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A Brief History of New York City Schools
By D. Wayne Dworsky
Last edited: Monday, November 02, 2009
Posted: Monday, November 02, 2009

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D. Wayne Dworsky

• The Fabulous Potato
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Blurb: History is getting ready to repeat itself. No one wants to assume the responsibility of troubled students. Parents think the school is to blame. Schools think the parents are to blame. And the politicians think they can fix the system. Letís examine the history.




In the Beginning.  Back in the 1950’s, before the drive of the Civil Rights Movement, children attended the public school system of the City of New York with purpose and dignity.  With the end of World War II came stability, making people feel secure.  Both children and pedagogues enjoyed a prosperous period of learning and discipline.  It seemed to be a tranquil time.  Most could never see the turmoil that festered deep within pockets of society.  Some of these concerns echoed through the Korean War.  Most noted was the Montgomery Bus Boycott December 1, 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.  By the end of the 1950’s, the civil rights movement began to take shape and grew.


Early Unrest. During the 1960’s, unrest everywhere in society began to disturb the tight discipline network of nearly every system nation-wide.  For the first time in the history of the US, students began to challenge the authority of teachers.  The societal unrest seeped into homes all over America.  It was as though the precursors of a civil war were taking hold.  Only this time, the war was racial, pitting the black population against white, and in New York City, against the Jewish population as well.  Gradually, discussions and concerns in the home filtered through their children and found expression in classrooms.  During this time, the teaching force in New York City was primarily composed of the Jewish population.  Very few teachers were black.  This disparity further exasperated the unrest.


History Defined.  If a single moment in history could define the turn of events, it would be the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Demonstration School District, which was sparked by the firing of 19 teachers of the Ocean Hill Junior High School on May 9, 1968.  The issue raised concern for white teachers teaching in a black school.  (Treiman, 2008). The local superintendent, Rhody McCoy, envisioned an all black teaching force to deal with the challenge of teaching in a predominantly black setting.  The ensuing teacher strikes protested this kind of discrimination, and in that same year rattled the core of the public school system for years to come.  The public was still reeling from the upset of the assassinations of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963 and Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968.  These only fueled the turmoil that followed in the late 1960’s by racial polarization.


Around the time of Nixon’s impeachment proceedings and the Watergate investigation, inappropriate and disruptive student behavior plagued the New York City Public Schools and reached epidemic proportions.  Unfortunately, confidence in government had declined alongside schools’ decline.  Financial troubles added to the public school blight, resulting in a demoralizing situation for everyone.  Coupled with very low pay and the threat of layoffs, no one wanted to be a teacher, at least no one who was qualified to teach.  There were many new college graduates who thought it would be easy to land a teaching job.  They were right, but most were under qualified and could not pass the harsh strictures of the Board of Examiners Licensure Qualifying Exam.  


By the 1974 fiscal crisis, the stage was set for total collapse.  Although records are a little contradictory, the shortsightedness of the city to lay off thousands of teachers launched a massive instability, which led to one of the greatest pedagogical staff shortages in mathematics and science the city had ever seen.  Shortly after, the city was desperately seeking teachers to fill the growing teacher shortage that grew out of the fallout.  (Walton, 1982).  At its lowest ebb, (Heard, 1982), unqualified and inexperienced teachers filled the void to endure ridicule, harassment and abuse by students on a daily basis.


Consequently, the late 1980’s saw that most mathematics classes in a typical New York City Public School program were managed by unlicensed, unqualified mathematics teachers, many of whom were new to the system.  Some possessed only a bachelor’s degree with no major in mathematics.  By 1987, the then Board of Education decided to give the teachers who failed the Board of Examiner Licensing Exam, a special test that was designed so that those on the list would be properly documented. 


Further degradation of the system was aggravated by the initiative of a minimum eighth grade mathematics level, which led to the Regents Competency Exam, also known as RCT, rendering the student who passed it competent for the 8th grade, but incompetent in high school mathematics.  This meant that most under-achieving schools were remanded in teaching to an eighth grade level.  The RCT class mentality was born.  The lack of motivation on both students’ and teachers’ part led to a massive learning decline that haunted the system until 1995, when the RTC was finally phased out by the State Department of Education.


Republican Power.  In 1993, when Rudolph Juliani was elected mayor of New York City, his administration took sharp action with every department in an effort to transform the way the city governs.  He threatened to dismantle the Board of Education and turn it into a department of the City of New York, which would give all the power of control to the city.  His actions coincided with a change in state policy as conservative republican, George Pataki, defeated liberal democrat Mario Cuomo, who had served as governor from January 1, 1983 to December 31, 1994. 


