News and Speeches

Schools Chancellor Walcott’s Remarks at the Association for a Better New York

09/04/2013

As Prepared for Delivery Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Good morning, and thank you, Bill. It is an honor to be invited to speak before this audience once again.

Next Monday marks the 12th and final opening day of school for this administration, and I want to use this moment to talk a little about the future of our great public school system.

This spring, I challenged our students to keep up their reading during the summer break. So I decided to take my own advice and do the same.

I finished a book on Lincoln. I briefly picked up “Crime and Punishment,” but after having a few too many teenage flashbacks I set it aside for another day.

Then a friend recommended “The Ungovernable City” by Vincent Cannato, an extraordinary account of New York in the Lindsay years. I quickly got wrapped up in it, and as you might imagine I was especially interested in the chapters about the public school system in the 1960s and ’70s.

The book paints a picture of a system spiraling out of control. In 1970, The New York Times described our public schools as plagued by chaos and disorder, in which quote, “thugs engaged in widespread intimidation, shakedowns, extortion and violent assault.”

There was bedlam in many schools. At Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn in 1969, 2,000 students had to be evacuated after a student threw a Molotov cocktail through a window. One year later, the school was closed again when students set off stink bombs in the cafeteria and assaulted police officers.

Mr. Cannato cites a drama teacher’s written account of life at Junior High School 275 in Brownsville. Quote, “The stairwells were marred by splashes of paint on the walls. Litter spilled down stairs illuminated by broken light fixtures. Char marks indicated where fires had been set. The odor of urine hung over the corridors. Sometime we inhaled mace sprayed by hostile students. Teachers reported senseless violent confrontations with students.”

In retrospect, it’s hard to believe how long New Yorkers put up with that unconscionable situation. Because rather than the chaos abating with the end of the 1960s, the schools were only beginning their nosedive.

In 1986, the old Board of Education began to keep statistics on its graduation rates. It found that fewer than half of the city’s students were graduating in four years.

For the following 15 years, that number barely budged. In 2002, nearly a quarter of our kids were dropping out.

Thirty years after the riots in its cafeteria, Tilden High School was still enduring a culture of violence and academic failure. Many students were regularly arming themselves with guns and knives. The graduation rate was 43 percent.

The story was the same for Erasmus, where the graduation rate was 32 percent, and at Morris, where it was 31 percent.

At Adlai Stevenson High School in the Bronx, gang fights in the late 1990s were so common that teachers regularly pulled down iron gates from the hallway ceilings to contain rioting.

The only way to protect students was to make them prisoners of their own school.

Not surprisingly, the school was steeped in failure in other ways as well. Only one in three students there graduated on time—if at all.

Think of the students who were forced to attend these schools. They had no alternative to walking through dangerous hallways. No choice but to endure what was likely an inferior education, judging by the numbers.

Their parents had little objective information about how their school was performing. Little way of judging how qualified the teachers were. They couldn’t be sure if the school administrators were there because of their qualifications or because of patronage deals struck by community school board members.

And, even if they had known, a maze of union contracts and byzantine laws and regulations would have prevented them from doing anything about it. They were all but prohibited from sending their kids to high schools outside of their districts.

The gates were closed around them.

Those parents and students didn't know there could be another way. Because for decades, there wasn't one. The forces of self-interest had made sure of that.

Not because they didn't care about children, but because they cared more about themselves, or the people who signed their paychecks, or the people who got them their jobs.

It’s especially worth reflecting on this during an election year. Because whoever gets to decide the city’s education agenda for the next four years had best recall how bad things once were—and how easy it would be to re-live the disasters of the past.

There are powerful adults whose control over our students’ education was loosened when Michael Bloomberg became mayor. They are now vying to regain their grip.

I will be leaving my position on December 31st, and I have nothing left to vie for except the interests of 1.1 million New York City students—two of whom are my grandchildren. So I want to make sure we are all aware of what is at stake.

No critic, candidate or union chief will be honest enough to say that they want to return the system to the old status quo. They have rather obscured their motives under the cloak of good intentions, and with empty platitudes.

But if you listen carefully, you will hear euphemisms for some very bad ideas.

Without fanfare, many candidates are supporting a return to “geographic management” of the schools. That is an obscure term used in the education world that masks something enormously detrimental: Taking back the power that we have given to our principals.

It’s striking how little authority our principals were once given to run their own schools. The community school boards controlled much of the money the schools received, and dictated to the dollar how it had to be spent. The teachers union controlled the classrooms, hamstringing principals from hiring, firing or even evaluating their members.

There were a lot of good people who served on the community school boards, but overall those boards were a disaster for our students. If I were to detail the case of every member arrested on corruption charges we would be here well past lunch.

