chose P.S. 87. It seemed to be the realization of our long-cherished belief that the public schools, as they had in the past, could forge a common democratic and civic culture out of the nation's diversity.

But after ten years of learning firsthand about our actually existing public school system, I knew as I sat there that the reality was quite different. Even as I was moved to tears by the beautiful ceremony, I pondered the hard lesson P.S. 87 had taught me: even the very best of the city's public schools wasn't good enough—and was at its most inadequate for the poor and minority children who need its help most.

Back in 1987, when my wife and I started searching for an acceptable public elementary school for our firstborn, the four closest to us were hopeless failures. But 13 blocks farther south, P.S. 87 was thriving, even turning away many pupils from outside its catchment area. After our son started school there, we learned that P.S. 87 had itself languished throughout the 1970s, when middle-class parents shunned it. Then a rescuer appeared on the scene: a middle-aged woman given to wearing long, flowing black dresses. Her name was Naomi Hill, and she soon became one of the New York City school system's legends.

At the time she was appointed principal in 1980, P.S. 87's enrollment had dropped from a high of 850 to a skeletal 350. The school was in complete disarray: Hill's predecessor had pitted parents and teachers against each other, and the children were out of control, straggling into the building late and sometimes setting off fire alarms. Music and art instruction had virtually disappeared, as had after-school programs.

Hill claims she had no master plan when she took on her apparently hopeless task. "I never studied this stuff," she told me recently. "I just made it up as I went along." In fact, she could have written the book on turning around a failing city school. And she was living proof of the power of individual leadership in the schools: whenever a school improves, the reason, almost always, is a high-powered principal able to buck the system and inspire effective classroom teaching. Similarly, behind a failed school is almost always an indifferent principal.

Hill sensed that the key to P.S. 87's revival was to lure middle-class parents. "We had to bring the parents back into the school actively, and we had to make alliances with them," she told me. Recruiting at neighborhood fairs and nursery schools, she turned out to be a superb saleswoman. She offered skeptical parents a challenge: take a chance on my school, and you can be partners in its rebuilding.

One mother recalls how Hill successfully made her pitch to a group of parents at a nursery school on the Columbia University campus: "It never would have occurred to me to send my child to a school 30 blocks downtown. But she provided us with a sense of discovery. She convinced us she had a plan to meet the needs of our children. She also promised that our children would get the school's best kindergarten teacher. Eventually eight of us decided to go as a group." Within a few years P.S. 87's enrollment was back up to 700 students, about 50 percent of them white, middle-class kids.

The terms of the alliance with parents were clear. Since parents were welcome to visit classes, to volunteer, to drop in on Hill anytime with problems or suggestions, they soon developed a feeling of ownership. Even Hill's office, furnished with comfortable sofas and overstuffed chairs she'd inherited when her mother died, expressed a warm and friendly embrace.

In turn, the parents proved a powerful instrument to help Hill effect her school's resurgence. By the time my first child arrived in 1987, the Parents' Association was taking in over $100,000 per year (now closer to $200,000) through street fairs, raffles, and auctions. The money was used, among other things, to pay for a full-time music teacher and a part-time art teacher and librarian. New parents flocking into the school brought other important resources. Some were active in West Side Democratic politics or worked for powerful law firms or had jobs in the media.

Hill had a talent for discovering which parents could be useful. Knowing that I worked for the City Council president, for example, she drafted me to get city parking privileges restored for her teachers. After I spent months trying to convince my boss that this was a major city problem, he appealed to the transportation commissioner to remedy this injustice to one of the city's best schools—though in the end, alas, the commissioner didn't owe my boss a favor and wouldn't restore the permits.

Anton Klein, District 3's superintendent during most of Hill's tenure, recalls several occasions when Hill dispatched her assertive parents to lobby him for something the school needed, most often help in finding a dodge to keep an unwanted, burned-out or incompetent teacher from transferring into the school under the union contract's seniority provisions. "Three very imposing-looking women would march into my office," said Klein. "One was a lawyer for the ACLU, one was an opera singer, and one was an influential political activist. They were very persuasive in terms of what they wanted for their school, and they would often get it."

