Cityview: Standards Delivery

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In the mid-1950s, the “golden age” for the New York City public schools, the high school dropout rate was 50 percent. At the time, this was considered progress.

Now another “golden age” may be around the corner. Far fetched? Hardly. In 1997, to much hoopla and giddy celebration, the state Board of Regents decreed that students would no longer graduate by passing minimal competency tests. Instead, the freshman class entering high school in 2001 will be required to pass five rigorous Regents examinations.

On the face of it, there was pride that New York would have the toughest high school graduation testing standards in the nation. But the plan appears reasonable only if the brutal realities of the New York State education system are ignored.

According to the State Department of Education, only 21 percent of New York City high school graduates earned Regents-level diplomas in 1997. Even if the city’s public school system doubles this number–a remarkable achievement–six of every 10 students who now leave with a diploma will not be able to graduate.

There are three scenarios for what may happen when 2005 arrives. The idealistic one is that the efforts made by the last four chancellors to improve elementary school reading programs and middle school math and science classes will begin showing results. This year, Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew signed a $5 million contract with the National Standards Project for staff development based on encouraging results from five pilot school districts, including Manhattan Community School District 2, which now has among the highest average student test scores in the city.

The cynical scenario is that as 2005 approaches, the Regents tests will be quietly dumbed down so more students pass. While this would allow more students to get their diplomas, it would betray the idea of improving students’ education.

The really cynical scenario is that New York will return to the days when city schools pushed out immigrants, the poor and students who were slow learners. Given the current political climate, it’s possible to imagine public officials doing nothing to improve teaching, keeping standards high, and then talking up how much better prepared are the few who do graduate. The result would be a Darwinian system where only the strongest students graduate–and never mind the rest. Some success.

To reach the idealistic scenario, we must start getting serious about the enormous job ahead. Unfortunately, the immediate picture is not promising.

At the beginning of the last legislative session, the Department of Education asked for $200 million in “Operating Standards Aid” for intensive staff development. The military and large corporations dedicate anywhere from 2 percent to 4 percent of their budgets for training to improve job performance. But in New York, a proposal to spend 0.017 percent of the more than $11 billion in state school aid for improving instruction and upgrading curricula was viewed as extravagant. By the end of the legislative budget negotiations in April, standards aid was whittled down to $82 million.

Worse yet, the legislature removed provisions that recognized the difficulties facing educators in low-income urban neighborhoods. Currently, more than 40 percent of the high school graduates outside the state’s five largest cities pass the Regents tests. Given this, school districts in the suburbs, small cities and rural areas will have to double their instructional effectiveness in eight years. But schools in New York City and the other large cities will have to more than quadruple their effectiveness.

In other programs, the state has recognized this disparity. For example, New York City gets more than 60 percent of the $660 million a year in “Extraordinary Needs Aid,” which attempts to even out the funds available to poor schools. In comparison, more affluent districts get only 17 percent of this aid.

State education officials asked that New York City receive 60 percent of the operating standards aid as well. But when the dust settled in Albany, the city received only 40 percent of the $82 million, just a bit more than the city’s share of the state’s school age population.

It’s possible that the simplistic notion of a flat amount of aid for all students held sway. School districts are not and should not be funded this way–it’s akin to a flat tax. Perhaps the legislators were more willing to fund “manly” education issues, like school facilities, rather than “sissy” stuff like staff development–the testosterone theory. But most likely, city legislators haven’t done their homework yet. With standards yet to be implemented, no one is yet complaining that their child won’t get a diploma.

Whatever the reason, our elected officials need to take this issue on. A study recently released by the Community Service Society estimates that New York City will need $916 million in capital improvements and $626 million for staff development, new teachers and lower class sizes to reach the new high graduation standards. And these figures don’t include costs for improving instruction in the elementary and middle schools.

Legislators have another opportunity in the 1999 legislative session to look seriously at what it will take for school districts like New York City to meet the 2005 standards. They need to act quickly. The educational future of six out of every 10 children is at stake.

Noreen Connell is the executive director of the Educational Priorities Panel