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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Holding Mayor Bloomberg Accountable by Brian D'Agostino, PH.D

Brian D'Agostino is a social scientist, author, and educator. He was a New York City public school teacher for eleven years and served as a United Federation of Teachers chapter leader. Brian is currently an independent statistical and policy analyst; visit him at Brian D'Agostino, PH.D

Michael Bloomberg claims to have revolutionized and brought accountability to a vast, dysfunctional public school system. The Obama administration believes him, and promotes his education reforms as a model for the country. But the billionaire mayor’s Democratic challenger Bill Thompson and other critics with insider knowledge are contesting these claims. Thompson was president of the city’s Board of Education the six years before Bloomberg was first elected in 2001, and served as city Comptroller for the last eight.

Bloomberg’s campaign has produced three glossy mailings that favorably compare his eight years of school reform with Thompson’s record as Board president. The mayor claims that he “eliminated wasteful bureaucracy that was doing nothing to educate our kids” and attacks Thompson for supporting “a plan to create more bureaucracy in the schools,” citing several New York Times articles from December 1996. But the plan described in these articles simply gave the chancellor some hiring and firing authority over 32 district superintendents, who had previously reported solely to their local school boards. Bloomberg knows very well this was a necessary corrective for local corruption and patronage politics. Referring to the plan, the Times’ editors wrote: “For the first time in years, New York City can have real hope about its public school system.”

While Thompson helped lay this foundation for further improvement, what Bloomberg added to it was, well, bureaucracy. The 2002 legislation establishing mayoral control had retained the local school districts and simply gave the mayor authority to hire the chancellor and a majority of the Board of Education. Not content to share power with local communities, as required under the legislation, Bloomberg and his chancellor Joel Klein dismantled the 32 district offices and created a centralized bureaucracy with ten regional superintendents, about a hundred “local instructional supervisors” under them, and an army of math and literacy “coaches” to enforce the new top-down instructional mandates in all the schools.

The “wasteful bureaucracy” that Bloomberg claimed to have eliminated was in the 32 district offices, which had provided administrative services to schools and gave parents and local communities access to power when problems could not be solved at the school level. The services for the most part were not provided by the new bureaucracy, and were either added to the workload of school staff or contracted out to private vendors paid out of school budgets. Meanwhile, the new “parent coordinator” in each school was no substitute for being able to voice concerns to a local school superintendent having authority over principals and curriculum.

And what happened to the $100 million saved from dismantling the “bureaucracy” in the districts? According to The New York Times (5/9/03), it was used to pay for a new bureaucracy, including the coaches and parent coordinators who reported up the chain of command to City Hall. Klein and Bloomberg say the money was “put into the classroom,” but it was not used to reduce class sizes or purchase needed materials; the role of the coaches and parent coordinators was to extend mayoral power into the schools.

Measuring School Performance

Bloomberg, of course, presents all of this as a bold and needed makeover of a system that was failing to deliver quality instruction. His ads claim that he holds students, teachers and principals accountable for progress, while Bill Thompson was, according to the New York Observer, “asleep on the job” as president of the Board of Ed. But the Observer comment referred to a lapse by Thompson in monitoring the school construction budget. That failure, and Bloomberg’s separate allegation that his rival “wasted over $4 billion in taxpayer money,” were almost certainly exceeded by the mayor’s billions of dollars in misallocated school funds and no-bid contracts.

As for elementary and middle school performance, Bloomberg claims that math and reading scores went up on his watch (the latter by 27.5 percentage points) while Thompson allegedly saw a 2.2 point drop in reading scores, and no improvement in math. These figures were cherry picked for purposes of the Bloomberg campaign, taken out of context, and calculated using misleading or incorrect assumptions.

