Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his plan to fix New York City’s struggling public schools. He intends to spend $150 million on improvements for low-performing schools, including mental health services, additional staffing and an extended school day. With a commitment to amending schools rather than eliminating them, de Blasio’s school policy is much more beneficial to students than that of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.
Bloomberg is remembered for the deep impression he left on the city’s education system. After acquiring mayoral control of public schools in 2002, he instituted a series of aggressive education reforms.. Rigorous teacher evaluations and high-stakes standardized testing became the norm, as well as a habit of closing large, failing schools and replacing them with smaller ones. Over the course of three terms, Bloomberg closed almost 200 schools. This period also saw the rise of charter schools, such as the Success Academy chain headed by Eva Moscowitz. These schools have shown promising results and lack many of the behavioral problems common in larger schools. Under Bloomberg, high school graduation rates reached an all-time high. But for all his successes, several counterpoints must be considered. Higher graduation rates are undermined by the fact that nearly 80 percent of the city’s public high school students who enroll in community college need remedial classes in math and English. And while new, smaller schools often perform better than the ones they replaced, they tend to have fewer low-income and special needs students. These students usually end up in other large public schools, similar to the ones they were forced to leave.
As someone who has attended New York City public schools my life, I have witnessed the outrageous increase in standardized tests over the years, and the strain the tests place on schools. Students and teachers alike complain about the one-dimensionality of testing data. Test scores are used to gauge students’ academic ability and teachers’ instructional ability without accounting for differences in student backgrounds.
De Blasio’s plan implies an understanding that students from disadvantaged backgrounds may need more support than others. Installing mental health counseling services in struggling schools sees to that need and can help minimize disparities in academic success. Increased staffing is crucial, particularly in inner-city schools where teacher retention rates are low. An extended school day has proven in the past to boost students’ academic achievement, as having more instructional time keeps them engaged in the learning environment.
After more than a decade of market-based reforms and data-driven assessments of school quality, de Blasio promises to look at schools holistically. In terms of allocating resources, these initiatives are incredibly daunting. Securing time and space for additional services will certainly not be easy. Ultimately, however, the efforts will be worthwhile.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Nov 12 print edition. Email Zahra Haque at [email protected]