The Education Campaign
September 23rd, 2009
With the mayoral campaign officially only a week old, education has emerged as a key topic, and a torrent of studies give both sides ammunition.
Already Mayor Michael Bloomberg has sent out a campaign mailer contrastng his education record as mayor with Democratic opponent William Thompson’s accomplishments as president of the now defunct Board of Education in the 1990s. And as Thomspson prepared to deliver an address on education yesterday, Bloomberg continued to sound that theme.
In that speech, during which he called for smaller classes and more parental involvement in the schools, among other things, Thompson questioned the administration’s reports of widespread progress in education. “The failure of the administration to tell the truth over the last eight years has undermined our faith in their claims of progress, while putting the school system at serious risk,Ē Thompson said.
Statistics bolster and counter both sides. Just in the past week, three studies have appeared on three key education topics.
- Smaller high schools: The Bloomberg administration — fueled by money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — have shut many of the city’s large, all-purpose high schools and created small themed schools in their stead. The newer schools, the administration crows, have far higher graduation rates than the ones they replaced.
And indeed they do. But a study by Aaron Pallas of Columbia Teachers College and Jennifer Jennings of NYU finds that may be because they have better students to start with. For example in 2005, only 11 percent of ninth-graders entering Evander Childs High School in the Bronx were reading at grade level, the study found, but some 30 percent of students entering the smaller schools that replaced Evander Childs were proficient in reading.
So where did all those low performing students go? An earlier report said many have crammed into nearby big high schools, which “have seen attendance decline, disorder increase, and graduation rates drop.”
- The value of a diploma: Even students who graduate may not be prepared to continue their educations, according to a study to be released Thursday by John Garvey, a former dean at CUNY. His research reportedly found that a mere 7.5 percent of city high school graduates had taken the courses they needed to prepare for college. “Although New York City’s public schools are graduating more students and more of them are going on to college, high rates of remedial course-taking and low graduation rates indicate a need to improve academic preparation,” Garvey wrote.
- Charter schools: The mayor has enthusiastically embraced charter schools, advocating for them and making space for them in public school buildings. On this one a new report endorses his belief. Charter schools, whose students are more likely to be poor and black than those in conventional public schools, have taken a big bite out of the achievement gap, according to the New York City Charter Schools Evaluation Project, closing “about 86 percent of the ‘Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap’ in math and 66 percent of the achievement gap in English.” Students at charter high schools also are more likely to receive Regents diplomas than other city teens.
As the figures fly, reporters are playing the numbers game too. On Saturday, the Daily News’ Adam Lisberg poked some holes in Bloomberg’s education mailer. While the flyer charged that school violence had increased during Thompson time as board chair, Lisberg writes it had soared before Thompson took over at 110 Livingston Street. Similarly it blames Thompson for the low graduation rate for the class of 1996 — when, again, Thompson was not in charge. (Oddly, the numbers after Thompson took over were worse, according to Lisberg.)
The numbers can only tell so much, Lisberg writes, but that won’t stop use from being “buried under an avalanche of education statstics for the next six week.”
What to do? Here’s a word of caution from noted education expert Diane Ravitch: “I fear that American education has now entered into a twilight zone, where nothing is what it appears to be, where numbers are meaningless, where public relations and spin take the place of honest reporting, where fraud is called progress.”
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