City Journal Special Issue 2013

After Bloomberg:
An Agenda for New York

Special Issue 2013
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City Journal

Sol Stern
Education Advice for the Next Mayor
Pursue a stronger curriculum and a new teachers’ contract.
Special Issue 2013
Kindergartners learn to read using the Core Knowledge program.
COURTESY OF THE CORE KNOWLEDGE FOUNDATION
Kindergartners learn to read using the Core Knowledge program.

Dear Mr. or Ms. Mayor-Elect:

Allow me to offer a few modest suggestions as you plan your administration’s education policies.

First, a little humility might be in order. In the exuberance of electoral victory, you’ll feel tempted to proclaim a new era of progress for New York City’s schools, just as your predecessor did. But reflect on the consequences of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s overselling of his education reforms. When Bloomberg won mayoral control of the schools in 2002, he promised gains in student achievement that were impossible to deliver. He then tried to reach those lofty goals by putting incredible pressure on principals and teachers to boost students’ test scores. Testifying at a congressional hearing in 2008, Bloomberg contended that his administration had narrowed the racial achievement gap by half—in just five years! It didn’t actually happen, nor has it ever happened in any school district in the United States. Overall achievement also didn’t improve much. For example, eighth-grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—the single best predictor that we have of kids’ readiness for college—barely budged between 2003 and 2011.

The Bloomberg administration deserves credit for bringing more efficient management practices to a dysfunctional bureaucracy and for offering parents and children greater choices by expanding charter schools and creating new, smaller high schools. But the overwhelming emphasis on higher test scores has caused real damage, including test-score inflation, cheating by educators, and demoralization of classroom teachers.

The public, for its part, remains dissatisfied with Gotham’s schools, according to a poll of city voters commissioned by the Manhattan Institute and conducted earlier this year by Zogby Analytics. Sixty-four percent of respondents rated school performance as either fair or poor, with only 27 percent proclaiming it excellent or good; 69 percent said that students in the city’s schools weren’t ready for the twenty-first-century economy. New Yorkers now trust the oft-maligned teachers more than they trust the mayor’s office: almost half of all respondents said that teachers should “play the largest role in determining New York City’s education policy,” compared with 28 percent who thought that the mayor-appointed schools chancellor should.

New Yorkers’ skepticism of the outgoing mayor’s record may be useful to you when you take office, allowing you to begin an honest conversation about how hard it is to overcome gaps in academic achievement between middle-class children and those from economically disadvantaged families. Yet to be realistic about the achievement gap doesn’t mean accepting the education Left’s argument (an excuse, really) that we can’t expect schools to improve low-income students’ performance until America solves the problem of poverty. Though children from disadvantaged families, and particularly from single-parent families, certainly tend to start school with less knowledge than middle-class students have, you can nevertheless pronounce confidently that educational improvement is possible, even in the toughest neighborhoods and lowest-performing schools.

We know that because it happened in Massachusetts, a jurisdiction with roughly the same number of public schools and students that New York City has. The Bay State’s 1993 education-reform legislation established the country’s most demanding set of academic standards, which replaced trendy but ineffective pedagogical approaches with an old-fashioned emphasis on “content”—that is, knowledge. The standards eventually brought Massachusetts the greatest overall improvements in student performance in the nation, as measured by the NAEP. True, Massachusetts’s reforms made little progress in overcoming the black-white achievement gap. But they did lift achievement for all racial and ethnic groups and immeasurably improved the life chances of tens of thousands of poor kids.

Fortunately, your administration needn’t start from a blank slate, as Massachusetts had to. The infrastructure for improvement is already in place, thanks to New York’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards, a document promoted by a consortium representing the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and accepted by 44 other states as well. Like the Massachusetts standards, the Common Core focuses on the content taught in the classroom, which most reform initiatives have ignored. If implemented properly—admittedly, a big “if”—the standards could start our schools on a long, difficult path to higher academic performance, not only for poor children but for all students.

Critics of the Common Core argue that the standards aren’t as demanding as Massachusetts’s. They’re right. But the Common Core is far superior to anything that previously passed for academic standards in New York. “By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas,” say the standards’ accompanying documents. “Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” If a coherent, knowledge-based curriculum drove improvement in Massachusetts, it could do the same in New York City.

