Predictions for Chancellor Joel Klein's Children First Initiative

Bas Braams, November 26, 2002 and January 5, 2003

(The first half of this Web page - sections Summary, Overview, Process, and Predictions - was published here on November 26, at which time I also wrote an associated Letter to NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. The second half, below the line and containing some updates and a section What to Look For was added to this page on January 5, from another Web page where it had been for some time. Please see my Web article Chancellor Joel Klein's "Children First" New Standard Curriculum for NYC Public Schools for more recent news and comments.)


I offer some personal observations and predictions regarding the Children First initiative of New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. I predict that in January, 2003, as he announces the results of the first phase of Children First, Chancellor Klein will lock himself into a curriculum reform driven by the ideologies of balanced whole language instruction, NCTM-style constructivist mathematics, and continued bilingual education for English language learners. The lock will last for the remainder of his tenure. The reward structure will be based on support from foundations that share the mentioned ideologies. Children will come last.

Children First Overview

New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced the launch of Children First: A New Agenda for Public Education in New York City on October 3, 2002. According to the Press Release:

The goal of Children First is to improve achievement across all schools and to address persistently low performing schools by moving innovation and effective school change throughout the system. The Chancellor's team will examine best practices in instruction, management and budget analysis, supporting the core purpose of instruction. Concrete action items will address the challenge of spreading the effective practices of successful schools.

The initiative has opened a web site. Here we read:

The goal of Children First is to create a system of outstanding schools where effective teaching and learning is a reality for every teacher and child. The Chancellor believes that achieving this goal will require a common determination and effort by the Department and all New Yorkers. Children First includes a far-reaching engagement process to ensure widespread participation in the reinvention of the school system. Children First will involve listening to parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, students, community-based organizations, corporations, foundations, institutions of higher education, faith-based organizations, and public officials. Children First will include many opportunities for your voice to be heard, beginning Nov. 12th with the first of Chancellor Klein's outreach meetings with parents and community.

The Children First initiative was presented to a select group of education leaders at a luncheon sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York in early October. According to the report in Education Week of that luncheon, Chancellor Klein expects a first report within 100 days, which means approximately by the end of the year 2002. The FAQ at the DOE Children First web site mentions that the first phase will be completed by January, 2003.

The first phase of the Children First initiative is supported by grants from the Broad Foundation and the Robertson Foundation. Both Eli Broad and Julian Robertson expressed their personal support on the occasion of the launch of the initiative.

The Children First Process in Public and in Private

The public side of the Children First initiative is displayed at this time (late Nov, 2002) by a sequence of five meetings held in New York City schools, as announced on the initiative's web page, and by a set of three public questionnaires posted on that web page. The five meetings are taking place on Nov 12, 19, 21, and 25 and Dec 5. The three surveys are addressed to parents and community members; students; and teachers and principals.

It appears that the public side of the Children First process presented through the Children First web site is only a small part of the complete initiative. I am aware of the existence of a Literacy Working Group and a Numeracy Working Group, but these two groups appear to be working without a public agenda, and without even the names of the members being public knowledge. The groups are not mentioned on the Children First web site. I know very little, and nothing first-hand, about the hidden components of the Children First initiative.


Time is short. I predict that the public part of the 100 days of Children First will deal in generalities, but at the end of it (and I think Jan 6 is more likely than Jan 30) Joel Klein will announce a major centralized redirection of curriculum as a result of the Children First process.

He will come out with a statement of what has been learned from Children First: that parents and others demand high standards for all students, that we want excellence throughout the K-12 system, that Basics are important, and more such agreeable platitudes. And he will announce the specifics that follow from those discoveries and that have been, he will claim, endorsed by the public process.

For mathematics instruction I predict that the specifics will include Everyday Math for K-5, CMP for middle school, and among several bad options, IMP for high school. It could be worse, with TERC for grade school. In Literacy it will be some form of "balanced" instruction, perhaps involving the Success for All program and Reading Recovery. The Pittsburgh Institute for Learning and the New Standards Project will provide the standards and philosophy. A noticeable feature, I predict, of the curricular direction in literacy and mathematics will be its claimed need for expensive outside consulting, professional development, and other services, and the associated contracts will mainly remain within a known small community.

The announcement will have Chancellor Joel Klein's name all over it, not the name of Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning Diana Lam, just as at present one will not find Diana Lam's name anywhere in connection with the Children First initiative. Behind the scenes, however, it will be apparent that the outcome of Children First, phase 1, reflects Diana Lam's philosophy (as it is known from her tenure in San Antonio and Providence) and the educational philosophy of such institutions as the Broad Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, and the Gates Foundation far more than it reflects any public process.

