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Summer 2007
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Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice
by Sol Stern
Breaking Free.
 
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Grading Mayoral Control
Sol Stern

Lauded in the press, Bloomberg’s education reforms are proving more spin than substance. Parents are losing patience.

Mayoral control, the hot new trend in urban school reform, began in Boston and Chicago in the 1990s. Now it’s the New York City school system, under the authority of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, that’s become the beacon for education-mayor wannabes like Adrian Fenty of Washington, D.C., and Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles. Influential philanthropic foundations, such as the Los Angeles–based Broad Foundation (headed by Bloomberg friend and fellow billionaire Eli Broad) and the Gates Foundation, are investing in Bloomberg as the model big-city mayor who uses his new executive powers over the schools to advance a daring reform agenda. Meanwhile, the national media’s positive coverage of mayoral control in Gotham is adding to the luster of a possible Bloomberg presidential run.

For New Yorkers, though, the original appeal of mayoral control was entirely parochial. The old Board of Education—with seven members, appointed by six elected city officials—offered a case study of the paralysis that sets in when fragmented political authority tries to direct a dysfunctional bureaucracy. New Yorkers arrived at a consensus that there was not much hope of lifting student achievement substantially under such a regime. The newly elected Bloomberg made an offer that they couldn’t refuse: Give me the authority to improve the schools, and then hold me accountable for the results.

So on June 12, 2002, Bloomberg appeared at the mayoral-control bill-signing ceremony alongside Governor George Pataki. The bill would “give the school system the one thing it fundamentally needs: accountability,” said Bloomberg. The new governance system won enthusiastic support across the political spectrum, from conservative think tanks to the New York Times and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), whose members got a huge pay raise.

Just five years later, that consensus has fractured. Some state legislators representing the city, including influential Assembly education-committee chair Catherine Nolan, promise a tough review process when reauthorization of mayoral control comes up in 2008. There’s also a significant demographic divide on the benefits of the reform. Business leaders, editorial boards, and many education experts remain enthusiastic. Constituents at the grass roots, however, feel increasingly frustrated. More than two dozen parent groups and district education councils have passed resolutions opposing Schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s latest school reorganization plans. According to the Quinnipiac poll of city residents, Klein’s favorability rating has fallen to just 37 percent, and a majority of New Yorkers want something like an independent board of education or a commission with oversight powers.

Stirring public unease is the realization that what Bloomberg really meant by accountability was one election, one time. If you didn’t like the way that mayoral control was working under Bloomberg, you could vote for Democrat Freddy Ferrer in the 2005 mayoral election (Bloomberg’s last, because of term limits). But what could you do after that election? Bloomberg’s suggestion: “Boo me at parades.”

The arrogance of that response demonstrates how little Bloomberg really seems to care about accountability. In fact, his Department of Education routinely undermines accountability with a public-relations juggernaut that deflects legitimate criticism of his education policies, dominates the mainstream press, uses the schools as campaign props, and, most ominously, distorts student test-score data. Without transparency, real accountability doesn’t exist.

Admittedly, any mayor taking over the city’s dysfunctional school system would need an effective information campaign to win public support for the wrenching changes necessary. But Bloomberg also wants to conquer new political frontiers. If he does run for president, it will be partly on his education record.

That ambition has driven the administration’s media operations on education. It’s why the Department of Education’s communications office is 29-strong, four times as many employees as worked in the press office under the old Board of Ed. And that doesn’t include the city hall press operation, which often joins in promoting new education initiatives, or the substantial public-relations and marketing services that the administration has received from companies, either pro bono or paid for by third-party private contributions.

Recently, for example, the Fund for Public Schools—ostensibly an independent, not-for-profit organization that raises private money for the schools—launched a two-month ad campaign bolstering administration claims that reading and math scores were rising and calling on New Yorkers to “help keep the progress going.” The full-page ad that ran in the New York Times on June 7 didn’t mention, though, that Klein was the fund’s chairman or that the mayor’s friends, including the Broad Foundation, had helped pay the $1 million cost of the ad campaign.

Such media spin has become so commonplace that it’s producing a backlash among New Yorkers who might otherwise be on the mayor’s side, such as David Bloomfield, president of the citywide education council for high schools and a Brooklyn College professor who trains future public school principals. (He’s also the author of a Manhattan Institute study advocating charter school legislation.) An early mayoral-control enthusiast, Bloomfield was recently asked by an education department official to make suggestions for redesigning the department’s website. His response: “The website should be transformed from a mayoral campaign vehicle to something really useful to parents and other members of the public. . . . Instead it’s all buttercups-and-roses, smoke and mirrors. Why is there never any bad news? Just press releases on the home page taking credit for the sun rising. . . . The website is a perfect example of what makes everyone so mad about the way the Mayor has handled the schools: data manipulation, grandiose claims, and almost no way to find out that a third (or is it more?) of our schools are failing under No Child Left Behind.”

