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Apres Bloomberg, Le Deluge


As the Bloomberg era is ending in New York, teachers’ unions are licking their chops. More than ten years ago, Mayor Bloomberg wrested control of the public school system and embarked on an ambitious agenda of reform, instituting measures such as giving principals greater control over their budgets, making teacher tenure more difficult to obtain, closing non-performing schools, and opening scores of charter schools in their place. Though there certainly have been problems along the way, Howard Wolfson, Bloomberg’s Deputy Mayor for government affairs and communication, bemoans what appears to be on the horizon:

Today, as the city prepares to elect a new mayor, the system is at a crossroads. For the last several months, the Democratic candidates, desperate for the UFT’s endorsement, have engaged in a shameful, fawning dance of genuflection before the union, parroting its demands and echoing its complaints.

This past week, the UFT finally gave its nod to the man who presided over the dysfunction and mediocrity of the school system in the 1990s, former School Board President Bill Thompson.

Thompson was always the union’s logical choice because he is most familiar and comfortable with the way the system was run before mayoral control. He has promised to freeze co-locations of charter schools and place a moratorium on closing failing schools. He has called the state’s rigorous new evaluation system “unworkable.” He has proposed reducing the number of appointees the mayor can make to the Panel for Education Policy — the board that approves school proposals — which would open the door to special interests and limit the accountability critical to a functioning school system.

Also potentially on the table: higher taxes or cuts to other services to pay for billions in retroactive pay raises.

In a speech after securing the union’s endorsement, Thompson said, “As mayor, I’m not going to demonize teachers. We’ve had enough of that.” He’s right, as far as that goes: We shouldn’t be demonizing teachers. But we also shouldn’t be empowering a bureaucratized, by-the-book educational system that has served neither students nor teachers particularly well in the past.

Michael Bloomberg hasn’t been a flawless Mayor—far from it, in fact. But the Dem party hacks lining up to take his place don’t exactly fill us with hope either. For all his shortcomings, we suspect that New Yorkers, especially New Yorkers with children, will miss Mayor Bloomberg when he’s gone, perhaps a lot sooner than most think.

[Michael Bloomberg photo courtesy Getty Images.]

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  • rheddles

    We shouldn’t be demonizing teachers but we should be demonizing their unions.

    • GRL

      Why shouldn’t we demonize them. They belong to the unions, they are trained by programs that are scored low and academics with skewed agendas, and many now represent these “demons” in the way they teach our children. If the demonizing fits…..

  • wigwag

    Via Meadia keeps making the same old tired arguments about public schools but never manages to explain why, once they are implemented, the reforms that politicians like Mayor Bloomberg advocate never actually improve education very much. Bloomberg has had 12 years to make his reforms produce results; they have produced almost no improvements. The only way to pretend that New York City schools have improved is with smoke and mirrors and statistical sleight of hands.

    In the meantime, suburban school districts are thriving. Slightly to the north of New York City, in Scarsdale or Pelham, students are doing great even though those students are educated by teachers who belong to the same union that New York City teachers belong to. The salaries are about the same, the pensions are about the same, the length of the school year is about the same and the work rules are about the same. Why do these students thrive under the system Bloomberg wants to discard?

    Come to think of it, even in New York City, in places like Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, the Upper West Side, Riverdale, Bayside and Forest Hills students did perfectly well under the system that Bloomberg says is so bad. In fact, parents fight to get their kids into schools in these New York City districts just as parents pay inflated prices for homes so their kids can go to school in Scarsdale or Pelham.

    The ways schools are organized doesn’t matter much, teachers unions don’t matter much and even a cumbersome educational bureaucracy doesn’t matter much. Only Rubes think these are the critical issues. The debate about educational reform outline in Professor Mead’s tired post is like a game of three card monte; Bloomberg’s the dealer, Wolfson’s the shill and Professor Mead and those who are equally gullible are the marks. It’s all about misdirection.

    It’s not about the teachers, the unions or the bureaucracy; it is about the students and most importantly their parents. Students who come to school well prepared and eager to learn do well under any system. Students who are indifferent and bored wont do well under any circumstances.

    Blaming unions and bureaucrats may make certain people feel good but it won’t change a thing.

    Show a little gumption Professor Mead and place the blame where it really belongs; too many parents of kids in urban school districts do a terrible job raising their children. Fix this problem and the problem with urban schools will be solved as if by magic.

    • jeburke

      You’re right to some extent. It’s a truism rarely spoken except to complain about the “unfair” advantages of wealth that you can predict with uncanny accuracy the average SAT scores of a high school if all you know is the average household income of the school district.

      That understood, we are still left with the problem of how to organize and operate the city schools with large numbers of low-income students so as to get the best results. Essential to that challenge is the ability to manage schools more aggressively than is the case in suburban districts blessed with legions of high-performing students. Unions will block that. School competion could be a fertile path but unions will block that too.Ultimately, the best approach might be vouchers but unions will fight that to the death.

