Wednesday, September 23, 2009

For Whom the School Bell Tolls

According to City Room it appears that Mike Bloomberg is looking forward to debating the educational issue with Bill Thompson-and you get the impression that he feels that his own accomplishments, especially in comparison to the old BOE, are self evident: "William C. Thompson Jr., the Democratic nominee for mayor, will deliver his first policy speech on Tuesday night, focusing on one of the crucial issues of the campaign: education. But Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg just can’t wait. By midday, Mr. Bloomberg had already weighed in, taking advantage of a reporter’s seemingly routine question — “Have you seen Bill Thompson’s education plan?” — to praise his own record and also bury his opponent’s."

Be careful what you wish for Mike-because with all of the fudging being done, and the acknowledged watered down testing benchmarks being used to promote mayoral success in education, Bloomberg is a lot more vulnerable on this issue than he understands; and a major reason, in our view, is the sycophantic bubble he has been living in. Given this residency issue, it would be hard for the mayor not to be convinced by his own campaign own BS.

What this does, it seems to us, is to give the Thompson campaign a wonderful opportunity to bell this cat. As Andy Wolf points out: "There is a growing consensus over New York State’s standardized test scores. They are so inflated that even the Daily News and New York Post aren’t buying in anymore. These are the mayor’s most unquestioning allies, usually loathe to present data that might undermine the case that Mr. Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein are the only ones capable of saving our schools. Yet even they are now skittish over the data upon which the mayor’s case is built."

Built, as it were, like a house of cards-and Thompson should be hammering home the point that we made yesterday: "The biggest hoax of this administration is its appropriation of the 02-03 federal test scores. The Legislature gave Bloomberg control in June 2002; he hired Klein in August, and Klein spent that fall meeting with consultants and deciding what to do. In January 2003 (Martin Luther King Jr day), Bloomberg gave a speech to announce the reform program that would be launched the following September 2003.

At that very time, students in the city and state were taking the 2003 test. Bloomberg-Klein had done nothing, had not reorganized the system or imposed any new programs. When the test scores were released by the state in May and October 2003, there were huge gains, double-digit in many schools and districts, particularly in poor neighborhoods. Klein's reaction, according to the stories in the Times on both dates, was "muted." He did not claim credit for the big gains, as he would have looked ridiculous."

Some of this high skepticism is confirmed by a just released Columbia University study that is reported on by the NY Daily News: "Mayor Bloomberg's claim that graduation rates are up at small schools he created after shuttering large dysfunctional ones is misleading, a new study asserts.The study, done at Columbia University's Teachers College, questions a key vehicle Bloomberg hopes to ride to a third term as mayor."

It appears that the so-called small school miracle is a product of triage-or a selective admission process that weans out lower achievers: "A closer look shows that in 2005, only 11% of ninth-graders entering Evander were reading at grade level, the study claims. At the same time, 30% of students entering the small replacement schools were proficient in reading, significantly higher than the boroughwide average. "We cannot make sense of large differences in the graduation rates at Evander and the small schools which replaced it without taking these differences in who entered the schools into account," said study co-author Aaron Pallas, a Teachers College professor."

And along with this sleight-of-hand, of course, comes the outlandish expenditures-an 80% increase in financial outlay by the city and state to achieve-at the very best-the most modest of results; or, if NAEP is the more reliable benchmark, no real progress at all. But Bloomberg feels that he can define what's real and what's Memorex.

Here's his take: "The issue for voters really is clear: If you think the schools are better today than they were under my opponent’s leadership then you should vote for me. And if you think that they were better when he ran the Board of Education then you should vote for him."

But what's problematic in this, is how much of the public dialogue has been spun in the direction of the "achievements" experienced under mayoral control. As we pointed out in July, when the NY Post critiqued Thompson's audit of the DOE: "The reality here is that there is a great deal of smoke and mirrors in the Klein school regime-and the need for an independent audit is a compelling one; particularly when sycophants and toadies are breeding like rabbits in the city's news rooms. So, before we enshrine Mike Bloomberg as our Educator-in-Chief, let's get an informed second opinion; something we're as likely to get from the Post and the News as a critique of Kim Jong-il in a North Korean daily."

Now, to the credit of both papers, the outlandish school test results that were released recently, stimulated some genuine eyebrow raising in those normally ingenuous precincts. But the bigger challenge remains-and it remains to be seen whether the local papers are up to the task of really reporting on the DOE and its alleged achievements; and, at the same time, doing a cost/benefit analysis of the putative gains.

Now, if what we have pointed out is accurate about the years from 1999-2003, then the answer to the Howard Wolfson charge might not be exactly what he would wish: “Although Bill Thompson ran the Board of Education for five years he can’t say that the schools were better under his leadership then than they are under Mayor Bloomberg’s today,” he said in a statement, accompanying the transcript of Mr. Thompson’s remarks. “The fact is, Bill Thompson had a chance to improve our schools and he failed. Why would we want to give him that opportunity again?”

But in the NY Times this morning, Thompson hits back-in the Bloomberg/Wolfson pre-vetted speech he gave at Pace yesterday: "The failure of the administration to tell the truth over the last eight years has undermined our faith in their claims of progress, while putting the school system at serious risk,” said Mr. Thompson..." If the comptroller is successful at debunking all the mayoral hype, the entire Bloomberg miracle may be fully exposed as a jerry-built structure dependent more on hot air than real solid factual construction.

But by all means, let the pugilistic bell ring on this educational battle. And as long as the media refs aren't in the tank, the fight just might end-not on points-but in a Thompson knockout.