New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s vision of education reform is based on his idea of the “business model” of accountability and results—which sounds good in principle. Producing numbers that show bottom-line progress is essential to demonstrating Klein’s success. The city’s much-touted improvement in student test scores, though dubious, has convinced many observers that substantial progress is happening. To keep the momentum going and appease the Department of Education’s number crunchers, school administrators strive constantly to improve graduation rates. One of the easiest ways of doing this, unfortunately, is to water down course-credit standards for graduation.
For years now, schools have been switching to “annualization” of their course offerings. Under this structure, students who fail the first semester of a sequential course (say, English 5 and 6) can get credit for both terms if they pass the second semester. The practical effect of this change is to destroy the work ethic of those students who’ve figured out how to game the system. By their junior and senior years, they know that they can blow off the first term and, with some effort in the second, get credit for the full course. For the schools’ part, annualization obviates the need to create costly, inefficient “off-track” spring sections of sequential courses for students who failed the fall section. This helps cut down drastically on night school and summer school, and also sends graduation rates skyward. Under this flawed model, teachers face inexorable pressure to get their numbers up in the second term, however they can.
The education department has taken other questionable steps to boost graduation rates. Consider the fate of summer school. Even as recently as 13 years ago, when I first taught summer classes, the course standards and rules were strictly enforced. Three absences resulted in a student’s automatic termination from the program, and a disciplinary infraction would have the same result. But Harold Levy, Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s last schools chancellor, instituted a kinder and gentler system of asking, if not begging, kids to show up. Teachers were paid to call home and implore parents to send their kids, while a smiling Levy appeared on the evening news, manning the phones himself. Principals would let kids come late, allow them to disappear for two-week vacations in the middle of summer, and drop the issue of passing them into teachers’ laps, asking them to use “discretion.” Then, under Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, the old Summer and Evening Division was eliminated altogether in a cost-saving move. A vastly shrunken summer-school operation, run individually by the schools with no outside oversight, retains very little of the old system’s tough standards.
The schools began implementing a program known as “credit recovery,” driven, again, by the pressure on city high school principals to improve their dismal graduation rates. Through credit recovery, a student can receive credit for a failed course after attending at least nine hours of class and completing a total of 25 hours of work. The credit-recovery classes are held during school vacations or in after-school programs. They’re sometimes referred to as “boot camp,” in order to conjure up images of Camp Lejeune in July. State and city directives always call for “rigorous” standards for these programs, but one doesn’t need to be an education policy expert to judge that nine hours in class is a paltry substitute for 16 weeks of class work, or even the 36 hours of summer school in the old system. What amount to extra-credit assignments cannot substitute for course proficiency. Besides, no statewide mechanism for auditing these programs really exists, so it’s left up to the full faith and credit of each school to ensure that they’re reputable. Stories about schools “stuffing” credit-recovery programs to boost graduation figures are legion.
But it gets worse. Until now, students who’ve failed a course must have spent a certain amount of time in that class (known as “seat time”) to be eligible for credit recovery. Last month, however, the State Education Department issued a draft proposal declaring that “seat time” will no longer be a prerequisite. Instead, a school-based committee made up of certified teachers and the principal will set the standards. “The provisions . . . do not require specific seat time requirements for the make-up opportunity since the opportunity must be tailored to the individual student’s need,” the memo declares. This alternative approach renders Chancellor Klein’s own regulations—which call for 90 percent attendance and “successful completion of standards in subject areas”—meaningless.
New York City’s much-heralded end to social promotion in schools has been replaced by something even worse—totally empty, if not universal, promotion. Partly as a result of new policies like credit recovery, this June’s graduation rates will likely reach record highs. Klein’s supporters will once again sound their optimistic refrain about educational progress. But at some point, ordinary New Yorkers, largely excluded from the education debate, will begin to realize that the progress is not what it seems.