A School Reformer’s Journey: From Parent to Journalist to Policy Analyst

Published May 1, 2004

City Journal senior editor Sol Stern just wants New York City’s public school system to provide today’s children with the same solid foundation of knowledge and skills it gave to him during the 1940s as a non-English-speaking child from Israel.

With that foundation, Stern graduated from one of the city’s selective-enrollment high schools and from the City College of New York, continuing with an M.A. in political science from the State University of Iowa and further graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley.

But most children who attend public schools in New York City today aren’t being prepared even for high school, let alone college or the job market. In March this year, 306,087 of the city’s 1 million public school students–30 percent–were warned they were in danger of being held back because they could not meet the academic requirements for promotion to the next grade. Last December, results from the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed only 21 percent of the city’s fourth-graders were proficient or above in reading. A full third (33 percent) were classed as “Below Basic”–they could not demonstrate even partial mastery of the knowledge and skills required for fourth-grade work. By eighth grade, the percentage of students reading “Below Basic” balloons to 46 percent.

Stern discovered how much New York City’s public schools had changed when his own two children began their education in them in the early 1990s. What he experienced as a parent, what he found as an investigative journalist, and what he concluded as a policy analyst are detailed in his latest book, Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice (Encounter Books, 2003). Stern’s views on education reform appear regularly in City Journal and also in a range of other publications, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Post, New York Daily News, New York Sun, and Newsday.

After graduating from college, Stern was an editor and staff writer for Ramparts magazine from 1966-72 and a freelance writer until 1984. From 1985-94, he served as press secretary and senior policy advisor in the Office of the City Council President of New York. He subsequently served for a year as executive director of a New York State Commission on Juvenile Justice Reform before returning to journalism and a position as senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Stern recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: How did you come to be involved in school reform?

Stern: I was sort of a late bloomer. I began as a public education consumer. I had my children in the public schools in New York City about 15 years ago. I was a parent concerned about his children’s education. Then, as I began to observe some of the strange things that were going on in their schools, my reporter’s instincts took over and I started investigating further.

I started writing about what I saw, generalizing and drawing conclusions from my own children’s schools, and taking a look at the system as a whole to try to understand why it doesn’t work very well. I also began to look at other school systems, including the parochial school system, to see what we could learn from them. I found myself in a new career: Examining and debunking, and trying to work from my own experience to reach conclusions about how to improve education in general for all children.

I was a product of the New York City public schools. My entire experience was with public schools, and I considered myself a very strong supporter of the role of public schooling in our democracy. I cared very deeply about how the public schools inculcated the civic ethic and an understanding of the democratic system, and in moving new generations of immigrants and the poor up through the economic system by giving them an opportunity for advancement.

That was what the public schools did for me. Part of my reaction to what was going on in my children’s schools was a disappointment that the schools were no longer doing that very well.

Clowes: During the past year, your focus has been on progressive education and pedagogy. Were those concerns initially?

Stern: In the elementary school that both of my children attended, I was struck by the change in pedagogy and found myself becoming a critic of progressive education.

At first, I didn’t take it very seriously. But then I came to realize that progressive education is very damaging for disadvantaged children who come from homes without a lot of books and conversation. These children, more than anyone else, needed to start with the basic skills in language and numeracy.

Until the past year, I hadn’t actually written that much about pedagogy. I’ve done a lot on vouchers, on charter schools, and the political role of the teachers’ union. I’ve focused on the structural issues, like the teachers’ union contract, and the work rules that I felt were an obstacle to academic improvement and reform.

But I began to look at progressive education again because of the strange story of what happened in New York during the past two years. Voucher supporters and school reformers generally had come to the conclusion that there was only one last hope for really reforming the city’s schools, and that was to give total control of the schools to the mayor: Let the mayor be accountable. In the old system, we didn’t know who to hold accountable, because it was so entangled.

Although some of us would have preferred vouchers as a solution–that is, accountability through competition and by allowing the consumers of education to take their business elsewhere–we realized that New York would be the last place in the country to approve vouchers because of the enormous power of the unions here, and because of the broken political system that’s responsive to interest groups rather than civic needs.

I was initially a very strong supporter of what Mayor Bloomberg was doing. He brought in as his new chancellor Joel Klein, who was head of the Justice Department’s Anti-Trust Division. The mayor said all the right things in a speech on Martin Luther King Day in 2003, when he spoke about all the reforms that he was going to unveil. He said students would be doing phonics. It really seemed that we were going to go back to the basics in terms of classroom instruction, pedagogy, and curriculum.

I praised that speech in an article in City Journal, but within a few months, I felt that I had been had. Chancellor Klein brought in Diana Lam as his chief instructional supervisor and basically turned over all the instruction issues to her. She is a progressive education ideologue, and she came into town with her guns blazing. She got rid of anyone with a more traditional bent and installed the most ideological of the progressives in all the key regions of power.

She then picked reading and math programs that were the essence of the whole progressive approach: Teachers should not be figures of authority and children should learn by “constructing” their own knowledge. Since we had given the mayor such total control–with the power to impose this approach top-down on every single school–what we got was the most thorough-going progressive education revolution in the country.

Clowes: Yet the reforms sounded as if they had the right components in them–Month-by-Month Phonics, for example.

Stern: There isn’t much phonics in Month-by-Month Phonics, the program Diana Lam picked for New York City. It’s a “balanced literacy program,” which is the term used by progressives so as not to fly directly in the face of parents and elected officials, who have come to understand that the best way to teach reading is through explicit phonics. With “balanced literacy,” students get a lot of Whole Language and a little bit of phonics.

