Commentary

Racial Inequality in Bloomberg’s Schools

“You can’t separate a 28 percent graduate rate in New York City of black males with the fact that 50 percent of black males in New York City are unemployed.” That’s what John Jackson, president of the Cambridge-based Schott Foundation for Public Education said at the 54th annual Conference of the Council of the Great City Schools last year.

Added James Williams, superintendent of Buffalo public schools: “Our public education system was not geared to educate all children. Blacks were not in the equation.” Even Arick West, president of the Kansas City, Missouri, School Board, grimly noted that the unemployment rate for black men in his community is double the rate of everyone else and that college is not seen as an option for many black youths (Urban Educator, November/December 2010).

In the parlance of education reformers, this is known as “the racial gap” in public education, which has continued in New York City throughout the control of the schools by the Education Mayor and former chancellor Joel Klein. After his successor, Cathie Black, completed her listening tour of some schools, she was challenged by Ernie Logan, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators: “We need to have a serious attempt to address the fact that we have not closed [the achievement gap] between males of color and the rest of the kids in the system” (New York Post, January 3).

And Gregory Hodge, principal of Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, educated Cathie Black on this significant, largely unmentioned fact: “Bronx Science is a stellar school, Brooklyn Tech is a stellar school, Stuyvesant is a stellar school … but in these schools of eliteness, you have an infinitesimal percentage of children of color” (New York Times, January 3).

There’s no longer any point questioning Cathie Black’s qualifications for a job that will impact the future lives of so many New York kids. She has the gig, so I take her word that she is exhilarated by the challenge.

I assume that by now she knows that the national cheers Bloomberg and Klein got – along with their self-glorification – for their alleged regeneration of the school system were based on the rampant inflation of the state’s standardized test scores. This traumatic truth bludgeoned principals, teachers, and parents when State Education Commissioner David Steiner ended the fantasy.

In all the news stories about the shock, the feelings of the affected kids were left out. Learning that they were no longer “proficient” in reading and math, they also learned that they were dumb. How much that lowered their confidence – a necessary spurt to learning – we will never know.

As The New York Times reported (August 1, 2010): “Much of the city’s progress in reducing the achievement gap between minority [that also means Hispanic] students was eroded by the new numbers, revealing that more black and Hispanic students had [actually] been merely passing under the old [fake] numbers.”

Dig this, Cathie: “The percentage of black elementary and middle school students proficient in math fell to 40 percent, from 75 percent, while among white students, passing rates declined to 75 percent, from 92 percent… . At some schools, the drop was breathtaking… . At the main campus of the Harlem Promise Academy, one of the city’s top-ranked charter schools, proficiency in third-grade math dropped from 100 percent to 56 percent.”

“When I got those scores,” said Linda Singer, principal of public school 255 in Gravesend, Brooklyn, “I thought I would die. Everything is changed.”

Not everything. The racial gap still stays on, though it was somehow not mentioned in Joel Klein’s self-congratulatory farewells and Bloomberg’s prideful, italicized reminder that it was he who had brought Joel Klein in to resuscitate our schools. Not a word from Bloomberg about the entrenched racial gap that surfaced in the lead paragraph to Barbara Martinez’s story, “Klein Trumpets SAT Score Rises” (Wall Street Journal, September 15, 2010): “The SAT scores of New York City high school seniors improved in 2010 versus the year before though the gains were mostly attributable to white and Asian students” (emphasis added).

In “The sound of bubbles bursting” (New York Post, August 1, 2010), Diane Ravitch – the premier historian of the New York schools – aimed at the “historic gains” trumpeted by Bloomberg and Klein: “Look at the achievement gap between the performance of white students and that of minorities. Last year, black students were 22 points behind white students in passing the state English exam. This year – after the state corrected its scoring – the gap increased to 30.4 points.

“In math, the gap grew even more. Black students were 17 points behind whites last year. Now, they’ve fallen 30 points behind.”

I wouldn’t expect Bloomberg to have even been aware that something was dangerously wrong with the state scores that made him look so good. But Klein, both as a penetrating government, and a private corporate lawyer, had a reputation, not as an educator but as a skewer of scams. But, like Bloomberg, those rising scores enlarged his future prospects. Why question them?

We don’t know yet what plans and strategies chancellor Cathie Black will develop to begin to end the racial inequality in Bloomberg schools but among the daunting obstacles in her way are the still rising financial deficits in cities, states, and the federal government. But, as Bloomberg has told us, she is a first-rate manager. Now’s the time, Ms. Black!

This is what confronts you: Last November, Bloomberg declared $1.6 billion in budget cuts, with more to come. As of this writing, Carol Kellermann (president of the Citizens Budget Commission) and Jennifer March-Joly (executive director of the Citizens Commission for Children) predict: “The proposed reduction in teaching staff is more than 9,600 or 8 percent,” and among corollary services that can impact students are “21 percent in the Agency for Children’s Services and 11 percent in the Department of Youth and Community Development” (Daily News, December 5, 2010).

As for the persistent racial gap especially afflicting black males, a 2010 MIT study of incarceration and inequality confirms the findings of New York’s Community Service Society report last year: “The incarceration rate for young black males without high school diplomas has surged since 1980. In 1980, these young men faced a 10 percent incarceration rate, while in 2008 this number had increased to 35 percent… . White youth without a high school diploma … face an 11 percent incarceration rate” (Examiner.com, December 14).

Chancellor Black, you do have the most important job you’ve ever had, one that determines the future of many black males, among many other students.

Nat Hentoff writes on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.