MAYOR BLOOMBERG ADDRESSES NATIONAL URBAN LEAGUE ANNUAL CONFERENCE
The following is the text of Mayor Bloomberg’s speech as prepared. Please check against delivery.
Good afternoon. Thank you, Marc, for the invitation to join you here today. And I also want to thank Darwin Davis, president of the New York Urban League, for all his good work back home. His predecessor, Dennis Walcott, is my Deputy Mayor for Education and Community Development, and back when I was first running for Mayor in 2001, I met Dennis on the campaign trail and I borrowed – Dennis might say ‘stole’ – his New York Urban League pin. And I’ve been wearing it ever since.
It’s an honor to be here to help kick-off the National Urban League’s annual conference. The Urban League has been going strong for 96 years, which makes it two years younger than my mother. And almost as energetic. But for all the energy and vitality of this organization, and for all the people who live in cities in this country, and for all the votes that we cast on Election Day, you would think that the federal government would zero in on issues the League concerns itself with, and take bold action. You would think.
But when it comes to the most important issues that nearly all cities face – crime, housing, poverty, the environment – Washington is dragging its feet – and in some cases, walking backwards. That’s why, more and more cities – many of them Urban League cities – have been taking the lead on these national issues, and nowhere is that more true than in the case of education.
Next year is the 25th Anniversary of the publication of ‘A Nation at Risk,’ the landmark study that showed how American students were falling behind students in other nations – and the consequences we would face if it continued. Well, it did continue – and it got worse. Much worse. Today, our schools are further behind than they were 25 years ago –even though we’ve doubled education spending over the last several decades. If you did that with your 401(K) or your pension fund, you’d work for the rest of your life and die broke!
In many cities, including New York, the money was squandered by politicians and special interests who protected their own jobs first, and worried about classroom learning second. A generation of students paid a terrible price, and let’s face facts: No group of children paid more than African-Americans.
Today, black and Latino 12th graders – who should be reading college catalogs – are reading at the same level as white 8th graders. And a shockingly high percentage of black and Latino 4th graders – who should be reading Harry Potter – cannot even read a simple children’s book. This is not only not acceptable – it’s shameful. Whitney Young Jr. must be turning over in his grave!
Here we are in the greatest country on earth – home of the best universities in the world. Is this really the best we can do? No way. We’re better than that. But let me tell you something. Let me tell you exactly who’s at fault: Us. That’s right. We are the ones to blame. And here’s why: Politicians have pandered to us by selling us on the idea that all we need is more money and smaller classes – and we’ve bought it. They’ve given us cheap platitudes and slogans instead of real solutions – and we’ve bought it. Whoever’s in power, they’ve pointed fingers at the other party when nothing improves – and we have bought it!
If we want to truly improve the education our children receive, and fulfill the promise of the Civil Rights movement, we have to stand up and tell them: ‘No more!’ No more pandering to special interests. No more fear of the tough issues. And no more excuses for failure. We’re not buying it!
That’s the approach we’ve taken in New York – and when I came into office in 2002, we certainly had our work cut out for us. The school system – with 1.1 million students – was the ultimate case study in mismanagement: Everyone had power, but no one was in charge. And so the system was defined by paralysis, patronage, and corruption. We began our reforms by getting to the root of the problem: Winning control of the school system and abolishing the broken Board of Education. We re-directed money away from the bureaucracy directly into the classroom. And we significantly cut the cost of school construction.
We expanded the school week by 150 minutes – which is about 15 extra days a year. We put parent coordinators in every school, so that parents would always have someone to turn to, 24-7 – instead of turning to the politicians, who could care less if you’re not one of their supporters. We improved safety and discipline, which is a hallmark of any good school – and we’ve enforced the ban on electronic devices like PDAs, iPods, and cell phones. You come to school to learn, not to play games or send text messages!
To encourage more students to start preparing for college, we’ve begun paying the fee for all 10th and 11th graders to take the PSAT, which has allowed us to substantially increase the number of black and Latino students who take the test. We’ve doubled the number of charter schools. And we’ve broken up large failing high schools into smaller schools, where students get more individual attention.
Graduation rates have gone from less than 40% at the old, large high schools, to more than 70% at the new small high schools. And across New York City, over the past four years, graduation rates have gone up about 20%. Test scores in grades 3-8 have gone up 10 points in reading, and more than 20 points in Math – and improvements among black and Latino kids in Math have been at double the rate of white and Asian kids.
