School & District Management

Grading the Mayor

By Catherine Gewertz — October 25, 2005 11 min read
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In the shadow of a Manhattan housing project, Public School 33 is coming back to life. A new principal has brought a wave of optimism, test scores are way up, and middle-class families who used to avoid the school are enrolling their children.

In Brooklyn, teenagers who might have dropped out of school are getting diplomas through a special evening program. In the Bronx, a small high school is graduating its low-income students at a faster clip than are New York City’s larger, older high schools.

Promising signs like these are some of what Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is banking on as he seeks re-election Nov. 8. Not long after taking office in 2001, the Republican businessman persuaded the New York state legislature to give him nearly unprecedented control of the biggest school district in the country.

He invited voters to retain or replace him based on his work improving the schools.

Now, Bloomberg is trumpeting his successes even as he fends off critics. With politics and schools so intertwined in a city of a zillion viewpoints, the same set of statistics draws declarations of triumph and of failure. Recent big gains in elementary test scores, for instance, were cast by the mayor’s office as proof that his multifaceted reforms are working. Skeptics chalked the numbers up to heavy doses of test preparation, teacher dedication, and possibly a simpler test.

Polls and pundits see Bloomberg staying comfortably ahead of his main challenger, Fernando Ferrer, a Democrat and former Bronx borough president. But whatever the outcome, leaders of New York’s schools know that their battle is far from won. Better to view their work, they say, as a strong start against tall odds, with mayoral control a vital instrument in making change.

“The city now believes generally that education can be fixed in New York,” Joel I. Klein, Bloomberg’s hand-picked schools chancellor, said in a recent interview at PS 33 in the Big Apple’s Chelsea neighborhood. “Not that it has been fixed, but that we’ve turned the corner.”

The theory guiding the new city department of education at Tweed Courthouse here puts a premium on raising expectations for achievement throughout the 1.1 million-student system. District leaders say they aim to provide a high-quality education for all students, regardless of whether they live in the South Bronx or on the Upper West Side. The idea, says Michele Cahill, Klein’s senior education counsel, is to create “a system of individually effective schools,” rather than one in which only a small share of the schools truly work well.

With a revamped governance chart, district officials are focusing on school leadership, grade-to-grade student-promotion restrictions, parent engagement, curriculum, and high school improvement. They also have largely done away with the city’s tradition of locally decided approaches to teaching in favor of more centrally managed pedagogy.

The strategy for secondary schools focuses on replacing large comprehensive high schools with smaller, theme-based schools. Many people objected when the policy led to overcrowding in some of the large schools.

But the 11-year-old Bronx Leadership Academy illustrates one benefit city officials hope will be contagious. In a rough-and-tumble Latino and African-American neighborhood, applicants outpace seats by more than 10-to-1, and 70 percent to 85 percent of the school’s 9th graders graduate on time four years later, compared with scarcely more than half in city high schools on average.

‘Equity’ in Instruction

For the scores of small schools opened in the past few years, graduation rates are not yet final. But attendance appears to be better than for high schools citywide.

Mayoral Control Yields Big Changes

In June 2002, Gov. George E. Pataki of New York signed legislation giving the mayor of New York City control over the city school system. The law abolished, as of June 2003, the city’s 32 community school boards, ending a 35-year period of decentralization that grew out of the civil rights movement.

It also expanded the seven-member citywide board of education to 13 members, and gave the mayor the right to appoint eight of those members, including the schools chancellor. The chancellor secured the right to appoint regional superintendents. The board lost the authority to manage day-to-day operations, but votes on budget and policy matters.

Since then, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has made a number of significant changes to the 1.1 million-student school system, including:

• Appointing 10 regional administrators, each overseeing 10 local supervisors and about 100 schools;

• Establishing mandated instructional approaches for reading and mathematics in most schools;

• Opening the New York City Leadership Academy, a 14-month program that trains new principals for city schools;

• Placing trained parent coordinators in all schools;

• Assigning math and literacy coaches to most schools;

• Requiring students in grades 3, 5, and 7 to score at grade level on city tests to be promoted to the next grade, and providing intensive help for those held back or in jeopardy of being held back;

• Phasing out 22 large, comprehensive high schools in favor of small secondary schools, 149 of which have opened so far; and

• Expanding alternative high school programs that culminate in a state Regents diploma.

