The NY Times issues a correction, too little and too late.

An article in the NY Times magazine two weeks ago written by Jonathan Mahler on April 10 , about Middle School 223 in the Bronx, contained the following passage describing student achievement gains under Joel Klein:
“Since 2006, the city's elementary and middle schools have seen a 22-point increase in the percentage of students at or above grade level in math (to 54 percent) and a 6-point increase in English (to 42 percent).”
Upon reading this statement, I immediately knew it to be untrue. There has been little or no improvement in student achievement in NYC since 2006 – or even since 2003, when the Klein first implemented his policies, according to the most reliable national assessments called the NAEPs. 

In fact, after the NY State Education Department recalibrated the exams, increasing the scale scores needed for proficiency this summer in response to overwhelming evidence that the state tests and their scoring had gotten much easier over this period, the percent of NYC students at or above grade level actually dropped precipitously compared to 2006. 

See these charts, for example, from the DOE’s own website, showing the sharp fall in the percent of students at proficiency in English Language Arts, as calculated by the state, following the apparent (but highly unreliable) increase that had occurred between 2007 and 2010:

And below in math:

I wrote to the reporter, Jonathan Mahler, to ask where he got his data.  Here is his reply:  The DOE was my source, and the fact-checker went back over the numbers with them.”

That didn’t exactly satisfy me, so I sent in a request for a correction via email to the editors, reproducing the charts above, as well as their source.  

A few days, I received a phone message from Aaron Retica, head of the research department at the NYT magazine, saying “we aren’t wrong” but that he understood why I might have been “confused.” 

 I followed up with phone call, and Retica explained that they were doing an “apples to apples comparison” by taking the DOE's re-estimate as a more reliable comparison, assuming the scale scores needed for proficiency had not changed. In other words, they bought the DOE spin, hook line and sinker, as portrayed on this slide, from the same power point deck:

This is a slide that Shael Suransky presented throughout the city last fall, including during my debate with him at NY Law school, in an attempt to convince his audience that NYC achievement levels had actually increased over the last four years.   

Though this slide may have confused many, it convinced very few; that is, aside from (apparently) NY Times editors.  In small words at the bottom, the slide says, ”Starting in 2010, NYSED changed the scale scores required to meet each of the proficiency levels, increasing the number of questions students needed to answer correctly to meet proficiency.”  

The slide, in claiming that the proficiency of NYC students in ELA in 2010 had risen to 68.2% rather than 42.4%; and in math; to 83.3% rather than 54%, disputes the judgment of the State, and ignores the fact that the number of questions needed to achieve proficiency was increased, not out of some arbitrary motive to punish NYC or devalue the accomplishments of its students, but because the state -- as well as all independent experts -- realized that the questions had themselves gotten easier over time. 

Indeed, this recalculation reeks of an attempt to rig the results, to back up improbable claims of great gains when the NAEPs have shown negligible increases. (Of course the meaningless nature of this exercise should be obvious in that there are two very different versions of achievement gains displayed in the above slide, depending on whether 2009 or 2010 cut scores are used.)

Like the DOE, the NYT is hugely averse to correcting errors, even of the most egregious kind –as in a Steve Brill article published in the magazine section last year on Harlem Success Academy, some of whose errors I catalogued here

The larger problem is that for many years, the NY Times ignored and/or omitted any reporting of NY’s test score inflation, delaying until after the bubble had burst, and long after the scandal had been covered extensively by the Daily News,  Gotham Schools, and even the NY Post .

Instead, the Times editors seem chronically disposed to give credit to Bloomberg and Klein where none was due; as anyone who was paying serious attention to this issue, and to the relatively flat results of NYC on the national assessments called the NAEPs, would be aware.
See for example, this 2007 post on our blog by Steve Koss, relating an ingenious experiment carried out by Erin Einhorn of the Daily News, when she gave the 2002 and 2005 math tests to the same bunch of children, revealing how they got better results on the 2005 exam. (For some reason the original Einhorn article is no longer available online.) Or this follow-up News article, in which leading test experts called for an independent audit of the state exams, which did not occur until three years later.
Where was the NY Times amidst all these revelations? Absolutely nowhere.   

