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Report: Test score gains predate Bloomberg and mayoral control

A graph from Assemblyman James Brennan's report shows that test score increases predate mayoral control.
A graph from Assemblyman James Brennan's report shows that test score increases began before 2002, when mayoral control was enacted and Mayor Bloomberg took office.

A Brooklyn lawmaker is throwing doubt on two key arguments in both Mayor Bloomberg’s re-election campaign and his effort to keep the mayor in charge of the public school system: The idea that Bloomberg’s leadership is responsible for city students’ rising scores on standardized tests — and the extent to which achievement actually improved under Bloomberg.

In a paper released earlier this year, Assemblyman James Brennan points out that city students’ test scores were rising steadily for four years before Bloomberg took office, and, in some cases, at a faster pace than they have under Bloomberg.

He also argues that a list of changes in the schools that are unrelated to the Blooomberg administration or mayoral control (a near quadrupling of early childhood programs, for instance, and a dramatic increase in state funding that dates back to 1998) are the real reason for the gains the system has made.

“I generally don’t view their success to be credible,” Brennan, who could play a significant role in the mayoral control discussions this spring, said in a recent interview. “I do not believe that some of the recent improvements in the school system are directly related to policies of Klein.”

Brennan’s stance directly challenges the mayor and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who declare in speeches, billboards, television advertisements, and interviews that their changes to the school system are responsible for a battery of improvements, including higher test scores. A Department of Education spokesman, Andrew Jacob, defended this point of view in a short memo disputing Brennan’s conclusions.

The memo argues that the city’s test scores are rising more steadily than scores across New York State, and accuses Brennan of ignoring several Bloomberg administration policies, including the opening of hundreds of new schools and transfers of funds to schools from the bureaucracy. It also points out an indisputable rise in the graduation rate, which soared by 10 percentage points under Bloomberg, compared to a change of just one-tenth of a percentage point in the entire decade before he took control of the schools.

Below the fold, I’ll walk through each part of the dispute.

The first sticking point is whether test scores really rose more under Mayor Bloomberg and mayoral control than they did before. Brennan’s report points out that, on most measures, city students actually showed more progress between 1998 and 2002 than they did once Bloomberg took office. Under Bloomberg, the percentage of fourth-graders who passed the state math test rose by 13 percentage points, compared to 17 points between 1998 and 2002. Fourth-grade reading scores follow the same pattern: up 9 points under Bloomberg compared to 20 points before he took office.

Jacob’s memo argues that this is a flawed analysis because it looks at raw city data, rather than comparing city scores to the state. The gap between city and state scores for fourth-graders, he shows, closed more under the Bloomberg administration than it did before. The pattern is even more pronounced among eighth-graders, who were outdone by the state average before Bloomberg but made gains under the mayor.

At the same time, the strength of this trend depends on whether you follow the department’s lead on what year to use as zero for considering Bloomberg’s effect. Test scores rose sharply in the city between 2002 and 2003, making 2002 the more flattering baseline to compare future scores against. The Bloomberg administration now uses this date, arguing that it’s appropriate since Mayor Bloomberg took control of the schools in June of 2002, and by the time students were tested in 2003, Klein had been hired and changes had begun.

But Brennan, echoing other critics of the administration’s data, says that 2003 is the better baseline. He argues that Klein’s program of changes didn’t start until after the 2003 tests had been given, in September of that year, and so the gains between 2002 and 2003 aren’t his to claim. These critics point out that when the 2003 test scores were announced, the conventional wisdom attributed the improvements more to Klein’s predecessors than to him. Using Brennan’s framework, Jacob’s look at the state-versus-city test score gap becomes weaker, with fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores showing virtually no difference compared to the state, though there is still a small difference in math scores.

The second sticking point is over what explains the rising test scores. Brennan points to a list of efforts to improve the school system that were well underway when the mayor still stood at the helm of Bloomberg LP. An increase in funds that almost doubled the city school budget began in 1998; an investment in pre-kindergarten that has almost quadrupled the number of 4-year-olds enrolled in early childhood classes also began that year. It was also 1998 that the state introduced heightened graduation standards, forcing high schools to begin considering how to prepare students to meet a much higher bar.

A drop in class sizes for students in early elementary school began as a program under President Clinton. The chancellor who preceded Klein, Harold Levy, created a slew of program, including the Teaching Fellows program that is credited with bringing an influx of new blood into the teaching profession. He also argues that the accountability measures Bloomberg and Klein introduced to focus principals’ attention on poor students and children of color truly began with President Bush’s federal No Child Left Behind law.

Compare that, Brennan suggests, with some of the key reforms under Bloomberg and Klein — such as progress reports for schools and the effort to empower principals — which only began in the last three years. “Generally speaking,” the report concludes, “the overwhelming proportion of student improvements in the past ten years had already occured by 2006-07 and new reforms have little relevance as ‘dramatic’ improvement.”

Jacob’s memo says the DOE agrees with Brennan about the importance of programs like pre-kindergarten and summer school. But it accuses the assemblyman of ignoring other critical reforms that the Bloomberg administration alone accomplished:

We’ve opened hundreds of new schools to give parents more choices. We’ve cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the bureaucracy and empowered our principals to spend them in the ways that will best help their students. Most importantly, we’re holding every school accountable for helping all their students make academic progress.

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.