Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mayoral Performance Anxiety

As the scene shifts in Albany away from the budget and the MTA debacle, the focus of attention will be on the issue not whether or not the mayor of the City of New York-someone whose children never got within miles of public education-should continue to have unfettered control of the governance of the city's schools. A new report highlighted in the NY Times raises questions about the wisdom of giving continued royal prerogatives to Mike Bloomberg in this important area: "The lagging performance of American schoolchildren, particularly among poor and minority students, has had a negative economic impact on the country that exceeds that of the current recession, according to a report released on Wednesday."

When we look at the city's results, the numbers do not tell a tale of stellar achievement: "In New York City, an analysis of 2007 federal test scores for fourth graders showed strikingly stratified achievement levels: While 6 percent of white students in city schools scored below a base achievement level on math, 31 percent of black students and 26 percent of Hispanic students did. In reading, 48 percent of black students and 49 percent of Hispanic students failed to reach that base level, but 19 percent of white students did."

Results that don't, in our view, act as a clarion call for allowing the mayor and Chancellor Klein-another whose children never got the benefit of a public education-continued carte blanche. Klein in particular, a person without a single educational credential should be replaced; whatever happens up in Albany on the governance issue. This foray of his into sociological analysis underscored our point: "The New York City schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, who introduced the findings at the National Press Club in Washington, said the study vindicated the idea that the root cause of test-score disparities was not poverty or family circumstances, but subpar teachers and principals. He pointed to an analysis in the report showing low-income black fourth graders from the city outperformed students in all other major urban districts on reading (they came in second in math)."

At this rate, we're going to have to grant lifetime tenure to-not teachers-but to the mayor and the chancellor; folks whose work will perpetually be graded as incomplete, while they search for the remedies to their continual shortcomings in providing the kind of educational results that Bloomberg told New Yorkers they would get once he was given control of the schools. Oh yes, and he also said that if the results weren't praiseworthy, he didn't deserve to be re-elected (again and again?).

In this context Klein, as adept at three card monte as any New York street performer shifts attention away from meager test scores to graduation rates: "While state test scores have shown improvement since Mr. Klein took office, eighth-grade scores on federal math and reading tests, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, have not shown significant increases since 2002. In an interview after the speech here, Mr. Klein said he would be the first to acknowledge that the city was not where it needed to be in closing the gap, particularly in middle schools. But, he added, there have been signs of progress among younger students, and he believed the city’s four-year graduation rates — 69 percent for white students, 47 percent for black students and 43 percent for Hispanic students — could reach state averages within five or six years."

And in the long run. we're all dead; which is why we need to have this system properly checked and balanced. After all, if this concept was good enough for the founding fathers, shouldn't it be good enough for Mike Bloomberg? But the one structure that was put into the new governance system that was supposed to do just that, has been eviscerated by the man who doesn't really like to be second guessed.

As the Times also reports this morning: "In a nearly empty high school auditorium one evening last month, parents, teachers and cynics marched to the microphone, turned to the collection of volunteers derisively called the Panel for Educational Puppets, and began to scream...It is a ritual that unfolds monthly around the city at each meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy, the oversight group that replaced the independent Board of Education when the State Legislature handed New York’s mayor control of its sprawling school system in 2002. In designing the mayoral takeover, lawmakers viewed the panel as critical to maintaining a “balance of authority,” and promised it would have a “meaningful role” on citywide education policy and approve major contracts, according to the authorizing language that accompanied the bill."

Not! When the panel even threatened a modicum of independence, the city's resident autocrat moved into action: "The board has cast 98 votes over 79 meetings — the vast majority of them unanimous. It has never rejected an administration proposal. The most contentious discussion came in 2004, over the mayor’s plan to hold back third graders who scored poorly on standardized tests, and resulted in the ouster of three dissenting members in what is known in education lore as the Monday Night Massacre."

Now when you have miraculous results from an innovative governing initiative, it is quite appropriate to shush the critics who want to tinker with success. The NYC schools aren't-at least not under the private school devotees-an example of such a success. And the Bloomberg response to the one device that was supposed to provide balance is precisely why change is necessary: "“When people say, ‘How could you have devised a system that gave total authority and absolute autonomy to the mayor?’ My answer to them is, ‘Well, we didn’t,’ ” said former Assemblyman Steven Sanders, who was chairman of the Education Committee at the time the change was made and now is lobbying for major changes in mayoral control for the New York State School Boards Association. “It was supposed to provide a place where there would be real vetting of important issues, where there would be meaningful dialogue and debate and a vote that was not predetermined,” Mr. Sanders said. “It is certainly clear to anyone who looks at the system that that is not the case.”

But the Bloomberg/Klein/Sharpton regime at least knows how to appear to be good. Co-opt a whole bunch of folks with expensive jobs and lucrative consulting gigs, bamboozle a supine tabloid press, and go after critics by accusing them of retrograde political thinking. Meanwhile, Klein tells us-seven and a half years into his transformative reign-that he has found the path to educational enlightenment: "He said it would require a focus on finding ways to recruit high-quality teachers."

These folks need to be shown the door. Their efforts here have proved to be-in the words of the innkeepers wife in Les Miserables-"not much there." But that doesn't stop the tabloids from their strident calls for preserving a system that, if it were a private sector company, would be number one on the bailout list-with its executives being shown the door by an angry president.