By contrast, James F. Brennan, senior member of the New York State Assembly Education Committee, made an impartial and comprehensive comparison of school performance before and after the mayor’s reforms (in NYC Schools Under Bloomberg and Klein, 2009). Brennan examined New York City math and reading scores, both fourth and eighth grade, from 1998 (the first year New York State collected the data) through 2008. He found that New York City fourth graders showed more improvement on these state tests during the period under Thompson, while the city’s eighth graders showed more improvement under Bloomberg. But that is not the whole story.

It is well known that the state tests have been subject to grade inflation. A much more reliable measure, according to experts, is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Brennan notes that the NAEP results confirm the gains that occurred under Thompson, but not those under Bloomberg. In fact, out of ten urban districts, New York’s eighth graders dropped from second place to sixth on the NAEP reading tests during the first four years of Bloomberg’s reforms.

According to education expert Diane Ravitch, Klein should have concluded from the NAEP results that the curriculum he imposed on the entire city wasn’t working and that he needed to reduce class sizes. But Klein’s response was to disregard the data, and instead make the discredited state tests the centerpiece of his new accountability system for students, teachers, and schools. When scores on these tests spiked in 2009, Klein awarded “A” and “B” grades to 97% of the city’s elementary and middle schools. As in the past, the state’s NAEP scores released less than six weeks later shattered these illusions.

And what about the high schools? In July 2009, a Comptroller Office’s report called into question the improved graduation rate cited by Bloomberg. For 10% of student records audited, schools failed to properly document completion of all graduation requirements. In addition, schools routinely awarded students redundant credits for passing the same course more than once and were often lax in their procedures for reversing failing course grades. In comments on these findings, Comptroller Thompson said, “The mayor’s managerial style has created an incentive for schools to graduate students whether or not they have met the necessary requirements,” and he called Bloomberg’s Education Department “the Enron of American Education.”

Thompson’s report may have caused the Bloomberg campaign to omit the city’s graduation rate and instead to provide in their mailings only the dropout rate, which they claim declined by 6.5 percentage points between the classes of 2006 and 2007, while increasing 4 points under Thompson. But the Comptroller’s audit also calls into question Bloomberg’s official dropout rate; at least 6% of students sampled should have been counted as dropouts in the class of 2007 and were not.

Nor is it clear what the increased dropout rate under Thompson really means. The Daily News (9/19/09) said it reflected the introduction of more rigorous graduation policies during the same time period. This is ironic in light of the mayor’s claim that Thompson “did nothing to end social promotion.”

Finally, the mayor’s mailings say school crime went down 44% under his watch while “School Violence Soared” under Thompson. But neither of the sources cited—the New York Post (6/19/09) on Bloomberg’s record and the Daily News (9/18/95) on Thompson’s—support these claims. I searched the entire Post issue and could not find a single reference to school crime. And the News editorial on school violence appeared ten months before Thompson became president of the Board of Education. It is interesting that both these bloopers pertain to the Bloomberg campaign’s most emotionally charged school issue: public safety. More on that later.

School Reform: Image and Reality

The unsubstantiated, misleading, or false claims in these mailings are part of a larger pattern. The mayor and his chancellor preside over a formidable propaganda machine. Since taking office, Joel Klein has at least quadrupled his public relations staff, which has access to the DOE’s vast information resources. He also chairs the Fund for Public Schools, a non-profit group that has spent millions on subway, bus, radio, and TV ads promoting his record. Supportive media elites include Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman—a vice chair of the Fund—and New York Post publisher Rupert Murdoch, whose wife Wendi serves on its board. Klein’s Tweed Courthouse headquarters produces a continuous flow of supposedly objective information that dominates mainstream media and opinion, from the streets of New York to White House policymakers.

Tweed Courthouse

But a growing body of literature challenges the Bloomberg/Klein brand and its image of New York City as the world’s epicenter of successful school reform. One book of eye-opening articles is NYC Schools Under Bloomberg and Klein: What Parents, Teachers, and Policymakers Need to Know (2009), available as a free download from Lulu Press. The racial achievement gap, policing of the schools, class size, and Bloomberg’s initiatives regarding small schools and accountability are just few of the chapters.

