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In a feel good speech on Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio paraded an impressive list of educational accomplishments delivered by his still new administration and promised a series of initiatives meant to bolster public confidence in his schools stewardship, maintain mayoral control, and secure his 2017 re-election.
The speech, “Equity and Excellence,” was remarkable for its program specificity and its paucity of educational vision.
Among the accomplishments were his astounding success in tripling full day pre-K enrollment, slight upticks in overall graduation rates and test scores, small improvements in many Renewal Schools facing State-mandated receivership, 1,000 new teacher leader posts, and 650 teachers counseled out or otherwise removed from employment.
De Blasio’s extensive list of initiatives included hiring reading specialists to assure students’ reading proficiency by the end of second grade; a “single shepherd” guidance system for counselors to follow students from sixth grade through high school; universal availability of computer education, middle school Algebra, and high school Advanced Placement courses; an extensive program of college visits to encourage post-secondary education; private-sector internships with places reserved for students who are homeless and in foster care; and cross-seeding of best practices among public, charter, and religious schools.
In these proposals, De Blasio put himself in the position of chancellor-in-chief, bulleting a raft of programs that would be more expected coming from the regular chancellor. In the past, for example, it was Carmen Fariña who announced major system restructuring and new accountability measures.
Clearly, after a summer of discontent, City Hall decided the Mayor should deliver this good news while avoiding any hint of controversy. None of these new measures is likely to spark opposition. All have broad appeal to parents, teachers, supervisors, and the private sector. And most will not be fully delivered or evaluated until long after the next legislative session and reelection campaign.
Missing, though, was recognition of several elephants in the room requiring immediate mayoral attention. After taking an Albany bloodbath, the Mayor never mentioned the State capital and the speech skipped over teacher accountability, standardized testing, the opt-out movement, and the one year micro-extension of mayoral control.
Recent controversies over test fraud and illicit high school credit recovery schemes were ignored.
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Most importantly, in a speech on “Equality and Excellence,” the issue of school diversity went unaddressed. Its absence was nothing less than startling. In a city that is one of the most segregated in the nation, where racially charged incidents and marches have become almost daily occurrences, where principals and community groups have repeatedly petitioned the school system to open up its competitive high schools, screened schools, and district schools for greater balance among racial, income, language, and ability groups, it is beyond belief that the Mayor was silent on these most salient points.
Are we in a neo-segregationist era of separate but equal? Does the Mayor think that UPK and second grade reading help, as important as they may be, will adequately address the achievement gap? How will AP classes help when so many schools, disproportionately educating poor children of color, are without a regular sequence in lab sciences or teachers certified to teach Chemistry and Physics? When will the reform of competitive high school admissions, promised during de Blasio’s mayoral campaign, come to light?
Feel good speeches are fine. The mayor’s parade of new initiatives are well-intentioned and, particularly regarding his reading and guidance proposals, may have important positive impacts. But failing to address glaring problems does not make them go away. A bulleted list of accomplishments and initiatives is not enough.
The mayor needs to articulate an educational vision that promotes equality through diversity. We have long known that separate can never be equal. We know what happens to a dream deferred. If Brown and Langston Hughes didn’t teach those lessons well enough, they were taught again on the streets of Staten Island and Ferguson.
Wednesday’s speech went a long way toward promised distribution of specific resources, worth tens of millions of dollars, throughout the school system. But that will not solve the mal-distribution of current resources, worth billions if monetized but, in reality, priceless. To do that, de Blasio has to step down as chancellor-in-chief and show the moral and political leadership that only a Mayor can provide.
David Bloomfield is Professor of Education Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center.