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.
Photo: Diane Ravitch Website...
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. Mr. Duncan came to New York City last week to urge the New York State Legislature to renew the law that grants control of the New York City public schools to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That law, passed in 2002, will expire at the end of June.
Mayoral control of the schools is not a new phenomenon in the city’s history. From 1873 to 1969, the mayor appointed every single member of the Board of Education. The era of decentralization from 1969 to 2002 was an aberration, because the mayor had only two appointees on a seven-member board.
Yet no mayor has exercised such unlimited power over the public schools as Mr. Bloomberg. Previous mayors respected the independence of the board members they appointed. The present version of the board, the Panel on Education Policy, serves at the pleasure of the mayor and rubber-stamps the policies and spending practices of the Department of Education, which is run by Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To further raise the graduation rate, the city does not include as dropouts any of the students who were “discharged” during their high-school years. Some discharges are legitimate, like students who moved to another school district. But many others are so-called push-outs, students who were ejected from school even though they had a legal right to be there, often because their grades and test scores were bringing down their schools’ averages. The Department of Education refuses to disclose how many students are in each of these categories. We do know, however, that more than one-fifth of the members of the class of 2007, or 18,524 students, were discharged and not counted as dropouts.
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.
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.
The board should hold public meetings to review decisions before they are made final. Local school boards composed of parent leaders should oversee the schools in their districts, although they should not have any financial authority. Moreover, the school system needs a professional auditing agency to evaluate test scores and graduation rates. Claims of improvement are not credible without independent scrutiny.
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.
Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, is the author of “The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973.”