Skip to:

Key Findings: Building Blocks for Better Schools

Building Blocks for Better Schools

By Clara Hemphill, Kim Nauer, Andrew White, and Thomas Jacobs

Center for New York City Affairs at The New School


Essential Takeaways

Mayor Bloomberg and his schools chancellors have effectively used mayoral control to produce dramatic changes over the past 12 years. In that time, they thoroughly reshaped the school system, dismantling an ossified bureaucracy, increasing per-pupil spending and giving more authority to principals to run their schools. With significant support from private foundations, they made large investments in the creation of hundreds of new small high schools that have been widely credited with boosting high school graduation rates.

However, there is a large gap between graduation and preparation for college. Fewer than one-third of the city’s graduates complete high school on time and ready to take courses at CUNY without remediation. Many of the city’s high schools do not offer a college prep curriculum. Black and Hispanic students remain disproportionately unprepared for high school and leave high school disproportionately unprepared for college. Reading scores in the elementary and middle schools (as measured by the National Assessment of Education Progress) have been stagnant. And while principal autonomy has allowed dozens of groundbreaking schools with strong leaders to flourish, it has also allowed some schools—with weaker leaders or facing very tough challenges—to drift.

This research – like the two previous EdFunders papers – calls attention to the massive changes associated with expecting high schools to not only graduate nearly everyone, but also to prepare students for college and jobs that demand the higher education credentials once expected of only a few. Building Blocks, like the other papers, highlights this new focus on college readiness as a revolutionary change in expectations.

Recognizing that the next administration must decide which aspects of Bloomberg’s education legacy should be built upon—and which should be rethought or jettisoned – the analysis sets out criteria for making these decisions. And, it lays out a set of priorities that will help leaders at the NYC DOE meet the new expectations.

These are some of the achievements of the last decade on which increased college and career readiness can be built:

  • Historically high citywide graduation rates
  • Increased attention to attendance in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, with consequent increases in attendance and achievement
  • Development of data collection systems, aimed at aiding instruction, improving achievement and informing the choices of key stakeholders – including students and parents – in a system characterized by the expansion of choice and options
  • Creation of hundreds of small high schools that promote an intimate learning environment, including schools targeted at students not fluent in English, transfer schools, and high level career and technical education schools

Many of these crucial successes – and others, including the creation of many exemplary charter and district schools – have been made possible through vibrant partnerships with philanthropy at all levels of education.

There is reason for optimism. Perhaps the mayor’s greatest education legacy is the belief that good public schools for all are possible. Yet the challenges, including resource challenges, remain huge. The school system avoided sharp funding cuts following the recession that ended in 2010, but steady increases in staff costs have squeezed individual school budgets. The new mayor will make consequential choices about where to allocate limited resources in order to overcome the many challenges that impede increased college and career readiness.

Priorities for the next Mayor and Chancellor:

The goal of preparing all students for college and careers requires not one strategy but a series of interlocking strategies to improve instruction and opportunities to learn in all of the city’s schools.

1. Take action to dramatically improve literacy in the early grades, so more students are prepared for high school. This should include intensive interventions for struggling readers, as well as expanded early education, full-day pre-kindergarten, and targeted investments in community-based supports for low-income families and black and Latino students, who have the lowest rates of academic success and reading skills.

2. Use the newly adopted Common Core standards to promote college readiness, by investing greater attention and resources into the teaching of reading, writing, research, analysis, problem solving and other academic behaviors, as well as social and emotional skills to prepare students for rigorous coursework before they graduate.

3. Concentrate more resources, either directly or through partnerships with community-based organizations, in early and ongoing support for college and career guidance especially for the majority of young people who don’t have this support in their own families.

4. Ensure a strong accountability system that uses a wide range of performance measures, while making it more informative for and responsive to the needs of school leaders, school staff and families.  This includes continuing to use the accountability system to identify the 10 percent of schools that are struggling the most—and then providing these schools with intensive support.

5. Retain principals’ important ability to control hiring, budgets and curriculum, but establish a clearer chain of command that provides supervision and support by superintendents and network leaders.

6. Strengthen the remaining traditional zoned neighborhood schools and create new structures to connect all schools—neighborhood, magnet and charters alike—within given geographic areas. At the same time, existing, well-functioning and innovative networks should be kept in place and drawn upon as models for their good work. We should provide all such networks with support to foster more effective partnerships with community organizations and institutions, and to cultivate greater racial and economic integration in schools where possible.