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Bloomberg Says His Mind Was Set From Day 1 on Ending Social Promotion in Schools
March 17, 2004 | by JENNIFER STEINHAUER | New York Times
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said yesterday that he had longed to end the promotion of failing third graders from the day he took office, and that once he got the power to change public school policies, nothing was going to stand in his way.
"When I first became mayor I was in favor of ending this because it is a terrible concept," Mr. Bloomberg said yesterday during a telephone interview, a day after he had three people fired from his Panel for Educational Policy to get the group to approve his plan to stop the nearly automatic promotion of third graders.
"Social promotion is a ways to say, 'I give up,' " Mr. Bloomberg said. Even if children or their parents feel humiliated when a third grader is held back for failing a basic skills test, he continued, "the emotional trauma of not being able to do the work of the kids you're sitting next to for the next 10 years is a lot worse."
Mr. Bloomberg's almost singular fixation on ending the automatic promotion of thousands of city schoolchildren stems less from any pedagogical theory he has embraced than from his core belief that the world is too tough a place for people who lack basic skills, and that every child must be given the best chance possible to gain those skills.
"My experience is that in the real world there is opportunity for everybody if you work hard, and more opportunity the more skills you have," Mr. Bloomberg said. "Those who think that you can get something for nothing are wrong."
It is that type of results-oriented reasoning that fueled that mayor's own success in the private sector, and is perhaps informed by the bare-knuckled world of Wall Street where the toughest and best equipped for adversity tend to succeed.
"When you get into society, it is a competitive place and only becoming more so," Mr. Bloomberg said. "And when you get a job or are going to raise a family or be part of society, you need to have these skills,'' he said. He also said that as he visits schools around the city, he has heard overwhelming support for the change from teachers.
As far back as the mayoral campaign, Mr. Bloomberg hinted at his thoughts on the matter, saying children who could not read or lacked other basic skills should be sent to summer school or face other options. "Weekend, vacations, summer - time off is a luxury earned, not a right," he said at the time.
In spring 2002, on his weekly radio program, he continued the thought, saying that so-called social promotion ultimately resulted in the failure of children to succeed in the workplace as adults.
Then, shortly after gaining control of the schools through state legislation in 2002, Mr. Bloomberg gave a wide-ranging speech about his ideas for school reform that touched on the idea of ending social promotion policies. When his speechwriting team tried to remove a clause outlining his disdain for social promotion from the speech, Mr. Bloomberg insisted it go back in.
Between that time and this January, when Mr. Bloomberg formally announced his plans to end the automatic promotion of third graders, in a speech to the City Council, he had brought up the idea countless times with aides and education experts at the Education Department's headquarters in the Tweed Courthouse, he and his aides said yesterday.
The mayor could not cite a specific book or monograph that had influenced his fixation on ending the policy of promoting failing third graders, nor was there one person who really bent his thinking. It was rather, he said, endless rounds of conversations with education experts both in and outside of government right after he gained control of the schools; numerous studies and books ("I have read feet of books; you can come and see them"); and his belief about essential life skills that led him to push through a change to the policy through a combination of hardball tactics and sheer will.
But it is also true that his decision to end social promotion puts Mr. Bloomberg in line with conservatives, specifically the Bush administration, whose educational policies often grow out of tests. Mr. Bloomberg ran afoul of the administration with his chosen reading curriculum, and has been eager to please the White House ever since.
Further, the mayor's policy change will prevent the worst-performing students from moving into the important fourth-grade testing pool, a crucial benchmark of how well the schools are doing in the year he will seek re-election, although reports of those tests will probably note that change.
"He wants to make sure that the kids who cannot pass that exam do not make it to the fourth grade," said Borough President C. Virginia Fields of Manhattan, who opposed the policy change. "Because it is his claim politically that he is going to stake his re-election on making improvements in the schools."
In response to Ms. Fields's critique, Mr. Bloomberg's aides yesterday quickly trotted out news clips that chronicled her own effort to oust her appointed member to the old Board of Education when that appointee, Irving S. Hamer Jr., cast a decisive vote for a new board president she did not approve of.
What really seemed to gall Mr. Bloomberg was that two of his appointees to the advisory panel did not seem to stand firm enough either way. Another appointee, Augusta Souza Kappner, remained on the panel and voted against the mayor, a nonevent in the end since the policy change passed 8 to 5. (Mr. Bloomberg had resisted the idea of an advisory panel from the beginning, but the State Legislature had forced him to accept it in exchange for gaining mayoral control of the schools.)
Two people close to the mayor theorized that Ms. Souza, the president of the Bank Street College of Education, had such impressive educational credentials that dismissing her would have been imprudent. Further, he no longer needed her vote after removing two other members and seeing that the Staten Island borough president had unseated his choice on the panel.
"She was against it from the very beginning," Mr. Bloomberg said of Ms. Souza. "And I didn't need the vote. In the case of the two women who resigned, one said, 'I don't want to have people yelling at me in the street,' and she was crying. One said she would resign anyway, and we didn't need the other one. I wish everybody had stayed around, but if you think about the alternative, that would have been unconscionable: the mayor had the ability to effect the change and didn't use the legal options available to him."
|produced by Naava Katz Design|