Barrett: Now Even the Times is Burnishing Bloomberg-Klein School Myths

Since Mike Bloomberg and Joel Klein do have a real record to sell, why do they insist on embellishing it? And why does every newspaper in town, now even including the New York Times, lend itself to the Department of Exaggeration's (DOE) campaign to merge the renewal of mayoral control and the re-election of the mayor in the public mind?

The Times front page piece last week -- headlined "Gains on Tests in New York Schools Don't Silence Critics" -- failed to quote any real critics, but gave Klein six self-promoting paragraphs. It did bury a single questioning quote from two academics not known as critics of the test scores in the thirty-fourth paragraph, but the top of the story trumpeted success scores that would have silenced any critic. If, that is, they were true.

The Times said that its "analysis of state test scores before and after mayoral control" chronicled a "steady march upward," and then compared the 2009 math and English scores with scores in 2002. But mayoral control didn't begin until the 2003-2004 school year. Setting that misleading benchmark added 15 points to the math score increase since mayoral control theoretically began, as the Times erroneously put it, and deducted the same 15 points from the improvement that occurred before mayoral control. The bunk benchmark did the same on the English test, shifting a six-point gain onto Bloomberg's ledger.

This maneuver skews the ongoing, bitter debate about whether the hike in scores before Bloomberg's major reform went into effect was comparable to, or even greater than, the improvement since.  Assemblyman Jim Brennan, a member of the education committee who led the fight to retain but change the mayoral control system, tells the Voice that math scores for fourth graders rose 17 points in the four years preceding mayoral control, including the 2002-2003 school year, and 18 points in the six years since (fourth grade is commonly used for these comparisons). English scores for fourth graders rose 20 points before mayoral control and 17 points since. That leaves Bloomberg and Klein struggling to keep pace with the pre-control year-to-year average gain.  

Brennan, who uses the four prior years because that's when the new state tests were implemented, says that the rise in scores preceding mayoral control were largely attributable to enormous increases in state and city school funding and the expansion of pre-K programs, which he says also account for the continuing rise in scores since mayoral control went into effect. Brennan wrote two letters to Klein in 2006 objecting to the department's "improper" use of the 2002-2003 school year as a benchmark for mayoral control, noting that Bloomberg didn't even announce his school reform plan until January 15, 2003, three weeks before the fourth grade test were given. The mayor said then that the reforms would go into effect "the beginning of the next school year," which, after surviving court challenges, is when they did.

A top Klein aide, Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, wrote Brennan back, saying "you are correct when you note that our key reform initiative, Children First, was not implemented until the 2003-2004 school year." Bell-Ellwanger tried to make the argument that it was still OK to use that year as a baseline because DOE awarded "performance bonuses for superintendents" and a few other vaguely stated and minor initiatives. Brennan was outraged because the press releases issued by DOE before 2006 did use the correct baseline, saying that DOE was "one-year into our system-wide reforms" after the 2003-2004 test results, and citing achievements "over the last two years" after the 2004-2005 tests. Then the department changed its benchmark, and never looked back. The Times has now mimicked that swing.     

In addition to Brennan, Leonie Haimson, an education activist and blogger who's been a thorn in Klein's side, reminded the Times that its own stories proved that DOE had discounted the 2002-2003 data when it came out and is now expropriating it as their own. "City officials, who might otherwise have been jubilant about yesterday's results," the Times reported in May 2003, "offered a muted reaction." The Times knew then what it has since forgotten, noting that "the sharp increase in test scores could prove problematic " for Bloomberg and Klein "since it is too early for them to take credit and sets a benchmark for next year that may be hard to match." That's why they later stole it, and got the Times imprimatur on the theft.

Haimson's letter to the Times, which it did not publish, evoked a response from assistant metro editor Ian Trontz, who argued that Haimson hadn't pointed out any "inaccuracies," since "it is not incorrect to say that fourth grade reading scores rose after the mayor took over." Trontz conceded what his paper never reported, however, namely: "You are correct that some of the biggest gains occurred before his major reforms took effect."

The Times also played down its own November 16, 2007 story headlined "Little Progress for City Schools on National Test," which dramatically contrasted the soaring state scores with the "generally stagnant picture on measure after measure in federal tests administered between 2005 and 2007." The federal scores, according to the Times, also showed that "the most significant jump occurred in 2002, before Mr. Bloomberg took control." The data prompted a top testing expert to tell the Times then that the state tests had been "dumbed down;" actually, a Columbia sociologist has found that the math questions remained roughly the same since 2006.

Research credit: Johanna Barr, Jane C. Timm


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