Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Rebuttal of Marc Epstein's Hatchet Job, "Joel Klein's snow job"

As I read Marc Epstein’s filled-with-lies-and-distortions hatchet job article (, attacking the huge strides made by NYC’s public schools under Chancellor Klein, the first thought that popped into my mind was: Is Diane Ravitch writing under a pseudonym???  A quick Google search revealed the answer: no, but they’re surely tight, as evidenced by this excerpt from his bio ( “Marc Epstein…was a contributor to A Consumer’s Guide to High School History Textbooks, edited by Diane Ravitch.” 


Epstein obviously comes from the same school of “research” and argument as Ravitch, making bold, unsubstantiated assertions, mingling in a few facts taken out of context to provide a fig leaf of credibility.  In his article, which has 24 paragraphs filled with ad hominem attacks, Epstein presents any facts whatsoever in only these two paragraphs:


We now know that New York City’s gains on the state tests were illusory. The proportion passing the state reading tests fell from 68.8% to 42.4%, and Klein’s beloved charter schools had pass rates no different from the regular public schools.

The inflated graduation rates have been exposed too. With the recent news that 75% of the high school graduates require remedial reading and math when they enter community college, the Klein Era diploma has been rendered meaningless. So ill prepared are these students that the percent who graduate from college is in the single digits.

Before we take a closer look at Epstein’s claims, here’s a little background on him and why he might have an agenda: for the past 15 years, he’s been a history teacher (and was at one time the dean of students) at Jamaica High School in Queens, a failing school with 20% absenteeism and a 50% dropout rate according to Wikipedia:  Not surprisingly, it’s one of the 19 schools that the DOE tried to close last year and replace with smaller schools, but a judge blocked it on a technicality (though it looks like the school will close anyway:  Gee, what a shocker that a 15-year veteran of a chronically failing school slated for closure would attack Klein, the guy trying to close the school, and lay the blame for the school’s failure at Klein’s feet rather than his own…


Let’s address what Epstein says (and doesn’t say):


1) “We now know that New York City’s gains on the state tests were illusory. The proportion passing the state reading tests fell from 68.8% to 42.4%...”


Facts: There’s no doubt that, year after year, NY state lowered the bar for what was considered passing – engaging in a race to the bottom, like so many other states (which Bloomberg and Klein had nothing to do with).  Huge credit to State Education Commissioner David Steiner and NY Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who raised the bar last year.  An obvious result is that the percentage of children passing the test plunged across the state, but this doesn’t tell us anything about their actual achievement (as Epstein would have you believe). 


So what other data might a reasonable person (vs. someone with an agenda and a predetermined conclusion) use to evaluate NYC’s progress?  How about comparing NYC students to students from other parts of New York who took the same exam?  This is exactly what one researcher, James Kemple, did, summarized in an article by Peter Meyer ( (Kemple’s full study is at:


James J. Kemple, the executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, who conducted a study comparing the city’s school reform efforts to a “virtual” control group modeled from other urban districts in the state, including Buffalo, Yonkers, Syracuse, and Rochester, “found New York City students improved significantly faster than the control group on both the New York state assessments and the National Assessment of Educational Progress during the reform period, from 2002 to 2010.”


And, as if to rebut Ravitch directly, Kemple reported that “the improvement trend continues even taking into account New York state’s recent recalibration of test scores.”  Said Kemple:


The increases in test scores over time is not just an artifact of test-taking strategies. This test score continues to be an indicator of higher likelihood of graduating from high school.


The Manhattan Institute’s Charles Sahm shares similar conclusions in his op ed in the NY Post (


The best marker of progress is the degree to which New York City students have closed the gap with students in the rest of the state. In fact, if you take all 62 New York counties and rank them by the average change in students' scores on state math and English exams from 2002 to 2010, the five counties of New York City come out on top, with The Bronx leading the way. (See chart, right.) Indeed, The Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens were the only counties in the state to show increases from 2002 to 2010.


A county-by-county ranking of test scores once would have seen all five boroughs clustered near the bottom. But over the last several years, the city has consistently climbed the ranks. Queens, for example, has risen 45 spots, from 59 in 2002 to 14 in 2010. Manhattan is up from 61 to 48.