      All in all, it’s still a serious issue that next year, NYC schools will once again be under the thumb of the city’s increasingly radical Democrats.

      • rheddles

        You can predict the SAT scores of an individual even better if you know the number of books in his house. Not all people with lots of books have high income and vice versa.

        • jeburke

          Maybe so but we don’t have data on numbers of books. My point is simple: you can plot on a graph the known average household income of school districts — say, the several dozen districts in NYC’s northern suburbs, ranging from lower-income Yonkers to higher-income Scarsdale — and overlay a graph of SAT scores and there will be a striking (and not surprising) coincidence.

        • wigwag

          In the aftermath of the Viet Nam war, large numbers of former South Vietnamese government officials migrated to the United States with their families. By and large they arrived with nothing. They were poor, they didn’t speak English and they arrived with little or no capital.

          Their children were educated mostly in urban public schools by unionized teachers who worked in schools operating under work rules not that different from the work rules in effect today.

          These kids thrived. The children and grandchildren of the poor Vietnamese immigrants have moved into the middle and upper middle classes.

          Maybe Professor Mead can explain to us why these kids did so well in a bureaucratized and unionized environment while urban kids today can’t.

          • rheddles

            I know several. Professor Mead knows why the did so well. The problem is what to do with the children who don’t come from such advantaged families. Any suggestions?

          • wigwag

            Here are a few ideas:

            1) Ban persistent behavior problems from regular public schools.

            2) Dont hire educational professionals as school administrators. Doctors don’t run hospitals any more; do they? There’s a reason for that.

            3) Insist that parents limit television and non-homework related Internet access to two hours a day.

            4) Make sure that most books assigned to kids to read were written by dead white men. With a few exceptions most of the world’s best literature was written by dead white guys of European origin.

            5) Fund adequate music education, especially the teaching of musical instruments. Music makes you smarter.

            Do you know how much of this teacher’s unions would object to?

            The answer is none of it.

          • rheddles

            My problem is that none of this undoes the damage done in the first 5 years. I felt my influence on my children was inversely proportional to their age. So the remedies don’t address the root cause. So:

            1. We’ve already tried this. The due process hurdles would take over a year to overcome.

            2. The unions do want administrators to be former teachers for a reason.

            3. Assumes the parents are in the home and coherent when the children are there and that they give a…

            4. Yes, well that’s true for all students.

            5. Ditto 4.

            As I say above, the problem starts in the family and that’s tough to fix.

          • ChuckFinley

            Here is an even simpler set of recommendations from a study group commissioned by Bill Gates to look into ways of improving American education.

            Fire the worst 10% of teachers.

            Gates group found that the average teacher is actually pretty good but there are some real stinkers and they cannot be gotten rid of.

            The teachers’ unions would object to that a lot.

      • rheddles

        I also think WW is exactly right. There are plenty of (name your ethnic group)-Americans who are financially poor but produce outstanding students from mediocre schools because of their family. They are not poor in motivation, discipline or the ability to defer gratification. The people WW is talking about are poor in all those things. They are the underclass and they are subsidized so that terrible things don’t happen to their innocent children. Except that they grow up in households that have given them os distorted a view of life that by the age of 5 they are unable to compete regardless of what the school does.

      • wigwag

        Even in wealthy school districts there are students who come from families without alot of money. Even in Greenwich, CT, home to many hedge fund billionaires 4 percent of the towns residents live below the poverty line and 10 percent of Greenwich school children qualify for free school lunches. More than three quarters of these students scored at or above state proficiency levels in 10th grade performance tests. In nearby Stamford, CT, a much poorer town, 50 percent of students receive free lunch and of these, less than half of the students achieved minimum state proficiency levels.

        Teachers in Greenwich and Stamford are both unionized; their unions are affiliated with the National Education Association. Teachers in both systems graduate from the same schools of education. Class size is somewhat smaller in Greenwich but not alot smaller. Work rules are about the same as is the length of the school year. What’s different is the kids and their parents.

        Those who criticize teachers unions are really disinterested in kids; their criticism represents little more than a personal agenda. It’s little more than political correctness with a right leaning slant.

        To fix urban education the first thing you need to do is identify the real problem.

        The real problem is bad parents.

        • jeburke

          I agree with you about the nature of the problem in inner-city schools but I don’t agree that because better-off and more successful school districts in the suburbs have similar contracts with teachers unions, the UFT is not a problem in New York City. That’s your point, is it not? For one thing, the unions’ influence on education goes well beyond contracts into every aspect of education policy, including such matters as charter schools. Needless to say, the UFT will never sanction the use of education dollars for vouchers or any sort of school competition.

