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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Tyranny of Numbers – The DOE in the Mayor’s Management Report

The recently released Mayor’s Management Report (MMR) demonstrates once again Chancellor Klein's belief that only what can be measured matters. The DOE merited five of the MMR’s mind-numbing 216 pages, filling them with multiple tables of presumably revealing information that are in fact utterly devoid of content or explanation. Apparently, charts of numbers are believed to speak for themselves, but the real effect is to preempt thoughtful analysis of whatever resides behind those reams of statistics.

As an example, consider the sole chart on the first page of the DOE section, a bar chart showing Special Education and Total Enrollment in NYC public schools from FY2003 through FY2007 as summarized in the table below.

Fiscal Special Total
Year Education Enrollment
2003 169,700 1,091,700
2004 171,800 1,086,900
2005 177,100 1,075,300
2006 180,900 1,055,900
2007 182,700 1,042,100

Here are a few of the head-spinning array of questions raised (and left unaddressed) by the MMR, drawn from just this one chart.

-- According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, New York City’s population increased by 2.45% from July 1, 2000 to July 1, 2006, yet the MMR’s reported school enrollment shows a five-year loss of nearly 50,000 students, a decline of 4.5%. Furthermore, the New York Times reported in a story on March 23, 2007 that the number of children under five years old in Manhattan alone had increased 32% since 2000. How to explain this inconsistency? Are more and more parents abandoning the City’s public school system, as these numbers might well suggest?

-- The DOE’s own Statistical Summaries of enrollment show steady but even worse declines in every longitudinal cohort from 2002/2003 through 2006/2007 at every grade level 1-8 and 9-12. General education enrollment in Grade 1 alone has declined 13.1% from 80,278 in 2001/2002 to 69,763 in 2006/2007, while the 100,947 enrolled freshmen in 2003/2004 became 47,559 enrolled seniors in 2006/2007, a drop of 52.9%. How does the MMR help citizens understand these contradictory indicators to the City’s growing population (not to mention a retention rate into Grade 12 of 47% that makes a mockery of the MMR’s claim of a 59.7% four-year high school graduation rate)?

-- Information elsewhere in the MMR suggests that 66.9% of the City’s high school students attend schools whose enrollments are already over capacity. Given that the City Planning Department conducts its own futures planning around an estimated population increase of 500,000 by 2020 and almost 1,000,000 by 2030, can the DOE expect really expect enrollment not to increase (they actually expect it drop by 0.2% from 2000 to 203o!)?

-- At the same time total enrollment has dropped by 4.5%, the MMR shows special education enrollment increasing by 7.7%. What’s behind this counterintuitive surge in the special education numbers?

-- Similarly, and contradictory to the DOE’s online Statistical Summaries, the MMR shows an astonishing 17.5% of total student enrollment receiving special education services. Why is this percentage so alarmingly high, and growing to boot?

The rest of the MMR consists of meaningless numbers (640,000 lunches served, 1,353,000 phone calls taken by parent coordinators) interspersed with startling but unexplained figures, such as a drop of 10.6% last year in parents attending parent/teacher conferences, an extraordinary one-year increase of eight percentage points in Grade 3 to 8 pass rates on standardized math tests in 2006/2007, and a decline of 12.3 percentage points in Regents science exam pass rates in 2005/2006 (the last reported year on the MMR).

When the negatives are ignored and the positives are reported without explanation or supporting analysis, it is difficult to take the DOE section of the MMR as anything other than more public relations puffery disguised by the deceptive tyranny of numbers.

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