To the contrary, on August 4, 2009, at the very moment when Bloomberg was pressing for the extension of mayoral control of the schools, and two years following extensive and continuing coverage of test score inflation in the News and elsewhere, the Times published a credulous account that recounted the steep increase in state test scores and the apparent narrowing of the achievement gap, featuring this quote from Joel Klein:
Mr. Klein, for his part, said he was confident that rising scores reflected real improvements. “No matter how you look at them,” he said, “the picture is one that shows that the city is making dramatic progress.”
As I wrote in August 2009 to the Times education editor, Ian Trontz:
“… there are many prominent administrators, researchers, teachers and principals who believe strongly that there has been rampant state test score inflation in recent years. … as has been widely reported in the Daily News and elsewhere … To leave this out of your story seems negligent at best…
(See my critique at the time of their August 2009 article, NY Times falls in line with the Bloomberg PR spin control; and the response from Trontz: The NY Times response, and my reply.)
Shortly afterward, Wayne Barrett wrote about the controversy in the Village Voice,
"The Times front page piece last week -- headlined "Gains on Tests in New York Schools Don't Silence Critics" -- failed to quote any real critics, but gave Klein six self-promoting paragraphs. It did bury a single questioning quote from two academics not known as critics of the test scores in the thirty-fourth paragraph, but the top of the story trumpeted success scores that would have silenced any critic. If, that is, they were true."
Two days after the Times article ran, the NY State Senate voted to renew mayoral control witout any checks and balances, essentially allowing Bloomberg to retain his stranglehold over the schools.  The "paper of record" could not have done a better job at burying the story that DOE's gains were illusory than if they had actually tried. 

After State Ed officially burst the test score bubble last summer, the Times finally covered the issue in a front page story in October, entitled "On NY School Tests, Warning Signs Ignored."  But here, too, the paper left its own deficient reporting off the hook, and refrained from mentioning any of the abundant exposes that had appeared over the last three years, not only in the Daily News, but in GothamSchools, the NY Post, and our blog; any of which should have alerted interested observers to the reality.   (Here is my account of the failure of the NYT to cover this story in their revisionist history.)
So what happened with this example of the NYT editors credulously swallowing the latest DOE’s test score spin? 

The editors did run a correction, but phrased in a very confusing manner.  Unless a reader received their information elsewhere, it would be very hard for them to interpret its meaning.  Here is the correction they printed today, with the specific passage in bold:
An article on April 10 about Middle School 223 in the Bronx misstated the reasons the school does not qualify for some state financing earmarked for poorly performing schools. It does not meet some of New York State’s criteria for failing schools and it is relatively successful on state tests and other measures. It is not because of the school’s report card from New York City. The article also omitted an attribution for the increases in percentages of students at or above grade levels in math and English from 2006 to 2010. Those figures came from the New York City Department of Education, which did its own analysis of state testing data using 2010 proficiency levels for 2006 test scores. (Without that adjustment, the percentage of proficient learners in both math and English actually dropped from 2006 to 2010.) (emphasis added)
Even worse, here is how they amended the offending passage in the article itself:
Since 2006, according to an analysis of state testing data by the city's Department of Education (which used 2010's recalibrated proficiency levels to compare 2006's testing data to 2010's), the city’s elementary and middle schools have seen a 22-point increase in the percentage of students at or above grade level in math (to 54 percent) and a 6-point increase in English (to 42 percent).
So in the article and the correction, they failed to explain the larger context and why the state had recalibrated the proficiency levels – to correct for the fact that the exams had gotten easier over time. 

Instead, their explanation of this matter could lead an unsuspecting reader to believe that the DOE’s “adjustment” was entirely appropriate, and provided reasonable evidence of improvement – while omitting any mention of more reliable evidence from the NAEPs of largely stagnant results.

On the same day his article was published in the magazine section, Jonathan Mahler wrote an article in the Week in the Review section of the Times, entitled “Deadlocked Debate over Education Reform.”  In it he wrote:
“The data can appear as divided as the rhetoric. New York City’s Department of Education will provide you with irrefutable statistics that school reform is working; opponents of reform will provide you with equally irrefutable statistics that it’s not. It can seem equally impossible to disentangle the overlapping factors…”
In the future, I would hope that the editors of the Times might try a little harder to look at the data with a more discerning eye, and not swallow the distortions of the Department of Education. 

Perhaps they might even refer to independent experts who could dissect the data if they find it too difficult to interpret it themselves.  They owe it to their readers.  There is little point in trying to cover the NYC public schools if they continue to be incapable of weighing the evidence objectively and presenting the facts with a more practiced eye, rather than simply regurgitating what is handed them by the spinmeisters at Tweed. 
After all, if the Daily News and the NY Post can do it, why not the Times?
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A Parent Guide to the Broad Foundation just released!

