Cecil B. DeMille and School Reform

Governing and executing public policy is not, nor will it ever be, simply about having a good idea and a mainframe computer at your disposal.
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With the seemingly endless waves of education reforms that have been washing over us it's hard for the average person to pay attention to the claims and counterclaims that make serious discussion all but impossible.

But despite a massive PR machine that touts the accomplishments of Mayor Bloomberg, whether or not the education statistics move up or down, a cold bucket of reality gets splashed on the body politic that not even the mayor's press flacks can explain away.

The latest post-industrial information innovation that's come a cropper is the cutting-edge grading system put in place this year to avoid fraud on end-of-year state Regent's exams administered each June.

The trouble started a few years back, when both the quality of the once rigorous exams eroded, and the grading of them became suspect.

Several instances of school administrators who manipulated the grading in order to meet the business model goals established by the mayor and his school's chief, Joel Klein, were exposed in the tabloids and became something of an embarrassment.

So for the first time last year, teachers were sent to grading centers and were given tests to grade from schools not their own and thus bring integrity back to the evaluation process.

I participated at one of these pilot programs at Forest Hills High School, and in spite of the overall competence of the administrators, there were a fair number of logistical problems that extended the number of days we had to grade at Forest Hills.

One would have thought that the second time around some lessons would have been learned. That was not the case.

Instead, a multimillion-dollar contract was given to McGraw-Hill to manage the logistics of an even more ambitious grading program. New York State dropped its contract with McGraw two years ago when their test questions were found to be predictable and flawed.

New York City took the "what, me, worry?" approach in signing on with McGraw-Hill this time around since they weren't writing the tests, just computer scanning them.

This year the entire city would be involved and tests were to be computer scanned so that teachers wouldn't know the names of the students nor the school it came from. So far, so good.

But when the time came to scan the exams, nothing worked. Teachers were left at the grading centers with nothing to do. When exams did come through, they could see the names of the students.

The teachers were ordered to return to their schools two days in a row. Thousands of students are depending on these test results in order to graduate have been left hanging in the balance.

Now teachers have been told that they can come and grade day and night over the entire weekend and get overtime! Perhaps the mayor will pick up the tab?

It seems we live in an age when the nuts and bolts of planning and execution are considered passé. That was once the hallmark of public service and public servants like teachers who are much denigrated today.

It has been replaced by a generation of governing Mad Men who believe that any idea can be implemented as soon as you can get someone to write the computer program for it.

But governing and executing public policy is not, nor will it ever be, simply about having a good idea and a mainframe computer at your disposal.

One should never mistake Yul Brynner's portrayal of Ramses II in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, for governance, but that's precisely what the people running the educational reform show have done.

When Brynner said, "So let it be written, so let it be done," he wasn't really running Egypt. But he did have DeMille and his production crew making sure the extras were in place, the chariots were rolling on cue, and the Red Sea parted when Moses raised his arms.

During one famous epic scene in an earlier DeMille movie, the three cameras that were set up to record it were rendered useless by the stampede. Leaving nothing to chance, DeMille had a fourth camera in place far away from the action. When he turned to the cameraman to find out if he got the shot, the cameraman responded, "ready when you are CB."

It's a pity C.B. DeMille isn't around to rescue McGraw-Hill and Mayor Bloomberg.

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