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The Deadlocked Debate Over Education Reform

Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
By JONATHAN MAHLER
Published: April 9, 2011

Few would argue that she was a good choice. But as you watched the almost giddy reception that greeted the departure of the New York City schools chancellor, Cathleen P. Black, last week — “She wasn’t in the class for the full semester so it wouldn’t beappropriate for me to give her a grade,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers — it was hard not to wonder whether the debate over school reform has reached a point where debate is no longer possible.
As is often the case with morally charged policy issues — remember welfare reform? — false dichotomies seem to have replaced fruitful conversation. If you support theteachers’ union, you don’t care about the students. If you are critical of the teachers’ union, you don’t care about the teachers. If you are in favor of charter schools, you are opposed to public schools. If you believe in increased testing, you are on board with the corruption of our liberal society’s most cherished educational values. If you are against increased testing, you are against accountability.It goes on. Neither side seems capable of listening to the other.
The data can appear as divided as the rhetoric. New York City’s Department of Education will provide you with irrefutable statistics that school reform is working; opponents of reform will provide you with equally irrefutable statistics that it’s not. It can seem equally impossible to disentangle the overlapping factors: Arestruggling schools struggling because they’ve been inundated with students from the failing schools that have closed around them? Are high school graduation rates up because the pressure to raise them has encouraged teachers and principals to pass students who aren’t really ready for college?
In such a polarized environment, spontaneous outbursts of candor can be ill-advised. When President Obama wasasked recently by a high school student in Washington if he could cut back on standardized testing, he expressed sympathy. Critics of education reform pounced, seizing on his comments as evidence that even Mr. Obama, a champion of the reform movement, recognizes that testing has gotten out of control.
Ms. Black, an Upper East Side publishing executive who had never attended a public school, letalone worked in one, might have been destined to fail. But given how entrenched the two sides of this debate have become, it seems fair to wonder whether there can be such a thing as a successful schools chancellor in New York or, for that matter, anywhere. Ask Michelle Rhee, Washington’s crusading former chancellor, who played a decisive role, it is argued, in the failed re-election bid of AdrianFenty, the mayor who had appointed her.
Even Ms. Black’s predecessor, Joel I. Klein, effective as he was at pushing through his changes, was forever alienating teachers and parents, enduring approval ratings that were consistently below 45 percent. Jean-Claude Brizard, one of Mr. Klein’s deputies and now the superintendent of the Rochester schools, is encountering some problems of his own, havingrecently received a vote of no confidence from his city’s teachers.
The nominee to replace Ms. Black, Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott, will at least have the benefit of following a chancellor with a 17 percent approval rating, but the good will that he’s enjoying now may well disappear as soon as he makes his first move. To stand any chance in this climate, a chancellor must ingratiate himselfwith teachers even as he forces them to accept radical changes to their contract, and push testing and accountability even as he assures parents that curriculums won’t be narrowed. In short, imagine a Chimera, the mythological beast that was equal parts lion, snake and goat.
How did we get here? The modern school-reform movement sprang to life in 1983, with the release of “A Nation at Risk,” an...
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