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Summer 2002
   
How the Mayor Should Fix the Schools
Anthony P. Coles
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In June, Governor George Pataki signed a state law giving Mayor Michael Bloomberg effective control of New York City’s public school system—a magnificent victory for Mayor Bloomberg. Now, New Yorkers who care about education can do what the mayor dared them to: hold him accountable for school progress.

Riding currents of reform Rudy Giuliani had set in motion, Bloomberg navigated Albany’s treacherous political waters with mastery. He showed toughness at the negotiating table, making clear to the State Assembly leadership that he would not accept compromise solutions or half measures. He showed toughness again by refusing to negotiate a new labor contract with the politically mighty teachers’ union until he achieved real school governance reform—though in the end, part of the price he paid for his momentous victory was a generous and undemanding contract with the teachers.

Bloomberg’s win creates an extraordinary, nationally significant opportunity to improve public education. Gotham’s 1,100 schools educate 1.1 million kids—or one in 50 public school students nationwide—making the district nearly as large as the next two biggest districts combined. The old Board of Education, to which the mayor had only two of seven appointments, was a rules-bound, change-resistant bureaucracy that achieved dismal results. Only about half the city’s public school students finish high school in four years (and only 70 percent finish by age 21); in reading, only 40 percent of third- through eighth-graders score at an acceptable level, compared with only 34 percent in math. The state officially classifies some 100 Gotham schools as failing, and nearly 300 others are almost as bad. The city’s poor and minority students suffer acutely from this miserable performance: they are not being adequately prepared to function as productive citizens. Improving the schools, therefore, is the last civil rights battle.

The new legislation will let the mayor appoint the schools chancellor and eight of the 13 members of a newly established, unpaid Board of Education. Stripped of its staff, offices, and perks, as well as responsibility for the day-to-day management of the schools, the new board will (or should) function more like a good corporate board that provides fiscal oversight and expertise, and that puts the interests of shareholders—the children—first. Unlike the old board, which meddled even in routine contracting and procurement decisions, the new board won’t go beyond approving citywide questions of policy. The deal will also probably eliminate the 32 locally elected community school boards, vestiges of the system’s failed decentralization experiment, and too often patronage havens of waste and graft.

As a candidate, Michael Bloomberg had scores of ideas—some promising, some gimmicky—on how to improve the school system. But more important than the details, his brash promise to gain control of the schools was his agenda’s centerpiece.

Okay, now he’s got control. What should he do with it? With high school seniors needing passing scores on five Regents tests to graduate beginning next year, and parents’ frustration with the status quo palpable, he needs to make big changes and win big successes, fast.

The first and most important decision he’ll make is choosing a chancellor. He should find somebody from outside the system, unconstrained by existing relationships or by vested interests in certain programs or approaches. The new chancellor must be unafraid to shrink the bureaucracy radically and transfer much of the old board’s functions to the individual schools.

Second, the mayor and new chancellor should establish a uniform core curriculum for most schools, to replace the current jumble of approaches and programs. Today’s curriculum is a mishmash that reflects the growth of progressive and alternative educational programs, the heated disputes about phonics versus whole language, new math versus old math, and the now-tired debates about how to teach history and whether to legitimize Ebonics. It is not sufficiently focused on basic skills, particularly in elementary and middle schools.

Too many teachers assume that getting students excited about learning requires engaging them on ethnic or racial terms. But Francine Prose, dissecting high school English curricula in Harper’s, was right to criticize schools for pandering by choosing books they think will teach children about their own lives, not other lives, and by encouraging snap moral judgments rather than close, careful understanding of what is on the page. The mayor and his schools chief should apply the same no-nonsense skepticism to New York’s curriculum.

Though the Board of Ed sets forth general guidelines, curricular content and quality vary significantly from school to school and even from classroom to classroom for no good reason. This past year, for instance, many parents understandably were outraged when some schools decided to teach “fuzzy math,” which minimizes the use of long division and other basic operations in favor of students working in groups and “discovering” their own answers from reading various passages. As one parent observed, “The kids don’t learn the basics. Math is like a musical instrument. You have to practice it.”

