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Mayor Bloomberg Details NYC's Education Reform Efforts at U.S. Conference of Mayors Winter Meeting

January 23, 2012

Mayor Bloomberg’s remarks as delivered in Washington, D.C. at the U.S. Conference of Mayors 80th Winter Meeting follow:

“Mayor Villaraigosa, gracias, and thank you for that kind introduction. Good morning to everyone. It is a pleasure to be here. I hope all of you had a happy new year. I had a great time with my good friend Lady Gaga in Times Square. I would tell you about it Antonio, but I never kiss and tell.

“Let me start by dispelling another rumor, and that is there is no truth to the speculation that the only reason I came here was to collect on the bet I made with Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt, on the Packers-Giants game. But if anybody is hungry for some Wisconsin Cheddar, I’m the man to see. Go Giants.

“Now the real reason I’m here – and I want to thank Tom Cochran for the invitation – is to discuss an issue with all of you that I believe has reached a critical juncture in New York and all around the country, and that is education reform.

“It really is astonishing how little is being said about our schools on the campaign trail because I think as everyone here knows, education is a top concern for parents and it is a top concern for students. It affects them so personally. But it has to be a top concern for those of us who aren’t students or don’t have children going to school because it affects the country’s future in some very profound ways. These are the people who are going to vote, these are the people who are going to take care of us when we are older, those young people in schools. So you just can’t walk away from what’s going on in the schools.

“All of us have seen the reports on how American schools stack up against schools in other developed countries. If you don’t know the numbers, when it comes to math and science we are near the bottom of the pack. And when it comes to literacy, the best you can say is we are average.

“Now take a look at our economy and look at how many high-skilled jobs are available today that companies just can’t fill, even though there are something like 13 million unemployed Americans. The truth of the matter is those 13 million don’t have the skills required for those jobs.

“And now look at what’s happening to the middle class. Real wages have been stagnating for years, and too many young people are unable to find the career paths that lead to the American dream.

“Is there a connection between these three developments? I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. There is no doubt that if we are going to remain the world’s economic superpower, we have to stop taking our success for granted.

“As the global economy continues to move from one driven by manual labor to one driven by knowledge and ideas, we have to move with it – as a matter of fact, we have to lead that change. And the simple fact is we cannot do that without outstanding public schools.

“Now, when I was elected mayor 10 years ago, the big city public school system of New York had been failing for decades and very little was being done about it. That was true for virtually every city in this country. But over the decade, mayors and governors around the country have led the charge for reform: Overhauling dysfunctional school governance structures, increasing the number of charter schools, helping parents get more information about schools, and holding schools accountable for success.

“Mayors like A.C. Wharton in Memphis, David Bing in Detroit, Rich Daley and now Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, Kevin Johnson in Sacramento, Antonio in Los Angeles, and one of the nation’s strongest champions of charter schools, Mayor Cory Booker.

“Over the past decade, thanks to leadership of so many of these mayors and others, the number of students enrolled in charter schools has more than tripled – and I’m proud to say a good portion of that growth has come in New York City.

“We’ve opened 139 new charter schools in our city, and we’ve created more than 500 new small schools, non-charters, but ones that give parents of kids top-quality options. Parents and students both deserve that. And school choice is an important way to hold schools accountable for success because when people vote with their feet you know that it’s real and it’s pretty obvious which direction they are going.

“As much progress as cities have made, however, in turning around broken school systems, I think it’s fair to say we all know we have an enormous way still to go. The fact is also that the work is only going to get harder because in New York and all around the country the most promising and successful education reforms are under attack from ideologues on both the right and the left.

“I remember a conversation I once had with Bill Bennett – he was the former Education Secretary under the first President Bush number 41. I asked him, ‘Bill, you know, you’re a smart guy, why we don’t have standardized national testing,’ and he said, and I’ve never forgotten this, just to show you how smart he is, was, still is, he said, ‘Because the right will never accept anything with the word national in it, and the left will never accept anything with the word testing in it.’ And unfortunately, I think that’s still true.

