Fuzzy Math


These days New York City straphangers can’t ride the subway without being assaulted by a barrage of cheerfully colored signs advertising hopeful statistics on the city’s school system.

“Because finishing is the start of a better future, New York City public high schools have increased graduation rates by more than 20% since 2002,” reads one bright yellow poster on the L train, which runs from Brooklyn’s Canarsie to 14th Street in Manhattan.

The ads are paid for by The Fund for Public Schools, an independent organization whose stated mission is to attract private investment for the New York City public school system. They tout an increase in everything from money in classrooms to the number of schools. Lara Holliday, the fund’s director, said the goal of the program is to make New York City public schools the number one cause for New Yorkers.

But several academics who have dissected the data believe their facts are misleading and their timing politically suspect. The year cited as the start of the improvements, 2002, corresponds with the year the state legislature handed Mayor Michael Bloomberg the legal reins over the city’s schools. The “Keep it Going NYC” subway ad campaign launched in the fall of 2008, around the same time that the two-term mayor staged his bid to expand the limit on how many terms a mayor could serve from two to three.

“It’s clear that the intent is to persuade the public that great changes have occurred under the Bloomberg/Klein administration,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. “It’s happening specifically at this moment because of the vote on mayoral control and the upcoming mayoral election.”

Holliday said that while the transit campaign launched this past fall, the original “Keep it Going NYC” campaign began in June of 2007. She said that so far the Fund for Public Schools has paid about $750,000 for the subway campaign. The money came from private donors who contributed the money specifically for the ads.

Pallas pointed out that this sort of advertising is not done in other cities. “The Department of Education here has what I could call a very well-oiled public relations campaign,” he said. “They never admit that anything is less than positive.”

The fund was established in 1982, but Holliday said it has been entirely transformed since Mayor Bloomberg took office.

“It was a much smaller organization used as a pass-through for anybody who wanted to make donations to their alma mater,” said Holliday. Since Bloomberg installed Klein as New York City schools chancellor, Holliday said the Fund has been reinvented as a fundraising instrument for the chancellor’s priority initiatives.

“I imagined that the Fund for Public Schools was an organization created to raise private money to aid public schools directly, as in funding art supplies, computers, field trips,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian, in an e-mail. “The fact that this massive PR campaign happens to coincide with the Legislative debate over mayoral control and the mayor’s re-election campaign makes the Fund a political operation.”

Technically, the Fund for Public Schools is an independent organization, but it is inextricably linked to the Department of Education (DOE) and the Office of the Mayor. Joel Klein serves as chairman of the organization, Caroline Kennedy as vice chair, and the remaining board members have nearly equally impressive resumes and pedigrees — and equally close ties to the mayor. There is media mogul Mortimer B. Zuckerman, who once penned an endorsement of Bloomberg likening the mayor’s reign as a “wonder drug” for the city; Wendi Murdoch, whose husband Rupert supported Bloomberg on countless editorial pages across his portfolio of titles; and Richard Menschel, a senior director at Goldman Sachs who offered the mayor his first job when he moved to New York.

Jennifer Jennings, whose well-regarded Eduwonkette blog is currently on hiatus, likens this blurring of fundraising for schools with the mayor’s political campaign to a possible violation of church and state. “When there’s a crossover between public officials and supposedly independent organizations, you start to worry,” said Jennings. “Whenever you centralize an educational system the way we have in New York City, you end up creating an incentive to over-hype the results.”

Jennings, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Columbia University, said that the DOE has always exaggerated the extent of the system’s improvement, but she does not understand why they misrepresent the facts. She said that progress has been made, and that it was worth noting. Jennings feels that the DOE should work to be more transparent with their statistics rather than inflating them.

“You open some doors for policy intervention and close others,” she said, worrying that when some facts are obscured, there is less public pressure to provide robust educational services in the areas that really need it.

Martha Foote, a researcher for the New York Performance Standards Consortium, which represents schools that use performance-based measures of assessment, was more direct in her appraisal of the campaign.

“It’s propaganda to convince people great strides were made,” said Foote. She refers to the Fund as a mix of Bloomberg’s “business cronies” and people indebted to the mayor for his generous philanthropic contributions.

Foote, Pallas, Ravitch and Jennings, all experts in mining educational data, felt that the current campaign misrepresents the true state of New York City’s public education system.

Following is a deconstruction of some of the current advertisements in the “Keep It Going NYC” campaign:

Because finishing is the start of a better future, New York City public high schools have increased graduation rates by more than 20% since 2002.

New York City has its own formula for calculating graduation rates. The formula is different from the way the state — and the rest of the country — makes these calculations. The graduation rate increase cited on this advertisement includes those that have passed the General Educational Development (GED) tests, students that graduate the summer after the school year, and special education students who go through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that is subject to different completion standards. The state does not include these groups. The graduation rate cited by the state for the class of 2007 was 52.2 percent, whereas the graduation rate cited by the city was 62 percent.