In 2001, Juliani was succeeded by another staunch republican, Mike Bloomberg, who actually succeeded in turning the Board of Education into the now known Department of Education.  With the

change came the power, and with his newly found power, Mike Bloomberg single-handedly turned the education system into a business. 


The Welch Way.  Flyers began to circulate which professed the Welch way.  Jack Welch described a philosophy in which a business will succeed.  It is based on an idea Jack Welch called, differentiation. (Welch, 2005).  A company will perform much better if the management identifies and fires the bottom 10% performers of a workforce.    In a business, such a system works very well, maximizing resources and minimizing waste, but in a school system, it functions in a disparate manner, undermining its staff.  The criteria used to define this group in the pedagogy of a school was rather subjective and was carried out by a single individual who was given the power to act.  In 2001 and later, principals and assistant principals convened for weekly meetings with the superintendent.  During some weeks, the meetings were daily.  What happened during these meetings?  One can only speculate, but one thing was for sure:  they came out of those meetings different people. 


The consequence of the new city power served to “weed out” so-called bad teachers.  Unfortunately, power begets political jockeying forcing many experienced teachers to retire in the wake of the business of education.  The new powers of the principal included casting their budget in real dollars instead of teacher units.  The advantage of this method allowed principals to decide which teachers would be cost-effective.  The result of this policy propelled principals to fire senior teachers for the flimsiest of reasons.  Instead of a teacher’s tenure serving as a protection and security so that the teacher can concentrate on professional issues, the principals’ newfound power allowed them to evaluate the teacher in a very subjective manner, thereby undermining the system and making the teacher feel very insecure by virtue of reprimands.  With this state of mind, senior teachers became more concerned with their employment security than student achievement. 


The only thing that reprimands accomplish is resentment. By the late 1990’s, superintendent’s offices were flooded with reprimanded teachers awaiting superintendent hearings for disciplinary actions.  Someone looking at this from the outside would wonder why such a spike in disciplinary action enforcement occurred at this time?


The Department of Education’s new directive was driven by performance and accountability, putting the burden of student performance on the teacher and making the teacher accountable.  It appeared that supervisory personnel were operating under a clandestine plan.  Principals and assistant principals with the back up of superintendents started threatening teachers with dismissals.  Pedagogy, who had been teaching for 30 years are, all of a sudden, put on the chopping block.  While it is a fact that The Department of Education can hire two young teachers fresh out of college for the pay of one senior teacher, no one ever expected that the plan would be carried out.   The experience that had been brought to a classroom and once revered now served a negative purpose.  The sensitivity and understanding to educate students was lost.  It appeared that the city had mortgaged their elders to save money.


The manifestation of the conservative policies in Albany

As the base for conservative policies grew, so did the nature of the mathematics curriculum.  As early as the start of the Pataki administration, subtle changes began to appear in the classrooms of lower grades.  All of a sudden, elementary school teachers began to feel the pinch to do more with mathematics in their classrooms.  Unfortunately, most of those teachers were not equipped to administer the directives that slid down from Albany.  Traditionally, elementary school teachers were never taught the precise dictates of mathematical procedures and logic.  Consequently, many found that entering the new pedagogical arena overwhelming.  These strictures were soon followed by exam initiatives.  In 1998, two big guns were fired from the state capitol:  The Mathematics Assessment and the English Language Arts initiative.  They emerged under the banner of the New Standards in Assessment.


An aggravating task with which today’s students are confronted involves complex problem solving utilizing analytical thinking skills, or as they used to call them in the olden days, multiple step problems.  For example, in the olden days a student was asked to find the sum of a disbursement.  Susan spent $3 for notebooks, $2 for pencils, and $1.50 on erasers.  How much did Susan spend?  Today, that student would be asked to work backwards to solve the problem.  Susan had $5 left after she purchased notebooks for $3, pencils for $2, and erasers for $1.50.  How much did she start with?  How about the infamous fish problem?  A student would have been asked to observe an image of a fish lined up against a ruler at the left end.  How long is the fish?  Today, the student would be asked to find the length of the fish, where the fish lined up to an arbitrary position on the ruler.  Or, more insidiously, a student was asked to measure the length of a pencil with a ruler broken at the initial end.  These modern students are forced to rethink the nature of the question.  They are asked to analyze the question in order to respond with the appropriate answer.  The State of New York gave this method of thinking an interesting name, critical thinking.  In addition, the state evaluates response attempts of the students comparing them to a template that approximates what the state determines an appropriate answer.  They coined a cleaver name for this also.  The state wants those graders of student performance to limit their divergent thinking using what they call a rubric.  This is a handy device that prefers to shelter students’ responses by allowing them to think  inside the box.  With the state taking up some mental slag, many topics that have been traditionally taught in high school have become directed to appear as material as early as fourth grade.


