Mayor Michael Bloomberg's report card for public schools, and his plan to shrink gifted and talented programs, threaten to erode hard-won confidence in the school system. And that is a resource that he--or his successor--can't afford to squander.
The gifted and talented programs--which create special classes for students who demonstrate unusual ability on standardized tests--have always been vulnerable to the charge of elitism. In practice, though, they had one useful function: working class and middle class parents, black and white, could rely on them to provide a quality education in otherwise substandard neighborhood schools.
That made them lifesavers for black families whose children would otherwise suffer an inadequate education. It also kept in the system some white families that might otherwise have abandoned public schools for private or parochial eduction.
By raising the bar for admissions to gifted and talented programs, thereby reducing the number of students and programs both, Bloomberg hopes to make them preserves for the truly gifted. That's a laudable goal in the abstract. In practice his actions threaten to weaken an admittedly imperfect solution that helped parents with limited options and cemented the loyalty of even more.
Equally troubling is the mayor's report card system. Reducing the performance of whole schools to a letter grade is simplistic, capricious and incapable of grasping what makes a school great.
The grading program makes a laudable effort to recognize those schools that make real improvements in students' learning. However, it penalizes schools that show a modest slip in test scores out of proportion to what the numbers indicate. My own daughter's middle school, the excellent Salk School of Science, received a C because its test scores slipped from spectacular to merely stellar.
Accurate evaluation of schools is something everyone needs, but this kind of flawed grading shakes confidence in public schools unnecessarily. And that is something that any mayor must build if he or she is to win elections and strengthen our educational system.
Curiously, Blloombeg's actions show that he has not learned a lesson from New York's recent political history that any mayor ignores at his peril.
Since the Sixties, some historians have critiqued liberal mayors--particularly John Lindsay and David Dinkins--as men who ran administrations that were coalitions of the rich and poor against the vast middle.
There is much wrong with this analysis, but it does remind us that the strongest mayors are those who can plausibly represent a broad majority of the city's people. Similarly, the best and strongest public programs are those that serve all Americans and not just the poor. (Consider the difference between support for welfare and support for Social Security.)
New York's public schools need the broadest range of students and parents possible. They also need mayoral leadership that is firm, fair and confident. On all of these counts, Mayor Bloomberg has a lot to learn. For this marking period, he gets a C.