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Eye on the News

Charles Upton Sahm
Choice, Accountability, and Achievement
Mayor de Blasio should build upon the Bloomberg education reforms, not roll them back.
9 January 2014

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio seems intent on scrapping or watering down many of the accountability-based, competition-driven school reforms put in place by his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. At the press conference announcing his pick for schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, de Blasio suggested that city schools had little to show for 12 years under the Bloomberg administration. But a close look at the record reveals undeniable improvements in school governance and respectable progress on student achievement. While New York City’s schools are far from perfect and much can be done to build upon the Bloomberg-era reforms, Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Fariña should reflect on how far the schools have come before embarking on wholesale changes.

Before Bloomberg persuaded the New York State legislature to give him direct control of the city’s public schools in 2002, Gotham’s education system was a dysfunctional mess. An unaccountable board of education appointed the schools chancellor, who oversaw unaccountable superintendents, principals, and teachers. If anyone actually ran the schools, it was the superintendents of the city’s 32 community school districts, who were chosen by 32 community school boards. In fact, the first elective office de Blasio held was on the board of District 15 in Brooklyn. The superintendent he supported had resigned amid allegations of overspending and mismanagement in 2001. The board then appointed Fariña to lead the district’s schools. But this mini-scandal was nothing compared with the corruption and incompetence in other neighborhoods.

Some superintendents were dedicated, professional educators, but many were products of political organizations and ran their districts as personal fiefdoms. One of the forgotten heroes of the New York school system is Colman Genn, a superintendent who, in the late 1980s, secretly recorded conversations with local politicos to expose corruption in the system. Principal positions got sold to the highest bidder. School board members carried baby grand pianos out of schools and into their homes. A few principals were caught dealing drugs out of their offices. The district superintendent in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for 20 years put scores of women from the Hasidic community on his payroll with no-show jobs and then turned the money from their salaries over to a local rabbi, who ran a private school with the funds (after all involved took money off the top). Such people were running New York City’s schools not so long ago.

Rudy Giuliani tried to get a handle on the schools when he became mayor in 1994. He asked schools chancellor Ramon Cortines basic questions such as, “How many teachers work in New York’s schools?” Cortines had no idea. It was impossible to get even basic information on the schools from the board of education. Useful data were nonexistent. No one understood the budgeting process. Textbooks arrived months into the school year. The School Construction Authority was wasteful and inept.

All this infuriated Giuliani, and he often railed against the city’s education bureaucracy. But back then, the mayor couldn’t do much to improve the public schools. It wasn’t until Bloomberg took office and won mayoral control of the schools that change began to occur. One of Bloomberg’s first orders of business was to carry out Giuliani’s threat to “blow up”—metaphorically, of course—the board of education headquarters at 110 Livingston Street. (The downtown Brooklyn building was sold by the city and is now home to million-dollar condos.) Pledging to be the “education mayor,” Bloomberg placed the new department of education right next to City Hall in the beautiful Tweed Courthouse building. He shocked the education establishment by appointing Joel Klein, an accomplished trust-busting lawyer, as schools chancellor.

Bloomberg urged Klein to “challenge the status quo,” a goal that even Klein’s most ardent critics would admit he achieved. At a 2003 Martin Luther King Day symposium in Harlem, Bloomberg and Klein announced an elaborate restructuring plan called Children First. They replaced the old bureaucracy with a new streamlined management structure featuring a clear chain of accountability, from the schools chancellor to ten regional superintendents to principals. It allowed Klein to shed thousands of administrative jobs and direct more money to the classrooms. A few years later, Klein and his team again restructured the system, loosening control, unloading regional superintendents in favor of support networks that provided instructional and operational support, and empowering principals with more autonomy.

Bloomberg began to shower money on the city’s schools. The schools’ operating budget doubled, from $12.9 billion to $24.7 billion. While New York’s annual per-student spending once lagged behind the state average, it’s now well above it, at $20,664. Nearly all the increase in spending came from city taxpayer funds, as state and federal funding remained stable over the Bloomberg years. The city spent an additional $25 billion in capital funds on new and renovated schools. More than 126,000 classroom seats have been added since 2003, including 164 brand-new school buildings.

Most of the increased spending is due to substantial raises that teachers and principals received during the Bloomberg years. The 2005 contract that Bloomberg and Klein inked with the teachers’ union provided a 43 percent increase in base pay in exchange for ending “forced placement.” In the past, tenured teachers were placed in open jobs based on seniority, whether or not principals wanted them. This led to veteran teachers moving to schools in higher-income neighborhoods and novice teachers being placed in the most challenging schools. Principals could now finally select their own staffs, though the union ensured that unplaced teachers weren’t fired but instead put in an Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) pool, where they collect paychecks for little or no work. (The Independent Budget Office recently released a study suggesting that the city could save $73 million annually by imposing a one-year limit on the time that teachers can remain in the ATR.)

