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Arlene M. Roberts

Arlene M. Roberts

Posted: March 19, 2008 02:47 PM

On Reform and Mayoral Control of New York City's Public Schools


"Incentives", "performance pay" and "rewards" are the buzz words that seem to go hand in hand with any discussion about education reform in New York City public schools. As the focus shifts to mayoral control in a post-Bloomberg administration, the recurring question is whether or to what extent mayoral control should be extended. Central to any discussion on reform is the trifecta of curriculum content, student performance and parental involvement.

Several days ago, I attended a spirited debate hosted by the New School's Center for New York City Affairs. The topic of discussion was, "Who Controls the Schools? Mayoral Control After Bloomberg". The timing of the discussion is prescient. The School Governance Law, which granted control of the school system to the Mayor, is set to expire on June 30, 2009. The hallmark of the Mayor's education reform can best be characterized as, "he introduced accountability to the school system".

At the forum, supporters and proponents of Mayor Bloomberg's approach - especially Schools Chancellor Joel Klein - stressed 'bold leadership' as an essential element for reform. The Chancellor hastened to point out that the Mayor's model has been so successful it is being adopted and implemented in Washington, DC and Los Angeles by Mayors Fenty and Villaraigosa, respectively.

Last month the Community Services Society of New York released "The Unheard Third", an annual survey of low-income New Yorkers. The survey reveals New Yorkers support efforts to lower the dropout rate in public education. Furthermore, New Yorkers are more likely this year to give public schools a grade of A or B than in 2005 or 2006; less than a quarter give public schools a D or F.

As the debate over mayoral control unfolds, it is imperative that quality of education and curriculum remain central to the discussion. In his book, "Savage Inequalities - Children in America's Schools", author Jonathan Kozol points to the disparities in average expenditures per pupil from school district to district and, in some cases, even within the same district - Riverdale versus South Bronx, for example. In the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the court found that segregated education was unconstitutional because it was "inherently unequal".

Yet some fifty years later, many of these challenges persist as educators grapple with novel solutions to improving schools. New York City is a pioneer in the 'pay for performance' movement wherein students are awarded cash prizes for outstanding performance in standardized tests, in some cases up to $50. Principals and students are likewise eligible for bonuses based on students' performance on standardized tests.

Charter schools continue to emerge, devising innovative curriculum, a trend that hopefully will spill over into the arena of public school education. Chief among them is The Equity Project Charter School, slated to open in 2009 in Washington Heights where, in lieu of electives, all students will take Latin and music.

Supporters of mayoral control point to "accountability" as the benchmark for success. Vocal critics, however, label it arrogant, arguing that the "top-down" model of management excludes parental involvement.

As the discussion continues, safeguards should be put in place to ensure each child receives a quality education and parents have a voice in their children's educational process.

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