When the results of Children First, phase 1, come out as I predict then Joel Klein's personal prestige will be entirely tied to the success of what is then his curricular program. The system will ensure a massive focus on limited, dumbed-down tests, with intense pressure to create rising scores. The pressure will overwhelm everything, and in particular it will overwhelm the integrity of the testing process. It will also overwhelm any kind of effort outside the two tested subjects, reading and mathematics. Test scores will increase, but tests will change and there will not be a reliable long-term trend. Money will flow in from the various foundations. The money will amount to perhaps 100M$ over four years, or about 0.25% of the total schools budget - a triviality in the whole of things, but a massive boost for the prestige of Joel Klein and his instructional team. These funds and the associated prestige, rather than the honest success of NYC instruction, will be their reward.

Bas Braams
Bastiaan J. Braams -
Courant Institute, New York University
251 Mercer Street, New York, NY 10012-1185

Addenda (January 5, 2003). Please see my related Letter to NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, and also my education web page, Links, Articles, Essays, and Opinions on K-12 Education. Some members of NYC HOLD met with Evan Rudall, Chair of the Children First Numeracy Working Group, on December 11, 2002, in a meeting organized by Mr. Rudall and Elizabeth Carson. We provided a set of Talking Points for that meeting. December 11 and 12 I sent two further letters to Mr. Rudall addressing specific curricula. In the conclusion to my Dec 12 letter I express my continued frustration over the Children First process, and I emphasize that (contrary to that process) the curricular decisions for New York City should be made in close cooperation with subject matter experts. I stressed that point as well in Letters to Chancellor Klein of Dec 17 and 18. For subsequent perspectives on the Children First Agenda, please see my Web article Chancellor Joel Klein's "Children First" New Standard Curriculum for NYC Public Schools.

The following section - What to Look For - was lifted from that subsequent perspectives page on Jan 5, 2003.

What to Look for in the New Agenda (Mathematics)

Curriculum Standards and Frameworks

At present New York City operates under three or four different Standards and Frameworks documents. There are the New York State Learning Standards, and associated with these there is a Resource Guide with Core Curriculum. These NYS documents may be found under the heading "Publications" at the NYSED Mathematics page. On top of that, New York City has developed its own Standards Based Scope and Sequence for Learning, and has commissioned from the NCEE "New Standards" project a NYC Edition of the New Standards Performance Standards (the latter more recently known as the America's Choice Performance Standards).

The New York City HOLD Web page offers links to reviews of these standards documents. See especially the Fordham reviews of State standards (1998) and its updated State of State Standards (2000); Bill Quirk's review of the New Standards Performance Standards; and Fred Greenleaf's Commentary on the NYC Mathematics Scope and Sequence.

In our Talking Points for a Meeting with Chair Evan Rudall of the Numeracy Working Group the group from NYC HOLD offered its own assessment of the various Standards documents. We judged that of the four mentioned documents the New York City Scope and Sequence best approximates a useful set of standards, but that also this document is insufficiently specific in many places and fails to indicate the weighting of topics needed to provide students with a proper grounding in mathematics. It is too vague to guide assessments and lacks the prioritizing needed as a basis for classroom planning. We were very negative about the NCEE/ACPS Performance Standards and about the State's resource guide and core curriculum.

There are fine Standards and Curriculum Framework documents to be found elsewhere, especially those of California and Massachusetts. For California, see the California Content Standards and the detailed Curriculum Frameworks. See also 1999 Conference on Standards-Based K-12 Education. For Massachusetts see the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks.

What is needed in the Children First New Agenda: A recognition of the lack of clarity, lack of content focus, and inadequate achievement level of the present City and State standards; and a quick roadmap to a new Standards or Framework document for mathematics instruction. The City should want to see New York State change its own Standards and Resource Guide at the same time, but should not wait for that process. In short order the NYC DOE could adopt the CA or MA Framework document with not more than minor adjustments.

What to watch out for: Alternatively the DOE could aim to re-write its Scope and Sequence. This would seem to be a somewhat feeble and non-committal outcome of Children First, Phase 1, but it need not be rejected out of hand. If this is part of the New Agenda then one would want to see that it reflects at least a proper recognition of the shortcomings of the present set of documents, if not yet an unambiguous acceptance of the superiority of the CA and MA frameworks. One would also want to see that the revision would be carried out by a group in which subject matter experts play the major role.

