Education: A Golden Age

“The education sector’s structure and policies will change more in the next 3 years than they changed in the last 2,500 years”

On the accomplishments of Bloomberg and Klein: Whitney Tilson’s letter to Education Next

March 3, 2008


To Education Next:


As someone who has both observed and been deeply involved with efforts to improve public schools in New York City, I read “New York City’s Education Battles” with great interest. Overall, I thought it was an excellent article that fairly presented both the successes and hiccups of the reform efforts led by Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein.


In their efforts to do what is best for children, Bloomberg and Klein have been willing to take on powerful entrenched interests that are happy with the status quo and fight to maintain it. To cite only a few examples, Bloomberg and Klein:

Have embraced charter schools, often paying a big political price to provide much-needed facilities, with the result that the top charter school operators in the country, such as Uncommon Schools, Achievement First and KIPP (of which I am a board member) are flocking to New York City and expanding rapidly.

Refused for years to sign a contract with the principals union, holding out for (and eventually getting) sorely needed changes in accountability, pay for performance and the ability to remove ineffective principals. In return, the principals got a big bump in salary, a lot more money for their schools and greater autonomy to manage them.

Have been willing, again and again, to do battle with the city’s powerful teachers union to introduce performance measurement systems and accountability, prevent seniority transfers, extend the school day, remove ineffective teachers and make tenure decisions meaningful.

Slashed the DOE’s notorious bureaucracy (though there’s still much work to do here).

Have embraced countless innovative new ideas. For example, last summer I raised $1 million of seed funding for a new idea I’d developed for a program called Rewarding Achievement (REACH), which aims to improve the college readiness of low-income students by paying them up to $1,000 for each Advanced Placement exams they pass, with matching grants to schools. While it’s a private initiative, we would not have proceeded without Chancellor Klein’s support. In a very short period of time, he reviewed the REACH program and said he would be delighted if we launched it in New York City. Because he acted so quickly, we were able to launch REACH at 31 inner-city high schools and expect to distribute over $2 million this summer to deserving students and schools.


The result of Bloomberg and Klein’s unprecedented vision, boldness and political courage is that New York City has become the most exciting laboratory for education reform in the United States – a status recently recognized by the Broad Foundation when it awarded New York City the prestigious Broad Prize.


It’s not surprising that the entrenched forces of the status quo are fighting Bloomberg and Klein every step of the way, whereas the great majority of school reformers are celebrating what’s happening in New York. What’s puzzling to me is that a few reformers, having come to the opposite conclusion, have chosen to go out of their way to attack Bloomberg and Klein’s education reform efforts at every opportunity, to the point where it looks to me like a personal vendetta rather than rational and constructive criticism. This behavior is damaging and counterproductive because it undermines support for reform and plays right into the hands of opponents.


These critics, as your article notes, raise some legitimate issues, but I believe take their criticisms much too far and reach a completely wrong-headed conclusion that Bloomberg and Klein’s reforms are misguided and doing little, if any, good. I believe they are missing the forest for the trees, loudly proclaiming each discovery of a rotting tree and missing the reality that the forest is getting stronger every day – and that we are tremendously fortunate in New York City to have a mayor and Chancellor who have both political courage and the willingness to be bold and innovative.


To support their contention that little or no progress is being made, critics point to certain statistics such as the NAEP scores discussed in your article. Before I address this, it’s important to keep two things in mind:


1) NAEP scores are not the only nor even the primary way to evaluate a school system. There are many other tests such as state tests, Regents and AP exams, other quantitative academic measures, such as graduation rates (see this presentation, which documents the remarkable rise of NYC graduation rates:, and numerous non-academic or qualitative measures such as incidents of violence, student, parent, teacher and principal satisfaction, etc. Overall, my assessment is that the trends are positive, but there is much work to be done – and there are no doubt ample statistics that can make a case for those inclined to criticize.


2) New York City’s school system is an enormous entity, with a budget that will soon approach $20 billion, 77,000 teachers, thousands of bureaucrats and more than 1.1 million students, representing roughly 2% of all U.S. schoolchildren. Reforming such a monstrosity – especially one so resistant to change – is extraordinarily difficult and time consuming, and quantitative evidence of change can often lag behind the reality of what’s happening on the ground. Thus, it’s not surprising that just over five years into the reform effort, the statistical evidence, which positive overall, is still mixed.


There are many parallels here with what I do as a professional value investor. In that realm, each year I look at hundreds of big, bloated companies that had been poorly managed for years. My success depends on correctly identifying the handful that, usually under new management, are in the process of turning around, even if the results aren’t yet obvious in the numbers. I think New York City’s public school system is one such situation.


With respect to the much-discussed NAEP scores, Diane Ravitch asserts that my analysis of the data is incorrect, so allow me to demonstrate why I believe she is mistaken (to see the numbers I’m using, see the 47-page presentation posted on the DOE’s web site at:; also, the DOE’s press release is at: The NAEP scores cover four areas: 4th grade math, 4th grade reading, 8th grade math and 8th grade reading. Here’s how I’d score it (note that I exclude the gains from 2002-2003, since critics claim that because Klein only became Chancellor in July 2002, he doesn’t deserve the credit for these first-year gains):


4th grade math: Students at or above basic rose from 67% in 2003 to 73% in 2005 to 79% in 2007, far bigger gains than for other large cities and the nation as a whole. Notably, New York City’s biggest gains were by black and Hispanic students, who are now exceeding both the national and big-city averages. There was an even bigger gain for students at or above proficient, from 21% in 2003 to 26% in 2005 to 34% in 2007 – a 62% increase (from 21% to 34%) in four years. These are exceptionally strong results.


4t grade reading: the key to making fair comparisons here is to adjust for the fact that nearly double the number of English Language Learners (ELL) took the test in 2007 vs. 2005 (8% of all test takers to 15%; see slide 19). Without adjusting, the scores are flat; with the adjustment (looking only at English proficient students), the students at or above basic rose from 55% in 2003 to 60% in 2005 to 63% in 2007, a strong positive trend (see slide 26). And for English proficient students at or above proficient, the increase has also been strong: 23% in 2003, 24% in 2005 and 28% in 2007 (slide 27). Again, black and Hispanic students showed the largest gains. Overall, this is good performance.


8th grade math: Students at or above basic rose from 54% in 2003 and 2005 to 57% in 2007 – OK performance.


8th grade reading: At or above basic declined from 62% in 2003 to 61% in 2005 to 59% in 2007. These numbers are weak, but keep in mind that they are also impacted by the greater number of ELL students, though not as much as the 4th graders.


In summary, there is progress in three of four areas, with especially notable progress among 4th graders. If I were to give letter grades, they would be an A, a B+, a B- and a D. Though there is certainly plenty of room for improvement, this is a respectable report card and, when considered in the context of other evidence, reinforces my belief that Bloomberg and Klein’s reforms are showing positive results, which I believe will accelerate over time.


Sincerely yours,


Whitney Tilson

Co-Founder, Democrats for Education Reform

Vice Chairman, KIPP New York

Founder, Rewarding Achievement (REACH)


2008/03/5 - Posted by | Charter schools, New York, New York City, Performance - teacher, Performance pay, Physics, Policy, US

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