Most things we do we improve with practice.  The more you practice, the more comfortable you become executing the task.  Eventually, it becomes second natured to you.  The knowledge is assimilated.  We can perform a complex task without giving it much thought, much like walking, riding a bike or driving a car.  In fact, during most activities, we can even do other things while we are performing the assimilated task.


The problem with acquiring math skills is that it requires a unique and fresh mind in each approach to a new problem.  It involves more than assimilation.  It involves critical thinking skills. (Schafersman, 1991).  Mental Set  (Luchins, 1940), which is fondly coveted by teachers, has limitations in critical thinking efforts.  Researchers believe (Paul, 1990) that during mental set, we acclimatize our brains to the nature of the task, not the task itself.  Acclimatization is more useful in areas that do not utilize critical thinking.  We engage a predisposed mental set whenever we attend a class or put ourselves into a learning situation.  This also includes self-learning.  Unfortunately, critical thinking skills do not subscribe to mental set.


What Motivates Us? Let’s just take the simple case of a boy who does not like to eat his vegetables versus his desire to go to the airport to watch planes land.  Now, the reader may ask, why would not eating vegetables be such a horrible experience for the boy?  And, what is so compelling that would fascinate a boy to simply watch an aircraft land?  When you stop to think of it, you become hard-pressed to arrive at a single reason to eat those vegetables.  Of course, as an adult, you can conjure up dozens of reasons, but from the boy’s point of view, you cannot think of even one.  Yet, youngsters as well as adults would have no difficulty arriving at scores of reasons for watching an airplane land.  It all boils down to our natural make-up.  It is a fact that boys generally love to play and tinker with mechanical devices.  Motors, machines, mechanisms and complex devices all intrigue the young, unprogrammed mind of a boy.  He needs to know how and why these things work.  He is fascinated with watching them function.  The larger and faster the machine, the more intrigued he will become.  Consequently, he will learn whatever is necessary in order to tinker with a machine.  The state is trying to utilize this energy in the new teaching paradigm.  The New Standards in mathematics education is an attempt to harness the potential of such motivation.


When Did All This Become a Problem?

The city published Performance Standards Mathematics.  These were copyrighted by the Board of Education of the City of New York in 1998. Although many see it as a major adjustment for pedagogues, the state sees it as a new era.


Critical Thinking Learning Style Emerges

In the past, educators emphasized the importance of rote learning and memorization.  This strategy worked very well until the population diversified, creating varied learning styles that challenged the old system.  Many came along, such as (Beardsley, 1992), who advocated the new system that de-emphasized the importance of rote memorization and unintegrated knowledge. Instead, they proposed that all learning elements be integrated in a similar manner as every day living.  Having corrected this deficiency, why then do children still fail math?  The answer is simply that the problem is deeper.


In addition to the inquiries as to why children fail math, one should be prepared to ask why children succeed in math.  That is actually a more intense discussion since learning involves various kinds of motivation and perseverance.  At the very outset, these are lacking elements in a failing student’s repertoire.


We have arrived at a turning point.  Fourth graders are struggling with concepts that used to be part of the high school domain.  Literacy plays a more vital role than ever as we find our children immersed in the information age.  Our measure of success will be determined by our willingness to support our children and continue to explore the many-faceted realm of education.  Let us hope that our wisdom will minimize the disasters from history and not allow them to repeat.




Beardsly, T. (Title?) Scientific American (Oct., 1992)   


Luchins, A.S., The Effect of Einstellung (Mental Set) on learning, 1940, 133-136; Mechanization in problem solving, Psychology Monog., 54, 1942, No. 248,1-95. 


Heard, A. Enrollment Projections Suggest Teacher Shortage in Late 1980’s. Education Week. 1982, November 17


Paul, R., Binker, A., Jensen, K., and Kreklau, H. (1990).  Critical thinking handbook: A guide for remodeling lesson plans in language arts, social studies and science.  Rohnert Park, CA: Foundations for Critical Thinking. (Have developed a list of 35 dimensions of critical thought.)


Schafersman, S.D. An Introduction to Critical Thinking.  January, 1991.  Article retrieved Dec. 25, 2009 from -thinking.html 


Treiman, D. Al Shanker and the Strike of 1968.  Retrieved November 20, 2008 from 


Walton, S. Teacher Shortage in math, Science Is Critical, Survey Finds. (1982, March 21). Education  Week.


Welch, J. & Welch, S.  2005.  Winning. P42: Harper Collins.


(Copyright © 2009 by D. Wayne Dworsky)




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