Among the rewards of being a P.S. 87 parent was becoming part of an embracing community. Many parents were veterans of 1960s activism, and the school was a little like revisiting those heady days again. Not only was your child in a happy, nurturing place and receiving what looked like an excellent education, but the integrated school you were helping to build was accomplishing one of the key objectives of the 1960s civil rights movement. "Being a P.S. 87 parent changed my life," recalled Barbara Horowitz, one of Hill's first Parents' Association presidents. "It was an intense personal experience. We worked together to create a real democratic and community school." Memorably, my wife and I joined hundreds of other parents one spring weekend to help build a playground for the school—a kind of urban community barn raising for the benefit of our children.

Yet the school's communalism would have made no difference without our chief executive's gift for finding talented young teachers, particularly in the early grades, and inspiring and energizing them. Hill made clear to prospective teachers that despite the teachers' contract's limitation of the school day to six hours and 20 minutes, in this school many teachers showed up long before the students arrived and stayed long after they left. Bending the rules, she would often hire young teachers with only a B.A. degree and a per-diem substitute teacher's license. She would then protect these gifted beginners until they had accumulated the necessary graduate credits to obtain their licenses. And she had the gritty determination to confront mediocre and incompetent teachers. Though she couldn't fire them, she sometimes was able to embarrass them out of the school.

Deborah Meier, a leading progressive educator, has written that schools should never have more than a few hundred students, so that "every child . . . can be known by name to every faculty member in the school and well known by at least a few." Naomi Hill challenged this by-now-conventional wisdom. She had concluded that to turn P.S. 87 around, she would have to enlarge the school to what reformers like Meier deride as "factory" size. "One of the advantages of recruiting more students," Hill told me, "was that I had more positions for teachers. That meant that I had more teachers whom I personally selected and more teachers who really wanted to be in the school and shared our philosophy."

Had she kept the school at 350 students, she would have been stuck with an unacceptable percentage of incompetent teachers protected by a state education law that guaranteed them tenure in the same building for life. But she could dilute them by piling in students and opening new classrooms. Creating more staff positions also gave her a greater number of "cluster" positions for teachers who are supposed to cover classes when regular teachers are on their preparation periods and who, until this fall, patrolled lunchrooms and schoolyards. Thus she could shunt dysfunctional teachers out of the classroom into cafeteria or yard duty.

Still, for all our principal's genius at skirting union work rules, this remained a New York City public school. Always some unlucky children ended up in classes with teachers so bad that they'd waste an entire year. We never had enough cluster positions to hide such incompetents. And despite our best efforts, some union transfers did succeed in getting into the school. Each time it happened, it was a dispiriting reminder that we had always to be on the defensive against outside bureaucratic attack—that in this school system the interests of incompetent employees came ahead of the children.

In a New York Observer column, P.S. 87 parent James Lardner recently wrote about his shock at finding that one of the school's nastiest "cafeteria operatives" was a veteran licensed teacher drawing a top salary. Dubbing her "Mrs. Lungworthy," Lardner wrote that her "Marine Corps training camp" methods of dealing with small children made her an inappropriate choice even for patrolling the lunchroom. He expressed his outrage to a more experienced parent, who levelly replied: "Do you want her teaching?" New provisions of the teachers' contract took effect this fall, allowing teachers to refuse such "administrative duties," so now P.S. 87 pupils will be facing teachers like "Mrs. Lungworthy" in their classrooms.

When my son entered kindergarten at P.S. 87 in 1987, enrollment had already reached the official building capacity of about 900, and it rose to almost 1,100 by 1993. As the numbers skyrocketed, Hill exploded another clichés, about the system—namely, that the city's "overcrowding crisis" is the main cause of the poor performance of many schools. Sure, it was inconvenient that P.S. 87's lunchroom and yard were crowded and noisy, and sure, small schools have some real advantages. But as Naomi Hill demonstrated, proper management and hardworking teachers can triumph over many material obstacles and preserve the quality of classroom teaching.

P.S. 87 taught me, too, that much of the current public debate about the city's education problem—especially election-year debates about whether this or that candidate is "neglecting public education"—is totally irrelevant to what happens in individual schools and classrooms. Neglect in this case always means cutting central Board of Education budgets. It never means failing to criticize a system that protects incompetent teachers.