We still have a long way to go, but we’re finally making real progress – and we’re not letting up. We’re continuing to tackle the tough challenges and address the historic inequities – and let me give you two quick examples.
First, for decades, school funding formulas have favored some schools over others – because of politics, of course. We’re putting an end to that, by revamping the formula so that it’s based on the number of children who attend a school and their diverse needs. That’s just basic fairness! No one can argue with the principle of it, but there was no shortage of politicians and special interests who called for more study, and endless delay. But our children can’t afford to wait – and in New York City, we’re not going to wait.
Second, we’ve expanded Advanced Placement courses and gifted and talented programs to communities that never had them. The absence of these enrichment programs from schools serving black and Latino students was a perfect example of the soft bigotry of low expectations.
We have to expect the best from the best students – of every race.
And we have to expect success from every single student – and hold schools and teachers accountable for helping them achieve it. Accountability, like funding fairness, is a basic idea that everyone agrees with – in principle. But once again, when the rubber hits the road, too many politicians fall off the wagon.
Let me give you an example. For decades, New York City tolerated the practice of social promotion – where students are promoted even if they haven’t learned what they need to succeed in the next grade. This doomed children to fall further and further behind. So we said, ‘No more!’ We announced that we would enforce minimum standards, and to help struggling students, we would offer extra-help after school and on Saturdays.
Parents know that setting expectations – and enforcing the rules – is essential. It’s no different in our schools. And yet most elected officials, union leaders, and even some editorial boards fought us tooth and nail. They wanted more delays and studies – anything but action.
But we didn’t bend to politics – that’s not leadership. And when the new promotion standards proved successful, and more students met them, the establishment came around.
That experience shows how real change requires the guts – and the independence – to challenge the entrenched interests. And the fact is, the only way we’re going to change the current situation is if we’re willing to take on a subject that too many politicians are afraid of: Finding ways to hold not only students, but also teachers and principals accountable for classroom learning and getting the most effective teachers and principals into the schools that need them most.
All the research says that the single most important factor in determining a child’s classroom success is – not class size or funding levels – but teacher effectiveness. Studies have shown that if our most effective teachers taught in our lowest performing schools, we could close the achievement gap. But instead, we have a situation where the highest performing students get the most effective teachers and principals – while the most needy students are stuck with the least effective ones. And I don’t have to tell you, it’s black and Latino students who pay the heaviest price.
Getting effective teachers into the schools that need them most is the next frontier of education reform – one that we’ve been afraid to face for too long. And, I believe, it is the great unfinished business of the work that Thurgood Marshall and so many others began all those years ago. How do we do it? Well, I think it begins with a very simple idea: Treat teachers like the professionals they are. Let me explain what I mean by that.
I think we would all agree that in all of our cities, most teachers and principals do amazing work – and that they make a big difference. I went to public schools growing up, and I remember certain teachers – like Mr. Lally, my high school history teacher – really making the subject come alive.
The teachers I meet across New York City are smart. Hard-working, inspiring, and they’re passionate about the kids. We need a system that keeps these special individuals in city schools. Respects their hard work and unleashes their talents where their talents are needed most.
Many of you in this room work or have worked in the private sector. You know how to attract and retain the best people. Make them feel respected. And get the most out of them. You pay them more. You give them incentives to take on the toughest challenges and succeed. And you hold them accountable for results. And those who don’t perform up to standard – you let go. That’s Management 101, and it’s the way we treat all professionals – except in our schools.
In most school systems, teachers experience low pay, lockstep pay scales, no recognition of talent, no incentives for success and no accountability for failure. This kind of employment system didn’t work in the Soviet Union, and it’s time for us to recognize that it’s not working in our schools.
In New York City, we’ve worked to confront this reality – and to ensure there is an effective teacher in every classroom – by taking several important steps toward treating teachers and principals like the professionals they are.
First, we’ve raised teacher salaries by 43%, which helps us attract the best and brightest. Now, senior teachers can make more than $100,000. Second, to drive the most effective teachers to the schools that need them most, we negotiated with the teachers union to create a lead teacher program, which pays some of our best teachers an extra $10,000 to teach in our lowest performing schools. We’re offering an even more generous incentive program to principals: $25,000 to take over low performing schools. And third, we’re also offering a $15,000 signing bonus to Math and Science teachers – because more and more Math and Science majors are opting for high-paying private sector jobs, leaving the schools with severe shortages in these critical subjects.
These three financial incentives – combined with all of our other reforms – have helped us to dramatically increase the number of job applicants, and our retention rates. Critics of bonuses say that educators aren’t in it for the money. That’s true. But we can’t expect them to make career decisions based purely on altruism. They have families to feed and kids to put through college!
So let’s stop pretending that offering teachers financial incentives somehow diminishes their motives. It’s ridiculous! We should be offering teachers and principals incentives not only to take the toughest assignments, and to fill special needs, but also to get the best possible results from their students.
In New York, the contract we just negotiated and signed with the principals union offers all principals up to a $25,000 bonus for meeting performance targets. We’d love to give a similar deal to teachers – but so far, we have not been able to convince the union to accept it.
I understand their concerns – it’s not easy to evaluate teacher effectiveness, and standardized tests don’t present the full picture. But if we put sophisticated data on student achievement together with principal and peer evaluations, there’s no reason why we can’t create a fair review process.
In New York, we’re building the most sophisticated achievement data system in the nation, which will allow us to focus on how well individual students are learning. And it will allow us to begin grading every single New York City public school – all 1,400 of them – from A to F, beginning this fall. That means that parents will be able to see how their child’s school is doing – and compare it others.
Principals and teachers will be trained to use the data to identify each student’s needs and to improve outcomes. Information technology has revolutionized the private sector, but the public sector is just starting to catch up. We ought to remember the words of the management leader who said, In God we trust. Everyone else bring data.
I was happy to hear that Senator Obama recently became the first Democratic presidential candidate to offer at least modest support for the idea of bonus pay for teachers. Right now, we pay teachers solely based on longevity and education credits – even though the evidence shows that education credits have precious little to do with actual student learning. Just think about it: Why should a good teacher with a Master’s degree whose students make huge strides earn less than a mediocre teacher with a Ph.D whose students make no progress? That makes no sense!
Focusing on how well students are actually learning will also allow us to take two other critical steps: reforming the tenure process, which right now is almost automatic. And reforming the process by which teachers can be fired, which right now is almost impossible.
When a teacher is up for tenure, too often the questions are: Did he come to work every day? Did he cover the curriculum? Do people like him? But the one question that really matters isn’t asked: Are his students learning as much as they should? Most times, the answer is ‘yes.’ But if the answer is no, that teacher should not receive tenure.
And when a tenured teacher’s students are not learning, principals, after a reasonable appeals process, should have the authority to let that teacher go. Right now, that appeals process is anything but reasonable. It’s a nightmare. That’s why many principals don’t even bother with it – and once again, it’s our children who suffer.
In New York City, we’ve begun taking the first steps toward tenure reform by requiring principals to evaluate each tenure-track teacher, so that tenure is earned by those who deserve it, and not granted as a right to those who don’t. But to inject some sanity into the process of firing bad teachers and to pay bonuses to highly effective teachers, we need buy-in from the unions. That hasn’t been easy in New York – or anywhere else. And I’ll be honest: I’m not sure we’re going to get there without support from the federal government.
So I’d like to offer you an idea, and I hope you’ll bring it back to your communities: When ‘No Child Left Behind’ comes up for re-authorization, there will be many things that need fixing – including its lack of funding. Politicians love to talk about this lack of funding – because it’s easy. But they don’t want to talk about the hard part: How do we ensure that any new money actually results in higher student achievement?
I believe that as part of the next version of NCLB, the federal government should commit to a significant increase in new federal funding, including for higher teacher salaries – but cities and states could only receive it if they began implementing the reforms I’ve outlined today: Bonus pay for effective teachers and principals, and for those that serve in the toughest schools. As well as tenure reform and accountability systems, including a streamlined process for firing ineffective teachers.
If we do that, in a few short years, we could have the most effective teachers working in the schools that need them most. More high-quality math and science teachers. More of the best and brightest working in City schools – and fewer failing teachers hurting our children’s future. Then, we can stop talking about closing the achievement gap between races, and actually close it.
We can stop talking about our students catching up to the rest of the world, and actually have them catch up. And we can stop talking about the equal opportunity of the Civil Rights movement, and actually make it a reality. We can do all of this – if all of you help take the lead.
Marc, you and all your affiliates represent the vanguard of change. The status quo is just not acceptable. There are no second class kids – why should there be second class schools?! Why should we go along with a system that is helping to relegate our children to failure, or jail, or death? We have to say ‘No more!’ – and we have to start giving our children the opportunity and support that is theirs by right.
The last generation fought and died for them to have that right – but it’s up to us to deliver it. Let’s get to work.