The most notorious case of Bloomberg’s data manipulation occurred during the 2005 mayoral race. In May of that year, city hall bused education reporters to P.S. 33, a poor, predominantly minority school in the Bronx, where Bloomberg congratulated the children, their teachers, and Principal Elba Lopez on a miracle: 83 percent of the school’s fourth-graders scored at grade level on the 2005 reading test, compared with only 35.8 percent the previous year—an unheard-of one-year gain of close to 50 percentage points. The school’s score was just 4 percentage points below the average for the state’s richest suburban districts. Further, the mayor announced, the percentage of the city’s fourth-graders passing the state’s reading test had risen by a “record-breaking” 10 points in just one year.

If Bloomberg had really introduced accountability into the city’s education system, the implausible P.S. 33 scores would have raised red flags at the education department and perhaps even prompted a fraud referral to the city’s Special Commissioner of Investigations. Instead, the mayor got the political boost that he sought, with front-page headlines hailing the “historic” gains. Almost no commentary pointed out that fourth-grade reading scores rose by almost 10 percentage points in the rest of the state, too, suggesting that the 2005 test might have been easier than the previous year’s.

The “miracle” eventually unraveled, but only after Bloomberg’s reelection. When the 2006 scores arrived, they showed that the P.S. 33 fourth-graders, now fifth-graders, had plummeted back to a pass rate of 41 percent on their reading tests. Principal Lopez, meantime, had retired, with a pensionable $15,000 bonus for her school’s 2005 scores. After I published an article about the suspicious scores in the Autumn 2006 City Journal, and after Andrew Wolf published another one in the New York Sun, the DOE launched an internal investigation. Last December, Klein concluded that enough evidence of possible fraud existed to ask DOE counsel Michael Best to make a referral to the city’s Special Commissioner of Investigations. But the counsel’s office somehow forgot to do it, according to DOE press secretary David Cantor. The referral was finally made, but only after another inquiry by Wolf in early June.

Fred Smith, a former Board of Education statistical analyst, further discredited the 2005 reading scores in the Sun. Using information obtained from a Freedom of Information request, Smith concluded that 4 percentage points of the citywide 10-point test-score rise resulted from the DOE’s exclusion of 2,170 students who spoke another language at home, and of another 3,000 students with reading difficulties who had been held back in third grade because of the administration’s (salutary) new policy of ending social promotion. As Smith concluded, “Much of 2005’s publicized record-setting increases were a phantom—a case of addition by subtraction.”

But the DOE never looks back and never concedes error. In fact, Klein and his deputies now compound the previous distortions by boasting that on their watch, there has been an overall rise of 12 percentage points in the number of students passing the state’s fourth-grade reading test. Even if true, it would be only a modest breakthrough, an average yearly increase of 2.5 percentage points. But it isn’t true. The only way that the DOE can justify the claim is to borrow a 5.9-point reading-score increase that occurred between 2002 and 2003, credit for which ought to go to Klein’s predecessor, Harold O. Levy, or to no chancellor at all.

Consider: Bloomberg took office on January 1, 2002, but he didn’t win control of the schools until June 12 of that year. Klein wasn’t appointed until August, and then he spent the rest of the year studying the system and appointing task forces to advise the administration on how to restructure the schools. By the time the chancellor finished studying, students were taking the 2003 fourth-grade reading test. The system was, in effect, operating on autopilot during the year that the students recorded the healthy 5.9 percentage-point improvement.

At the time, Klein knew that he couldn’t convincingly claim credit for the 2003 test scores, and he didn’t even hold a press conference to celebrate them. Four years later, the fourth-grade reading scores have inched up by another 7 percentage points, only half the average yearly increase achieved under the tenures of Chancellors Levy and Rudy Crew. But to avoid that invidious comparison, the mayor and the chancellor simply take the 2003 result and add it to their own column.

The administration has dissembled even more egregiously on math scores. Granted, the 2007 math tests brought some good news, with the city’s fourth-graders improving by 3.2 percentage points—one point ahead of the state as a whole—and the city’s eighth-graders bumping up by 6 percentage points, compared with the state’s rise of 5 points. Once more, however, this modest gain wasn’t good enough for the potential presidential candidate who wants to be known as the “education mayor.” So the press release issued by city hall claimed that “since 2002, the first year of the Bloomberg administration,” elementary- and middle-school math scores went up by a total of 27.8 percentage points. The release didn’t mention that two-thirds of the fourth-grade gain was earned during the 2002–03 school year and, again, ought to have been credited to Levy or to no one. Further, the press release mixed up city and state test scores to arrive at its figure—a violation of every rule of psychometrics.