The 2005 contract also extended the school day by 37.5 minutes four days a week. The Bloomberg administration negotiated two subsequent contract renewals that sweetened teacher pensions but didn’t push for further major reforms. The current teachers’ contract expired in October 2009, but as Mayor Bloomberg has noted, teachers are still receiving step increases based on seniority and the accumulation of useless graduate-degree credits. (A potential bargaining chip for de Blasio: offer teacher raises in exchange for eliminating the bump in salary that teachers get for obtaining master’s degrees, which, research shows, have no impact on teacher effectiveness.)

Bloomberg made educational choice a reform priority. The city significantly expanded choice at the middle school and high school levels by creating an application and assignment process. No longer are students consigned to zoned schools: students and parents are given options, with 74 percent winding up with one of their top three choices. Each spring, newspapers and websites post lists of the most (and least) sought-after schools, and the competition for students has spurred reform at the high school level.

The city opened 654 new schools during the Bloomberg administration, many of them small, theme-based high schools. By dividing up many of New York’s massive high schools into smaller academies, the administration sought to foster the sense of community that sociologist James Coleman identified as the key to good schools: every teacher and school official knows every student by name. The respected research firm MDRC, in a multiyear study of these small schools, found that their students have a graduation rate 10 percentage points higher than their peers in traditional high schools. More striking, city data show that graduation rates rose from 38 percent at the large high schools in 2002 to 68 percent in the new small schools in the same buildings in 2012.

Charter schools have been the most crucial and controversial component of the Bloomberg choice agenda. New York State passed its charter school law in 1998, but as of 2003 the city had only 18 charter schools, many of them subpar. By fully supporting charters, including attracting the best charter management organizations and finding them space in underutilized public school buildings, the Bloomberg administration made New York’s charter sector one of the fastest-growing and best-performing in the country. There are now 183 charters in New York, and 70,000 children (6 percent of all public school students) are now enrolled in charter schools. In neighborhoods such as Harlem, where better educational options are most needed, the figure is as high as 33 percent, and some traditional public schools, spurred by the competition and the charters’ infusion of new ideas and new urgency, are striving to improve.

On the new rigorous state tests, charter students on average scored proficiency in math at a higher rate (by five percentage points) than students in traditional public schools and at a slightly lower rate (by one percentage point) in English. However, when compared with “peer” schools whose students come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, 79 percent of charter students posted higher proficiency rates in math, and 54 percent had higher rates in English. Some charters—notably, the schools in the Success and Icahn networks, which work with students from an early age using content-rich curricula—continue to achieve amazing results, performing better than schools in wealthy suburbs like Scarsdale.

In addition to charters and the smaller theme-based high schools, numerous other schools offering specialized programs have been opened. For example, the number of “career and technical education” (CTE) schools have more than doubled under the Bloomberg administration, from 18 in 2002 to 46 this year. Between 1960 and 2003, no vocational education schools were opened in New York City—“voc ed” had become stigmatized as a dumping ground for less able students. But the city’s new CTE schools are preparing students for some of tomorrow’s best jobs—and are being looked to as a national model for college- and career-readiness. As a result of all these new school options, New York now ranks second in the Brookings Institution’s index of choice and competition for students. (New Orleans, where 79 percent of students now attend charters, is Number One.)

The other hallmark of the Bloomberg era was its intense focus on accountability. Over the past 12 years, the Bloomberg administration closed 164 schools for poor performance. Critics suggest that the administration has focused on shuttering bad schools, rather than improving them. But unlike other cities with declining student populations, New York hasn’t really “closed” any schools. Failing schools have been reconfigured with new names, new teachers, and new leadership. Large schools have been broken into a few small schools designed to support struggling students and organized around a unifying theme. Rather than do minor restructurings, which research shows rarely works, the Bloomberg administration has attempted to give these schools and their students a fresh start. Despite these efforts, many of the new schools have struggled; 19 have failed and subsequently closed again.

Critics complain of the disruption caused by these efforts. Yet would it have been better to ignore these schools, as the city had done for decades? Many people don’t understand how bad some of them are. Consider PS 194 in Harlem, which the city wanted to close before a UFT lawsuit halted the plan. Less than 1 percent of its students passed the state math and English exams this year, and numerous violent incidents—including a teacher allegedly tossing a special-education student down a flight of stairs last month—led the Daily News to label it “School of Horror.”

