Primary Sources

Chancellor Klein's testimony, for those playing along at home

Were you somehow unable not to make today’s mayoral control hearing? Don’t worry! You can still read Chancellor Joel Klein’s testimony in its entirety right here on GothamSchools, courtesy of the Department of Education:

TESTIMONY OF CHANCELLOR JOEL I. KLEIN ON MAYORAL CONTROL OF NEW YORK CITY PUBLIC SCHOOLS BEFORE THE NEW YORK STATE ASSEMBLY EDUCATION COMMITTEE

Good morning, Speaker Silver, Chairwoman Nolan, and members of the Education Committee. Thank you for inviting me to testify today, and thank you for holding this series of hearings. I’m honored to be part of a process that is so important to our children and our City. I’m joined by my deputy, Kathleen Grimm, who will discuss our Capital Plan. The president of the School Construction Authority, Sharon Greenberger, is also here to help answer your questions.

Seven years ago, when Mayor Bloomberg took office, everybody agreed that the City’s public school system was in crisis. Its schools were failing many of its students—especially the neediest ones. Since then, we’ve come a long way—thanks in large measure to your bold decision to support mayoral control, and, I would add, the significant infusion of funds that you have delivered. What we’ve created is not perfect, our work has not been without mistake, and the transformation we have worked to engender is not complete. But the results show how far we’ve come. Today, more than 10,000 additional students are graduating than when we took over in 2002. Today, many more students are meeting and exceeding standards in math and reading. And today, the gap separating African-American and Latino students from their white and Asian peers is shrinking.

So, let me jump right in and start with what I think is most important. Whoever the mayor is, you should continue to provide him or her with the authority and accountability for public education in our City. Nothing is more important than education to our City and its families, and our City’s highest elected official should have the responsibility for this core function, just as he or she does for the safety, health, and the economic well being our City. Some have proposed that we should dilute the mayor’s authority over education policy and budget decisions, by changing the composition of the Panel for Educational Policy, for example. But if we do, we undermine the mayor’s accountability to the City, and that would be a mistake. If he cannot pursue his priorities, he cannot fairly be responsible for what happens in education.

We don’t need to speculate about this. That’s precisely the way it was before you authorized mayoral control in 2002. There was divided authority, a school system in distress, lots of finger pointing and blame passing, and a new chancellor every two or three years. Today, there are people who disagree strongly with our priorities and who focus exclusively on the mistakes we have made. But whether they agree or disagree, no one questions that the Mayor and I are accountable for the state of our City’s schools.

There is a second reason why the Mayor should be both responsible and accountable: when it comes to education, someone has to watch out for all 1.1 million students. Divided authority—and a local, rather than a citywide focus—often leads to interest group politics in education, and those with power, or access to power, typically prevail. There are, in short, as is often the case, winners and losers. But we cannot afford losers in education. For example, there are many parents in our City who know how to navigate the system to find a good school for their children, parents who can call someone who is well connected to find out how to play the game. But who looks out for the students who are not so well connected, the children of our poorest families, the children of color, and the children of parents who recently arrived here in America? In New York City, indeed throughout our Nation, those students have typically gotten the short end of the stick in public education. And that’s a significant reason why we have the shameful racial and ethnic achievement gaps that we do. The mayor and chancellor must advocate for those children—and set priorities in a way that will ensure they too get an equal educational opportunity—or their needs will continue to be neglected.

Our experience over the past seven years in New York City demonstrates that mayoral control provides the necessary ability to make real changes in the largest school system in the country. The sorts of reforms we have implemented would not and could not have happened in the absence of such authority. By definition, such reforms are often controversial. You certainly don’t have to agree with every program we’ve undertaken or policy we’ve implemented, but I think it’s clear that to get the job done—and get it done right—we need real reforms, not the feel-good stuff that so often characterizes education reform. Everyone wants more money for education—our children need and deserve it. But more money alone, as experience throughout the Nation sadly demonstrates, hasn’t solved the challenges we face.

I know Deputy Mayor Walcott outlined our results last week. I’d like to just highlight a few points:

We have made substantial progress in attacking the achievement gap. For our fourth graders, we have cut the achievement gap in half in math since 2002 and we’ve reduced it by about 20% in English. Progress in the eighth grade is less substantial, but it is still in the right direction. On the national tests, our African-American fourth graders are beating out African Americans throughout America and in virtually every other large city in both math and English.

