June 17, 2010
I highly recommend reading the new report released by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs on “Empowerment and Accountability in New York City’s Schools.” It is detailed, balanced, and extremely educational. Reviewers have focused on the report’s conclusion that the DOE’s grading system is “deeply flawed,” perhaps the report’s most important conclusion.
Within the report’s 68 pages, though, are some powerful reminders of our system’s recent history:
When I [author Clara Hemphill] visited 30 schools in District 7 in the South Bronx as a reporter for the Insideschools.org website early in Mayor Bloomberg’s first term, the schools, with a few noteworthy exceptions, were in a sorry state. I met principals who routinely called for an ambulance to take an out-of-control child to the nearest psychiatric emergency room because they didn’t know what else to do. The middle schools were chaotic, with children wandering aimlessly in the hallways as teachers lectured to half-empty classrooms. Some of the elementary schools were sweet, warm places with kindhearted teachers doing their best — but the children didn’t know how to read. While I saw pockets of good instruction, some parents complained to me that their children were taught mostly in Spanish for as many as five or six years, learning almost no English. Books and supplies were scarce.
Returning to a dozen of those District 7 schools recently, I found much has changed. Books and supplies are abundant. Most of the schools I visited were orderly, with children in classrooms rather than roaming the corridors. Instruction is mostly in English … Principals are now appointed from the applicant pool selected by Tweed, rather than by the district office. Some of these new principals have a wealth of talent and experience … The principals … say it’s easier to recruit and retain staff largely because teacher salaries are substantially higher than they were before the Bloomberg-era increases … District 7′s test scores started at the absolute bottom in 2002 and made some of the most dramatic gains of any large district in the state…
Looking even further back, the report tells of the dark side of past governance:
… District 7 had a long history of hiring driven by patronage and nepotism … According to a 1996 report by the city’s special commissioner of investigation, the district superintendent, Pedro Crespo, hired unqualified friends and relatives of school board members and approved expensive junkets and perks. In one instance, Crespo appointed a principal with a poor command of English who had failed eight licensing exams. Teachers and principals were pressured to buy and sell tickets for large parties organized to raise campaign funds for local politicians. School board meetings regularly erupted into shouting matches during which, for example, school board members were accused of stealing computers from the district office.
Reports of corruption and nepotism declined after a 1996 state law limited the powers of the city’s community school boards and expanded those of the chancellor. Still, achievement in District 7 remained pitifully low. Although overt political influence declined, principals still paid homage to elected officials: In 2002, five District 7 principals made contributions to the re-election campaign of Carmen Arroyo, a longtime member of the state Assembly; in 2005, six principals did, according to financial disclosure reports filed with the state Board of Elections.
To be clear, the report suggests that there is much work still to be done:
Yet for all these gains, significant problems remain. While some schools have a rich curriculum, others offer bare-bones instruction narrowly designed to help children pass standardized tests. Many of the newly hired principals have had minimal teaching experience and almost no administrative experience, and struggle mightily with basics like student discipline. While middle school attendance has improved, attendance in District 7 elementary and high schools has not improved significantly since 2002 … Little progress has been made in special education … and, while high school graduation rates have increased markedly, a number of principals openly acknowledge that their students have met only the bare minimum requirements for graduation and are poorly prepared for college.