The New York Times reported in 1996 that, quote, “investigations in some districts have shown that teachers and principals are routinely approached for political contributions and kickbacks,” unquote.

I was given a behind-the-scenes glimpse of one of the districts  in 1996, when then-Chancellor Rudy Crew grew fed up with mismanagement at District 5 in Harlem, fired the entire board and appointed me as an interim trustee.

I was amazed by what I found. The district operation, which was basically a patronage mill, had squandered millions of dollars in education money while students were studying from out-of-date textbooks. The previous superintendent had been escorted out of a meeting after getting into a fistfight. And that was hardly the worst district in the city.

Thanks to Mayor Bloomberg, those school boards are long gone. Most of their power has been placed in the hands of our school principals.

We devolved unprecedented resources to the school level and gave principals authority to create their budgets.

Funding is based on students—a common-sense idea that is actually new—and students with higher needs get higher funding.

The Department of Education is spending a smaller percentage of its budget on central administration than ever before. We are not so much a school system anymore as much as a system of schools.

True to what the critics say, there is no geographic management anymore. Our principals are the bosses, and they can make the best decisions for their students. My job is simply to set the bar that principals have to meet, help them meet it, and do something about it if they don’t.

Our principals now get their support not from a powerful board of political figures but from school networks staffed by educators and based around academic specialties.  They are a far cry from the old districts.

As a result, we’ve made it exceedingly difficult for power brokers to place their cronies inside our schools anymore. There are no community school board members to influence, strong-arm or bribe anymore.

Ask yourself who would benefit from taking power away from our principals: one million students—or some special interests.

The second red flag is the criticism of so-called “high-stakes testing.” While the notion of reducing testing sounds appealing, the implications are rarely discussed. So let’s discuss them.

Despite the culture of failure that infected the schools over the years, the people who worked in them were barely held accountable for their schools’ results. That was at least partially because there were virtually no measures of success or failure to judge them by, prior to Mayor Bloomberg taking office.

There were no yardsticks to measure which schools were working and which were failing…which ones improved over time and which ones declined… how each school performed compared with the others.

There were few objective measures of student performance. As for their teachers, the United Federation of Teachers made sure it was next to impossible to evaluate their members’ skills, much less take action if they were failing at their jobs.

We built an accountability system that included qualitative reviews and Progress Reports - and we made the information public. And we abolished the absurd practice of promoting students to higher grades if they lacked the skills to succeed.

And finally, we fought for and won—just this year—the first genuine teacher evaluation system in the history of the school system.

On Monday, when the school year begins at our 1,819 schools, principals will for the first time begin evaluating teachers based on a common standard of effective teaching.

We will continue to support our teachers with professional development and coaching, but if a teacher is deemed unsuited for the job, he or she can be removed from the classroom—something that was once impossible to conceive of.

We cannot, however, judge a teacher, a principal or a school without knowing whether their students are learning, and whether their performance is improving or declining. No one likes taking tests, but they are a critical part of setting standards and measuring one’s ability to meet them.

Views on standardized testing have been evolving over the years. School systems—ours included—continue to adjust how they’re used. But their overall value is incalculable for measuring where our schools are strong and where they are weak.

We know that how students do in elementary and middle school is the strongest predictor of how they’ll perform later on. So it’s critical that we monitor their progress early on.

Ask yourself if those arguing to the contrary this election year are interested in sparing our students the stress of exams—or gutting an entire system of accountability.

The teachers union, for example, will inevitably demand that the city and state weaken the new system for evaluating their members. Whether the next leaders of our schools capitulate to that pressure will play a huge part in determining the future of our public schools.

And finally there is the issue of school choice.

Unions, activists, and the candidates they support this year have been calling for moratoriums on replacing failing schools with smaller schools and charters. Some have called for quote “community approval” in the future before the Department of Education can act.

Who could be against community approval?

The question begs a larger one. What would have happened if that had been the policy all along?

There is no harder decision for me to make than to phase out and revamp a school. Schools hold enormous emotional value to their communities. They are often part and parcel of a neighborhood’s identity.

But that emotional connection alone will not improve our schools.

In 2002, the graduation rate at 22 of the city’s large high schools was 38 percent. Some of them had graduation rates of under 25 percent. Think about that.

These schools had a culture of failure stretching back years and sometimes decades. They had defied a catalogue of remediation strategies. They needed to be reconceived.

And that is what we did. After an extensive community input process and approval by the Panel for Educational Policy, we phased each one out and replaced them with a collection of small schools specializing in everything from architecture to zoology.

All employees at the original schools were required to re-apply for their jobs, with principals placed in charge of re-hiring. The teachers union didn’t like it, but for the students and families who attended the new schools, it was a brand-new day.

Today, the culture on those 22 high school campuses has changed dramatically. The 38 percent average graduation rate of 2002 grew to 68 percent last year!

