In the four years since he took control of the biggest school system in the country, Mayor Mike Bloomberg seems to have learned a few lessons. For one, he now apparently believes that the best way to raise student achievement is to devolve authority from city hall to individual schools, allowing principals to “design their own paths to success.”

Or at least that’s what Mayor Mike told New Yorkers at his June 12 press conference, announcing that up to 350 of the city’s 1,400 schools would now officially become “Empowerment Schools,” freed from many of the bureaucratic mandates of his own Department of Education. The mayor also hinted that if his latest initiative works out, more schools would join the Empowerment Zone. After all, who can gainsay success?

It’s always good to see principals break the shackles of senseless rules and become more entrepreneurial. But the question that quickly comes to mind is: Why is Bloomberg doing this, and why now? Unfortunately, the city’s pliant education reporters never asked. The mayor could thus frame the story as just another logical step in the glorious progression of his administration’s educational reforms. In truth, the headlines should have read: mayor takes 180-degree turn on schools.

To see why, just read the text of Mayor Bloomberg’s famous Martin Luther King Day speech in 2003, where he first laid out his initiative for restructuring the city’s education system, a plan he called “Children First.” Presented to the public after six months of intense secret planning, the blueprint for the reorganized system didn’t leave much room for principals’ autonomy or innovation. It was an imperial system, with all roads leading directly to city hall.

Bloomberg noted that in the past, local schools enjoyed too much autonomy, bringing about “a baffling profusion of approaches to teaching the three Rs throughout the city.” In fact, he said, the “experience of other urban school districts shows that a standardized approach to reading, writing, and math is the best way to raise student performance across the board, in all subjects.”

Based on these purported findings, Bloomberg announced that the old discredited and decentralized system would give way to “one, unified, focused, streamlined chain of command.” So convinced was the mayor that top-down management of the schools was the way to go that he revealed that “the Chancellor’s office will dictate the curriculum and pedagogical methods.” The “dictated” teaching approach would be the purest progressive ed: whole-language instruction in reading and constructivist math.

The mayor stuck to his guns throughout the next two school years, despite rising complaints about mindless micromanagement of classroom teachers. He defended the pedagogical “dictatorship” he had granted to Chancellor Klein, saying that proof of success was in rising test scores. As recently as six months ago, the administration was still trumpeting the “historic” results on the state’s 2005 fourth-grade reading and math tests as powerful vindication of its education policies. (See my debunking of the test scores in “City’s Pupils Get More Hype than Hope,” Winter 2006.)

But if the children are testing so spectacularly well while using the progressive reading and math programs that the chancellor has imposed top-down, why would a success-minded administration suddenly want to allow school principals to abandon those programs—in other words, to go back to a “baffling profusion of approaches to teaching the three Rs throughout the city”?

It’s understandable that the city’s education reporters get frustrated in covering an education administration so skilled at spin. Still, it should not be that hard for them to put two and two together: despite the administration’s claims of historic gains in student test scores, there’s a lot of disquiet and thrashing about going on behind the Tweed Courthouse’s closed doors.

Stay tuned for more reorganization of the reorganization.


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