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PR but not the 3 Rs

March 25, 2006|Sol Stern | SOL STERN is a contributing editor of City Journal, from whose latest issue this is adapted.

RESIDENTS OF Los Angeles and other cities in the L.A. Unified School District are understandably frustrated by the sorry state of their public schools. But before they turn over control of the school system lock, stock and barrel to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, they ought to consider the New York City experience with mayoral control. It's not quite as rosy as Villaraigosa would have you believe.

New Yorkers also came to support mayoral control after years of frustration with a dysfunctional board of education. The theory was that a mayor's political future would be endangered if voters felt that he presided over continued education failure, thus motivating him to press harder for school improvement.

But what mayoral control has given New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is the means to shape the education debate on his own terms -- to deflect criticism, dominate the media and use the schools as campaign props. After all, he now has absolute power over a $17-billion education empire that doles out jobs and no-bid contracts and that spends millions on a well-oiled public relations machine while disdaining independent research and evaluation of its new classroom programs.

His administration has cut off the flow of essential information to the media, to education reform groups and to scholars -- the institutions and people that citizens normally count on to help them make informed judgments on school performance. Thus the mayor could sell most New Yorkers on the falsehood that students were making significant academic progress.

The most egregious case in point: the administration's hyping of fourth-grade reading scores just a few months before last year's mayoral election. In 2005, the percentage of city fourth-graders who demonstrated proficiency on statewide tests rose 10 points, to 59.5%. Bloomberg trumpeted this rise as "historic" and "record-setting."

But the fourth-grade test-score gains proved to be illusory. For starters, 2005 scores rose significantly throughout the state. In large urban districts, such as Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers, they went up by even higher percentages than in New York City. Because none of these districts had switched to mayoral control or used the Bloomberg administration's new programs, there's no logical reason to credit Bloomberg for the city's gains.

There's another, unimpeachable source undermining the Bloomberg administration's claims: the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP. The NAEP has served as the federal Education Department's "above politics" testing agency since 1990, with its fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math tests often described as the "nation's report card."

The NAEP administered its 2005 fourth-grade reading tests within weeks of the New York state tests, and the results clearly showed that New York education officials -- city and state -- have indulged in unwarranted self-congratulation about student achievement. Compared with the nearly 60% of New York City students reaching proficiency on the state test, only 22% of city kids reached the comparable NAEP level. Also, the NAEP showed no upward movement toward proficiency for New York City students since 2003, the last time it tested them.

In other words, not only were the city's fourth-graders reading at a shamefully low level, the mayoral reforms had produced no significant academic improvement.

With media attention focused on the Bloomberg administration's claims about fourth-grade scores, almost no one paid attention to student performance data for the school system's upper levels.

Not only did Gotham's eighth-graders score abysmally in reading on the state test -- dropping 2.5 points to 32.8% -- and the NAEP, but their math results were stagnant -- and crummy -- on both tests. And only 20% of city students met the not very high eighth-grade state proficiency standard in social studies (the NAEP has no social studies test). Also, under Bloomberg, the percentage of city eighth-graders meeting state science standards has plummeted from 54% to 45%.

The picture of student achievement during the first Bloomberg term is coming into clearer focus -- and it's not pretty. Aside from fourth-grade math, stagnation or decline has marked every important benchmark test from the early grades to high school exit exams. But the prospects for real education reform suffer terrible damage when a taxpayer-funded public relations juggernaut gets away with spinning poor test outcomes as "historic" in order to improve a mayor's electoral prospects. Dare we ask whether mayoral control might actually have undermined democratic accountability in the schools and made things worse?

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