How are Gotham public schools faring in the Bill de Blasio era? The answer is complicated. Primary metrics show that schools have continued making gains that began under de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg—but these improvements may have been achieved despite the administration as much as because of it.
Test scores for New York City public school children keep rising. On the 2017 state exams, 37.8 percent of students in district elementary and middle schools met the bar for proficiency in math, and 40.6 percent scored proficient in English. These figures represent an increase of 3.6 percentage points in math and 12.2 percentage points in English since 2014.
Due to frequent changes in the state exams, the best marker of Gotham’s educational progress is how city students compare with students in the rest of the state. The percentage of city students proficient in English was 3.5 percentage points below the average for the rest of the state in 2014; but in 2017, the percentage was 1.4 points higher than the rest of the state. In math, however, city students lost ground: in 2014, the percentage of city kids scoring proficient in math was 3.2 points less than their state peers, and they fell further behind in 2017, when city kids lagged 4.2 percentage points.
Charter schools are generating New York City’s most impressive results. On the 2017 exams, charter schools bested district proficiency rates by 14 percentage points in math and 8 in English. Economically disadvantaged charter students outscored their district peers by 19 points in math and 12 points in English. While Bloomberg’s administration championed charters and worked to find space for them in public school buildings, de Blasio entered office as an ardent charter opponent. De Blasio targeted Eva Moskowitz and her high-performing Success Academy, arguing that she had “to stop being tolerated, enabled, [and] supported.” This year, 84 percent of Success students were proficient in English and 95 percent in math. The mayor has toned down his anti-charter rhetoric, but the administration continues to hamper charter growth—for example, by denying most charter requests for space in public school buildings.
High school graduation rates have risen during de Blasio’s tenure, jumping from 68.4 percent in 2014 to 72.6 percent in 2016. These figures reflect a long-term upward trend in graduation rates that began during the Bloomberg years—but only half these students have met CUNY’s standards for college readiness in English and mathematics.
De Blasio has made headway on his promise to deliver expanded full-day pre-K, which now enrolls more than 70,000 four-year-olds, and he has made other efforts to expand access to computer-science and advanced-placement courses. A new literacy initiative also shows some promise.
But the administration’s two major educational initiatives—Community Schools and Renewal Schools—haven’t produced markedly positive results. The Renewal Schools program invested over $500 million in 94 schools—now down to 78, as 16 have closed—spending the money on extra teacher training, summer school, and adding an hour to the school day. The Community Schools initiative proposed to boost student achievement by providing 130 struggling schools with wraparound social services via city-sponsored partnerships with neighborhood organizations. When the city announced an expansion of the Community Schools effort this summer, the only positive metric that it could offer was a modest decrease in absenteeism. Renewal Schools did post a 1.5-percentage-point gain in math scores and 3.2 points in English—fairly modest gains for the considerable investment.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the administration’s education record is its recent announcement that it would begin forcing many teachers from the Absent Teacher Reserve pool into classrooms. The ATR pool is a vestige of the Bloomberg administration’s 2005 teachers’ union contract that ended the policy of “forced placement” of teachers based on seniority. Principals could now select their own staffs, though the union ensured that the teachers weren’t fired—thus, the ATR pool, where they would still collect paychecks. The roughly 800 ATR teachers cost the city upward of $150 million a year, but instead of instituting a time limit to ATR status before initiating termination, de Blasio will compel principals to employ these unwanted teachers—half of whom no one has deemed fit to hire for more than two years.
Illustration by Arnold Roth