Check out the new Parent Guide to the Broad Foundation, its Training Programs and Education Policies, just released by Parents Across America(Here is the guide as a handy downloadable fact sheet.)

Jean-Claude Brizard is a Broad Academy graduate, formerly of DOE,  subsequently Superintendent of the Rochester schools.  Just yesterday he was appointed to be Chicago's CEO of schools.

So is Chris Cerf, John White, Shael Suransky and several of the top corporate-style educrats who worked at Tweed and across the country, many of whom have provoked controversy with their pro-privatization policies and autocratic leadership style.

What is Eli Broad trying to achieve by installing his brand of leadership in schools throughout the country? Parents, be forewarned!
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More CAP clap trap on class size reduction; who are they trying to fool?

Last week, the Center for American Progress released a report by Matthew Chingos, who previously wrote a highly-flawed critique of Florida’s class size reduction program.  (See my recent debate with Chingos on CNN.)

CAP has put out a series of crude reports posing as educational research, but this must be one of the least impressive.  Despite its title, “The False Promise of Class-Size Reduction,” lowering class size is only one of K-12 four reforms that, according to the Institute of Education Sciences, have been proven to work through rigorous evidence.

In this report, Chingos falsely claims that that the benefits of smaller classes, as shown by the Tennessee STAR studies, faded out over time:
The bump in test scores after one year would be impressive if it didn’t erode over time despite the continued use of small classes.”
Actually, follow up studies by Jeremy Finn reveal that students who were randomly assigned smaller classes in the early grades had significantly higher graduation and college-going rates.  The gains were especially impressive for low-income students:
“For all students combined, 4 years in a small class in K–3 were associated with a significant increase in the likelihood of graduating from high school; the odds of graduating after having attended small classes for 4 years were increased by about 80.0%. Furthermore, the impact of attending a small class was especially noteworthy for students from low-income homes. Three years or more of small classes affected the graduation rates of low- SES students, increasing the odds of graduating by about 67.0% for 3 years and more than doubling the odds for 4 years.”
Yet another recent study showed that students who were randomly assigned a smaller class in Kindergarten were more likely to own a home and have a 401K, more than twenty years later!!
"Students in small classes also exhibit statistically significant improvements on a summary index of the other outcomes we examine (home ownership, 401(k) savings, mobility rates, percent college graduate in ZIP code, and marital status).”
Here’s another misleading statement from Chingos:
“Stanford’s Eric Hanushek compiled 276 estimates of class-size effects from 59 studies, and found that only 11 percent of these estimates indicated positive effects of smaller classes. A similar number (9 percent) were negative, with the remaining 80 percent not statistically distinguishable from zero. Princeton economist Alan Krueger argued for an alternative method of counting the estimates, but this change only increased the proportion of studies showing positive effects to 26 percent, with the majority showing either negative or insignificant effects.”
Actually, when Alan Krueger examined Hanushek’s claims, he found that Hanushek had miscounted the number of studies that showed positive or negative effects from smaller classes, misclassified others, and appeared to systematically extract more “estimates” from studies that found negative effects compared to those that found positive effects:
“For the 17 studies from which Hanushek took only one estimate, for example, over 70% of the estimates indicate that students tend to perform better in smaller classes, and only 23% indicate a negative effect. By contrast, for the nine studies from which he took a total of 123 estimates the opposite pattern holds: small classes are associated with lower performance.”
Here is a graph of Hanushek’s estimates from Krueger's article in The Economic Journal:

If all the studies were equally counted, Krueger found, those that showed  significantly positive results from class size reduction outweighed those that had significantly negative results by more than two to one.

So what is Chingos’ main beef with class size reduction?  He claims that it is too “expensive.”

Which leads to the question, compared to what?  As Derek Bok, once said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

Krueger, former chief economist of the US Treasury Department, concludes that the economic benefits of class size reduction in the early grades outweigh the costs two to one:
“At a 4% discount rate, every dollar invested in smaller classes yields about $2 in benefits.”

Another recent study of class size reduction in 8th grade by economists Thomas Dee and Martin West also found that the economic benefits of smaller classes outweigh the costs:
“Using the estimated earnings impact of these non-cognitive skills and the direct cost of a class-size reduction, the implied internal rate of return from an 8th-grade class-size reduction is 4.6 percent overall, but 7.9 percent in urban schools.”

