NYC Mayor Bloomberg's Education Reforms Stumble

fromWNYC

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made improving the city's public schools one of the guiding themes of his administration. He overhauled the management structure and invested more money in education. Soon he was boasting of impressive gains on state exams. But that progress appeared to vanish this year when the state raised its standards and made the tests much harder. Now many wonder if Bloomberg's gains were real.

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Since he took office in 2002, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has emphasized improving public education. For a while, it looked like Bloomberg's reforms had paid off. Test scores on state exams rose steadily. The mayor even boasted that New York was a model for the nation. But Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, got a rude awakening recently when those scores took a nosedive.

As WNYC's Beth Fertig reports, some are now wondering whether the improvements were real.

BETH FERTIG: As the principal of Middle School 325 in a low-income part of the Bronx with many immigrants, Patrick Kelly knew his students faced enormous obstacles. But they were showing steady progress on their state exams. That is, until this year, when the percentage of those who passed fell by more than 20 points, with fewer than 13 percent considered proficient in reading and writing.

Mr. PATRICK KELLY (Principal, Middle School 325): It's almost like you were at Yankee Stadium and you hit a ball, you know, 335 feet down the right field line - it would be a home run. If you hit it to center field, it would be an out. And so what we did was we hit the ball this year as far as we did last year, but it would be an out this year.

FERTIG: An out because New York State changed the rules on that metaphorical ball field. After candidly acknowledging that its tests had gotten too easy, the State Education Department required students to get more questions right this year than in previous years. Scores dropped by double digits throughout the state.

But in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has touted that his reforms have led to dramatic improvements, there was a lot of explaining.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (New York City): The line in orange with the triangles is New York City...

FERTIG: When the scores were released this summer, Mayor Bloomberg used several charts to put the numbers in the best possible light. He said the number of questions kids answered correctly didn't actually change at all since last year.

Mayor BLOOMBERG: If the test really turns out to be harder, the fact that the scores stayed the same is a great compliment to the teachers and to the principals and to the parents and, most importantly, to our students.

FERTIG: Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, argued that the improvements in New York City over the past eight years were real. The graduation rate went up. And Klein noted that scores on three out of four national math and reading tests rose more in New York City than in the rest of the state.

Mr. JOEL KLEIN (Chancellor, New York City Schools): And the rest of the nation had far smaller gains. Little known fact: Today in the fourth grade, New York City in both math and reading is at the same level as the nation, even though we have almost twice as many kids in poverty...

FERTIG: And a higher percentage of minorities and students who are still learning English, he added. But not everyone is so impressed.

Professor AARON PALLAS (Education and Sociology, Teachers College, Columbia University): I think it's fair to say that the progress that they claimed was far less than what actually we now know to have happened.

FERTIG: That's Aaron Pallas, a professor of education and sociology at Teachers College at Columbia University. Pallas notes that scores on the state exams were always much higher than on national tests. He blames that partly on the No Child Left Behind law, which required states to show annual progress or risk losing federal funds.

Prof. PALLAS: It's to New York's credit that they came out and said we no longer believe our old standards. They don't predict whether or not our kids will in fact be successful when they leave high school and move into college.

FERTIG: Pallas also wonders if the city should have seen more progress. Bloomberg added billions of dollars to the education budget, created a data system for tracking student achievement and built more than a hundred new charter schools. These reforms are now being embraced by the Obama administration, and other cities and states have adopted them.

But an even tougher test is coming as New York and other states move toward new national standards. The city is getting a jump-start by training its principals right away.

If this year's drop in test scores showed anything, it's how far the city really needs to go to meet these higher standards.

For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.

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