2008-11-07 / Columnists

It's My Turn

The Future of School Governance in New York City
Commentary By Diane Ravitch, PhD Education Professor, Author

Ravitch is the author of a history of the New York City public schools, titled The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973. She says that, in the nearly 35 years since that book was published, she has studied and written about the progress and condition of the public schools in this city and across the nation. Her comments below were made to the New York City Council as part of a hearing on renewing the school governance bill that gives the mayor control of the public schools.

"As I see it, the current law vests too much power in the mayor. It lacks any real accountability, because it has no checks or balances. In the mayor's first term, it is too soon to decide whether his decisions are good ones; in his second term, there is no way to hold the mayor accountable because he is term-limited. There is no public body, no venue in which parents or community members can seek redress for their grievances. No one is accountable. In January 2007, when thousands of children were left out in the bitter cold after the bus schedules were suddenly and disastrously changed, no one was held accountable. Similarly when federal tests showed that there were no gains in reading scores over the past four years, no one was held accountable, and the administration did not even acknowledge that there was a problem, nor did they move to abandon the reading program that had failed.

"Because there is no oversight of the DOE, it has made major decisions affecting thousands of lives without any public hearings in advance. Without any oversight, the Department has lurched from reorganization to reorganization. First the community school districts were out and the regions were in; then the regions were out, and the districts were in. All of these changes were made without public consultation, public discussion, or public review.

"The cost of education has skyrocketed, from $12.5 billion per year to nearly $20 billion per year. At the same time, class sizes in the city remain the largest of any school district in the state. The number of no-bid contracts has soared, far beyond anything known in the past, again without any oversight.

"The results of this constant turmoil have been disappointing. Test scores have risen, but not nearly as rapidly as they did in the four years previous to the mayoral takeover.

" On the state tests, in fourth grade reading, 52.5% met the state standard in 2003, and now 56% in 2007. This is only a 3.5 percentile gain, as compared to 19.8 percentile gain from 1999 to 2003, when the proportion rose from 32.7% to 52.5%. "Looking at the same cohort of students over time, the results are even worse. 52.5% of 4th graders of 2003 met the standard in reading; only 41.8% of the same students in eighth grade in 2007 did. As they progressed through the grades, a smaller number of students was able to meet the state standard.

"Last November, the federal test results were released, and we learned from them that during the era of mayoral control, there were no significant gains in fourth grade reading, eighth grade reading, or eighth grade mathematics. Only in fourth grade mathematics was there any improvement in test scores. Yet, for some reason, as students remain in the system, they are unable to sustain their gains in mathematics since as we see, the eighth grade math scores are flat. Unfortunately, the Department of Education put out press releases claiming that the federal test scores showed "good progress," but this was not true. "The graduation rate now stands at 50%. We are regularly told that this is a historic improvement, but in fact the graduation rate is one of the lowest in the nation. According to a report by a nonpartisan national organization called Directions for Our Youth, the city's number of dropouts has been steadily rising, and is now more than 21,000 students each year.

"Let me say that mayoral control is not the problem today, but it is not the cure for our problems. New York City has a long history of mayoral control. From 1873 to 1969, the mayor appointed every single member of the central board of education. The only exception was from 1869-1871, when Boss Tweed persuaded the Legislature to establish a Department of Public Instruction.

"The problem today is that neither the Mayor nor the Chancellor nor the Department of Education has a plan to improve education. Instead, they offer incentives to raise test scores. They offer bonuses and extra pay to teachers, principals, and students. They may be able to buy higher test scores by constantly testing and preparing for tests, but this is not a recipe for good education.

"I recommend the restoration of an independent Board of Education, appointed by the mayor, or appointed by the Mayor and other elected officials, for a set term. The mayor, I suggest, should appoint a majority of this board. The board should have public hearings, where the chancellor discloses his plans and invites public comment. This board should also review all contracts over a set figure (e.g., $100,000) in public meetings.

Those who wish to serve on this board should be interviewed by a screening panel representing organizations devoted to education and to children's wellbeing, so that the mayor—whoever he or she is—cannot simply choose friends and supporters. "This independent board should appoint the Chancellor.

"The chancellor and the central board should appoint local community school boards with advisory powers.

"Meanwhile, the City Council should urge the State Legislature to establish an independent, professional agency to audit test scores and graduation rates across the state, including in New York City. "Mayoral control does not solve all our problems. Some high-performing districts like Charlotte and Austin do not have mayoral control. Some lowperforming districts—like Cleveland and Chicago—do have mayoral control.

"What makes for good education? Good education requires good teachers, good principals, good parents, and willing students. It requires adequate resources, good physical facilities, and manageable class sizes. It requires an excellent curriculum that includes not only reading and math, but history, science, physical education, literature, and the arts. Those are the ingredients of good schools. There are no shortcuts."

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