In July 2008, addressing the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor, Bloomberg and Klein reported dramatic progress in closing the racial achievement gap. The Jennings and Pallas article in NYC Schools shows that these claims, based on proficiency data, are misleading. A proficiency rate only measures the percentage of students who meet an arbitrary “cut score.” This percentage is unaffected by the performance of students who already exceed the score or fail to meet it. Using proficiency rates to measure performance gives teachers an incentive to work with students just below the cut score at the expense of the majority. Proficiency rates will then improve, even if overall school performance deteriorates.

Based on proficiency rates, Bloomberg and Klein made the misleading claim that they decreased the racial achievement gap in math and reading scores for 4th and 8th graders, including a 50% gap reduction in 8th grade reading scores. But average scale scores, which measure the performance of all students, show that the gap actually widened (by as much as 22%) in all categories except 8th grade reading. There the gap reduction was 6%, not 50% as advertised. And that was little cause for celebration, since the city’s 8th graders as a whole lost ground on the more rigorous NAEP reading test. Black and Hispanic students simply lost less ground than their white and Asian classmates.

The same administration that produced these outcomes put policies into place that continue to adversely affect minority students. Civil rights activist and NAACP official Hazel Dukes has an article in NYC Schools that addresses some of these policies. One of them involved admissions criteria for gifted and talented programs. Research has shown that multiple criteria provide a better guide to future student performance than test scores alone. Disregarding this research, the chancellor required local school districts to discontinue multiple criteria, beginning in October 2007, and to exclusively use high stakes tests with uniform cut scores. Experts had warned Klein to no avail that this policy would particularly hurt minority applicants.

As predicted, in Fall 2008, there was a sharp decline in black and Hispanic admissions—with the percentage of black students admitted to gifted and talented programs falling from 31% to 13%. Five predominantly minority school districts lost their programs altogether. Klein pursued similar policies with similar results at the high school level, requiring Staten Island Technical High School and smaller, newer magnet schools to adopt high stakes testing as their sole admissions criterion. He also presided over a 26% decrease in enrollment between 2006 and 2008 in after school and Saturday programs to help high-needs students wanting to apply to magnet schools.

With Black and Hispanic students losing academic ground, conditions in predominantly minority schools are deteriorating. Failing to proactively address the needs of students, the administration relies instead on a heavy police presence to maintain public safety. Although student enrollment has declined under Bloomberg, the number of security officers—employees of the NYPD—increased to 5,200, giving the school system the nation’s 5th largest police force. More police are deployed for New York City’s one million students than for the entire 2.2 million population of Houston.

An article by civil liberties advocate Udi Offer describes the result: the criminalizing of children, especially minorities and those with special needs. In separate incidents in 2007, two students were arrested and handcuffed, one of them a 13 year old for writing on a desk. The next year, a five year old was handcuffed and taken to a psychiatric ward for throwing a tantrum. Police frequently undermine principals in matters of discipline, in one case even arresting a principal who tried to prevent one of his students from being hauled off in handcuffs. Students, parents, and community leaders have repeatedly approached the administration with alternative approaches to school safety, but the mayor, according to Offer, refuses to participate in a dialogue.

Finally, while committed to policies that have failed low income and minority communities, Bloomberg and Klein neglected one of the most effective policies known to improve academic performance—reducing class size. In 1999, the city began to receive $90 million per year from New York State, and another $90 million in federal funds to reduce class sizes. As Leonie Haimson noted in NYC Schools, this produced significant improvement as long as the funds were actually used to reduce class size. In 2006, however, the city decreased its own funding for smaller class sizes, canceling the effects of these state and federal funds. The next year, New York received an additional $400 million from the state to reduce class size. The city did not allocate the money for that purpose, however, and in September 2008 class sizes actually increased.

