Since his election in 2001, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made narrowing the white-minority achievement gap in New York City his signature issue. After two major overhauls of the system and countless changes big and small, Bloomberg and his appointed Chancellor Joel Klein are declaring victory , victory, victory!
And they are taking their education reform show on the road. Bloomberg is foraying into the national policy scene as a self-styled education czar, wielding his stewardship of the nation's largest school system as the ultimate credibility in knowing what to do with troubled schools. However, as we learned the hard way from George W. Bush, time in office does not necessarily equal ability to develop and enact real solutions. Last month Bloomberg testified to Congress that "In some cases, we've reduced it [the achievement gap] by half." Amazing--although specious.
Joel Klein and Al Sharpton have teamed up to lead the Education Equality Project, a non-partisan advocacy group aiming to tweak the federal No Child Left Behind legislation to the style of the Bloomberg-Klein New York revolution. A love-in with John McCain ensued.
Except a closer look at the data that Bloomberg and Klein are using to trumpet their successes provides a much less celebration-worthy picture. Yes, the percentage of students achieving minimum proficiency of many tests has gone up-- amid compelling reports of artificial score inflation. However, no amount of alleged number-juking is able to obscure the data showing that their sweeping reforms have actually not narrowed the achievement gap-- at all.
Last week, Elizabeth Green of the New York Sun reported :
Three researchers studied that measure [the achievement gap] at the request of The New York Sun by analyzing detailed data the city Department of Education previously had not released. They found that the actual gap between different racial groups' test scores has not budged by most measures, and in some cases it has widened.
In the most encouraging case -- the difference between black and white students' scores on an eighth-grade English test -- the gap has narrowed slightly. Yet it remains wide. In 2008, 74% of black eighth-graders in the city scored below the average white eighth-grader on the state English test, compared to 79% in 2002.
The proficiency gap is closing even as the achievement gap stays essentially the same because each gap represents a different kind of improvement. Proficiency rates detect movements across the proficiency bar, rising when students who had been below it learn enough knowledge and skills to reach the standard, but registering no change if students who were already meeting the standard surge even further above it. The achievement gap, on the other hand, is sensitive to changes both above and below the proficiency bar.
The achievement gap is an opportunity gap. At the end of 12th grade, completing a vicious trajectory begun in kindergarten, minority students have fewer opportunities than their white counterparts. Bloomberg has promised and declared that he would radically alter the New York City public schools to give minority students the tools necessary to make those strides--and has repeatedly declared victory. As class sizes remain maxed out, dynamic teachers continue to depart the system in droves, and student dropout rates remain static, reality does not match the Bloomberg-Klein rhetoric. The proof is in the data, as reported by the Sun.
There is no pleasure in wagging a finger at declarations of public education progress. However, America needs to get wise to the Bloomberg-Klein sham--lest it take over the national scene.
We have a wealth of smart ideas about how truly to help students achieve--without stat-cooking gimmickry. For one example, the Coalition for Essential Schools leads a National Exhibition Month in which students across the country showcase rigorous, long term, self-directed projects-- a real-world form of assessment. Such an organic model for student- and school- accountability is the antithesis of the high-stakes testing supremacy of the Bloomberg-Klein system.
Barack Obama has spoken eloquently about the realities on the ground of American schools. He could be the president to lead a new era of academic rebuilding and social justice in our nation's education system--so long as he does not listen too much to Michael Bloomberg.
Dan Brown is the author of the teacher memoir The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle.