Notes & Comments January 2000
Patterns of pedagogic abuse
On recent scandals in public education.
The ethic of “vote early, vote often” seems to have insinuated itself tenaciously into New York City schools. Just as corrupt politicians of yore (but not, alas, all that yore) would trawl the cemeteries for names to put on the voting rolls, so it now turns out that several New York City schools have been habitually inflating student attendance figures—a primary factor in determining how much state aid a school receives. Governor George Pataki said that a state investigation had uncovered “patterns of widespread, systemic abuse” in reporting attendance figures to the state, which in turn has cost the taxpayer millions. In one case, The New York Times reported, a student died in the summer but was kept on the school rolls for the entire academic year. He was even issued report cards. (Doubtless he got an “A” for deportment.) To put the scandal in perspective, the report noted that if city schools inflated attendance by 3 percent, it could cost the taxpayer $300 million over five years.
The attendance scandal comes fast on the heels of another school scandal. Only a week earlier Edward F. Stancik, special investigator for city schools, released a report charging that teachers and principals in eighteen of New York City’s thirty-three school districts had helped students cheat on standardized tests. Forty-seven principals, teachers, and staff were implicated in the scandal. Teachers used palm-sized crib notes and what the The New York Times described as “overzealous coaching” to help students. Describing the procedure, one mathematics teacher noted that, in order to avoid detection by the test scorers, particularly difficult questions had asterisks next to them. “These were the hard questions,” he said, “and I was told not to help with those. The kids were expected to get them wrong.”
Teachers would also have students write answers on blank notebook paper and then, with the teachers’ help, fill in the circles on standardized test sheets. The Times reported that at P.S. 234 in the Bronx, the principal, Evelyn Hey, “walked around the room during a third-grade reading exam, telling students, ‘That’s wrong,’ or, ‘Do that one over.’” Mirabile dictu, average reading scores in Ms. Hey’s school rose by 22 percent from 1997 to 1998. In response to questioning by reporters, Ms. Hey said: “I’m not at liberty to say anything about it. It is all based on hearsay.” According to the Times, she then ordered a reporter to leave the building, and minutes later “drove off in her Jaguar.” (This is not the first time Ms. Hey has intruded herself on public notice. The Times noted that in 1993 she was removed from her post after an investigation found that she had been hired because she was the girlfriend of a former school board member. She was later reinstated.)
New York is not the only place where teachers and principals have colluded in helping students cheat on standardized texts. The Times mentioned several other malefactors from Texas to Fairfield, Connecticut. But the New York City scandal seems to feature the most systematic and widespread abuse. Together with the scandal over attendance figures, it has led Governor Pataki and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to come together in their demand that the city’s board of education be abolished. We have no opinion on whether that is the appropriate response to this new series of scandals. It seems clear, however, that the educational establishment in New York and elsewhere is suffering from endemic corruption. Given that such abuses are rife in our country’s schools, is it any wonder that kindred economies with truth and candor have found their way into more august cultural institutions like the Brooklyn Museum of Art?
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 5, on page 2
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