The authors of the Month-by-Month Phonics Handbook actually de-emphasize phonics. For example, they write, “Teaching all children to read is essential and can be done, but it will never happen with a just-teaching-phonics curriculum.” Every once in a while they have a little extra drill in some phonemic awareness, but it’s very inadequate. In fact, it was deemed inadequate by the best reading experts in the country–the people who were involved in the National Reading Panel.

These same reading experts are consultants for the U.S. Department of Education in administering the Reading First program as part of the No Child Left Behind Act. It’s one of the best parts of No Child Left Behind–the idea that the federal government is going to hand out money only on the basis of the recipient school districts using it for programs that are proven to work based on scientific research. What an innovation!

The Month-by-Month Phonics program did not qualify for Reading First funds because it did not involve systematic and explicit phonics. So what the district did was to ask for $40 million for another program–Harcourt, an explicit phonics-based program–to install in just 50 of the city’s 1,200 schools. They got the money, but after some embarrassment.

The tragedy is that, after all of this, there’s an anti-academic bias in most of the schools. Although Diana Lam is now gone–she got herself enmeshed in a nepotism scandal and was asked to resign–Klein has become a progressive education true believer, and Lam’s temporary replacement is even more of an ideologue than she was. She’s rooted firmly in the constructivist “fuzzy math” approach where children don’t have to learn operations, multiplication tables, or algorithms. The current approach is that children learn best when they learn by themselves.

Clowes: What’s your view on the mayor’s recent ending of social promotion?

Stern: As an education reformer, and as a traditionalist, normally I would be completely on the mayor’s side on this. A system that pushes students up through the grades regardless of whether they have mastered even the most minimal reading and math skills doesn’t expect very much from kids or from their teachers and principals. But there’s a corollary to that: If you’re trying to re-institute accountability and high expectations, and you’re going to get rid of this evil of social promotion, then the system’s leadership has a moral obligation to make sure that the children are being educated with the best available approaches and programs, those that have been shown to work.

Accountability begins with adults before the children. By refusing to look at the scientific evidence and teaching children how to read with reading programs that don’t work, New York City’s current leadership is engaging in what Reid Lyon, the President’s reading advisor, calls “educational malpractice.” With these ineffective teaching methods, I don’t think that the mayor’s program of ending social promotion is going to work very well.

Clowes: In your book, Breaking Free, you call school choice an imperative. Is that because it allows parents to choose teaching practices that do work?

Stern: Yes, absolutely. Coming to school choice as a public school parent, as a disappointed supporter of the public schools, I saw it on two or three levels.

First of all, there is the moral imperative: If you have a school that is horrendous, that is destroying children, then it’s morally incumbent on us as a society to provide an opportunity for those children to get out and find a school that works for them, even with taxpayer money. It’s not a question of protecting the public school system, it’s protecting the children and protecting their right to an equal education.

At the same time, I came to the conclusion that one of the things that make public schools so ineffective and so dysfunctional is that they are part of a monopoly system that never has to worry about competition or losing its customers. By preventing taxpayer money from going into parochial schools, we created a kind of Berlin Wall around the public school system. This wall not only prevented children from leaving–because they couldn’t take any taxpayer money with them–it also prevented new ideas and new talent from coming into the system. There was no pressure to bring them in.

One of the things that I discovered in visiting Milwaukee was the wonderful voucher schools that have been created there, like Mesmer Academy, and its great principal Brother Bob, and the Bruce Guadalupe School founded by Walter Sava. What I saw were educators who had devoted their lives to children, educators whose services we would not have had if it weren’t for vouchers. One of the advantages to a system with choice is that it breaks down the walls between the two systems and makes us realize there are different approaches that could be tried.

I saw that in Milwaukee. The voucher schools and the public schools began to cooperate and learn from each other. Public schools were forced by the competition to adopt some of the voucher schools’ approaches. Once vouchers had broken through the wall, there were more exchanges between parents in the public schools and parents in the parochial schools.

Clowes: What will it take to break through that wall in New York City?

Stern: That’s a tough question. At the moment, I’m pretty pessimistic. Spending in New York City is up to around $12,000 per pupil. It’s one of the highest spending levels in the country, and we’re not getting very much for it.

The debate, unfortunately, is dominated by the interest groups and the politicians who have convinced the public that the answer is more money and more resources. It’s not the money, it’s the way we do things. It’s the rules and the regulations we impose upon the public school system. It’s the lack of competition.

We could accomplish far more in our schools if we just applied some common sense and allowed public schools to run by some of the same principles that just about every other enterprise in the country runs by: Support for excellence, competition, getting rid of slackers, and empowering and encouraging people who work hard. These seem like very simple things, but they are the keys to getting our schools to work.

Still, there are hopeful signs. We are getting a voucher program in the nation’s capital, and I hope that some New York City and New York State politicians take a look at that program. If the President of the United States is willing to expend some of his political capital to do the right thing and give children in Washington a chance to get out of their terrible schools, it can be done here, too. It’s not going to destroy the Republic.

The first lesson of education in American should be: “Do no harm.” There’s no way a voucher program could do harm. On the other hand, the programs we are using now are doing harm.

“The first lesson of education in American should be: “Do no harm.” There’s no way a voucher program could do harm. On the other hand, the programs we are using now are doing harm.”