After all, as P.S. 87 made clear to me, whether the city's education budget was up or down by half a billion dollars had almost no impact on what happened in my children's classrooms. An annual per-pupil spending cut of $500 would pale in comparison to the scandalous waste and lack of productivity that contractual and bureaucratic arrangements imposed on our school. For example, just the combined salaries of the four or five cluster teachers who could neither be fired nor trusted in front of a classroom would have made up for most of the cuts in our school's budget. And think of the productivity-crushing effect of the teachers' union contract requirement that virtually all staff development must take place during the prescribed six-hour-and-20-minute school day. On the eight to ten days each year when staff development sessions occurred, the children were sent home at 11:30 am.

It was impossible to miss how little value the inefficient and sometimes destructive non-pedagogical staff—the custodians, cafeteria workers, and security guards—provided our school at huge cost, thanks to the sweetheart contracts their unions were able to extract from the city. One example: our schoolyard was often unusable for days after a winter storm—because the contract didn't require our highly-paid custodian and his helpers to clear the snow and ice.

Had P.S. 87 been operated as a rational enterprise dedicated to the interests of the children, we might have been able to relieve the overcrowding in the lunchroom—while enhancing the children's diet—by contracting with an outside vendor for food services. We could have saved money and made sure the yard was always usable by privatizing custodial services. We could have eliminated the security guard's job because we had no security problem in the school that the existing staff or parent volunteers couldn't handle. Despite her creativity in skirting some union contract rules, our CEO had neither the autonomy nor authority to make crucial management decisions that would have improved P.S. 87's performance dramatically.

Sooner or later, most P.S. 87 parents figured out how deeply the system's bureaucratic and political imperatives were harming our school. Yet they had a harder time understanding how the school's underlying educational philosophy was harming their children and, even more damagingly,  was crippling the children of the poor. The mindset that found P.S. 87's communalism so congenial was the mindset least likely to see through the egalitarian-sounding shibboleths of progressive education that infused the school's entire program.

It took me a long time to see this, too. Like most P.S. 87 parents, I started out unfamiliar with pedagogical and curriculum issues. Naomi Hill had a reputation as a "progressive" educator, but this was de rigueur on the West Side. And it seemed to work: when my wife and I visited the school during the first few years, the atmosphere in my son's "open" classrooms, where children worked together in constantly-shifting groups of three or four sitting around a table, seemed both nurturing and productive.

I first got uneasy when I learned that P.S. 87 was using a new teaching method called the "writing process," based on the assumption that all children were "natural writers." The old-style concern about sentence drill, grammar, and spelling squashed natural childhood talents, we were told, while the new method let children's creativity flow by ignoring those stifling rules and letting kids write down in journals whatever came to their minds. They would then revise these entries, with but a smidgen of guidance from the teacher.

Few academic skills are as important for children's future success as the ability to write and communicate. Yet as a corollary of the "writing process," P.S. 87 didn't seem to hold teachers accountable for making sure students attained some objectively measured level of writing competence. Indeed, the parents of children who were less "natural" writers than others, who still couldn't compose a correct sentence by third or fourth grade, were still hearing assurances that all children develop at their own pace and that there really is no single "correct" way to write. Not to worry.

The "writing process" is a product of Columbia University's Teachers College, which, along with the nearby Bank Street College of Education, trained many of P.S. 87's younger teachers. These citadels of progressive education taught them that teachers should "teach the child, not the text," that children, as "natural learners," can "construct their own knowledge." Teachers must not "tell" children "mere facts" but should help them "discover" useful knowledge on their own. While congenial to teachers who don't enjoy drilling grammar, spelling, or penmanship anyway, this view is deadly for the children who ended up graduating without competency in these essential tools of language.

It was only after my older son's first three years that I began to suspect how readily this doctrine of "child-centered" education could lead to adult abdication, especially in math. With its many hardworking teachers and bright students, P.S. 87 should have been thriving in this area. But as many parents reluctantly concluded, math instruction at P.S. 87 was a wasteland.

Teachers automatically met parental anxiety with the bromide that the children were learning mathematical concepts by solving real-life problems and thus were not only learning math but also were "learning how to learn." Experts had proved, the teachers assured us, that natural, hands-on learning was more effective than "force feeding" children with repetitive operational drills.

