Grading the Education Mayor

Leonie Haimson Dec 17, 2013

When the law was changed in 2002 to give Michael Bloomberg complete control over the public school system and its 1.1 million students, he urged the public to judge his success or failure as mayor based on his handling of education issues.

Since then, we have had 12 long years of an autocratic, technocratic and test-driven regime in which decisions have been made by the mayor with little respect shown for the views of parents or teachers in the city’s public school system. Teachers have been rated, students held back and schools closed primarily on the basis of test scores — narrow and essentially unreliable measures — and the result has been profound demoralization, a narrowing of the curriculum and a sense of despair.

For a while, Bloomberg’s popularity coasted on inflated state test scores and rising school budgets. But when the he started cutting back on school budgets in 2007 and the state test score bubble burst in 2010, his approval ratings on education sank like a stone. 

When budgets and test scores began to decline, Bloomberg had nothing to arrest his reputation’s fall from grace, given his imperious manner and the way in which he and his hand-picked chancellors had ruthlessly closed schools, caused more overcrowding by co-locating newly opened schools into existing buildings and openly condescended to anyone who expressed a different opinion. In 2011, in response to parents who protested the mass closure of schools, Bloomberg said, “Unfortunately there are some parents who … never had a formal education, and they don’t understand the value of education.”

Increasing Class Size

The administration has also revealed its contempt for parents’ views on the issue of class size. For the past six years, as part of its “Learning Environment Surveys,” the Department of Education (DOE) has asked parents what improvements they would like to see in their children’s schools. Every year, smaller classes have led their list of priorities. Yet every year, class sizes have increased — a clear sign that despite Bloomberg’s rhetoric, parent “choice” was not taken seriously. In 2011, Bloomberg even said that if he had his way, he would double class size — and that would be “a good deal for the students.”

This fall, class sizes in the early grades are the largest they’ve been in 15 years. This has occurred despite a promise from Bloomberg when he first ran for office in 2001 that he would reduce class size. It also happened despite the fact that in 2003, New York’s highest court found that the city’s children had been deprived of the right to an adequate education guaranteed by the state constitution in large part because of excessive class sizes.

These class size increases also come despite a state law passed in the spring of 2007 that sent billions in additional aid to high-needs school districts in New York City and other locales that could be spent in six approved areas, including class size reduction. Yet at the same time the state was increasing its funding, Bloomberg began slashing school budgets — amounting to about 15 percent since 2007 — which has led to a loss of more than 5,000 teachers, many of them veteran educators with many years of experience. This, combined with increased enrollment, has led directly to larger classes. 

There are also specific policy decisions that the Bloomberg administration has made that contributed to rising class sizes:

  • The administration removed any class size standards from the instructional footprint that helps determine where to co-locate schools, leading to the loss of classroom space needed to keep class sizes small.
  • In 2010, the DOE eliminated a program that provided targeted funding to keep class sizes to 20 students or less in grades K-3 — despite a promise to the state to maintain it.
  • In 2011, the DOE decided to stop honoring a side agreement with the teachers union to cap class sizes in grades 1-3 at 28 students, leading to a tripling of classes with 30 or more children in these grades.
  • In 2012, principals were told that they had to accommodate students with special needs in classes up to the contractual maximum in regular general education classes; those limits are 32 students per class in grades 1-5, 31 students in grades 6-8 and 34 students in high school.

Though in theory, integrating students with disabilities into regular classes is a positive development, there is little chance that these students will succeed in large classes. The research is crystal clear that all students benefit from small classes; but those who benefit the most are those most at risk: poor, minority and special needs children and English language learners. 

This is why class size reduction has been shown to be so effective at narrowing the achievement gap between racial and ethnic groups. Smaller classes not only allow teachers more time to give individualized attention but also result in students becoming more engaged and focused in their classwork. With personal feedback from their teachers, non-cognitive skills including persistence are strengthened.

Producing “Results”

At the same time as there has been more pressure than ever on teachers and students to produce “results” in the form of higher test scores, there has been a disinvestment in the classroom and a push instead to privatize services through online learning and the expansion of charter schools. 

The city has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on technologies, including a student data system called ARIS that cost $80 million and is rarely used. The DOE has also spent considerable funds on software for online instruction. Though this method of instruction has been misleadingly called “personalized” learning, it is really depersonalized learning, with computers replacing students’ real-life interactions with

The most egregious example of this phenomenon is the city and state plan to share personal student data, including highly sensitive health and disciplinary information, with a corporation called inBloom Inc. InBloom was created with $100 million by the Gates Foundation, and was designed to encourage a thriving market for private vendors who would produce data-mining software. InBloom has an operating system built by Wireless Generation, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which is its largest subcontractor. Wireless, also known as Amplify, is run by Joel Klein, the former New York City schools chancellor, and the chief product officer of inBloom, a woman named Sharren Bates, used to work for the DOE in charge of the ARIS project.

Though nine states originally planned to partner with inBloom, eight have now pulled out after protests by parents concerned about their children’s privacy — all except New York. And while Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has promised to pull New York City student data out of inBloom as soon as possible, the State Education Department says it will not allow any districts to opt out of the system.

Indeed, even as we have a new mayor who promises a new direction for our schools, our students are being subjected to an increasingly dictatorial and prescriptive State Education Department, intent on replicating the worst policies of the Bloomberg administration by focusing on test scores, data collection and digitizing instruction to the detriment of real education. 

How will our new mayor operate under the state’s oppressive education policies? Will de Blasio fight back and follow through with his promises to reduce class size and deliver the city’s students from excessive testing and data collection? That remains unclear for now. But whether or not de Blasio keeps his commitments, parents, teachers and their allies will continue to advocate the education our children deserve.

Leonie Haimson is the executive director of Class Size Matters and a board member of the national organization Network for Public Education. She was a New York City public school parent for 15 years.


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