Quantcast

Cathie needs to get it

Jonathan P Hicks | 4/12/2011, 4:44 p.m.

There is something unsettling about watching Cathie Black, the New York City schools chancellor, in action in her new position. At her public appearances, like the recent hearings about school closures in Brooklyn, she somehow seems persistently ill at ease, almost as if she's seeking to hide her disdain for those she comes in contact with. In fact, it's a little like watching Mrs. Drysdale whenever she was forced to come into contact with the Clampetts on "the Beverly Hillbillies" (if you don't know these characters from the 1960s TV show or the 1993 film, you should check out the show on TVLand.com or youtube.com).

But the unsettling nature of her public expeditions would be tolerable if the policies that she champions were more palatable. So far, Black's most significant action since coming to the position from her earlier life as a publishing industry executive was to oversee the decision of the Panel for Educational Policy to close 10 city high schools and to open a new charter school on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Of course, she is simply doing the bidding of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has closed nearly 100 schools since he won control of the school system in 2002. These schools, deemed to be underperforming, are considered by Bloomberg to be beyond turning around. Once the old high schools are shut down, the school buildings are converted into smaller schools and charter schools.

Our children certainly deserve the best education we can give them, and we need to think innovatively and look at best practices to shape policies that improve education for all students. The problem is that several studies have already demonstrated that this policy of shuttering schools doesn't affect the academic progress of the most difficult students, who tend to relocate instead to other large high schools. It seems that the mayor and his schools chancellors--past and present--never developed a comprehensive plan to improve the performance of underperforming schools other than to close them. And what they must do, more than anything, is figure out how to raise the standards and performance of these troubled schools.

This would be a good time for the legislature in Albany to adopt a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries calling for a one-year moratorium on shutting down New York City public schools. The moratorium establishes a reasonable period for the state's Department of Education to conduct a comprehensive study on the educational impact of the school closings in the communities where schools have been shut down, which are overwhelmingly in low-income parts of the city.

In fact, Jeffries said it best when he offered his view that "The Department of Education's school closures are out of control." He added, "My sense is that any comprehensive analysts will reveal that the policy of closing schools has been a dramatic failure, in terms of improving student performance." Indeed, a moratorium will compel Black and her boss to take a far more in-depth, balanced look at ways to improve low-performing schools. The chancellor and her boss, the mayor, need to demonstrate that they are ready and willing to adapt different approaches that deal with some of the root causes of underperforming schools. They need to realize that their job is to do more than rate schools on scorecards and simply close the ones that come up short.

Meanwhile, all eyes will continue to be on Black, who is off to a less-than-admirable start as the head of the nation's largest public school system. She has already angered parents and education advocates with her shocking question, in a discussion about overcrowded class size, "Couldn't we just have some birth control for a while?" And she didn't win many fans by offering sarcastic responses to New Yorkers protesting the inevitable school closings in their communities.

In fact, a recent Marist College poll showed that only one in five registered New York voters think she is doing either a good or excellent job. More than half say she is doing an average or poor job, with a quarter saying they haven't heard of her or are unsure how to rate her.

She would improve that standing, her reputation and the educational prospects for more students by doing away with the business-as-usual policy of closing schools routinely. Instead, she should develop a comprehensive plan that aims to fix rather than close. It might even make her appear more comfortable in her interaction with the masses whose children she seeks to lead.