Chicago, the first major city to give control of the school system to the mayor, rightly made a back-to-basics curriculum a core priority. Paul Vallas, Chicago’s schools chief from 1995 to 2001, replaced his system’s jumble of reading and math curricula with an easy-to-follow uniform curriculum that focused on basic reading and math skills. In the first three years after mayoral control, Chicago students increased their test scores in every category, at virtually every grade level. Though test scores didn’t soar, progress was still dramatic, with the number of students reading at grade level increasing about 15 percentage points over three years.

But expect a rush to the barricades if Mayor Bloomberg so much as hints at reassessing the curriculum. Various influential advocacy groups view schools as incubators of political ideology rather than of actual skills—as witness their opposition in 2001 to the Board of Ed’s inept, and failed, effort to contract with the Edison Schools, a for-profit education company with a strict back-to-basics approach, to turn around five chronically failing schools.

Leading the opposition was ACORN, a far-left advocacy group, whose website proudly announces the arrests of its members at City Hall rallies. The group pushes to incorporate discussions about racism and community organizing into daily schoolwork. It touts highly political and contentious course offerings, like the history of Crown Heights (site of a recent race riot), and turns biology courses into explorations of “environmental justice.” According to one teacher critical of an ACORN curriculum that has infiltrated a Brooklyn high school: “There has to be a balance. You can’t be thinking about how screwed up everything is all the time.”

In addition, the teachers’ union holds firm to the dogma that what happens in the classroom is nobody’s business but the certified professional’s in front of the blackboard. The current teachers’ contract even prohibits principals—those on the line for a school’s performance—from reviewing their teachers’ lesson plans. But just as war is too important to be left to the generals, curriculum is too important to leave to the teachers.

Fortunately, the current chancellor, Harold Levy, has made some progress on this score. He has managed to work with the unions to impose a more prescriptive curriculum in reading and math in the Chancellor’s District, comprising about 45 of the city’s worst schools. The reading curriculum, Success for All, a phonics-based system developed by Johns Hopkins University that emphasizes heavy drilling and frequent testing of students, along with carefully prescribed lesson plans for teachers, has significantly boosted reading performance in those schools, where nothing else has worked. The mayor does not need to appoint task forces to come up with new curricula—there are plenty of battle-tested models, in math as well as English, that can be put in place by this September.

Not every school should have to follow the new curriculum to the letter; a city with so many skill levels needs to allow some variation—which is also necessary for building a more internally competitive system. But the goal should be to give every teacher a clear road map, free of cant and multicultural relativism, of what every student should learn. That should include civics, American history, and geography, as well as the foundations of Western civilization and culture. Extended explorations into diversity, identity, and ethnicity can wait. First things first.

While they fix what’s being taught, the mayor and new chancellor must confront who’s doing the teaching. As long as our school system refuses to reward the best teachers with even a dollar more than the incompetent teachers—as long as it continues to base all compensation on years of service and largely useless continuing-ed classes (many taught by the union)—how can we take seriously the proposition that it embraces excellence? As the Manhattan Institute’s Jay Greene wrote recently: “If we do not reward productivity, we are unlikely to encourage it. If we do not encourage it, we should not expect more of it.”

Merit-pay models abound, and naysayers find flaws with every one. And, sure, because of the complexities of statistical analysis and standardized testing, no such system is ever likely to be perfect. But the lack of a Holy Grail reward system hasn’t stopped the private sector from implementing plans that are as fair and objective as possible—because the private sector understands that even imperfect plans are very good at encouraging better performance. In the city schools, principals have a powerful incentive accurately to reward teachers who are doing a good job, because the principals’ own performance (and compensation) depends in part on the quality and success of the teachers in their schools.

But implementing any form of merit pay will take tireless advocacy. Having held off eight years of aggressive Giuliani administration attempts to link pay more closely to performance, the teachers’ union is not about to have a change of heart. The union will be dragged into any differentiating pay plan kicking, screaming, and suing. The union’s antipathy to evaluating individual teachers on the merits is so intense that, in the summer of 2000, the union leadership rejected a pay hike for all summer school teachers, because teachers whose students’ learning improved would have been given merit bonuses in addition.

