11/27/2013 05:05 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2014

The Education Funders' Polite Post-Mortem on Mayor Bloomberg's School Reforms

The Education Funders Research Initiative's "Building Blocks for Better Schools," which caps a three-part analysis of education reform in New York City, turns diplomatic language into a fine art. This scholarly study by Clara Hemphill, Kim Nauer Andrew White and Thomas Jacob says of Mike Bloomberg's controversial policies, "Perhaps the mayor's greatest education legacy is the belief that good public schools for all are possible."

Hemphill et. al don't scream at the 285 philanthropists who helped support the mayor's obsession with testing, competition and punishment: Knuckleheads! What were you thinking? You spent $2 billion dollars to help Bloomberg put the cart before the horse?!?!

The Education Funders' polite message is a scholarly restatement of the #1 education maxim; students must "Learn to Read" by 3rd grade, so they can then "Read to Learn."

Perhaps Hemphill et. al can be so understated because they are preaching to the choir. Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio understands why it is important that "the number of reading specialists in the New York City schools has plummeted from 1,158 in 2002 to 637 in 2013." Moreover, De Blasio respects experts who estimate that "75 percent of the city's four year olds -- that is, about 73,000 children -- would attend full-day pre-kindergarten if it were available and readily accessible." Wouldn't it be nice if Bloomberg had invested billions of dollars filling that real-world need and not his personal need to sort and punish?

Instead of asking why Bloomberg and the funders "set in motion a complex and bold series of experiments that have revolutionized the way schools are organized," Hemphill et. al address some of "the greatest challenges facing the city." Then, they cite a previous Education Funders' study by Douglas Ready and Thomas Hatch who explain why it is important to improve literacy in the early grades. They show that in NYC "only one in three children who were poor readers in third grade ultimately graduated from high school."

Hemphill et. al also remind philanthropic funders that, "The high school path for most New York City students is laid well before high school." They then observe that "Eighth grade scores on the NAEP have been flat for a decade." And, "students who arrive in ninth grade with only limited ability to read may ultimately graduate, but few of them will be prepared for success at the level required to enter college."

The researchers enthusiastically give credit where it is due. Bloomberg's "new small high schools have significantly higher graduation rates than the large, dysfunctional schools they replaced." They then explain that those gains flattened out after 2007 because "many of the new small high schools have seen their graduation rates decline as they enroll more challenging students."

Since 2010, New York City knew that Common Core college readiness standards were coming but Bloomberg focused on the A-F Report Card designed to foster competition, short term tactical thinking and increases in primitive bubble-in tests. This helps explain why Ready and Hatch found that citywide, the average high school student "completed only one semester of college preparatory math, while the average black, Hispanic or special education student completed no college preparatory math courses."

Hemphill et. al report that Bloomberg's innovations were funded by a $4.6 billion (inflation-adjusted) budget increase. They conclude obliquely that "the task for the next administration is to evaluate which experiments have worked and which have failed, which show promise, which should be modified and which should be abandoned."

The Education Funders conclude, "many valuable lessons have been learned about school improvement, leadership and management, thanks in large part to efforts to ramp up college and career readiness, and to the experiments in individual schools, programs and networks, funded by the philanthropic sector." In other words, the Bloomberg era was noteworthy for form over substance, experiments in governance rather than real-world results.

Now, New York City has a mayor who respects social science and understands the need to strengthen the social and institutional infrastructure of poor communities. Now, NYC "can counter the social isolation common in these poor neighborhoods and temper the impact of poverty and low social capital on educational failure and lifelong poverty." Soon, researchers may not need to be so circumspect in choosing their words about the need for:

A targeted, neighborhood-centered approach to poverty would weave together school improvement with coordinated human services, youth development, high-quality early education and child care, homelessness prevention, family supports and crisis interventions.