An analysis by in the Journal of Public Health estimates that reducing is class size is one of the most cost-effective public health investments that can be made, rivaling those from vaccination, with large savings in health care and almost two years of additional life expected for students placed in smaller classes in the early grades.

Has any other K-12 education reform been shown to yield larger benefits?  No.

Does the Chingos report offer any?  No.

Instead, Chingos puts forward the oft-repeated but highly speculative policy proposals favored by Eric Hanushek and Bill Gates. Build better data systems, that’ll lead to more learning! Fire 5-8 percent of teachers per year; that’ll produce better gains!  Put kids on computers for more virtual instruction, that’ll do the trick!
Does he provide any cost estimates of these proposals?  No.

Does he provide evidence from any research study that such policies have ever yielded any educational benefits?  No. 

At the end of the study, the Center for American Progress thanks “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for generously providing support for this paper.”

If I were Bill Gates, I’d ask for my money back.
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Final results for our poll, do we live in an age of insanity or stupidity, and was that the right question?

Not long ago, we featured a poll on this blog, the idea for which originally came from a speech by Diane Ravitch.  We asked readers, "Do we live in an age of insanity or stupidity?" when it comes to education policy. 

Here are the results: 33% for insanity; 59% for stupidity; 6% for neither. 

But was this really the right question?

We live in an age when education policy is being made by non-educators like Bill Gates, who calls  for class size increases in our public schools, while the private schools his children attend have 15 to 17 students per class.  

We live in an age when Justin Snider, a writer for the Hechinger Post  (which receives funding from Gates) echoes this view, calling efforts to reduce class sizes in the public schools "foolish", while not revealing that the classes he teaches at Columbia University are capped at fifteen.

We live in an age when the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calls for teacher evaluation and pay to be tied to student test scores, while the Arlington VA schools that his children attend admit that they don't do this; neither does the private school that the Obama children attend, because, as a school administrator points out, "We don't believe [test scores] to be a reliable indicator of teacher effectiveness."

No,  as Diane Ravitch has concluded, and I agree: we live in an age of hypocrisy and outright meanness, when it comes to those powerful men making policies for our public schools.

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Powerful play blasting DOE's school closure policies

Check out the performance of the play "Declassified: Struggle for Existence (We Used to Eat Lunch Together)" at the off-Broadway Abingdon Theater in NYC. The play was written and performed by students at Queens Collegiate and Jamaica High Schools, directed by Brian Pickett of Queensborough Community College.

Jamaica is now slated for closure by the NYC Department of Education, while Queens Collegiate is a newer, better-funded small school with a more selective admissions process, that offers more opportunities for students and has taken space in the Jamaica building.

The play, initially banned by the schools' principals because it was too critical of the DOE's decision to close Jamaica, is a powerful critique of the current direction of education reform in NYC and the nation as a whole, in which those making policies for our schools have decided that the best way to improve them is to close them down.

It also points out the huge inequities involved in the small schools initiative, which provides students in the small schools with more space, better equipment, more textbooks and smaller classes than students in the large schools, who were deprived of these conditions in the first place, and are subjected to even worse conditions while their schools are phased out.

Also see this excellent report by the Urban Youth Collaborative, with evidence of the challenges the schools slated for closure face, overwhelmed with high-needs students that the new small schools did not enroll, and yet given no support for their efforts to improve. The report also reveals the spike in dropout and discharge rates as these schools phase out.

The performance is followed by a discussion with the audience.

Jamaica HS- Declassified: Struggle for Existence (We Used to Eat Lunch Together) from Grassroots Education Movement on Vimeo.

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Report from the Council hearing on PCBs

There was a joint hearing of the Council Education and Environmental Committees today which considered the issue of how to deal with the PCB-containing overhead fluorescent light fixtures which are still present in approximately 800 public schools buildings. Many of those fixtures are leaking PCBs.

The DOE has proposed replacing them on a ten-year timetable, while forty Council members have signed onto a demand that it be done in two years, and the US EPA has just weighed in that it should be done in "at most five years", a compromise which Christine Quinn seemed ready to embrace.

Without going into all of the fine points and nuances, I just wanted to relate what was probably the most dramatic juxtaposition of the several-hours-long hearing.

