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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.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede