Bloomberg vs. Failing Schools


Rudy Giuliani gained deserved international stature for his efforts to re-generate the city after September 11, but in the longer run, historians will not forget his failures as Mayor. Like George W. Bush, Giuliani was and is tone-deaf to civil liberties. No mayor in the history of New York lost as many first amendment cases in the courts. And the stop-and-frisk policies of his police—and they were his police—broke all contemporary city records for violating the Fourth Amendment.

But it is the Board of Education, with little useful advice from Giuliani, that has done the most abiding damage to many thousands of the city’s public school students. Last year, as revealed by the New York Post‘s first-rate education reporter, Carl Campanile, on October 20, the Board of Education’s annual report card noted:

“Fewer than half of elementary and middle-school students tested met state standards in mathematics . . . . Fewer than half of the elementary and middle-school students tested met state standards in reading . . . . Too many high school students are failing the high school Regents exams—now required to obtain a diploma. And the problem could worsen when the passing score increases from 55 to 65, as the Regents board plans to do within four years.”

Not mentioned by any of the candidates in the last mayoral campaign, or by any of the newspaper editorial writers, is that this city’s school system is one of the most segregated in the country. In its July 2001 report, Schools More Separate: Consequences of a Decade of Resegregation, Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project revealed that, as of 1998-99, white students made up only 15.5 percent of the total enrollment of 1,071,074 students. Those were the last figures available.

So the large-scale failure of the school system most deeply affects black and Latino kids. In 1977, in my book Does Anybody Give a Damn? Nat Hentoff on Education (Knopf), I told of hearing, at a Board of Education meeting, a black father who, after coming north, “worked at a string of menial jobs, and eventually wound up in a dead-end factory slot that paid him some $90 a week. His hope was his child, and he had watched her fall farther and farther behind each year of school. The black father was very angry.

“‘You people,’ he said to the Board of Education, ‘operate a goddamn monopoly, like the telephone company. I got no choice where I send my child to school. I can only send her where it’s free, and she’s not learning. Damn it, that’s your responsibility, it’s the principal’s responsibility, it’s the teacher’s responsibility that she’s not learning.’

“The more or less distinguished members of the Board of Education looked on impassively. “‘When you fail, when everybody fails my child’—the father’s voice had gotten thick with rage and no little grief—’what happens? Nothing. Nobody gets fired. Nothing happens to nobody except my child.’ ”

If Michael Bloomberg doesn’t read the Voice, I hope one of his advisers will show him what that father said back then. Many fathers and mothers in this city are just as enraged right now. Whatever else Bloomberg accomplishes as mayor, nothing will be more important, and more lasting, than what he does to end the school system’s mass production of dead-end lives.

On November 8, after his victory over Mark Green, Bloomberg’s uninspiring formula for failing schools included making all students wear uniforms and giving bonuses to all the teachers in schools where the students’ test scores go up. The latter policy is also supported by Governor Pataki and the United Federation of Teachers’ leadership, which fiercely opposes giving extra pay to those individual teachers whose students do learn how to learn.

The new mayor ought to think harder about how merit pay can actually help regenerate the school system. If you give a bonus to every teacher in a school that is making some progress, you do nothing to save the captive children who continue with the failing teachers in that school.

On December 13, Professor Ronald Ferguson of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard spoke at a session of New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education on “Closing the Achievement Gap: What Schools Can Do.”

Ferguson has done extensive research on the black-white achievement gap, and he demonstrated—with national statistics and videos of teachers as well as students—that “teacher quality” is crucially important to the actual learning of students. Conversely, poor teacher quality leads to students’ being left behind. As if you didn’t know that.

But it was important for Ferguson to emphasize that “which teacher a student has makes a big difference in what he or she gains in a year.”

I’ve been reporting on schools for almost half a century, and I can assure you it is not that hard to differentiate between successful and failing teachers.

Former New York City schools chancellor Harvey Scribner—who was run out of the city by the UFT because he insisted on teachers’ as well as principals’ accountability—told me of a school in Massachusetts where he’d worked. Children had been moving into the same fifth-grade math class for five years. They had learned competency in math from their previous fourth-grade teachers, but after they left that particular fifth-grade class, there was marked deterioration in their knowledge and understanding of math. The clear cause was that specific fifth-grade teacher.

Successful teachers in many schools have shown me over the years that they know who the incompetent teachers are because these proficient teachers have to deal with students who have been mistaught. If a teacher who has survived his or her probationary period is nonetheless failing, principals should arrange for consistent help for that teacher from master teachers. If that fails, under renewable licenses, bad teachers should be dismissed. And teachers who contribute to the lifelong learning of their students should get merit pay.

In this city, on October 16, the chancellor’s office disclosed that only 1035 (1.3 percent of the 80,000 teachers in the system) had been given unsatisfactory ratings for the 2000-01 school year. Is it any wonder, Mayor Bloomberg, that so many children are being lost when so few of their teachers are being acknowledged as failures themselves? You want more control over the school system. First, you have to learn a lot more about it.

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