Note that Kemple not only uses the NYS tests, but also the NAEP tests, the gold standard.  Sahm summarizes NYC’s strong NAEP results:


Since 2002/03, city students have improved their scores on the NAEP by 11 points in both fourth-grade reading and math. In eighth grade exams, reading scores have been flat -- but they're improved by seven points on math.


The positive changes on three of the four NAEP exams are statistically significant and outpace most other large cities. And if you remove New York City's improvement, the state scores on the NAEP are basically down or flat on all four tests.


The city's progress is particularly noteworthy when you consider that its schools serve a much larger percentage of poor and minority students than do schools in the rest of the state.


Here’s more detail on NAEP scores from Joel Klein’s column (


In fourth grade, on the Mayor's watch, NYC has made big gains—11 scale-score points in English and 11 in math. The percentage of kids proficient in math went from 21 percent to 35 percent—a 67 percent increase—and the percentage proficient in English went from 19 percent to 29 percent—a 53 percent jump. Indeed, NYC's performance now matches that of the entire nation in fourth grade, even though NYC serves a much more challenging population. That's called "closing the achievement gap."

In the eighth grade, the results are mixed and trending up. We've gained 7 points in math, mostly since 2005, and, while we're flat in English, on the last exam we were up 3 points, boding well for the future. Overall, NYC's gains on NAEP dwarfed those of rest of New York State and were also greater than those of the nation. Even Ms. Ravitch has acknowledged NYC's "significant progress."

2) Epstein’s claim that “Klein’s beloved charter schools had pass rates no different from the regular public schools” is meant to lead to the reader to believe that NYC’s charter schools are no better than their regular school counterparts, which is demonstrably false.


It’s open to debate whether charter schools nationwide are doing better than nearby public schools.  (The answer is, it depends: in states with lousy charter laws (which, unfortunately, are the states with the most charter schools), it’s not clear that they are, but in states with strong charter laws, like NY, they are.)  But it’s not open to debate that NYC’s charter schools are exceptional.  Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby has done the definitive work in this area – check out her report on “How New York City’s Charter Schools Affect Achievement” (  Here is an excerpt from the Executive Summary:


·         On average, a student who attended a charter school for all of grades kindergarten through eight would close about 86 percent of the "Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap" in math and 66 percent of the achievement gap in English. A student who attended fewer grades would improve by a commensurately smaller amount. [Chapter IV]

·         On average, a lotteried-out student who stayed in the traditional public schools for all of grades kindergarten through eight would stay on grade level but would not close the "Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap" by much. However, the lotteried-out students' performance does improve and is better than the norm in the U.S. where, as a rule, disadvantaged students fall further behind as they age. [Chapter IV]

·         Compared to his lotteried-out counterpart, a student who attends a charter high school has Regents examination scores that are about 3 points higher for each year he spends in the charter school before taking the test. For instance, a student who took the English Comprehensive exam after three years in charter school would score about 9 points higher. [Chapter IV]

·         A student who attends a charter high school is about 7 percent more likely to earn a Regents diploma by age 20 for each year he spends in that school. For instance, a student who spent grades ten through twelve in charter high school would have about a 21 percent higher probability of getting a Regents diploma. [Chapter IV]

·         The following policies are associated with a charter school's having better effects on achievement. We emphasize that these are merely associations and do not necessarily indicate that these policies cause achievement to improve.

         a long school year;

         a greater number of minutes devoted to English during each school day;

         a small rewards/small penalties disciplinary policy;

         teacher pay based somewhat on performance or duties, as opposed to a traditional pay scale based strictly on seniority and credentials;

         a mission statement that emphasizes academic performance, as opposed to other goals. [Chapter V]


I also highly recommend Hoxby’s slide presentation on “What Makes Charter Schools Effective?”, especially page 14, which shows graphically the impact NYC’s charter schools are making:


Even the CREDO study, which charter haters love to cite, showed in a follow-up study that “students in charter schools are significantly outperforming students in New York's traditional public schools.” (


3) Next, Epstein distorts and diminishes the huge jump in NYC’s graduation rate:


The inflated graduation rates have been exposed too. With the recent news that 75% of the high school graduates require remedial reading and math when they enter community college, the Klein Era diploma has been rendered meaningless. So ill prepared are these students that the percent who graduate from college is in the single digits.


