5th Avenue Percussions

Peter Wood

Sunday, unseasonably warm and beautiful for late fall, I wandered coatless across Central Park to a meeting of the New York affiliate of the National Association of Scholars. Sol Stern was speaking on school reform—on his dashed hopes for the good that he once thought would come from No Child Left Behind and by the early promise of Mayor Bloomberg’s push for higher standards. I knew Stern’s work from having reviewed his 2004 book on school reform Breaking Free and was eager to hear him: a former leftist, once an editor of the radical Ramparts magazine, who turned conservative largely as a result of his encounter with the union-dominated New York City public schools. 

The event was at the apartment of a couple of longtime NAS friends who live on Fifth Avenue near the Metropolitan Museum. Even non-New Yorkers will recognize that as an extraordinary address, and a New York apartment that can comfortably make room for fifty or so seated guests testifies to something similar.

But as my wife and I arrived at their building, we encountered a police cordon, bicycle-rack style barricades, and Guy Fawkes. The Occupy Wall Street Army, displaced from Zuccotti Park by order of the mayor, had decided to march on Bloomberg’s residence, a few doors down the block from our hosts (the New York Times covers the protest here). The police were keeping the protesters at a distance, but when we mentioned our destination, we were whisked through.

Bloomberg wasn’t home that day but the Occupiers weren’t about to let that detail stand in the way of the festivities. As Sol Stern delivered his rueful account (“The Great Education Fraud”) of how Bloomberg had spun gold into straw—increasing the school’s budget from $12.7 billion to $22 billion in a decade for no discernible educational gain—he was accompanied by the Occupiers’ well-rehearsed percussion session.

It was a nice touch: inside, a deeply-informed critic of how the Bloomberg administration’s policies have squandered educational opportunities for all and especially hindered NYC’s poor; outside, a mass of not-so-well-informed people creating a meaningless racket. Inside, what were surely some of the members of the “1 percent” trying to listen intently to a proponent of educational equity. Outside, a mass of protesters demanding that the “1 percent” listen to nonstop drumming.

The NAS folks took it all in good spirit. Sol Stern firmly turned aside anything that sounded like a “utopian” solution to school reform in New York City, or across the country. The voucher movement hadn’t come to much after the 2002 Supreme Court decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that seemed to open the doors to this kind of reform. Efforts to break the union stranglehold on public schools had foundered on the complicity of politicians hungry for union campaign contributions. Charter schools had become subject to the odd idea that they had to educate the academically least talented students to prove their worth. The racial “achievement gap” had become among the most intractable of the nation’s problems. Schools of education continued to churn out legions of teachers who disdain the age-old art of communicating knowledge to the young, and who devote themselves to promoting social justice instead. The “small schools” movement lavishly funded by Bill Gates had turned out to be an expensive detour leading to nowhere. (Small schools are no better than large ones when it comes to how well students learn. They just make education more expensive.) Reading instruction has been co-opted by modish theories such as “balanced literacy,” which is little more than a re-branding of the discredited “whole language movement.” Bloomberg’s school reform efforts came to wreck on his and former School Chancellor (2002-10) Joel Klein’s foolish decision to invest in the views of experts such as Teacher College’s professor in children’s literature, Lucy Calkins.

Stern was speaking freely without notes and I wasn’t taking any either, so this is no more than a rough summary. But it captures the autumnal spirit of his talk.

Stern’s only recipe for success, borrowed from his sister, who is a teacher, is, “Sit down, shut up, and learn how to read.” But how we get to this simple destination is hard to say. Stern admires E.D. Hirsch’s “knowledge based” approaches to schooling, but Hirsch’s program has little public traction. In Stern’s view, we know pretty well how to educate students. We have just lost the public will to follow through. The blockades multiply; the spending spirals; the political nostrums proliferate; the excuses pile up—and education continues to stagnate.

There were occasional lulls in the drumming outside: perhaps a little discontent with all-purpose discontentedness was settling in. Inside there was also plenty of discontent as audience members raked through the coals of reforms that promised much and delivered next to nothing. Which, if either, form of discontent is likely to eventuate in actual improvements to our society? It’s an open question. Maybe the fellow in the Guy Fawkes mask will be a force in the next election. Maybe the salon in the Fifth Avenue apartment lit a fuse. Or maybe both will go home in settled frustration, still waiting for their moment.

The Occupy movement certainly captures a mood of futility. Nothing seems to work; and those who proclaim themselves able to fix things seem mostly to make them worse. It is a hard place to be in the day before Thanksgiving.

This article first appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on November 23, 2011.

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