Education Reform in New York City: Ambitious Change in the Nation's Most Complex School System
reviewed by Jessica Shiller - January 05, 2012
Title: Education Reform in New York City: Ambitious Change in the Nation's Most Complex School System
Author(s): Jennifer A. O'Day, Catherine S. Bitter, & Louis M. Gomez (eds.)
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 193474283X, Pages: 368, Year: 2011
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When I started teaching in New York City schools in 1995, there were 32 school districts, each with its own superintendent and local school board, plus a city-wide Board of Education, and a Chancellor. Admittedly, it was a little confusing to a high school social studies teacher like myself. By 2002, things changed dramatically. The newly elected mayor, Michael Bloomberg, won control over the city schools and almost immediately appointed Joel Klein as chancellor. Together, Bloomberg and Klein broke up the 32 school districts, which had been in place since 1969, consolidated them into a system of ten regions, eliminated the Board of Education and created the Department of Education (or DOE as it is known in New York). They soon introduced Children First, their reform plan for New York City schools. The centerpiece of Children First was an autonomy for accountability exchange for schools (p.12). For the first time, all schools would have autonomy over their curriculum, their budgets, hiring, and could choose to join their own network of schools. In exchange, schools had to deliver. They were accountable for improving student test scores and graduation rates, or they could be shut down.
Children First has been the subject of much praise as well as much criticism. In that spirit, the new book, Education Reform in New York City: Ambitious Change in the Nations Most Complex School System, edited by Jennifer ODay, Catherine Bitter, and Louis Gomez, bravely joins in to assess the impact of Children First. To date, no one book has taken so much of the data on New York City schools under Children First and analyzed it in one volume. The book brings together researchers and urban school experts from different disciplines and orientations to weigh in on the impact of all of the reforms, offering a variety of perspectives. But if you are looking for the answer to whether Children First has worked, Education Reform in New York City does not offer a single conclusion. Rather, the book tries to be balanced and presents a range of studies and essays on most of the pieces of the Children First reforms, some of which point to progress while others reveal shortcomings.
The book is divided into four main sections: Governance and Management, Teaching and Learning, High School Reform, and Student Outcomes. In each section there are mixed reviews of Children First. In chapter one, Paul Hill, one of the fans of the reform effort, describes the reforms as necessary to shake up the system and to improve student achievement. He acknowledges that some saw Bloomberg and Kleins decision-making process as swift and undemocratic, but minimizes that controversy, writing, Large numbers of parents appear content with the reforms (p.30). The next chapter, in contrast, describes widespread discontent with mayoral control and Children First. Although Bloomberg and Klein made efforts at engaging parents in a number of ways, like putting parent coordinators in all schools, their efforts did not stop groups of parents from organizing to oppose Bloomberg and Kleins leadership. As Jeff Henig and his co-authors write, The administration failed to appreciate the view of community engagement as a more robust approach to creating the constituencies needed to sustain reform over time, (p. 52). The level of opposition that Bloomberg and Klein had was remarkable, and many felt disenfranchised by their leadership. One group of opponents even wrote their own book called NYC Schools Under Bloomberg and Klein: What Parents,Teachers, and Policymakers Need to Know (Avitia, et al, 2009) documenting the problems with Children First in an attempt to undo mayoral control.
In the following chapter, Steifel and Schwartz document what may be the only indisputably positive change under Children First, a major increase in private funding for New York City schools. Nearly $245 million dollars between 2003-2008 was invested in research, development and capacity building (p. 75). Bloomberg and Klein leveraged their power to gain the funds that went to new data systems, more teachers, and more schools for students. This way, tools would be available for New Yorks newly autonomous schools to improve.
The next section on Teaching and Learning provides a more positive outlook, but little data to back up the ideas presented. Jennifer ODay and Catherine Bitter, the editors of the volume, suggest that the progress reports, quality reviews, and a city-wide data system called ARIS provided the tools for schools to improve student achievement. Although they have no data on how individual schools are using those tools, they suggest the availability of data is a huge step forward. Wykoff, Goertz, and Loeb, in their chapter, add that Bloomberg and Klein have enabled schools to secure more high quality teachers by opening up the pathways through which alternatively certified teachers can enter the field, especially the recruitment of Teaching Fellows program or Teach For America recruits. Yet they add that they have done no research on the quality of these teachers in New York City schools.
