As if anyone needed it, two stories last week demonstrated once again how difficult it is to measure the effectiveness of the massive changes in New York City schools over the last seven years.
On Tuesday, Marcus Winter of the Manhattan Institute issued a report concluding that children in conventional public schools benefit when they compete with charter schools. Everyone wins, Winter concluded, or, as he put it: "The increase in the number of charter schools is having a positive effect on student learning in its traditional public schools. Previous high-quality research has shown that students who attend a New York City charter school tend to benefit substantially."
Two days later, the Daily News reported on another study -- this one from the charter-friendly city Department of Education -- which it said concluded that by at least one measure students in charter schools do not do as well as their counterparts in conventional public schools on standardized tests. The charter students reportedly had higher scores on state standardized tests, but their scores did not rise as much as those of students in regular schools. The rate of increase is the measurement the department has said it values most.
"The mayor and chancellor lecture us incessantly on how charters are better than traditional public schools, yet DOE's own accountability data shows charters lag significantly in the metric they prize above all else: improvement in state test scores," said Patrick Sullivan, a member of the Education Department's central policy board.
Bloomberg's Top Priority
No issue has been more at the center of the Bloomberg mayoralty than education. Before being elected in 2001, Michael Bloomberg pledged to take control of the school system and told voters to hold him accountable for the system's successes or failures. Now running against the former president of the now defunct Board of Education, William Thompson, Bloomberg has used his vast resources to contrast his record on education with Thompson's -- sometimes distortingthe truth in the process.
While data is plentiful, conclusive evidence on what works and why remains elusive. Do test scores really serve as the best measure of schools? Which ones? Sliced and diced which way? A rising high school graduation rate should offer cause for celebration, but why are so many of those graduates unable to do college work without remedial help? Do scores of new small schools really benefit kids previously lost in large comprehensive high schools -- or are they simply a gimmick fueled by money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation?
The dueling statistics on charter schools echo the debate on education in New York City. Earlier this month, New York's business community received a glitzy presentation by Klein about how all sections of New York City had registered more improvement on test scores than other counties in the state. Fans of Bloomberg said this offered solid evidence that, under Klein and Bloomberg, students were achieving -- not simply taking easier tests.
Within days, those figures were challenged by results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Those numbers found that while the scores on New York's own tests have climbed steadily, New York State kids had not improved their performance on the national test. Critics of Klein and Bloomberg said this offered solid evidence that students were taking easier state tests -- not necessarily achieving more.
While the educational effects of Bloomberg's efforts on schools can be open to debate, his political successes in the area really cannot.
Although good schools existed before Bloomberg became mayor -- and sometimes test scores even rose -- the system, fairly or not, was widely seen as failing. Even if New Yorkers liked their local school or their child's teacher, their mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, constantly told them education in the city was a mess. In 1999, he went so far as to describe the system and the officials in it "as no good and beyond redemption" and declare that it "should be blown up."
"While Giuliani was the mayor, things did not improve," Carol Gresser, a former city education board president told the Los Angeles Times in 2007. "The system was denied the money it needed. I was on the board for eight years and it was constantly, 'Let's cut back on the school system.'"
While Bloomberg allies have faulted Thompson for not trying to get mayoral control during this period, no one seriously thought the state legislature would let Guiliani, who, at times called for bigger classes and less education funding, run the nation's largest school system.
Bloomberg immediately brought a new attitude. While criticizing the system, he was careful to say good things as well and to refrain from demonizing the city's teachers. Armed with that attitude and with public concern about education on the rise, Bloomberg promptly managed to win mayoral control of schools, something denied his predecessors. And he won a version of it that gave him more power than his counterparts in Boston or Chicago had. Responding to that success, a member of his administration, Alan Gartner, joked that maybe the administration could "declare victory and go home."
Seven years later, Bloomberg would win perhaps an even more impressive victory when he had to return to Albany and win renewal of mayoral control. Having lost several high profile battles in the capital and with his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, viewed with antipathy in state government, many experts predicted Albany would make major changes in the mayoral control law.
