The Bloomberg administration in New York City made national headlines in March 2004 when the Mayor unilaterally decided to end social promotion. He told the city’s “Panel on Educational Policy” (the successor to the once-powerful Board of Education which Bloomberg turned into a toothless group) that students should not be promoted if they scored at the lowest level on the state tests. Bloomberg controlled the eight votes on the 13-member panel, and he told his appointees to approve his new policy. Two of them expressed doubts, suggesting that more thought was needed before implementing this change, more attention to what supports the students needed. The Mayor fired them on the day of the vote, and arranged the firing of a third member of the panel appointed by another elected official. The night of the panel’s meeting was tumultuous, as protesters shouted and objected. That evening was memorialized among activists as “the Monday Night Massacre.”
Mayor Bloomberg defended his decision: “Mayoral control means mayoral control, thank you very much. They are my representatives, and they are going to vote for things that I believe in.” Never again did a mayoral appointee ever disagree with the mayor’s orders. The Panel on Education Policy officially became a rubber stamp for the Mayor, and the “chancellor” no more than his mouthpiece.
In the first year of the policy’s implementation, nearly 12, 000 kids were flunked. As time went on, implementation of the policy was spotty. High school teachers still complained about students reading at a fourth grade level. And, the remediation rate at the City University of New York remained stubbornly high as the students schooled on Bloomberg’s watch arrived. Currently, about half of all those who enter CUNY require remediation. Most tellingly, 80% of the city’s high school graduates who enter community college require remediation in reading, writing, or mathematics. So, no one believed that “no social promotion” was a reality.
All that is context to a stunning decision that appeared in the press two days ago: The mayor is changing his hard line on social promotion. He has decided that principals may now have flexibility to decide whether to hold back students a third time and whether to hold back students who are already two years older than their classmates. There is even talk of added resources for the schools with large numbers of overage students.
Bear in mind that the mayor has now been sole proprietor of the New York City public schools since June 2002. And that “no social promotion” was one of the hallmarks of his reign. And that the New York City Department of Education has issued press release after press release boasting of its unheralded triumphs. And that the Mayor is known for never acknowledging an error. And that the publicity campaign for the “historic” achievements of the New York City public schools under his leadership was in high gear throughout the past decade, winning stories in every major news outlet. And that the collapse of the city’s claims about test scores in the summer of 2010 (after the state admitted that all the state scores were vastly inflated) popped the city’s bubble. And that Mayor Bloomberg to this day has never acknowledged that the “miracle” was a mirage. And that New York City has been a model for the national “reform” movement because of the city’s undemocratic governance structure for education, its alleged achievements, and its unbridled enthusiasm for choice. Reformers especially like the Mayor’s total control of the policymaking machinery, which make it easy to ignore parent and community protests, like the one that occurred at the Monday Night Massacre. Democracy has a nasty habit of getting in the way of “reform.”
Thus, the Mayor’s decision to modify the “no social promotion” policy is huge. Granted, it is a small step, but nonetheless this may mark the first time that the city (i.e., the Mayor) has admitted, however obliquely, a problem of his own creation. That is historic.