Bloomberg's Education Plan Is Working: Don't Ditch It

Since the outgoing mayor took office, New York City's high-school graduation rates are up. There are more high-quality schools. Money is distributed more equitably.
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Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Bill de Blasio, the likely next New York City mayor, has made a lot of promises about public education. No additional charter schools; no free space for many charter schools educating city kids; less reliance on student test performance to judge schools; and a moratorium on the closure of low-performing schools.  Though these pledges have come piecemeal, together they would dismantle the reforms Michael Bloomberg implemented during his 12 years as mayor.  Before this happens, it’s worth looking at what Bloomberg’s policies have accomplished and what is at risk if they are tossed out.

This essay will show what has been accomplished—how children have benefited from Bloomberg’s education policies and how the system has changed in positive ways. Then in later sections it discusses, first, how the positive results came about; and second, how the next can mayor make sure those gains are not lost.

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In October 2002, about nine months after Bloomberg took office, he and schools chancellor Joel Klein unveiled "Children First: A New Agenda for Public Education." Children First sought to increase the four-year high school graduation rates—which hovered around 50 percent—and preparedness for college.  Because children from advantaged households already graduated at high rates, the only way to increase the number of graduates was to improve results for children who were at risk of never graduating.  The only way to do that was to improve schools—high schools so students would be encouraged to take necessary courses and persevere to graduation, and elementary and middle schools so that students would enter high school ready to succeed. Children First also worked to rescue high school-age students who had already dropped out or fallen drastically behind. It did this by creating career and technical education schools that linked students to jobs, and “multiple pathways to graduation” that offered flexible schedules and concentrated learning opportunities so students could graduate.  

Here’s a straight assessment of the results.

Graduation rates are up. When Bloomberg became mayor, less than half the students in New York City’s high schools graduated in four years.  Today, nearly two-thirds graduate on time. Every year, more than 18,000 young people graduate high school than would have been expected in 2002. The percentage of graduates who enter college without needing to take remedial courses has doubled since 2001.

From 2005 to 2012, the graduation rate for Asian students rose from 66.3 percent to 82.1 percent, for black students from 40.1 percent to 59.8 percent; for Hispanic students from 37.4 percent to 57.5 percent; and for white students from 64.0 percent to 78.1 percent.

The percentage of city students dropping out after entering high school fell from 22 percent in 2005 to 11.4 percent in 2012. The percentage receiving an Advanced Regents Diploma increased from 12.5 percent in 2005 to 16.6 percent in 2012.  

New small high schools started during the Bloomberg administration are more effective than the schools they replaced. On campuses where new small schools replaced large underperforming high schools, the overall graduation rate increased from 37.9 percent to 67.7 percent. This translates to 2,056 more graduates per year. New schools have produced these results serving the same kinds of students—those living in poverty, with disabilities, learning English as a second language—as the schools they replaced. In fact, students who entered the new small schools with the lowest test scores benefited from them the most.

The new schools are demonstrably more effective. A series of studies by independent research firm MDRC uses the “gold standard” method of measuring school effects. (For a full description of the firm’s multi-year study of new small high schools in the city, see here.) They took advantage of the lotteries required to select at random among applicants to the new high schools. Because applicants are selected at random, students who win the lotteries and thus attend new high schools have the same characteristics, including motivation, as students who lose in the lotteries. Any differences in results—say, test scores or rates of graduation—can be confidently attributed to the one clear difference between the two groups: the school they attended. These studies are updated every year as results from a new cohort of students become available.

