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History > 2009 > USA > Education (III)



Marcellus Hall


The Mayor, the Teachers and the Tests



















The Mayor,

the Teachers and the Tests


December 2, 2009
The New York Times


To the Editor:

Re “Mayor to Link Teacher Tenure to Test Scores” (front page, Nov. 26):

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s plan to include test scores in the teacher tenure decision is ill conceived. The teacher’s effectiveness is only one component of what goes into a student’s test score. Teachers cannot select their students, but most do their best with whomever they are given to work with.

The mayor’s plan will result in teachers’ doing whatever they can to avoid teaching high-risk students, like those with poor attendance, poor reading and math scores, and poor work habits, attitudes or discipline. The incentive to influence scores in unprofessional ways will only increase, as will a lack of collegiality among teachers.

The mayor’s analogy with the medical profession is far off the mark, as doctors do not have to avoid treating especially sick patients to keep their practices.

Teachers have significant educational requirements and have to pass a number of tests before they can even enter the profession, so the fact that 93 percent achieve tenure is in no way out of whack with other professions.

As a school supervisor for 22 years and a teacher for more than 40 in New York City, I can attest to the fact that there are numerous ways to identify incompetent teachers besides students’ test scores.

Howard Brenner
Woodmere, N.Y., Nov. 26, 2009

To the Editor:

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is playing a dangerous game with his advocacy of layoffs for teachers based on merit.

This is opening a Pandora’s box, as it will allow for many principals to get rid of people because of favoritism and differences in pedagogical methodology. Unfortunately, in some cases, religious and racial prejudice will begin to show its ugly head once more.

Teachers are rated satisfactory or unsatisfactory each school year. If everyone in a given department received satisfactory ratings, what objective way is left for a principal in removing a teacher? If we are to eliminate the bad ways as mentioned above, we should only have to depend on a seniority system. This is basically the only fair way.

Of course, in reality, no teacher should be laid off. We have plenty of dead wood sitting at Tweed, as well as in the mayor’s office.

Ed Greenspan
Brooklyn, Nov. 29, 2009

The writer is a retired New York City teacher.

To the Editor:

Measuring the effectiveness of novice teachers has always been a challenging task for principals. Does the new teacher have “it” — the ability to engage learners in the job of learning? Does he or she have the fundamental personal power to manage a class of antsy, frequently disadvantaged children from many backgrounds?

Can he create a series of lessons that form a meaningful and appropriate rendering of the curriculum for this group of students? These criteria serve as the basis for granting or denying tenure.

As a young teacher many years ago, I taught in a school with a homogeneous grouping. When I taught the highest-performing class, my average reading score jumped about two years; when I taught the most challenging class, it moved about nine months.

The effort was the same, but the results were very different. Should I have been granted or denied tenure?

An old adage said that “good tests test good instruction,” and that was the case in New York at one time; unfortunately, that is no longer true. Good test scores now reflect both socioeconomic status (perhaps they always have) and hour upon hour of test preparation.

If tenure is linked to test scores, why would idealistic young people want to teach in those schools where it is most difficult to significantly raise scores, and where that becomes the criteria for tenure?

Eileen Greenspun
Staten Island, Nov. 27, 2009

The writer, a retired principal, staff developer and teacher in the New York City schools, supervises student teachers for the College of Staten Island.

To the Editor:

Judging teachers on the success of their students is similar to judging a lawyer on the number of convictions or acquittals. It first depends on what the lawyer is given to work with.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg uses the analogy of heart surgeons and patient survival rates. Doctors perform routine bypass or valve replacements, but much of the patient’s success is dependent on age, health, lifestyle and hospital resources. These outside factors affect the patient’s chance of survival.

There are many internal and external factors that influence each student’s learning that are beyond the teacher’s control. Factors related to economics, language, home environment, motivation, attitude and aptitude help inspire or discourage learning. It is not as simple as a test score.

Eliot Weiss
Brooklyn, Nov. 26, 2009

The writer teaches calculus at Edward R. Murrow High School.

To the Editor:

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg says he wants staff members who were put on the absentee teacher reserve list to be fired if they don’t find jobs within one year. In theory, this sounds reasonable. But when you look into the facts, it is clear that this is a heartless way to save money and destroy lives.