If this path is selected then a starting point would be the Commentary on the NYC Mathematics Scope and Sequence by Fred Greenleaf and Ralph Raimi. Note however, that these authors themselves indicate their misgivings about the project, and point repeatedly to the California standards as a better starting point.

What to fear: A bad outcome of Children First with regard to mathematic standards would be an affirmation of the role of the NCEE/ACPS Performance Standards. Such an affirmation would probably come in the form of a plan to have them "brought up to date to reflect new insights in the process of learning" or some such fluff. However it is presented, any plan to "revise" the Performance Standards should be viewed with great suspicion, because such a plan will almost surely reflect an intent to continue on the fuzzy path of constructivist discovery learning in mathematics. This is true even if the Children First New Agenda says that one wants to revise the Performance Standards to install greater rigor, greater emphasis on basic knowledge and skills, and greater emphasis on subject matter content. If one sincerely wants that that then one rejects the Performance Standards outright and one starts from the CA or MA standards and frameworks.


Much relevant literature about mathematics curricula is found on the Mathematically Correct and NYC HOLD pages, and is also collected further down on this page under Curriculum Reviews. The subject was also addressed carefully in our previously mentioned Talking Points, in our Survey Responses, and in my Letters to Evan Rudall of Dec 11 and 12.

What is needed in the Children First New Agenda: The present list of California approved curricula and the associated adoption reports should serve as the basis for approving curricula for use in the coming school year. (Please note that California approved a "Concepts and Skills" Algebra text against the unanimous advice of their content review panel, so this series should be viewed with severe caution.) There is only one additional curriculum that manifestly belongs on the approved list for K-8, and that is the Singapore Primary Mathematics series (K-6 Singapore). For high school a bit more work is needed, but a natural list of approved curricula would very likely contain the high school successors to approved middle school texts. The Dolciani "structure and method" series, the Jurgensen Geometry text, and the Singapore New Elementary Mathematics series (Singapore grades 7-10) are all suitable.

The Children First New Agenda will have to face up to the issue that years of curricular neglect have created a situation where many children will have to start a rigorous curriculum at a level that is two or three years behind their formal grade level. In our Talking Points we made appropriate recommendations for dealing with this.

Because there is likely to be some process for schools to obtain waivers from the core adopted curricula, it is important that the Children First Blueprint also identify some curricula that are currently popular but that are incompatible with the goals of public education. In our Talking Points we named specifically TERC Investigations, Connected Mathematics Project (CMP), Integrated Mathematics Program (IMP) and Mathematics Modeling Our World (MMOW, from COMAP), as unacceptable for use in New York schools.

What to watch out for: It would be strange if the Children First Blueprint would select a single curriculum (in any grade) as the New York City Standard. It would be exciting if this were done and the choice were the Singapore curriculum, but even then it would be strange. There is not, to my mind, a single curriculum that is clearly superior to all others; the Children First process is anyway ill designed to identify such a curriculum; and there is not, in education, much of an issue of economy of scale that would justify a concentration on just one curriculum in any grade.

If the Children First Blueprint does focus on a very small set of curricula then I think the NYC DOE could not do better than to select Singapore Primary Mathematics and Saxon Math for use in grades K-5, leaving the choice between these two at the school and classroom level. For grades 6-8 one would still have Singapore Primary Mathematics and Saxon Math, but one would need to introduce additional options that continue into high school, and I indicated some natural choices earlier.

What to fear: A bad outcome of Children First would be the selection of some NCTM inspired curriculum as the core, accompanied by plans for supplementation with more rigorous skills and content oriented materials. Unfortunately I read the teeleaves to tell me that this is a very likely outcome. I estimate that the Everyday Mathematics program will be selected for grades K-6, and my current estimate is the College Preparatory Mathematics (CPM, and it is anything but College Prep) for high school, and either or both of EM and CPM for middle school. An outcome of this nature could be accompanied by an announcement of a Singapore pilot project, but that will then look like a sop to the critics and an attempt to buy some quiet in order to continue on the NCTM-inspired path in mathematics instruction. Children First should recognize that mathematical process and skills belong at the core of the mathematics curriculum and are not to be regarded as supplementation to an otherwise inferior program.

No matter what curricula are selected as the standard, there are likely to be procedures for exceptions in individual schools. Here one will have to read the fine print. If "high performing" schools are going to be allowed to continue to employ their chosen curriculum then that is a transparent license to District 2, especially, to continue to use curricula (TERC, CMP, MMOW) that (as was expressed clearly in our Talking Points) should have no place in New York City public schools. It should be understood that District 2 schools are high performing in spite of their curriculum, not because of it. Many District 2 parents arrange tutoring, send their children to Kumon or Sylvan, and do whatever is needed to make up for the failures of their public schools.

