The city Department of Education today heralded performance gains among students who are considered English language learners in a new report about how those students have fared under Chancellor Joel Klein's leadership. The tone of the report and its accompanying press release is very different from the tone of Friday's mayoral control hearing in the Bronx, where numerous speakers complained that the department has paid too little attention to ELL students. The report declares that Klein and Mayor Bloomberg have built a "stronger system-wide infrastructure" to support English language learners, and says that the efforts are "starting to bear fruit." More than 29% of fourth-graders met English standards in 2008, compared to 4% in 2003; 64% met math standards in 2008, up from 36% in 2003. The report cautions that middle school test scores and graduation rates are not as rosy, but points out that former English language learners — students who once received help in learning English but have since tested proficient at English — are out-performing even non-ELL students. The report paints a very different picture from the one presented at the Bronx hearing Friday.
Comptroller and mayoral candidate William Thompson Jr. (Via Azi's Flickr.) Comptroller Bill Thompson, who is also a candidate for mayor, ended his appearance on NY1's "Road to City Hall" last night with the clearest preview yet of how he will challenge Mayor Bloomberg on the schools front. He will quote Diane Ravitch. Thompson cited Ravitch, the NYU education historian who has emerged as a prime critic of the mayor's education efforts, after host Dominic Carter painted a picture of how Bloomberg is likely to portray the comptroller in campaign ads. Carter imagined ads that would single out the comptroller's tenure as president of the Board of Education, in a pitch to associate Thompson with the days before mayoral control of the schools, which the mayor has characterized as dismal. Thompson replied by challenging Bloomberg's portrait of the city schools' progress since 2002. He said that the "eminent" Ravitch has shown that test scores went up just as much before Bloomberg took office as they did when Thompson served as Board of Education president. (He served in that role from 1996 to 2001.) A spokesman for Thompson today sent me to this Ravitch quotation as evidence. The key sentence: The gains under Crew and Levy from 1999-2002 were larger on the state tests in both reading and math than under Klein from 2003-2007. I reached Ravitch by telephone today. She told me that she was surprised to hear herself cited by Thompson. (Like me, she happened to be watching NY1 at just the right moment last night — though probably unlike me, in her case the timing of "Gossip Girl" had little to do with that.) "I’m not involved in his campaign or anyone else’s campaign," Ravitch told me. "I don’t do politics. I haven’t been politically active since the Hubert Humphrey campaign in 1968."
The number of city schools failing to meet guidelines laid out in the No Child Left Behind law dropped this year to 401 from 432 last year, buoyed by improvements at 58 schools that came off the last. Another 10 schools that had been failing were shut down, while 37 saw their test scores, graduation rates, and other factors that go into the NCLB calculations decline and were added onto the list. The pattern of improvement matched trends statewide, where the number of failing schools dropped to 665 from 719. The changes follow test scores last year that shot up at a rate so dramatic some researchers challenged their validity. To get off the NCLB failing list, a school must meet performance benchmarks — a combination of test scores, attendance rates, and graduation rates — for at least two years in a row. Mayor Bloomberg greeted the news as evidence that his efforts to improve the public school system are working. "This is yet another sign that our school reforms are producing real results for New York City students," he said in a statement. "In a year when many districts across the country saw increases in the number of schools needing improvement under NCLB, the number in New York City fell significantly."
Earlier this year, Brooklyn Assemblyman James Brennan issued a report arguing that the educational reforms formulated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein were not as influential as the policies and practices that preceded mayoral control. Although test scores have risen significantly over the past decade, the report claimed, most of the improvements predated mayoral control. Moreover, in some cases, the progress during the Bloomberg-Klein era has been slower than what was observed before. The report's conclusions call into question claims about the impact of mayoral control, a hot topic for the next few months and perhaps beyond. Andy Jacob, overworked and underpaid Department of Education spokesperson–I'm actually not kidding about this–countered with a memo seeking to refute Brennan's report. The key claim: The test score gap between New York City and the rest of the state has closed more under mayoral control than it did before mayoral control, by a substantial margin. The source of the evidence? State tests in reading and math in both the fourth and eighth grades. New York is a big and diverse state, and it's not immediately obvious why comparing New York City to the state is a good idea. One rationale is that this comparison controls for year-to-year variation in the content or difficulty of the state exams. Thus, if the average test score gap between city and state were to shrink over time, we could discount the explanation that it's just a function of the properties of the test.
I reported in February that the degree to which the Department of Education's bureaucracy is growing depends on which bureaucracy you're talking about: the central brain at Tweed Courthouse has gained members, but the nervous system known as "the field," whose suited desk-sitters are located throughout the five boroughs, is shrinking in size. The degree of growth also depends on the kind of bureaucrat, and the way the kinds shake out — which have been kept and which have not — sheds some light on the Bloomberg administration's priorities. (Recall that all departments inside the DOE were asked to write plans for budget cuts, but not all had to enact them.) While those specializing in areas such as teaching and learning, food and nutrition, family engagement, and operations are losing ground, officials who work in accountability, budget, and transportation matters proliferate, according to new, more detailed numbers the department (finally) disclosed to me.
Is there school choice in New York City? It depends whom you ask. Ask in Harlem, and members of Harlem Parents United, a group organized by charter school operator Eva Moskowitz, might tell you that there is: They have all chosen charter schools for their children and are aggressively pushing the neighborhood's families to have even more options. They have allies in Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who count increasing school choice as a cornerstone of their reforms. But ask a high school student who wants to change schools, and you might get another answer entirely. According to an article in the New York Post, ninth grader Kimselle Castanos said she asked the Department of Education for a transfer dozens of times but didn't get one until she was assaulted by students from another school in the building. The DOE thinks the Post got some major facts wrong, such as how many times Kimselle e-mailed the chancellor, officials told me today. But even if it did, the real story remains that in a system that boasts about the choices open to students, Kimselle and her family felt stuck in a school that wasn't right for her. I heard from countless parents, students, and advocates desperately seeking school transfers when I worked at Insideschools, through the hotline run by parent organization Advocates for Children. Callers reported that their transfer requests, particularly at the high school level, had been denied even though they had compelling reasons for seeking them. Those calls continue to pour in, my former colleague Pamela Wheaton, Insideschools' executive director, told me today. "For whatever reason, it has become increasingly difficult, almost impossible, to get a transfer to another regular high school," Wheaton said.