April 2004  

NYC Mayoral Child Abuse:
Bloomberg/Klein Beat Up on 8-Year-Olds

Forced Flunk-Outs and
the Assault on Public Education

What It’s All About: Corporatization, Resegregation and War

APRIL 19 – On April 20, across New York City tens of thousands of eight-year-old school children are going to be subjected to a test that will be used by school authorities to determine whether they can go on to fourth grade. Already, billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg and his flunkey, schools chancellor Joel Klein, have set a quota of 15,000 3rd-graders to be deliberately failed. This is child abuse on a grand scale. The racist city rulers have set out to ruin the lives of these primarily black, Latino and immigrant students in a cynical electoral ploy, and to further a bipartisan capitalist agenda of privatizing, corporatizing and resegregating public education. Moreover, this use of standardized tests goes hand in hand with the drive to undermine or break teachers unions, and unions in general, and to regiment the population for imperialist war.

The assault on 3rd-graders was so outrageous that the mayor couldn’t even get his hand-picked Panel for Educational Policy to endorse it. Just hours before the policy came up for a vote on March 15, Bloomberg realized his own rubber stamps weren’t going to rubber-stamp it. Some of them incredibly thought they were supposed think about educational policy, so hizzoner did a Donald Trump and fired three of them on the spot. They were quickly replaced with a trio of more pliant flunkeys. After a truncated discussion before a seething audience of several hundred parents and teachers, in which Chancellor Klein told an eight-year-old girl to shut up and sit down, the stacked panel had a farcical vote in which the hand-raisers dutifully raised their hands to flunk 15,000 kids. The whole charade was so blatant that a host of Democratic City Council members denounced the “Tuesday night massacre” (recalling Richard Nixon’s “Saturday night massacre” when he fired his three top legal officials for refusing to follow orders).

The electoral ploy couldn’t be missed. After repeatedly declaring that voters should judge him on his record on education, Bloomberg has only managed to throw the NYC school system into turmoil, introducing whole reading curriculums and then dumping them when Bush’s Department of Education nixed them, appointing a whole layer of highly paid “management experts” who know nothing of education, naming a chief of instruction (Diana Lam) and then abruptly sacking her a year and a half later for nepotism. Bloomberg desperately wants to show “progress” on fourth-grade reading tests, so in order to get his desired statistical results he decides to get rid of the bottom 20 percent of the 75,000 3rd-graders! This is the same twisted statistical “logic” that Washington uses to disguise the true unemployment rate by reclassifying millions of jobless as “discouraged workers” who will no long be counted as job seekers.

This is not about pedagogy. The studies show that forced grade retention does not help students learn but instead has the opposite result: reading scores drop and particularly after the eighth grade “drop out” rates soar. In the Chicago public schools, recent studies by the University of Chicago show that “retained 6th-graders improved less in reading than a group of low-achieving peers who weren’t held back,” that a fifth of the retained 3rd and 6th graders ended up being dumped in “special education” classes, and that 8th graders held back were more likely to drop out of school (“Holding Kids Back Fails Too, Study Says,” Chicago Tribune, 7 April). In New York City, the Education Priorities Panel studied the experience of 27 programs of grade retention programs around the U.S. and found “a clear correlation between grade retention and the likelihood of dropping out.” This dismal result also occurred with NYC’s “Promotional Gates” program begun in 1981, and again when it was revived in 1999 (EPP letter to Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, 20 February).

So what is it really about? The EPP points to ideology (“deeply held beliefs about individual responsibility, hard work, and promotion to higher grades based on merit”), which is certainly a factor. The onslaught against “social promotion,” like the whole emphasis on “standards-based” curriculum, is a right-wing construct aimed against proponents of “progressive education.” The whole idea that the terrible state of public schools is due to lazy eight-year-olds is a cruel joke. It is obvious that kids who are kept back become demoralized and separated from their peers; labeled “failures,” they conform to the label. Contrary to the bourgeois ideology of individualism and punishment, the fact is that children do better when they are enthusiastic about learning, and that successful education is a collective endeavor involving teachers and students as a group.