In the earliest grades, when children learned some of the rudimentary concepts of numeration by manipulating rods and blocks, all this sounded reasonable. But by the time my son reached the third grade, the school wasn't doing much of a job of drawing forth his "natural" math abilities. His highly respected and very hardworking teacher devoted months of class time to an across-the-curriculum project on Japan, which included—to the delight of the kids—the building of a Japanese garden. Every day when my son came home, we'd ask him what he did in math. Every day he cheerfully answered: "We measured the garden." In answer to my wife's concern, the teacher assured us that building the garden required "real-life" math skills. Maybe—but my son's conscientious fourth-grade teacher later chafed over having to keep reviewing the multiplication tables that the children were supposed to have mastered in third grade.

I soon started complaining to anyone in the school who would listen that, while it was nice that our children were building Japanese gardens, Japanese kids were leaving our kids in the dust in real math. Finally my wife and I realized that we had to find a private solution for what we now recognized as a serious institutional blind spot. Since we were frequent visitors to Israel, we began using its excellent math workbooks, based on its uniform national curriculum, to teach our son ourselves. Needless to say, the very idea of a coherent, graded math workbook would be anathema at P.S. 87.

Just as our family began our modified version of home schooling, Naomi Hill threw the P.S. 87 community into a state of shock: she announced that she was leaving to become principal of an elementary school in New Jersey. Such was the acclaim that P.S. 87 had achieved under her tenure that her departure merited two articles in the New York Times.

The school's parent-teacher search committee and the Parents' Association lobbied hard to make sure that the district superintendent picked Hill's assistant principal, Jane Hand, as her successor—the idea being that, having been Hill's acolyte for several years, Hand would maintain the traditions and methods that made the school so successful. She became principal in 1992. Three years later she dropped a bombshell of her own when she announced that she was leaving to take a principal's position in Westchester. The various committees went through another official search process and elevated Hand's assistant principal, Steven Plaut—once again in the name of continuity.

Hill's departure marked a significant turning point for the school. Veteran parents missed her charisma, her driving energy, the confidence they had that she knew what was happening in every classroom and was pushing every teacher to do her best. Once she left, parents began grumbling that the school was losing its intimate, communitarian feeling. Jane Hand provided a more bureaucratic, less personal style of leadership. She was also less likely than Hill to confront an inadequate teacher and more willing to get along with the teachers' union. Under Hand and Plaut, teachers seemed to have almost unlimited autonomy in their classrooms, even to setting the curriculum. Some teachers gave tests, but most didn't; some assigned a lot of homework, and some assigned almost none.

After every revolution, of course, comes the inevitable bureaucratization and loss of élan. Still, both Hand and Plaut were competent managers who weren't about to allow the school to deteriorate. Prospective parents who went on the school tours came away as impressed as ever with the lively classrooms, the hallways bedecked with the children's work, and the tone of civility and cooperation.

Naomi Hill left the school at the end of my older son's third-grade year—the year of the Japanese garden. Up to that point, when West Side parents with preschool children asked me about the public-school option, I would answer unequivocally that at P.S. 87 they could save $12,000 a year ($17,000 today) and get a very good education for their children. After Naomi Hill's departure, I amended my answer: "P.S. 87 is fine for the first three grades, but after that you'd better be prepared to supplement it with some home schooling." And even as I began to bemoan the lack of academic rigor in the upper grades, the drumbeat of progressive-education clichés coming from the principal's office seemed to get louder and louder.

I had started out wanting to believe that innocuous-sounding catchphrases like "learning to learn" and "child centered" merely meant that high academic standards were compatible with nurturing, creative classrooms for young children. But all too often in my own children's classrooms, I was beginning to understand that they really meant that teachers never would be held accountable for teaching any concrete body of knowledge. Without yet knowing it, I had become a traditionalist in education.

As my older son started fifth grade (his senior year at our K-5 school), I joined a group of parents from other schools who wanted to start a new alternative junior high school for bright kids. When Jane Hand learned of my involvement in this effort she told me it was "elitist," and came near to accusing me of betraying P.S. 87's "progressive philosophy."