Most of the staff members whose schools were closed by the Department of Education through no fault of their own have since been hired into full-time positions in schools. They have full programs, teach five classes a day, or if they are secretaries, work full time doing payroll or staffing the dean’s office. But their principals have chosen not to have them appointed, so as to save money.

Therefore, officially they show up as on the reserve list and under the mayor’s plan will lose their jobs — jobs they have been doing satisfactorily since their schools closed. Has he no heart, or is he completely unaware of what is actually happening at his agency?

Elizabeth A. Knajdl
Bayside, Queens, Nov.
26, 2009

The writer is a former New York City teacher and union representative.

    The Mayor, the Teachers and the Tests, NYT, 2.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/02/opinion/l02teach.html






Mayor Says Student Scores Will Factor Into Teacher Tenure


November 26, 2009
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said on Wednesday that New York City public schools would immediately begin to use student test scores as a factor in deciding which teachers earn tenure, a proposal that has been bitterly opposed by the teachers’ union and criticized as putting too much weight on standardized exams.

The city already uses test scores in evaluating the system: to determine teacher and principal bonus pay, to assign the A through F letter grades that schools receive, and to decide which schools are shut down for poor performance. The mayor is now putting even more weight behind those scores by using them to decide which teachers should stay and which should go.

In a speech in Washington on Wednesday, alongside the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, the mayor also called on the State Legislature to make a number of changes, some of them also anathema to the unions, that would help New York State compete for hundreds of millions of dollars in the so-called Race to the Top federal grants. The program will distribute $4.35 billion in stimulus financing to states for innovative education programs.

The speech suggested that the mayor may use his third term to take on the United Federation of Teachers, which sat out the mayoral election during a period of relative labor peace. The mayor did not mention that he could achieve some of the same changes by negotiating with the union, whose contract expired shortly before the election.

While many of the changes he is seeking could be accomplished at the negotiating table, his speech indicated that he would turn to Albany to take up much of the fight.

The Bloomberg administration contends that it already has the power to use test scores in tenure decisions. But, he said that the Legislature should require all districts in the state to evaluate teachers and principals with “data-driven systems,” one of the factors Mr. Duncan will use in deciding which states will receive Race to the Top grants.

The mayor also said the state should allow teacher layoffs based on performance rather than seniority, as they are now. It is a particularly crucial topic now, because the city may face large budget cuts and potential layoffs.

“The only thing worse than having to lay off teachers would be laying off great teachers instead of failing teachers,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “With a transparent new evaluation system, principals would have the ability to make layoffs based on merit — but only if the State Legislature gives us the authority to do it.”

Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker, suggested that the mayor would not find satisfaction in Albany. “These are all contractual issues that should be dealt with at the bargaining table,” he said.

The teachers’ union has fought the use of test scores in tenure decisions, and last year successfully lobbied the Legislature to ban it for teachers hired after July 1, 2008. That law is to expire next year.

The city contends that it has the power to use scores for the next batch of teachers up for tenure — those hired in 2007 — and if the Legislature does not renew its law, the city could do so for all teachers hired thereafter. Teachers generally receive tenure after three years; 93 percent of teachers up for tenure in the last school year received it.

Mr. Bloomberg said that banning the use of student achievement in tenure decisions is “like saying to hospitals, ‘You can evaluate heart surgeons on any criteria you want — just not patient survival rates.’ ”

Michael Mulgrew, the president of the city’s teacher union, said he was “very, very disappointed” in the tone of the mayor’s speech.

He did not rule out filing a lawsuit once the details of the mayor’s plan have been fleshed out.

He said that using the test scores was a poor way to measure teachers, citing criticism that the tests have become too easy, with so many students showing large improvement that they have lost their meaning as gauges of learning.

“How do we constructively fix that instead of saying let’s play political agenda and propaganda?” Mr. Mulgrew asked.

Perhaps anticipating such criticism, Mr. Bloomberg also urged the state on Wednesday to adopt national standards and make the test more difficult.

Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, called the issue of state tests the “Achilles’ heel of the accountability movement.”

“When you ask any teacher, even a good one, they tend to be pretty leery of being held accountable on these tests,” Ms. Walsh said. “These tests aren’t linked to the actual curriculum, and they have to be.”

But, she said, they have “validity for making decisions at the extreme end: Teachers who are really talented tend to be in the top and teachers who are poor tend to be in the bottom year after year.”

