October 15, 2008
Testimony before the New York State Senate Democratic Task Force on School Governance on behalf of New York City Americans for Democratic Action on the June 2009 expiration of the New York City Education and Reform Accountability Act of 2002

 

Good Afternoon!  I am Evelyn Jones Rich, Executive Director of the New York City Chapter of Americans for Democratic Action. 

              Thank you, Senator Perkins and the other members of the New York State Senate Democratic Conference Task Force on School Governance for giving me the opportunity to present our members’ views on the expiration of the NYC Education and Reform Accountability Act .

 

Two striking events occurred in 2002 which have shaped the development of public education in NYC since then.  First, the State Legislature gave the Mayor of NYC control over its public schools – the largest in the nation serving almost one million students. And, secondly, the US Congress passed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act which ensures that every child in America receives a quality education and establishes a framework for real progress in raising overall student achievement and in increasing parent involvement. The accountability provisions require states to set clear timelines for improving student achievement, with particular emphasis on closing the achievement gaps between low-income and minority students and their peers.

 

Schools – especially public elementary and secondary schools - are the bulwarks of a free society, in all times and especially in the troubled financial times in which we find ourselves in this first decade of the 21st century. 

 

              Public schools have never performed their assigned tasks well - first, to teach students how to read, write, count, speak and think critically and creatively and, secondly - to teach students how to be good citizens.  Everything else flows from that.

 

              Yes! It’s true.  The New York City public schools are better now under mayoral control than they’ve ever been. The media tell us that test scores are up, school crime is down, graduation rates are rising, social promotion is no longer Department policy and City and State funding increases- especially with the mandates of the CFE suit. But, from our vantage point, the schools are still failing and the buck stops at Mayor Mike.

 

              We think the Mayor should retain control over the public schools but with basic changes in the system’s operations – both is substance and style. 

 

              Currently, the system is operated as a business, led by a Chancellor with one term of class room teaching experience who reports to a Chief Executive Officer who sees students as inputs and teaching and learning as commodities.  The emphasis on standardized tests as required by NCLB as a measure of success rejects the very essence of education and the exclusion of parents and community from the decision making process rejects the constitutional framework on which our education system rests.

 

              The New York City school system is overwhelmingly made up of minorities.  African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans represent a whopping 86% of the student body.  And, the data tell us that large numbers are English Language Learners and/or eligible for free and reduced lunch, special education services and also attend school in old school buildings.

 

              These factors play a significant role in the academic performance of students. 

             

Unless and until students come to school ready to learn, from environments which host affordable housing, adequate health care, and meaningful jobs for their parents, the context in which instruction occurs is less than acceptable.  Those who discount these factors assert that a superb teacher can foster high academic achievement, regardless of

the circumstances of students’ daily lives. However, these are in short supply in any school system.

 

              We believe that someone with the power and influence of the mayor can change significantly the conditions under which students live and thus the attitude toward learning that they bring to school.

 

Take, for example, the problem of structural unemployment, which – if solved – would result in far fewer students needing free or reduced lunch. 79% of the school system’s students had extraordinary (economic) needs in 2006 according to the NYS Education Department. Given the current economic crisis plaguing the City and the nation, that number is growing as unemployment (now at 5.8%) increases.   The City faces declining support for Medicaid and fewer affordable housing units.  The point is that in good times the Mayor did not address the basic issues which keep millions of poor children in poverty and near poverty here in New York City. Rather, his focus on economic development has supported controversial projects like the Atlantic Yards and the West Side Rail Yards to the detriment of the working class.

 

              Against this background, let’s look inside the schools to assess Mayor Bloomberg’s performance. NCLB requires that every American school bring all students to proficiency in reading and math by 2014.   Students take NY State standardized tests in grades 3 and 7 in English/Language Arts and NY City Standardized tests in grades 3,5,6 and 7 in both English/Language Arts and Mathematics. Ultimately, graduation is based on Regents Examinations in English, Science, Global Studies, US History and Mathematics.

 

The reality is however that so-called minority students traditionally do not do well in these tests! Over the past decade researchers – including Joseph Ogbu of the University of California and Ronald Ferguson of the Kennedy School at Harvard have offered a number of explanations as to why this is true.  However, NCLB requires that if students in any group fall short of the school’s own established goals, the school is put on probation. Schools which miss targets for two consecutive years are “in need of improvement.” Failure to improve beyond that may result in closing the school.

 

NYC public schools have improved performance under these guidelines. The “real” graduation rate remains in dispute.  The Mayor says it’s 60%.  Whatever it is, it’s too low, and yet another indicator of the school system’s failing performance.  The Department of Education has yet to ask itself what it is that students have learned after four, five, six, or seven years.  Nor does it understand that most of what it is that students learn has little relationship with the goals of self-fulfillment, readiness for work and good citizenship.  Until it addresses these questions, graduation rates will continue to be a poor example of school progress.

 

 Our point is, however, that improvement has not really kept pace with NCLB requirements and the absence of a strong instructional leader at the apex of the system – one who understands how instruction and standardized test preparation can go hand in hand - , these challenges will remain.

 

              We propose, therefore, that reauthorization legislation require that the Chancellor be an educator rather than a lawyer or other business person.

 

              Our second concern lies in the area of parent involvement.  As a professional educator myself, with decades of experience at K-12, I know that the quality of a school is inextricably tied to the effectiveness of its parents association and its role in the school.

 

The Mayor has constructed any number of parent structures within the current school system but none of them has any real power.  Despite parent complaints and legitimate calls for greater participation, the Mayor has resisted any real power sharing.  Further, he has made it clear that he will continue to do so!

 

              Until and unless there is statutory provision for parent involvement in the legislation reauthorizing this law, school success as measured by student achievement will be limited.

 

              No one said that it would be easy to achieve the goals we seek by 2014 – the NCLB target.  Reauthorization of that legislation may alter that deadline.

 

              What must be altered is legislation which gives the Mayor carte blanche to do whatever he/she likes without involving all parties in the process in an undertaking which provides respect for each and all of its participants – students, teachers, support staff, principals and superintendents as well as parents and community representatives.

 

              When that happens, when students come to school ready and anxious to learn, when teachers are well prepared and supported and when the system’s ultimate leader is recognized as a true educator, we’ll be on our way!

                             

 

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