Publication Date: 2004-02-05
Below is Chapter 1 from an evaluation novel.If you want to read the rest, go to:
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters and incidents are products of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Where the Truth Lies
The voice of intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing. Ultimately, after endless rebuffs, it succeeds.
~ Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion
Looking out across the cornfields from his office window, Reeder wondered how he had gotten himself into such a place. Across the campus the fields stretched into the distance as far as he could see. And it would be winter before long. Bleak. Fit his mood. He turned back to the yellow note pad and rested his chin on his fists. Where was he? He began to read his uneven scrawl again. The phone rang.
?This is the Mayor?s office, New York City.? A woman?s voice. How old was she?
?This is Velma Williams, with Mayor Kuhnsmiller?s office. We have a project you might be interested in.?
How did they get his name, a thousand miles away? She began to explain. It was complicated.
?The New York school system has a new head. He?s called a chancellor, not a superintendent, as in most places.? Just like New York City. A bit grandiose, he thought. But what the hell, they could hardly compete with university administrators.
?The Chancellor, Richard Pellegrini, has instituted a new policy. If students don?t get a certain score on the citywide test, they can?t go on to the next grade level. They are held back for the next year until they do get a passing score. They flunk.?
He took a sip from his coffee cup. Yuck, the coffee was cold. It was bad enough when it was hot. Like this it was poison. The Director of the Center insisted on making the coffee in a big urn, and the stuff tasted metallic. Since the Director was in the office in the morning long before anyone else and made the coffee, it was difficult to complain.
?What if the kids don?t achieve the score the next year?? he asked.
?They fail again, until they do get the right score. It?s called the Second Chance program.?
Sounds like more Last Chance, Reeder thought as he waved a student away from his door, indicating he was on the phone. He recognized the mentality. Toughen up, crack down. Politicians had tried it for drugs, crime, welfare, the homeless, you name it. A fix-it-all solution for things they didn?t want to spend money on. Trouble was, it never worked. But he was paid to evaluate, not preach.
She went on before he could say anything. An earthy voice. What did she look like?
?You see, Pellegrini grew up in a tough part of the city, a poor Italian neighborhood. And he made it out. He?s been very successful. So he figures others should be able to make it too. He thinks teachers and students are not trying hard enough. If he clamps down on them, they will perform better. Too much slack in the system. The teachers give up and the kids give up. Everybody takes it easy. The teachers get by but the kids pay the price.?
He remembered seeing a newspaper photo of Pellegrini. A fat guy with not much hair. Evidently, the tough discipline didn?t apply to the Chancellor himself. He looked a little like LaGuardia, the mayor from the Forties. Perhaps New Yorkers were fat because there wasn?t any place to exercise. They loaded up on pastrami sandwiches at the deli and took taxis everywhere.
Reeder turned his chair back towards the window and looked out across the flat Midwestern plains. Not a hill in sight.
?So you want me to evaluate the program,? he said.
?No, no,? she said. ?Well, not exactly. We want you to oversee the evaluation. You see, New York has an unusual financial arrangement. You remember years ago when the city went bankrupt??
He remembered. There had been lots of media coverage, and a Wall Street financier had been brought in to straighten out the city budget. The plan worked, more or less. The city got back on its feet.
?Yes, right, I remember.? It had been a while.
?Well, in that reorganization of the city government, the deal was that the Mayor?s office would provide half the school budget. We have a say in how the money on schools is spent.?
?Right. Most school districts have their own financing, separate from the city government. Part of the Progressive reforms.? He figured she knew this or didn?t care, but he wanted to say something to show that he had some knowledge of the issues, peripheral though it might be.
?Well, some people on the Mayor?s staff think this new program will cost a lot of money and that it won?t work. This year the district failed twenty-five thousand students. All those students have to go to summer school, which costs extra. Plenty extra.? She paused. Was there someone else listening on her end?
?The students that don?t achieve high enough test scores at the end of summer have to repeat the same grade they were in before. And the district has promised small classes of no more than eighteen for these students. Which means this year alone they had to hire nine hundred more teachers to staff the extra classes. A lot of money. Ninety million dollars. That has to come from the Mayor?s budget.?
?Why don?t you just tell them no? Don?t do the program.?
?Well,? she paused again. ?The Chancellor is close to the Mayor personally and appealed to him. So the Mayor said let?s try it. We fell back on insisting that the program be evaluated so we know whether it works. If not, it?s over. Dead. That?s the deal.?
?But you don?t want me to evaluate it??
?No, when we insisted on an evaluation, the Chancellor?s office said, ?Ok. We have a staff of sixty people who evaluate programs. Our staff can do the job.? That?s when we came up with the idea of someone overseeing the evaluation. We don?t have the expertise to know if the evaluation the district does is any good. And, frankly, we don?t trust them entirely. We need someone to tell us if the evaluation is ok.?
?Why me? I?m a thousand miles away. You can find someone closer. New York is a big place.?
?When we decided to do it this way, with the monitoring, we asked around the country for names of people who could do the job. This isn?t going to be easy, dealing with these city agencies. We need someone tough enough for the job. Your name came up most often. We thought we would talk to you first to see if you are interested.?
That almost sealed the deal. Reeder was flattered to hear his name mentioned like this. That others thought he was tough. The project sounded interesting. Political dynamite. High profile. Filled with confrontation, no doubt. The way he liked it. It had been a while since he had been in a situation like this. He needed face-to-face conflict to jar him from the routines of academic life. The endless talk in faculty meetings could turn gold into lead.
?Ok,? he said. ?Why don?t you send me some information about the program and how the oversight will work. I?ll think about it and come up with some ideas.?
Reeder finished discussing details with the Mayor?s assistant, hung up the phone, and settled back in his chair. He wondered what he had gotten himself into. This was a world he knew nothing about. Maybe it was more than he could handle. He looked out the window at the flat land again. What the hell. At least it would get him out of the cornfields for a while.