Friday, February 11, 2011

When Will They Ever Learn?

Crime Down Over the Years

But Ignorance Holds Steady

Twenty years ago, crime was New York City's most serious problem. In the year 1990, the first year of the Dinkins mayoralty, the number of homicides recorded in the five boroughs was 2,245, an historic high. The murder total declined by about 10 percent during the remaining three years of the Dinkins administration, and fell sharply (about 50 per cent) under the eight years that Giuliani was mayor. It fell slightly during Bloomberg's first eight years, although there was a slight rise in year nine (2010). Statistics for other crimes over the past two decades compiled by COMPSTAT show substantial declines, particularly auto theft, which fell from 187,591 in 1990 to 21,870 in 2009.

There is no doubt that people feel much safer in New York City than they did twenty or thirty years ago, and that many neighborhoods previously regarded as dangerous are now considered safe. While total crime, particularly street crime, has been substantially reduced, men still murder their girlfriends or exes despite orders of protection from the courts, and children are still hit by stray bullets. The general public, however, has less fear of family violence than of external assault, because they feel their own relatives are unlikely to injure them. Our public safety comes at a high price; the budget for the Police Department is $4.4 billion.

Crime will always be a problem, with contributing factors like poverty, addiction, abandonment, broken families, unemployment, gang warfare, terrorism and violence resulting from mental illness. New Yorkers, however, have seen massive efforts by law enforcement in the last twenty years which have reduced the fear of crime and the limitations on citizens' daily lives which resulted from their legitimate fears of physical danger. Commissioners Bill Bratton (under Mayor Giuliani) and Ray Kelly (under Mayors Dinkins and Bloomberg) were particularly effective.



The city's success in dealing with crime has not, however, been matched by progress in education. One reason is that crime statistics are relatively reliable. To number murders, you count bodies. Other crime data is based on witnesses' and victims' accounts, precinct reports, and court convictions. In the schools, although there are now frequent tests to evaluate student performance, serious doubts remain about the value of the tests, the method by which they are scored, the alteration of test results, the standards required for passing the test, and the effect of testing and the consequent 'teaching to the test' on other parts of the curriculum. Educational testing is more susceptible to manipulation than counting corpses.

New Yorkers have been subjected over the years to a barrage of misleading information about test outcomes, some, but by no means all, coming from the New York City Department of Education. Recently, city test scores were challenged by the New York State Department of Education, which conducted its own study of test results at the request of the State Board of Regents. In the past, the State Education Department has been complicit in the misinterpretation of test results, because, to put it directly, they wanted as many people as possible to pass.

Years ago, we blamed school administrators for educational failures, and 110 Livingston Street became an address of ill repute. Although some public officials proposed in jest that the building be blown up, it was Mayor Bloomberg who sold it off for private condos and moved the educrats to the old Tweed Courthouse on Chambers Street, a symbol of corruption when it was built (over a century ago), and a symbol of futility as a new wave of bean counters rushed in to turn the old system inside out, and then undo what they had just done.

The mystery to us is how so many intelligent people could have been involved in a massive effort that has produced so little in the way of positive results. How many billions of tax dollars have been spent on new construction, renovation, and substantial salary increases with major pension consequences, but without a major effect on student outcomes?

The bottom line is that the people running the system really do not know what the best strategies are, and it is too late in the administration for them to admit it. It is understandable that the mayor wanted a new Chancellor - the two-term limit makes sense there as well. Bloomberg put his money where his mouth was in providing amply for education over the years. Sadly, money was no panacea.

Today, the teachers have become scapegoats, as they were in Ocean Hill-Brownsville in 1968. We know there are good ones and bad ones, and teachers should be dealt with on the merits as individuals, not as if they were all cut from the same cloth. Teachers should not be fired by arbitrary formulas (LIFO) without regard to their abilities. But unless there is justifiable confidence in the executives who would make the decisions as to who shall go and who shall stay, there is little likelihood that they will be given absolute authority over others. But that is a long way from giving them no authority, and protecting mediocrity and incompetence in the classroom.

Who thought that, over twenty years, crime would prove a far easier problem to deal with than education? But that is the way it has turned out to be.

Perhaps Mayor Bloomberg should appoint Ray Kelly as Schools Chancellor. He has no background in education, but neither does she. He has graduate degrees from St. John's (J.D.), NYU (LL.M.) and Harvard (M.P.A.). Kelly has been one of the mayor's best appointees, he knows what to say and what not to say, how to lead a major organization, and how to get people to do their best. His good example may encourage the children to do better.

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