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Grading the Mayor on Schools

February 9, 2004 | New York Times

Michael Bloomberg has taken some bold steps forward since the Legislature made him the first New York City mayor to gain full control of the city school system last summer. He has cleared away the bureaucratic underbrush and created clear lines of responsibility that lead to City Hall. The initiatives that freed up more money for classroom instruction by shrinking the payroll and consolidating administrative duties across this 32-district system could well be the most far-reaching school reform in city history.

But the administration risks frittering away its political capital by reinventing the wheel and rediscovering educational policies that failed miserably in the past. This seemed clearly the case in the mayor's State of the City address, which unveiled strict new promotion standards that would cause as many as 15,000 children each year to repeat third grade - or roughly four times the number that are held back today.

Many in the audience must have instantly flashed back to the catastrophic "gates" program of the 1980's, in which the city famously produced what teachers came to call "bearded seventh graders" - by holding so many children back for so long. The city then spent millions of additional dollars each year to staff classrooms crowded with demoralized, left-back children who eventually dropped out. In 1999, Chancellor Rudy Crew announced another drive to "end social promotion" that quickly had to be modified in the face of reality. The lesson, which the city seems doomed to learn over and over again, was that children who struggle in the early grades are hurt by being held back - but helped by smaller classes, skilled teachers and more intensive instruction.

The administrative structure set up by Mr. Bloomberg, however, may prevent him from learning from history. Centralization seems to have isolated the administration from reasonable criticism. This is clearly what happened in the case of the student disciplinary process, which was once housed in the 32 district offices that were swept nearly clean of staff in the consolidation plan. Under the old system, schools knew within 48 hours whether or not they could proceed in suspending a student who had proved violent. Since the fall, when the disciplinary process was shifted to a half-dozen regional locations, it has taken as long as three weeks to complete the suspension process, leaving violent children walking the same school halls as the people they had attacked. Now, the Bloomberg administration is scrambling to reinvent a disciplinary structure that actually worked pretty well before consolidation.

The administration was embarrassed yet again when the federal government threatened to withhold nearly $35 million in reading grants unless the city junked the reading curriculum that was being used in troubled elementary schools. That vindicated New York State officials and reading specialists who had complained loudly for months about the curriculum. It was too loosely structured, and it required too much expertise from inexperienced teachers to actually be successful with struggling students. Now, the city has no choice but to return to one of the proven, research-based programs that actually work.

The Bloomberg administration would have smoother sailing if it took a less hostile attitude toward teachers and the union that represents them. The United Federation of Teachers in New York is far more enlightened than the unions that dominate other cities and has been a cooperative partner in the city's most successful school experiments. The mayor, however, seems to have taken a war footing with respect to the teachers contract that expired last spring. The city claims to want work-rule changes above all else. But only last week did it provide a formal response to rule changes proposed by the union last September.

Mr. Bloomberg has told New Yorkers time and again that he wants them to judge him on how well he does with the schools. He stands a much better chance of doing well if he listens more closely to his critics and takes a less combative attitude toward the union.

Red Alert!
Let's Opt Out of the April 2014 NYS Tests

Parents can refuse to allow their child to take the State high stakes tests. Hand in this letter to your principal [other formats: .pdf .odt .doc]. En Español: [otros formatos: .pdf .odt .doc] Send your child to school and ask that an alternative activity be planned for him/her during the 6 days of testing.

Information for Parents who want to Opt Out:

Feel free to duplicate these flyers and give them to other parents!

We also have a magazine explaining Common Core, High Stakes Testing, and InBloom to parents. Varios artículos de esta revista fueron traducidos a Español.

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