Education historian Diane Ravitch, author of the definitive history of the New York City public schools and a nationally recognized expert on testing and standards, finds this cooking of the books appalling. Says Ravitch: “Whenever new data appear about test scores or graduation rates, they are immediately massaged and packaged by the public-relations department at the Department of Education. With all its faults, the old Board of Education did have a research department, where conscientious, nonpartisan researchers tallied up the good news and the bad news and gave it straight to the public, without adding self-serving praise or toying with the interpretation of the numbers.”

The only education numbers that can’t be manipulated are those that tell how steeply education spending has increased under the Bloomberg-Klein regime. In the past four years, total expenditures on city schools from all sources—state, city, federal, and private—surged from $14 billion to $18 billion yearly, the greatest increase in history. The new funding allowed the system to hold the equivalent of 15 extra days of school per year and to hire thousands of extra teachers.

There’s no denying that there have been some improvements since Bloomberg and Klein announced the first set of mayoral reforms in 2003. In addition to the gains already mentioned, eighth-grade reading scores, flat for the past eight years, jumped by 5 percentage points in 2007 (though scores went up by even higher amounts throughout the state, again suggesting an easier test). Fourth-grade math scores are up by a total of 7.7 percentage points overall in four years, and eighth-grade math scores are up by about 12 points. But considering the extra $4 billion spent, plus the 15 additional days of school, that hardly deserves to be regarded as a major achievement for either the mayor or the institution of mayoral control.

Even if the administration’s claims about test scores were accurate, it would still be difficult to know which of its structural or instructional initiatives should get credit for the improvement. That’s partly because Klein’s Department of Education does no research on which programs work and which do not, and partly because within just three years, he and Bloomberg have flip-flopped on their plans for the school system’s structure. The first phase of mayoral control was all about top-down centralization; in the second phase, the rallying cry is market incentives and autonomy for the principals.

Bloomberg presented his first school reorganization plan in a dramatic Martin Luther King Day speech in 2003, seven months after taking control of the schools. The city’s 32 community school boards would be shut down, the mayor announced, and replaced with “one unified, focused, streamlined chain of command,” running directly from city hall to the chancellor’s office, then through ten powerful regional superintendents reporting directly to the chancellor, and finally down to each school’s principal. From now on, the mayor said, “the chancellor will dictate the curriculum and pedagogical methods” in all but 200 schools.

“Dictate” is exactly what Klein did for the next three years. The city’s principals were deemed so deficient in pedagogical understanding that Klein and his lieutenants would tell them how to arrange the chairs, the desks, the rugs, and even the bulletin boards in their classrooms. But Klein’s directions on more important matters did not inspire confidence: for example, he imposed a reading program that progressive educators favor called Balanced Literacy (a euphemism for the “whole language” instructional approach), despite the lack of evidence that it works for disadvantaged children.

Sometime after the mayor’s reelection, Bloomberg and Klein launched another radical restructuring of the system. The administration maintained its public posture that the first reorganization was working perfectly. But Klein’s planners at the Tweed Courthouse were quietly preparing the ground for a 180-degree change. Klein hired three new deputy chancellors with reputations as strategic thinkers and a bent for systems management; all were Ivy League law school graduates who, like Klein, had clerked at the Supreme Court, though they had little or no education background. Klein also brought in a host of management consultants, including Sir Michael Barber, a former education advisor to British prime minister Tony Blair and now a partner at the consulting firm McKinsey and Company, where he specializes in “performance management systems.” As one former DOE official put it, the new brain trust “stopped talking about education. It was all about systems and incentives.”

Klein soon become convinced that the best way to drive improvement in test scores was to create financial and other incentives for each of the important actors in the system—principals, teachers, even students—to work harder and more effectively. In fact, with the encouragement of Alvarez and Marsal, a high-priced consulting firm hired by the DOE, Klein created a new office in the Department of Education: the “Market Maker.” From operating like a regulated, command-and-control economy, the system would go almost overnight to something that, on paper at least, would work like Adam Smith’s invisible hand. It was all theoretical, of course. There were no precedents to consult and no research to back it up, because no one had ever tried to simulate a market system within a big-city school district—certainly not so swiftly.

But Sir Michael was telling Klein that the only way to make a radical transition in a big system like New York’s was to push through changes quickly before the special interests mobilized—somewhat like the “shock therapy” that some Western economists once advocated for former Soviet bloc countries transitioning from state socialism to free markets.

Bloomberg administered the first big shock in last January’s State of the City speech. Market-based accountability, he explained, would rest on four pillars. The city’s 1,450 principals would throw off the shackles of central bureaucracy and become independent CEOs, running their schools as small enterprises. Principals would be rewarded or fired based on a sophisticated new data system that tracked their students’ progress on test scores as they advanced through the grades. Tenure rules would be reformed, making it possible to apply market discipline to the teaching labor force. And school-funding formulas would be equalized: each student in the school system would be funded with the same base dollar amount, with schools getting higher funding levels for immigrants still learning English and for special-education students.

