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Old Chancellors Never Die

Former NYC Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy took to the pages of today’s New York Times to tout a five-point plan for fixing American schools. skoolboy couldn’t say why the Times saw this as a good use of scarce editorial space—the graphic alone took up a number of column-inches—but there it is. Here’s his laundry list:

Raise the age of compulsory education to 19, mandating a year of post-secondary education-perhaps to be paid for by the federal government. One of the issues here is whether an expanded school career should be mandated, or simply encouraged with powerful incentives, such as federal aid for postsecondary schooling. Levy seems confused on this point: He quotes President Obama, in his February address to a joint session of Congress, as saying, “I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training,” and in the next breath describes this as “compulsory post-secondary education.” The presidency is a bully pulpit, and many educators were heartened by this strong statement about the importance of schooling. But no one is talking about federal or even state mandates for postsecondary attendance. Let’s try to get kids to complete high school with a diploma that signifies some intellectual accomplishment first.

Use high-pressure sales tactics to curb truancy. Levy envisions “making repeated home visits and early morning phone calls, securing written commitments and eliciting oral commitments in front of witnesses” as strategies to “compel parents to ensure that their children go to school every day.” The policy remedy that Levy proposes assumes that the main reason that kids don’t go to school is because their parents don’t “compel” them to. This seems like a misdiagnosis of the cause of the problem. It’s more plausible that students don’t attend because they don’t find what’s happening at school meaningful or valuable. An engaging curriculum might well be a much better policy solution than high-pressure sales tactics. If the ultimate goal is to promote student learning, getting a student to the door of the school is only a first step.

Advertise creatively and aggressively to encourage college enrollment. Here Levy speaks admiringly of the University of Phoenix, a for-profit institution with several hundred thousand students, which spent $278 million on advertising in 2007. A few things he left out: The University of Phoenix awarded 31,700 associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in 2007. So that $278 million is about $8,755 per graduate in advertising, none of which actually enhances a student’s learning experience. University of Phoenix’ retention rate for full-time students from one year to the next is 28%. The percentage of entering full-time students seeking a bachelor’s degree who receive one within four years is 1%. The six-year graduation rate is 4%. And, the federal loan default rate for University of Phoenix students exceeds the national default rate.

Unseal college accreditation reports so that the Department of Education can take over the business of ranking colleges and universities. It’s not evident to me that “ranking” colleges and universities is an appropriate role for the federal government, but there certainly are legitimate concerns about how the Department of Education has delegated responsibility for assuring institutional quality to regional accrediting bodies that have differing standards and criteria for accreditation. skoolboy has to wonder, though, if Mr. Levy has ever looked at an actual accreditation report, because the idea that they would assist prospective college students and their parents make good choices is a cruel joke. Few documents are as deserving of gathering dust on a shelf as an accreditation report. (I can say that because I’ve helped to write ’em.)

Produce more qualified college applicants. This seems to be where most of the action is, but Mr. Levy has little to offer. “Better teachers, smaller classes and more modern schools are all part of the solution,” he writes. “But improving parenting skills and providing struggling parents with assistance are part of the solution too.” But how do we get better teachers? (Or, as I prefer to frame the issue, better teaching?) What’s a “more modern” school? How do we assist parents? Guess I’ll have to wait for David Brooks and Nick Kristof to tell me.

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