The city is expanding high school options for teenagers who aren’t excelling in traditional settings. At the Region 8 Young Adult Borough Center in Brooklyn, students behind on their credits take late-afternoon, evening, and Saturday courses toward a standard Regents diploma, while getting counseling, help with résumés and college applications, and other support services from a community-service agency that partners with the school.

Of all the Bloomberg administration’s changes, the new approach to instruction has drawn by far the sharpest and most prolonged criticism. Though the mayor suggested he would take a back-to-basics approach, his top deputies rejected the highly scripted model of “managed instruction” that’s popular in cities with large numbers of children behind on their skills.

Eliminating the dozens of curricula in use around the city, they chose a language arts program, Month by Month Phonics, that they say gives children both reading skills and plenty of practice with good books. Critics charge it is woefully short on systematic instruction in basic skills such as decoding. They also picked a strongly conceptual mathematics program, Everyday Math, that some see as shortchanging computational skills. (“N.Y.C. Hangs Tough Over Maverick Curriculum,” Oct. 15, 2003.)

The debate about the language arts approach, in particular, continues to roil. Carmen Fariña, one of its top defenders and the district’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, sees the choice as a matter of equity. The “balanced literacy” approach will build critical-thinking skills, she says, and more highly scripted approaches cannot. Before the Bloomberg era, the method was used primarily in schools serving well-off neighborhoods.

The new program is in full swing at Middle School 443 and PS 295, a combined elementary and middle school in Brooklyn. Teachers begin classes with a “mini-lesson” capturing key ideas. In small groups, children explore and develop those concepts through drawing, writing, or discussion.

Much of their language arts learning is rooted in reading expository and story books, available in robust collections in each classroom. Writing stretches across disciplines; even in math, students keep journals describing the process they used to reach their answers. In a 6th grade humanities class, children are reading not just for plot, but for character.

Scores on the Rise

Intervention specialists, resource teachers, and math and literacy coaches work with the children and the staff members to match instruction to pupils’ needs, supplementing Month by Month Phonics with several new program choices that emphasize skills-building.

Critics see the added programs as a silent admission by the city’s education department that Month by Month Phonics, as the sole approach, fell short. Fariña dismisses that argument, saying additional programs give teachers a stronger “tool kit.”

First graders at PS 33 in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan sit in a semicircle during a meeting with teacher Danielle Capek. The city education department's directions on teaching literacy, in particular, have raised some educators' hackles.

The Bloomberg administration contends that this approach, spread citywide, is starting to pay off. On the 2005 state language arts tests, 59 percent of 4th graders scored at grade level, up 10 percentage points from the previous year. On the math tests, 77 percent of 4th graders scored at grade level, up 9 points in one year. Some of the biggest gains came in high-poverty, largely minority neighborhoods. The city’s 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th graders posted strong gains on city tests as well.

Top aides acknowledge privately that poor test scores could have been disastrous for Mayor Bloomberg. And his critics are frustrated that good ones seem to have immunized him from criticism. They note that scores rose as much or more in places that don’t use his programs, such as charter schools, some regular schools exempt from using the approach, and other urban districts in New York state.

Many still rue the administration’s instructional choices, contending its literacy methods are about how to teach, not what to teach. The education historian Diane Ravitch likes to say that the promised standard citywide curriculum “wasn’t standard, citywide, or a curriculum.”

Some teachers feel they’ve been subjected to what Manhattan Institute scholar Sol Stern calls a “pedagogical dictatorship.” Overnight, they say, basal readers and other texts disappeared from their classrooms, replaced with stacks of storybooks. Teaching from the front of the room to rows of children was jettisoned. Rocking chairs, rugs, and bulletin boards were to be arranged in a certain way. One teacher rearranges her classroom furniture three times a day to create the preferred setups for three reading programs she uses.

An unusual aspect of the city’s new, not-yet-ratified teachers’ contract reflects this frustration, specifying that teachers can no longer be disciplined for how they arrange furniture or display bulletin boards.

Oliver Regis, 18, a student at the Young Adult Borough Center in Brooklyn, talks to his teacher, Bernadette Burch. The school helps students behind on their credits earn Regents diplomas.

