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Harold Levy’s Fuzzy Math

from the magazine

Harold Levy’s Fuzzy Math

The chancellor becomes just another defender of the staus quo. Summer 2001
Politics and law
Economy, finance, and budgets
New York

Shortly after former Citicorp executive Harold Levy became New York’s schools chancellor, he told me how disturbed he was to find that the Board of Education rarely based its policy decisions on accurate data. Since then, Levy has often said that he wants to install a modern management system, driven by rock-solid information.

So I was pleased when one of Levy’s number crunchers, Andrew Rein, called a little while back to ask about an article I’d written debunking teachers’ union claims that teachers were leaving city schools in droves for higher-paying suburban jobs (see "The Vanishing Teacher and Other UFT Fictions," Spring 2000). Explaining that the chancellor’s office was now looking into "suburban flight," Rein asked: how did I figure out that no more than 700 teachers per year—less than 1 percent of the city’s teaching force—were going to the higher-paying suburbs? After explaining my methodology, I directed Rein to University of Missouri economist Michael Podgursky, who claimed, based on his own research, that fewer than 400 city teachers had left for the suburbs in 1997–98.

Of course, if instructors really were flooding out of Gotham schools into the suburbs in search of higher pay, it would strengthen the union’s case that teachers should get across-the-board salary increases in any new contract, without making concessions on merit pay or work rules. If flight to the suburbs wasn’t much of a problem compared with teachers’ lousy classroom performance, however, the city could plausibly insist that the system needed merit pay and work-rule changes to make teachers more accountable. Based on everything Levy had said about sound data, I expected his office to get the story right.

Imagine my surprise, then, when a New York Times story in mid-April opened: "The exodus of New York City teachers to better-paying suburban districts has accelerated sharply, according to a survey conducted by Schools Chancellor Harold Levy. Nearly 1,700 teachers left the city to teach elsewhere last year, more than four times as many as in 1997–98, the survey found." The story continued: "The figures appear to confirm warnings by the teachers’ union that the higher pay and better conditions in suburban schools are proving irresistible to increasing numbers of city teachers." The article then cited Deputy Schools Chancellor Anthony Shorris calling the survey "germane" to the contract negotiations.

So, did this survey represent the kind of gold-standard research that the chancellor had been promising? To find out, I asked the board for a copy. The press secretary told me that there was no survey, only a "draft" of a report—and that I couldn’t see it. I then called Tony Shorris several times. Since he was so forthcoming to the Times, I figured, he’d be the same for me. He never returned my calls.

I eventually got hold of the "survey"—seven pages of tables and charts that the chancellor’s office had sent to the Times. The methodology was appalling: the board derived its numbers solely from the anecdotes of school principals, who had been asked where they thought the teachers (some of whom had left nine months earlier) had gone. But since teachers don’t have to tell principals where they’re going when they quit—and even when they do tell, there’s rarely an official record—the principals were relying on necessarily incomplete and fragmentary memories.

In addition, most principals reported that a teacher went to "Westchester" or "Nassau," rather than naming a particular school district, making it impossible to verify numbers by calling the school districts themselves. With its large staff, the board could have easily spent a day or two contacting every suburban district and discovering precisely how many city teachers each had hired. Why didn’t they? Rein wasn’t sure.

Equally galling, the chancellor’s office apparently did nothing to discourage the Times reporter from confusing the 1,700 or so teachers recorded as going "outside NYC" with the new suburbanites. More than a third of the departures outside the city were for places like Florida, California, and foreign countries. (Teachers sometimes relocate to distant places, but that has nothing to do with the problem of transfers to cushier suburbs.) The reporter then erroneously compared the "outside NYC" category with Podgursky’s figure of 400 teachers landing suburban jobs and concluded that suburban flight had increased fourfold since 1997.

Chancellor Levy offered this worthless "survey" to the Times knowing full well that, if reported uncritically (as it invariably was by the UFT-friendly paper), it would strengthen the union’s bargaining position. If a private-sector CEO, locked in contract negotiations with his unionized employees, dared to do something similar, he’d swiftly face a stockholder revolt for neglecting company interests.

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