When you take the oath of office on January 1, 2014, some schools will already have introduced Common Core–aligned curricula. Your challenge will be to mobilize the teachers, the principals, the teachers’ union, and the parents to support the dramatic changes in classroom instruction that the curricula require. If you pick a schools chancellor and other top officials who keep up with education research, they will know that a consensus exists among cognitive scientists that building broad content knowledge in the early grades is the best way to raise reading comprehension for disadvantaged children. As education scholar E. D. Hirsch, Jr. has warned for the past quarter-century, many poor children remain functionally illiterate not because teachers are incompetent but because those teachers have been “compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum” that dismisses the accumulation of knowledge as “mere facts.” More, a knowledge-based curriculum provides the most promising long-term strategy for preparing all children, poor and middle-class alike, for success in college or, for those who don’t attend college, in the twenty-first-century workplace. As a bonus, the Common Core encourages teaching the historical and civic knowledge that children need to become informed citizens and better Americans.

Contrary to what some critics say, content-based curricula are hardly an untested idea that we should try in only a limited number of schools. Not only do we have the success story of Massachusetts; we can point to the city’s field test of Hirsch’s content-based Core Knowledge literacy program in several schools between 2008 and 2011. The test showed that Core Knowledge produced significantly greater gains for students than the school system’s most widely used reading program (see “The Curriculum Reformation,” Summer 2012).

You still shouldn’t promise miracles, of course. There will be no overnight double-digit leaps in test scores, as were reported in the Bloomberg years and subsequently discredited. It took decades for the progressive-education movement to dismantle a coherent academic curriculum in the nation’s schools and replace it with a constructivist pedagogy that encouraged teachers and children to figure out what needed to be learned as they went along. So it will take more than a few years to change the culture of teaching and restore the priority of knowledge acquisition in the classroom. You must ask the public to be patient until gains from the adoption of the Common Core become evident. And sustaining that effort for years to come will require tremendous dedication from the city’s principals and teachers.

New Yorkers for Choice

It’s difficult to imagine 87 percent of New Yorkers agreeing on anything. But in a recent Zogby poll commissioned by the Manhattan Institute, that’s the percentage of city residents concurring that parents should have more options when choosing their children’s schools. Among African-Americans and parents of kids younger than 17, the figure was even higher. Regrettably, the city’s nonpublic options have been disappearing at an alarming rate, and none more quickly than its Catholic schools, which have struggled with rising costs. New York lost 67 Catholic schools to closure between 2000 and 2012—and another 24 are being shuttered in June. These closures are a serious loss: Catholic schools do an excellent job of educating kids and instilling good values, and they do it far less expensively than the public schools do.

Fortunately, pending legislation in Albany could help keep the Catholic schools viable. The Education Investment Tax Credit bill passed the state senate last year and now has 91 sponsors in the state assembly, including 67 Democrats. The bill would give donors to nonprofit scholarship organizations or to public school districts a dollar-for-dollar tax credit. It would cap total tax credits at $250 million the first year and $300 million thereafter, splitting the total evenly between the scholarship groups and the public schools. In an effort to ensure a broad base of donors, it would limit the amount that each individual or business could contribute. The bill would help Catholic-school parents, who could apply to these scholarship organizations for tuition aid—but it would also help public school parents, who are increasingly called on to fund their kids’ extracurricular activities at school.

In April, more than 10,000 parents and schoolchildren rallied in Buffalo in support of the bill, which could save taxpayer money by keeping more Catholic schools open for students who would otherwise attend one of the city’s overcrowded public schools. As former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly remarked at the rally: “How often is it that Albany can pass one bill and everybody wins?”

—Charles Upton Sahm

But those teachers are cynical and demoralized after years of implementing a long succession of reformist fads (most now forgotten) handed down from on high. Many teachers suspect that the Common Core is yet another fad; who can blame them? Moreover, the teachers’ union is at loggerheads with the Bloomberg administration over a new labor contract—it’s been almost four years since the last one expired—and the terms of an evaluation system for teachers. That doesn’t make for the most congenial atmosphere in which to ask teachers to embrace the tough instructional expectations laid out in the Common Core.

