When he was elected in 2001, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg promised a new era of accountability and student achievement. Through direct mayoral control, Bloomberg sought to implement the core principals of the Federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act by restructuring the city’s schools on a massive scale.
In New York City, NCLB was implemented through what has been described by critics as the “business model.” Backed by tens of millions of dollars in private donations, then Chancellor Joel Klein reorganized the school system, imposed new tests and standards, and began shutting down underperforming schools at a dramatic pace.
The Bloomberg administration’s claims of increasing graduation rates, student performance and dramatically decreasing the racial achievement gap earned it widespread praise. The city has received widespread recognition, including the 2007 Broad Prize for the country’s most improved urban school district. In 2009, New York State renewed Bloomberg’s direct mayoral control of the school system.
In early November, Klein resigned his post, but his legacy remains deep in the schools. His replacement, Cathie Black, chairman of Hearst Magazines, has raised even more eyebrows about the mayor’s choice of leadership for New York City public schools. Like Klein, Black also came to the position from the private sector and has no background in education. Bloomberg now has to grapple with an increasing number of students, parents and academics who question the policies.
Beginning in 2002 large New York City public schools began to close at a fast pace. The era of accountability under the Klein administration, embodied by rating schools based on student performance on state tests, initiated a breaking apart of many public schools. This led to thousands of displaced students in some of the city’s neediest neighborhoods being funneled into smaller schools, some located inside the very same buildings their failed schools had occupied. Now, with another 47 schools under consideration for closure, advocates are speaking out against the new system of charter and smaller schools that has not proven to be the successful solution the city had been hoping for.
Critics say this numbers-driven reform is not based on sound education policy and doomed for failure. And eight years into the experiment assertions by officials that the school system has shown significant improvement have faced increasing scrutiny. With officials considering more schools for closure and planning to open hundreds of more charter schools, education advocates are crying out for change.
“There’s been increased teaching to test, narrowing of curriculum, loss of attention paid to subjects that are not tested, like art, science and music,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of the education nonprofit Class Size Matters. “We’ve seen a real degradation of the quality of an education in the city.”
The reforms outlined in NCLB dictate every student be proficient in math and English by 2014. Proficiency would be measured by state tests in math and English. These scores would be increased by holding teachers and schools accountable for their students’ performance. Failing schools that did not show improvement would face severe consequences. An 18-month study by The New School found “these reforms did, in fact, expand opportunities for many high school students.”
However, leading critic Diane Ravitch writes NCLB has “left us with a system of institutionalized fraud.” Ravitch is an education scholar and former Assistant Secretary of Education and had initially endorsed Bloomberg and Klein’s reforms.
Bloomberg and Klein were dealt a major blow in July, when a Harvard University study compelled the city to admit that standards for statewide tests had been getting lower over the past five years. The controversy exposed the inflation of New York City student test scores and brought public outrage to a crescendo. Klein, who has called education the “civil rights issue of the 21st Century” and claimed to dramatically close the achievement gap, had to face numbers that showed the gap had increased under his tenure.
Yet critics say what the Harvard study revealed in July just documents what they have been saying for years, “We’ve all known that the state tests have gotten far easier and that scoring has gotten far easier and that you could actually just randomly answer questions and pass,” said Haimson in an interview with Democracy Now. “We’ve been making that clear, and yet there hasn’t been any political will to do anything about it – until now, because the state officials and the city officials and the principals and the parents all want to believe that our schools are getting better, even in the face of tremendous evidence that they aren’t.”
Parents and educators were outraged to find that students they had thought were at grade-level all of a sudden were no longer due to the raised standards, as revealed by the state-commissioned study. Zakiyah Ansari, a mother of four public school children and a member of the Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) is an outspoken critic of education officials.
“My initial reaction was anger. Let’s be clear, colored students weren’t doing great before, but what we were told by the Bloomberg/Klein administration from the beginning, their whole initiative was children first and we will close the achievement gap,” said Ansari.
As recently as September, Bloomberg has claimed African-American and Hispanic students have dramatically closed the ethnic achievement gap, by 37 percent in reading and 18 percent in math. The July study revealed that the racial achievement gap between city students today has actually increased for African-American and Hispanic students, by 5 and 3 points respectively, since the Mayor’s tenure began.