Schools characterized by chaos and failure stretching back to the sixties have been re-born.

At Erasmus, the graduation rate rose from 32 percent to 75 percent. And the Morris campus no longer has a 30 percent graduation rate—it doubled to 62 percent last year.

At Tilden, the graduation rate rose from 42 percent in 2002 to 78 percent last year. The drop-out rate there has fallen by half. And crime is down 93 percent!

The students at these schools are no longer there because they have to be there—they’ve chosen to attend. We’ve abolished the archaic school zoning rules that once trapped low-income students in the lowest-performing schools in the city.

We now offer high school students their choice of hundreds of schools in all five boroughs and have given them information about each school’s performance.

At schools across the city, we have raised the gates that once imprisoned our students!

Last week, MDRC, a widely-respected national research group, released a study of our new small schools. It showed that the students who attend them have graduation rates 10 points higher than their peers at other schools.

Better still, graduation rates for black male students in those schools are almost 14 points higher at our small schools.

We have significantly reduced the racial achievement gap in our small schools. We have found a model for success that has eluded America’s school systems for generations!

Think of that when you hear someone call for “community approval” of school phase-outs, for limits on new charter schools, or for moratoriums on co-locating small schools in a building.

How would you explain that to 60,000 charter school students, most of them from low-income families, whose futures have been brightened?

Any way you want to slice it, charter schools have been a spectacular success here. They consistently out-perform their peer schools on state exams and any number of other barometers.

We have encountered angry opposition to almost every proposal we’ve made to phase out and revamp a failing school. But think about what would have happened if we hadn’t done so. Who would have suffered more than our students?

We never close a school except as a last resort. But what will happen in the future when that last resort is called for?  It is critical that we not lose the courage to do what’s right.

As you may know, New York is in the midst of implementing the Common Core standards, probably the most significant change to classroom instruction in a generation.

This spring, students in grades 3-8 took State tests for the first time based on these standards. When the results were released last month, there was a lot of predictable noise about how test scores had dropped—no matter how often we explained that we had adopted tougher standards to prepare kids for college and careers.

Yet beyond the politics were signs of progress that were plain to see. The city’s students caught up to their peers across the state for the first time. And they out-performed students at every other major city in New York by leaps and bounds.

Of the state’s 25 top schools, 22 of them are now New York City public schools. A decade ago, that number was zero.

I’ve lived the modern history of the city’s public schools, as a public school student, a parent, President of the Urban League, member of the city’s Board of Education, Deputy Mayor for Education, and now as chancellor.

For the blink of an eye in 2009, I served as temporary President of the Board of Education when mayoral control briefly expired. That gives me the distinction of having been the last Board of Ed president in city history.

I was sure to double-lock that door behind me so no one could ever hold the job again.

I know first-hand that the public schools were once as ungovernable as the city itself, as Mr. Cannato described so memorably.

The old system seemed almost designed to hold few, if anyone, accountable for its failures. The downward spiral only ended when Mayor Bloomberg fought to be held responsible for its performance.

In the last decade, our graduation rate has risen by 40 percent. The school crime rate has fallen by 40 percent. And the drop-out rate has fallen by half!

We have halted a runaway train speeding toward calamity. We have turned it around, and re-set it on a positive trajectory. As organizations like MDRC attest, the forward momentum is accelerating.

But positive momentum is not the same thing as a mission accomplished.

There are far too many students who are still not where they should be, thanks to the familiar impediments but also to our own failings—the experiments we launched that didn't work, the fights we waged but didn't win.

While our high schools have seen vast improvement, our middle schools are lagging behind. And while Black and Latino students have shown improvement over the past few years, only a fraction are on track for college and careers.

We have made progress on both fronts, but we have far to go.

This is a system that needs bold thinking and courage to carry out what needs to be done. What would have happened if we had lost the fight to phase out and revamp Tilden High School? Where would those students be today?

The next leaders of the school system will take over during a historic academic transition. The new Common Core standards represent the most promising change to classroom instruction in a generation. Handing back our students’ fate to the city’s special interests would be immoral.

We need to give our students a fighting chance.

Provide them with schools where they feel safe. Where the teachers are supported and engaged. Where a strong principal has the power to make decisions. Where the standards are high. Where students can pursue their most creative interests, be it biology or technology. Where they’re not taught rote memorization, but how to analyze information and think critically.

My hope is that the next leaders of this great system build upon our efforts—take them to the next level. Turning back the clock would be a tragic mistake.

No one knows this better than the people in this room—the business leaders who warned for years that the deterioration of the schools had been harming the city’s economy.

The future of New York City’s public schools looks bright this morning.

Let’s keep moving forward.

It would be a crime to lower the gates on our children again.

Thank you.