In School: The ‘Success’ of Failure


For readers who only had a few minutes to skim the paper, a glance at the December 20 Daily News headline was reassuring: “Regents scores improve.” And the subhead: “More than 90 percent of seniors passed harder tests.”

If those readers had time to look into the first column, there was more good news. State education commissioner Richard Mills said, “Once again, we have the children proving the critics wrong. They said they couldn’t pass, and they did.”

Once again, adults responsible, in large part, for the rest of children’s lives cover their failures by calling them successes.

As usual these days, the New York Post‘s education reporters cut through the surface of the statistics. The Post‘s December 20 headline: “Regents-Exam Shocker.” And the subhead: “25 percent in city fail to make grade on state tests.”

But you had to go deeper into the Post‘s story to recognize the three-card-monte game State Education Commissioner Mills is playing. To begin, there were the missing bodies. The Post quoted Schools Chancellor Harold Levy, whose candor contrasted with Mill’s bureaucratic self-congratulation. I don’t think Levy has overall done a good job, but he came through with the truth this time.

“Levy noted a staggering 36 percent of the 47,554 students who were freshmen in 1997 did not make it to their senior year.”

The New York City school system excels in producing dropouts.

Steve Sanders, chairman of the Assembly education committee, told the Post: “We have to be sobered by the fact that many high school students who entered in 1997 haven’t passed the exams, haven’t taken the exams, or will never take the exams. The dropout rate is rising.”

In the same story, the chancellor, looking to the even more sobering future, “added that many students who passed Regents exams did so only because the passing score was lowered to 55 percent from 65 percent.” (The Daily News report also took note of this dismayingly illuminating fact.)

Moreover, Levy went on to point out that by 2005, every student still in the school system will have to score 65 percent to graduate.

So, look again at the Daily News‘s celebratory subhead: “More than 90 percent of seniors passed harder tests.” The real story is in the New York Post‘s lead:

“More than one-quarter of the Board of Education’s class of 2001 couldn’t graduate because they flunked or failed to take the state math Regents exam, new state statistics show. And 23 percent of the city’s graduating class didn’t pass or take the English exam either.”

And don’t forget all the dropouts who didn’t figure into the Daily News headline or in Newsday‘s December 20 head and subhead: (“City Regents Numbers Rise/Most Improvement Seen in Math”).

The New York Times announced its story with a headline and subhead that confusingly missed the core of what the statistics actually revealed: “An Advantage for Seasoned Students/Most Who Become Seniors in Four Years Pass the Regents, Data Show.” You had to read down into the story to find out that “only half of all New York City students graduate in four years.”

None of the newspapers included an essential harbinger of the future that was cited in this column last week from an October 20 New York Post story. In last year’s tests, “fewer than half of elementary and middle-school students tested met state standards in mathematics. . . . Fewer than half the elementary and middle-school students met state standards in reading.”

How high are the odds that the kids who failed those tests will pass when it’s time for them to take the Regents exams? And how many of them will drop out before then?

At the very end of the December 20 Post report on this year’s Regents scores, there was a reminder that the averaging of statistics masked the grim fact that “at many schools, the passing rate was dreadful. At Park East High School on 102nd Street in Manhattan, only 26 percent of the class of 2001 passed the math exam.”

My sense of the new mayor is that he honestly wants to do something (whatever that turns out to be) about getting schools to work. But if he wants to actually change the future for so many children in the school system, putting uniforms on them won’t do. In the December 16 New York Post, there is a list of schools whose bleakness would have made Charles Dickens cringe. Bloomberg should spend time in them.

The following Post descriptions of some of them are from State Education Department inspection reports:

“I.S. 143, District 10, Bronx: Bilingual teachers who are not proficient in English.

“P.S. 31, District 13, Staten Island: “Staff has ‘low expectations’ for students.

“I.S. 158, District 12, Bronx: Students ‘out of control’ in classes and hallways.

“I.S. 275, District 23, Brooklyn: “Six different teachers for one seventh-grade math class.”

The Post coverage also includes Kiran Randhawa’s account of I.S. 292 in Brooklyn, which is part of the state’s official failing-schools list (Schools Under Registration Review) “because a majority of eighth-graders there flunked the math and English exams. Located in the high-poverty area of East New York, where most students come from public housing projects, the school’s yearly intake is made up of students from four feeder elementary schools that also are on the list of low-performing schools.”

Bloomberg should focus on the school “where students fear for their safety,” and on the 17 others in the list of what the Post calls “Halls of Shame.” And he then should ask Harold Levy, the members of the Board of Education, the superintendent of the district, and a whole lot of other people paid by the city to educate children how the hell they justify their salaries.

In 1987, the Times‘ Bob Herbert, then a columnist for the Daily News, wrote: “If there was any justice, the chancellor would have been jailed, along with all the other politicians and bureaucrats who brought the school system to ruin and betrayed a generation of students.” Many thousands of students are still being betrayed.