Hand insisted that all students could learn perfectly well in P.S. 87's heterogeneous classes—or any school's. Indeed, in her articles in the newsletter she frequently cited an academically respectable source for this idea—a University of Connecticut education professor named Joseph Renzuli, who theorized that bright students in mixed classrooms could be pulled out for accelerated work in a kind of special education system for the gifted. Even so, Hand never implemented this fine-sounding theory.

One reason was that our new principals wanted to redefine the very idea of giftedness. Hand wrote that P.S. 87 was "a school that believes that all children are gifted, talented, curious, capable, and accomplished." Fatuous as this sounds, parents were told it had the backing of yet another famous progressive educator, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, who had roiled the field of cognitive psychology with his provocative theory of "multiple intelligences." His notion that every child is gifted in at least one of seven different intelligences, including the non-academic "bodily-kinesthetic" intelligence of dancers and athletes, was a godsend for progressive-education dogma. It meant that no matter how poorly some children might perform on objective tests, each had his own learning style and "giftedness," worthy of respect. As current principal Plaut wrote in the school newsletter, "Gardner would greatly approve of the way we group children for cooperative learning, treat each child as gifted, and allow each child to develop his or her own particular talents."

But even Gardner expressed caution about "some of the characteristic weaknesses of the progressive-education movement," warning that "when [a] laissez-faire approach is carried too far, as it sometimes has been among progressive educators, one may be left with a large population at sea." Particularly after Naomi Hill's departure, P.S. 87 seemed increasingly adrift in this way, with no common curriculum or essential texts that each student was expected to master. After all, if every child was gifted in his or her own way, such uniformity made no sense. So while my older son's fourth-grade class studied the exploration of America by actually reading books and writing serious book reports, other fourth-grade classes (including my younger son's) meandered incoherently from one subject to another, requiring no texts, no book reports, but only hands-on projects. Under the mantra of "learning to learn," of course, it made no difference what subject matter was covered, as long as all our "naturally gifted" children developed their "critical thinking" skills.

I was often struck by how little my children's very bright classmates knew about such foundational subjects of our common civic culture as the Revolution, the framing of the Constitution, the Civil War. Sometimes as a prank I would ask my children's friends whether they knew who William Tecumseh Sherman, for whom their school was named, was. Of course, not one did, because they had never learned about the Civil War. When I once told Steve Plaut about my informal survey, he shrugged it off. "It's important to learn about the Civil War," he said, predictably adding, "but it's more important to learn how to learn about the Civil War. The state of knowledge is constantly changing, so we have to give children the tools to be able to research things, to think critically, to use a library."

But the idea that there are no facts about ourselves as a people that our children must learn had an important exception. As I was to discover, all children at P.S. 87 were expected to master the eternal truths and core knowledge determined by the currently fashionable doctrines of political correctness. Thus, while P.S. 87 children weren't expected to know anything about the dead white male their school was named after—the man who had helped turn the tide in a war our nation waged to free blacks from slavery—they learned everything there was to know about numerous African-American heroes, about the suffering and extermination of the Native Americans, and, increasingly, about women's rights and homosexual rights. To my knowledge, no progressive educator has ever suggested that children don't need to know the "mere facts" about the contributions of African-Americans to American society. If our school had been named after Harriet Tubman, our children surely would have been able to identify her.

When a task force appointed by the New York State Regents charged that the state's social studies curriculum was too Eurocentric and insensitive to the contributions of African-Americans, I found myself commenting that anyone who believed that just didn't know what was being taught in the public schools. I cited my third-grader as an example, saying that he knew everything there was to know about Martin Luther King but that he probably didn't know much about George Washington. Finally, I tested my theory and asked him whether he had ever been taught about George Washington. He looked at me in all innocence and asked: "George Washington Carver?"

Despite the fact that P.S. 87 was already a living example of multiculturalism, that many of its children had developed cross-racial friendships, that there were never any racial incidents in the school, many teachers nonetheless encouraged the children to think constantly about racial categories, about victimization, and about incipient racism. My younger son's fourth-grade teacher directed her pupils to walk around the neighborhood for a week and to record in their notebooks examples of prejudice that they witnessed. My son came home grumpy with frustration: he was having a hard time finding prejudice on the streets of the Upper West Side. No P.S. 87 teacher ever told my children that the country they lived in was doing better than ever in race relations, and far better than most other countries.