“Ideologues on the right are blocking national standards that would allow parents in one district to see how their children are doing compared to students in another district – or another city, or another state, or compared to students in other countries who our kids are going to be competing with.

“You want accountability – that’s what accountability really is.

“I understand education is a local issue and localities should have flexibility in running their schools, but to do that we still can have national standards that holds everyone accountable for success and let us see where we stand. If you can’t measure it, you can’t fix it. We have a saying in New York, ‘In God we trust, but everyone else bring data,’ and we don’t have the data that we need to know how well our schools are doing in each place.

“Now, the good news is that we’re moving closer to that goal through something called ‘Common Core Standards’ – a common standard that nearly every state is voluntarily adopting, and that the Obama Administration, I’m happy to say, strongly supports.

“However, just as the ideologues on the right are resisting accountability through national testing, ideologues on the left are resisting accountability through any testing. But without testing, there is no accountability. And without accountability, we’re right back to where we were 10 years ago – with schools failing and no one doing anything about it. You know, people say, ‘Oh, I don’t want our kids subject to high stakes testing in school.’ Let me tell you about the high stakes testing they’re about to face – when they get out of school, that’s how you get a job, how you make a decision on who you’re going to live with, what do you. When it’s in school, you have to make some really tough decisions – do you hang out with that gang, or do you not? Do you get pregnant when you’re unwed, or not? Do you do drugs, or don’t you? Those are as high stake tests as I have ever heard of, and our kids are subject to those tests.

“They have to answer those questions every day. Unless we find out whether they can do math or read or write we can’t improve the quality of the education, we can’t help each student with the things that that particular student needs to focus on.

“Now, there are also ideologues on the left who believe that testing is ok as long as teachers can’t be removed from the classroom if the students continual to fail to make progress. That’s the biggest issue we’re facing in New York as a matter of fact.

“Two years ago, we won Race to the Top funding in part because our State Legislature passed a law requiring all teachers to be rigorously evaluated based on student achievement metrics. It was supposed to give us the ability to identify ineffective teachers so that we can help those teachers become effective, or if they can’t become effective more them out. Our school system has to be run for the kids, not for the people that work in them.

“Our Legislature did what we asked them to do. They passed that law. Unfortunately, they put in a little thing, on giant roadblock that was anything but little because it was what really in the end made the difference. It gave the local unions the authority to veto any evaluation plan. And so now, here we are two years later, and not a single district in New York State has an evaluation program. Instead, we continue to have a pass/fail system – with a 98 percent passing rate.

“Now think about it, our students don’t have the luxury of pass/fail, and neither do you or I, people in other professions who have to make a living to feed their families, and neither should our teachers. We have to raise the bar for them just as we are doing for our students. Nobody, nobody thinks that 98 percent of any group is in the top 30 or 40 percent, or the top 50 percent, or the top 70 percent by definition. We have to raise the standards. We have to help those at the bottom, and if they can’t do the job we have to replace them.

“The only way we are going to reform public education is doing exactly that. I don’t mean just tinkering around the edges, I mean really transforming it into a system of excellence, and to put the needs of the students first.

“That has been my message in New York– and I’m happy to say it is the message that our new Governor, Andrew Cuomo, is delivering as well. Andrew Cuomo has been Governor for a year, and he could not have in the last few weeks been more strongly in favor of making sure that we put an effective evaluation system in, that we help those teachers that need help, and if those teachers that can’t perform in the classroom and help our students get moved out.

“Governor Cuomo and I both strongly support the right to organize and bargain. I have come out a thousand times and said I don’t agree with Wisconsin. I think if people want to organize, they have a right to organize. But we in government, and we the citizens who pay for it have to decide what we’re willing to do and what we’re not willing to do. And I think what we should not be willing to do is to have teachers who are ineffective in the classroom because we are leaving a bunch of our kids out in the cold without the skills they’re going to need to be self supporting and without the education they need to participate in the Great American Dream.

