Education Opinion

Power Struggle in New York City

By Diane Ravitch — March 02, 2007 6 min read
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In your introduction, you referred to your history of engagement in political action. Unlike you, I have not been involved in political organizing or protest movements. I do what I can with my pen but generally stay arms-length from political action. So it was a departure for me when I attended a protest rally on February 28 in New York City, called “Put the Public Back into Public Education.” This was an extraordinary microcosm of the groups that are outraged by the takeover of public education in the city by the mayor, lawyers, and business groups. It was the first such public event since the mayor took complete control of the public schools in 2002.

This is a big deal, because few people outside New York City really understand what mayoral control means. For that matter, not many people inside NYC do either. Few people realize that it means that there are no public boards, no central board, no local boards, no public voice whatever. The mayor controls everything. Decisions are made behind closed doors by a cadre of lawyers, with no public discussion or public review. Today, there are no educators included among the decision-makers, only lawyers. The discussion comes only after the decision is made and there is no changing the decision. With this crowd, public discussion means telling the public what was already decided.

Not knowing any of this, or perhaps not knowing why it matters that all democratic governance has been eliminated from public education in NYC, reporters and mayors come to NYC, get the Potemkin Village tour, hear the Department’s claims, and go home to talk of the “miracle” in New York City.

Unfortunately there is no such miracle. The people at the protest rally—well over 1,000 parents, teachers, and students—know it. The editorial writers in NYC don’t. The business community doesn’t. The mayors and their helpers in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere don’t.

So the rally was important, because it was the first time that the simmering public rebellion had a face. Speaker after speaker got up to talk about overcrowded classrooms; about schools that were bursting at the seams because the Department, without consultation, dumped a new small school or a charter school into an already full building; about teachers and parents who felt disrespected, excluded, marginalized by the powers that be.

Interesting how the Mayor and Chancellor Joel Klein reacted to the rally. First, they scheduled a press conference on the day of the rally at which they announced the appointment of a director in charge of family engagement. She will earn $150,000 a year. The woman they chose has apparently a good reputation among parents, but at the rally it was clear that the parent leaders saw this as a blatant attempt to buy off their discontent and they were not selling. Too many other parent leaders have been hired and silenced. Second, the Mayor said before the rally that most parents were happy with his reforms, and only “a handful” were not. This statement attracted much hooting and derision at the rally. Even his new “family engagement” person respectfully disagreed with him. Third, the New York Post wrote two vicious editorials denouncing the rally and saying that anyone who turned out was a “shill” for Randi Weingarten and the teachers’ union, having been bought and paid for by them. Apparently any elected official who dares to challenge mayoral control is a shill for the teachers’ union.

When the New York Post editorialized that the rally was a showcase for Randi’s puppets, it insisted that the reforms have been incredibly successful. As proof, the editorial included these statements by Chancellor Klein. “Our fourth-graders have gained almost 19 percentage points in math over the past four years,” he said. “In English, our fourth-graders have gained almost 12.5 points, compared to only 3.5 points by students in the rest of the state.” The Post, the Daily News, and the New York Sun dutifully report such claims in their editorials without bothering to look at the website of the New York State Education Department. How hard would it be for them to check their facts? (Let it be noted that the reporters for New York City’s newspapers, unlike the editorial writers, tend to have a more skeptical frame of mind.) *

I know you are opposed to testing, but here is an example where it is useful to say, “Let’s look at the facts.” The facts are on the state website. (You have to dig to find them, listed under archived press releases—see the bottom of this entry for links and how to access them).

Klein began work as Chancellor in mid-2002 and spent months designing his reforms. The Children First agenda was announced in January 2003 and launched in September 2003. Thus it is appropriate to compare the test scores for 2003 (the last tests before implementation of the reforms) to the scores in 2006 (the latest available).

Have our fourth-graders gained almost 19 percentage points in math? No, they gained 4.2 percentage points over those three years of testing. In 2003, 66.7% of fourth graders met state standards, and in 2006, the percentage was up to 70.9. How did he come up with the idea that the scores jumped by almost 19 points? He is using 2002 as his start date, when the scores were only 52.0%. But he cannot fairly use that date as his starting point, because his program was not launched until September 2003. In fact, the biggest one-year jump in fourth-grade math scores—14.7%—occurred between 2002 and 2003, the year before his program was installed. Since then, in three years, the scores have gone up only 4.2%.

In English, did our fourth-grade scores go up by 12.5%? No. The proportion of fourth-graders who met state standards increased by 6.4% from 2003 to 2006. The figure was 52.5% in 2003 and is now 58.9%. Once again, the chancellor is taking the data from 2002 and adding it to his gains; the rate in 2002 was 46.5%. But this is just plain wrong, because he can’t take credit for the 6-point jump that occurred from 2002-2003. That was before he started his programs in the schools.

Note that he does not mention the eighth-grade scores. That is because in both math and English, 60% of students don’t meet state standards. Despite small upticks and downticks. the eighth grade scores have remained flat over the past three years. So the Department doesn’t mention them. And this, despite the fact that the Department allegedly ended social promotion in grades 3, 5, and 7. One must wonder why scores in eighth grade remain so abysmal if social promotion was eliminated.

Why does the media allow the Mayor and the Chancellor to claim credit for the phenomenal gains that occurred the year before the Mayor’s program was implemented? I don’t know, but I have long believed that in the end, as the saying goes, you can’t fool all the people all the time.


*For anyone wanting to check the NY State Education Department website for themselves, here is some guidance. For some reason it is not easy to find the scores. They are archived with press releases and contained in a Power Point presentation by the Commissioner of Education when he released the scores. Here are the URLs (it took me hours to find them!):

For Grade 4 English: http://www.emsc.nysed.gov/irts/ela-math/ela-06/grade3-8ELA-2006_files/800x600/slide15.html

For Grade 8 English: http://www.emsc.nysed.gov/irts/ela-math/ela-06/grade3-8ELA-2006_files/800x600/slide16.html

Grade 4 mathematics: http://www.emsc.nysed.gov/irts/ela-math/math-06/math3-8_files/800x600/slide16.html

Grade 8 mathematics: http://www.emsc.nysed.gov/irts/ela-math/math-06/math3-8_files/800x600/slide17.html

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