The same fourth-grade teacher handed out newspaper clippings about the Hawaii Supreme Court's decision to legalize same-sex marriages. She asked the children to write essays about what they thought of this decision and held a class discussion about homosexual marriage. When my wife objected that this might be inappropriate for nine-year-old children, the teacher responded that she didn't see why, since "this wasn't about sex."

At the beginning of my younger son's last year, P.S. 87 introduced something called "Peace Education and Global Studies." Its once-a-week sessions would make sure that fourth- and fifth-graders had the proper perspective on issues such as racial prejudice, homosexual rights, world peace, and environmentalism. Not content with mere academic instruction in these areas, the teacher who developed the program also wrote a letter about it to the parents. "I will infuse the idea of activism throughout this curriculum and explore ways for individuals to get involved and make a difference," he promised.

If there was one issue about which most P.S. 87 parents did want their school to make a difference, it was racial integration and equity. After all, ours was the school that prided itself on maintaining its racial balance and its mixed classes. Its most deeply held credo was that all children, no matter what their family background, would receive the same quality education.

Yet the saddest discovery I made at P.S. 87 was that its progressive pedagogy was undermining those historic objectives of the civil rights movement. The biggest victims of the "don't worry, we are teaching your children how to learn" approach were poor minority children, who desperately needed the basic skills and core knowledge that would allow them to compete in the real world.

Middle-class parents had choices, after all. When my children's teachers left them with intellectual gaps by wasting time trying to uproot nonexistent prejudice, my wife and I filled in with home schooling, as did many other middle-class parents. And despite the "all children learn at their own pace" ideology, I noticed that many of the middle-class parents tried to get their children in the classes taught by teachers known to force the pace. Some of our friends just gave up and, notwithstanding their theoretical support for public education, transferred their children to private schools.

But what choices were available to the children from more disadvantaged homes?

Years earlier my wife had volunteered in my older son's third-grade classroom. During the class reading periods, she was assigned to work with the slowest reading group and was astonished to find that all the children in it were black and Hispanic. It made no sense to her that a school like P.S. 87 should have such a racial gap in achievement. She became convinced that the single most important factor in those students' low performance in reading and writing was that they had never been taught—at school or at home—the basics of the English language. These were bright enough kids, but they had sadly impoverished language skills. They were missing what education writer E. D. Hirsch calls "cultural literacy" or "core knowledge."

In his new book, The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them, Hirsch demonstrates that the most devastating consequence of progressive-education doctrines is that they have widened, rather than reduced, the gap in intellectual capital between middle-class and disadvantaged children. "Learning builds cumulatively on learning," Hirsch writes. "By encouraging an early education that is free of `unnatural' bookish knowledge and of `inappropriate' pressure to exert hard effort, [progressive education] virtually ensures that children from well-educated homes who happen to be primed with academically relevant background knowledge which they bring with them to school, will learn faster than disadvantaged children who do not bring such knowledge with them and do not receive it at school."

Hirsch also shows how what he describes as the "thoughtworld" of progressive-education guarantees that no educator ever has to face the music for this failure to raise the academic level of disadvantaged students. Education schools like Teachers College create an "impregnable fortress" of ideas and doctrines, which they, along with an "interlocking directorate" that also encompasses the teacher-credentialing industry, transmit to prospective teachers. "Like any guild that determines who can and cannot enter a profession," Hirsch writes, "the citadel of education has developed powerful techniques for preventing outside interference, not least of which is mastery of slogan."

As I read these words last year, I had the eerie feeling that, without ever having stepped into our building, Hirsch was vividly describing P.S. 87's dominant school culture. Our principals and many of our teachers continuously invoked the same self-serving slogans to avoid any objective analysis of whether the school was really accomplishing its goals of helping all its students succeed. They constantly reassured parents that "all children were gifted." If some of these "gifted" children nevertheless did poorly on standardized tests, the explanation was that standardized tests couldn't really measure what was truly important—namely, "critical thinking" skills, far more important than any body of knowledge. And thus, few parents ever dared ask whether P.S. 87 was really successful in narrowing the gap in intellectual capital between poor and middle-class children.