But your administration might win them over by compromising on the divisive issue of using improvement in students’ test scores as the major element in individual teachers’ evaluations. Bill Gates, whose foundation spent hundreds of millions of dollars on developing and supporting test-based teacher evaluations used by the Bloomberg administration and in many other school districts across the country, has had second thoughts about whether they’re all that useful in identifying bad teachers. Even education researchers who support the evaluations concede that they retain a substantial margin of error. Further, as currently implemented, test-based evaluations clearly encourage educators to cheat to get better scores for their students. Even when principals and teachers don’t actually alter their students’ answers to improve results, as they did in Atlanta schools, the pressure to raise scores can produce classroom distortions. Teachers waste valuable time on test preparation—teaching children how to game the multiple-choice tests—instead of broadening the curriculum and expanding students’ knowledge. Such “teaching to the test” is at odds with the philosophy of content-based education.

So at the start of your administration, you could agree to a moratorium on test-based teacher rankings, as American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten recently suggested. That doesn’t mean that you should back away from the vital issue of improving teacher quality, however. The newly announced teacher evaluation system imposed by the state allows the terms to be modified in contract negotiations between the city and the local affiliate of the AFT. Thus, in exchange for the moratorium, you would ask the union to agree to some long-overdue changes to the old teachers’ contract—changes that would improve teacher quality and classroom instruction while also cutting costs in these tough fiscal times. The contract’s most egregious problem may be its irrational and wasteful pay schedule. Incredibly, teachers enjoy substantial salary bumps for “educational attainment” based on no academic content at all. This has become a racket, with many teachers qualifying for salary increases by taking fluff courses offered by a host of providers out to make an easy buck, including the United Federation of Teachers, the local teachers’ union. In the Common Core era, in which teachers must teach real academic content, your administration should insist that teachers qualify for extra pay only by passing rigorous academic courses that expand their knowledge and help them impart it to students.

A second absurdity in the old labor contract is that it has nothing to say about teachers’ productivity. The only reference to their expected time on the job merely notes the length of the school day for students: six hours and 50 minutes. Obviously, a teacher who works less than seven hours a day for the 180 days of the school year isn’t going to teach well. Yet the contract fails to say anything further about work hours, and principals can’t hold teachers accountable for choosing to work the minimum. These slackers don’t just harm students; they demoralize the teachers who do put in the hours necessary to do their jobs properly. This is no trivial issue. Teaching is labor-intensive and will become even more so with the higher instructional expectations of the Common Core. So one of your administration’s top objectives in the upcoming negotiations should be to set a higher minimum number of hours that teachers must work.

Let me also call your attention to an education issue that, though not officially within your purview as chief executive of the public schools, is important for the welfare of our city. This is the tragic disappearance, because of lack of funds, of urban Catholic schools, which for over a century have supplied poor minority children with an excellent education. One reason that Catholic schools have done so well with disadvantaged students is that, long before the Common Core, they followed a content-based curriculum. As the city’s public schools trivialized their curricula and embraced brain-dead multiculturalism, most Catholic schools held fast to the ideal that minority children could share our civilization’s intellectual and spiritual heritage. Indeed, they are among the last urban schools that embrace the idea of a common civic culture. Every time one of them dies, the city that they have served so well suffers another rent in its civic fabric.

In almost 12 years in office, Mayor Bloomberg did little to try to stem the tide of Catholic school closings. Instead, he raised hundreds of millions of dollars in philanthropic donations to the public schools, whose annual budget also grew by $12 billion in taxpayer funds during his tenure. I urge you to take a different direction, using your bully pulpit to prod the philanthropic community to try to head off the looming crisis of the Catholic schools. You also ought to consider supporting tuition tax credits as a means of encouraging more philanthropic giving to the Catholic schools (see sidebar). These tax credits would probably be broadly popular: according to the Zogby poll, an overwhelming majority of respondents think that parents should have more options in choosing their children’s schools.

Finally, I hope that throughout your term, you’ll respond to the problems of the schools by following the evidence about the best education policies and refusing to become beholden to any interest group. That’s the kind of leader that the children of the city deserve.

What to Do

  • Focus on classroom instruction and implementation of the Common Core.
  • Press the union to agree to rational changes in the salary schedule and to accept a more reasonable minimum standard of productivity for teachers.
  • Use your bully pulpit to help mobilize a rescue effort for the city’s Catholic schools.
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