The first panel consisted of DOE personnel, led by Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, along with personnel of the School Construction Authority, Health Dep't., and Dep't of Citywide Administrative Services. Led by Grimm, they said repeatedly that it couldn't be done in less than 10 years and that children and adults spending their days in those buildings during the time it took to finish the replacements were not at any risk to their long-term health.

Later a panel of doctors, scientists, and occupational health and safety professionals testified. All of them said that PCB exposure is something which presents immediate health risks, not only for developing children but also for pregnant or potentially pregnant adults. And that unstable PCBs should be removed from the buildings, or the people should be removed from the exposure to them, a.s.a.p.

The message from the 2 panels was so diametrically opposite that one council member said that after listening to both he felt as if he'd been on 2 different planets.

-- Richard Barr

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Contest caption winners!

We asked for captions for this intimate moment captured by a NYT photographer the night Bloomberg told Klein we was going to fire Cathie Black. Leave your own caption as a comment!

"Fine, Mike but we only have one, two minutes to make our couples' tanning salon appointment. I booked it three months ago."

Winner: Rachel Levy of VA.

Runners up: "Step 3: Profit!"

--Bill Fitzgerald

"We can use Cathie over at Fox News, I hear Glenn Beck is leaving."

-- Tom Perran
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Big cuts in new seats, despite overcrowding crisis, with DOE spinning as a "restoration"

See this DOE press release on their “new” revised amended five year capital plan, which they try to spin as a major restoration, but is really a huge cut.

  • In the Feb. 2010 plan (which was adopted in June), the DOE said they would fund 30,000 new seats at $4B, which we clearly knew was insufficient based upon rapidly increased enrollment and overcrowding.
  • Then, in their proposed Nov. 2010 amendment, they said they needed to increase this amount to 50,000 new seats at $7.4 billion (including 2300 seats for design only); the first time they admitted the reality of the overcrowding crisis already upon us. (Strangely enough, this document has now suddenly been removed from the SCA website.)
  • In their Feb. 2011 plan, they threatened to cut way back on new seats because the governor threatened to cap reimbursement, to build only 20,000 new seats total (with 6,000 of these funded for design only) , spending only $1.7 billion for new capacity.
  • And now that the governor’s proposal to cap reimbursement was thoroughly rejected by the Legislature, they are still cutting way back to only 28,866 new school seats, plus 2,314 seats in design, for a total of 31,000 seats.
What kind of thinking leads to such erratic, and inexplicable lurches in one direction to another? Is there something toxic in the air at Tweed?

What happened since? Did the state change their reimbursement formula or amount? No.

Did the city’s financial picture significantly change since November? No.

Did enrollment suddenly decline? No.

Did the DOE change their projections based on the fact that now, ONE QUARTER of all elementary schools now have waiting lists for Kindergarten? Unlikely.

Or maybe they just want to spend billions of dollars on technology, so kids don’t ever have to have a seat in a real school but can stay at home and get “virtual learning” instead?

The full capital plan will be released tomorrow on the SCA website. Check it out and also check out the amount to be spent on technology “enhancements”, which in the Nov. 2010 plan included a total of $1.8 billion for technology, with $1B to be spent in FY 2012 alone. In the Feb.2011 plan, this was “cut back” to $957 million, with $540 million on technology to be spent in FY 2012 alone. Which is yet another disaster waiting to happen.

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Frank Macchiarola on Black's departure and Walcott's appointment

A panel discussion on Good Day NY about Cathie Black's firing and the appointment of Dennis Walcott, with Noah Gotbaum, parent and President of Community Education Council District 3, Erik Engquist of Crains, and Frank Macchiarola, former NYC Schools Chancellor and now Chancellor of St. Francis College.

Macchiarola calls Bloomberg's selection of Black "crazy," and says that the mayor's quick choice of Walcott, by just "looking across the room" without any national search, is a mistake.

"The position being filled is one of moral authority" and "in order to have confidence of people of New York ...there should be a process that engages the community in the process of selection."

He concludes, "the Mayor's judgment on this has fallen down ... as well as on a number of other issues."

Chancellor-Designate Walcott: NYC Education Policy Will Not Change:

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Fireworks at Dennis Walcott's debut at the education budget hearings

On Friday, the hearing room at the former Emigrant Bank (City Hall is under renovation) was full of expectant reporters, parents, and government officials, eager to see if the chancellor-designee Dennis Walcott would bring a new spirit of collaboration or new ideas to what is usually very contentious hearings on the mayor’s preliminary operating budget for the Department of Education.