The city has tried to use data to improve the schools. In 2006, borrowing from Florida governor Jeb Bush’s reforms, it began providing annual school progress reports, including a letter grade for each school. Critics rightly note that the letter grades assigned to schools are often flawed, but the city continues to refine the grading process and there is a wealth of useful information below the letter grade. The city also created the Achievement Reporting and Information System (ARIS), which analyzes student performance on assessments to help teachers tailor instruction. If, for example, a student is having a hard time multiplying fractions, the teacher can introduce exercises geared to that child’s needs. Parents now have access to this information via a new “Parent Link” program.

Even before the state passed its new teacher accountability law, the Bloomberg administration was working with principals to make tenure something to earn rather than an automatic right. When Bloomberg came into office in 2002, only 1 percent of New York’s teachers were denied tenure. Principals now take the granting of tenure much more seriously. This year, 53 percent of eligible new teachers received tenure and 3 percent were denied it, effectively barring them from working in city schools. The remaining 44 percent had their probationary periods extended for another year. The accountability measures are far from perfect. But the current data and accountability structure is better than what existed five years ago, when principals were barred from using test scores to evaluate teachers—or 20 years ago, when Ramon Cortines couldn’t even say how many teachers worked in the school system.

New York City has implemented other important changes—expanding summer school and reining in social promotion; opening dozens of transfer schools to give older students who had fallen behind a second chance to graduate; replacing inequitable, inscrutable school budgets with a new “Fair Funding Formula” that provides schools with a dollar amount per student, weighted by such factors as poverty and achievement level; streamlining the dismissal process for teachers accused of wrongdoing and reducing the number of teachers in the city’s notorious “rubber rooms”; and launching innovative efforts to lower absenteeism, support struggling students, and better address the needs of special-education students. A new competitive bidding system for school busing reduced costs. School cafeterias serve healthier lunches. And the school safety office, working with the NYPD, has cut school violence in half.

Certainly, not all changes wrought by the Bloomberg administration have been for the better. Cathie Black’s short-lived 2011 appointment as schools chancellor was an unmitigated disaster. The city’s pilot merit-pay program for teachers proved disappointing. The principals emerging from the city’s new Principal Leadership Academy haven’t proven to be especially effective, and many don’t have enough classroom experience to make good curriculum decisions or evaluate teachers. Some new small high schools lack vital extracurricular programs.

The biggest mistake came early on, when the administration mandated that two poor curriculum programs—Teachers College Reading and Writing Workshop and Everyday Math—be used in every classroom. At a recent CUNY Institute for Education Policy forum, Joel Klein cited curriculum as his greatest regret and credited City Journal contributing editor Sol Stern for educating him about content-rich curricula like the Core Knowledge program, which the city began using near the end of Klein’s tenure and which has been shown to boost kids’ reading scores. To implement the higher standards of the Common Core State Standards, New York State hired Core Knowledge to devise a new K–2 state reading curriculum; the city is now recommending it as one of three preferred reading programs. Fariña, Mayor de Blasio’s incoming chancellor, championed the old curricula; it will be a profound setback if she reverses the state and city’s new focus on employing coherent, content-rich curricula.

What about student achievement? New York State’s standards and assessments have changed drastically over the past decade, so it’s difficult to quantify achievement at the elementary and middle school levels. From 2000 to 2009, the state tests became increasingly easy and predictable. (Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein didn’t hesitate to take credit for the skyrocketing scores.) Then, in 2010, the state raised the cut-off scores for proficiency, and the city saw a sharp drop in the number of kids who met state standards—from 82 percent to 54 percent in math and from 69 percent to 42 percent in English. The bar was raised again this year, with the rigorous new Common Core–aligned state tests, and proficiency rates again fell: only 30 percent of city students were rated proficient in math and 26 percent in English.

In the absence of a steady benchmark, the best indicator of city schools’ progress is the degree to which city students have closed the gap with students in the rest of the state. New York once lagged far behind state students, but the city has steadily closed the gap over the past seven years, approaching parity with the state average in math and just a few percentage points below it in English. (Note: it wasn’t until 2006 that the state and city testing regiments merged, and all kids in the state took the same tests in grades 3 through 8.)