Summing up its findings in 2012, MDRC reported that, in 123 small schools located in disadvantaged neighborhoods:

  • By the end of their first year of high school, 58.5 percent of new small school enrollees are on track to graduate in four years compared with 48.5 percent of students who did not win the admissions lottery.
  • By the fourth year of high school, lottery winners' graduation rates are higher by 8.6 percentage points (69.7 percent for new school attendees vs. 59.3 percent for lottery students who did not attend the new small schools), which is roughly one-third the size of the gap in graduation rates between white students and students of color in New York City.
  • Lottery winners are 7.6 percentage points more likely to get a high score of at least 75 points on the English Regents, where a score of 65 is “passing.” However, lottery winners are no more likely than control group students to get a 75 on the Mathematics Regents.
  • Positive effects are seen for a broad range of students, particularly the highest need students, including students with low entering proficiency in math and English, males and females, blacks and Hispanics, and students eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch.

The most recent update of these findings added that the cohort entering new small schools in 2006 had even better results: a 4-year graduation rate of 74.6 compared to 65.1 for control group members.

The research team asked teachers what made new small schools effective. The answer: schools can assemble a group of teachers who are united around a school mission and approach, and will work closely with one another and with individual students to meet high academic expectations.

Some other analysts of these results have noted older small schools are not as effective. They suggest the Children First schools’ newness, which translates into control over staffing and spending, greater financial resources, and association with outside expert partners, might be more important than their small size. As they conclude, “the evidence from New York City suggests that the success of [future] efforts will depend significantly on how those new schools are created and supported.”

New charter schools are also highly effective. A research team at CREDO, led by Stanford’s Margaret Raymond, compared test scores in New York City charter schools with traditional schools serving very similar students in New York State. (Charter critics, including Diane Ravitch, have celebrated CREDO’s national study of charter schools, using the same methods, as valid and definitive.) In their most recent study, CREDO found that:

…the typical student in New York City charter schools gains more learning in a year than his TPS [traditional public school] counterparts, amounting to one month of additional gains in reading and five months in math. The learning advantage in Harlem equates to less than a full month of additional learning in reading but an additional seven months of progress in math. These outcomes are consistent with the result that charter schools have significantly better results than TPS for minority students who are in poverty, with more pronounced impacts in math than in reading.

In charter schools in New York City, Special Education students receive a significant benefit from charter school attendance compared to their counterparts in TPS in both reading and math.

In its 2010 report CREDO also concluded that:

Black and Hispanic students in poverty who are enrolled in charter schools show significantly better performance in reading and math than their peers in traditional public schools.

The 2013 report reproduces these findings.

Another study focused on New York City charter elementary schools.  Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby used a method similar to MDRC’s. It compared students who won with those who lost in random admissions lotteries for charter elementary schools.

The students who attend New York City's charter schools start out with the same level of achievement as the students who entered but did not win the admissions lottery. Students applying (and admitted to) charter schools were 68 percent black and 29 percent Hispanic; 92 percent were low-income (based on eligibility for free and reduced price lunch) compared to 72 percent of all New York City students.

Hoxby reports that for students attending charter schools in grades 1 through 3, the average annual gain over lotteried-out students was 0.13 standard score units in English and 0.14 standard score units in math.

For each year after 3rd grade, Hoxby calculates that students attending charter schools gained at least 0.09 more standard score units in math and 0.06 more units in English. By her calculations in an average year charter school students’ gains close more than 8 percent of the gap between disadvantaged students in New York City and children in Scarsdale.

In a critique of Hoxby’s research methods, Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon urged caution about two aspects of the report. First, he argued that the claim that charter school students’ rates of test score gain were enough for those who attended charter schools for all eight grades to close 66 to 86 percent of the Harlem-Scarsdale achievement gap by the end of 8th grade, was speculative, since few students in the study had been in been in charter schools for that long. Second, he noted that student gains after the 4th grade were computed from baseline tests administered after students knew whether they had won or lost the charter school admissions lottery. Reardon argues that testing after the lottery violated the study’s assumption that students in charter and non-charter schools were alike in all ways except the school they attended. He also argued that Hoxby should have created a new control group each year, of students whose baseline scores for that year were identical to those of charter school students. Not doing this, he argued, likely inflated the observed achievement gains made by charter students after 4th grade.  

