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Sol Stern
City’s Pupils Get More Hype than Hope
Test scores show little payoff for mayoral control.
Winter 2006

Judge me by the results,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in May 2002 as the state legislature gave him absolute control of New York City’s schools. Everyone who cared about improving education in the city, it seemed, was smiling. After all, under the old Board of Education, with its seven voting members appointed by six different elected officials, it was impossible to hold anyone fully responsible for the city’s dysfunctional school system and its dismal student outcomes. Our new billionaire mayor not only welcomed being accountable for the schools; he also made it clear that he intended to invest political capital in the risky business of education reform.

Unfortunately, it’s now evident that what Mike Bloomberg really meant when he said that we should judge him by “the results” was nothing more than one vote, one time. If New Yorkers believed that the schools had made insufficient progress by the 2005 mayoral election (Bloomberg’s last, because of term limits), they could vote to fire him and pick a new education CEO. That’s a pretty constricted interpretation of education accountability under mayoral control: no one can plausibly argue that last year’s desultory mayoral election was a fair referendum on Bloomberg’s education record. With hapless Freddy Ferrer leading the opposition, New York didn’t come close to having a serious debate on the schools. When asked how people who didn’t like his education policies might express their concerns after Election Day, Mayor Bloomberg quipped: “They can boo me at parades.”

If more New Yorkers knew how the schools were really doing, there’d be a lot of boos.

The mayor has made it harder for the public to know, however. A major rationale behind mayoral control of the schools was that a mayor’s political future would be endangered if voters felt that he presided over continued education failure, thus motivating him (in theory) to press harder for school improvement. But in a classic case of unintended consequences, mayoral control has given this particular mayor the means to shape the education debate on his own terms—to deflect criticism, dominate the media, and use the schools as campaign props. Admittedly, some such distortion would have occurred anyway, thanks to Bloomberg’s unique talent for co-opting potential opposition through his prodigious philanthropy and extensive social and business contacts. But the mayor’s co-optation effort also got a giant boost from his taking control of a $16 billion education empire that doles out jobs and no-bid contracts and that spends millions on a well-oiled public-relations machine, while disdaining independent research and evaluation of its new classroom programs.

The administration has used its new powers to cut off the flow of essential information to the media, to education reform groups, and to scholars—the institutions and people that citizens normally count on to help them make informed judgments on school performance. Journalists routinely complain of having even less access to the schools than they did under the Board of Education. “It’s easier to get information from private schools,” said Joe Williams of the Daily News to a Columbia Journalism School publication. The New York Times’s Elissa Gootman grumbled: “I think the department officials are afraid of what you will see if you go into the schools.” Newsday education reporter Ellen Yan went so far as to compare the Department of Ed’s information control techniques with the KGB’s. Still, the barriers to information that reporters cite cannot adequately explain Bloomberg’s free ride on education. Neither the city’s editorial boards nor its business organizations nor its universities have shown much interest lately in playing the crucial role of independent education watchdog, as the almost universally complacent response to the mayor’s failure to win significant reforms in the teachers’ contract shows.

Partly because of this abdication, the mayor could sell most New Yorkers on the falsehood that students were making significant academic progress, thus “proving” that his new education programs worked.

The most egregious case in point: the administration’s hyping of fourth-grade reading scores just a few months before the mayoral election. In 2005, the percentage of city fourth-graders who achieved at Level Three or above on the statewide reading exam (defined as “meeting standards” or “demonstrating proficiency”) rose ten points, to 59.5 percent. Bloomberg trumpeted this rise as “historic” and “record setting,” and most of New York’s media accepted his view more or less at face value. Banner headlines such as minority kids soar in reading dominated the city’s tabloids; editorials congratulated the mayor, crediting him with the achievement. Hardly noted was a disturbing fact: almost 70 percent of the city’s eighth-graders remained mired in near illiteracy. The percentage of that cohort of students meeting state reading standards actually fell 2.5 points, to a pitiful 32.8 percent.

There’s no denying, of course, that it would be huge news if the higher fourth-grade test scores meant real gains in reading skills. Fourth-grade reading is probably the most important indicator of future academic progress. A leap forward would also vindicate several of the Bloomberg administration’s key early decisions. Shortly after gaining control of the schools, Bloomberg handpicked Joel Klein, a former Clinton Justice Department official with no previous education experience, as schools chancellor. An even bigger gamble was Klein’s subsequent decision to hire Diana Lam as deputy chancellor for instruction and then give her carte blanche to revolutionize the city’s reading instruction. She promptly banished a phonics program, “Success for All,” from dozens of predominantly minority schools where it seemed to be working, and installed a controversial “progressive” alternative called “Balanced Literacy” in almost all the city’s elementary schools. This was quite a leap of faith for Klein, since the scientific research on reading in the early grades is abundant and clear: systematic phonics is the best teaching method, particularly for kids from disadvantaged homes. A nepotism scandal eventually forced Lam out, but Klein stubbornly continued to support her pedagogical choices. His pick to succeed her, Carmen Farina, is cut from the same progressive-ed cloth.

Having made these bold decisions, however, Bloomberg and Klein had to show significant progress in fourth-grade reading. Otherwise, the administration might come under fire for using schoolchildren as guinea pigs in a failed pedagogical experiment. Klein thus pulled out the stops to boost fourth-grade reading results. The city shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars to retrain teachers in Balanced Literacy. Schools had to devote 150 minutes of every school day (essentially half of available classroom time) to the reading program, and they spent countless hours on test-preparation drills. Klein even hired a “literacy coach” for every school.

Despite this massive effort, the 2004 fourth-grade reading scores actually dropped a few percentage points. Yet Klein and Bloomberg could reasonably argue that a single year wasn’t enough time to judge the effect of a new program on a vast school system. Then came the ten-percentage-point upward bump on the 2005 state tests. The stars finally seemed in alignment for Klein. He seized the bully pulpit to proclaim that the fourth-grade gains proved that his new programs were “paying off” for the kids.

But the fourth-grade test scores proved no such thing. For starters, 2005 scores also rose significantly throughout the state. In large urban districts, such as Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers, they went up by even higher percentages than in New York City. Since none of these districts used the Balanced Literacy program (or other Klein-favored interventions), there’s no logical reason to credit the Bloomberg administration for the Gotham gains. What’s more, the fourth-grade scores of the city’s Catholic schools also rose about seven percentage points, keeping the same ten-point lead that they’ve enjoyed over the public schools for years. If the city’s new literacy initiatives really were “paying off,” wouldn’t that achievement gap have narrowed—especially since almost all the Catholic schools use the explicit phonics approach that Klein drove from the public schools?

There’s another, unimpeachable source confirming that the Bloomberg administration’s claims of spectacular progress on fourth-grade reading are bogus: the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP. The NAEP has served as the federal education department’s authoritative and “above politics” testing agency since 1990, with its fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math tests often described as the “nation’s report card” and the “gold standard” for assessing student achievement. Every two years, the NAEP tests a representative sample of students in every state, with an enhanced sample set for about a dozen of the nation’s largest urban districts.

In passing the No Child Left Behind act, Congress intended the NAEP to serve as an accountability check on state compliance with the new law’s testing requirements. The NAEP tries to ensure that its tests are uniformly rigorous and don’t change in difficulty from year to year. Thus, when NAEP tests show a notably lower percentage of students meeting minimum proficiency than do a particular state’s tests, the discrepancy should raise suspicions that the state is dumbing down its tests to meet NCLB’s performance goals and timetables. The NAEP’s urban component provides an additional objective look at whether city students are making sufficient academic progress.

The NAEP administered its 2005 fourth-grade reading tests within weeks of the New York State tests, and the results clearly revealed that New York education officials—city and state—have indulged in unwarranted self-congratulation about student achievement. Where the state assessments showed 70 percent of students statewide as reading-proficient, the NAEP had only 33 percent attaining that level. And compared with the nearly 60 percent of city students reaching proficiency on the state test, only 22 percent of city kids reached the comparable NAEP level. Also, the NAEP showed no upward movement toward proficiency for New York City students since 2003, the last time it tested them. In other words, not only were the city’s fourth-graders reading at a shamefully low level; the Bloomberg/Klein reforms had produced no significant academic improvement.

Confronted with the NAEP results, Klein changed the subject. In a press statement, he boasted that New York City fourth-graders did better in reading than kids in most other urban districts. That’s true—but irrelevant. New York City’s achievement levels have always been higher (though still lousy) than those of cities like Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. The reason: Gotham’s schools have suffered less from white middle-class flight than most other old cities, while at the same time benefiting from an influx of striving and stable immigrant families.

