Marc Epstein has been teaching in the public schools for almost two decades.His articles on school violence, curriculum, and testing have appeared in most of the New York papers, the Washington Post, Education Next, and City Journal. He is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.
Public Education And The Next Mayor
—Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence: John Adams
With less than six months to go in his tenure, Michael Bloomberg is intent on chiseling his overhaul of the New York City schools in stone. Bloomberg’s control of the schools is unprecedented. He has enjoyed absolute suzerainty over the largest public school system in the country, with increased expenditures of over $120 billion dollars over the past eleven years. There was no board of education to veto his administrative restructurings, question no-bid contracts, or approve his choice of chancellors to oversee the day-to-day operation of the school system.
So with his reputation as the consummate entrepreneur on the line, it comes as no surprise that Bloomberg would craft a Pharonic dynastic history of sorts to validate his radical overhaul of the school system at such great cost to the taxpayers.
This past May, Javier Hernandez of the New York Times reported that Dennis Walcott, the schools chancellor, warned that the school system risked falling into disarray should any of the Democratic candidates for mayor dare to tinker with Bloomberg’s reforms. “Halting the momentum of this extraordinary transformation would be a tragedy,” Walcott suggested to an audience of over a thousand school administrators gathered at Brooklyn Technical High School.
In the same article Hernandez stated that the schools’ chief academic officer Shael Polakow-Suransky was so distraught that a rollback of Bloomberg’s policies by his successor might be in the offing, that he phoned Kaya Henderson, the head of the Washington D.C. schools, to ask her advice.
Why someone so convinced of the rightness of his actions would consult the successor to Michelle Rhee is something of a puzzle. After all since Rhee’s departure a series of embarrassing accusations and investigations, including massive administrative doctoring of test results, has tarnished the Rhee miracle.
And this brings us to the crux of the matter. Will the next mayor have a realistic comprehension of what the consequences of the Bloomberg education reforms are and how profoundly the school system has been transformed under his tenure?
The problems the new mayor will face are exacerbated by the sui generis nature of Bloomberg’s mayoralty. Bloomberg, listed by Forbes as the 10th wealthiest person in America, campaigned on the promise that he couldn’t be bought. He kept his word.
But he didn’t promise to refrain from using his checkbook to get his way when the normal give and take of city politics didn’t get the results he wanted. In a remarkably harsh expose that ran close to 2,500 words in the New York Post, Tom Robbins documented Bloomberg’s use of “coercive” philanthropy to buy both the silence and support of various NGO’s and politicians.
“ ‘No one will ever know everything Mike Bloomberg did with his money,’ said a political expert who has seen the mayor reach for his wallet more than once.
What we do know is this: When it comes to the flow of private mayoral cash into the arenas of politics and civic need, the Bloomberg years have been a true hundred-year flood, one that often ran through subterranean channels, invisible to the public or the press. And unlike Hurricane Sandy, the Bloomberg money superstorm is unlikely ever to be repeated.
The next mayor — whoever it is — won’t have that kind of deep-pocketed backup plan at his or her fingertips when the going gets rough.”
That is why a rehearsing of the state of affairs prior to, and after Bloomberg’s ascension and takeover of the largest bureaucracy in the state, without the fog of Bloomberg’s massive public relations machine, with an assist from his own news empire Bloomberg News, is essential to the very life of the city as it moves forward into the post-Bloomberg era.
Within six months of taking office Bloomberg gained state approval for mayoral control of the nation’s largest school system.
Bloomberg’s reorganization is the most radical in the history of the public schools. It is the exemplar of the “creative destruction” theory that was a staple of our business schools in the 1980s. It assumes nothing in the old system worked or was worth saving.
Despite its enormous problems and dysfunction, the vast New York school system had components that functioned efficiently. In fact, educational professionals, as opposed to the education “experts” operating out of the universities, created and ran innovative programs throughout the city with positive results.
Often the problem was translating the local successes into citywide programs, because the local community districts operated like autonomous duchies immune to outside suggestion. The five high school districts under the chancellor’s direct control had skilled administrators who knew how to staff and run New York’s high schools on a citywide scale. While the poor graduation rates remained, they had less to do with the quality of teaching and administration and more to do with an accumulation of failed public and education policy and the breakdown of the nuclear family among what is now referred to as the underclass.