The worst outcome would be a mandated set of curricula that reflects the choices made by Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning Diana Lam in her previous position in Providence, Rhode Island: TERC Investigations for grade school and Connected Mathematics Project (CMP) for middle school. This could then be followed by Integrated Mathematics Program (IMP) in high school, and block scheduling to top off the insanity - the kind of strategy that helped send the Philadelphia schools system into academic receivership. I raised the specter of a TERC - CMP - IMP sequence in my Predictions of Nov 26, but my current estimate is that Chancellor Klein will at least not select these very worst curricula as his standard.


Yearly assessments are important for the purpose of maintaining standards and guiding instructional policy. However, as the NYC HOLD group stressed in the earlier mentioned Talking Points, the present City and State grades 3-8 assessments are at too low a level. The subject matter content that is tested in the grade 8 State assessment looks appropriate for a fifth grade test by world class standards. Many of the test questions are extremely verbose, and assess basic reading skills as much as mathematical skills. This is not appropriate, especially not in view of the enormous disparity in language background among the City's pupils.

Another severe problem with the present City and State assessments is their lack of transparency. Tests of this nature and with this role in educational policy should be made public each year (just as the Regents exams are made public) so that their quality and relevance can be assessed.

It is often argued that the tests cannot be made public because doing so would compromise the integrity of the testing process. I am convinced that things work in the opposite direction. If simply not making the test public is viewed as a significant protection of the test content, and if the test is then left unchanged or changed only little from year to year, then the integrity of the test is actually much more under threat than if it is understood that the test is always published, and the detailed content must change every time.

What is needed in the Children First New Agenda: The Blueprint should recognize the inadequacy of the present City and State tests for assessing grade appropriate knowledge and skills. The City controls at this time the tests in grade 3, 5, 6, and 7, and the State sets the tests for grades 4 and 8, but Statewide testing is likely to expand under the influence of the No Child Left Behind legislation. In any case, working alone or with the State, New York City should arrange for a more appropriate set of yearly tests. In doing so the NYC DOE must find a way to balance some conflicting aims: integrity of the testing process, public openness of the tests each year, an alignment with new curricular standards and policies of which the effect will only gradually be felt throughout the grade levels, and a desire to maintain year-to-year comparability of results.

I think that it is also important to move the baseline back one or two years, starting the yearly testing in grade 1 or 2 instead of in grade 3. Moving it back to grade 2 should not be difficult, but moving it back to grade 1 when one cannot yet expect the great majority of pupils to have basic reading skills, does pose a special challenge. It is worthwhile to try to meet that challenge.

An important ingredient to look for in the Children First Blueprint is an intent that test data will be collected so as to allow value-added analysis, which looks at the evolution of individual student performance over time. Our group recommended that in our Talking Points in view of its use for assessing the performance of schools, curricula, and teaching practices.

What to fear: A change in the mathematics test that does not offer a clear increase in the grade level of the test and in the focus on knowledge and skills, and that does not promise public transparency.

Future Process

In our Talking Points we recommended that curriculum approval in New York City should follow the model of the California textbook adoption procedures. These procedures rely on advice from two expert panels: a Content Review Panel (CRP) and an Instructional Materials Advisory Panel (IMAP). For the case of Mathematics one can see the process described in the 2001 Mathematics Adoption Report. The Content Review Panels are composed of mathematicians from institutions of higher learning, and the Instructional Materials Advisory Panels are broader groups, including teachers, school administrators, local board members, and parents or guardians. The CRP's perform the first reviews, focussing on textbook content and agreement with the California standards. Then the CRP's meet jointly with the IMAP's, and the IMAP's develop their evaluation report. The CRP and IMAP reports both go to a State Curriculum Commission, which appears to have the effective final say. (Formally that final say belongs to the Board of Education.) The CRP and IMAP review reports are public documents.

What is needed in the Children First New Agenda: The specification of a process of regular textbook review for the purpose of classroom adoption, with guarantees that university faculty in the relevant discipline are heard clearly in the process. California has done this very well, I think, by its use of two panels for each subject area, with one of the two panels composed entirely of subject matter experts.

What to watch out for: A textbook review process carried out strictly within the Department of Education, or with professors of education in the role of subject matter experts. A textbook review process without public transparency. An avoidance of tough choices this year while a textbook review process is being developed.

What to fear: No transparent review of curricular materials, and instead, the Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning Ms. Diana Lam divines what is best.

The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author. The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by New York University.