Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Poor School Oversight Hides Reality

As the countdown begins for what could be the final year of mayoral control of the schools, we still don't know if the exercise in changing educational governance has been effective; this lack of understanding is directly related to the way in which mayoral control was allowed to be structured. Sol Stern captures the essence of the problem in the City Journal:
"The problem was that the legislation failed to ensure that voters would have access to unimpeachable information about student achievement, a prerequisite to any reasoned judgment about how well the schools were doing under the new regime. Greater accountability was the theoretical argument for mayoral control, but it has been turned on its head in practice. An ambitious mayor—first running for reelection, then flirting with running for president, and now contemplating a change in the term-limits law so that he can run for mayor again—gained extraordinary power to control the flow of data on how the schools were performing under his administration."

So the reality here is that, when the mayor said if he didn't turn the schools around we could hold him accountable, he was playing with a stacked deck-one that he dealt himself. As we have said all along, echoing Stern and Andrew Wolf, the system needs to be subject to independent review. As Stern points out: "Too often, the Bloomberg administration has made claims about student achievement gains that no independent agency has vetted and that in light of other evidence appear unjustified. As for the spectacularly higher graduation rates that the Bloomberg administration has advertised as its greatest accomplishment, we have no way of knowing whether they are legitimate or whether they are the result of dumbed-down Regents exams—five of which the city’s high school students must pass in order to graduate."

Our point earlier in the year was similar: "Which is why a more rigorous and nonpartisan review mechanism is needed, one outside of the control of the mayor's educational tall tale tellers: "What's key in moving forward is to depoliticize student testing. Senator Kennedy has introduced legislation that would force governors to publish federal test results alongside states' scores. Multiple measures of progress are needed, and accented by the current debate over the city's dismal high school graduation rates. Given Mr. Bloomberg's faith in competition — heavily backing new options, like charter schools — he should know that markets work only when parents can exercise choice based on sound information. Recent test results prompted a feeling of disbelief, not one of confidence."

Stern underscores this, and calls for a General Accounting Office (GAO) style review agency: "But the single most important change that our city legislators should insist on—and without which they should not vote for reauthorization of mayoral control—is the creation of an independent agency, removed from all political influence, to monitor the data about test scores and graduation rates, to do research about which school programs are working and which are not, and then to make all that information available to the public on a regular, timely basis. We need something like a General Accounting Office (the federal government’s chief accountability agency) for the school system. Without such an institution, we can’t have a fair democratic debate about the city’s education policies."

Finally, in this morning's NY Daily News, the following report should help to dramatize the importance of what Stern has been saying: "About 83% of students entering City University of New York community colleges last year failed placement exams and had to take remedial courses in reading, writing or math - and most graduated from city high schools, records show. "It costs a lot of money," said Matt Zeidenberg, a researcher at Columbia University's Community College Research Center. "You're basically paying for the same stuff over again." About two-thirds of students graduating from city high schools will have to take remedial courses."

It's time for the Mayor Mike disinformation brigade to be subject to the disinfectant of sunlight. Stern and Wolf have started us in the right direction; it's time for Albany to finish the job properly so that NYC schools have the best governing structure possible.