An Education Mayor Takes Charge: The Picture in New York

Education Next, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

An Education Mayor Takes Charge: The Picture in New York


In one of the more extreme examples of ancient wisdom proved true, many education reformers are wondering if they should have been more careful about what they wished for in New York City. Please let the mayor run the schools: that was the mantra.

Mired for decades in Byzantine bureaucracy that wasted untold millions of dollars and incalculable numbers of student academic lives, the New York City school system was wrestled to the ground by a billionaire mayor, and almost everyone applauded.

Four years later, where are we? Not far, says Sol Stern, an early supporter of the new regime. Joe Williams, however, is more inclined to give the Bloomberg bunch a pass, at least for now.

A Negative Assessment

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

An Education Revolution That Never Was

"Minority kids soar in reading," screamed the banner headline on the New York Post's front page earlier this year. Along with its rival tabloid, the Daily News, the Post supported Mayor Michael Bloomberg's education reforms and now has credited those reforms for a "record setting" 10 percent improvement in the city's scores on state-administered 4th-grade reading tests.

Actually, it's anyone's guess why the 4th-grade scores rose so sharply this year at the same time that the 8th-grade reading and social studies scores went from bad to worse (with only 32.8 percent of city 8th graders meeting state standards in reading and 20 percent in social studies). It could well be due to broader educational forces or to changes in testing procedures. Either could explain why 4th-grade scores were up throughout the state, and student gains in Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers were even more impressive than in Gotham (see Hanushek, "Pseudo-Science," pp. 67-73).

In any case, no reputable researcher would rely on a one-year bump in some test scores to judge the efficacy of a new program. In the absence of independent confirmation by testing experts, one should remain highly skeptical of the claims of Mayor Bloomberg and his supporters that his instructional initiatives are working.

Unfortunately, this is also an election year, which means that political spin is likely to drown out reasoned debate about what policies are most likely to work in inner-city classrooms. The premise of mayoral control was that the public would finally be able to hold someone accountable for the schools. But the billionaire mayor has almost unlimited resources to win an electoral spin war, regardless of the reality in the classroom. In addition to dipping into his private fortune for unlimited campaign ads touting his test score gains, he has total control of a $15 billion education empire that doles out jobs and no-bid contracts to potential critics and spends millions on a well-oiled public relations machine, but spends nothing on independent research or evaluation of classroom programs. This has consequences for the national education debate as well. If Bloomberg is reelected, his model of reform through dictatorial mayoral control will surely be urged on other troubled urban school districts.

Before that model is exported anywhere else, however, serious thought ought to be given to what the mayor promised and what he has actually delivered.

City Hall Rules

It once seemed to be a good thing for education reform that Mike Bloomberg was so rich. Having financed his first election campaign completely out of his deep pockets, Bloomberg was unencumbered by debts owed to the system's entrenched interest groups, including the powerful union representing 80,000 teachers. In this favorable political climate, the new mayor was quickly able to persuade the state legislature to vest him with total control of the schools. Even the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) supported the reform legislation after Mayor Bloomberg gave the teachers a 16 percent across-the-board wage hike (plus an extra 5 percent for beginning teachers). …

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