          • wigwag

            In answer to your question, yes, that is my point. I believe that the UFT is largely irrelevant to whether New York City schools succeed. When it comes to inner city education, teachers unions do some bad things (they stifle innovation to some degree) and they do some good things (they work to bring more resources to education and they push for things that might be modestly valuable like smaller class size). Mostly though, I think that they are irrelevant. As for charter schools, I believe that they are little more than a gimmick with very little evidence for success.
            There are good and bad charter schools and good and bad regular schools; whether a school is organized in a traditional fashion or a charter-like fashion matters not a whit.

            There is nothing that schools can do that can overcome the pathologies that come with growing up in a dysfunctional neighborhood and with parents (or more likely a single parent) who don’t do a good job parenting.

            Teachers unions often get blamed for the failure that comes from the dual pathologies of bad neighborhoods and bad parenting. Not only is this unfair, it is counterproductive. You can’t cure an illness if you misdiagnose it in the first place.

            Lots of people don’t like unions; that’s fine. But teachers unions are not why urban education is failing.

          • jeburke

            I think you underestimate the extent of AFT-NEA influence on all education inputs at every level. Bloomberg pushed early on to put the NYC schools under mayoral control because from 1969 the school system was run by a central board of education the UFT could influence through board members appointed by the five borough presidents and 32 community boards, many of which were controlled outright by the UFT (suburban districts have elected boards which are typically parent controlled). It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that before 2002, the UFT was running the system.

            In any case, I’m not sure what’s the point of belaboring the obvious — that poor parenting and generally chaotic communities

      • Jim__L

        Suburban schools are “aggressively managed” by concerned parents with high standards. It’s said that picky customers are the best Quality Assurance, and it’s true.

        I’m not certain that any Government that backs the nonsensical non-judgemental “diversity” movement is going to be capable of organizing a school system that can achieve the desired results. It would have to overcome pop culture’s negative influence, ranging from a lack of respect for working hard at learning, to the more subtly poisonous “be yourself” movement that ignores the fact that you actually have to be some use to others (not just yourself) to earn a living.

        The problems here are cultural, as are the solutions. As long as the policy wanks in charge pretend that there’s no such thing as prosperity-encouraging cultural assets and no point in using the school system to instill them, the school system is going to fail.

    • Anthony

      Sol Stern’s piece in City Journal may be worth a look WigWag..

    • ChuckFinley

      And yet.

      A study comparing results for kids who applied for the lottery that awarded school vouchers in Washington, DC showed that the kids who won the lottery, got the vouchers and went to school outside the DC public school system did significantly better than the kids who did not win the lottery and stayed in the school system. The study compared HS graduation rate, College acceptance, drop out rate, teen pregnancy and imprisonment. In every category the kids who did not go to the DC public schools did better.

      Since the limited number of vouchers were awarded in a random lottery, the population of all students who applied was considered statistically identical. The students who applied but did not win did somewhat better than the kids who did not apply.

  • Anthony

    Sol Stern writes a related article (Education Advice for Next Mayor) in City Journal with suggestions worthy of review for those wanting to improve urban education.

  • Corlyss

    Until the voters in NYC demand better, Dem hacks is all they’re gonna get.

    • Mr. Lion

      Unfortunately for NYC, they won’t. Ever. Those who care already left.

  • GRL

    The NYC (not to mention the State Govt) has let the unions, the community groups with ulterior motives and the political hacks continually siphon off money for their pet projects. Bloomberg was a bait and switch after Rudy G, but ended up a joke. NYC deserves what they get; Detroit was once a great city too.

  • Mr. Lion

    Bloomberg is as much a Dem Hack as any other. The fact that he didn’t have a D in front of his name is irrelevant– the man embodies every core principle of the Dem party.

    NYC is Detroit with a more affluent tax base. The result will be the same, it’ll just take longer to get there.

  • Jon

    New York’s compartmentalized disbursement of its high school students has traditionally offered by a bit of a safety valve for the system’s students — i.e., the city has its academic high schools (Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant) as well as specialized trade high schools (including one for agriculture) that allowed those with a desire to succeed to escape their district high schools, which in many areas have been the dumping grounds for the worst of the city’s teens for over half a century…

    …which has been about as long as the liberal activists have been trying to blow up even that small bit of light in the system. The difference was in the past the UFT defended the positive parts of the system — Albert Shanker threatened to live up to Woody Allen’s line about him in “Sleeper” and go nuclear on Jimmy Carter and James Califano back in 1977 when they tried to eliminate the academic high schools on racial bias grounds. Today’s UFT would roll over if the next mayor or someone in Obama’s Education Department wanted to so the same thing, as long as some wage, benefit and retirement sweeteners were tossed into the deal.

  • montana83

    Joe Lhota will likely be the Republican candidate for mayor of NYC. Joe was a section mate of mine at Harvard Business School – class of 1980. He was Rudy Giuliani’s right hand man and will make a great mayor. I assume this article presumes the Weiner boy or some other schmuck will be the mayor.

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