Bloomberg Announces New Round of Aggressive School Reforms

Education reformers are buzzing today about New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s ambitious new education goals for New York City schools that will not only up the ante for all states vying for a piece of the federal $4.35 billion Race to the Top school-reform fund, but is likely to spur sharp resistance from teachers' unions.

While participating in a panel discussion about the future of education reform sponsored by the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress, Bloomberg announced that he and his school Chancellor Joel Klein are aiming to push through a platform of new reform proposals that include:

  • Overhauling teacher evaluation systems to include student performance data.
  • Boosting salaries for high-performing teachers in hard-to-staff specialties (math, science, special education) in low-income schools.
  • Ignoring seniority (and prioritizing merit) when making layoff decisions.
  • Making it easier to get low-performing teachers out of the classroom and off the payroll.
  • Raising the bar on how much content students should master each year.
  • Removing the current cap on the number of charter schools that can operate in New York, and providing more funding for their facilities. Bloomberg said he wants to open another 100 charters in the next four years.
  • Closing the lowest-performing 10 percent of city schools in the next four years, and replacing them with more effective leaders and teachers. Bloomberg said he was determined to find the money to fix more schools by changing the current union rules that require New York to keep displaced teachers on the payroll indefinitely, even if no principal wants to hire them (the so-called rubber-room problem). “We just can’t keep wasting that kind of money,” Bloomberg said, noting that Chicago has a one-year limit for displaced teachers that could serve as model legislation.  

The reforms outlined by Bloomberg will help the city earn additional points in the Race to the Top competition.

Bloomberg said he has also given Klein the go-ahead to aggressively exploit newly discovered loopholes in a recent New York state law barring the use of student-achievement data in teacher tenure decisions. The issue of whether school administrators can consider student test scores and other evidence of student learning when evaluating teacher effectiveness has been a hot-button issue in many union contract negotiations around the country in recent years. It’s become a bigger point of contention since the rules for the Race to the Top competition gave extra points to states that use such data when considering teacher effectiveness.

Based on a new interpretation of the law, Bloomberg says city lawyers have concluded that New York principals can use individual student data when evaluating teachers hired before July 1, 2008.

“In New York, the state legislature passed a law last year that actually tells principals: you can evaluate teachers on any criteria you want—just not on student achievement data. That’s like saying to hospitals: you can evaluate heart surgeons on any criteria you want—just not patient survival rates!" Bloomberg told the audience at the Center for American Progress. “You really can’t make this up!”

No serious school reformer would argue with Bloomberg’s goals—but to make them a reality, some will require state legislative action. That will be no easy task since the New York City teachers’ union, widely considered to be the most powerful union in the state, will likely resist any attempt to weaken tenure or seniority. However, Bloomberg said he was willing to file suit to force through some changes—like increasing the number of charter schools allowed to operate in the city—if the state legislature continues to resist pressure for change. If the mayor is able to push through all the reforms, the city schools could earn about $150 million in Race to the Top funds. “In this economic environment,” Bloomberg told the crowd, “we cannot afford to leave federal money on the table … Any state that sits out the Race to the Top will lose jobs and revenues just as surely as car companies that sat out the race to build affordable hybrids—not to mention shortchanging our kids on the education they need to compete in an increasingly global and technological world.”