Admitting Failure

Although unreported in the mainstream media, the mayor and chancellor have in effect admitted the failure of their education policies. Their current long term strategy is to abandon the public school system they are supposed to be managing in favor of a network of privatized charter schools. Not coincidentally, most of these new schools are not unionized.

The chancellor is reallocating scarce resources and classroom space in support of this new policy, often creating bitter conflicts between public and charter schools housed in the same building. The city’s 78 charter schools enroll a smaller proportion of English language learners and special needs students than their public counterparts, and are permitted in practice to expel low achieving students. All these hard-to-teach students are then dumped into the public schools, which, unlike the charters, have larger class sizes and are not permitted to cap their enrollments. The administration then compares the public schools unfavorably to the charters, even though research shows mixed results—notwithstanding all the advantages conferred on the charters. Klein envisions these publicly funded yet privately managed entities as the future of “public” education. See Grassroots Education Movement and Sarah Knopp.

The purported advantages of charters—human scale, better instruction, autonomous governance—had already existed in some public schools since the 1970s, a little known fact discussed in the article by educator Deborah Meier. Compared to today’s charters, however, these experiments had a more public and democratic nature. They were governed by the faculty, with the support of principals and input from parents and students. Operating under the same resource constraints and union as other public schools, and drawing from the same student population, they tailored instruction to the learning needs of students, not the requirements of standardized tests.

At first, Klein tried to replicate this success. While lauding small school innovation, however, he undermined it by assessing performance in conventional ways. Nor could quality, autonomous schools be mass produced from his Tweed headquarters. Notwithstanding $100 million in supplemental funding from Bill Gates, the administration’s program foundered, and Gates stopped supporting it in 2008. By then, charter schools had emerged as Bloomberg’s and Klein’s new paradigm.

Along with this move to privatization, the administration’s admission of failure was its quiet demolition in 2006 of the very bureaucracy it had created with so much fanfare only three years earlier. The only thing more remarkable than this reversal was its failure to elicit critical commentary and analysis in the mainstream media; Bloomberg and Klein were permitted to declare victory and move on. Having brought “accountability” to the system, they said, the “reforms” were now entering a new phase.

Instead of being told what and how to teach through a bureaucratic chain of command, teachers are now subjected to management-by-numbers. Their performance is measured using “value added assessment,” where student scores on standardized tests at the end of the school year are compared with their scores at the beginning—the difference being attributable to the teacher. With merit pay or job loss at stake, teachers and principals now have test preparation as their primary task. That is driving authentic educators to look elsewhere for work.

Needless to say, this is no way to get kids excited about school, especially those who are disadvantaged and already alienated from mainstream institutions. In fact, it eradicates the love of learning that many students bring to the table. Test preparation cannot cultivate the critical thinking skills and independent judgment needed to be a responsible citizen, an intelligent user of the internet, or even a savvy consumer. Nor can it cultivate the creativity and capacity for innovation that the best 21st century jobs require.

This is the kind of school system that corporate elites, politicians, and lawyers create when they don’t care to collaborate with educators and want an easily quantified and user friendly tool for controlling them. It is a system for creating a large supply of minimally-skilled, diligent and disciplined service workers who will follow instructions without asking questions. And it trains the populace in mindless conformity, making the entire country susceptible to authoritarian rule.

Joyce Purnick’s biography of Michael Bloomberg came out this year. She wrote about a man intoxicated with power—more than most leaders—and who still can’t get enough. To be sure, he also cares about the city’s people, and wants to serve them well. But he imagines he is vastly smarter and more competent than all the city’s teachers, principals, and other public servants, and can forge a better government by concentrating power in City Hall. He has convinced millions, both inside and outside the city, that this is so. But Bloomberg’s record running the New York City public school system shatters this illusion. Isn’t it time for this mayor—whose mantra is accountability—to be finally held accountable for his own performance?

Brian D'Agostino
New York, NY
October 22, 2009

link to Brian's website

1 comment:

JUSTICE not "just us" said...

A most informative and well written post. Thank you.