State of the City 2012: Improving Education

By - JAN. 12, 2012

The following are Mayor Bloomberg's remarks on education from his 2012 State of the City address.

“The beginning of our agenda for the year ahead is actually rooted here, in the history of this school. Gouverneur Morris High was created out of the School Reform Law of 1896 – 116 years ago. When the reform law was being debated, there were protests, rallies, controversy. Sound familiar?

“Well, we are here today because the work of school reform – as difficult as it can be – is still far from done. And it is now more important than ever.

“Nine years ago this month, on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, I gave a speech outlining our plans to transform a badly broken school system. Back then, the graduation rate had been stuck at 50 percent or less for decades. Violent crime, social promotion, hiring based on political connections – they all plagued our schools. Parents had too few choices about where to send their children to school, and they had even less information about how a school was performing. And the worst part was many people had stopped believing that anything in our schools could get better.

“Well, I know you didn’t believe that. And we didn’t believe that either. Together, we took on the broken system, and by stressing accountability and innovation and ending social promotion, we’ve made real progress turning it around.

“Today, graduation rates are up 40 percent since 2005, versus just 8 percent in the rest of the state – the whole rest of New York State. And the biggest gains have been made by black and Hispanic students, whose graduation rates are up more than 50 percent. We’ve cut the dropout rate – and school crime – nearly in half.

“And we’ve given our parents far more information about their kids’ schools – and far more top-quality school choices. In fact, a recent study by the non-partisan Brookings Institution found that we now have the most effective school choice program of any large district in the country. That’s right – the most effective in the United States of America.

“By almost any measure, students are doing better and our school system is heading in the right direction. Of course, we still have a long way to go. No doubt about that. But today, tens of thousands of students who may have ended up on street corners or in prison if the old system had remained in place – are now in college or starting their careers.

“Just think about where we are today. Ten years ago, the graduation rate here at Morris High was only 27 percent. Now, two-thirds of students graduate in four years, and three-fourths graduate within six years.

“And I have to say, those students who persevere beyond four years – often while dealing with family obligations or language barriers – really deserve to be celebrated because their determination and drive, their hunger for a better life, makes their accomplishment even more impressive. We have some students with us today who are on track to graduate, and I’d like to ask them – and their teachers and administrators – to stand up.

“The success our students have achieved demonstrates the promise of education reform. But the unemployment in the neighborhood surrounding this school demonstrates the urgency of fulfilling that promise now for all students, in all schools throughout our city. Unemployment is higher in the Bronx than in any other borough. People here want to work, but jobs are hard to come by. And in too many cases where jobs do exist, they require skills and diplomas that put them out of reach for many people.

“For my generation, a high school diploma was often enough to get a good job and enter the middle class. Today, graduating from high school without the grades to go to college, or the skills to enter a trade, generally means, at best, a low-wage job with limited prospects.

“Or, for far too many, it means beginning a life of unemployment and crime. We just cannot allow that to happen. If you come from a middle class family, as I do, and if you believe that education is the ticket to the middle class, as I do, then there is no escaping the fact that we cannot accept failing schools. And we cannot accept excuses for inaction or delay.

“All across the city, we face that same challenge – the challenge of building a 21st century economy and building the 21st century public schools that can drive it. It is the challenge of our time, and how well we meet it will define the state of our city for generations to come. So today, I’d like to share with you the new strategies we will adopt in 2012 to meet that challenge, and they all center on making our schools, our economy and our government the most innovative in the world.

“Let’s start with our schools. The education reforms we’ve pioneered over the past decade – no matter what the naysayers say – have been widely adopted by school systems across the nation, but this year we’ll be putting our foot on the gas and picking up the pace.

“Because we have to be honest with ourselves: we have only climbed halfway up the mountain, and halfway isn’t good enough. We want all of our children to see the view from the top, to see the world of possibilities that stretch out before them.

“Now, getting there won’t be easy. The climb gets steeper the higher you go. But we cannot allow fear of what lies ahead to stop us, we cannot allow obstacles to slow us down, and we cannot allow those who prefer the comforts of the base camp to the exhilaration of the summit to hold us back. We have to charge ahead. Our children deserve to make it to the top of the mountain. And we owe it to them to help guide them there. Today, with Chancellor Dennis Walcott leading the way, we are setting off for the summit, a summit that no other big city in America has ever reached. But if any city can, it’s New York City.

“The course we are charting involves five main steps – and let me briefly outline each.

“Step number one: since the single most important factor in a student’s progress is the effectiveness of the classroom teacher we are going to find new ways to attract, reward and retain great teachers.

