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Thompson and Cerf debate the next four years for city schools

With little more than a week before the mayoral election, candidate Bill Thompson and Christopher Cerf, an adviser to Mayor Bloomberg’s reelection campaign, touted their future plans for the city’s schools on WNYC today.

Given half an hour each on the Brian Lehrer Show, Thompson and Cerf took questions on school safety, the accountability structure, and what major changes they (or their candidate — Cerf hasn’t said whether he’ll return to the Department of Education after the election) would put in place over the next four years. Throughout the interview, Thompson emphasized his interest in lowering class sizes and shifting school administrators’ focus away from standardized tests. Cerf spoke at length about the importance of using technology to cater to students’ different learning styles. Neither offered clues to how the city would pay for these changes.

Asked by host Brian Lehrer to name the greatest innovation he’d bring to the city’s schools, Thompson had one word: curriculum.

I think we’d like to make sure that schools teach things like reading and writing — we’re seeing a number of our students who can’t write. I think things like science, civics, and history, art and music education, phys ed, those should all be part of a curriculum and we’re seeing them start to disappear. So I think that, given where we’re at these days, that is innovative. It’s not a question of reducing the number of standardized tests, it’s reducing the focus on them, he said.

Thompson called the current administration’s focus on standardized tests “obsessive.” He  noted that recent data from the national math exam showed New York State students’ scores to be flat, whereas students’ scores on the state’s exam have risen in the last several years.

“I think teaching to the test is a phrase that ends conversations rather than begins them,” Cerf said when asked if the schools’ emphasis on testing was having a detrimental effect.

I do believe that teaching test taking skills is not good for the long-term educational interests of children. I believe that focusing on the standards that we’ve decided as a society are important, and focusing on that, and then evaluating the degree they’ve learned those standards, is exactly the right focus.

When a caller said she had quit after 16 years of teaching at a city school because her principal had allegedly fudged students’ test scores and ended suspensions to boost the report card grade, Cerf defended the system. He said that the alternative to the current accountability system was “an absence of accountability for student learning altogether.”

Any system of accountability is going to have occasional problems with it, I think it’s inevitable. … I think most of our principals are pretty terrific and I believe they’re getting better and better and better every year. I don’t think the answer to sort of manage the variation in the quality of principals is more top down bureaucracy, more compliance checks, more box checking, more inspectors, more you-better-do-this-or-else. I think that the history of school reform in this country shows that sort of Soviet-style, top down, we know what you ought to do and we’re going to make sure that you do it, doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work.

Cerf said that he and Thompson were in agreement on one major issue: teacher bonuses. Following a segment in which Thompson said he believed in awarding bonuses for student performance on standardized tests to schools rather than individual teachers, Cerf said he agreed.

“That puts us in the middle,” he said.