But as a result of Bloomberg’s assumptions and philosophy of how to get things right, all institutional memory was purposefully shattered.
The mayor openly announced that the deliberations of his new team would be conducted in secrecy. When critics suggested that you couldn’t apply the same business model to a then thirteen billion-dollar a year public school system as you would to a high tech start-up, he reminded them that this was the way he ran his company, and the reform of the schools would be his major legacy.
Reform after reform was rolled out: ending social promotion in the third grade; a “Leadership Academy” headed by GE’s Jack Welch, and supported by private donations, to train new principals. And in keeping with Bloomberg’s managerial philosophy, candidates with little or no education experience were encouraged to apply.
In 2003 thirty-two local school districts and the five high school districts were eliminated in favor of ten mega regions, drawn without regard to the geographical integrity of neighborhoods.
When it came to instructional content, Joel Klein opted for a barely disguised “whole language” program promoted by the progressive left wing of the educational establishment. Bloomberg retreated from his campaign pledge to eliminate bilingual education, ensuring that a city school system inhabited by the greatest wave of new arrivals since the turn of the 20th century would be subjected to the failed nostrums of the 1970s once again.
But the main result of the fabled reorganization was mainly chaos, removing competent administrators without bothering to train their replacements. The most obvious sign of the system’s near collapse was the school safety issue. The reformers dismantled the high school hearing process for the worst offenders and replaced it with nothing. The inevitable explosion of violence in the schools produced embarrassing headlines in the tabloids. In panic, Bloomberg flooded the worst schools with police and declared that he would have a “cop for every kid” if that is what it took to ensure safety.
When the mayor admitted he had taken advice from the wrong people, the editorials lauded Bloomberg’s “the buck stops here” attitude. What went unmentioned was the hurried call to certain administrators who were shown the door and brought back to recreate what had just been smashed.
Since institutional memory is an anathema to revolutionaries, long-time administrators either retired or were pushed out. Record numbers of retirements, often in the middle of the school year, signaled the success of these administrative purges.
Other parts of the system were left in equally bad shape. When thousands of special education students were left unevaluated, the blame was placed on the inability of one person, the school psychologist, to move as fast as the dismantled three-member evaluation panels had done before. No consideration was given to the myriad of state and federal regulations that make this process a nightmare at best. When the New York Times chronicled this fiasco in a 3800-word front-page story by Michael Winerip, Chancellor Klein’s office claimed that new efficiencies took time to implement.
This kind of overhaul for a bureaucracy servicing over 1 million children and employing almost 135,000 people would be enough to make any organization rock back on its foundation and take a decent passage of time to digest and reconfigure its operating procedures, but it turns out that this reorganization was just the appetizer at Bloomberg’s bureaucratic bacchanalia.
Four years later, Klein reshuffled the organizational chart and eliminated the ten mega-regions. The new order was supposed to increase the authority of the over one thousand principals in the system over their budgets. Rather than having a superintendent guide a cluster of schools, the school would pick a “network” to mentor and guide them. Some of the networks answered to not-for-profit organizations, further blurring the line between government and non-government organizations.
The networks weren’t confined to contiguous geographic areas and, instead, administered schools throughout the city. If you could have cloud computing, why couldn’t you have cloud administration as well? It doesn’t take an operations research expert to recognize that the proliferation of parallel institutions with ill-defined roles was quickly overwhelming the system. This made audit and accountability a nightmare for any successor who wants to understand the flow and distribution of funds and the responsibility for who actually performed what task.
Not content with the results, Klein ordered another reorganization in 2010. Principals were told that the School Support Organizations and Integrated Service Centers created in 2007 were out of business, and the Children First Networks would now serve the entire system!
If you attempted to write an internal institutional history of the reforms you would face an insurmountable take. You’d do better if you imagined that you are the FBI investigating the forensic trail of how monies were spent, and just who was responsible for spending it, in a multi-billion dollar conglomerate that kept reincorporating and renaming a series of shell corporations over a period of a decade.
