09/01/2011 05:14 pm ET | Updated Nov 01, 2011

New York Matters: Mayoral Control and Denial

What happens in the New York City school system has national implications because the city has been a testing ground for the so-called new reforms -- greater testing and accountability by using annual standardized state tests to evaluate students, teachers, principals, and schools; charter school; closing, not improving, failing schools; mayoral control; lack of collaboration with teachers and parents -- that are now at the heart of the Obama administration's education agenda.

It is important for the nation to know that this past year was a very disillusioning one; the wheels came off of Children First Mayor Michael Bloomberg's education initiative. There were many troubling developments: the bursting of the test scores bubble; three school chancellors; and the finding by that state that, in essence, the city was practicing social promotion, in this case, graduating students even though a high percentage lacked the skills to be successful in college or work. By the end of the school year, polls showed a sizable percentage of New Yorkers disapproved of the mayor's handling of the schools and of mayoral control.

These and other developments of the last year are significant; they tell us much about the shortcomings of Children First. They also reveal the mindset of the mayor and the dangers of unchecked mayoral control.

It wasn't long ago that Children First seemed to be working. From 2006 to 2009, the city's students scores on the state's annual standardized testing of third through eighth graders dramatically increased. Most of the public and all of the New York media accepted the results as proof that the mayor's reforms were working. The mayor called the scores "an enormous victory." But some educators, especially Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University, denounced the state scores as a "fraud" because the nation's report card, the National Assessment of Education Progress, showed much less progress in math and almost no progress in reading.

Nevertheless, the increase in state scores won the mayor an invitation to the White House. On May 7, 2009, he briefed President Obama on Children First. Afterwards, at a press conference outside the White House, Bloomberg said, "I tried to impress on the president that if the rest of the country wants to actually improve the performance of their schools system, this, I think, is a blueprint."

It was a heady moment for the mayor, but that turned out to be the high point for Children First. A year later, the July, 2010 state test scores were dramatically lower; the testing score bubble burst especially in reading, the foundational skill. Only 42 percent of city students passed the reading exam compared to two-thirds in 2009.

The bad news was broad, the racial achievement gap grew, and charter schools' reading rates dropped by a third, which was more than the drop in the regular public schools. Merryl Tisch, the chancellor of the state Board of Regents that oversees K-12 education, told the New York 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."

What had changed in 2010? The state education department, finally responded to growing criticism that the state tests had become easier and easier hired an expert on testing. Harvard Professor Daniel Koretz found that score inflation or higher scores was probably caused by excessive test preparation, predictability of test questions, and lower "cut scores" (the minimum passing score) not by increased learning by students. In response, the state made the tests less predictable and raised the cut scores for passing.

Bloomberg, a full year later, was still in denial. According to the website Gotham Schools, on July 22, 2011, the mayor, making his weekly appearance on WOR's John Gambling Show, said, "The schools are dramatically better... The state, for whatever reason, the Regents, changed the definition of what they call proficiency."

The broad and growing disapproval of the mayor and his policies really took off last November when we experienced what can only be called "The Chancellor Cathleen Black Debacle." When former Chancellor Joel Klein resigned, it presented the mayor with an opportunity to conduct a nationwide search for a replacement. The mayor would have met a variety of people with different ideas for reforming public education. But as the mayor wrote in his autobiography, Bloomberg by Bloomberg, "I too think I can do everything better than anyone else." He mainly looked in the mirror and came up with Cathie Black, a Hearst magazine executive.

Parents were some of the first to express their displeasure with her lack of any experience in education and that she and her family lived in a cocoon: Park Avenue penthouse, home in East Hampton, and boarding schools for the children. When a radio reporter told the mayor that parents were rejecting Chancellor Black, he snapped back, "What do they know?"

The parents turned out to be right, Black lasted three months, but apparently Bloomberg wasn't impressed. On the Gambling radio show this past May 20, he said,"Unfortunately there are some parents who just come from -- they never had a formal education, and they don't understand the value of education." He continued, "The old Norman Rockwell family is gone." This demeaning attitude, which some educators share, is not only outrageous in its condescension but it is wrong and damages the effort to educate all the children in this city.

I was a public school parent for 15 years and a parent leader for almost half that time, and I never met a parent who didn't understand the importance of education. What I did see was a school system that turned its back on parents desperate for training so that they could be helpful in the education of their children. Under former Chancellor Joel Klein, relations between the school system and parents became poisonous.

Two and a half months ago, on June 14, the mayor hit a new low when he announced that an all-time high of 65 percent of students graduated on time, up from 47 percent in 2005. He said, "No one could have predicted in their wildest dreams that we would be this successful."

Unfortunately for the mayor, Tisch, chancellor of the state Regents, was delivering what she called, "useful truths." She announced, on the same day, that only 21 percent of those graduates were prepared for college or the world of work.

Such useful truths and the mayor's refusal to face reality have damaged his credibility. The July 27 Quinnipiac University Poll found that 58 percent of all New Yorkers disapprove, and only 32 percent approve, of the way Bloomberg is handling the public schools. The poll broke out numbers for public school parents and found that a whopping 69 percent disapprove and only 29 percent approve of the mayor's performance. And an earlier poll in May had found that voters believe by 57 -- 23 percent, over 2 to 1, that "the mayor's takeover of the public schools has been mainly a failure rather than a success."

Mayor Bloomberg will be in charge of the schools and its $23.8 billion budget, up from $17.7 billion in 2002, according to Ray Domanico of the Independent Budget Office, for almost another two and a half school years. With such broad public rejection of his leadership and his version of mayoral control, the legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo need to start the process of revising mayoral control. And they need to start now. We can't ask 1.1 million children to continue to be part of a failing experiment and wait until January 2014, the end of the mayor's term.

And the rest of the nation needs to search out and listen to the critics of the so-called new reforms; the Obama administration calls its version Race to the Top. I say search out because the wealthy and powerful advocates -- billionaire foundation heads, wealthy newspaper publishers, hedge fund managers, and a billionaire mayor and other elected officials -- of the "new reforms" have been able to dominate the education reform debate. They have been able to advance their damaging agenda even though the program has failed in New York and Chicago, and the National Academies of Science in May released a 10-year study that found little progress and many problems with the test-based accountability system of education reform.