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Speech on School Reform by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg
Brooklyn Tech High School
September 9, 2004

Thank you, Dr. Lyles.

Good morning. Thank you all for being punctual, for dressing properly, and for not talking during class. I wouldn’t want to have to send anyone to the principal’s office – especially since no one would be there.

I thought I’d start today by asking you a question. (Don’t worry – this isn’t a quiz. You won’t need a #2 pencil.) What do Leonard Riggio, the founder of Barnes & Noble…Harvey Lichtenstein, the President of the Brooklyn Academy of Music…Londell McMillan, one of the owners of Brooklyn’s new professional basketball team…and Colonel Karol Bobko, who commanded the maiden flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger, all have in common?

Answer: They’re all graduates of Brooklyn Tech. What’s more, they’re part of a larger honor roll that includes: Colin Powell and Beverly Sills, Jonas Salk and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jimmy Cagney and another famous tough guy, Joel Klein – all graduates of New York City public schools.

When the school year starts next Monday morning, I’m sure you’ll all be at the front doors of your schools to warmly welcome your students. And when you do, take a good look at each one. Because each just might turn out to be a Nobel Prize winner, a Gold Medal Olympian, the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or, if he or she is a “C” student, like I was, a Mayor of New York City.

There’s really no way of knowing. Others will become the future heroes of our city – police officers, firefighters, and, yes, teachers. And each of them each of them has a God-given right – the ultimate civil right – to the best education we can provide.

That’s really why we’re here today: You have to meet that challenge. The parents of our school children are counting on you. In fact, everyone in this city is counting on you. Knowing the talent and dedication in this room, I am completely confident that our faith will be rewarded.

Two years ago, our school system reached an historic turning point. We asked for and got the authority from the Governor and State Legislature to end an educational status quo that had failed too many of our children for too long. I don’t have to tell most of you what it was like working under that system. You knew that sometimes the only way to do anything inventive or imaginative in your schools was to ignore the bureaucracy. With elementary and middle schools answering to local school boards – and high schools controlled by the central board – the system resembled the fabulous “push me/pull you” creature of the Doctor Doolittle children’s books. It had a head at either end of its body – and it could never make up its mind what direction to go in. The result was diffused and confused responsibility in carrying out the most important job in our city – teaching our children.

We’ve changed that. In place of inexcusable institutional inertia, we’re establishing clarity, accountability, and standards. And we’ve done that in order to unleash your talent and creativity, so that you can make our city’s public schools the best in the nation. That’s the goal you’ve all been working toward since you decided on education as a career. That’s why the principals here put in the long hours, why you come to work early and stay late, and why you’re in the schools on the weekends and in the evenings. It’s why many of you were selected by your principals to become parent coordinators – a position we created so that, for a parent, help is only a phone call away. It’s why others here are recognized by your fellow teachers as leaders in your schools. It’s why all of you are spending this week in professional development sessions with your staffs. Because 1,200 great principals – partnered with 1,200 hardworking, energetic parent coordinators, and thousands and thousands of dedicated teachers – are the formula for producing 1,200 outstanding schools.

Just look at what you’ve done over the last two years.

Some people say it’s hard to get parents to come to evening meetings. Tell that to Charles Woods, the parent coordinator at P.S. 11 in the Highbridge section of the Bronx. More than 800 people came to a “Family Night” he organized at the school last March. He also was instrumental in launching a family preservation program at the school – something that is already making a world of difference for the kids at P.S. 11.

Then there's Beth Malchiodi who teaches social studies here at Brooklyn Tech. She's famous for the time that she devotes to her students, including throwing candlelight dinners for them – right here in the lobby of the school. More importantly, she's known for the standards she sets, and the results she gets. Last year, every one of her students passed the Regents exam in social studies.

Let me name one more star who is here today – one of many: Dr. Peter McFarlane, the principal of Harlem’s P.S. 180. The way he has turned his school around and given his students the foundation in learning, and the confidence that they are all on their way to college is a microcosm of what we need to achieve throughout the city. This year, he has been honored with a fellowship from Columbia Teachers College, but I’m sure recognition from you, his peers, means even more to him.

You – and all your colleagues here and throughout the city – represent the future of our public schools. You’ve begun taking us toward that future. And our Administration – Chancellor Klein and his team at the Department of Education – and every parent are with you every step of the way.

