Education, Cities Pre K-12, New York City
May 19th, 2016 9 Minute Read Testimony by Marcus A. Winters

Testimony by Marcus Winters on Mayoral Control of NYC Schools

Good Morning, and thank you for the opportunity to testify on the merits of extending mayoral control over the New York City School System.

My name is Marcus Winters. I am an economist who studies education policy as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an associate professor in the college of education at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. I have studied several aspects of the New York City public school system, including issues related to accountability and school choice.

“My endorsement for the continuation of mayoral control comes despite the fact... that I am a vocal critic of many of the policies that the [de Blasio] administration has enacted.”

I want to begin my remarks by saying that I recommend extending mayoral control of the city’s school system for a substantial period of time. I believe mayoral control in New York City has proven to be a far better system than what came before it. And I believe it to be superior to any alternative currently on the table. Put simply: A mayor is in a better position to lead and be held accountable for the performance of a major urban school system than is any other elected official or body.

My endorsement for the continuation of mayoral control comes despite the fact– as will become clear shortly in my testimony -- that I am a vocal critic of many of the policies that the current administration has enacted.

That said, I do think that there are areas that this body should strongly discuss with the mayor within the current conversation about mayoral control. In particular, I will focus the remainder of my comments on the issue of school accountability. We shouldn’t separate the issue of mayoral control – itself an accountability system of sorts – from that of school accountability in New York City.

The school assessment and accountability system is extremely important to any public school system, especially one of the size, complexity, and importance of New York City’s. The aspects of the school that this system measures represents the district’s view of what makes for an effective school. And the accountability system provides one of the most valuable means by which the district can push the most struggling schools to improve for the sake of their students. 

At its core, a school assessment and accountability system should seek to identify the district’s most and least successful schools and provide them with meaningful rewards or consequences, respectively. Under the current administration, in my opinion New York City’s accountability system has consistently moved away from those goals.

Under the previous administration, the city’s schools were assessed according to student performance and growth on standardized tests, as well as the results of parent, teacher, and student surveys that measured the school’s environment. Scores in each of these areas were then weighted, and each school received a letter grade from A to F to summarize its overall performance.

Over time, the current administration has changed the accountability system in a way that has fundamentally altered the city’s vision of what makes a high quality school and that has reduced its effectiveness at encouraging the city’s worst schools to improve.

The first, and most obvious change to the accountability system was the decision to end the practice of presenting each school with a letter grade summarizing its overall performance. In fact, the current system does not provide a summary measure of the school’s overall performance at all.

The decision to eliminate summary letter grades was made despite empirical evidence that test scores in schools labeled as “failing” improved substantially the following year relative to how they would have performed had they received a higher grade. That was the finding from two separate studies – one by me and my co-author Joshua Cowen of Michigan State University, the other by economists Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University and Leslie Turner, now of the University of Maryland. In our paper, we additionally showed that the test score improvements caused by the F-grade persisted with the students two years later, suggesting that they were not driven by manipulations to the testing process.

It is worth noting that this is not the only example of the current administration disregarding high-quality empirical research when considering education policy. For another example, Chancellor Fariña has said that a series of convincing and recently published academic papers finding that the city’s small high schools have had large positive academic effects for students represent simply “one view of things” that need not be prioritized over other views. And just this week, the chancellor announced plans to consolidate several small schools next year and said that we should expect even more consolidations in the future. The implication being that the administration knows what works, even if its views are disputed by the empirical evidence.

In a forthcoming report, I return to the issue of New York City’s school grading system. My analysis shows that the test score improvements following receipt of an F-grade that was present in the first year after grades were given was also detectable following the final year before the grades were eliminated from the city’s accountability system. I then further show that this this effect dissappeared immediately following a change in the polciy whereby the city publically reported nearly identical information about school quality but elimiated the summary letter grades.

In their studies of hospital performance in Wisconsin, Hibbard, Stockard and Tusler described several conditions that their evidence suggested are necessary for a public performance reporting system to compel performance improvement. Such a system, they suggest, has to rank agencies according to some identifiable scale, these rankings must be widely distributed to the constituency for their services, and they must occur beyond a single review. Perhaps most important, a performance reporting system “must be designed so that it is immediately obvious who the top and bottom performers are to stimulate quality improvement efforts”.

To a great degree, New York City’s previous School Progress Report system met each of these criteria before it was dismantled by the current administration. Schools were ranked according to a well-understood grading scale ranging from A for the top performers to F for the worst. The results were widely reported, beginning with the city’s own Department of Education, which had the express intent to “give educators and parents the clear information they need to make smart decisions and accelerate progress in their school.” Under that original system, which ranked schools according to a familiar A-F scale, the fact that the unambiguous improvements occurred among the worst initial performers is consistent with several other studies of similar school accountability programs. Recent work on a variety of other public agencies has similarly stressed the unique impact of singling out agencies or managers with the very worst indicators of performance.

The more recent manifestation of New York’s accountability system lacks a well-understood scale that readily identifies top-to-bottom performers. On this topic, my recent work adds new evidence that the results of an accountability system provide some incentive to improve, even if that incentive is simply rooted in the desire to avoid public failure. Public reporting of a wide variety of information about the school’s performance does not appear to be enough to induce performance gains of the city’s most troubled schools. Without the accompanying letter grade summarizing overall performance—a measure easily understood by parents of school children to summarize and rank school performance—the incentive to improve may simply not be as strong. To put the point crudely: nothing says failure like an F grade itself.

At least as important as the issuing of a summary performance measure are the factors that underlie the district’s assessment of school quality. This is an another area where I believe the administration has moved the accountability system in the wrong direction.

When the city released its first School Quality Reports under the current administration in the fall of 2014, it removed the summary letter grades but otherwise kept intact the information about school quality that had been used by the prior system. The administration has since moved away from the prior model.

“Measures of student test score growth are essential for separating the school’s contribution to student learning from that of family background.”

As one example, the parent surveys that previously fed into the measure of the school’s environment were altered to no longer meaningfully address the parents’ perceptions about the school’s expectations for their child and how the school works to achieve high goals for the student. This topic was largely replaced with questions that address the issues of the school’s ability to address the cultural differences of parents. Of course, issues of diversity and respect for other cultures are especially important for a multicultural urban center such as New York City. But the movement away from assessing parents’ views about the academic expectations of their child’s school is perhaps telling of a shift in the system’s focus on what makes an effective school.

More problematic, in my opinion, are the planned upcoming changes. According to the technical documents for last year’s school quality reports, the administration plans to phase out every remaining measure of student academic progress on standardized tests from the school quality reports next year. Despite the controversy surrounding them, measures of student test score growth are essential for separating the school’s contribution to student learning from that of family background. To put the extent of this change into context, measured student progress on the tests accounted for 60 percent of a school’s overall score under the former accountability system.

The old system wasn’t perfect, and the changes that this administration has made aren’t all bad. A central feature of the current accountability system is the use of reviews from experienced educators who spend one or more days in the school. The introduction of a school inspectorate is a move in a useful direction. There are things that test scores and surveys can’t tell us that on-the-ground assessment of a school’s operation might be able to. But objective measures of school performance are essential for anchoring the accountability system. Without the grounding of student test score growth these qualitative assessments could easily become rubber stamps over time, just as subjective teacher evaluations were for so long.

I would strongly suggest that this body keep control of New York City’s schools in the office of the mayor. But I would also suggest that the legislature make clear it’s expectation that whomever is mayor operates the schools within a framework that prioritizes student learning and presents the public with useful and actionable information about school performance.

Thank you. I would be happy to take your questions.


Photo by Pool / Getty Images


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