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Making The Grade: Is Education Reform Working in NYC?

Making The Grade: Is Education Reform Working in NYC?
When the New York state legislature voted to dismantle the central board of education in 2002, Michael Bloomberg became the first mayor in thirty-three years with broad control over the largest school system in the world. Soon after, the mayor appointed former antitrust lawyer Joel Klein schools chancellor, and began a radical overhaul of the city's 1200 public schools.

Three years later, what has mayoral control meant for the city's 1.1 million students? How has it affected life in the classroom? In this three-part series, NEW YORK VOICES' host Rafael Pi Roman takes an in-depth look at some of the key initiatives in the city's educational reform program.

Part 1: A Standard Curriculum
(Video at right »)

Before mayoral control, public elementary schools were allowed to pick their own curricula, but in September 2003, the NYC Department of Education instituted a new standard reading and math program in every public elementary school in the city except for the top 200. This reform meant that teachers in almost every classroom in the five boroughs were taking the same approach to teaching reading, writing, and math, so that when a student transferred schools, he or she wouldn't have to readjust to a new curriculum. It also allowed the NYC Department of Education to take a more direct role in determining the way that individual schools teach basic subjects.

Making The Grade: Is Education Reform Working in NYC?
But there has been an ongoing debate over the specific curricula chosen by the city. The English program selected is called "Balanced Literacy," which was paired with a word study approach called "Month by Month Phonics." Critics say these programs don't provide enough direct instruction, and lack a systematic approach to teaching reading through phonics. For its standard math curriculum, the city chose "Everyday Math," which critics say overemphasizes self-discovery learning without spending enough time teaching basic principles.

Deputy Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who is in charge of the curriculum, says that both programs do teach the fundamentals. She also says that Month by Month Phonics is no longer the city's main word study program, and there's now a menu of approaches that principals and teachers can choose from, many of which do take a systematic approach to teaching phonics. While critics of the math curriculum object to the fact that elementary school kids are encouraged to use calculators, Fariña says that the curriculum prepares students for a world in which basic computation skills aren't as necessary as they once were.

Making The Grade: Is Education Reform Working in NYC?
What are the pros and cons of the standard curricula, and did the NYC Department of Education implement the right programs? An in-depth field report assesses how educators in schools have responded to the changes, and how the teachers union and those close to the classroom assess instruction. Education expert Sol Stern, from the Manhattan Institute, and parent-activist Elizabeth Carson of NYC HOLD lay out criticism of the reading and math programs, while Deputy School Chancellor Carmen Fariña responds.

Read more about the participants in this program

Part 2: The Small School Initiative
(Video at top right »)

Since the mayor was given control over the public schools system in 2002, the NYC Department of Education has started 149 new small high schools, while phasing out many of the city's largest schools. The main idea behind this reform is that in a small environment it's much harder for students to slip between the cracks, while teachers and administrators are forced to take responsibility for all of their students, including the ones who are failing. Replacing big schools with small schools is the city's main line of attack in reducing its dismal 54 percent four-year high school graduation rate. And philanthropists have also gotten into the act: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given the city more than $100 million over the past three years to help create new small high schools.

Making The Grade: Is Education Reform Working in NYC?
But does changing the size of a school really increase its graduation rate? And how is this reform effort different than the small schools initiative carried out in the early 90s, which had mixed results? An in-depth report is followed by a panel of education reporters discussing the small schools initiative and other aspects of education reform since mayoral control.

Read more about the participants in this program

Part 3: Money, Power, and Public Accountability
(Video at top right »)

Since 2002, the mayor has held direct control over the public school system. But has mayoral control resulted in substantive reforms and a system that better serves 1.1 million students? And is the new system accountable enough to parents and taxpayers?

Read more about the participants in this program

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Watch the Video
Part 1: A Standard Curriculum
Balanced Literacy: Did the city make the right choice in picking a standard reading and writing curriculum?View this story
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View this storyThe Curriculum Debate: Education experts Sol Stern and Elizabeth Carson discuss their objections to the reading and math curricula.
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The Response: Deputy Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña addresses the critics of the standard curricula.View this story
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Part 2: Small Schools Initiative
View this storyThe Push for Small Schools: A look at the city's main line of attack in reducing its dismal 54 percent four-year high school graduation rate.
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Reporters Panel: Journalists from the NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and INSIDESCHOOLS.ORG on the small schools initiative, education philanthropy, and school governance since mayoral control.
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Part 3: Money, Power, and Public Accountability
View this storyControlling the System: Is the new system of school governance making the city's schools better?
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The Response: Schools Chancellor Joel Klein discusses mayoral control, public accountability, and management issues.
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