“We totally understand why the school system would want to have a more critical-thinking-based curricular thrust,” says Randi Weingarten, the president of the 140,000-member United Federation of Teachers. “But you have to give teachers more discretion, more latitude. You can’t just say ‘You can’t do more than 10 minutes of direct instruction,’ and ‘We’re removing all your basal readers.’ They need more resources, not less.”

Many educators bemoan what they view as a my-way-or-the-highway approach.

Jackie Bennett, a 10th and 11th grade English teacher at Michael J. Petrides School on Staten Island, was asked not to return for the final three days of a four-day professional-development session after she questioned the research base for requiring teachers to use the small-group approach.

Administrators Struggle

“There is no room for a teacher to say, ‘I’ve been having good success with this,’ or ‘This works well,’ ” the 18-year veteran says. “A lot of us were resistant, but not because we couldn’t do the old chalk-and-talk. It’s because we’re not certain about this whole method of education.”

Sarah Levine reads to her 1st grade class at PS 33, which has seeen an increase in middle-class students enrolling since the mayor gained control of the city's schools.

Too often, when her students are in small groups, supposedly exploring a passage of poetry, she hears them discussing sports or the prom. “Students can’t teach themselves,” Bennett says. “That’s a myth.” Lost in the mandated small-group structure, she says, is the value an experienced teacher can bring to leading classroom discussion.

Administrators have wrestled in their own ways with the changes. One assistant principal at a Manhattan elementary school, who insisted on anonymity, saying she and other administrators are forbidden to speak to reporters, complains that she is expected to serve as an instructional leader but gets no relief from her other duties. As a result, she says, she has been harshly criticized for not being in the classroom enough.

Local and regional superintendents—newly created posts—drain principals of virtually all decisionmaking power, says Jill S. Levy, the president of the 5,800-member Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which includes principals.

“[The Bloomberg administration] just mouths the words about leadership,” she says. “Our principals implement policy that comes from on high.”

Clarita Zeppie left her job as the principal of PS 115 in Manhattan in June 2004 after more than 30 years in the system. She got fed up with following orders such as turning around all the books in classroom libraries because they were facing the “wrong” direction, and attending training sessions designed more to dictate instructional approaches than to support principals in running their schools.

“I couldn’t deal with being seen as having no knowledge, just being a puppet,” she says.

Lorraine Skeen, a 20-year principal of a highly successful, high-poverty elementary school in East Harlem until 1998, was so inspired by Bloomberg’s commitment to education that she came out of retirement to serve as a local instructional superintendent in the Bronx. But she resigned less than a year later.

“We adopted a philosophical approach as to how children should learn, as opposed to a rigorous, clear-cut curriculum that had objectives and teaching ideas to go with those objectives,” she says. “The training was confusing, all generalities, and the methodology was unclear. … Nothing that I knew about what strengthens an inner-city school was a major part of this reform.”

The Young Adult Borough Center in Brooklyn offers high school classes at night to help students get back on track.

For others, though, the changes under Bloomberg have been positive. Meg Lyons, a teacher at PS 33, says a new principal and a culture of high achievement have made a tremendous difference in teaching the disadvantaged children in her 2nd grade classroom.

“The tone of the school is different now, the expectations are different,” she says during a quiet moment in her classroom recently. “Children are expected to learn, that’s the big thing. Before, everyone had just given up on these kids from the projects.”

A group of business leaders has found cause for optimism, too. The Partnership for New York City, which supports a strong mayoral role in schools, commissioned researchers at New York University to evaluate the Bloomberg initiatives. The study, noting the rising test scores and graduation rate among other positive signs, found “good reasons to be pleased” so far.

Kathryn S. Wylde, the partnership’s president and chief executive officer, says the results suggest that mayoral control enabled city government to align its budget, priorities, and operations to improve schools. Merryl H. Tisch, a member of the New York state board of regents, says the mayor deserves re-election for the “solid beginning” he’s made.

But few would disagree that much remains to be done. Vast numbers of schoolchildren are still below grade level. And barely half are graduating from high school. Even the city’s education department acknowledges that programs for middle schoolers, special education students, and English-language learners need bolstering.

Some see no clear verdict to pronounce.

“I just don’t know,” says Lee D. McCaskill, the principal of Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the city’s highest-performing high schools, “if the glass is half full or half empty.”

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Coverage of leadership is suppoorted in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as Grading the Mayor


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