“Our job is to do what’s right for the children. And I have yet to hear how it’s good for children to make it harder to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom.

“It is not – and when it comes to negotiating an evaluation plan, I can just promise you we will not sacrifice our children’s future by giving in on that point. The system has to be run for the people that we are here to serve.

“The attacks on education by ideologues on the right and on the left must be met – and must be fended off – by the sensible center. And that is the people that you are here with today, the mayors. Mayors are pragmatists and problem-solvers, not ideologues. They don’t have the luxury of being on both sides of an issue. They have to be explicit as to where they stand. They can’t say, ‘Well I voted for it, but I didn’t vote to fund it.’ They have to go out there every day. Somebody did that. It’s like saying, ‘I’m pro-choice, but not for women.’ Mayors are where the action is. Mayors are where the rubber hits the road. Mayors do things – they pick up the garbage and they educate the kids, and they keep crime down. They make their city’s economics work and attract people and increase life expectancy, and do all the things that we would want them to do.

“They’re expected to make hard-headed decisions based on the facts – not on special interest politics. That’s what I think the mayors have done on so many issues – from illegal guns to immigration to climate change. And that’s what we have to do on education, including accountability measures like teacher evaluations and sensible plans to either improve or find other careers for those teachers who just aren’t getting their students to move ahead and getting what the students need to participate in the Great American Dream.

“I spoke on Martin Luther King Day at a number of different places, and I said all of the battles are meaningless if our children don’t have the skills to understand and to participate and to be a part of the Great American Dream. Education is one of the basic civil rights.

“The reason that teacher evaluations are so important is that all the best research tells us that the single more important factor affecting a student’s progress is the effectiveness of the classroom teacher.

“And there was a recent study that got a lot of press by Harvard and Columbia economists who found students with effective teachers are less likely to become pregnant, more likely to go to college, and more likely to get high-paying jobs. I think all of us just knew that intuitively before, but would anyone here want their child to be in a classroom with an ineffective teacher? Of course not.

“We know how important great teachers are. We remember them from our own lives. Great teachers make an enormous difference. And if we expect the American school system to rise from the middle of the pack to the top, the only way that we are going to get there is with great teachers leading the way. And the only way that will happen is if we do more to recruit, reward, and retain great teachers – and replace ineffective ones.

“Let me just take two seconds about what we are doing in New York. Next to being a parent, teaching is probably the most important job there is today. I have enormous respect for teachers and the extraordinary personal investments they make in their students.

“Over the past ten years, we’ve worked hard to invest in them – by expanding professional development, and raising their base salaries by 43 percent. A starting teacher in New York City now makes at least $45,000, and veteran teachers can make more than $100,000. Teachers incomes have gone up 105 percent. Why? Because our teachers were underpaid, we were losing them to the suburbs, and I can’t think of any better investment we can make than to have a better teacher in front of every single child at the front.

“Many students graduating from college today have college loans that could lead them to cross teaching off their list of possible careers. We’ve look at that and said, ‘What can we do to make more teachers apply to our school system?’ We can’t let that happen that they go elsewhere simply because they’ve got college loans that they have to repay, and we can’t let our top students who want to be teachers decide they can’t afford it. So one of the programs we are in the process of instituting in New York City is we proposed an incentive to anyone who finishes college around the country in the top tier of the class: Come teach in New York City public schools, and if you commit to stay, we’ll pay off up to $25,000 of your student loans. Our teachers deserve it. And so do our children. That’s the recruitment.

“We also have to worry about retaining the best teachers by offering them a big raise. You know, teachers today have lots of options. If you’re a good teacher, you’re worth a lot of money in the private sector. Not just as a teacher, but in many careers. Here in Washington, teachers were given a chance to decide for themselves if they wanted a contract that would pay them an extra $25,000 a year if they were rated effective. Guess what they did here in Washington, DC. The teachers said yes. They wanted to be rewarded for their success – just like any other person in any other job. Why anybody’s surprised about that, I don’t know. We all want recognition and respect, and also it’d be nice if we could get some money so we can enjoy more things. And the harder we work and the better job we do, I think most people would say the better you should be rewarded.