Last spring, however, at least some parents were disturbed when the State Education Department released results of the school's reading tests. A mere 53 percent of our third-graders read at grade level, not itself a very high standard. I suspected that the children who performed poorly on the reading test were disproportionately minority, confirming what my wife had observed six years earlier. Though the school could easily have broken down the scores by race and family background—which might have occasioned some worthwhile self-scrutiny and reevaluation of teaching methods—it did no such thing.

But at a Parents' Association meeting shortly after the test scores were released, our principal reassured parents that there was no cause for worry, because the test was only "a snapshot in time." What really mattered was whether the children went on to become "lifelong learners"—which he was confident they would be.

One day last spring my younger son brought home his fifth-grade homework packet for the rest of the week. Clearly, this was going to be Christopher Columbus-bashing week. The social studies homework consisted of a few photocopied texts. One took the traditional view that Columbus was a great explorer who opened up the New World; all the others expressed the revisionist critique of Columbus as a mean-spirited treasure hunter who brought pestilence and death to the innocent native population.

The math homework then took up the theme, in the grand P.S. 87 tradition that all learning should be cross-disciplinary and that the study of math should be relevant to real-life situations. The assignment for the entire week read as follows: "Historians estimate that when Columbus landed on what is now the island of Hati [sic] there were 250,000 people living there. In two years this number had dropped to 125,000. What fraction of the people who had been living in Hati when Columbus arrived remained? Why do you think the Arawaks died?

"In 1515 there were only 50,000 Arawaks left alive. In 1550 there were 500. If the same number of people died each year, approximately how many people would have died each year? In 1550 what percentage of the original population was left alive? How do you feel about this?"

We sent the teacher a note saying that our son wouldn't be doing the math homework that week. As politely as we could, we explained why we thought the assignment was foolish. Not surprisingly, we got no response.

Nor did it matter much anymore. Our son was about to graduate, and we had long since dealt with this unbridgeable divide by accelerating his home schooling. During his fourth and fifth grades, we kept him home between 20 and 30 days a year—including all the half-days set aside for "staff development," when virtually nothing was accomplished in school anyway. In math alone he was able to move further ahead during each two- to three-hour home-study session than in weeks in his regular classroom.

Our home-schooling project had made P.S. 87 work well enough for our children. They benefited from the school's diversity, and both had several excellent teachers, guided more by common sense than by the catchphrases of progressivism. And P.S. 87 remained a decent, civil place, free from the violence and rancor that mar so many public schools.

Even so, I could no longer say, as I did ten years ago, that I was an unqualified supporter of the public school system. I saw that it had put the interests of its worst adult employees ahead of the interests of children, and this was indefensible. Nor could I argue with a straight face that we must defend our public schools on the grounds that they are the only institution capable of inculcating in our children a common civic and democratic culture. At P.S. 87 I had seen a retreat from the very idea of teaching the historic and foundational principles of the republic.

Addressing the P.S. 87 graduates last June, Principal Plaut said he was confident that all of them had "learned how to learn" and would continue to be "critical thinkers" for the rest of their lives. It was the same mantra I had heard over and over for the past ten years. This last time, I shook my head sadly.

The idea that schools can starve children of factual knowledge and basic skills, yet somehow teach them to be "critical thinkers," defies common sense. As E. D. Hirsch has written, the consensus among cognitive psychologists is that adults with high-order thinking skills are, "without exception, well-informed people." So while it may be true that many of P.S. 87's graduates will be both successful and "lifelong learners," many other children without adequate family supports, who had to make do only with what they received at school, will continue to lag behind. These were the children who had been promised the most by the public schools, yet who were getting the least. As author Shelby Steele has ruefully noted, "Every single progressive-education fad of the past thirty years has hurt poor black children."

This was not the P.S. 87 dream.

 

 

 
I sent my sons to New York City’s top public elementary school—and learned why the very best the school system can do just isn’t good enough, especially for minority kids.
City Journal Autumn 1997.
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Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice
by Sol Stern
Breaking Free.


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