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Bloomberg/Klein Failure in NYC Matters to the Country

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New York City Mayor Bloomberg's removal of Chancellor Joel Klein and attempt -- opposition is growing -- to replace him with Cathie Black, the former CEO of Hearst Magazines, raises so many important K-12 education issues for the country. First and foremost it shows that Klein is a tarnished symbol of what is really Bloomberg's failing high stakes standardized test driven education agenda. New Yorkers have learned during the past four months that the "amazing" progress touted by the mayor is a myth and that the mayor and the chancellor knew this for the past three years.

But it isn't only Klein and Bloomberg who want to keep the myth alive it is also important for President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan. That's because the Obama Administration's education agenda, including the Race to the Top, is very similar to Bloomberg and Klein's free market, business oriented approach. And it too is also losing public support.

Duncan seized the resignation as an opportunity to write an op-ed in the Daily News of NY that was an over the top salute to Klein and to subliminally bolster his own agenda. But reaction from parents, teachers, and numerous public officials, who often defer to the mayor, has been critical of Klein and Bloomberg and the mayor's selection of Black.

The selection process revealed a great deal about the shortcomings of mayoral control of schools, especially as it was designed by Bloomberg, and how the mayor abuses his almost total control of the school system. First, there was almost no selection process and what little there was went on behind closed doors. This mayor believes in autocratic control and has no tolerance for any democratic checks and balances. He also believes, as he stated in his autobiography, Bloomberg on Bloomberg, "I too think I can do everything better than anyone else... I've admitted there's a slim chance that ideas coming from others could be valuable as well."

The second major problem is with Black who the mayor picked without even consulting Klein. Black may be an exceptionally capable corporate CEO and member of the IBM and Coca-Cola boards but there is almost nothing in her background that suggests any interest in public service much less public education. She went to parochial schools, she sent her children to private boarding schools, and she is a socially prominent resident of the Upper East Side. Her only contact with public education was her participation in principal-for-a-day and since July she has been a member of a charter school board but has yet to attend a meeting.

The mayor is comfortable with her corporate and social background but he could hardly have found someone with less knowledge and experience in public education. But maybe that's the point; she doesn't even know what she doesn't know. Black is likely to become the de facto COO of the system and take orders from the mayor, the real CEO of the schools; she'll work with and rely on the staff already in place thus continuing the mayor's agenda even though it is losing credibility.

And why would Black, at age 66, want such a thankless job for which she's unqualified? Even though she is still temporarily connected to Hearst Magazines as chairwoman she was basically kicked upstairs this summer to help in the transition of a new president and CEO. No doubt feeling down about no longer being a CEO, she told the New York Post gossip columnist, Cindy Adams, after receiving Bloomberg's job offer, "The opportunity made me feel fantastic. It's a great thing when, at a certain stage in life, you can be able to deal up... not down."

If -- the if grows bigger every day as reporters chase Black around town as though she was Sharron Angle of Nevada -- she is given a waiver for her lack of experience and credentials by the state commissioner of education she will inherit a school system from Klein that suffered a major setback this July when the standardized test score bubble blew up. All the talk for the past three years about progress in grades three through eight came to be seen as empty rhetoric. Gone are the halcyon days of May 2009 when Bloomberg was informing President Obama at the White Office and then afterward the press, "The results are there. We are going in the right direction and I tried to impress on the President that if the rest of the country wants to actually improve the performance of their school system, this, I think, is a blueprint for exactly what you can do."

But we learned this summer, because of actions taken by the new state commissioner of education, David Steiner, who didn't want the test score bubble to blow up on his watch, that we aren't going in the right direction. He contracted with a Harvard professor, Daniel Koretz, who is an expert on testing to evaluate the state exams for grades three through eight. A year later, after receiving a scathing report from Koretz, the state stopped administering tests that had been made easy.

This summer the test score bubble burst when dramatic declines in test scores were announced. And then the New York Times in October finally weighed in with a highly critical news analysis that found that warning signs, that the scores were inflated and that the progress was mostly illusory, had been ignored by state and city officials for three years. The head of the state school board, Merryl Tisch, told the Times, "We came in here saying we have to stop lying to our kids... We have to be able to know what they do and do not know."

So much for progress in grades three through eight, this leaves the mayor and the chancellor talking about rising high school graduation rates as a key indicator of their successful reform and management of the school system. But as a high school teacher I see so many problems with the Regents exams -- it's another test score bubble -- that are required for graduation. On both social studies exams enough answers are given in so-called document based questions that one student, whose test I corrected, failed both essays and the multiple choice questions but got 12 of the 13 document based short answer questions correct and passed the exam.

Also, there has always been a built in conflict of interest with teachers correcting the tests of the students at their high schools. There understandably was a tendency to give your own students the benefit of the doubt but now with high stakes testing, where schools can be closed based on Regents exam scores, there's greater pressure to pass students.

And what does the state do to monitor the scoring of the Regents exams? Surprisingly little. According to a 2009 audit by the state comptroller, "Oversight of Scoring Practices on Regents Examinations," the state education department (SED) has identified "significant inaccuracies by local school districts... (that) tended to inflate the academic performance of students and schools." The audit went on to say, "Despite the seriousness of the review team findings... there was little evidence that SED took action."

And there's the local diploma, as opposed to the Regents diploma, that is conferred even if a student receives a score of 55 percent on two Regents exams. Current plans call for the local diploma to be phased out and the passing score to be raised to the more common 65 percent on all five exams. The problem is that 33 percent of black graduates, 31 percent of Hispanic graduates, 50 percent of students with special needs, and 48 percent of English Language Learners who graduated in New York State in 2008 did so with a local diploma. If the local diploma is phased out graduation rates will fall off of a cliff especially in New York City.

The mayor has not only made ineffective and damaging changes to the schools but he has also thrown money at the problem. During his two terms spending has skyrocketed from $14 billion to $22 billion and the schools are still making, at best, the meager progress that they were before he instituted many changes that turned out not to be reforms. New Yorkers should demand that Mayor Bloomberg start a new search for a school leader with a vision and a plan that can truly guarantee every child a 21st century education. And the rest of the country should resist New York City's expensive and demoralizing model of school change that the Obama administration is pressuring Congress to adopt.