Every child’s options have been improved, but the disadvantaged still don’t have enough good choices.

Taking the most cautious course and accepting Reardon’s criticisms without examining them critically, it is still safe to say that children attending charter schools in grades 3 through 8 made major gains over a randomly selected comparison group, and that children in charter schools in grades 4 through 8 made major gains over a comparison group that was identical to them at the time of the original admissions lottery.

A study of new middle schools run by two independent providers—Achievement First and Uncommon Schools—shows similar results. After three years in these schools, disadvantaged African American and Latino children got significantly higher reading and mathematics scores, and were less likely to change schools, than a matched sample of NYC middle schoolers.

 The results produced by new small high schools and charters reflect the effects of signature education initiatives under Bloomberg. But of course the majority of New York City students are not in new high schools or in new charters. Did they gain anything?

Children in elementary and middle schools have greater access to high-performing schools. In new research by the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s (an organization that I founded), Betheny Gross tracks the numbers of students in schools whose overall performance matches or exceeds the state average. Black and Hispanic students in New York City are now 10 percentage points more likely to be in an above-average school, than in 2006.  White and Asian students have also benefited by an average of five percentage points.

James Kemple, executive director at the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, reported across the board gains for all demographic groups of students on entering 9th grade. Across the board, students entering high school have higher scores on language arts and math and on tests of college readiness. Thus, Children First is not simply redistributing educational opportunity from more to less advantaged students.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that black and Hispanic students are still barely half as likely to attend high-quality schools as are whites and Asians.

The overall trend in student test scores and progress toward graduation is positive for all students, including those in existing NYC schools. Carefully matching New York City schools with a control group of schools serving similar students throughout the state, James Kemple and colleagues tracked overall changes in achievement.They showed that, citywide:

Elementary school achievement is rising more quickly than in matched schools statewide;

Eighth grade proficiency scores are also rising more than in other cities; and

Eighth grade gains lead to greater improvements in overall graduation rates than in comparable schools nationwide.

Kemple also used a national benchmark test, the National Assessment of Education Progress, to compare rates of gain in New York and other cities. He found higher rates of gain in New York than nationwide. However, other scholars have identified some cities with similar National Assessment Educational Progress score increases and questioned any attribution of gains to New York’s reforms.  There are reasons to think that NAEP gains are more meaningful in New York than in other cities, because New York experiences more population growth among disadvantaged students than any other US city and therefore must constantly make up a score deficit. However, it is impossible to draw a firm conclusion based on NAEP comparisons.

Aside from the possible National Assessment of Educational Progress gains, the results summarized here are rock solid. New Yorkers should be determined to keep these gains. Of course there is more to do. Graduation rates are still too low, especially for poor and minority children. Every child’s options have been improved through new schools and choice, but the disadvantaged still don’t have enough good choices.

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Paul T. Hill is the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and a research professor at the University of Washington Bothell. More

Paul T. Hill is the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and a research professor at the University of Washington Bothell. His current work focuses on re-missioning states and school districts to promote school performance, choice and innovation, and finance and productivity. He leads the Portfolio School Districts Project and has built a national network of school district officials, mayors, foundations, nonprofits, and others who are pursuing the portfolio strategy. He also chaired the National Working Commission on Choice in K-12 Education. 

Hill's books include Strife and Progress: Portfolio Strategies for Managing Urban Schools (2012), Learning as We Go: Why School Choice Is Worth the Wait (2010), Making School Reform Work: New Partnerships for Real Change (2004), Charter Schools and Accountability in Public Education (2002), It Takes A City: Getting Serious About Urban School Reform (2000), and Fixing Urban Schools (1998). He is editor (with Julian Betts) of Taking Measure of Charter Schools: Better Assessments, Better PolicymakingBetter Schools (2010) and Charter Schools Against the Odds (2006). He is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. He holds a Ph.D. and M.A. from Ohio State University and a B.A. from Seattle University, all in political science.
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