Teachers interviewed on Wednesday about the plan were universal in their condemnation. “It’s ridiculous,” said Kanayo Al-Broderick, a third-grade teacher at Public School 56 in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, who is in her 22nd year of teaching. “It just means they did well on this test. Does it show we’ve built them to be lifelong readers, to love reading? That’s what all teachers want.”

Education officials said they had no details on just how scores would be used for tenure decisions. Many teachers have no scores to go by: Only children in grades three through eight take the annual English and math state standardized tests, and high school students take Regents exams only in certain subjects.

The mayor also called on legislators to make it easier to fire bad teachers and teachers whose jobs have been cut but who are guaranteed their salaries even if they cannot find a new job in the system. The city is now paying more than $100 million for these so-called reserve teachers, many of whom lost their positions because their schools were closed for poor performance. Mr. Bloomberg said that the state should place a one-year limit of teachers in the reserve pool, something he could also press for in the contract.

In a move almost certain to increase that pool of teachers, the mayor also said that his goal was to shut down the lowest-performing 10 percent of city schools. So far, the Bloomberg administration has shut down 91 schools across the city.

Legislators in Albany are preoccupied with cutting the state budget, and Mr. Bloomberg appears to be trying to convince them that changes in state education law could bring much-needed millions of dollars to the state.

“We’re committed to exploring any avenues to bring in increased federal funding to the state,” said Austin Shafran, a spokesman for Senate Democrats.

Many states have made significant changes to state law to improve their chances at receiving Race to the Top money, but the Legislature in New York has not made any considerable effort to do the same.

Mr. Duncan, who sat just feet away from the mayor but remained silent on most of his proposals, said that he supported the idea of tying student data to teacher evaluations but he stopped short of endorsing the administration’s plan.

“Everyone agrees the current system is broken,” he said. “We have to talk about what makes sense.”


Karen Zraick contributed reporting.

    Mayor Says Student Scores Will Factor Into Teacher Tenure, NYT, 26.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/26/education/26teachers.html






White House Begins Campaign to Promote Science and Math Education


November 24, 2009
The New York Times


To improve science and mathematics education for American children, the White House is recruiting Elmo and Big Bird, video game programmers and thousands of scientists.

President Obama announced on Monday a campaign to enlist companies and nonprofit groups to spend money, time and volunteer effort to encourage students, especially in middle and high school, to pursue science, technology, engineering and math.

“You know the success we seek is not going to be attained by government alone,” Mr. Obama said kicking off the initiatives. “It depends on the dedication of students and parents, and the commitment of private citizens, organizations and companies. It depends on all of us.”

Mr. Obama, accompanied by students and a robot that scooped up and tossed rocks, also announced an annual science fair at the White House.

“If you win the N.C.A.A. championship, you come to the White House,” he said. “Well, if you’re a young person and you’ve produced the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too.

“Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models, and here at the White House, we’re going to lead by example. We’re going to show young people how cool science can be.”

The campaign, called Educate to Innovate, focuses mainly on activities outside the classroom. For example, Discovery Communications has promised to use two hours of the afternoon schedule on its Science Channel cable network for commercial-free programming geared toward middle school students.

Science and engineering societies are promising to provide volunteers to work with students in the classroom, culminating in a National Lab Day in May.

The MacArthur Foundation and technology industry organizations are giving out prizes in a contest to develop video games that teach science and math.

“The different sectors are responding to the president’s call for all hands on deck,” John P. Holdren, the White House science adviser, said in an interview last week.

The other parts of the campaign include a two-year focus on science on “Sesame Street,” the venerable public television children’s show, and a Web site, connectamillionminds.com, set up by Time Warner Cable, that provides a searchable directory of local science activities. The cable system will contribute television time and advertising to promote the site.

The White House has also recruited Sally K. Ride, the first American woman in space, and corporate executives like Craig R. Barrett, a former chairman of Intel, and Ursula M. Burns, chief executive of Xerox, to champion the cause of science and math education to corporations and philanthropists.

Dr. Ride said their role would be identifying successful programs and then connecting financing sources to spread the successes nationally. “The need is funding,” she said. “There is a lot of corporate interest and foundation interest in this issue.”

Administration officials say that the breadth of participation in Educate to Innovate is wider than in previous efforts, which have failed to produce a perceptible rise in test scores or in most students’ perceptions of math and science. In international comparison exams, American students have long lagged behind those in much of Asia and Europe.

