New York City schoolchildren look just as proud and earnest as kids in any rural schoolhouse anywhere in America. But unlike their country cousins, Big Apple kids are part of a school system that is larger than some national school systems: there are an estimated 1.2 million schoolchildren in New York's 1400 public schools, staffed by over 80,000 teachers.
"It's a remarkably large and diverse system, and that means it's very hard to summarize succinctly," says Professor Aaron Pallas of Columbia University's Teacher's College, who specializes in the sociology of education in New York. According to him, the quality of education also varies widely. "Some schools, high schools in particular, are internationally well-known, and others are doing quite poorly."
Pallas adds that while the students in New York's public schools are ethnically and culturally diverse - 40 percent live in households where a language other than English is spoken - they tend to share a low social and economic status.
"Approximately a third of the students are African-American, a third are Latino, and about 15 percent are Asian American, and only about 15 percent of the kids are white," says Pallas. He also notes that about three-quarters of New York City's public schoolchildren are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches "which is one of the ways in which we typically assess a kid's poverty status or family's economic well-being."
Because of the system's size, new teaching techniques and textbooks are often tried first in the New York public schools, and that has given the system a national identity. But that has not always translated into better academic achievement for the city's students, even though, according to Pallas, New York City's $17 billion annual education budget allots more money per pupil than many other U.S. school systems.
"Even though it's a lot of money in absolute terms, it still doesn't seem to be enough," Pallas says. "You go into school buildings and you see them in really bad shape, and see evidence that kids are not getting the resources they need."
New data indicate that New York's public schools may be improving. In 1986, only 47 percent of New York City high school students graduated. In 2006, 60 percent did. And the graduation rate has risen in New York City since 2002, while rates in the state's four other largest cities have dropped.
Last year, the city's Department of Education received the coveted Broad Prize, a national award given to the school district that's made the greatest overall academic improvement while reducing achievement gaps.
Many credit the system's radical restructuring under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was elected in 2001. In 2002, the state legislature took control of the school system from an unwieldy patchwork of 32 community school boards and other elements, and gave centralized authority to the Mayor, who then instituted a series of sweeping reforms. These included the creation of a leadership training academy for aspiring principals.
Chancellor Joel Klein, who has run the city's Department of Education for most of Bloomberg's tenure, explains that principals are now allowed to run their individual schools as they think best. "The thing that really matters is the individual school… and we believe first and foremost, there has to be a high quality leader," says Klein.
According to Klein, that means granting principals significant autonomy. "So, if they want to hire an additional teacher or a guidance counselor or a support officer, if they want to have an after-school or pre-school program, those decisions are made at the school." Klein says that those decisions are made centrally in most American school districts.
Chancellor Klein says that "accountability" is the byword at every level of the reorganized New York City school system. Some of the strategies for achieving that accountability have been controversial.
For example, students in grades three through twelve are given frequent standardized tests, and their teachers and principals must answer for their students' performance, just as the students alone once did.
In addition, every school in the city is given a letter grade from "A" to "F." Since 2002, the city has opened 280 new schools, but nearly 200 schools have been shuttered. "That's how strongly we believe in accountability," says Klein. "We've [also] closed low-performing high schools that sometimes had 3000 kids, and replaced them with five or six new high schools with 500 children. And the graduation rates in those schools have more than doubled."
Steve Chernigoff is principal of the Bronx High School of Writing and Communication Arts, one of the smaller high schools that emerged from the breakup of a much larger, poorly-performing school. He says that smaller enrollment numbers have made it easier for him to monitor students and to let them know someone in authority is watching, and cares.
"We have a lot of adults who are dedicated to supporting kids," he says, while stooping to pick up a bit of litter a student had dropped. "And I, as a principal, constantly communicate … so that we don't let them fall through the cracks. We know the kids, we know the families, and that makes all the difference."
Good teachers, of course, are also critical to a school system's success. New York City is aggressive about recruiting and keeping them through salary incentives and programs such as fast-track training for professionals in other fields who want a meaningful and highly challenging new career in education. City school officials hope these and other efforts will mean continued improvements to a public school system on which more than one million New York students depend.