A debate over how New York City selected more than 200 schools to exempt from a new citywide curriculum is detracting from the system’s efforts to improve its instructional program, critics and analysts maintain.
The city’s department of education announced last month that 208 schools could choose their own reading and mathematics curricula because they had demonstrated success on the district’s tests in those subjects. But the method that school officials used to choose what detractors are calling the “200 Club” is under attack.
Some say the method overlooks the success of certain schools and lowers expectations for others serving needy students.
“It is very, very difficult to design an appropriate or fair anything that will be fair to all schools,” said Betsy Combier, a parent activist with four daughters in the New York City schools. “They should look into the culture of the schools they’re dealing with and then come out with a list.”
Others contend that because the education department used a formula ensuring that high-poverty schools made the list, officials sent the unfortunate message that disadvantaged students aren’t expected to achieve as much as others.
“When you start gearing standards to demographics, you’re going down a very dangerous path,” said Joseph P. Viteritti, a research professor of public policy at New York University. “It’s politicizing it, so we’re going to have different expectations for students based on race and class.”
New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, announced in January that they had chosen reading, math, and writing curricula that schools would use throughout the 1.1 million-student district.
For reading, the city chose a phonics reading program that will be used in conjunction with classroom libraries. Elementary students will spend at least 90 minutes a day on reading and writing tasks.
In mathematics, the city’s elementary schools will use Everyday Mathematics, a curriculum that integrates conceptual understanding and basic skills. The middle schools will teach from a companion curriculum from Everyday Mathematics, and high schools will learn from textbooks tailored to meet the state’s regents exam.
The new programs are part of the administration’s larger plan to centralize the school bureaucracy, reduce class sizes, and provide new services in schools. (“Mayor Outlines Major Overhaul of N.Y.C. System,” Jan. 22, 2003.)
When Mr. Klein announced new citywide instructional programs, he said the city’s highest-performing schools would be allowed to opt out.
“Schools exempted from the new curriculum have shown they are doing work that is achieving results,” Mr. Klein said in a statement when he unveiled the 208 schools on the honor roll.
But the publication of the list Feb. 14 has produced a flood of complaints from parents and advocates that the methods used were arbitrary and do not reflect the quality of schools.
Some of the city’s well-known and high-achieving schools are on the list, such as Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School. The former Community School District 2, which served many of Manhattan’s toniest neighborhoods, had 23 elementary and middle schools in the 200 Club—more than any of the other community districts that were abolished in the centralization plan.
At the same time, some of the city’s best schools didn’t make the list, while several lesser ones did, according to Clara Hemphill, the director of insideschools.org, a free online guide to New York schools.
To select members of the 200 Club, the district divided schools into three levels of need, using factors such as special education enrollment, subsidized-lunch participation, and percentage of English-language learners.
Mr. Klein chose schools from each category based on reading and math scores on the 2002 school system exams. Two-thirds of those selected are from low-need schools, 19 percent fall into the middle category, and 15 percent are part of the highest- need grouping, according to David Chai, a spokesman for the city education department.
Selecting schools from each category of need guaranteed that the list included schools from some of the city’s poorest areas, as well as some from the wealthiest.
It would have created a bigger political problem if only schools serving white children from affluent areas were on the list, according to Ms. Hemphill. Still, it’s been difficult for the education department to explain why a school was left off even though it recorded higher test scores than some schools that made the list.
What’s more, the education department didn’t do a thorough job of reviewing what is happening in the schools, Ms. Hemphill said. For example, she said, one Queens school with a gifted and talented program is on the list because the gifted students’ test scores boosted the elementary’s average.
“Children not in the gifted program are getting a really mediocre education,” she charged.
Mr. Viteritti argues that the city’s education department shouldn’t have established a list in the first place.
“It should either be one program for everyone or you should choose a variety of programs” for principals to select from, he said. “If it’s a really good curriculum, there’s no reason to exempt anyone.”
Mr. Klein has compounded the problem, Mr. Viteritti added, by allowing schools to obtain waivers from using the citywide curriculum. That gives schools that have vocal parents with political connections the inside track in lobbying the system, he maintained.