Measured response

A frequent critic of testing, de Blasio takes the good test news in stride

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio in August 2014 announcing last year's state test results.

It was an odd first test-score release for Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The mayor couldn’t help but celebrate the good news Thursday that the city’s scores on the third-through-eighth-grade state exams had inched back up after last year’s nosedive. But he also was aware that not too long ago he knocked his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, for putting too much stock in test results. On top of that, de Blasio could hardly claim much credit for the gains, since he took office midway through the school year.

Meanwhile, there was the sobering fact that even as all students made progress, white and Asian students continue to perform far better than their black and Hispanic peers — with the gap between them actually widening. And even with the gains, nearly two-thirds of students still did not pass the tests, which for the second year were tied to the more demanding Common Core learning standards.

“We recognize the improvement this indicates,” de Blasio said outside a middle school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. “But we have a long way to go.”

This year, 34.2 percent of city students passed the math exams, up 4.6 points from last year. In English, 28.4 percent of students passed, a one-point gain, according to city figures. That progress brought the city’s pass rate closer to the state average than it has been in years.

After touting those figures Thursday, de Blasio commended the previous administration for “their part of the equation.” Still, he pointed out, “In this year that bridged the two administrations, everyone contributed to the progress.”

But any attempted credit-taking was preempted by an email sent to reporters just as the press conference was starting titled, “Former New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott Touts Test Score Gains in Final Year of Bloomberg Administration.” In the statement, sent by a Bloomberg spokesman, Walcott attributed the gains in part to the creation of charter schools and stronger accountability systems — two Bloomberg policies that de Blasio has sharply criticized.

Later, de Blasio was asked about Walcott’s message. The mayor said he welcomed the news that the city’s charter schools did well on the tests. (Overall, they outperformed the city average in math, but lagged a little behind in English.) Still, he said that “in our system,” schools serve all students regardless of their needs and are moving away from test prep — which he said is not true of all charter schools.

Another message went out later from Michael Mulgrew, the city teachers union president who clashed bitterly with Bloomberg and is now aligned with de Blasio. Mulgrew pointed to the disparities among student groups. For instance, while nearly 56 percent of white students passed this year’s math tests, just over 15 percent of black students did — a gap that grew by more than two percentage points from last year.

“The racial achievement gap, which the Bloomberg administration kept claiming it was closing,” Mulgrew said in the statement, “remains a major problem that the schools and the new administration must focus on.”

Mulgrew added that student achievement begins with “well-supported” teachers. That was a message echoed by de Blasio and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña.

Fariña said a provision in the new teachers contract that sets aside time for educators to train and collaborate will help them to continue to adjust to the new standards. She added that thousands of teachers and 900 principals received training over the summer.

Such guidance will do more to improve classroom instruction than the previous administration’s accountability system, which included grading schools based on student performance, Fariña said.

“It’s about not pointing fingers and saying, ‘You’re a bad school,’” she said. “But let’s look at what it is you do and what support do you need.”

Despite their ambivalence about test scores, both Fariña and de Blasio set lofty goals for the coming years. Fariña said she would like to “double or triple” the current pass rates, while de Blasio insisted, “The goal is to have 100 percent proficiency for our children.”

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

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”