Let’s be clear: The Schott Foundation for Public Education’s latest report focusing on opportunities for high-quality education for black and Latino students is an important report, but not exactly without flaws. For one, the report attempts to use the percentage of teachers possessing master’s degrees and certification status as markers of quality even though the preponderance of data shows that there is no correlation between either of them and student achievement. This is especially clear when one looks at Schott’s own data analysis: District 2, the zoned area for kids living in some of the toniest neighborhoods in New York City (including the Upper East Side of Manhattan) is considered to have far greater opportunities for learning than District 6, whose students come from Washington Heights and other neighborhoods at the far northern end of the borough. Yet only 44 percent of District 2’s teachers hold master’s degrees and have 30 additional hours of graduate coursework compared to 39 percent of teachers in District 6, while both zones have similar levels of inexperienced teachers, instructors working outside of their subject competency, and those not considered highly qualified under the No Child Left Behind Act; the fact that neither zone would have black or Latino students performing at advanced levels in reading (based on a comparison of New York State test data to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress) also belies the credentials-equals-quality argument.
Some of the conclusions reached by Schott in its report also don’t gel with the evidence. Certainly Schott is right to argue that New York City should provide college-preparatory classes (including Algebra II) to all students. But arguing that increasing school funding will help improve the quality of education for poor and minority students, for example, ignores evidence in its own report that the problems have far less to do with money. This includes the underlying issues of traditional teacher compensation (including seniority privileges that protect veteran teachers at the expense of less-senior counterparts regardless of individual talent in improving student achievement) that truly affect the Big Apple’s ability to improve teacher quality for poor and minority kids; the opposition of the American Federation of Teachers local and its bellicose president, Michael Mulgrew, to any effort by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to improve teacher quality; and laggard school leaders, who like the low-quality teachers they oversee, don’t belong in schools (and are just as zealously protected by their own union) and often share the same low expectations for poor and minority kids.
All that said, the Schott report, like the flawed report issued last year by the Brookings Institution, offers more compelling reasons why we must abandon zoned schooling and other Zip Code Education policies that condemn millions of our children to dropout factories, failure mills, and warehouses of mediocrity. On this, Bloomberg and his chancellor, Dennis Walcott, can strike a blow against restricting opportunities for high-quality education — and advance his slow-yet-successful reform effort — by fully embracing all forms of school choice.
Schott and its research czar, Michael Holzman (whose insights grace the pages of Dropout Nation) rightly points out that the educational and economic destinies of so many of New York City’s kids are determined by the zip code in which they live. A black or Latino teen attending a middle school in, say, the city’s East New York section of Brooklyn could immediately improve their opportunities for high-quality education just by moving a few miles into my old neighborhood of South Ozone Park. Same is true for a kid in Harlem whose family figures out a way to find an affordable flat in the area surrounding Columbus Circle (if they can’t get their kid into a charter school above 110th Street). The shameful lack of high-quality options for so many children is especially galling when one considers that even the poorest family in the city’s South Jamaica section has a wider array of choices in restaurants (and can even eat at some of the city’s most-expensive eateries if they save up enough cash) than in high-quality schools.
Certainly Bloomberg and his school czars (including former chancellor Joel Klein and his successor, Walcott) have certainly done a great of making the city’s schools better than they were in the 1980s and 1990s; the percentage of fourth-graders reading Below Basic, as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, declined from 53 percent in 2003 to 39 percent in 2011, while the average black male fourth-grader reads at a grade level higher in 2011 than in 2003. But with black males still trailing three grades behind their white male peers in reading — and all young men trailing behind young women regardless of race, ethnicity, or class — Gotham still has plenty of work to do on providing all children with the high-quality teaching, instruction, leadership, choices, and school choices they need to be ready to help the city and America continue bending the arc of history toward progress.
Meanwhile the city’s past reticence in expanding school choice has meant that few families outside of Harlem and some parts of Brooklyn can avail themselves of high-quality operations such as those run by the Harlem Children’s Zone and Success Academy. Certainly the Empire State’s recently-lifted cap on charter school expansion, along with the lack of high-quality schools within the district itself, made it more difficult for the city to provide greater choices. At the same time, the Big Apple could have long ago allowed for robust intra-district choice — especially since families can easily access transportation thanks to the nation’s largest public transit system (and kids already get free and reduced-priced bus passes to ride from home to school).
The good news is that the city is pushing harder to overhaul its teacher quality system — especially through its effort to force the AFT local to accept the new teacher evaluation system being implemented throughout New York State. But Bloomberg and Walcott should embrace the findings in the Schott report and use it to spur this second round of reform. Expanding the use of college-preparatory curricula such as Core Knowledge (which is being used in just a smattering of Big Apple schools) would help; so would improving its data system so families can know exactly what’s going on with schools. But families, especially those from black and Latino backgrounds, can’t wait for systemic reform to happen over time. So Bloomberg and Walcott should accelerate school choice and Parent Power.
Bloomberg’s move to allow 50 more charter schools to open throughout the city by the time he begins ending his tenure as Big Apple mayor is a good start. But he should immediately end zoned schooling throughout the city and allow families to send their kids to any school throughout the city. The city should also enact its own form of Parent Trigger law, allowing those families who want to overhaul the very schools in their own neighborhoods to do so; such a step would not only expand choice, but also reduce the rancor from those who have been swayed by the AFT to oppose the closing of failure mills and dropout factories because they can now offer to take control of the schools and revamp them on their own.
But it’s not just New York City that needs to expand choice and Parent Power. With four out of every five families unable to exercise any form of school choice — and thus stuck sending their kids to mediocre and abysmal schools — expanding choice and Parent Power is critical throughout the nation. As I noted in today’s Midweek Monitor, states such as Alabama need to give families — including those from poor and minority backgrounds — the options and tools they need to help their kids escape failure mills, overhaul dropout factories in their own communities, and ultimately, help their children get the high-quality education they deserve. Meanwhile the Obama administration, which has done a fine job for the most part on supporting the expansion of charters, needs to fully embrace choice and Parent Power as well. Fully funding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program should be on its agenda. The administration should also require states and districts to enact Parent Trigger laws and provisions as part of the next round of Race to the Top.
The Schott report once again reminds all of us that it is high time for systemic reform. All children deserve a high-quality education that is fit for their futures.