It’s also about money: blaming the children is a way of getting around the fact that New York City schools, like big city schools throughout the country, are underfunded to the tune of billions of dollars a year. Supposedly, those kids being held back will be given extra attention, with smaller classes and intensive remedial programs. As one principal remarked, they ought to give the those children the additional resources before they flunk – but that costs big bucks. In fact, the EPP showed that under Bloomberg/Klein and Giuliani/Levy, class sizes increased except in the years where tests were given (fourth and eighth grades). Meanwhile, teachers are forced to “teach to the test,” and the effect is a “dumbing-down” of the educational system. It goes together with plans to gradually privatize the school system through vouchers, handing over school management to profit-making corporations like the Edison schools, or setting up “charter” schools in which the union contract is thrown out. Since Edison schools and charter schools are failing, one after another, the emphasis is increasingly on “corporatizing” the public schools by turning them into factories.

It’s about racism: the overwhelming majority of the students being held back are black, Latino and from families where English is a second language. This accompanies the sharply increased segregation of U.S. schools over the last couple of decades. It is not an unintended result, but a deliberate effort to refashion “public” education in the U.S. to reflect a changing class structure. As the workings of capitalism lead to the slashing of union jobs, as the fabled “middle class” that used to be considered the bedrock of “American democracy” is thinned out, there is an increasing division between the poor, minority and immigrant working-class population and a wealthy bourgeois layer. Corresponding to this shift is the drive toward a two-tier education system: well-equipped country club suburban schools and elite urban schools for the sons and daughters of the ruling class and their managers, and warehouses that push poor students out to take minimum wage McJobs and serve as cannon fodder in imperialist wars.

This is what the “No Child Left Behind Act” is all about. The 3rd grade mass flunk-out is a graphic demonstration of what a fraud this is: here is a deliberate plan to leave 15,000 children behind. Already, 40 percent of Latino students in New York City do not graduate high school in four years, and the numbers are rapidly escalating with the introduction of the 8th grade test and the elimination of regular high school diplomas in favor of Regents’ diplomas. Of course, when suburban kids get axed, as happened with last year’s Regents math test, suddenly they discover that the tests are not accurate and the scores are “adjusted.” And it’s no accident that the NCLB act included a provision demanding that the names of all high school juniors and seniors be turned over to military recruiters. This is a back door to reintroducing the draft: as the U.S. expands its imperialist wars and colonial occupations, and as battlefield deaths mount, it needs more manpower to feed the voracious military machine.

The plan to flunk 15,000 3rd-graders is an atrocity. But it cannot be defeated by pointing to the overwhelming evidence that it harms school children, or to the inherent racial and ethnic discrimination. Appealing to liberal Democrats as opposed to the Republicans Bloomberg, Pataki and Bush is no answer, for it was the Democratic Clinton administration that first seriously began pushing standardized “high stakes” testing in the public schools. Moreover, New York Democrats in the city council and state legislature have regularly voted for education budgets that subjected NYC students and teachers to intolerable conditions making education impossible.  Resistance must come instead from the working-class, minority and poor who are the targets of this bipartisan capitalist assault on public education. As opposed to mayoral control, there should be a fight for teacher-worker-parent-student control of the schools. Abuses like Bloomberg’s 3rd grade flunk-out test could be stopped by a militant union leadership, yet the United Federation of Teachers under Randi Weingarten tacitly backed Pataki and had a love-in with Bloomberg, and the UFT supports the compulsory high-stakes testing.

The real answer will not come through “educational reform” under capitalism, which has been tried and failed time after time. Rather, what’s needed is a class-struggle leadership of the unions, of poor and working people, and a struggle to build a revolutionary workers party that fights for a workers government, that for the first time can provide high quality, free public education for all from primary school through the university. For education to become a right, there must be a revolution, a socialist revolution not only in the United States but internationally. Then schools can for the first time become centers of learning instead of for propagating the system of wage slavery.

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com