The third time proved the charm for the New York City school system, which last week won the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education for the progress of its improvement efforts after being a finalist the past two years.
While federal and city officials and members of Congress praised the nation’s largest school district for its accomplishments at a Sept. 18 press conference here, some in the city questioned how a district in which about half of students drop out of high school and where test-score gains recently have slowed could be held up as a positive example of urban school reform.
During the high-profile event surrounding the announcement, however, the successes of New York and the four runners-up were the primary focus.
U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings commended officials from the districts—including the Bridgeport public schools in Connecticut, the Long Beach Unified district in California, the Miami-Dade County schools in Florida, and the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio—for being “fellow warriors in raising student achievement.”
The winner and finalists were selected from among 100 school systems nationwide that were evaluated for the annual award from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. The Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation donates $500,000 for college scholarships to the winning district, and $125,000 to each of the runners-up.
“I want to say thank you to a leadership team that has been uncompromising about changing the face of public education,” Joel I. Klein, the chancellor of the 1.1 million-student New York City schools, said at the press conference. He was flanked by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, whom he credited with providing the leadership to improve the city’s schools. The mayor won control of the district under state legislation in 2002.
Mr. Klein was joined by Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, as well as other city and state education officials. “While it hasn’t all been sweet and nice, we have all come together to do what’s best for kids in New York City,” Mr. Klein said.
Mayor Bloomberg’s role and Chancellor Klein’s business-oriented approach to managing the vast school system have drawn critics, from parent activists to the education historian Diane Ravitch.
Ms. Ravitch, a research professor at New York University, suggested in a paper for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation last June that city officials’ claims about increasing test scores were unwarranted, because they had essentially slowed or stalled under the Bloomberg administration.
A group called New York City Public School Parents asked the Broad Foundation not to award the district its top prize. In a Sept. 17 letter, some three dozen parents contended that the school system had undergone “one incoherent wave of reorganization after another over the last five years, leading to unnecessary chaos and in many cases, disruption of educational services.”
Mr. Klein said in an interview that such criticism is inevitable “when you are making changes that are complex.” He added that while graduation rates are still unacceptably low, they have risen significantly in the past several years.
In 2002, the district graduated just 37 percent of high school students, according to an analysis by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. The center’s most recent figures available, from 2004, show that the graduation rate rose to 45 percent that year.
The 9-member selection committee for the prize included former U.S. Secretaries of Education Rod Paige and Richard W. Riley and three former governors. Its members said that the New York district stood out for raising student achievement to a greater degree than other disadvantaged districts in the state had done, for reducing the achievement gap between minority and white students, and for helping greater proportions of African-American and Hispanic students achieve at high levels.
Eli Broad, the founder of the philanthropy that made the award, said at last week’s announcement that he had created the prize in 2002 “to shine a spotlight on what is working in urban education,” an area that is more often the subject of criticism than praise. “We knew,” he added, “that there were great successes out there.”