A new controversy has erupted over the extent of gains in student achievement in New York City schools under Julia Gillard’s much admired mentor, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.
Gillard brought Klein to Australia last November to trumpet the so-called success of changes to the New York City (NYC) public education system, including reporting school results which Gillard is introducing to Australia. Once again, claims of Klein’s success are under question.
The new controversy is the result of a paper published in January by a member of the New York State Assembly, James Brennan, and a response by the New York City Department of Education.
Brennan’s report shows that NYC students actually showed more progress under most measures between 1998 and 2002 than they did once Klein took office. For example, under Klein, the percentage of fourth-graders who passed the state math test rose by 13 percentage points, compared to 17 points between 1998 and 2002. Fourth-grade reading scores follow the same pattern: up 9 points under Klein compared to 20 points before he took office.
Brennan also argues, along with other critics of Klein’s data, that 2003 is the better baseline to judge performance. He says that Klein’s program of changes didn’t start until after the 2003 tests had been given, in September of that year:
“…since the school year begins in September but statewide tests are all administered in and after January, a test given in 2002 pertains to the 2001-02 school year. Thus, in order to compare student achievement with mayoral control of the schools, the 2003 scores from the 2002-03 school year should be the benchmark to which current results can be compared.”
The effect of using the results of the 2001-02 school year as the baseline for comparison with the most recent results is to inflate the gains in student achievement under the Klein administration.
Brennan also argues that several changes in the schools that are unrelated to Klein’s administration are the real reason for the gains the system has made. There has been a dramatic expansion of pre-kindergarten funding that began in 1998 and enrolments had quadrupled by 2002-03. A federal and state funded class size reduction program began in 1998 which saw average class sizes in grades K-3 reduced from 25 to 21 by the 2002-03 school year.
The report also shows that from 1999-00 to 2001-02, spending on professional development grew substantially, when the previous Schools Chancellor overhauled the system’s teacher recruitment efforts, expanded international recruiting, and upgraded certification and professional development programs for existing teachers.
Brennan also says that some of the key changes introduced by Klein – such as progress reports for schools and the empowerment of principals – only began in the last three years. The report concludes: “…generally speaking, the overwhelming proportion of student improvements in the past ten years had already occurred by 2006-07 and new reforms have little relevance as a “dramatic” improvement.”
The Department of Education response to the Brennan Report fails to refute Brennan’s arguments. It shifts the argument from changes in average achievement of NYC students to one of comparing their progress against those of New York State and claims that the test score gap between NYC and the rest of the state has closed more under Klein’s control than it did before by a substantial margin. It just asserts that 2002 is the appropriate baseline for comparisons. It claims that Brennan ignores the opening of hundreds of new schools to give parents more choice; cuts of hundreds of millions of dollars from the bureaucracy and empowerment of principals to spend them in the ways that will best help their students.
The claim that the achievement gap between NYC and New York State narrowed more under Klein is incorrect. Independently administered national tests show that there has not been any narrowing of the gaps in reading and mathematics under Klein.
Even the more unreliable state tests show that the gap in reading did not narrow faster during the Klein period of office compared to the preceding period. Indeed, the gap increased for 8th grade reading under Klein. The gap in mathematics scores for 4th and 8th grades did narrow by more under Klein than in the preceding period. However, a major problem in using state test data in that it does not report statistical errors, so it is difficult to make accurate comparisons from one period to the next.
While it has succeeded in renewing debate about NYC school results, the Brennan report unfortunately has some weaknesses. It relies on state test data which has proved to be more unreliable than independently administered national tests. The national tests show that there was no improvement in average test scores on most measures in NYC since 2003. However, they do confirm Brennan’s argument that there were significant increases in student achievement prior to Klein taking charge of NYC schools.
A detailed analysis of student achievement in New York City is provided in the Save Our Schools Research Report, New York is Not Working available on this website.