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 Lams 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 Lams 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 Lams 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 citys 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, Lams 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 Lams husband be placed on the payroll ASAP,” the departments official story claimed that Plattes was actually serving as an unpaid volunteer.” Whatever Plattess present status, however, Lams role in trying to get a high position for her husband still merits investigation by one of the citys oversight agencies.
Soon after this incident Lams professional reputation took another hit, when respected education writer James Traub sharply criticized the citys new progressive education curriculum in the New York Times. Traub echoed my earlier conclusion that Lams addiction to discredited whole language” and constructivist” methods for teaching reading and writing was endangering the possibility of school improvement, as well as Mayor Bloombergs 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 Citys fourth graders with those of five other urban districts: Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and Washington. In those tests, the citys 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 citys 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 hadnt yet convinced the state legislature to give him control of the citys 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 administrations signature initiatives was to mandate old fashioned, scripted phonics programs in the citys 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 Lams 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.