“We already have thousands of great teachers – some of the best in the world. And I have enormous respect for the extraordinary personal investments they make in their students. Over the past ten years, we’ve worked hard to invest in them – by expanding professional development and raising their base salaries by 43 percent. A teacher hired in 2002 at a starting salary of $31,000 can now make $78,000, similar to what their peers in the suburbs make.

“This year, we’ll do more to attract great new teachers by helping them with their college loans. The burden of paying back college loans can sometimes lead top-level students to cross teaching off their list of possible careers. But we need their talents in our classrooms. Our kids need them.

“And so we are proposing to create an incentive to anyone who finishes college in the top tier of the class: come teach in our schools, and if you commit to stay, we’ll pay off up to $25,000 of your student loans. Our teachers deserve that, and so do our children.

“The marketplace keeps showing us that we have to be competitive if we’re going to attract the best and as everyone knows college loans have become a major issue for our young people. We expect the UFT will support the Department of Education in this effort. But if not, there are other ways to achieve it through the private sector. One way or another, we will attract those talented teachers.

“We’ll also work to retain the best teachers – by offering them a big raise. Today, we’re making an offer to all New York City teachers: If you are rated highly effective for two consecutive years we will hike your salary by $20,000 per year.

“Historically, teachers unions around the country have opposed rewarding great teaching through merit pay, but more and more teachers are asking why, and we’ve seen how well this can work in other cities. A recent article in the New York Times explained how cities with merit pay have found that rewarding great teachers keeps them from leaving the system. Again, our teachers deserve that. And so do our children.

“With an evaluation system now required by law, rewarding great teaching is an idea whose time has come. We hope the UFT will join us in this effort, because it’s the right thing to do for our schools and our teachers. Their excellence deserves to be rewarded and compensated.

“Now, how do we determine which teachers are highly effective?

“Well, that brings us to step number two in our journey to the mountaintop. And here again, we’re building on the work we’ve already done. Two years ago, we directed principals to adopt a more rigorous tenure evaluation system. It used to be that 97 percent of teachers got tenure as a matter of course. Many of them deserved it. But others did not. Tenure should be something that is earned – not automatically granted.

“And now, that is exactly what’s happening. Principals decide who should and should not get tenure with the school superintendent signing off.

“Last June, the percentage of teachers receiving tenure dropped from almost everyone receiving it – 97 percent, to about half who received it – 57 percent. That doesn’t mean the rest won’t earn it someday – we hope most will. We have a big investment in them. But we are raising the bar for teachers, just as we are for students.

“This year, we’ll do more to make sure every classroom has an effective teacher – and to remove those who don’t make the grade.

“Unfortunately, for all the changes we’ve made in our schools, evaluating teachers is one area where nothing has changed. Teachers continue to be rated simply as ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory.’ It’s a pass/fail system – with a 98 percent passing rate. Our students don’t have the luxury of being graded pass/fail. Neither do people in other professions, who have to make a living to feed their families. And neither should our teachers.

“The debate over teacher evaluations began when the Obama Administration rightly made them part of the Race to the Top grant competition. To qualify for the money, the State passed a law requiring districts to adopt teacher evaluation systems, but gave the unions veto authority. As Governor Cuomo recently said, the law hasn’t worked. Like many other districts around the state, we are at an impasse.

“And let’s be clear about what the stakes are: A recent study by Harvard and Columbia economists found that students with effective teachers are less likely to become pregnant, more likely to go to college and more likely to get higher-paying jobs. Nick Kristof has a column about it in today’s Times and I encourage everyone to read it. Great teachers make an enormous difference and ineffective teachers are hurting our students’ futures – we can’t allow that.

“We need to be able to identify those ineffective teachers and give them the support they need to grow. And if that doesn’t work, we need to be able move them out.

“A real evaluation system that is based on measurable improvement in student performance and principal assessment and allows us to make real changes is the only way we can do that.

“We have a model that works well in deciding tenure – and this should be exactly the same process. But when we tried to get approval for such a system for just 33 struggling schools – 33 out of 1,700 – the UFT insisted on provisions that would make it even harder to remove ineffective teachers. Not easier, but harder. As a result, those 33 schools lost $58 million in School Improvement Grants from the State. And if nothing changes, it could cost students in every borough hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top funds.

“Well, I can tell you this: We’re not going to accept that. We’re not going to wait around while ineffective teachers remain in those schools.

“Under a school turnaround program already authorized by Federal and State law and consistent with a provision of the existing union contract, the City can form school-based committees to evaluate teachers on merit and replace up to 50 percent of the faculty.

“Under this process, the best teachers stay; the least effective go. And now, that is exactly what will happen.

“We plan to move forward with this approach for the 33 schools that should’ve gotten state grants. We believe that when we take this action, we will have fulfilled the State’s requirements and the schools will be eligible for the $58 million in funding.

