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Can public education be saved?

Aug 25, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 47 • By JUSTIN TORRES
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Breaking Free

Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice

by Sol Stern

Encounter, 248 pp., $25.95

IF YOU CAN THINK of modern public education as a kind of inferno--and in many ways, you can--then Sol Stern is a modern-day Dante. As a parent of New York City public school kids, he's been through all nine rings of American public-education bureaucracy and mediocrity, which he wrote about in incomparable dispatches for City Journal, now collected as "Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice."

It's all here. Superintendents who can't get a straight answer on how many people work at district headquarters. Time-serving instructors whose seniority qualifies them to teach upper-level classes they wouldn't qualify to take as students. Principals who are hamstrung by mind-numbing personnel rules forced on them by teachers' unions. Janitors who won't clean, repair, or maintain buildings because "it's not in my contract." Venerable traditions like "passing the lemon," whereby principals lie on teacher evaluations so they can easily transfer classroom incompetents to other schools and students. Teachers who can't spell or do higher math, or whose idea of teaching history is to have students construct dioramas of Nazi death camps.

ESPECIALLY DISTURBING are Stern's descriptions of the mediocrity that infects even high-achieving schools, like New York's famed Stuyvestant High. Yes, test scores there are way above average--but that's largely due to the rigor of the entrance exam and the kids' prior academic accomplishments. In fact, as Stern notes, the teachers could be rotten at Stuyvestant, and "graduating seniors would still achieve average SAT scores of 1,400 points; 99.5 percent of the graduates would go to college; and hundreds would be accepted to Ivy League schools." Kids come to Stuyvestant as academic high-flyers; there is little evidence that four years at the school adds much to their upward trajectory.

When a new principal at Stuyvestant, J. "Jinx" Cozzi Perullo, unexpectedly decides to challenge the complacency of the school, all hell breaks loose. The school's union leader bombards the principal with grievances. She lodges official complaints about Perullo's experiment with block scheduling (doubling up some class periods)--such experiments are prohibited by the district contract with the union, no matter how much sense they make. She complains that the principal isn't doing enough to shield teachers and the union from critical articles in the school's student newspaper. Most important, the union leader wages all-out war to defend the tenure and seniority system that has all but stripped principals of their ability to hire good teachers and fire bad ones. As Stern writes, the complaints quickly reach the point of lunacy: "According to Perullo, some students once offered her a large campaign-style button saying 'Kids First,' which they had created for an upcoming school celebration. Perullo not only accepted the button, she wore it prominently for several days. When [the union leader] spotted the button, she asked Perullo, in all seriousness, 'What about the teachers?'" After five years, Perullo retired and was replaced by a time-server who quickly gave in to the union's demands.

Stern's investigations into America's public schools are fascinating and finely drawn, but there's more here than just a string of absurd episodes. His admiration for New York's Catholic school system shines through in several chapters where he contrasts its ability to educate poor, minority, and largely non-Catholic kids on a shoestring budget with the inability of the wasteful and outsized public school system. Stern recounts the experience of the writer John Chubb, who once waited weeks for the answer to a simple question: How many people work at the New York City district central office at 110 Livingston Street? An exact answer never came, though it was estimated to be between six and seven thousand. Chubb called the central office of the Catholic school system and asked the same question. An aide told him to hang on, and then Chubb heard counting at the end of the line, "One, two, three..." The answer was twelve.

And Stern lingers for a chapter to eviscerate Jonathon Kozol of "Savage Inequalities" fame--a writer who, more than possibly any other person, is responsible for the spread of two pernicious notions: that schools underperform because they are underfunded, and that education should be first and foremost about raising class-consciousness. This has been pointed out before, but you can never have enough Kozol-debunking, so ubiquitous (and destructive) is he.