A 2010 report by the Schott Foundation revealed that the graduation rate for black male students with a Regents diploma in New York State is only 25 percent. New York City, the district with the nation’s highest enrollment of black students, only graduates 28 percent of its black male students with Regents diplomas on time, the report found.
“He ran as the education mayor of the city and people believed that. The anger for me was that it was all a sham. How many students have gone through the system unprepared?” said Ansari. “The whole time I thought I was doing what I needed to prepare my children for school and was being involved as a parent, the tests as a whole were not measuring my child’s capability to learn. That was a lie.”
The level of education that students in public schools receive may be alarming to some. A recent city report showed that almost half of New York City public school graduates attending CUNY were in need of remedial classes.
“NCLB has had disastrous effects on education,” says Haimson. “The value of an elementary, middle and high school education is more and less meaningless.”
The NCLB was modeled on the 1990s “Texas Miracle” education reforms instituted under then Governor Bush. Based on high-stakes testing and accountability, the reforms were credited with raising high school graduation rates in some districts to 100 percent and to lower the gap between white and Hispanic and black students. However, as early as 2000 a RAND Corporation study exposed that the “miracle” was actually a “mirage” and the gap between white and minority students had actually increased along with the dropout rate. Nevertheless, it became the basis for the reforms that were instituted across the country starting in 2002.
“The first thing that we have to acknowledge is that the premise of equal educational opportunity has never been realized in this country for all kids,” said Lois Weiner, a professor at Teachers College and a former New York City public school teacher.
A leading researcher on urban education, Weiner argues the current education reform exploits “the problem of unequal education, when, in fact, these reforms will further stratify education and educational outcomes.” She says “testing is one of the ways that is happening”
Josh Aleksanyan, now a graduate of Urban Academy, an alternative school that belongs to the The New York Performance Standards Consortium, says he did not fit in academically or socially when he attended Midwood High School in 2007, a Brooklyn public school that serves 4,000 students. His primary complaint was the focus on testing that the school promoted. “I had a preconceived notion about what high school was going to be like,” he said. “I had been tested for eight years,” and thought “high school was a place for asking questions and doing hands-on [activities].” Instead, Aleksanyan realized high school was more of the same he had experienced in middle and elementary school. “Teachers taught to the test, what was going to be on test and how we should skim through answers we didn’t understand. I would sit there, but I really just didn’t care,” he said. He said he did pass one Regents, which qualifies students for graduating by guessing on the entire 80-question multiple choice test.
The continued emphasis on teaching to the test, and financial incentives for teachers whose students perform well on standardized exams has placed educators in an awkward position. Many instructors, such as 10-year middle school teacher Julie Cavanagh of P.S.51 in Red Hook, Brooklyn have moved away from the grade-levels that focus on testing, because they do not want to deal with the pressures that come with running a class in which “the test drove how we taught and when we taught everything,” said Cavanagh.
Cavanagh, like many public school teacher, faced the dilemma that her curriculum for her 4th and 5th graders became centered on the testing schedule. Although she did not subscribe to the system of teaching sample test problems in all her classes like many teachers resort to in the face of pressure from administrators, she still felt that the hectic schedule had a negative effect on her teaching abilities. “It really stifles your creativity as a teacher, it impacts the connections that you have with your students, and it’s a lot of pressure; it’s extremely stressful.”
Instead of giving in to the high-pressure system of the middle grades, Cavanagh transferred to teach younger classes in K-2nd grades in June. According to Weiner, who is a published author and editor of The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers, and their Unions, this trend can be seen in schools across the city. She cites this as a major concern for the education system.
Eighteen-year-old Melody Lozano of Washington Heights had a similar experience during her first two years of high school. She spent those years at the Urban Assembly School of Design and Construction, a small specialized high school in Hell’s Kitchen that shares the Park West High School building with four other schools.
“Everyone has to take Regents exams at the end of the year and I wasn’t a very good test taker. There’s nothing hands on, it doesn’t really show what students know,” she said. According to Lozano, her teachers “tell you to guess on some of the answers,” to improve test scores, but “that doesn’t show how a student will succeed in a real setting,” she said.
Urban Assembly, where Lozano attended, is one of more than 300 small schools that have been created in New York City during the past eight years in place of the 91 predominantly large schools that were closed due to poor performance. The systematic closing of large public schools in order to open smaller, often privately-run charter schools, has contributed to a new slew of problems.
