The Myth of Mayoral Control of Schools

Dubious strategies in New York public schools have puffed up the graduation rate by a few points, but the city's graduates arrive at community colleges unprepared for college-level work.
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Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been traveling the country urging mayors to take control of the public schools in their cities. He points to Chicago and New York City as places where mayoral control of schools has led to big improvements.

It is sad to see the Obama administration peddling half-truths. It is too bad that the same half-truths were echoed by Tom Vander Ark in his April 23 piece on the Huffington Post. Vander Ark used his column to criticize a proposal by Professor Joseph Viteritti for checks and balances in New York City's system of mayoral control.

Mayoral control is no solution to poor academic performance. It may or may not lead to better, more efficient provision of services. It may or may not lead to better coordination of social services. Anyone who looks to mayoral control of urban schools as a panacea will be disappointed.

The only independent measure of urban school performance is the federally-administered tests called the National Assessment (NAEP). The NAEP tests are generally acknowledged to be the gold standard of the testing industry. The federal government has spent tens of millions of dollars over the past 40 years making these tests the best in the nation.

NAEP has been testing a small number of urban districts since 2002, on a voluntary basis. Of the eleven cities that have been tested by NAEP from 2003-2007, the highest performing districts were Charlotte, North Carolina, and Austin, Texas, neither of which is controlled by their mayor. The lowest performing districts were Washington, D.C., Chicago, Illinois, and Cleveland, Ohio. The public schools in Chicago and Cleveland have been controlled by their mayor for more than a decade.

Vander Ark wants urban districts to have mayoral control because he says that is the best route to sustained progress. But New York City, which adopted mayoral control in 2002, saw no gains on NAEP between 2003 (when the mayor's reforms were installed) and 2007, in fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade reading, or eighth-grade mathematics. New York City saw no significant gains during those years for black students, Hispanic students, Asian students, white students, or lower income students, and no closing of the achievement gap.

The city with the most sustained gains on NAEP was Atlanta, Georgia, which does not have mayoral control.

The theory behind mayoral control is that the biggest problem in urban education is that there are too many voices trying to be heard. Schools make the most progress, say the partisans of mayoral control, when only one person -- the mayor -- is in charge and when he has to listen to no one else. At least that is the case in New York City, where there are no checks and balances.

So, let's take a closer look at New York City. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, spending on education has gone up from $12.5 Billion in 2002 to $21 Billion in 2009. Scores have increased on state tests, but not on the federal audit test, the NAEP.

Graduation rates for the New York City public schools have risen, but not by much. The state says they are now at 52%; the city claims a graduation rate of 62%, but gets to that number only by adding in students who dropped out and took a GED and by not counting students who were "discharged" during high school. Some discharges are legitimate, like students who move to another district or a private school, but many are teens who were pushed out even though they had a legal right to stay in school. The number of discharges has increased steadily over the past six years, with most of the discharges being students of color. And the black male graduation rate is still under 30%.

New York City also has inflated its graduation rate by allowing schools to engage in "credit recovery," which means that high school students are given graduation credits for courses they failed by taking a few hours of make-up classes or by submitting an independent (unmonitored) project.

All these dubious strategies have puffed up the graduation rate by a few points, but the city's graduates arrive at community colleges unprepared for college-level work. Three-quarters of the New York City high school graduates who enter local community colleges require remediation in reading, writing, or mathematics. This is despite the fact that they have allegedly passed five state Regents examinations to graduate and despite the city's claim of having "ended social promotion."

The schools' chancellor Joel Klein says that the remediation rate has declined, and indeed it has -- from 82% in 2002 to "only" 74% in 2008. But in 2002, no one made claims of having ended social promotion, nor were students required to pass five Regents examinations. And since the city has seen a dramatic increase in spending, one would have thought that by now most of the graduates of our schools would be college-ready. They are not.

Personally, I do not have a brief for or against mayoral control of the schools. I do believe, however, that when the mayor or anyone else is in charge, there must be institutions empowered to audit the schools. They must be audited in terms of their spending, and they must be audited in terms of their claims about test scores and graduation rates.

If school leaders are confident that they are doing a good job, they should have no fear of independent auditors.

Our schools are too important to hand them over to the sole, unchecked control of a single elected official. Checks and balances are not exactly a dangerous innovation. They are an essential element in a democratic society, and they are as essential in the operation of our school system as they are in every other part of our governmental structure.

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