Our shared mission is to dramatically improve education in our city, to have a caring and compassionate school system – with accountability. You’re on the frontlines of that effort. And I personally want to thank you for what has often been remarkable work. I’ve often said that the dream of achieving educational excellence in all our schools is why I sought the job of mayor. And that’s why, over the last two years, I’ve asked that we create an infrastructure to help you. Everything we’ve done has been designed to let teachers teach.

It started with a thorough overhaul of the school system’s administrative structure. We inherited a school system with 40 separate bureaucracies employing thousands of people in duplicative and unnecessary administrative jobs. We’ve replaced that with one unified, focused, and streamlined chain of command. Accountability and responsibility now run directly from the Chancellor to ten Regional Superintendents, then to just over 100 Local Instructional Superintendents and then to the school principals and then to the teachers. In the process, we eliminated the Community School Boards whose operations were, in too many instances, plagued by patronage and corruption.

And we redirected resources where they belong: to the classrooms, with your students. We scrapped a scandalously expensive and cumbersome process of building and repairing schools. We’ve replaced it with construction procedures that are faster, simpler, and dramatically less expensive – without reducing quality. We helped reduce overcrowding by converting unneeded administrative offices in your schools into classrooms with 9,500 seats. And we’ve provided students with more individual attention – and more choice – by creating new small secondary schools. On Monday – thanks to support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – we’re opening 55 new, small secondary schools throughout the city. That will put us more than halfway toward our goal of establishing 200 such schools by September 2007.

To create consistency and clarity – and raise standards – we adopted and implemented a citywide reading and math curriculum. It’s a curriculum that actually encourages learning, critical thinking, and problem solving. This fall, we unveil a new, citywide curriculum in music and the visual arts for all children, K-12. We’ll follow it next year with a comprehensive approach to teaching dance and theater.

Over the last two years, we’ve delivered 16 million new books and educational materials to every elementary school in the city – in time for the start of the school year. We’ve overhauled services for special needs students, such as English Language Learners. We’re working to improve a special education system that has been dysfunctional for decades. And while it’s not completely fixed yet, it’s much better than it was.

We’ve begun to reduce violence and disorder in schools where there have been serious problems. Last year, when we saw crime on the rise in a small number of schools, we responded immediately and forcefully. Thanks to our impact initiative, that trend has been reversed... and these schools are back to where they were before last fall's spike. But we are not satisfied with a return to the status quo. We are determined to drive crime even lower in those impact schools and apply what we have learned to even more schools. Make no mistake about it: We're serious about school safety, because safety is fundamental to teaching and learning.

We’ve made free school breakfasts available to every student, increased the number of breakfasts served by three million over the previous school year, and developed a school lunch program that exceeds Federal nutrition standards.

The summer school vision-screening program identified 3,800 students – that’s 36% of all those tested – who need to see an eye doctor. Many of you in this auditorium are now following up with parents to see that every child who needs glasses, gets them. I’m pleased to announce that, through a generous donation to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York, Cohen’s Fashion Optical and General Vision Services has offered to provide free eye examinations and glasses to students who were screened this summer, and who aren’t covered by health insurance.

And there's one more important thing we've done: Starting with the 3rd grade, we’ve finally begun to end social promotion. Because that was such a clean break from the past, and because misunderstanding about the causes and effects of this policy still linger, let me take a moment and review it in some detail.

A year ago, 12,800 students scored at Level 1 on their 3rd grade reading or math tests, or on both – meaning that they were manifestly unprepared for 4th grade work. 7,200 of them –75% – were promoted anyway. That’s simply unconscionable. It was putting those children on a trajectory toward failure for the rest of their school careers. It’s a practice that we have stopped. Ending social promotion is common sense, not a punitive policy. Its purpose is to help us identify and work with students in the 3rd grade, and earlier, who need extra help. It’s a process that started in 3rd grade classrooms last January, and continued right through August.

There is solid evidence that it has delivered better results. The fears expressed by some when we adopted this policy have proven to be unfounded. Just look at what happened in our Summer Success Academy. Parents across the city seized on it as a golden opportunity for their sons and daughters – a chance for them to get the kind of intensive help they needed.

And the results? Better than 50% of the 3rd graders who attended at least 10 days of the Summer Success Academies significantly improved their reading and math scores. They’re going into 4th grade Monday, ready to do 4th grade work. This year, roughly the same number of children are moving from 3rd grade to 4th grade as were promoted a year ago. The difference is that this year, all the youngsters entering 4th grade have the skills they need. To everyone who contributed to this success, I want to say “thank you” for making this initiative so successful.

Now it’s time to take the next step and end social promotion in the 5th grade this year. That's what I’m going to ask the Education Policy Panel to approve later this month. We will do it as carefully as we did it in the 3rd grade – with all the same safeguards and appeals processes – as well as early interventions. I believe it will be just as beneficial to our children.

Some may wonder why the 5th grade? Let me explain why and why now. In most cases, students who graduate from 5th grade move on to new schools. It should be self-evident that they must enter those schools with the skills they need. It’s also true that the middle grades present a tremendous test for even the best-prepared and most highly motivated students. In middle school, students begin to move from class to class throughout the day, which means they often get less individual attention from their teachers. They are expected to do more of their work independently, and there are many more opportunities for them to be distracted. In addition, the complexity of coursework increases, and the pace accelerates. There are many chances for even high-performing students to lose their way in the middle grades.

Imagine the challenges for unprepared students. And if they get off course in middle school, what are the odds they can be rescued in high school? History shows they become lost and they stay lost. Every year for the last five years, an average of 12,500 5th graders who scored at Level 1 on citywide tests were promoted anyway. And there are middle schools in our city where fewer than 10% of students are meeting the basic standards of competency at their grade levels.

This can’t continue. I won’t let it. We can’t solve every problem that the middle grades pose. But we can, and we will, begin to take aggressive steps to ensure that students come into the middle grades academically prepared. Every year that we wait represents another year of lost opportunity – and thousands more lost students. Shame on us if we don't have the courage to stand up for them.

Starting in October, we will allocate $20 million to fund an array of interventions similar to those that have been – and will continue to be – employed to help 3rd graders. They’ll include, for example, tutoring or computer-based learning – not only during the regular school day, but also before and after school, on weekends, and during school holidays. We’ll take what worked so well during the Summer Success Academy this year and replicate those strategies and materials in elementary schools citywide throughout the new school year. Just as we have done with 3rd graders, we will find the 5th graders who need help and provide it to them.

This policy – and all of the reforms we’ve launched – represent a sharp departure from the past. But as dramatic as this and all our other steps have been, let’s remember that they’re merely the prelude. Consider them the reform infrastructure – the foundation – of a new school system.

This school year, I am counting on you to build on that foundation, and really start to produce results. I expect you to be bold, and to take risks. I expect you to be the leaders that you are. And I will stand behind you, and fight your fight, without worrying about the political costs.

In reforming our school system, we’ve put a premium on your professional development. Professional development is what this week has been all about for you. It’s also why we established the Leadership Academy – to train and recruit the next generation of principals for our schools. It’s why – two weeks ago – we launched a mentoring program for the 5,000 brand-new teachers who have signed on for this school year. It’s why we’ve brought math and literacy coaches into all the schools. It’s why – in overhauling the administrative structure of the schools – we put every one of your schools into its own constellation of 10 to 12 schools to make it easier to share knowledge and best practices.

This commitment to professional development – to investing in human capital – distinguishes what we are doing from what’s going on in virtually every other major school system in this country. We’re not putting our faith in just technology – although we’re certainly making greater use of information technology than ever before. We’re not counting on a new curriculum to work miracles – although we’re continuing to fine-tune the citywide curriculum we instituted last year.

We’re putting our chips on you. Principals… teachers… parent coordinators – the most important part of any education reform, and any education system. Nothing can match the impact you can have on our children.

The job before you reminds me of a story that’s told about the sculptor Michelangelo when he was working on his statue of David in Renaissance Florence. Each day, a young boy would come to the square to watch the artist work. And on the day that the figure of David finally emerged from the block of marble, the boy went up to Michelangelo and asked: “But how did you know he was in there?”

Do you know something? You are the Michelangelos of our city. Your job is to see the potential that exists in each of our 1.1 million school children – and then bring it out. Will it be easy? Not always. We know that. School reform is a high-stakes enterprise. There will always be criticism. There will always be missteps and things we would have done differently given a second chance. That can’t shake our confidence or determination to do what we know is right.

Will all this change and reform work itself out quickly? Nothing truly valuable ever does. After all, it took Michelangelo more than four years to paint the Sistine Chapel – and he got to lie down on his back while he was doing it. You’re part of a tough but terribly important struggle, but I think you knew that from the day you started. I don’t think it frightens any person in this room. Nor should it. You’re the best. And now, you can be even better.

Together, we can make a huge difference in the lives of our children – the future of this city we love. I’m ready. And I know you are, too. Good luck. And have a great school year.