Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A Boy, At School.

Brains Not Enough

To Run an Agency.

Diane Ravitch Writes

On Bogus Grades.

By Henry J. Stern
September 9, 2009


Today is the first day of school for over a million children in New York City.

It is also the anniversary of my first day in kindergarten at P.S. 152, which is on Nagle Avenue in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan. I liked kindergarten. We had two teachers, Mrs. Furman and Miss O’Meara. I met other kids but have no idea today who any of them were. The worst part was walking the six blocks to school during the winter. This was before global warming, and it was very cold (about 8 degrees on many days). Snow piled up for months on the sidewalk. It soon became filthy because of the coal dust and the dogs, but we walked around it. My mother brought me to school the first few days. Then I was on my own, I think. She told me to be very careful crossing the streets. Nobody at school ever got mugged while I was there – we didn’t even know the word. I suppose there were bullies, but I was too small for them to bother with me. Basically, I was OK because I didn’t wear glasses and wasn’t fat.


I also remember the first day of junior high school, high school, college and law school. I do not remember my first day on the job at any of the seven city agencies at which I worked, except for Parks (twice), where I held a staff meeting and told the managers that no one would lose his or her job just because they had worked for the previous commissioner. After I left, Adrian Benepe followed the same policy.

Unfortunately, that rule was not followed in many places, and the city was deprived of some high quality managerial talent. The worst agency in this regard was the Department of Education, where thousands of educators were forced to retire simply because they had been there before the new Chancellor arrived. Some of these people were drones, hacks, parasites or nincompoops. Many others were highly competent men and women who worked hard for the children over the years and could have been helpful to the new leadership.


Beware of people who acquire too much power too quickly, especially in a field in which they are untrained and necessarily ignorant. The problem is intensified if they believe that they are extremely intelligent, possessing both analytic and operational skills. To confirm this notion, they think of their academic credentials and achievements in other areas. Mental gifts involving words, numbers and memory, valuable as they may be in chess, Scrabble, crosswords and acrostics, do not necessarily indicate sound judgment or ability to get along with other people, which are essential tools for effective managers. One summa cum laude graduate of an Ivy League college whom I knew had serious issues involving judgment. Yet he wrote very good memoranda.

The economic debacle the world is now suffering is not the result of aliens, sunspots, natural disasters or global warming. It is the result of many bright people making decisions seeking wealth for themselves and their clients. Overall, their actions destroyed much more wealth than they created. One authority is, Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board from 1987 to 2006, appointed by Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush, formerly regarded, like Warren Buffett, as an economic genius. In 2008 Greenspan said:

“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equities --- myself especially – are in a state of shocked disbelief.”

If you want another example of the incompetence of the authorities, look at the SEC investigations into Bernard Madoff. In 2000, a man named Harvey Markopolos made specific complaints to the SEC about Madoff, but his evidence was ignored. Maybe they should find a leader like the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Joseph P. Kennedy (1888-1969), who was appointed in 1934 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Or one of his early successors, appointed by FDR in 1937 – William O. Douglas, (1898-1980), SEC chair for two years until he was named to the Supreme Court of the United States, where he served 36 years, retiring in 1975 as the longest-serving Justice out of the 111 who have held that office.

The point is that intelligent people can be wrong, and they are often particularly vulnerable to error because of their belief in their own unique abilities. See the book by the wonderful David Halberstam, “The Best and the Brightest” (1972) describing our country’s tragic involvement with Vietnam.

Another cause of disaster is the herd instinct, in which thousands simply do what they see the others doing, whether they believe the others are right or wrong. This creates an intellectual stampede in one direction or another. Watch the lemmings go off the cliff. You might or might not be surprised to know how few legislators exercise independent judgment on any issue. The desire to follow the leader is strong, and the penalty for repeated dissent is often harsh: One is relegated to the bottom of the pack. Very few candidates for public office want to end up as omega dogs, but that is the fate that many will face as they try to climb the greasy pole of politics.


Back to the new school year. We often link to columns we consider particularly worth reading, and there is one in today’s Daily News we want to call to your attention. It is written by Diane Ravitch, whom I believe will some day be recognized as the Jane Jacobs of New York City public education. At the very least, she is our Harvey Markopolos. You can figure out why.

Ms. Ravitch’s column today, on p31, the Op-Ed page of the Daily News, is titled: BOGUS SCHOOL REPORT CARDS THREATEN REAL PROGRESS. This is her lede:

“The latest school grades released by the city’s Education Department are bogus. An astonishing 84% of 1058 elementary and middle schools received an A (compared with 38% last year and 23% in 2007). Another 13% got a B. Only seven schools rated a D or an F.

“Four schools labeled ‘persistently dangerous’ by the state got an A from the city and three of these deeply troubled schools got a B. Three schools that the city wants to close because of low performance got an A. Every school that got an F last year got an A or B this year.

“The problems with the report cards were apparent from the start. When the system was launched in 2007, testing experts warned that it relied too heavily on single-year changes in standardized test scores, which are subject to random error and therefore unreliable. But the Education Department did not listen.

“The report card system makes a mockery of accountability. No one can be held accountable when almost everyone gets an A or B. No one can tell which schools are getting better or worse. Nor do parents get enough information to make good choices.

“This debacle has been caused mainly by the state tests, which have been dumbed down in recent years.”

For the rest of Ms. Ravitch’s column, link here. She tells what went wrong, and makes suggestions for remedies.


Governor Paterson deserves substantial credit for his appointment of Dr. David M. Steiner who was dean of the school of education at Hunter College, as New York State’s Commissioner of Education and president of the University of the State of New York. The choice of Dean Steiner was made in July, in time for the new semester. The decision reflects favorably on the prescience of Hunter president Jennifer Raab, who appointed him dean, and whoever it was who called Dr. Steiner to the governor’s attention. We hope Steiner sticks to his guns and does not let politicians push him around.

StarQuest #593 09.09.2009 1335 wds

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