But some education experts said the initiatives did little to address some core issues: improving the quality of teachers and the curriculum.

“I think a lot of this is good, but it is missing more than half of what needs to be done,” said Mark S. Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit research organization in Washington. “It has nothing to do with the day-to-day teaching,” said Dr. Schneider, who was the commissioner of education statistics at the Department of Education from 2005 to 2008.

Dr. Holdren said the initiatives, which are financed almost entirely by the participating companies and foundations and not the government, complement the Race to the Top program of the Department of Education, which will dispense $4.35 billion in stimulus financing to states for innovative education programs. The Race to the Top rules give extra points to applications that emphasize science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM subjects.

“The president has made it very clear it is a big priority,” Dr. Holdren said.

In April, Mr. Obama, speaking at the National Academy of Sciences, promised a “renewed commitment” that would move the United States “from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math over the next decade.”

To achieve this goal, Mr. Obama talked of “forging partnerships.” Monday’s announcement contains the first wave of such partnerships, officials said.

David M. Zaslav, the president and chief executive of Discovery, said Mr. Obama’s words about science education inspired Discovery to come up with the idea of two hours of programming, a mix of old and new content, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays on the Science Channel. The idea is that students coming home from school will have a ready means to learn more science.

“We took that to the administration,” Mr. Zaslav said. “They loved it.”

The lack of commercials is “a big statement by us that it’s not about the money,” he said. “It’s about reinforcing the importance of science to kids and inspiring them.”

The programming is to begin next year; the date has not been set yet.

The foundation of Jack D. Hidary, an entrepreneur who earned his fortune in finance and technology, worked with the National Science Teachers Association, the MacArthur Foundation and the American Chemical Society to create a Web site, nationallabday.org, that matches scientists willing to volunteer their time and teachers describing what projects they hope to incorporate into their classes.

For example, Mr. Hidary said, a project could involve students’ recording of birdsongs and comparing them with others from elsewhere. “That’s actually scientifically useful,” he said. “Kids can actually perform useful science.”

The projects are to culminate in National Lab Day, which schools will hold the first week of May, but the projects will typically spread over several months. Mr. Hidary said students learn better with hands-on inquiries.

“We are not about one-offs,” he said. “We’re not looking for bringing in a scientist for a day.”

After the chemical society joined the effort, other scientific organizations also signed on, Mr. Hidary said, adding, “Each one is coming, upping the ante.”

For the video game challenge, the idea is to piggyback on the interest children already have in playing the games. “That’s where they are,” said Michael D. Gallagher, chief executive of the Entertainment Software Association, a trade group and one of the sponsors. “This initiative is a recognition of that.”

Sony is expected to donate 1,000 PlayStation 3 game consoles and copies of the game LittleBigPlanet to libraries and community organizations in low-income areas. Part of the competition will consist of children creating new levels in LittleBigPlanet that incorporate science and math. The other part will offer a total of $300,000 in prize money to game designers for science and math games that will be distributed free.

“We’re finding extraordinary engagement with games,” said Connie Yowell, director of education for MacArthur. If the engagement is combined with a science curriculum, she said, “then I think we have a very powerful approach.”

Some of the initiatives were already in the works and would have been rolled out regardless of the administration’s campaign. “Sesame Street” already planned to incorporate nature into this year’s season, but has now decided to add discussions of the scientific method in next year’s episodes.

“We’ve really never kind of approached it that way before,” said Gary E. Knell, president and chief executive of the Sesame Workshop.

Time Warner Cable had already decided to devote 80 percent of its philanthropy efforts to science and math education before Mr. Obama’s speech in April. But the company adjusted its project to fit in with the others.

“Being part of a bigger effort,” said Glenn A. Britt, the chief executive, “increases the chances that the effort will be successful.”

    White House Begins Campaign to Promote Science and Math Education, NYT, 24.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/24/science/24educ.html







Tips for the Admissions Test ... to Kindergarten


November 21, 2009
The New York Times


Kayla Rosenblum sat upright and poised as she breezed through the shapes and numbers, a leopard-patterned finger puppet resting next to her for moral support.

But then came something she had never seen before: a visual analogy showing a picture of a whole cake next to a slice of cake. What picture went with a loaf of bread in the same way?

Kayla, who will be 4 in December, held her tiny pointer finger still as she inspected the four choices. “Too hard,” she peeped.

