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Bloomberg and Walcott Are School Dropouts

Across the nation, more teachers and school systems are discarding standardized collective testing in reading and math—along with the additional class time spent in testing for these exams.

But in this city and state, starting in April, these tried-and-untrue annual tests for students in third through eighth grades will continue and even take longer hours. So the state education department decrees. There are no objections from Education Mayor Bloomberg and City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

By contrast, there are illustrations of what digital e-learning—each student on a laptop—can do to take into account the strengths and problems of each individual student during a class-wide high-stakes test or any test.

But first, a cautionary warning: In some of these virtual classrooms during tests, there is no teacher directly, humanly involved as the online tests proceed. When this happens, the identities of individual students are cast aside as they are in this city's standardized tests—the result of which will now also be used to judge the performances of the teachers. But the teachers don't design and authorize these tests.

The United Federation of Teachers objects; and for once, I agree with the union, although the UFT still lacks commitment to focus on the whole individual child during his or her continuing time in school.

But digital learning can work. Here is how what is called "blended learning" works—each student is connected both to advancing digital technology and to a real-life teacher.

From "Online Learning, Personalized" (New York Times, December 5), in a ninth-grade charter school in San José, California, the teacher, Jesse Roe, "has a peephole into the brains of his 38 students. . . . Each student's math journey shows up instantly on the laptop Mr. Roe carries as he enters the room. He stops at each desk, cajoles, offers tips, reassures."

The reporter, Somini Sengupta, credits what's happening in this classroom to 35-year-old "Salman Khan, whose Khan Academy math and science lessons on YouTube . . . have attracted up to 3.5 million viewers."

But what is taking place in San José has not generally yet become part of curriculums across the country, and that has become Salman Khan's mission.

In Time (November 14), Fareed Zakaria reports that "last year, Los Altos, California, decided to use the Khan Academy videos and software in its public-school classrooms."

But next year, New York City public-school parents will again share the stomach-turning anxiety of their children's preparatory testing for the dreaded actual standardized tests that can stamp them as "non-proficient" learners. This leads some kids to decide they're dumb or not fit for school. That's a familiar way in which dropouts are created.

We still don't know what happens to each of this city's dropouts.

But in Los Altos, California, parents can witness their kids "watching the Khan Academy videos at home and solve problems in class, where the teacher's talents can be put to use most fruitfully."

This way, "students can learn at their own pace—re-watching videos—until they actually understand the material. The early results show huge leaps in student skills."

Sure, there has to be more experience with this "customized interactive" learning in many more schools to get a clearer and deeper knowledge of how effective and durable this form of digital e-learning can be.

I'm trying to call attention to this need in the Voice because a September 7 New York Times headline—"Poll Finds Fault on Schools on Mayor's Watch"—remains acutely accurate. During follow-up interviews of those polled in the story, their frustrations included "the system of school choice, services for disabled children [a subject of a future column here] and the emphasis on standardized tests."

The story quoted a retired Queens bank officer, Robert Kemp: "What they're teaching is too narrowly focused. It's all 'let's pass tests;' it's not about turning out educated kids."

That's kids for whom critical thinking has become a natural kick, leading to their being lifelong learners. The joy of learning is not endemic in the Bloomberg-Walcott classrooms.

Also, a grim theme I've been continually returning to: the "racial gap" nationally and here from before and after the 1954 Supreme Court ruled public-school segregation inherently unconstitutional—as it still is, not by law but by residential boundaries.

From the Times's report on the September 7 poll: "Blacks and Hispanics, whose children make up 70 percent of the enrollment in public schools, expressed the most dissatisfaction, with 64 percent of blacks and 57 percent of Hispanics saying they are generally not satisfied, compared with 50 percent of whites."

It's certainly time to also poll all the kids themselves—not through quick quiz-like responses but in attentive interviews. That would be a genuine public service that some of the big-time donors to the Bloomberg-Walcott school system could realistically invest in.

Through decades of talking to public schoolkids for this column and my books, I've found many to be penetratingly specific about what ways schools fail them. That includes some who dropped out because they saw no meaningful reason to stay.

Finally, for a time, let's go back to Fareed Zakaria in Time (he can also be seen and heard regularly on CNN): "I went through the Asian educational system, which is now so admired. It gave me an impressive base of knowledge and taught me how to study hard and fast. But when I got to the U.S. for college, I found that it had not trained me that well to think.

"American education, at its best, teaches you how to solve problems, truly understand the material, question authority, think for yourself and be creative. It teaches you to learn what you love and to love learning."

This does not describe this city's public schools.

The kids, their parents, and those of us who give a damn are stuck with Bloomberg and Walcott until the end of the Bloomberg reign—unless there's a lot more pointed, persistent organizing and pressure from these same kids, parents, and those of us who ought to be ashamed to live and vote in a city whose schools keep producing so many lifetime losers.

Among those New Yorkers who are starting their campaigns for mayor, are we going to hear what they specifically are intent on doing to change the public schools into places where students actually feel that learning can—and wow, is!—an exciting part of their lives?

I'm ready to vote for Eva Moskowitz for mayor! Her Success Charter Network schools are for real!


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