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Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice
by Sol Stern
Breaking Free.
 
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Sol Stern
Mayor Bloomberg’s Diana Lam Problem
Bad enough that the deputy schools’ chancellor embraces discredited pedagogical approaches. Now ethical questions surround her too.
21 August 2003

Deputy schools’ chancellor Diana Lam makes more money than Michael Bloomberg would get if the billionaire mayor took a paycheck from the city. And what are New Yorkers getting in return for Lam’s unprecedented $250,000 salary? A progressive education program with no track record of working for disadvantaged children that she has imposed on 1,000 city schools.

In April, I argued that Lam’s questionable curriculum choices portended eventual trouble for a mayor who has staked his political reputation on improving the performance of the schools. (“Bloomberg and Klein Rush In,” Spring 2003.) Recent events suggest that Bloomberg is likely to suffer more immediate embarrassment for sticking with Lam, for she has given more than one appearance of being ethically challenged.

Earlier this year, the Department of Education appointed Lam’s husband Peter Plattes, a former high school teacher, as a $100,000-per-year Regional Instructional Supervisor in the Bronx. However, Plattes could not go on the payroll until he received state certification as a school administrator. By the time the city’s request for state certification came through at the end of July, reporters for the New York Sun had become aware of the appointment and were asking for explanations. As the official responsible for approving all high-level pedagogical appointments in the Department of Education, Lam’s fingerprints were all over this personnel decision, reeking of conflict of interest, since Plattes was to report to regional superintendent Laura Rodriguez, who in turn reports directly to Lam.

City hall then had to step in to perform damage control. Though some reporters had seen a leaked Department of Education memo directing that Lam’s husband be placed on the payroll “ASAP,” the department’s official story claimed that Plattes was actually serving as an unpaid “volunteer.” Whatever Plattes’s present status, however, Lam’s role in trying to get a high position for her husband still merits investigation by one of the city’s oversight agencies.

Soon after this incident Lam’s professional reputation took another hit, when respected education writer James Traub sharply criticized the city’s new progressive education curriculum in the New York Times. Traub echoed my earlier conclusion that Lam’s addiction to discredited “whole language” and “constructivist” methods for teaching reading and writing was endangering the possibility of school improvement, as well as Mayor Bloomberg’s hopes of getting political credit for any improvement.

Lam responded to these criticisms in a manner that raised new questions about her competence and integrity. In a Daily News op-ed, Lam trumpeted the results of a recent U.S. Department of Education study comparing the reading and writing scores of New York City’s fourth graders with those of five other urban districts: Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and Washington. In those tests, the city’s fourth graders ranked at the top of the six participating districts in writing and a close second to Houston in reading. According to Lam, “the results of this assessment show our pedagogical approach is sound.”

Unfortunately, Lam neglected to inform her readers that the tests represented a random selection of the city’s fourth graders from January through March 2002. At that time, Lam was running the Providence, Rhode Island school system, Joel Klein was an executive with the Bertelsman publishing company, and newly elected Mayor Bloomberg hadn’t yet convinced the state legislature to give him control of the city’s schools.

The person running our schools when the children took the tests: Harold Levy. Lest anyone forget, Levy was no fan of the progressive-ed approach now favored by Diana Lam and her acolytes. In fact, one of the Levy administration’s signature initiatives was to mandate old fashioned, scripted phonics programs in the city’s lowest performing schools. Thus, if we were to ascribe the results of those fourth grade tests to a particular pedagogical approach, it would be to the phonics programs used by Levy and discarded by Diana Lam.

I leave it to others to decide whether Lam’s misrepresentations about those fourth-grade tests result from a blunder or from something worse. In either case, Mayor Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein now have a credibility problem on their hands.

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More by Sol Stern:
The Real Common Core Story
Who Is Carmen Fariña?
The Redemption of E. D. Hirsch
More . . .
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