Note that Epstein doesn’t even say what happened to NYC’s graduation rate, so here are the facts (from Klein’s column):


In the decade before the Mayor took over, the city's graduation rate had stagnated in the mid-forties. Last year, it was 63 percent.


This increase has resulted in significantly more NYC students going to college. From 2002 to 2009, the number of graduates attending City University of New York (CUNY) colleges went from 16,000 to over 25,000—a 57 percent increase—while the number attending non-CUNY colleges also increased. At the same time, the percentage of students requiring remediation at CUNY decreased, meaning that more than 5,000 additional NYC students—an almost 80 percent increase—were college ready at CUNY in 2009 compared to in 2002.


Unable to rebut the data, Epstein instead says the progress is meaningless because many high school graduates need remedial work and only a small percentage go on to earn a college degree.  True enough – EVERYONE agrees that there’s a lot more work to be done – but unless Epstein has evidence that the graduation requirements have been watered down (he doesn’t because they weren’t) then the big increase in graduation rates is a major achievement and something to be celebrated.


4) Epstein also attacked Klein’s attempts to “close ‘failing’ schools”.  What he doesn’t say is that the schools Klein has closed – generally huge ones – have been replaced by smaller schools, a strategy that has paid off in a big way, as evidenced by this study by MDRC:  Here’s an excerpt from the Overview:


Since 2002, New York City has closed more than 20 underperforming public high schools, opened more than 200 new secondary schools, and introduced a centralized high school admissions process in which approximately 80,000 students a year indicate their school preferences from a wide-ranging choice of programs. At the heart of these reforms lie 123 new “small schools of choice” (SSCs) — small, academically nonselective, four-year public high schools for students in grades 9 through 12. Open to students at all levels of academic achievement and located in historically disadvantaged communities, SSCs were intended to be viable alternatives to the neighborhood high schools that were closing…

…This report presents encouraging findings from that study, providing clear and reliable evidence that, in roughly six years, a large system of small public high schools can be created and can markedly improve graduation prospects for many disadvantaged students. Specifically:


·         By the end of their first year of high school, 58.5 percent of SSC enrollees are on track to graduate in four years compared with 48.5 percent of their non-SSC counterparts, for a difference of 10.0 percentage points. These positive effects are sustained over the next two years.

·         By the fourth year of high school, SSCs increase overall graduation rates by 6.8 percentage points, which is roughly one-third the size of the gap in graduation rates between white students and students of color in New York City.

·         SSCs’ positive effects are seen for a broad range of students, including male high school students of color, whose educational prospects have been historically difficult to improve.


5) Though Epstein doesn’t mention it (because it doesn’t fit his preconceived argument), NYC under Bloomberg and Klein has also made huge progress in addressing the immoral and destructive practice of giving the neediest kids the worst teachers.  This excerpt is from an Ed Week article (


Under the initiative, the Bloomberg administration negotiated a new teacher contract that did away with seniority-based teacher-transfer decisions and gave principals more authority to hire and fire teachers.


While changes in the hiring, transfer, and compensation systems for teachers were controversial, a studyDescription: Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader led by James H. Wyckoff, the director of the Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, found they significantly improved the qualifications of teachers in the city’s highest-poverty schools. In particular, the gap in the average qualifications between teachers in the wealthiest and poorest 10 percent of schools shrank by half from 2000 to 2005. By 2008, the highest-poverty schools were actually hiring fewer teachers on temporary licenses than wealthy schools.

“There’s a really dramatic shift after 2003 to a really different workforce in New York City [schools] than there had been in place before that,” Mr. Wyckoff said.


Robert B. Schwartz, the academic dean of the education and management program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has a good summary (from the Ed Week article):


“I think Joel Klein and his colleagues have gotten much more traction on reform than any previous leadership team.  This is the most dramatic and thoughtful set of large-scale reforms going on anywhere in the country.”

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