Klein also heralded a three-percentage-point increase over two years in the number of kids moving from “Below Basic” (the functional equivalent of illiteracy) to “Basic” (somewhere short of grade level)—not exactly headline-grabbing news. He celebrated a much more impressive-sounding ten-percentage-point shrinking of the reading achievement gap between white and black fourth-graders. It became somewhat less impressive, however, after a closer look showed that half the “improvement” resulted from a still-unexplained five-percentage-point drop for white students (perhaps brought about by abandoning phonics). It said much that the “reform” chancellor who claimed a historic breakthrough in reading before the election was now grasping at straws.

Klein could put a slightly better spin on the poor reading results in part because of the Bush education department’s diminished enthusiasm for maintaining the NAEP’s watchdog function. Like other pols, the Bushies don’t like bad news. Just as some state officials have tried to head off bad news on their inability to meet NCLB standards by dumbing down tests—as certainly seems to have happened in New York—Bush education officials have lately tried to show that NCLB is working by easing some of the NAEP’s strict standards. Darvin Winnick, former education secretary Rod Paige’s appointee to chair the NAEP governing board and a Texas friend of W.’s, has pushed the NAEP staff to argue publicly that getting children to meet the “Basic” standard—one level below the “Proficiency” benchmark—is a sign of reasonable progress. This move waters down official NAEP guidelines, which clearly state that “the overall achievement goal for students is performance at the Proficient level or higher” and that “the Basic level is not the desired goal.”

The news out of Washington wasn’t uniformly bad for New York City. NAEP did detect a five-percentage-point gain in the number of fourth-grade students who reached the “desired” Proficiency level in math. But without further statistical analysis, there’s no way to attribute the gain to any particular factor. It might be due to new math programs that Klein introduced, but it could just as easily reflect a nationwide trend toward small but steady improvement in math achievement in lower grades. Indeed, several other cities showed greater math improvement than New York City.

With media attention focused on the Bloomberg administration’s claims about fourth-grade scores, almost no one has paid attention to student performance data for the school system’s upper levels. The administration doubtless prefers it that way.

Not only did Gotham’s eighth-graders score abysmally in reading on the state test and the NAEP, but their math results were stagnant—and crummy—on both tests, too. And only 20 percent of city students met the not very high eighth-grade state proficiency standard in social studies (NAEP has no social studies test). That means that four out of five of our students entering high school are blank slates in civics, geography, and history.

Other astonishingly bad student results only came to light thanks to the dogged efforts of Eva Moskowitz, chair of the City Council’s Education Committee. Among the revelations produced in a series of post-election hearings that she chaired: the percentage of city eighth-graders meeting state science standards has plummeted from 54 percent to 45 percent under Bloomberg. At one hearing, Moskowitz badgered the top science official in Klein’s education department until the official conceded that the quality of science education in the city was “horrendous” and that the department didn’t even know how many certified science teachers worked in the schools.

A later hearing uncovered that the percentage of students graduating with a Regents diploma—requiring one to pass exit exams in at least five subject areas—has shrunk from 35 percent to an even more dismal 33 percent during the Bloomberg term. Fewer than one in ten black and Hispanic students earned Regents degrees.

For those who want to look, the picture of student achievement during the first Bloomberg term is coming into clearer focus—and it’s not pretty. Aside from fourth-grade math, stagnation or decline has marked every important benchmark test from the early grades to high school exit exams. If not for the expectations that mayoral control raised, one might merely note that the present administration’s results are no worse than those obtained under Harold Levy, Klein’s immediate predecessor, during the bad old Board of Ed days.

But the prospects for real education reform suffer terrible damage when a taxpayer-funded public-relations juggernaut gets away with spinning poor test outcomes as “historic” in order to improve a mayor’s electoral prospects. It’s not good for the city—and it’s especially not good for the city’s schoolchildren—if the public comes to believe that remedies for school failure are working, when they indisputably aren’t. Eventually the public will wake up and realize that it’s been getting Soviet-style statistics about a brighter future when the factories still can’t produce shoes.

Dare we ask whether mayoral control—at least under this mayor—might actually have undermined democratic accountability in the schools and made things worse, not better?

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