NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 13, 2009

Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, has urged the nation's mayors to take control of their public schools so that they can impose radical reforms.  He points to New York City as a prime example of a school system that made sharp improvements under mayoral control. 

No mayor has exercised such unlimited power over the public schools as New York City's Michael Bloomberg.  His allies say that the results of the current system are so spectacular that the law should be renewed without change.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan agrees: "I'm looking at the data here in front of me," he said while in New York. "Graduation rates are up.  Test scores are up ... By every measure, that's real progress."

It sounds good, but in fact no independent source has verified such claims, says Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University:

  • On the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- widely acknowledged as the gold standard of the testing industry -- New York City showed almost no academic improvement between 2003, when the mayor's reforms were introduced, and 2007.
  • There were no significant gains for New York City's students -- black, Hispanic, white, Asian or lower-income -- in fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade reading or eighth-grade mathematics.
  • In fourth-grade math, pupils showed significant gains (although the validity of this is suspect because an unusually large proportion -- 25 percent -- of students were given extra time and help).
  • The federal test reported no narrowing of the achievement gap between white students and minority students.

The graduation rate is another area in which progress has been overstated, says Ravitch:

  • The city says the rate climbed to 62 percent from 53 percent between 2003 and 2007; the state's Department of Education, which uses a different formula, says the city's rose to 52 percent, from 44 percent.
  • Either way, the city's graduation rate is no better than that of Mississippi, which spends about a third of what New York City spends per pupil.

Not every school problem can be solved by changes in governance.  But to establish accountability, transparency and the legitimacy that comes with public participation, the Legislature should act promptly to restore public oversight of public education, says Ravitch.

Source: Diane Ravitch, "Mayor Bloomberg's Crib Sheet," New York Times, April 10, 2009.

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