Each of these reform proposals contains considerable potential for good. Giving principals more autonomy is certainly preferable to dictatorship. More data on student performance are always welcome and will, if trustworthy, lead to more accurate performance evaluations of principals. Reforming tenure is worth exploring, since the rules for weeding out bad teachers are broken. Finally, equalizing funding for students, an idea first proposed by the Fordham Foundation last year, is not only a matter of elementary fairness; it can also provide needed aid for poorly performing schools, and it ensures that competition among schools takes place on a level playing field.

Unfortunately, the latest reorganization plan is already falling apart. The administration has applied reasonable-sounding reforms with little appreciation for the culture of the schools. One glaring example is the equitable-funding plan. The administration decided to count teacher salaries against each school’s new budget under the proposed funding formula. Since teacher salaries are based largely on seniority, this would penalize stable schools with long-serving staffs.

The Bloomberg administration must have known that the UFT would have to protect its senior teachers. Along with a coalition of activist groups that opposed the entire reorganization, the union began organizing a massive City Hall protest rally. The mayor initially hung tough: he called his own mini-rally, attended by 100 supporters, attacked the “special interests” blocking progress in the schools, and likened the UFT to the National Rifle Association.

But the next morning, the mayor was breakfasting with union president Randi Weingarten. After a weeklong negotiation, the administration took both the new funding proposal and the tenure initiative off the table for the next two years—by which time Bloomberg will be packing to leave City Hall. The mayor may have been right about the “special interests,” but his retreat had plenty to do with politics and his own interests. A big fight with the teachers would have damaged his reputation as the “education mayor” and threatened his potential White House run.

One of the two remaining parts of the second reorganization, the principals’ empowerment initiative, gives educators only an illusion of the free market that they would need to manage schools as businesses. This became clear on a recent spring afternoon at the Grand Hyatt New York. In an event organized by Klein’s Market Maker office, all the city’s principals were invited to the luxury hotel for a celebration of their impending liberation from central bureaucratic control. Ushered into the hotel’s huge ballroom to the beat of a live jazz band, the principals were treated to a video starring New York City public school alums Henry Kissinger, Spike Lee, and Joan Rivers, plus a half-dozen of the most adorable, well-spoken children presently attending city schools. The alums and the kids recounted charming stories about their schools’ dedicated principals, and Spike Lee narrated a separate segment explaining the principals’ new roles in the reorganization. After the video, Klein told the principals that they were about to become results-oriented CEOs with the managerial and pedagogical skills to drive the next phase of Bloomberg’s turnaround of the schools.

The soon-to-be-empowered principals then got to wander through the hotel’s exhibition halls, transformed into a supermarket of education service providers. The educators got a taste of the services that they would soon be able to buy for their schools to replace those currently supplied by the central bureaucracy. In turn, the 14 providers competed against one another to sign up the principals, now in control of their own budgets, as customers.

To his credit, Klein approved the inclusion of several providers with substantive academic programs. One of these was the Success for All Foundation, which features the scientifically tested reading program that Klein unwisely dumped from dozens of schools in his first year in office. But it soon became clear that the program didn’t have much of a chance to sell its goods in Klein’s new supermarket. When I visited the hall in which SFA staffers were making their presentation, it was practically empty. Nervous principals, shell-shocked by this latest reorganization, decided to play it safe and go with one of the providers that knew its way around the DOE headquarters, rather than with an out-of-town organization like Success for All. Several sources also confirmed that providers had offered jobs to some of the supervisors departing the school system—on condition that they sign up as customers the principals whom they used to supervise.

What’s left of the mayor’s new reorganization plan is the sophisticated data management system, developed by Columbia Law School professor James Liebman. It promises to go further in charting how much students in the city’s schools are learning than any tool available in any school system in the country. Kudos are certainly in order for Bloomberg, Klein, and Liebman. But after the past five years’ experience with the education department’s public-relations machine, there must be guarantees that all these data will be completely transparent, available to all, and free of manipulation.

When the state legislature begins debating the reauthorization of mayoral control next year, one question that it will surely have to consider is whether mayoral control can deliver true accountability. The only way to ensure this is to create an independent agency with the authority to mine all the education department’s data about test scores and graduation rates, to do research about which programs are working, and then to make all that information available to the public on a regular, timely basis. No sane person would want to go back to anything like the discredited Board of Ed. But without a guarantee that an independent research agency will be created and properly funded, extending mayoral control would be an invitation for the next politically ambitious mayor to keep undermining the credibility of the public education system that is so essential to our democracy.

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More by Sol Stern:
When the Instructors Need Instructing
The Real Common Core Story
Who Is Carmen Fariña?
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The Closing of Diane Ravitch’s Mind
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This story was cited in:
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Townhall
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