Monday, April 13, 2009

Schools for Scoundrels

We have been commenting for a long time about the overly hyped nature of the mayor's stewardship of our city's schools. Never has their been more hoopla-smoke and mirrors-over the supposedly stellar turn around performance of the schools under the Bloomberg regime, Sadly, the reality contrasts so strongly with the performance reality, that it reaches a level of consumer fraud; and the incisive evaluation of this performance by Diane Ravitch in the NY Times last week underscores exactly what we're talking about.

Ravitch tackles the twin Bloomberg/Klein myths-test score and graduation rates are up dramatically; myths that our new education secretary swallowed whole: "ARNE DUNCAN, the secretary of education, has urged the nation’s mayors to take control of their public schools so that they can impose radical reforms. He points to New York City as a prime example of a school system that made sharp improvements under mayoral control. Actually, the record on mayoral control of schools is unimpressive. Eleven big-city school districts take part in the federal test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Two of the lowest-performing cities — Chicago and Cleveland — have mayoral control. The two highest-performing cities — Austin, Tex., and Charlotte, N.C. — do not."

So what about the test scores? As Ravitch points out (and as we have tried to highlight for a while): "On the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress — widely acknowledged as the gold standard of the testing industry — New York City showed almost no academic improvement between 2003, when the mayor’s reforms were introduced, and 2007. There were no significant gains for New York City’s students — black, Hispanic, white, Asian or lower-income — in fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade reading or eighth-grade mathematics. In fourth-grade math, pupils showed significant gains (although the validity of this is suspect because an unusually large proportion — 25 percent — of students were given extra time and help). The federal test reported no narrowing of the achievement gap between white students and minority students."

Yet Mr Duncan, just like the toadies who own the city's tabloids, waxes eloquent, demanding that the mayor keep control-or else allow the poor kiddies to sentenced to education hell: "Mr. Bloomberg’s allies say that the results of the current system are so spectacular that the law should be renewed without change. Secretary Duncan agrees: “I’m looking at the data here in front of me,” he said while in New York. “Graduation rates are up. Test scores are up ... By every measure, that’s real progress.” It sounds good, but in fact no independent source has verified such claims."

Of course, like all C students, the mayor and his sycophants would like to be able to mark their own exams: "The city’s Department of Education belittles the federal test scores and focuses on the assessments given by New York State. And, indeed, the state scores have soared in recent years, not only in the city but also across New York state However, the statewide scores on the N.A.E.P. are as flat as New York City’s. Our state tests are, unfortunately, exemplars of grade inflation." Ask the teachers about the nature of these tests.

But more kids are graduating, right? Here's another are where, if this was the marketing of a product for sale to the public, the Better Business Bureau would be called on to intervene in order to expose consumer fraud: "The graduation rate is another area in which progress has been overstated. The city says the rate climbed to 62 percent from 53 percent between 2003 and 2007; the state’s Department of Education, which uses a different formula, says the city’s rose to 52 percent, from 44 percent. Either way, the city’s graduation rate is no better than that of Mississippi, which spends about a third of what New York City spends per pupil."

And keep in mind that this performance level is being achieved with a budget that is 78% higher than when Bloomberg first came into office in 2002. It should also be pointed out, that the graduation rates-as dubious as they appear to be-are actually tinkered with: "Moreover, the city’s graduation rates have been pumped up with a variety of dubious means, like “credit recovery,” in which students who fail a course can get full credit if they agree to take a three-day makeup program or turn in an independent project. In addition, the city counts as graduates the students who dropped out and obtained a graduate-equivalency degree."

But rates are just that; indicators of those who are given diplomas, but not great indicators of whose being actually educated: "Even those who manage to graduate from our high schools are often not ready for college. 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. These are students who presumably passed five Regents examinations to graduate yet cannot read or write or do mathematics up to the standards of a two-year community college. This reflects as poorly on the Regents examinations as it does on the city’s promotional policies."

So what needs to be done? Ravitch rejects the straw man arguments of the mayor's claque-folks who see any diminution of Bloomberg's dictatorial control as a swift passage back to "the bad old days." What she sees most needed is a system of checks and balances" "This is not to say that Albany should eliminate mayoral control — nobody wants to return to the status quo of the ’90s. However, as legislators refine the law, they should establish clear checks and balances. The mayor should be authorized to appoint an independent Board of Education, whose members would serve for a set term. Candidates for the board should be evaluated by a blue-ribbon panel so that no mayor can stack it with friends. That board should appoint the chancellor, and his or her first responsibility must be to the children and their schools, not to the mayor."

Transparency and independent review-two desiderata that we have said are key-are Ravitch's watchwords: "Not every school problem can be solved by changes in governance. But to establish accountability, transparency and the legitimacy that comes with public participation, the Legislature should act promptly to restore public oversight of public education. As we all learned in civics class, checks and balances are vital to democracy."

The Ravitch critique-and Andy Wolf's as well-should inform the Albany debate; and the loud and boisterous sycophancy of the local papers should be eschewed in favor of a systematic reform that check mayoral excess while giving the public the kind of accurate information it can use to properly evaluate just how well the schools are functioning. Anything less, simply perpetuates the current schools for scoundrels milieu that the flim flammers would like us not to see.