SACRAMENTO, CA – If Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa convinces the state legislature to give him control of the massive and dysfunctional Los Angeles Unified School District, he must avoid the failed education strategies employed by other big-city mayors who took over their schools. In particular, he should learn what not to do from New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Villaraigosa believes that if the mayor oversees the schools, it will lead to better accountability. People will know who’s in charge and where the buck stops. Villaraigosa’s supporters argue that a mayor is more likely to represent the broad populace rather than the special interests, such as the teachers unions, that inevitably control local school boards. While persuasive to a degree, it’s important to remember that governance reforms by themselves don’t guarantee higher student achievement. Consider what happened in New York.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg “seized control of the [district headquarters] building, cleaned out the time servers and patronage nests, and then sold off the property to the highest bidder,” writes education journalist and author Sol Stern, a keen observer of the New York school scene. So far, so good. Bloomberg then appointed former U.S. Justice Department official Joel Klein as chancellor of city schools.
Bloomberg and Klein, observed Stern, then streamlined the chain of command: “Instead of overlapping administrative layers operating through 32 separate school districts, there would now be one clear chain of command extending vertically from the mayor’s office to the chancellor, then down through ten regional superintendents, and finally to the principal in every school in the system.” So did this rational governance structure result in a better education for New York City children? According to Stern, the answer is “no.”
“Bloomberg and Klein,” says Stern, “either forgot, or never comprehended in the first place, that all good education, and, even more so, education for disadvantaged children, starts with systematic and explicit instruction in the basic skills of literacy, numeracy, and other foundational academic subjects.” Instead of using their power to implement this common-sense agenda, Bloomberg and Klein pushed a program marked by education theories that promoters like to call “progressive” but are better described as discredited.
Stern notes that Klein and his clique of liberal subordinates instituted a stealth whole-language progressive reading program that a federally-sponsored reading panel deemed woefully inadequate. Further, Klein and company forced progressive teaching methods, such as students working together in groups rather than being instructed by a teacher, which have little research evidence to support their effectiveness. Stern concludes that the Bloomberg/Klein legacy is “a demoralized teaching staff and classroom practices that in the long run stand little chance of narrowing the racial gap in learning, unless, that is, progressive education finally succeeds in dumbing down all students.”
If given the opportunity, will Villaraigosa repeat Bloomberg’s mistakes? He has indicated to some education reformers that he understands that the goal should be to get each student to perform at grade-level proficiency in core subjects rather than simply meeting the state’s way-too-low schoolwide test-score improvement targets. However, it’s far from clear that he knows how to achieve that important goal.
In the recent primary election, Villaraigosa cut commercials pumping Proposition 82, Rob Reiner’s government-run universal preschool initiative, a measure with little convincing research support that voters emphatically rejected. Given the liberal political, and cultural milieu from which he comes, and which surrounds him in Los Angeles, Villaraigosa must rise above the cacophony of “progressive” advice that he will receive from education professors, union activists, and liberal Democratic legislators. The mayor should focus on what empirically works in improving student achievement. Educators statewide should do likewise.
Lance T. Izumi is director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted with permission.