2010-05-28 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Commentary By Howard Schwach

This is the third of a series of columns detailing the words of a new book on education by one of the most knowledgeable educational historians in the nation.

“The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education,” by educational historian Diane Ravitch is a book that needs to be read by every educator and every parent who has a child in a New York City public school.

Ravitch worked in the federal education department under Bush One and was instrumental in pushing for standardized testing and charter schools.

She has taken a long, hard look at what has happened to American education in the past ten years, however, and come to the conclusion, as have I, that there is little education going on in today’s schools.

I am going to let Ravitch speak for herself. What follows are quotes directly from her book.

How many columns will it take to tell Ravitch’s story? This is the third. There will most likely be a fourth next week.

I am not sure exactly how many weeks this will take, but keep reading and, at the end, you will be convinced that everything going on in the New York City public schools today is smoke and mirrors, designed to look as if the mayor had really done a splendid job with the schools, when in fact he and his management team have destroyed true education.

On Bloomberg’s claims that students made massive gains and graduated at an improved rate under his administration (page 87):

Having promised to make dramatic improvements in the school system, both Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein pointed with pride to the gains recorded on state tests, calling them evidence of historic change. When the mayor’s reforms were launched in September 2003, 52.5 percent of fourth grade students were at levels 3 and 4 on the state tests in reading. By 2007, that proportion had risen to 56.0 percent, a gain of 3.5 percentage points. In eighth grade reading, where there had been no progress the previous years, the proportion of students meeting standards grew from 32.6 percent to 41.8 percent, an impressive improvement. Laudatory articles celebrating the Bloomberg miracle appeared in Forbes, The Economist, Time, Newsweek, U.S News & World Report and USA Today. The stories reported the remarkable transformation of the New York City Public Schools. And the city’s schools won the Broad Prize in 2007, because of the improved test scores.

It was a shock, therefore, when the federal NAEP released reading scores for eleven cities, including New York City in November of 2007. The NAEP scores for 2003-2007 encompassed the first four years of the new regime and it provided an independent check on the city’s claims of historic gains.

On the NAEP, students in New York City made no significant gains in reading or mathematics. Nor was there a narrowing of the achievement gap among students of from different racial groups.

The Department of Education responded to the stagnant results on the federal tests with a press release claiming that “New York students made significant gains” on the NAEP. They explained the difference by saying that the students were prepared for the state tests, which aligned with state standards.”

Using private funding, the city launched a publicity blitz to proclaim its increased test scores and graduation rates. The graduation rates were even more malleable than the test scores, as there were so many ways to adjust them up or down. It all depended on which students were counted and not counted. Does one count only students who graduate in four years or those who take more than four years? Does one count GED diplomas that students obtain outside of regular school? What about August graduates?

According to the state, the New York City graduation rates increased from 44 percent to 56 percent between 2003 and 2008. On its face, this was an impressive improvement, but the rate was inflated in various ways, such as excluding students who left city high schools without a diploma and were counted as “discharged” rather than as drop-outs. (Many of those discharges were considered drop-outs by federal standards.) The graduation rate was also artificially increased by a dubious practice called “credit recovery,” a covert form of social promotion for high school students. Under credit recovery, students who failed a course or never even showed up for the classes could get credit by turning in an independent project, whose preparation was unmonitored or by attending a few extra sessions. A principal told the New York Times that credit recovery was the ‘dirty little secret of high schools. There is very little oversight and very few standards.”

Because of its concentration on raising test scores in reading and mathematics, the Department of Education consistently paid less attention to other subjects. The media, too, closely followed reading and math test scores, but ignored such subjects as science and social studies, even though the state tested these subjects. When science and social studies were tested in 2008, twenty-eight of New York City’s thirty-two districts placed in the bottom of the 10th percentile of the states district in science, and twenty-six districts were in the bottom 10th percentile in social studies. Not a single district scored at or above the 50th percentile in science and only one (District 26 in Queens) exceeded the 50th percentile in social studies. This is a sobering reflection on what was taught in the city’s public schools. But no one noticed or cared, because these subjects were not part of the city, state or federal accountability programs. Thus, as the city concentrated intently on raising test scores in reading and mathematics, the other essentials ingredients of a good education were missing.

More next week.

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