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Whitney Tilson

Whitney Tilson

Posted: February 16, 2011 07:12 AM

Along with Michelle Rhee, former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein is the best known of a new wave of reformers tackling one of our nation's most intractable problems: the overall mediocrity and, in some areas, outright failure of our public schools. Like Rhee, Klein moved aggressively to shake up the status quo and battled with those he viewed as defending it, so he too attracted many critics, most notably Diane Ravitch, but also New York City teacher Marc Epstein, who posts right here at the Huffington Post.

Epstein recently published an article arguing that New York City's public schools failed to improve during Klein's eight-year tenure and that therefore his reform agenda should be abandoned. I think Epstein's critique is dead wrong. While there's still much work to be done, enormous progress has been made. Given that many other reform-minded superintendents are adopting reforms similar to those Klein pushed for, it's critical to know if any progress was made in New York City during his tenure.

Epstein's key arguments are in these two paragraphs of his article:

We now know that New York City's gains on the state tests were illusory. The proportion passing the state reading tests fell from 68.8 percent to 42.4 percent, and Klein's beloved charter schools had pass rates no different from the regular public schools.

The inflated graduation rates have been exposed too. With the recent news that 75 percent of the high school graduates require remedial reading and math when they enter community college, the Klein Era diploma has been rendered meaningless. So ill prepared are these students that the percent who graduate from college is in the single digits.

Let's address what Epstein says (and doesn't say):

1) "We now know that New York City's gains on the state tests were illusory. The proportion passing the state reading tests fell from 68.8 percent to 42.4 percent..."

Facts: There's no doubt that, year after year, N.Y. state lowered the bar for what was considered passing -- engaging in a race to the bottom, like so many other states (which Bloomberg and Klein had nothing to do with). Huge credit to State Education Commissioner David Steiner and N.Y. Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who raised the bar last year. An obvious result is that the percentage of children passing the test plunged across the state, but this doesn't tell us anything about their actual achievement (as Epstein would have you believe).

So what other data might a fair-minded person use to evaluate NYC's progress? How about comparing NYC students to students from other parts of New York who took the same exam? This is exactly what one researcher, James Kemple, did, summarized in an article by Peter Meyer (Kemple's full study is here):

James J. Kemple, the executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, who conducted a study comparing the city's school reform efforts to a "virtual" control group modeled from other urban districts in the state, including Buffalo, Yonkers, Syracuse, and Rochester, "found New York City students improved significantly faster than the control group on both the New York state assessments and the National Assessment of Educational Progress during the reform period, from 2002 to 2010."

And, as if to rebut Ravitch directly, Kemple reported that "the improvement trend continues even taking into account New York state's recent recalibration of test scores." Said Kemple: "The increases in test scores over time is not just an artifact of test-taking strategies. This test score continues to be an indicator of higher likelihood of graduating from high school."

The Manhattan Institute's Charles Sahm shares similar conclusions in his op ed in the NY Post:

The best marker of progress is the degree to which New York City students have closed the gap with students in the rest of the state. In fact, if you take all 62 New York counties and rank them by the average change in students' scores on state math and English exams from 2002 to 2010, the five counties of New York City come out on top, with The Bronx leading the way. (See chart, right.) Indeed, The Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens were the only counties in the state to show increases from 2002 to 2010.

A county-by-county ranking of test scores once would have seen all five boroughs clustered near the bottom. But over the last several years, the city has consistently climbed the ranks. Queens, for example, has risen 45 spots, from 59 in 2002 to 14 in 2010. Manhattan is up from 61 to 48.

Note that Kemple not only uses the NYS tests, but also the NAEP tests, the gold standard. Sahm summarizes NYC's strong NAEP results:

Since 2002/03, city students have improved their scores on the NAEP by 11 points in both fourth-grade reading and math. In eighth grade exams, reading scores have been flat -- but they're improved by seven points on math.

The positive changes on three of the four NAEP exams are statistically significant and outpace most other large cities. And if you remove New York City's improvement, the state scores on the NAEP are basically down or flat on all four tests.

The city's progress is particularly noteworthy when you consider that its schools serve a much larger percentage of poor and minority students than do schools in the rest of the state.

Here's more detail on NAEP scores from Joel Klein's column:

In fourth grade, on the Mayor's watch, NYC has made big gains -- 11 scale-score points in English and 11 in math. The percentage of kids proficient in math went from 21 percent to 35 percent -- a 67 percent increase -- and the percentage proficient in English went from 19 percent to 29 percent -- a 53 percent jump. Indeed, NYC's performance now matches that of the entire nation in fourth grade, even though NYC serves a much more challenging population. That's called "closing the achievement gap."