The morning started with City Council Education Chair Robert Jackson pointing out that the huge cuts to teachers in the mayor’s proposed budget – with over six thousand positions eliminated, while no cuts were made to central administration or the mid-level bureaucracy -- indicated a troubling lack of concern for the potential consequences for children of increased class size and overcrowding:

Rather than cutting spending on consultants and private contractors, they chose to cut schools. Rather than slowing or halting the pace of costly school closings, they chose to cut teachers. Rather than freezing rents when the real estate market tanked, they chose to increase class size.”

Jackson also questioned the determination of the DOE to increase capital spending on technology while decreasing spending on building new schools: “ A wireless internet connection does nothing for a student without a seat!” (Here is his opening statement.)

Walcott was accompanied by DOE Chief Academic Officer Shael Suransky and Chief Financial Officer Veronica Conforme. From the very start, his testimony sounded familiar. Following a brief account of his life story and how he and his children attended NYC public schools, he repeated the claims of great progress that we have heard countless time from DOE officials: “By any measure, the gains our students have made in recent years have been extraordinary – far outpacing the rest of the State and cities across the nation.” (Not really, guys.)

Then he got to the main point: that the DOE had “no choice” but to lay off thousands of teachers, but that “under no terms will we compromise the quality of services and instruction that our students receive” Instead they would find “more efficient ways” to serve their needs.

He ended with several minutes of argument about how LIFO (Last in, first out) must end -- and how the city must eliminate seniority protections for teachers. In other words, the warmed over hash we’ve been hearing for months out of City Hall and DOE.

Robert Jackson was incensed. He said bringing up LIFO yet again was “beating a dead horse” and the state legislature wasn’t buying this. CM Ignizio, the ranking Republican on the committee, agreed that ending LIFO “isn’t happening this year…The question we have is not who we should lay off, but can we avoid it altogether.”

Ignizio said that as a student, “I was one who benefited from smaller class sizes” and asked why DOE couldn’t use some of the expected billion dollar surplus this year to “offset” the need for teacher layoffs.

He asked what these layoffs would mean in terms of increasing class size. Walcott and the assembled DOE officials did not seem to know the answer to this obvious question, but after some whispering back and forth, came out with an additional “1.5 student per class” . This, Walcott assured the Council, wasn’t so bad, given the fact that the administration had been steadily decreasing class size. Ignizio and other members were justifiably skeptical and pointed out that class sizes had sharply risen over the last three years. They also expressed doubt that eliminating 10% of all teachers would cause class sizes to rise only that much.

Altogether, there was a startling lack of fact and substance from the DOE officials, especially for a department that claims to be “data driven.”

In response to a question from CM Brad Lander, Walcott and the other top officials said that they had no idea what the class sizes caps were. Lander was concerned about whether there was a “change in policy” with class sizes in grades 1-3 going up 32 in many of the schools, which they didn’t know about either. (Answer: the UFT had a “side agreement” that the DOE had previously adhered to, to limit class sizes in grades 1-3 to 28 – which they are now forcing principals to override, in part to shrink K waiting lists.)

Walcott insisted that the recent increases in class size were due primarily to the tremendous job the DOE is doing with our schools, causing them to become “more popular” (ignoring the effects of rising birth rates, overdevelopment, and the decline of parochial schools – as well as the DOE's incompetent planning --all of which has contributed to the overcrowding crisis.)

Most astonishingly, the DOE officials wavered all over the place about how much extra funding would have to be found to avoid the need to eliminate 6,166 teaching positions. Walcott’s written testimony said $435 M, but then somehow during questioning this amount increased to $700 M. In the mayor’s November budget plan, the loss of 5778 positions was supposed to “save” $350 million; extrapolating from these figures, the loss of 6166 positions should amount to $377 million in savings – quite different from the $435 million figure in Walcott’s written testimony and even further from the $700 million Conforte claimed verbally.

CM Margaret Chin asked why central’s budget for full-time civilian positions is supposed to increase by $23.1 million, or 22.1 percent, while the budget for full-time pedagogical positions will decrease by $11.3 million, a 64.1 percent . They had no explanation for this either. (For more on this see the Council’s briefing paper.)

CM Jumaane Williams pointed out the conflict in Walcott’s claim that the DOE would not allow services to kids to degrade, while radically increasing class sizes. He asked about an 80% increase in IT and computer contracts. Charles Barron said that there was a “revenue deficit” not a budget deficit, and suggested that the city could raise funds easily: just “stop and frisk white men on Wall Street to see if they had any toxic derivatives” in their pockets.