Test preparation has long been a big business catering to students taking SATs and admissions exams for law, medical and other graduate schools. But the new clientele is quite a bit younger: 3- and 4-year-olds whose parents hope that a little assistance — costing upward of $1,000 for several sessions — will help them win coveted spots in the city’s gifted and talented public kindergarten classes.

Motivated by a recession putting private schools out of reach and concern about the state of regular public education, parents — some wealthy, some not — are signing up at companies like Bright Kids NYC. Bright Kids, which opened this spring in the financial district, has some 200 students receiving tutoring, most of them for the gifted exams, for up to $145 a session and 80 children on a waiting list for a weekend “boot camp” program.

These types of businesses have popped up around the country, but took off in New York City when it made the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test, or Olsat, a reasoning exam, and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment, a knowledge test, the universal tests for gifted admissions beginning in 2008.

Kayla’s session at Bright Kids was an initial assessment; her mother, Jena Rosenblum, had not decided whether to put her through a full course of tutoring. She was considering it at the suggestion of Kayla’s preschool teacher. “Even though we live in the West Village and there are great public schools, obviously, any opportunity to step it up a notch in caliber, we would like to try,” Ms. Rosenblum said.

Melisa Kehlmann said her main concern was that her 4-year-old son, Adrian, would be shut out of the well-regarded but overcrowded schools in her Manhattan neighborhood.

“It’s quite pricey, but compared to private school, which averages about $20,000 for kindergarten, the price is right,” she said of the tutoring. “I just want the opportunity to have a choice.”

Private schools warn that they will look negatively on children they suspect of being prepped for the tests they use to select students, like the Educational Records Bureau exam, or E.R.B., even though parents and admissions officers say it quietly takes place. (Bright Kids, for example, also offers E.R.B. tutoring.)

“It’s unethical,” said Dr. Elisabeth Krents, director of admissions at the Dalton School on the Upper East Side. “It completely negates the reason for giving the test, which is to provide a snapshot of their aptitudes, and it doesn’t correlate with their future success in school.”

No similar message, however, has come from the public schools. In fact, the city distributes 16 Olsat practice questions to “level the playing field,” said Anna Commitante, the head of gifted and talented programs for the city’s Department of Education.

As for parents doing more — like hiring a tutor — Ms. Commitante said she finds “anything else a little too stressful for young kids” but that “we can’t dictate what parents choose to do.”

There is no state registry or licensing for these services, but an Internet search turns up numerous companies with names like Another Young Scholar, Junior Test Prep and Thinking to Learn. Harley Evans, the owner of Manhattan Edge Educational Programs, raised prices this year to $90 a session from $65, but still has his maximum load of 70 children. Daniel C. Levine, the founder of Exclusive Education, based in Manhattan, said that a few years ago, 2 percent of his clientele were children under 6. Now it is about 10 percent.

“It’s the same phenomenon as with the SATs: a gradual rise in test prep, until it becomes the norm,” said Emily Glickman, a Manhattan educational consultant. “Given that the demand for high-stakes schools outstrips supply, that’s what’s happening.”

Some of the thousands of students registered to take the gifted tests in January are also preparing at home. Bright Kids is selling a few hundred $90 workbooks per month, said Bige Doruk, the company’s founder. Dr. Robin MacFarlane, who developed the Kindergarten Test Study System, said she was on track to sell more than a thousand of the $60 Olsat prep kits this year, though she advises parents against intensive cramming.

Tutoring preschoolers is not quite the same as drilling high school students for the SAT. At Bright Kids, Kayla was initially stumped by the visual analogy, but once the learning specialist, Meredith Resnick, explained that she was looking at a whole-to-part relationship, she easily found the right answer: a slice of bread. “You can see that when I scaffolded her, she knew it,” Ms. Resnick said.

Children often have to be trained to listen to questions from strangers and to sit still for about an hour, the time it takes to complete the two tests.

“If their mind isn’t keyed into listening, the whole question can fly over their heads,” said one tutor, a retired teacher in gifted programs.

She spoke on condition of anonymity because she has administered the test for the city and wants to do so again.

“Some kids can do well without preparation, but children who are familiar have an edge,” the tutor said. From an equity perspective, she said, “it’s ridiculous.”

Ms. Commitante said the city had not noticed any bias due to test preparation. For this year’s kindergarten class, 3,231 students scored in at least the 90th percentile, the minimum to qualify for a gifted program, a 45 percent increase from the year before.