The mayor and schools chief must continue this fight. Imagine how attractive the New York City schools would immediately become to talented and dedicated young educators if they offered high salaries to top performers, rather than making them wait decades to earn higher pay. In place of pay plans that reward individual teachers, the unions have proposed a collectivist approach, rewarding entire schools for their success in improving student performance. But exemplary and dedicated teachers surrounded by incompetents will soon grow demoralized, and effective teachers will shun under-performing schools. On the other hand, incompetent teachers surrounded by smart, hardworking peers will pocket money for the accomplishments of others.

The mayor should change the debate from teacher quantity to teacher quality. The ranks of New York City teachers include far too many duds and not enough decent teachers. Fully 40 percent of city teachers recently required to take the basic teacher certification test—a measure of mere competence, not excellence—flunked.

State law and union rules may mandate a given class size, but beyond meeting those standards, the mayor and his schools chief should not spend a dime on shrinking class size further. It’s just not worth the investment. Smaller class size has become a teachers’ union mantra, because it means that the city must hire more teachers. The union has also tried to convince New Yorkers that there is a teacher shortage. There isn’t: the 80,000 teachers now in the system is the highest number ever—amounting to one teacher for every 13 students, the best ratio ever.

Our goal should not be to hire as many teachers as possible; it should be to hire as many smart, promising teachers as possible, rewarding excellent teachers within the system, improving the performance of the others, and weeding out the dead wood. If that happens to result in a net decline in the number of teachers per student, fine. Further, we should make sure that the best teachers actually teach in the classroom. Several thousand effective, mostly senior, teachers do not actually teach, because they are assigned to administrative, supervisory, or union duties, or they are on sabbatical. Most of this is not as important as being in the classroom.

By the same token, the mayor and new chancellor should encourage bright candidates from all fields to become teachers by expanding the board’s now-limited alternative-certification programs, in place of the present system that requires teachers to obtain education degrees as a condition of certification. Aspiring and talented teachers with real knowledge in a particular field should not have to slog through a series of largely irrelevant education courses to get certified.

The school system should learn from its successes. Two charter schools, the KIPP Academy and the Bronx Preparatory Academy, are among the several city public schools that, by forging a disciplined school culture and focusing relentlessly on fundamentals, have put low-income children who might otherwise fall through the cracks on the path to college. In particular, the Bronx Preparatory Academy’s stunning success in teaching math is a model worth cloning.

These schools, which can’t come close to satisfying demand, must not become jewels lost in the sandbox; the whole box must sparkle. The mayor and his schools chief should announce a concerted campaign to replicate schools that work. Bloomberg should create a crack team—call them educational venture capitalists—to single out exemplary schools ready to be scaled up and then, without tinkering with the original product, to reward these schools with the sincerest form of flattery: imitation.

It’s also time to end social promotion—this time for real. Social promotion is the practice of advancing students to the next grade, even if they have not acquired the skills necessary to perform the work of that grade. But students who are socially promoted fall further behind each year and are far more likely to drop out of school. As they struggle and ultimately give up, they tend to make the school atmosphere less conducive to learning for their peers.

Two years ago, the Board of Education, at Mayor Giuliani’s urging, formally voted to end social promotion. At the same time, Chancellor Levy substantially expanded summer school and required failing students to attend and show academic improvement as a condition of being promoted to the next grade. The result: summer school became the new social promotion. Many students who flunk remedial summer school are promoted anyway, including some whose test scores actually decline after their summer course work.

Amazingly, many educators encourage social promotion on the grounds that those who are not promoted are stigmatized. They overlook the more destructive stigma of not being able to read at grade level. But social promotion’s defenders are legion: teachers are reluctant to hold students back, administrators resist it because they feel it complicates running their schools, parents often object to having their children repeat a grade, and the board opposes ending social promotion.

Again, Chicago’s example is instructive. It took a year or two of real holdbacks—and predictable howls of outrage by the protectors of the status quo—for the system to absorb the message that ending social promotion was real policy, not rhetoric. New York City schools need to show the same seriousness.

Mayor Bloomberg had the courage, in this linguistically sensitive city, to say bluntly on the campaign trail that in order to succeed in the United States, students must speak and read English fluently. Now he must put that sentiment into action and dismantle New York City’s two-tier, dual-language educational system, in which students who speak other languages at home—usually Spanish—are trapped in second-rate classes in all subjects for years, often for their entire school careers. The four-year high school graduation rate among Hispanics is under 40 percent.