Barron suggested that Walcott should simply ask the mayor to stop the layoffs: “"When you all go to lunch or breakfast or caviar at his mansion or whatever you do, I think it's important to influence him.”

Gail Brewer asked how many people were employed in the clusters and the Children First Networks; the DOE said they would get back to them on that question. Brewer noted that the principals in her district don’t know what the CFN people are doing, and even some of the CFN staffers have admitted to her that they had no idea.

In response to a question about the disproportionate share of public dollars that charter school students in DOE buildings receive compared to district students, Walcott suggested that all schools were subject to the same “Fair student funding” (FSF) formula. (This is incorrect; charter schools are not subject to FSF, which means that they are even more overfunded if the fact that they enroll fewer free lunch, ELL and special ed students is considered.)

At one point, Suransky claimed that they were considering eliminating some of the interim assessments to save money. But then Stephen Levin asked why they were adding even more assessments, in grades 3-12, in four different subjects, that will likely mean 16 different contracts, and requested information on how much would they cost.

Suransky claimed not to know how much they would pay for all these new tests, and that the UFT “fought hard” for local assessments to be included in the teacher evaluation system. He claimed that the DOE was “obligated” to develop “solutions,” a “new set of tools” and “prototypes” for more “authentic assessments”, including in subjects not yet tested by the State. (Later, Michael Mulgrew blasted these contracts, saying they were a complete “waste of money” since the UFT has not yet agreed to them, and they would have to be negotiated before being given.)

Others council members asked why the total headcount for central administration was projected to rise in FY to more than 2,000 educrats and not to diminish thereafter, despite promises to cut the positions at central. Ms. Conforte explained that though the current levels at central were supposed to have fallen to 1600, this never happened, and that the headcount at central is currently 2,000 officials. Thus,1800 really represents a decrease. (!) (According to the Council briefing paper, there is no projected decline in the DOE budget documents: “The headcount total in the Preliminary Budget for Fiscal 2012 is 2,097, 73 positions above the Fiscal 2011 level … The Department has not provided an explanation for the aforementioned changes in the Preliminary Budget.”)

Asked about the rising costs of outsourcing IT contracts and consultants, Conforte claimed that hiring in-house IT experts was “difficult” especially finding people who could “build new data systems.” This led into a discussion of ARIS, the $80 million dollar supercomputer outsourced to IBM and Wireless Generation, that is widely considered to be a waste, especially as compared to Datacation system developed by NYC teachers at very little cost, and that over 200 schools prefer instead. Suransky claimed that if all schools were to adopt Datacation, it would be too “expensive,” compared to ARIS which they provided free to schools (but not to taxpayers!).

Council members Brad Lander and Steve Levin said the mayor is partly responsible for the decline in state funding, since Bloomberg had opposed the continuation of the millionaire’s tax, and both said that the Mayor should ask for a “home rule” message from the legislature, so the city could itself raise taxes on the wealthy.

Levin asked if the state was in “violation of CFE” and if so, if the DOE planned to sue the state. Walcott said no. (Presumably, despite complaining about the loss of state funding, they are happy not to have to conform to any of the CFE guidelines that went with these funds.)

CM Eric Ulrich went on about much he admired Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg , but then complained about the loss of yellow buses to middle school students in his constituents in Breezy Point, who have been given Metrocards instead , despite the fact that there is no public transportation in the area. He also criticized the mayor for saying he planned to take the lawsuit that residents lodged against the elimination of busing “all the way up to the Supreme Court,” which Walcott disputed.

At some point during the proceedings, Walcott made a comment that he had “no evidence” that DOE had ever “done anything wrong.” Finally, after four hours of questioning and confusing if not downright evasive responses, Walcott and his retinue of DOE staffers left the room, and Michael Mulgrew, head of the UFT, took the stage.

Mulgrew blasted Walcott’s testimony: “I am sick of the fact that we cannot get any credible information from the DOE; I do not trust them at all….There is a tremendous political game being played; it’s so disgusting. Their facts are devoid of any facts….They are basically lying in open testimony.”

He pointed out how their figures had shifted for the dollar amount that would be “saved” by the projected layoffs, that our schools were suffering a “crisis” in class size not seen since 1977; that one third of children in K-3 are already in classes over 27; that the system had already lost 5,000 teachers over the past two years, and these layoffs would cause a further 13% jump in class size, with a 33% increase in grades 1st -3rd. (Here is his written testimony.)

