Below is an Op-Ed piece written in response to Mayor Bloomberg’s address on education reform.
The mayor of the world’s greatest city, Mayor Bloomberg, has set out to completely overhaul New York City public schools. In his major address on Education at New York Urban League’s Dr. Martin Lither King, Jr. Symposium, Bloomberg presented a plan that he believes will ultimately change the direction of the city’s schools from their current state of failing to succeeding and effectively prepare students for college and the work field. Bloomberg isn’t too pleased with the quality of education that a New York City public school provides its patrons. The quality of the public school education we provide is woefully inadequate, the mayor said. Though Bloomberg has outlined a reform agenda in which he is confident can and will change the quality of today’s public education in the city, Bloomberg’s platform focuses on standardizing all public school curriculum, therefore, measuring student achievement solely on test scores, and increasing parental involvement.
Of course, the mayor’s heart is in the right place, and although he is well intentioned–as many school reformers are–he has no experience as an educator or administrator and thus, doesn’t fully understand urban schools. It seems like Mayor Bloomberg plans to overhaul the school system with the goal of creating “the one best system” in New York City public schools, that is, as David Tyack would elaborately put it. But as many urban educators and historians know, there is no such thing as a perfect education system, especially when we consider urban, public education because of its complex history.
It is not uncommon to hear that an urban inner-city school is failing. Any employee of an urban or inner city school system knows how challenging it can be to ensure the success of not only students, but also educators and administrators whom in turn generate a successful school system. Ensuring success in New York City public schools simply is not as easy as changing promotion requirements that unfairly ask students to meet a certain standard—as Mayor Bloomberg makes it seem, and it surely doesn’t happen over night. Instead of making a minor reform and observing its progress, Bloomberg decided to make major surface changes to an entire school system, without acknowledging the root of inner city school failure.
The public school, formally known as the common school, was created to educate all people, regardless of race, ethnicity or creed. Horace Mann, commonly known as the father of American Education, strongly pushed for public education for all people. In the mid 19th century, the main goals of public education were to rid the city of vice, develop the country’s younger population into leaders capable of competing with other countries, and more importantly, to educate all people.
Horace Mann imagined Black and White children sitting beside one another in the same classroom being taught lessons that would inspire them to reach for more. Although Horace Mann’s imagination came to fruition, his vision wasn’t fully realized. Unfortunately, due to the history of our great country and its culture to discriminate, marginalize, and enforce its prejudice upon minority groups, Mann’s image of public education appears very different today. Even in its development, inner city public schools were not created equal. American public schools have yet to see full equality, and the students who attend these schools do not necessarily share equal opportunities, either.
The marker of success in New York City Public schools according to Mayor Bloomberg is test scores. In his address on Education he stated, “The specific, testable, and measurable ability to meet these [workplace] requirements must be a condition of student promotion and graduation.” Judging a student and promoting them exclusively on their capability to pass exam is not fair to all students. All students differ in potential—something teachers understand and see firsthand. Students should be exposed to different measures of success, other than exams. History has shown that when more focus is placed on students passing standardized exams, the less focus is placed on the actual student. Students begin to fall through the cracks and those who are not able to express the content learned in class become unengaged and are not promoted. With this concentration on meeting a standard, the city will see an increase in the number of students placed into remedial and special education classes. By increasing focus on standardized exams and curriculum, teachers are forced to teach specifically for these tests. The teacher’s classroom expectations now include ensuring their student pass state set exams. Doing so is a deprivation of the opportunity to teach to the needs of each student.
For instance, in the 1920’s school reformers in Chicago also implemented standardized exams for their students as a way to prevent failure. Many educators then started to view standardized exams as one of the only determinants of school performance. Educators also noticed that standardized exams placed immigrants and non-English speaking students at a disadvantage, as they had trouble comprehending and adapting to the exams. In Chicago, homogenous grouping occurred—all of the “smart” students were places in classes with one another and all of the “dull” students were placed into classes together. This caused principals to reward their favorite teachers with “bright” students and punish other teachers with “dull ones. By making standardized exams a key marker of student success will not improve schools. They will intellectually segregate schools.
At the same time, teachers will be forced to use a standardized curriculum to ensure success on standardized exams, leaving no room to teach and adhere to different students’ needs. Mayor Bloomberg, standardized exams cannot be the main determinate of promoting of our students. History itself has shown us the negative consequences these unjust standards have. In David Tyack’s The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education, he illustrates that history has shown tailoring instruction to a child results in more sympathetic and effective teaching and much higher rates of promotion. There cannot be any standardized way of teaching our students, because every student is different. Rather, schools may be more successful if teachers were fully able to be creative and ultimately cater to their students’ individual needs.
Mayor Bloomberg has proposed standardized exams to measure the performance of students in New York City public schools, creating a standardized curriculum to ensure students’ success. Mayor Bloomberg argues that students who move around the city struggle, for the main reason that they have to adjust to a different curriculum and a different way of teaching.
Reflecting on Mayor Bloomberg’s idea of standardizing curriculum for all of New York City public school reminds me of the Lancasterian system, which was implemented in major cities in the country, including New York City, during the early 19th century. Joseph Lancaster, a British public school reformer, developed Lancasterianism. His system was dedicated to restructuring public school management and was designed to make schools more economical by suggesting one teacher support hundreds of students. In this case, all of the students had to learn at the same rate. What the system actually did was not allow the teacher to apply different methods to different types of students. Grouping every student together as one, disregarded individuality and creativity for both the teacher and the students. The Lancaster system did not consider students who needed to be engaged in another matter. Lancaster wrote the key to a system is “a place for everything, and everything in its place.” Though, Lancaster had a very organizational and economical method, it did not have and still does not have a “place” in New York public schools, or any public school for that matter.
The Lancaster system, like all standardized systems, excludes “otherness” and allows no room for freedom or creativity in the classroom. With a standardized New York City curriculum, Bloomberg will be clumping all of the city’s students together and taking away a teacher’s ability to cater to students’ differences and needs—two huge mistakes. Standardizing the curriculum will also limit the flexibility of teachers in the classroom.
Bloomberg declares that in order for students to succeed, parents need to be more involved. So how do we get parents involved in the schools and more involved in their children’s education? One suggestion is taking a step back to analyze why aren’t parents involved in the schools to begin with. In her book, Schools Betrayed: Roots of Failure in Inner-City Education, Kathyrn Neckerman states that parents may not be involved with their children’s schools simply because they do not trust them. In Chicago, parents did not trust the school system because they didn’t think that the schools were fair to their children in regards to discipline and quality of education. During the civil rights era many Blacks didn’t receive the equal access to education that they were promised by their constitutional rights promised. These were families who had gone to public schools during that era and who are emotionally scared. Even in a more contemporary situation, the New York public school system has shown its flaws, and it’s possible that many today parents have had bad experiences while attend public school.
It may be obvious to many New Yorkers that our schools aren’t perfect, and we understand that things need to improve. Making major changes to the school system in search for a perfect system will not happen over night and without resistance from communities. If Bloomberg is going to make changes in the school system, he should make them with the assistance of an educator who will know and understand the history of urban education and the distinctive needs of students and teachers. I hope Mayor Bloomberg comes to the understanding that a truly sound education system would encourage each student make the most of their unique potential.