Less than 27 percent of the students in the city’s elementary school bilingual programs attain English proficiency. In middle school, the figure plummets below 12 percent. And these students perform far below the already sub-par levels of the rest of the city’s schoolchildren. Some 6 percent of elementary school bilingual students perform at acceptable levels in English, and 10 percent in math; by middle school, the rates are halved.

By contrast, the English immersion model is working in California—just as it worked in New York City for previous waves of immigrants. California’s proportion of Latinos with reading-test scores above the 50th percentile rose from 21 percent in 1998 to 35 percent in 2001. For math, the increase was from 27 percent to 46 percent.

Of course, even the most modest bilingual education reform runs into huge institutional and legal resistance in New York. For instance, when Chancellor Levy ordered some changes in bilingual education in 2000, including ending the automatic assignment of non-English-speaking students to bilingual classes, the Board of Ed’s entrenched bilingual education bureaucracy simply suffocated this change—as it does all such efforts at reform, in conjunction with various bilingual-ed advocacy groups. These bureaucrats regularly counsel parents, in their native language, that enrolling their children in bilingual education is the only way to preserve their family’s cultural heritage: in fact, it is the only way for the bureaucrats to keep their jobs. The mayor and his schools chief should clean out this bureaucracy forthwith and teach kids English.

Like bilingual education, special education for kids perceived as difficult to educate is another second-class system—an academic black hole from which students rarely graduate. Once assigned to special ed, a student has about a 2 percent chance of returning to mainstream education. Yet since 1975 the city’s special-ed population (largely African-American and Hispanic) has grown 370 percent, from 35,000 students to 161,000. A recent study found that only 15 percent of special-ed students actually met the state’s criteria as being learning-disabled. Many of the rest have been diagnosed with such ill-defined problems as “learning disabilities” or “hyperactivity” and relegated to an inferior education for the rest of their academic lives. Or they have behavioral problems that the board has been unable to address properly. To make matters worse, special ed costs twice as much per student as general education—or more.

The mayor should insist that the school system distinguish between students who are truly disabled and those who are behavior problems. The former should go into special ed; the latter into a “Second Opportunity School,” like the Wildcat Academy in the Bronx, which effectively educates students with disciplinary problems. While many kids with genuine disabilities need special ed, the mayor and his chancellor should place the burden of proof on those who want to enter special programs, rather than, as today, those who want out of them.

On the model of the NYPD’s Compstat, the best accountability model ever implemented in this city, the mayor should create a Schoolstat program to evaluate principals and superintendents based on results. When a school district’s truancy rates are rising, dropout rates are high, test scores are falling—when its students are stuck forever in bilingual or special ed, or other warning signs are flashing—someone needs to be called on the carpet to tell his supervisors his plan to fix the problems. As with the Compstat model, every school superintendent should be required to attend a regular Schoolstat meeting with the chancellor to evaluate the performance of the schools in his district. And Schoolstat meetings must apportion acclaim as well as blame, since success deserves praise—and real rewards.

Mayor Giuliani’s efforts to persuade the Board of Ed to start such a program met protests ranging from “we already do it” to “it is only appropriate for a paramilitary organization” to “we don’t want to be so hard on our employees.” The truth is that, though the board currently collects reams of information, none of it is properly analyzed or managed. More often than not, the board can’t supply accurate information on subjects as simple as the total number of students in various programs or the number of teachers who actually teach in the classroom or how many textbooks a particular school has ordered. And it is virtually impossible for the chancellor to be sure that so unaccountable a system efficiently implements his directives.

The mayor should not forget school choice. The city’s parochial schools offer generous financial aid, and a handful of families have been lucky enough to win lotteries for private school scholarships. But for the middle- or low-income family that can’t afford private school tuition, that’s just about where the options end. In addition to a smattering of schools that focus on a particular theme and attract talented students, only 19 charter schools offer families any alternative to their zoned schools.