The city has advocated a program of “credit recovery,” which allows students who have failed classes to make it up with additional work outside of the classroom. In a hearing on mayoral control this past February, Ravitch, who is also a former assistant U.S. secretary of education, called credit recovery a “dubious practice” which inflates the graduation rate. She quoted a school principal who said that there was “little oversight” and “few standards” when it came to the actual work that ends up being accepted in lieu of a passing grade.

The statistic also includes “discharged” students as graduates. This term designates students who have left the school and have supposedly transferred to other schools. Foote said that it is common for principals to assign a discharged status to students who have simply dropped out. Over a four-year period, about 20 percent of students with an expected graduation rate of spring 2006 were classified as “discharged.”

The New York City school system is the only one that counts the groups mentioned above in their graduation rates.

Both Pallas and Jennings noted that by saying graduation rates had improved by 20 percent, this ad leads readers to believe that graduation rates went from, for example, 42 percent to 62 percent. In fact, the graduation rate — according to the city’s calculations as described above — went from 51 percent to 62 percent. That’s an increase of 11 percentage points.

In response to this, the DOE referred to page 2 of a document they put out to supplement Joel Klein’s response to an editorial by Diana Ravitch. The document stated that the city’s graduation rate has been calculated the same way for more than two decades, and said that according to the State’s methodology, substantial gains had still been made.


Math scores up 30 points since 2002/English scores up 14 points since 2002

Test scores have gone up, but they have gone up statewide, not just in the city. There is speculation that the rise in scores is due to the dramatic increase in test preparation, known as “teaching to the test.” An internal study written by the New York City teachers union in 2006 indicated that New York’s state tests were not as rigorous as those in other states. Several newspaper articles reported that the tests administered since 2002 were easier than those given in previous years.

Unlike the states’ tests, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a federally sponsored measure that is impossible to prepare directly for. NAEP was established to safeguard against states making claims of progress that could not be substantiated.

In the 2007 NAEP, New York school students showed no gain in reading in the fourth and eighth grades and no gain in math in the eighth grade. The only uptick in scores was in fourth-grade math, which has been trending upwards since the 1990s and is only now beginning to taper off. When students hit the eighth grade, the gains disappear.

“You don’t see ads saying ‘Our NAEP scores are flat, Keep it Going NYC,’” Jennings said, commenting on the selectivity of the information presented.

This statistic also implies that the rise in test scores during the 2002-2003 school year was attributable to the work of Bloomberg and Klein, when in fact the previous administration deserves the credit for that success. The reforms instituted by the new regime could not be reasonably measured until 2003.

The DOE, again referencing their response to Ravitch’s article, suggested that the NAEP should not be the dominant means of assessing the city’s results. According to the document, New York State students do not learn some of the information included in NAEP before they take the test. They also noted that the DOE is not accountable to NAEP, but rather the standards set forth by No Child Left Behind and their own accountability standards.


Social promotion ended

The new policy requires that students in the third, fifth, seventh and eighth grades to pass both a state math and English test in order to advance to the next grade.

“This takes the decision-making out of the hands of the people who know the kids best and moves it to the test scores,” said Pallas, who added that there is no evidence that the shift in policy has had the desired effect.

The majority of students entering the eighth grade still do not meet state standards in reading or math.

In 2006, nearly 18 percent of high school graduates were over the expected graduation age.


More money in the classrooms

Over the past couple of years, the city’s education budget has been cut several times. In January 2008, Bloomberg proposed $324 million in cuts. Since then, that number has ballooned to $956 million. The DOE’s projected budget for the next fiscal year, which starts in July, represents a 10 percent decrease from last year.

The accountability budget, which goes towards assessing schools and students, has barely been touched, while funds that directly impact the classroom are the most affected. City Council member Bill De Blasio issued a report in March of this year  saying that the school system could pay the salaries of over a thousand teachers with the money spent on assessment.

The DOE said that they spend only $28.2 million on accountability measures. The remaining money comes from city capital dollars,which are not available to schools.


Because parents should have more and better options, New York City has opened 354 more public schools since 2002.

Over 80 of the new schools that have opened since 2002 are charter schools and small schools. The seats in these schools do not make up for the 25 large — and often successful — schools that have been closed since 2000.

Foote believes that the DOE had botched the implementation of small schools, noting that many of the principals and teachers hired to staff these schools are inexperienced.

Some of these new schools were opened in school locations that already exist, causing overcrowding in shared spaces like gyms and cafeterias.


Because every child deserves an excellent learning environment, New York City public schools have added 66,000 new seats and hundreds of new science labs, gyms and auditoriums since 2003.

An article published in The New York Times on May 1 chronicled the experiences of panicked parents across the city who still do not have their children enrolled in schools for the fall.

Waiting lists for kindergartners are longer than ever this year because of a new policy encouraging early registration, and there seems to be a rise in demand for seats.

The Times’ article cited estimates that 400 children are on waiting lists in Manhattan’s District 2, which includes the Upper East Side and the Village. Public School 151 was supposed to reopen this year after almost a decade of being closed, but the DOE has not been able to procure a space so students zoned for that school must look elsewhere.



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