“But this is about much more than the money. The students in those 33 schools deserve effective teachers. And so does every student in every school. Our 1.1 million school children can’t afford to wait. There is too much at stake.

“They are counting on us – and we will not let them down.

“Now, step number three in our journey involves continuing to give parents even more top-quality school choices.

“The four new schools here at the Morris campus are among the 500 new schools we’ve created over the past decade, including 139 new charter schools. This year, we’ll phase out another 25 schools and open smaller schools in the same buildings.

“All told, our goal is to open 100 new schools over the next two years – including 50 new charters. And we’ll do that by asking our most successful charter school operators to expedite their expansion plans, including the KIPP Academy and Success Academy networks.

“We’ll also begin recruiting high-performing charter school operators who have yet to come to New York. And I’m glad to announce today that one of the most successful, Rocketship, has just committed to opening schools here.

“Step number four in our journey will prepare students for what awaits them at the top: college and careers.

“Today, far too many of our graduates are leaving without the skills they need to succeed beyond high school. Not every student wants to go to college, nor is college right for everyone. But all students should leave prepared to succeed in the next phase of their lives.

“Over the past year, we’ve worked with the State to re-align the Regents exams with college readiness standards, and that will happen in the years ahead. But our students cannot wait.

“In the weeks ahead, we will make every public school student complete new study lessons and assignments in both Math and Literacy that involve the kind of critical thinking skills that are aligned to college readiness standard and we will share the results of their work with parents at parent-teacher conferences this March.

“We’ll also begin doing intensive college and career readiness work with 40 additional high schools as part of our Young Men’s Initiative. And the Department of Education will continue forming partnerships that expose our students to exciting career pathways.

“For instance, last September, we opened an innovative new school in partnership with IBM that focuses on computer science. It’s a six-year high school – grades 9 through 14, that’s right: 14 – so students graduate with a Regents degree and an associate’s degree and they also get a place in line for a job at IBM.

“It’s a new way of thinking about secondary school based on today’s economic realities.

“And now, thanks to support from CUNY, we plan to open three more schools using this same model including one right here in the Bronx. In addition, with support from venture capitalist Fred Wilson, this September we’ll open a Software Engineering Academy, the brainchild of one of our own teachers – Mike Zamansky from Stuyvesant High School. We’re honored to have both Fred and Mike with us today.

“The new school will be located in Union Square – home to a growing tech community that includes companies like Yelp and General Assembly. Those are the kinds of companies we want our students to work for, or to start.

“And to encourage the next generation of entrepreneurs in every field, we’ve launched a pilot program for 2,200 students who are developing business plans with other students around the world.

“Over the next two years, we’ll open at least a dozen new Career and Technical Education schools and programs aligned with trends in the global economy. Students will get out-of-school internships tailored around their coursework and interests. Now to do this, we need more private sector partners.

“In recent weeks, many of our city’s leading corporate citizens have joined a new mentoring program for high school students called i-Mentor. It’s part of our innovative new effort with NYC Service to reduce school truancy.

“And now, I am issuing a second challenge to them – and to the leaders of our hospitals, hotels, nonprofits and small businesses of every kind, including our growing tech community: join us in this new effort to connect high school students to career paths. One of the companies that has already agreed to participate, I’m proud to say, is Bloomberg LP.

“I can tell you from personal experience how much an internship means. When I was in high school, I was lucky enough to get a job working at an electronics company. That job is the only reason I applied to Johns Hopkins University – and without it, I’m not sure where I’d be today.

“The fifth and final step of our journey to the educational mountaintop is making sure that when our children are ready to continue their education or training, they can afford to do it. This year, under a new partnership with the Obama Administration, we’ll be informed about which of our students hoping to attend college failed to apply for Federal financial aid – and we’ll help make sure they get their applications in.

“We’ll also help lead the charge for the New York State Dream Act, so children who were brought here illegally can apply for State-sponsored college loans, grants, and scholarships. We can’t blame them for being brought here as infants or teens. And since they are here to stay, it’s in New York City’s best interest to make sure they are able to become productive members of society.

“I took out loans to get through college, so I know how important that money is. And I believe that all of our students should be eligible for the financial aid they need to succeed. The five steps I just outlined aren’t about politics. They’re about children.

“When we sit down with the UFT, there are two groups in the room: the UFT and our school children – they are who we work for and we will. We have an obligation to stand up for their lives, their futures, their hopes and dreams. Their voice is the voice we listen to and I thought all of us should hear it today.

“Those are the leaders of tomorrow: the doctors, the lawyers, the mayors. They will lead the economy of tomorrow, if we give them the tools to do it and if we begin building that economy right here and now."