The mayor turned up the pressure. His allies launched a smooth lobbying operation fueled with money from fellow billionaire Bill Gates and led by respected educators -- many of whom also happened to get lots of money in city contracts. Rumors flew that the powerful teachers union backed away from calling for major changes in return for promises of a favorable contract. The mayor's usual allies on newspaper editorial boards and in the business community weighed in in support. Even though virtually no one wanted a return to the old system, the administration adroitly portrayed those who advocated changes in the governance system as wanting to do just that.
In July, the legislature, with a few tweaks, had essentially extended the status quo. Bloomberg remained in charge.
Using the Power
From the beginning the mayor has had no qualms about wielding the power Albany has given him. Once he gained the authority to singlehandedly name a chancellor in 2002, Bloomberg selected Joel Klein, an attorney with essentially no education experience.
Changes came rapidly.
The Department of Education closed what it viewed as failing schools across the city and opened dozens of small high schools. It encouraged and aided the establishment of charter schools. Accountability became a watchword, linked largely to standardized tests. A reshuffling eliminated the new "education regions" and put greater authority in the hands of individual principals.
The circle of those making education policy tightened dramatically. Community school boards were gone, replaced by Community Education Councils selected under an arcane process. Those councils, along with School Leadership Teams, saw their powers sharply restricted. When the Panel for Educational Policy, which supposedly replaced the Board of Education, had doubts about letting standardized test scores determine whether students would be promoted, Bloomberg engineered the ouster of three members.
In education, as in so many areas, the mayor clearly preferred the top down approach. Critics decried that so many voices had been shut out. But Bloomberg argued the old system, with competing voices and centers of influence, had led to paralysis and dysfunction.
At the same time, the administration, blessed with a relatively healthy economy for much of its tenure, poured money into education. In his first five years, Bloomberg increased city education spending by $7 billion or about 50 percent. With the settlement of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity Suit, more state money came to the city as well. The administration used the money to bring in high-priced leaders -- many not educators -- at the Department of Education and to boost teacher salaries. It also spent money on tests, prepping for tests, a centralized computer system and other things linked to its accountability efforts. It did not, by and large, spend money to cut class size.
So what did all this accomplish?
To the administration, it has sharply increased test scores, helped to narrow the gap in achievement between races within the city on the one hand and between the city and the rest of the state on the other. With police and metal detectors in many schools, the city boasts that schools are safer. And it says the high school graduation rate is higher than ever.
If many of its claims of success are pegged to test scores, that's fine, the administration says. "Test scores are a reflection of what goes on in the classroom," Bloomberg said at a recent mayoral debate.
"The past seven years have given me reason to believe that we are making real progress. Test scores are up, graduation rates are at an all-time high and crime in schools is down. There is no denying we have come a long way," Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone wrote recently.
Some would disagree. The gains, they say, while impressive on first glance, do not reflect real improvement in learning, comprehension and creative thinking.
Underlying much of this debate has been a growing sense that New York state has dumbed down its tests. Concern over inflated scores reached a peak in August when the city released its progress reports -- a.k.a. school report cards -- that rely heavily on state test scores. It reported that 84 percent of elementary and middle schools got an "A."
Diane Ravitch, a leading education historian and assistant secretary of education in the George H.W. Bush administration, has emerged as a skeptic of the scores and perhaps the administration's most prominent critic. Writing in the Times last spring, she questioned the test results, pointing to the lack of any increase in city students' scores on national tests. She raised doubts about the city's method of computing the graduation rate and the values of the diploma. "Three quarters of the graduates fail their placement examinations at the City University of New York’s community colleges and require remediation in basic skills," Ravitch said.
Recently the new leader of the United Federation of Teachers sarcastically voiced his doubts. While no one familiar with the schools can deny that there have been improvements, Michael Mulgrew wrote in a union newspaper, "The combination of phony claims, greater principal accountability and tighter budgets is a potentially explosive mix. The administration has created a Potemkin Village of false facades and fake accomplishments while driving the workers behind the scenes harder and harder to maintain the illusion. It is a dangerous game to play. The truth would serve our kids far better."
Thompson has said, if elected, he would go beyond test scores to look at curriculum and to "let teachers teach" in an effort to encourage more creative thinking on the part of students.
And if Thompson becomes mayor, he would have a chance to do that. After all, whether Thompson wins on Tuesday or Bloomberg does, whoever is sworn as mayor on Jan. 1 will be firmly in control of the city's schools -- a legacy, for better or worse, of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.