Monday, February 20, 2006

 

The Education King of Queens

Looking for an edifying way to spend a small chunk of your President's day holiday? Check out this inspiring article from last week's New York magazine, which explains how a smartly-targeted private investment in a public elementary school in Queens helped spur a mind-boggling jump in student achievement.

It's the story of a visionary hedge-fund manager named Joel Greenblatt and the low-income students at PS 65Q. After doing a fair amount of research on the failures of urban public education, Greenblatt came to believe that we could turn around underperforming schools by applying a market-oriented reform model. Specifically, his idea was to employ a suped-up version of a research-based, highly-disciplined curriculum called Success for All and a sophisticated data analysis system that would help catch kids who were falling behind before it was too late.

Greenblatt was so convinced that this focused remedial program would work that he was willing to put up $2.5 million of his own money to test it. His faith has been more than amply rewarded. Indeed, as the story points out, "from 2001 to 2005, the proportion of fourth-graders passing the state’s standardized reading test doubled, rising from 36 to 71 percent of the class—and since then, the students’ performance has only gotten better. Nearly every child who has been at the school for three years or more now reads and does math at their proper level or beyond—even the special-ed kids. Last spring, the school was one of fourteen statewide to win the public-school version of the Nobel Prize: a Pathfinder Award for improved performance."

This is not just a feel-good story -- it's a highly valuable and instructive public policy case study. Greenblatt's bold experiment has shown just what is possible for our urban public schools if we are not afraid to innovate -- which is to say, if we are willing to think outside the bureaucratic box and try new approaches that are tailored to the needs of kids in the classroom, not the adults who run the system.

It's hard to say whether the Greenblatt method is replicable across a massive school district like New York City's, and it's a little premature to proclaim it a magic bullet. But this is not a bet that needs to be hedged -- the results are so powerful that we would be fools not try it and apply it on a larger scale.

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