In the eighth grade, the results are mixed and trending up. We've gained 7 points in math, mostly since 2005, and, while we're flat in English, on the last exam we were up 3 points, boding well for the future. Overall, NYC's gains on NAEP dwarfed those of rest of New York State and were also greater than those of the nation. Even Ms. Ravitch has acknowledged NYC's "significant progress."

2) Epstein's claim that "Klein's beloved charter schools had pass rates no different from the regular public schools" is meant to lead to the reader to believe that NYC's charter schools are no better than their regular school counterparts, which is demonstrably false.

It's open to debate whether charter schools nationwide are doing better than nearby public schools. (The answer is, it depends: in states with lousy charter laws (which, unfortunately, are the states with the most charter schools), it's not clear that they are, but in states with strong charter laws, like N.Y., they are.) But it's not open to debate that NYC's charter schools are exceptional. Stanford's Caroline Hoxby has done the definitive work in this area -- check out her report on How New York City's Charter Schools Affect Achievement. She concludes that "On average, a student who attended a charter school for all of grades kindergarten through eight would close about 86 percent of the "Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap" in math and 66 percent of the achievement gap in English."

I also highly recommend Hoxby's slide presentation on What Makes Charter Schools Effective?, especially page 14, which shows graphically the impact NYC's charter schools are making.

Even the CREDO study, which charter opponents love to cite, showed in a follow-up study that "students in charter schools are significantly outperforming students in New York's traditional public schools."

3) Epstein also questions the huge jump in NYC's graduation rate:

The inflated graduation rates have been exposed too. With the recent news that 75 percent of the high school graduates require remedial reading and math when they enter community college, the Klein Era diploma has been rendered meaningless. So ill prepared are these students that the percent who graduate from college is in the single digits.

Note that Epstein doesn't even say what happened to NYC's graduation rate, so here are the facts (from Klein's column):

In the decade before the Mayor took over, the city's graduation rate had stagnated in the mid-forties. Last year, it was 63 percent.

This increase has resulted in significantly more NYC students going to college. From 2002 to 2009, the number of graduates attending City University of New York (CUNY) colleges went from 16,000 to over 25,000 -- a 57 percent increase -- while the number attending non-CUNY colleges also increased. At the same time, the percentage of students requiring remediation at CUNY decreased, meaning that more than 5,000 additional NYC students -- an almost 80 percent increase -- were college ready at CUNY in 2009 compared to in 2002.

Epstein claims that the progress is meaningless because many high school graduates need remedial work and only a small percentage go on to earn a college degree. True enough -- everyone agrees that there's a lot more work to be done -- but unless Epstein has evidence that the graduation requirements have been watered down, then the big increase in graduation rates is a major achievement and something to be celebrated.

4) Epstein also critiques Klein's attempts to "close 'failing' schools". What he doesn't say is that the schools Klein has closed -- generally huge ones -- have been replaced by smaller schools, a strategy that has paid off in a big way, as evidenced by this study by MDRC, which provides "clear and reliable evidence that, in roughly six years, a large system of small public high schools can be created and can markedly improve graduation prospects for many disadvantaged students."

5) NYC has also made huge progress in addressing the immoral and destructive practice of giving the neediest kids the worst teachers. This Ed Week article notes that:

Under the initiative, the Bloomberg administration negotiated a new teacher contract that did away with seniority-based teacher-transfer decisions and gave principals more authority to hire and fire teachers.

While changes in the hiring, transfer, and compensation systems for teachers were controversial, a study led by James H. Wyckoff, the director of the Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, found they significantly improved the qualifications of teachers in the city's highest-poverty schools. In particular, the gap in the average qualifications between teachers in the wealthiest and poorest 10 percent of schools shrank by half from 2000 to 2005. By 2008, the highest-poverty schools were actually hiring fewer teachers on temporary licenses than wealthy schools.

"There's a really dramatic shift after 2003 to a really different workforce in New York City [schools] than there had been in place before that," Mr. Wyckoff said.

In summary, while there is much work to be done, New York City's public school have made enormous progress under Bloomberg and Klein. Robert B. Schwartz, the academic dean of the education and management program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has a good summary (from the Ed Week article):

"I think Joel Klein and his colleagues have gotten much more traction on reform than any previous leadership team. This is the most dramatic and thoughtful set of large-scale reforms going on anywhere in the country."