<i>USA Today</i> Gets It Wrong on Mayoral Control of Schools

The gains since mayoral control are respectable but modest, not the miraculous double-digit increases portrayed in.
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I don't know why. I can't help it. I just can't tolerate inaccuracy and misuse of facts. I do my best to get the facts right when I write something, and I expect others to do the same. Ordinarily, when I read something in the newspaper that I know is wrong, I have to forget about it because I don't write letters to the editor (by the time the letter appears, no one remembers the original story). But the beauty of the blogosphere is that I can nail the errors and do it fast.

My latest beef is with USA Today, which ran a cover story on March 21 with the headline "More Mayors Are Moving to Take Over School Systems." The article correctly contended that there is a movement in which mayors are taking control of urban school systems. There is indeed. But the article was accompanied by a misleading and inaccurate graphic called "How school takeovers have fared." The data referred to changes in test scores in Chicago and New York. I am not familiar with the Chicago numbers, but the New York numbers (supplied by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Department of Education) are grossly misleading.

The chart showed that New York City's test scores had soared from 2000-2005 in fourth grade English language arts (from 42% to 54%), in fourth grade mathematics (from 46% to 78%), in eighth grade mathematics (from 23% to 41%), while remaining flat in eighth-grade English language arts (from 33% to 33%).

It is strange, however, to use the data from 2000, since the State Legislature granted the mayor control of the schools in 2002, and he did not install his reforms in the schools until September 2003. So the first state test results that reflect the mayor's reforms were reported in 2004. Since the mayoral reforms began, there have been three state tests from 2004 to 2006.

So what has happened to scores since the mayor's package of reforms was installed? Instead of a 12 percentage point gain in fourth grade English arts, the gain was 6.4 percentage points (from 52.5% meeting state standards to 58.9%). Instead of a 32 percentage point gain in fourth grade mathematics, there has been a gain of 4.2 percentage points (from 66.7% to 70.9%). Instead of an 18 point percentage gain in eighth grade mathematics, there has been a gain of 4.5 percentage points (from 34.4% to 38.9%). Only in eighth grade English was there an appreciable gain, from 32.6% to 36.6%, but the score is only 1 percentage point higher than it was in 1999.

The gains since mayoral control are thus respectable but modest, not the miraculous double-digit increases portrayed in USA Today's graphic. For sure, there have been no historic gains since the mayor took charge. Maybe some day there will be, but not yet.

None of the gains, by the way, match the test score gains in the city schools that occurred the year before mayoral control began. In that year, 2002-2003, fourth grade math scores leapt by nearly 15 points, and there were double-digit increases in some of the city's poorest neighborhood schools. Also that year, fourth grade English scores went up by 6 points, which was equal to the increase recorded in the next three years of mayoral control.

The intriguing question, therefore, is what happened in the year before the mayor put his programs in the schools, because that was the year that achievement went up dramatically, especially in historically low-performing schools. Most experts at the time credited the improvement in test scores to the reforms initiated by the previous two chancellors of the schools, Rudy Crew (now superintendent of schools in Miami) and Harold Levy (now at Kaplan Learning).

The story also implied that New York City had eliminated an elected central school board, which is not true. New York City has not had an elected central school board for more than a century.

The story rightly pointed out that the elimination of all school boards--both central and community-based--has left many parents feeling disenfranchised and angry. Anyone wanting to see what New York City's parent leaders think about mayoral control should take a look at the NYC public school parent blog, where parents express their frustration about overcrowded schools and overcrowded classes (the largest class sizes in the state) and their anger at being marginalized and excluded in a school system that has no lay boards at all. (I blog there too, having been named an honorary NYC public school parent by the parent activists who created the site.)

Two months ago, in late January, the Department of Education inexplicably reorganized the school system's vast school bus routes, leaving thousands of children without bus service during the coldest days of the year. The uproar that followed ignited a parent protest movement against the mayor's Department of Education. Parents became aware that this hare-brained scheme was concocted by a team of highly paid consultants from a firm called Alvarez & Marsal, which received a $16+ million no-bid contract; half a dozen of the consultants are paid $1 million each per year to advise the Department on cost-cutting. This is the same firm, by the way, that previously managed the St. Louis school district, which was just taken over by the state of Missouri because of its academic and financial condition.

One of the great claims for mayoral control is that it establishes clear accountability. But regarding the school bus fiasco, no one was held accountable; no heads rolled. Outraged parents haven't calmed down since then.

If there were a school board, the parents would have been lining up to make their voices heard, face to face. But the mayor brushed off the critics and hired a "family engagement officer" at $150,000 a year, hoping to mollify the parents. The protest movement seems to be growing. It turns out that education requires some form of democratic governance, and that is the role of a school board, whether it is appointed or elected.

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