Mayor Michael Bloomberg observes fifth graders at Brooklyn’s Public School 262. (Photo by Michael Nagle/Getty Images)
In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his schools chancellor at the time, Joel Klein, testified before Congress that their policies had led to a substantial narrowing of the racial achievement gap, meaning the gap in test scores between white students and those of color: “Over the past six years, we’ve done everything possible to narrow the achievement gap—and we have. In some cases, we’ve reduced it by half,” said Bloomberg. He repeated that claim in 2012, saying, “We have closed the gap between black and Latino kids and white and Asian kids,” he said. “We have cut it in half.”
The notion that there had been a great improvement in the public schools, leading to sharp increases in achievement among minority children—the majority of the city’s public school students—was echoed in the mainstream media. It helped Bloomberg retain mayoral control of the public schools, which the state legislature had granted him shortly after his election in 2002, and to win a third term in 2009 (a campaign in which he spent a record $108 million).
Unfortunately, his claims of closing the achievement gap proved misleading. On the reliable national assessment known as the NAEP, there had been no significant increase in scores or narrowing of the gap since 2003, when the mayor’s policies were first imposed. In 2010, the state Education Department finally admitted what observers had long suspected: that the state exams had become overly predictable and that scoring well had grown easier over time.
After New York State acknowledged that test score inflation had occurred, scores across the state were recalibrated and declined dramatically. The achievement gap was revealed to be as wide as it had been before Bloomberg implemented his policies. The black-white test proficiency gap in eighth-grade reading actually increased. By last year, 29 percent of black students were proficient in reading, compared with 62 percent of white students. If one compares the gains on the NAEP since 2003 of all economic, racial and ethnic student subgroups, New York comes out second to last of the large cities—only Cleveland, one of the nation’s lowest-scoring cities, has seen less progress.
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Data and Diversity
The mayor has sought to manage the city’s 1,500 or so schools and 1.1 million students as if he were running a business. Data, derived mainly from standardized tests, are his primary management tools. While focused on test scores, Bloomberg has allowed class sizes to increase, despite the fact that class-size reduction is one of only a handful of reforms proven to narrow the achievement gap (and is the top priority of parents, according to the Education Department’s own surveys).
In a December 2011 speech, Bloomberg said that he would double class size if he could by firing half of the teachers, and that it would be “a good deal for the students.” On his weekly radio show in March, he claimed that even if classes were so overcrowded that students were forced to stand, the result would be fine as long as they had quality teachers: “that human being that looks the student in the eye” and “adjusts the curriculum” based on an “instinct” for “what’s in the child’s interest.”
Numerous studies show that black and Hispanic children receive twice the academic gains from smaller classes as white children. Though the state’s highest court concluded in 2003 that the city’s children were denied their constitutional right to an adequate education based in large part on excessive class size, the size of classes in the early grades are now the largest in fourteen years, and about half of middle and high school students are in classes of thirty or more. Many teachers have 150 students, making it all but impossible for them to look students “in the eye” and give them the individual attention they need—especially students who are disadvantaged.