Tale of the Bronx Fires Perfect for Mayor Bloomberg’s Kindle
It’s a hot topic (forgive the pun), because the study in errors of governance could as well have been about the way our schools have been managed under Mayor Bloomberg.
It was not the intent of Lindsay, his RAND Corporation contractors, or his dedicated, brilliant but short sighted Fire Chief, John O’Hagen, to burn the city down. They had the best of intentions when they allowed critical decisions be driven by statistical analysis.
Therein the tale becomes sickeningly familiar. The same hubris that we read about daily as the city’s school testing scandal unfolds, reads an awful lot like the disaster that led to the burning of much of the Bronx and poor neighborhoods throughout the city.
Mr. Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein want the pupils to do well, but they are so full of themselves and sure of their brilliance, that they can’t admit that they have already failed.
Lindsay’s young whiz kids and outside consultants were hired to develop statistical formulas to decide which of the city’s “unneeded” firehouses to close. These “best and brightest” developed such a formula, but when the dust cleared a decade later, the formula was shown to have been wrong.
Huge portions of the city were devastated, just as the newly adjusted test scores show that the educational opportunities of a generation of students were destroyed by the Bloomberg/Klein statistics-driven “business model,” imposed on our schools.
As what were trumpeted as administrative “triumphs” were being put in place by the Lindsay administration during the early 1970s, that mayor was off running for president, boasting of his acumen in running the city. Much as Mayor Bloomberg did in 2008 when he boasted to a Congressional committee about the progress his administration made in closing the performance gap between white and Asian students on one hand and black and Hispanic students on the other.
Just as the RAND Corporation and the Lindsay administration were honored with the Lancaster Prize in mathematics, second place in the Franz Edelman competition for operations research, and a NATO Systems Science Prize, all for their work in developing the firehouse location formula, Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein were honored with the Broad Prize for urban educational excellence.
The common thread is that the honors were not from those who sought new answers, but from those who sought the answers that they themselves wanted to hear. But that didn’t stop the city from burning, or the education of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable New York children from being squandered.
Both Mr. Bloomberg and Lindsay were using the same top down model known as “root analysis,” which tries to solve problems by applying statistical formulae. These top down models pass over more mundane answers that come from experience or public involvement in decision-making, and thus are to be avoided.
Ironically, Mr. Flood repeatedly cites the work of Jane Jacobs, whose seminal “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is honored by the title of Diane Ravitch’s recent best-seller “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.”
Just as the insight of Jacobs decades ago became the conventional wisdom by which we judge the way cities are run and develop, Ms. Ravitch’s analysis is the touchstone for critics of the mayor’s stewardship of the schools. Just as the Lindsay legacy has been left in the ashes of the south Bronx, the Bloomberg educational legacy is buried under a blizzard of sub-par test scores and, alas, deceit.
Mr. Flood’s The Fires is a great tale, one that offers lessons to us that can just as easily be applied to the school house as the fire house. It should be on Mr. Bloomberg’s Kindle.
Mr. Wolf, a contributing editor of The New York Sun, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.