As long as there is no competition to the public monopoly, there will be minimal internal pressure for failing schools to reform. A committed mayor and chancellor can make a big difference reforming the schools from the top down, but only competition can spark sustained ingenuity from the ground up. That’s why Mayor Bloomberg should lobby the State Legislature to give city charter schools a much fairer share than the two-thirds of per-student funding they currently get. Again, the teachers’ union—opposed to charter schools, which when sufficiently small don’t have to use union teachers—will go to the mat to stop this, but it is worth the fight.

Vouchers have become a litmus test for chancellor candidates. Candidates utter the word “competition” at their peril, inviting disqualification by the Board of Ed. When in 1998 Mayor Giuliani dared to propose a voucher pilot program for poor students in failing schools in one of the city’s 32 school districts, then-chancellor Rudy Crew vociferously (and unexpectedly) threatened to resign.

Mayor Bloomberg must pick a schools chancellor with the courage to welcome competition and to implement a publicly funded voucher plan. State law gives a chancellor the authority to “encourage local school-based innovation.” To start, the chancellor could pick areas of the city where families have applied in overwhelming numbers for the woefully limited number of private vouchers. There is no reason why poor families—whose children the city now requires to attend failing schools—should not be given some choice in where they send their children. Public schools will always educate most of our students, but there is no reason to insulate those schools from the benefits of innovation and energy that come with competition. And there is no reason why the government, rather than parents, should choose where children go to school.

New York needs to create more elite schools at all levels. Remember that the city is home to the brightest and most enterprising students in the country, who routinely excel in nationwide academic competitions like the Intel Awards in Science and Technology. Yet Gotham has only a few traditional high schools that have competitive admissions. These high schools—Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech—are among the best in the country.

The mayor should build more competitive high schools, as well as middle schools and elementary schools. The board already has taken steps in this direction with the creation, in conjunction with Bard College, of an accelerated high school/college program. It has also established “gifted” programs in a number of elementary and middle schools. The new chancellor should expand and emphasize these efforts, starting with several more advanced high schools now being considered on City University campuses. In addition to setting a standard for the entire system, these schools will help retain those middle-income families that now leave the city only because they are dissatisfied with the public schools and can’t afford the private alternative.

There will always be those who blame the system’s woes on a lack of money. But the city’s schools have a $12 billion budget—over 30 percent of the city’s overall budget. Averaging nearly $11,000 a year, per-student funding is among the highest in the nation. As Mayor Giuliani noted, if the first $12 billion didn’t create an effective school system, it is hard to believe that the 13th billion will make all the difference.

But given the waste that now bleeds money away from classroom instruction and into food services, janitorial services, construction, busing, purchasing, and other support services, there should be more money—much more—left over for what matters. Only about 51 cents of every education dollar actually makes it to the classroom. The central board and the local boards scarf up the rest.

Mayor Bloomberg should insist on outsourcing as many of these services as possible. For instance, Marriott and other vendors are providing cost-effective food services under contract with school systems across the country, serving nourishing meals that kids like. Again, the mayor will have to gird for battle if he takes up this cause. Not only do the unions object to outsourcing; so too do the local politicians who rely on union support and use the Board of Ed as a patronage operation, rewarding party foot soldiers with jobs.

The system’s $1 billion-a-year capital budget can also go much further with smart financing and construction strategies. Mayor Bloomberg should commission private firms to build turnkey schools in competition with the School Construction Authority—perhaps as a step toward the ultimate abolition of the SCA. [See “Why New York Can’t Build Schools,” Spring 1998.]

No silver bullet—or even ten silver bullets—will fix completely a system so large, complex, and chronically mismanaged. But this reform agenda will take the mayor a long way toward achieving the success that all New Yorkers wish him.

Still, however reasonable all these suggestions might sound, no one should underestimate the ferocity of political opposition that will arise against them from the teachers’ union and its allies in Albany, from the bilingual-ed and special-ed establishment, from the politicians who use the schools’ paraprofessional, cafeteria, and crossing-guard jobs as patronage posts, from the politically connected suppliers and consultants who have existing contracts with the schools, and from consent decrees and legislative mandates that entrench bilingual- and special-ed programs and micromanage school governance. All these special interests will fight for the status quo with every means at their command. It’s the mayor’s job to fight for the one interest that has no power: the children.

 

 

 
Okay, he won control. Now, how should he use it? Here’s a blueprint for reform.
City Journal Summer 2002.
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