In the following section on High School Reform, perhaps the most interesting section of the book, the authors find real problems with the autonomy provided by Children First. Sean Cororan and Henry Levin find that school choice has been offered to many more students in a new and improved system, but they also find improved transparency has not reduced the overall complexity of the system...By providing universal access to more than 700 programs, the DOE has shifted the burden of choice onto students and families, (p.224). Students and families may not have equal resources to make informed choices. Some have limited English, others have limited access to the internet. Both are problems that providing more choice cannot address. Moreover, Joan Talberts chapter explores the differential capacity at individual schools to implement Children First reforms. She investigated the DOE-mandated data inquiry teams. Data inquiry teams were meant to provide a mechanism for teachers and administrators to sit together, look at school and student level data, and strategize collectively to improve student achievement. Yet, not every school had principals and teachers who were able to work on the teams effectively, so Talbert finds wide variation in their quality. Part of the reason was that principals, as Leslie Santee Siskin in her chapter on high schools writes, had taken on many new roles they never had before, quoting one principal who said about her new role, Im a contortionist now. (p.189). The DOE did not provide direct support to schools, and instead relied on a system of networks to which all schools belonged. Yet they also varied widely. Some provided support effectively, others did not.
In my own research in New York City schools, I have found that the autonomy-accountability exchange had problems as well. In a study I conducted on the new small high schools, I found that the strict accountability requirements constrained even the best teachers and schools. With so much riding on student test scores, all teachers felt limited autonomy, and often prepared students for the state exam in lieu of teaching them content that would have engaged them more fully. They narrowed their teaching to prepare students for tests, since the accountability pressure is so severe. This limited the kind of teaching and learning to which New York City students were exposed, and did not necessarily prepare them for post-secondary options (Shiller, 2010).
In the last section on Student Achievement, James Kemple studies whether student achievement improved under Children First through rigorous data analysis. He finds that there were indeed increases in state test scores under Children First, but that achievement levels were still low when compared to national statistics and that once the state standard increased for proficiency, gains were not as great. Moreover, proficiency on state tests did not mean that students would receive Regents diplomas (the states indication that a student passed exams in five subjects). Ron Ferguson, in his chapter, also found that increased graduation rates did not mean more Regents diplomas. Kemple also showed how the gap in achievement between high and low poverty schools remained persistent under Children First. So, the improvements in achievement are much more complicated than they look when presented by the DOE.
Finally, the books conclusion offers reflections from a variety of experts, school superintendents, union leaders, community activists, and others whose voice did not make it into the individual chapters. The comments also provide mixed reviews on Children First, underscoring points made throughout the book. As a result, Education Reform in New York City makes an invaluable contribution because it provides research showing the limitations of the autonomy-for-accountability reform strategy. For those in other districts looking to New York for answers, and school reformers in general, Education Reform in New York City shows, with clear evidence, that Children First has made improvements, but has not been a panacea for the problems the city schools face. Very frequently urban school reform projects are implemented without empirical evidence that they work, and this book shows exactly which areas are problematic, giving other districts a very helpful list of things to avoid.
There has been even more to report on Children First since Education Reform in New York City went to press. In 2011, Joel Klein stepped down as chancellor. Bloomberg appointed a very unpopular former media mogul, Cathy Black, in his place. She was quickly replaced by deputy chancellor Dennis Walcott. Parent and community groups have stepped up their efforts to block planned school closures and resist the opening of charter schools. Occupy Wall Street activists have dominated policy meetings. The last year has shown just how complicated improving New York City schools is, and that even with the most sweeping changes there are challenges for reformers to face.
Avitia, D. Bloomfield, D. Brennan, J. Dukes, H., Haimson, L., Horowitz, E., Jennings, J., Koss, S., McAdoo, M, Meier, D., Ofer, U. Pallas, A., Ravitch, R., Sanders, S., Stern, S., Sullivan, P., & Wolf, A. (2009). New York City schools under Bloomberg and Klein: What parents, teachers, and policymakers need to know. New York: Lulu.
Shiller, J. (2010) Its Only Part of the Story: The Fallacy of Improved Outcome Data in New York Citys Effort to Make its High Schools. Education and Urban Society 42: 247-268.