Skeptics argue that city scores look better because poverty has increased faster in the rest of the state. According to the Census Bureau, school-age children living in poverty rose from 28.8 percent in 2002 to 30.7 percent in 2012 in Gotham. For the entire state, school-age children living in poverty increased from 19 percent in 2002 to 21.7 percent in 2012. But clearly not all the city’s gains can be explained by this fact. The city compares favorably with the other four large districts in the state—Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers—which all posted dismal results on the latest state tests. In Rochester, only 5 percent of third- through eighth-graders were rated proficient in math or English on the new state tests. While poverty rates have spiked substantially in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse over the past decade, Yonkers’s poverty rate and demographics are similar to New York City’s. (The percentage of children living in poverty actually fell in Yonkers from 20.8 percent in 2002 to 19.6 percent in 2012.) Yet in New York City, 30 percent of students scored proficient in math, compared with 15 percent in Yonkers; and 26 percent of city students scored proficient in English, compared with 16 percent in Yonkers.

Of the top 25 public elementary and middle schools in New York State, 22 are now city schools. (Only four are traditional public schools; the rest are charters, gifted-and-talented programs, or desirable middle schools that require admissions.) When Bloomberg took office in 2002, not one city school was among the top 25. In 2002, the city had 9 percent of the state’s top-ranked schools and 62 percent of the lowest-ranked. Those numbers are now 22 percent on the high end and down to 30 percent on the low end. The city has outdone the rest of the state on the same tests given to all.

New York City has also progressed a little on the “gold standard” federal NAEP exams, whose 2013 results were just released. On a 500-point scale, from 2003 to 2013, fourth-graders improved their scores by ten points in math and ten points in English; eighth-graders improved by eight points in math and four points in English. While these are not huge gains, they’re statistically significant and on par with increases seen in other large cities over the past decade. Again, New York City outperformed the rest of the state.

It’s not all good news on the NAEP scores, however. The city’s progress seems to have stalled over the past few years, and the weak eighth-grade reading score is worrisome, as it’s a good indicator of high school and college readiness. New York City students seem to be having a hard time making the leap from simple chapter books to more complex texts.

The Bloomberg administration takes great pride in the increased high school graduation rate. For years before Bloomberg took office, the four-year graduation rate hovered around 50 percent; it’s now 66 percent. From 2002 to 2012, the high school drop-out rate was cut nearly in half, falling from 22 percent to just over 11 percent. (More kids are taking longer than four years to graduate but aren’t dropping out.) The percentage of students earning a Regents or Advanced Regents Diploma has more than doubled, from 30 percent in 2005 to 62 percent in 2012. Some observers question the increased use of “credit recovery,” through which students who have failed classes or missed school can earn credit by writing papers or taking a short class and passing a test. But a Daily News analysis found that at most, these students boost the graduation rate by 2 or 3 percent. Others accurately note that the state’s Regents exams have gotten easier and the cutoff scores for a passing grade have been lowered. On the other hand, the number of Regents exams that students have to pass has increased from three to five over the past few years, and the passing grade has been raised from 55 to 65.

The percentage of city high school graduates entering the CUNY system who require remediation in reading, writing, or math has increased during the Bloomberg years, indicating that the city is graduating ill-prepared students. Last year, 79 percent of city public school grads who went to CUNY’s six two-year colleges needed remediation in reading, writing, or math, up from 71 percent in 2007. But remediation rates for all city high school grads at all CUNY colleges—including the four-year schools—stayed steady during the Bloomberg years, at around 56 percent. This discrepancy between the community colleges and the four-year colleges is the result of all-time-high numbers of students attending college: about 10,000 more students a year are graduating from high school and attending CUNY schools than was the case a decade ago. CUNY deserves credit for keeping its admittance standards high: a third or more of graduates from even the city’s most prestigious high schools often have to take a remediation course. The new Common Core standards align better with CUNY’s standards, so perhaps the need for remediation will decline in the future.

If one takes a fair look at the total record, it’s hard to argue that New York City schools aren’t in a much better place than they were 12 years ago. However, despite all the improvements, less than a third of New York City students, by the city’s own standard, are graduating high school on time and are college- or career-ready. There remains much room for improvement.

As deputy mayor in charge of education for the first eight years of the Bloomberg administration and chancellor for the last three, Dennis Walcott is as responsible as anyone for the progress that has been made. When asked by Gotham Schools how he would like Bloomberg’s education record to be remembered, Walcott replied:

That we laid a solid foundation for the future success of our children. That we shook up the system to improve outcomes for our students . . . and were not afraid to tackle very difficult and thorny issues and not worry about polls . . . [and] were not hesitant as far as the belief in trying to provide quality choices for our students . . . [and] that [we] were truly committed to withstanding a variety of different types of pressures to really focus on children.

That’s as good a synopsis of the Bloomberg education legacy as any. Missteps and all, it’s a record to be proud of—one that the new administration should build upon rather than tear down.

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