For many public school parents, like Mona Davids, the prospect of placing their children in an alternative system seemed very appealing. Davids fought to bring a charter school into her local public school over a year ago. “My daughter was graduating from fifth grade and I had decided to enroll her in a parochial school because I didn’t think the middle school in my neighborhood would provide a good education for her,” said Davids. But it seemed like “common sense” to demand “a new school that was not a failing school, had more resources and smaller class sizes, extra curricular activities, all things that neighborhood schools are lacking in.”
Now, Davids is the head of the New York Charter Parents Association and among the most outspoken critics of charter schools citywide. Because charter schools are privately run, she says, charter school parents don’t necessarily have a voice in decision-making. “I was shocked to learn about the lack of parent support structure, and most charter schools didn’t envision real parental involvement and community,” said Davids. Over time, she “began to see that charter school parents and students were having a lot of trouble, especially parents of special needs and English Language Learner students.”
By emphasizing some successful charter schools, the charter school movement is heralded by Klein and Bloomberg as a model to fix education. The showcase has been Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone. It sits on a 97 block section of Harlem and excels at serving and educating its 8,000 currently enrolled students. The drive to open smaller schools has caused the city to start to close many larger public schools that had previously served communities and accommodated thousands of diverse students. However, overall the charter school movement has been revealed to have at best mixed results. Looming issues of segregation and a lack of transparency encountered in charter schools have raised much criticism and fear in the minds of parents.
For the past 11 months, Jamaica High School teacher James Arturo has been fighting to prevent his school from being shuttered. The reason, says Arturo, himself an English Language Learners teacher, is because “the new charter school, new small school have very few special ed students, and when they do take the special education students, they take the students with the most moderate disabilities.” In contrast, “schools like ours, we don’t differentiate, we take everybody. For a school to truly be a public school they have to educate everybody that comes through the door; we cannot pick and choose.”
The new small and charter schools often have selective or lottery-based enrollment that critics say “steal the best and brightest from public schools.” Seung Ok, formerly a living environment teacher at Brooklyn’s Maxwell High, a school that was slated for closure after neighboring school Jefferson High was phased out, is a major critic of this selectivity. “You need talented kids in your school to be role models for the other kids, to show them what you need to do to succeed in your school,” said Ok. “When [selective schools] take those kids away, you have class after class of majority high need kids.”
Nearly three out of four black students who attend charter schools are in “intensely segregated” schools with student populations that are at least 90 percent minority, according to a nationwide study by the UCLA Civil Rights Project that was released in February.
Meanwhile a national Stanford University Study concluded that student performance in fewer than one in five charter schools exceeded those in public schools. The remaining schools have had equal or lower performance compared to their public counterparts. “Charters are not the panacea, charters are not the cure-all; one out of five charters is successful. What about the four out of five that are not?” said Davids.
Despite the obstacles, Lozano and Aleskayan were determined to continue their education, so when they heard about a school that had no standardized, high-stakes testing, they decided to transfer. Opened in 1998, Urban Academy is a founding member of Consortium Schools Network, which enjoys a degree of independence from the Department of Education. What initially appealed to Lozano and Aleskayan was the simple fact that Urban Academy relies on a performance-based assessment in which students must demonstrate knowledge of every subject to show proficiency and earn graduation instead of standardized tests.
Urban Academy and successful charter schools share small class sizes, of which Leonie Haimson is a leading advocate. She says reduced class sizes are “one of the few education reforms proven to increase student performance.” New York City class sizes are among the largest in the state, but charter schools can set their own class size cap. New York City is appealing a court decision ordering it to make class sizes smaller. Haimson adds, “One of the few reforms we know to reduce the achievement gap are to reduce class sizes, yet schools with high numbers of minority students have much larger class sizes.” The City is fighting a lawsuit demanding it provide small class sizes.
Another issue raised about the performance of charter schools is funding. New Orleans is the country’s only city where the majority of student attends charter schools, and parent leader Karran Royal says examining funding levels cannot be ruled out when comparing their success to public schools.
“Especially,” she says, “when you look at the Harlem’s Children Zone, and the schools that have shown some success, with high poverty kids. What we find it really costs more than what local, state and federal authorities are producing to educate a high poverty, high-need kid.”
This article was written as part of New York Community Media Alliance’s Ethnic and Community Media Press Fellowship Developing an Education Beat.