There’s good news from the New York State Education Department: Albany’s latest student reading-proficiency test showed significant improvements in big-city public-school performance. The bad news, alas, is that there is no reason to trust these numbers. Even state education commissioner MaryEllen Elia implicitly concedes that the books may have been cooked. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time.
The state-wide Common Core reading-proficiency rate jumped to 37.9 percent in 2016, up from 31.3 percent one year ago. The pass rate in New York City improved slightly, leading Mayor de Blasio to declare a victory for his own Department of Education. “A lot is changing, and this is pure, hard evidence that these changes are working,” he said, “and we expect a lot more to come.”
Commissioner Elia was less sanguine: “We cannot pinpoint exactly why the test [scores] increased,” she said—while conceding that this year’s scores may not represent an “apples-to-apples” situation. Others, both experts and advocates, claim that the 2016 exams were significantly easier than last year’s. Watering down tests, sad to say, is an enduring Albany practice. More to the point, the fact that officials are arguing about a six-point gain in a reading-test pass rate that has long been significantly below 50 percent speaks volumes about expectations for public education in New York.
A more revealing benchmark is a recent report from the reform group StudentsFirstNY, which compared graduation rates at some of New York City’s seemingly most successful high schools with the actual academic proficiency of their students. It’s a stunning indictment of the schools, a stark rebuttal to de Blasio’s claims of public school progress on his watch—and a prime example of the dishonesty that pervades public education generally.
De Blasio claims that the citywide high school graduation rate just topped 70 percent—which is probably true, though profoundly misleading. SFNY discovered that only 34 of the city’s 428 high schools prepare at least 75 percent of their students for college or careers; that 80 percent of New York’s high schools prepare fewer than half their graduates for college; and that 45 city high schools with above-average graduation numbers post college-ready rates of 20 percent or less. In perhaps the most egregious example, SFNY reports that the High School for Medical Professions graduates 95 percent of its students—but a scant 15 percent are deemed college-ready, according to standards established by the City University of New York. (CUNY, unhappily, is tasked with remediating the vast majority of the city’s legions of unprepared, but nevertheless aspiring, high school graduates. So it should know.)
The de Blasio administration isn’t solely responsible for this mess, but it clearly is complicit in it. The mayor’s refusal directly to address the readiness issue compounds the problem—while masking it. Lack of candor in public education has long been the norm, but it took off in New York in the late 1990s, when then-state education commissioner Richard Mills began watering down the state’s historically rigorous statewide graduation examinations—the so-called Regents finals. Less demanding, locally administered graduation tests were significantly weakened, too. Within a decade, New York’s once-respectable graduation benchmarks had been gutted.
From time to time, reformers have pushed back. The Bloomberg administration deserves credit for a heroic effort to set things right, though to no avail, as the SFNY report demonstrates—and for the same reasons that caused the problem in the first place: nobody is willing to address the dirty little secret of contemporary public education, let alone design policies to deal with it.
The secret is this: it is impossible to impose an education on unwilling or unmotivated students. And when enough disinterested, or actively disruptive, pupils make up a school’s student body, the school begins to fail. A candid diagnosis would require committing two of the major sins of our time: judgmentalism and “blaming the victim.” It also would mean acknowledging that money isn’t everything in public education—a fact that teachers’ unions and school administrators will never admit.
Certainly, resources are important. Children from impoverished backgrounds will always present challenges not often found in affluent school districts. On the other hand, New York as a whole spends more per pupil than any other state, and far more than most. The lavish spending no doubt helps explain why politicians and educators are so defensive about anemic results.
Demographics matter, but they need not determine outcomes. Most charter schools, for example, generally perform better than traditional public schools. The best of them produce spectacular results. This is a curiosity, at first glance; charters draw their students from the same neighborhoods, and from the same social circumstances, as the poorly performing schools—and yet most charters succeed. Why?
The answer lies in the refusal of the successful charters to accept conventional wisdom regarding poor kids. They challenge assumptions about their capabilities, hold them to high standards, and generally refuse to accept excuses. Moreover—and this is critical—they understand that more is required of schools attempting to educate kids from socially corrosive backgrounds. And they deliver—not always, but often enough to demonstrate that their techniques deserve respect and study.
Manhattan’s Harlem Valley Academy High School could be Exhibit A for the argument that while expectations matter, execution makes the difference. It takes kids from exceedingly difficult circumstances and last year delivered 92 percent of them to competitive colleges. It does it by creating a highly challenging academic environment—one that encourages students to believe in the utility of real performance. The kids come to assume that they can perform at a high level—and for the most part, they do. They become willing students, in other words, and it shows.
Contrast that with the current chaos at Bedford-Stuyvesant’s failing Boys and Girls High School. It, too, serves challenging students. It wasn’t that long ago that the school had a principal—the late Frank Mickens—who combined high expectations of his students with low tolerance for under-performance. Disruptive students and burnt-out faculty routinely disappeared, which angered both education bureaucrats and union leaders. But under Mickens, the school became one of the best of its type in the city.
Mickens was forced out in 2004—embarrassed bureaucrats and malignant unionists won’t be denied forever—and decline set in. This summer, the school hired its third principal in just over three years. It has become one of the worst-performing high schools in the city, graduating fewer than 45 percent of its students (and only 10 percent of those graduates are college-ready, according to the SFNY study). It will be lucky if Albany doesn’t shut it down.
The bottom line: Harlem Valley Academy High School, which has high expectations of its students and enforces equally exacting performance standards, flourishes. Boys and Girls, which once did that but no longer does, is failing. Urban schools can produce serious students—but only if the adults are serious educators.
The bureaucrats and educators at the New York City Department of Education are manifestly unserious. The SFNY college-readiness study, like those Common Core reading results, betrays the system’s incompetence and its distressing tolerance for deceit. Successfully navigating the class and culture issues raised by Harlem Valley’s success, and Boys and Girls’ failure, would be a fraught enterprise under any circumstances. Tragically, there is no reason to believe that either the de Blasio administration or the state’s public education establishment have any interest in stepping up to the challenge.
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