When former businessman Michael Bloomberg took control of New York City’s public schools in June, 1992 he pledged to give the taxpayers a bigger bang for their education bucks. And in a January, 2003 speech that introduced his new reforms, Mayor Bloomberg promised that student achievement would improve without even having to spend more money on the schools.
There’s now enough data to judge whether the mayor has delivered on those promises. On the spending side of the ledger the gains have certainly been historic. In six years the city’s education budget has soared from $12.7 billion to $21 billion, even as student enrollment declined by 5%. Per-pupil expenditures are over $20,000 and closing in on wealthy suburban districts. The extra $8 billion has paid for across-the-board pay raises of 43% for teachers, even bigger increases for administrators and central staff, the hiring of thousands of extra teachers (producing a 12 to 1 student/teacher ratio) and the equivalent of 15 extra days of school.
The additional funding also underwrites the biggest public relations and marketing operation in the history of public education. The education department’s press office has 15 full time employees, compared to 3 under the previous administration and 8 or 9 in the U.S. Department of Education’s press office. But that’s apparently not enough to get Mayor Bloomberg’s message out. So last year he recruited some of his wealthy friends to underwrite a multi-million dollar media campaign trumpeting his administration’s education achievements. The donations are passed through the Fund for Public Schools, controlled by Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. The ad campaign has cost $3.5 million so far, and a new TV and radio spot pronouncing that the latest gains in test scores are “amazing” will cost another million dollars.
Contrary to the mayor’s public relations blitz, however, it is hard to find reliable evidence of dramatic improvements in student achievement. According to the federal NAEP tests — regarded by education scholars as “the nation’s report card” — city students had no statistically significant gains from 2003-2007 in fourth and eighth grade reading and eighth grade math, and modest improvements in fourth grade math. The lack of progress in three out of four of the NAEP benchmark tests was true for white, black, Asian and Hispanic students.
Stung by these disappointing results the Bloomberg PR machine has tried to muddy the waters about NAEP as a valid assessment tool. But even the state report card preferred by the administration reveals a yawning gap between what Mayor Bloomberg promised and what has been delivered. In his recent press conference claiming tremendous progress on the state tests, Bloomberg distributed charts showing that the percentage of city students achieving proficiency since 2002 rose by 27.7 points in fourth grade math; 29.8 points in eighth grade math; 14.8 points in fourth grade reading; 13.5 points in eighth grade reading. The charts are surely impressive, except that they are based on a statistical sleight of hand. Mayor Bloomberg has appropriated outsized one year gains that occurred in all four tests between 2002-2003. Those gains should be credited to the previous education administration.
Here’s why: Bloomberg took office on January 1, 2002, but didn’t win control of the schools until June 12th of that year. Chancellor Klein wasn’t appointed until August, and then spent the rest of the 2002 calendar year creating task forces to advise the new administration on how to reform the schools. By the time the administration announced its restructuring plans early in 2003, the students were taking the state’s 2003 tests. For half of the 12 month period between the 2002 and the 2003 state tests the schools were under the direction of Chancellor Harold Levy. For the rest of that period the system was still operating under the old structure and with the same curriculum. In fact, the Bloomberg reforms were not put into place until September, 2003.
After subtracting the 2002-2003 gains from Bloomberg’s column the actual improvements on the state tests over the next five years look considerably less robust — a 13 point gain in fourth grade math, 25 points in eighth grade math (fueled by a spectacular one year gain throughout the state in 2008) 9 points in fourth grade reading, and 10.5 points in eighth grade reading. The city’s previous two education administrations actually had higher percentage gains in fourth grade reading and fourth grade math. Moreover, the city’s test score improvements are no larger than those achieved in school districts around the state that haven’t adopted the Bloomberg reforms.
Bloomberg’s failure to raise reading achievement in the early grades is particularly unsettling, since proficiency in reading is the motor that drives children’s future academic progress. The single biggest problem besetting urban school districts is dismally low reading outcomes. Leave aside the flat NAEP scores during the Bloomberg years. Even on state tests driven by NCLB pressures to push children across lowered proficiency barriers, the city’s average improvement in fourth and eighth grade reading has barely reached 2 percentage points per year since the mayor announced his reforms. This failure to make progress in reading is likely due to the wrong turn taken by Chancellor Klein in September 2003, when he imposed an unproven reading program called Balanced Literacy on all schools.
It has been shocking to me that so many business leaders and education reformers have accepted these mediocre outcomes as a reasonable return on the Bloomberg administration’s enormous financial investment in the schools. It’s even more astonishing that, based on this record, the Bloomberg approach is being widely touted as the answer for other troubled inner city school districts. It’s understandable that some reformers want to believe in the power of Bloomberg’s market incentives to improve schools. But at some point the children who are being told they are making “amazing” progress by the Bloomberg spin machine are likely to run into an academic brick wall. Those education reformers who blindly accepted the spin on test scores will then also have lost credibility.