But that rise was attributable to “a variety of factors,” including increased participation, she said: 14,822 took the tests, an increase of 19 percent. The percentage scoring 90 percent or higher rose to 22 percent from 18 percent.

“I would hope that parents make decisions around this program because they feel that this is an educational option that their child really needs, as opposed to, ‘I have to get my child into this program because that’s the only place where they are going to get a good education,’ ” she said. “I just don’t think that’s true — we have a lot of really good schools.”




This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: November 25, 2009

Because of editing errors, an article on Saturday about an increase in test preparation programs for New York City preschoolers misstated the occupation of Meredith Resnick of Bright Kids NYC, who helped a 3-year-old with a visual analogy, and referred incorrectly to Robin MacFarlane, who said she expected to sell more than a thousand prep kits for a reasoning exam this year. Ms. Resnick is a supervisor of tutors, not a tutor herself, and Dr. MacFarlane developed a test study system for kindergartners; she does not work for Thinking to Learn, a company that sells enrichment materials.

    Tips for the Admissions Test ... to Kindergarten, NYT, 21.11.2009,http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/21/nyregion/21testprep.html






A Crown Jewel of Education Struggles With Cuts


November 20, 2009
The New York Times


BERKELEY, Calif. — As the University of California struggles to absorb its sharpest drop in state financing since the Great Depression, every professor, administrator and clerical worker has been put on furlough amounting to an average pay cut of 8 percent.

In chemistry laboratories that have produced Nobel Prize-winning research, wastebaskets are stuffed to the brim on the new reduced cleaning schedule. Many students are frozen out of required classes as course sections are trimmed.

And on Thursday, to top it all off, the Board of Regents voted to increase undergraduate fees — the equivalent of tuition — by 32 percent next fall, to more than $10,000. The university will cost about three times as much as it did a decade ago, and what was once an educational bargain will be one of the nation’s higher-priced public universities.

Among students and faculty alike, there is a pervasive sense that the increases and the deep budget cuts are pushing the university into decline.

The budget cuts in California, topping $30 billion over the last two years, have touched all aspects of state government, including health care, welfare, corrections and recreation. They have led to a retrenchment in state services not seen in modern times, and for many institutions, including the state university system, have created a watershed moment.

The state’s higher education budget has been slashed by $2.8 billion this year, including $813 million from the university system — about the equivalent of New Mexico’s entire higher education budget.

“Dismantling this institution, which is a huge economic driver for the state, is a stupendously stupid thing to do, but that’s the path the Legislature has embarked on,” said Richard A. Mathies, dean of the College of Chemistry here at Berkeley, long the system’s premier campus. “When you pull resources from an institution like this, faculty leave, the best grad students don’t come, and the discoveries go down.”

As the litany of cuts continues, there is a growing worry that senior faculty members may begin to defect. In fact, some colleges around the nation have begun identifying funds to use to recruit U.C. professors.

Since California adopted a master plan for higher education in 1960, the state has been, in the words of the historian Kevin Starr, “utopia for higher education.” Eight of the 10 University of California campuses — all but Merced and San Francisco — are in the top 100 in this year’s U.S. News & World Report’s rankings. But maintaining that edge, without resources, is difficult.

In 2004, international rankings by the London-based Times Higher Education named Berkeley the No. 2 research university in the world, behind only Harvard. This year, Berkeley plummeted to No. 39, mostly because of its high faculty-to-student ratio. The other international rankings, by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, rated Berkeley No. 3 this month.

Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a nonpartisan group that promotes access to higher education, said that while public universities in many states were facing financial problems, California was in a class by itself.

“In most states, it’s the economy, and you can say that in a couple of years, it will bounce back,” Mr. Callan said. “But in California, it’s really part of a significant retrenchment of the whole public sector. If the perception is that it’s going to be chronic, and people give up on California, the pre-eminence of Berkeley and U.C.L.A. would be in danger.”

No wonder, then, that people like Bruce Fuller, a Berkeley professor of education and public policy, are asking themselves whether it is time to move on.

As co-director of the Institute for Human Development, an interdisciplinary research group that suffered big cuts, Mr. Fuller worries that the unit is losing its intellectual excitement and its ability to support his grant proposals. Then, too, he lost his two best graduate students last year to Stanford.