Which finally brings us to the purpose of this grand design, the children. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein pointed to test scores and data to validate the fortunes of taxpayer dollars spent and to justify the shattering of the old bureaucracy. Year after year, the city’s Department of Education released glowing reports of student progress on state tests that satisfied those who neither knew nor cared much about what was actually taking place.
It all came crashing down when outside pressure forced the state to conduct an audit of state tests by testing expert Daniel Koretz of Harvard. On July 19, 2010, State Education Commissioner Steiner issued a preliminary report based on Koretz’s findings, which revealed that the jump in state test-score results over the past four years was too good to be true. “It is very likely that some of the state’s progress was illusory,” Koretz concluded. Improved test results didn’t mean that more students were adequately prepared for high school or college.
Only more bad news has followed. Even the New York Post, a longtime supporter of the Bloomberg reforms and a part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire which is now the current employer of Joel Klein, admitted as much in an April 21, 2013 editorial titled Spotlight on Failure:
“But even without the new tests the facts of failure are becoming impossible to ignore.
Last Year 79.3% of the public high-school grads who enrolled in CUNY’s community colleges had to take remedial classes in math, reading or writing because they fail basic qualification exams.”
If all this weren’t bad enough, the consequences of the decision to destroy the neighborhood comprehensive high schools and replace them with small schools inside the old buildings that were decoupled from the community has yet to be fully felt.
Klein, much like Robert Moses, who in a bygone era, tore through the neighborhoods of the Bronx in order to install an expressway to the George Washington Bridge, justified killing off the neighborhood high schools based on the unfounded whim and monies of Bill Gates, who thought this experiment would turn inner-city graduation rates around.
When Gates abandoned the project and stopped funding it nationwide, Klein remained undeterred, pointing to New York’s remarkable progress, based on what we now know to be phony test scores and inflated graduation rates, boosted by “credit recovery,” in which a student gains a semester of credit by showing up for only a few days of classes. Though Klein is long gone, the mayor continues, even in the waning days of his term, to complete the destruction of these once great institutions, circumventing a court order to place “new schools” inside of those schools that fought and won an injunction against the closures.
In a report just issued by NYU’s Steinhardt School, entitled
Moving the Needle-Exploring Key Levers to Boost College Readiness Among Black and Latino Males in New York City, the abject failure of over a decade of Bloomberg’s reforms can be summed up in these two sentences:
“In New York City, while graduation rates have increased dramatically over the last decade, college readiness rates remain troublingly low, especially for young men of color. Among students scheduled to graduate in 2010, for example, only 9 percent of Black males and 11 percent of Latino males graduated college ready.”
One would think, as the facts and the weight of evidence piled up, that a more critical eye would have been cast by the Fourth Estate on this radical exercise in social engineering. So what accounts for the broad-based uncritical support for Bloomberg’s initiatives from observers of the New York scene as diverse as the editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal, The Daily News, and The New York Post?
In part, the litany of failure and political upheaval of the past decades has exhausted and desensitized observers and made a nuanced critique of public education all but impossible. As the kaleidoscope of New York has reconfigured, a more attenuated chattering class removed from life on the streets of New York’s working class and its schools has evolved.
Today New York’s schools are filled with new arrivals, strivers, and a low achieving underclass. Few of the parents read New York’s papers, and when they do they are written in Spanish, Chinese, Urdu, and Bengali. The latest studies indicate that over half of New York’s inhabitants don’t speak English as their first language, and close to ninety percent of the city’s cab drivers are immigrants.
The press believes that Bloomberg’s efforts are in the best tradition of progressive noblesse oblige, with the added attraction of “the bottom line.” While the screw-ups are duly reported, the editorials echo the “work in progress” and “Rome wasn’t built in a day” defense for the myriad of blunders.
If Michael Bloomberg’s plan was to open the door to privatizing public education and replacing what remained with non-government run, though taxpayer supported, charter schools, the chaos and abysmal performance over the past ten years have been cunningly successful.
But if his objective was to bequeath to his successor something more than a mortally wounded public school system, then he has been an abject failure.