Clearly, he pointed out, teachers are more effective when they have classes of twenty students rather than thirty, as he knew from his own days as a teacher; moreover, smaller classes in the early years can predict the future success of a child.

He argued that there are huge potential savings in the astounding $4.6 billion DOE spends on outside contracts, $40 million for outside management consultants, and $36 million for computer consultants. DOE has added 218 positions to the central bureaucracy; and recently, the UFT had pointed out to DOE the fact that there was a $300 M surplus in their own operating budget for salaries; the next day they came out with a new document in which this $300 M had disappeared from view.

Mulgrew said that DOE had never come to him or anyone else in the UFT to ask where savings could be made to prevent 6,000 positions being eliminated. Jackson asked, incredulously, “They never came to you?”

“It never happened.” Mulgrew responded. “We could figure out how to save money if we really needed to, and could help; but Albany told us there is no point in giving NYC more money because Bloomberg wants to lay off teachers anyway, to make a point.”

He also said that the surplus at the end of the year will likely be $4 billion; or nearly over a billion more than the city has projected, making these cuts completely unnecessary.

Mulgrew spoke about the international conference of education leaders that was recently held in NYC; and how these international experts found DOE’s system and the 50% teacher attrition rate “crazy.” Other countries don’t pay teacher more, he said, but they also don’t demean and attack teachers the way the DOE does. They said to him, “how do you move schools forward if you don’t support teachers?”

CM Dominic Recchia asked about the teachers on Absent Teacher reserve; Mulgrew said that there were over one thousand of these teachers, but 89% of were already working in full-time positions in schools or covering for long-term absences. Schools don’t want to hire them permanently because then their salaries have to be paid out of the school budget, but as ATRs, their salaries are covered by DOE. As to Fair Student Funding, it was a tremendous mistake by DOE to make principals cover the full costs of their staffing: “Even Michelle Rhee said that doing this was a mistake,” he claimed, and she reversed course after one year.

Gail Brewer asked about the $21 million DOE contract for teacher recruitment through the New Teacher Project, and whether it was necessary. Mulgrew said no, they could just go to local education schools and ask how their graduates can’t get hired unless they go through these “institutes” which get “bonuses” for recruiting teachers who would be eager to be hired anyway.

The ARIS system, he said, was worthless, especially as compared to Datacation, because when the DOE Accountability office contracted out the development of ARIS, they failed to ask any teachers or parents what their actual needs were.

Asked about the Children First networks, he pointed out these staffers cover five boroughs, which is highly inefficient, because a social worker who works part time at one school cannot also work at the co-located school in the same building. All this defies “common sense.” (According to other sources, the network people spend most of the day driving from one borough to the next; since these networks were purposely designed not to be geographically based in order to further undermine the power of district superintendents, parents, and communities.)

Recchia asked him about the new automated special education data system, and revealed that he gets complaints all the time from parents about this system. Mulgrew testified that the rest of the state was offered a data system for free, but DOE insisted on building its own separate system, which cost $50 million, and is so faulty that NYC is now “out of compliance” on special education.

Next up were Santos Crespo of DC 37, and Randi Herman, VP of the CSA, the principals union. Neither of their ranks is projected to experience layoffs, they said, as opposed to teachers, though Crespo said that their members can lose jobs when principals’ budgets are cut.

Randi Herman said that right now the fair student funding is not “working,” that schools are only being funded at 86% of what the formula requires, and “they have not fully funded FSF in years”. She said she was told by Veronica Conforme that the DOE is considering diverting even more funding from elementary schools to middle schools, but that none of the schools could “stretch dollars” any further.

In response to questions from CM Greenfield, they both said that the DOE had not reached out to CSA or DC 37 to ask them for any ideas for budget savings. Crespo said that this was not surprising, since DOE never discussed any of their plans with the union in advance. Greenfield said that the DOE is very unusual in their lack of collaboration, since other city agencies generally reach out to the council to discuss budget options.

Finally, parents got a chance to speak, including Carlton Curry of CPAC, Ann Kjellberg of the Public School Political Action committee, Khem Irby of CEC 13, and me.

My testimony is posted here, in which I further describe the class size crisis, areas in the DOE budget that should be cut, and other sources of possible funding to fill in the gap.

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