“To stay on top, you need to be bringing in new people,” Mr. Fuller said. “And I’m not sure how many of my most stimulating colleagues will still be here in three years.”

So although he was not swayed last year when the University of North Carolina came calling, Mr. Fuller said, he may be more receptive this year.

Formerly taboo ideas, like allowing U.C.L.A. and Berkeley to charge substantially more than other campuses, or even eliminating the research mission at some of the newer campuses, are being put forward. Many here seem to be in a state of shock that things have been allowed to get so bad at one of the nation’s leading public research universities, one with a long tradition of excellence. Berkeley faculty, past and present, have won 21 Nobel prizes. And last month, two of the 24 MacArthur fellowship grants went to a Berkeley computer scientist and a molecular biologist.

Students, professors and union workers alike say the state’s 20 percent cutback in financing imperils the system’s ability to provide a top-quality education to all qualified California students, particularly those from low-income families, who make up almost a third of the university’s student body.

Mark Yudof, the university system president, has created a commission that will make recommendations next spring on the future size and shape of the system. Just about everything seems to be on the table. There is even talk of creating an online “11th U.C. campus,” to bring in new revenue by offering courses — and degrees — to qualified students in other states and countries.

As support from the state dwindles, it is inevitable that the university will begin to look more like a private institution. The proportion of out-of-state students will rise next year: at Berkeley, almost a quarter of the freshmen admitted for next year will be international or out-of-state students.

And, as at private universities, student fees are rising rapidly, balanced, in large part, by bigger aid packages for low- and middle-income students. Across the 10 campuses, instructional budgets are being reduced by $139 million, with 1,900 employees laid off, 3,800 positions eliminated and hiring deferred for nearly 1,600 positions, most of them faculty.

Mr. Yudof rejects suggestions to retrench, like adopting a two-tiered system in which the Santa Cruz, Riverside and Merced campuses would be teaching institutions and no longer focus on research.

“My mission is to defend, protect, enhance and grow the University of California,” Mr. Yudof said. He added that he hoped the current measures would be enough to get the system back on track.

But that may not be the case. Just to fend off further cuts, he said, the state will need to add nearly $900 million to the university’s budget next year.

Whatever that budget looks like, Mr. Yudof said, there will be no more furloughs. “It’s too demoralizing,” he said.

This year, the University of Texas lured three senior faculty members from the University of California, among them William F. Hanks, and his wife, Jennifer Johnson-Hanks, both anthropologists.

“Last spring, when we made the decision, there were issues, but the budget hadn’t quite slammed down to the extent it has since then,” Mr. Hanks said. “It looks a lot bleaker now.

“But in our case, it wasn’t so much wanting to leave Berkeley as wanting to come to U.T. Surprisingly, there’s more intellectual excitement and dynamism here. The department is growing and expanding, and we’re part of a cohort of new people, which is a fabulous feeling, fraught with potential.”

Meanwhile, back in his old department at Berkeley, things are tight — and no replacements can be hired. “Our biological anthropology course, which is required for psych majors, used to be offered every semester,” said Meg Conkey, an archeology professor, “and now it’s just spring semester, and probably there will be students who don’t get in.

“We just don’t have as many people to draw from, and we’re likely to have three retirements coming up,” she said. For undergraduates, the budget cuts are creating new strains about graduating in four years. Classes will be larger and teaching assistants fewer, and already, dozens of students have been unable to register for sections of introductory chemistry courses.

“Last semester, I couldn’t get into a lab section for Chem 3A,” said Nawal Siddiqui, a bioengineering major who hopes to go to medical school. “So now I’m taking Chem 3B lectures, with the labs for Chem 3A. It’s kind of hard.”

The chancellor of Berkeley, Robert J. Birgeneau, expresses optimism that more money can be saved without cutting into the educational muscle of the university. “If the budget doesn’t get worse,” he said, “we can recover in two years.”

Dr. Birgeneau tells of a recent meeting with a student leader, who said students were most unhappy about the decision to end Berkeley’s tradition of keeping the library open 24 hours during finals, and an hour later, a parent meeting where he mentioned that complaint — and immediately got a $30,000 pledge to pay for round-the-clock library access during finals.

“If they keep cutting, it’ll take us longer to recover,” Dr. Birgeneau said. “But Berkeley can always recover.”

    A Crown Jewel of Education Struggles With Cuts, NYT, 20.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/20/education/20berkeley.html