Is Better Actually Better?
The 11% improvement would be worthy of huge celebrations if not for the other data that accompanied it. Buffalo, a city with a reputation for a failing school system, demonstrated more improvement than New York City. In fact, all major cities in New York State demonstrated equal or greater improvement compared to New York City. Perhaps the test was easier for the students to pass, and lower standards lifted all boats. We cannot be certain what caused all of New York State's urban school districts to have gigantic gains in the same 12-month period, but simultaneous improvement in the quality of education in those cities is unlikely to be the full answer. Teachers might be teaching to the test, year to year changes in the weighting of various sections of the test may have shifted this year to raise scores, the test itself may have become less challenging, and maybe . . . just maybe . . . the students really have obtained greater reading aptitude through improvements in their schools.
But, we cannot determine the cause of the improvement. The Daily News article regarding this topic last week contained a passage that illustrated the lack of clarity regarding the cause of the improved test scores.
Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch pointed to an influx of resources, wider access to prekindergarten, a more unified curriculum and improved professional development for scores rising statewide. The number of city children enrolled in pre-K grew to 54,038 from 45,589 in 2005, an increase of almost 8,500 children, city figures show. Per pupil spending was about $11,640 in 2003 and rose to $16,236 in 2007, the most updated figure available from the city Education Department.
"The headline from me should be a four-year story," Tisch said, asking parents to look at long-term trends. She noted that over the last four years, New York City and Rochester improved their scores by 18%, Syracuse by 19% and Buffalo by 24%.
Testing experts said the state's reasons made sense, but that more was likely at work. "One of them is a huge increase in test preparation," said former testing chief for the city and NYU professor Robert Tobias. "It's kind of like how you get to Carnegie Hall - practice, practice, practice."
The skeptics have not been shy in pointing out that Buffalo's improvement has been greater than New York City's improvement. Sarcastically, they ask whether Buffalo's mayor should be asked to run New York City.
Skepticism On Display
Some have labeled the test scores as too good to be true and have questioned why the New York State test shows improvement around the state each year while the national test shows a lack of improvement. We have seen the federal data showing that the changes being made across the country to improve educational achievement have not resulted in a reduction in the achievement gap between white students and students of color. Those results remind us that we must always look behind the initial impressions we might get from the data to discover what the data really means for our children.
Charting a Dangerous Course
Mayor Bloomberg has promoted the concept of increasing the number of charter schools in New York City, but charter schools that design their student populations to be more affluent and less challenged than the communities in which they operate actually make the non-charter public schools in their communities endure the challenges of greater poverty and a higher intensity of problems than they would if those charter schools did not exist. As stated in the Daily News:
In other words, if you have language problems, if you're poor, or if you have special needs, you're far more likely to end up in the regular public school population than in a charter school.
As charter schools become more and more a key piece of the educational infrastructure in NYC, we will need to advocate for policies that ensure that they are not leaving the surrounding public schools more challenged and less effective in teaching our children. Unfortunately, our charter schools have largely excluded special education students (5% of the charter school population versus 15% of the public school population). They have also limited their exposure to children from low-income homes (65% in public schools versus 57% in charter schools). These statistics indicate that charter schools might still be part of the problem rather than part of the solution to the problems we face in educating our children in New York City's public schools.