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Commentary By Sol Stern

Bloomberg's Kids Just Aren't Learning: What the Grim NAEP Results Are Telling Us

Education, Cities Pre K-12, New York City

The only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from this week’s release by the National Assessment of Educational Progress: Reading and math achievement by New York City’s students is dismal.

The federal test compares progress by fourth- and eighth-graders in 21 big cities. A mere 24% of all New York City eighth-graders read at the NAEP proficiency level; only 12% of black and Hispanic students attained proficiency.

In eighth-grade math, a similar 24% of city students scored at or above the NAEP proficiency level. That amounts to a modest six-percentile-point increase from the 2003 NAEP tests, but the average eighth-grade math improvement of all the big city school districts measured by the feds is 12 points during that period.

The disappointing performance is particularly significant for our city’s future. We might usefully think of this cohort of about 80,000 students as “Bloomberg’s children.” That’s because they started out in kindergarten in September 2002, just two months after the state Legislature voted to give Bloomberg total control of the schools. The mayor promised that the accountability reforms put in place in the previously “dysfunctional” and “sclerotic” school system would help those newly entering students to improve their academic performance and achieve higher graduation rates.

Bloomberg also assured the city’s taxpayers that he could produce dramatic improvements without a significant increase in school spending. In his January 2003 speech outlining his reform program, he noted that the city already “spends $12 billion annually,” which he implied was sufficient “to give our children the education they deserve.”

The city’s education budget this year is close to $24 billion and Bloomberg’s children are now in their first year in high school.

Bloomberg boasts of an astonishing rise in four-year graduation rates, currently standing at 67%. But the state Education Department recently poured cold water on that rate claim with a study that showed that only 22% of students receiving diplomas were “college ready.” It is not coincidence that the state’s college-ready statistic is almost exactly the same as the city’s 8th-grade proficiency rates in math and reading.

Education Department officials are spinning the dismal NAEP results with the same technique used in responding to last year’s revelations that city increases on state tests were inflated by a lowering of pass rates by previous state education officials. The DOE then explained that despite the plummeting test scores on the revamped 2010 tests, New York was still performing better than all other urban districts in the state.

I called this the “we’re better than Buffalo” defense, and the DOE is still using it. Officials also promise that test scores will improve once the schools have “aligned their curricula and teaching with the Common Core Standards” — a requirement accepted by the city as part of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition.

But the solution to the city’s education problems is not simply promising to align New York’s standards to emerging national ones. The real answer, at least for the city’s awful reading scores, is more likely to be found in a group of 10 elementary schools participating in a pilot program testing the efficacy of the Core Knowledge reading program pioneered by the scholar and cognitive scientist E.D. Hirsch.

Over a three-year period, the students in the schools using the Hirsch program outperformed their peers from a control group by a huge margin on K-2 reading tests. Amazingly, though the DOE conducted the Core Knowledge reading study, it has not moved to spread this success to other schools.

Now that’s an example of a “dysfunctional” and “sclerotic” education system.

This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News

This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News