Where the Mayor Went Wrong
Would you want to study at a Bloomberg school?

WSJ.com OpinionJournal
May 12, 2005


Michael Bloomberg, one of the most successful businessmen in the United States, pledged to fix the public schools when he ran for mayor of New York in 2001. He said that he could get better results without any additional money, just by applying proven managerial techniques. He promised a back-to-basics curriculum and an end to bilingual education. After his election, he persuaded the state Legislature to give him control of the school system, with its 1.1 million students and 80,000 teachers. He selected as chancellor of the schools a respected antitrust attorney, Joel Klein, who - like Mr. Bloomberg - had no experience in education.

Neither Mr. Bloomberg nor Mr. Klein knew about the war of ideas that had been raging among educators for many years. On one side, beloved by schools of education, are the century-old ideas of progressive education, now called "constructivism." Associated with this philosophy are such approaches as whole language, fuzzy math, and invented spelling, as well as a disdain for phonics and grammar, an insistence that there are no right answers (just different ways to solve problems), and an emphasis on students' self-esteem. Constructivists dislike any kind of ability grouping or special classes for gifted children. By diminishing the authority of the teacher, constructivist methods often create discipline problems.

On the other side are those who believe that learning depends on both highly skilled teachers and student effort; that students need self-discipline more than self-esteem; that accuracy is important; that in many cases there truly are right answers and wrong answers (the Civil War was not caused by Reconstruction); and that instructional methods should be chosen because they are effective, not because they fit one's philosophical values.

Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein embarked on school reform knowing nothing of this heated debate. Mr. Klein selected Diana Lam as his top deputy. At the time she was superintendent of schools in Providence, R.I. More important, she was a constructivist and a proponent of bilingual education. At her urging, the mayor expanded bilingual education instead of eliminating it. Ms. Lam picked citywide reading and math programs that no one would describe as "back to basics." The reading program, called Month-by-Month Phonics, is akin - despite its name - to the whole-language philosophy. Because of the program's weak phonics component, the New York State Education Department withheld $38 million in federal funds until Mr. Klein reluctantly installed a research-based reading program in 49 of the city's nearly 700 elementary schools. The city's elementary mathematics program, Everyday Math, has been criticized by university mathematicians who complain that it neglects basic computational skills.

In the fall of 2003, Chancellor Klein introduced the mandated reading and math programs. About 200 relatively high-scoring schools were exempt from the mandates, and many others adopted supplementary programs to supply the basics that are missing from the standard approach. Still, teachers frequently complained of micromanagement, due to the heavy-handed imposition of lockstep constructivism. In some districts, supervisors roamed classrooms with stopwatches, and teachers were penalized if they spent a few too many or too few minutes on a mandated activity. The new curriculum has proven to be a bonanza for the education establishment, particularly schools of education such as Columbia's Teachers College, which receives millions of dollars each year to train teachers in constructivist methods.

To streamline the bureaucracy, the mayor collapsed 32 local school districts into 10 administrative regions. The new administrative regime consists of 10 regional superintendents, six regional operating centers, over 100 local superintendents, and a parent coordinator for every school.

Have the reforms been cost-effective? Mr. Klein claims that the reorganization saved $250 million, but the city comptroller disputes that figure. In any event, the budget for the schools grew in the first year of implementation of Mayor Bloomberg's reforms by nearly $1.3 billion dollars. The state comptroller reported that the Department of Education overspent its budget last year by $236 million (the city comptroller said the shortfall was $156 million).

In the reorganization, the central Board of Education was replaced by a powerless panel that serves at the pleasure of the mayor. Without an independent lay board, the Department of Education is free to allocate its budget without public oversight or transparency. Previously, no-bid contracts were rare, seldom amounting to more than $1 million per year, and were reviewed in public meetings. In the past two years, the Department of Education has awarded over 100 no-bid contracts for over $100 million with no public review.

Mr. Bloomberg's plan created a privately funded Leadership Academy to recruit and train new principals. The academy launched a highly publicized nationwide search for experienced principals. Philanthropies and businesses underwrote the academy at a cost of $25 million per year for three years. The first-year results have been disappointing. Only one out-of-town principal was recruited. The first class of 90 trainees yielded 65 new principals, making this possibly the most expensive training program in history.

Since Mr. Bloomberg's original program was announced, the reform agenda has grown. Now one of its highest priorities, funded by the Gates Foundation, is to break up large high schools into small schools of fewer than 500 students. Many of these new small schools are ultraprogressive, appear to lack academic rigor and have inexperienced leaders. Since dozens of them have been established simultaneously, with inadequate planning, the remaining large high schools are bursting at the seams, as students are reassigned to them to make room for the minischools. Some large high schools are now operating at 200% of capacity.

In the first round of state testing in 2004, the results were mixed. In the fourth grade, where the pedagogical changes were concentrated, the citywide scores in math were up by 1.4%, but in reading they declined by 3%. In some poor districts, such as Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, the score declines in reading were in double digits.

State scores for 2005 will be released in the next few weeks. It is widely expected that scores will rise, reflecting the unusual amount of time devoted this year to test preparation. Social studies and other subjects have been shelved to focus on the all-important tests of reading and mathematics (81% of eighth graders failed the state social studies exam, a 20% increase in the failure rate since Mayor Bloomberg took charge). A modest amount of time devoted to test preparation makes sense; but when it consumes vast amounts of instructional time, it does not. In addition, the state education department quietly informed elementary schools that they could exempt children with limited English proficiency from city and state reading tests this year even if they had been in U.S. schools for as long as five years and even if they were tested in English last year. This change will remove an unknown but significant number of low-scoring students from the testing pool and boost reading scores, an advantage not previously available.

Everyone gives Mr. Bloomberg credit for taking on the biggest public policy challenge in the city. Yet the experience of these past two years suggests that it may not be a great idea to give total control of the schools to the mayor. Education is now in the thick of partisan politics. Decisions are made and press releases issued with the election in mind, rather than based on careful evaluation of what works. There is a lesson here. Business leaders who want to reform schools should educate themselves about the issues or risk being co-opted by the education establishment. Who would have believed that smart, pragmatic Mike Bloomberg would become a champion of constructivist pedagogy?

Ms. Ravitch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a member of the Koret Task Force at the Hoover Institution.

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