Overall, our students have made sustained progress in math and reading since 2002. The percentage of students meeting or exceeding State standards is up almost 30 points in fourth and eighth grade math. In ELA, the percentage is up almost 15 points in fourth grade and 14 points in eighth grade.

In every area, New York City’s students’ gains have outpaced gains in the rest of the State, where students are taking the same tests and not making remotely the same progress.

And most importantly, as I said, many more students are graduating from high school. The City methodology, which was in effect long before mayoral control, shows that we have increased the four-year graduation rate by more than 2 points per year after a decade of stagnation that preceded us. And, under the State’s new methodology, in existence for the past three years, we’ve gone up almost 3 points per year from 2005 to 2007.

Because of our steady progress in improving student achievement and reducing achievement gaps plaguing poor and minority students, we won the country’s most prestigious education award, the Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2007.

Today, we are working together, as one City, to address the needs of our students. We have one system that sets clear expectations for our schools and our students. No longer do we think of ourselves as 32 separate fiefdoms, divided along income and zip code lines. We are the City of New York. WE know that success in some communities with sustained failure in others hurts all of us.

Today, we focus relentlessly on student achievement, something you heard far less about before mayoral control. Look at the first page in the folder we provided. Students’ advancement to and beyond proficiency is directly linked to the rate at which they graduate from high school on time with a Regents diploma. Small increments of growth in proficiency produce large increases in the probability of success in high school. As the chart illustrates, only 23% of students finishing eighth grade with a proficiency ratings of 2.50 in ELA and math graduate four years later with a Regents diploma. But students leaving middle school with a rating of 3.50 graduate at a rate of 81%—58 points higher. For every tenth of a point gain in proficiency within that range, the probability that a rising ninth grader will graduate in four years, college ready, increases by about 5 points.

These are big differences and that’s why mastering the materials on New York State’s standardized tests matters and why the gains that we have made on those tests that I’ve described will have significant life-time effects.

As is obvious, I strongly believe that mayoral control is the best governance system for urban public schools. I said that publicly and often long before Mayor Bloomberg decided to run again, and I have repeatedly urged lawmakers throughout this Nation—especially big-city mayors in cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.—to adopt a system of mayoral control. But that doesn’t mean, of course, that you shouldn’t seek to improve the statute. I recognize that it is not a sacred text. Like the work we do every day, now is the time to focus on what we can learn from our experiences and make modifications that will benefit our schools and students. But as we strive toward that goal, there is a real danger that the debate over the statute becomes a debate over specific policy decisions that were enabled by it. Even if you don’t like some of the decisions we have made, it would be a grave mistake to constrain, now and long into the future, the fundamental ability to make the kind of transformational change our kids need by dividing up decision-making in the law. No matter what how it is labeled, that is not changing or tweaking or improving mayoral control, it is ending it—and that is a line that, for our kids’ sake, we can’t afford to cross.

Before I close, I would like to address the issue many people who question mayoral control have raised as a problem, and that is the issue of parental involvement. First, let me provide some independent data. A survey by the Community Service Society—a well respected advocacy group known to all of you—found that the percentage of public school parents “grading” their children’s school with a B or higher has jumped significantly under our administration. Among our City’s poorest parents, this figure rose from 24% to 64%. Among the “near poor,” it rose from 47% to 64%, and among the “moderate-higher” families, it rose from 59% to 66%.

And just last week, a Quinnipiac Poll found that voters with children in public schools support the continuation of mayoral control by a margin of almost 20 points—57% to 39%.

Yet, although I believe that we’ve made strides with community and family engagement over the course of the administration, I also know that we can do a better job. This is a complex education system to navigate and we can, and must, do a better job helping our families navigate it. We also need to give families and communities more information in a more timely fashion so that we can do a better job of getting their input. Working together with you, and learning from our experience over the past several years, I’m confident we can build a better process.

In conclusion, let me again emphasize that the conversation we are having today is one of the most important conversations facing us as a City. There are things we’ve learned since 2002, things we could no doubt have done better with the benefit of hindsight. But we have a duty to make sure our City continues to have the tools it needs to further transform education for the benefit of our children, especially those children who, almost 55 years after Brown v. Board of Education, remain profoundly shortchanged. I look forward to working with you to learn from the experience of the past seven years to construct the best possible education law for our students and their families.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.