“Teachers unions unfortunately have historically opposed merit pay, but more and more teachers today, I think, are asking why. And when they’re given a voice, like they did here in Washington, DC, they said yes.

“By all accounts, these raises have been essential to keeping effective teachers from moving out of the DC public school system. Well, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Mayor Gray should be very flattered – because I’m telling you that in New York City, we want to make the same type of offer to our teachers, and we’ve proposed the following deal for all of our teachers: If you are rated highly effective for two consecutive years, we will hike your salary by $20,000 a year. Once again, our teachers deserve that. And so do our children.

“It is, however, something that we have to bargain with the teachers union, and the real question is going to be, ‘Will the teachers union stand in the way of their most effective members being rewarded for all of their work?’

“I think this is an idea whose time has come – and I’m confident that if the teachers are allowed to decide the matter for themselves, they’ll support it in New York City just the way they did here in Washington, DC.

“As much as the battle for these issues have gone on, we’ve already won the most important battle of all, and that is the battle for public expectations.

“I remember ten years ago, people said: Well, you can’t fix the schools until you cure poverty. Then Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said to me, ‘You know, they all have it exactly the wrong way.’ You can’t cure poverty until you fix our schools. Too many people were resigned to the reality of bad schools – just as they once were resigned to the reality of high crime rates.

“But in New York City in the 1990s, mayors like Giuliani showed the world that high crime is not inevitable – that you could make the streets safer, if you used data-driven strategies and held people accountable for results. Mayor Giuliani dramatically cut crime in New York City – and we’ve cut it another 35 percent since we’ve taken office. Today, New Yorkers expect the streets to be the safest of any big city in the country – and voters, I think, will not elect any future mayor who isn’t 110% committed to that goal.

“Social problems like crime and failing schools are – to some extent – self-fulfilling prophecies. If you expect the worst, you get the worst. But if you expect to do better, you can do better, and we’re willing to take on the ideologues and special interests that find comfort in the status quo.

“That’s certainly been our experience in New York City. When I first came into office, the status quo in education was about as bad as it could get. Graduation rates had been stuck at or below 50 percent for decades. School crime was the norm. Social promotion was standard; kids were promoted regardless of whether they had learned anything. And hiring in the schools was often based more on political connections than merit.

“We refused to accept any of that. We refused to accept, as President Bush once called it, ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations.’ We expected more of our students – and that meant expecting more of the adults that were in charge as well. So back then, working with the State Legislature, we abolished the broken Board of Education and handed control of the schools to a Chancellor, appointed by and serving at the pleasure of the mayor.

“And by raising standards and injecting accountability into schools, we’ve raised graduation rates 40 percent, I’m happy to say, since 2005 – and if you want to know how good that is, it’s compared to just 8 percent in the rest of the State. And the reason we use that comparison is all of the kids in New York State take exactly the same test. We’ve cut the dropout rate and school crime in half. We’ve increased the number of students taking Advanced Placement classes and enrolling in college.

“I think it’s fair to say by almost any measure, students are doing better and our school system is heading in the right direction. Today, parents expect their kids’ schools to be first-rate. And more and more parents, incidentally, are staying in our city, rather than moving to the suburbs, because of those changed expectations.

“Now, I realize that many mayors don’t control your school systems, but we do have voices. We all have the ears of other elected officials. And we all have parents as our constituents who expect us to stand up for their kids.

“So let me conclude by saying we’re all in this together. Just as we have seen on many issues, when mayors stand together and speak together, when we put problem-solving over ideology, we can make an enormous difference.

“And if we stand together on school reform, we can make sure that our kids nationwide get the education they need to keep the American dream alive in this new century and beyond.

“Let’s go get it. Thank you.”

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