NYC Schools Get Failing Grade from Business Leaders

Published November 1, 1998

Whatever other skills students can thank their New York City public school teachers for, math isn’t one of them, according to a recent Public Agenda survey of the city’s business leaders.

Only 10 percent of the 450 employers surveyed said that a high school diploma guaranteed that a student had mastered basic skills, and not one rated as “excellent” the math skills of employees who had attended the city’s public schools.

Fully 86 percent of surveyed employers had “no confidence” in New York City’s public school system. Many reported not only that high school graduates were illiterate and innumerate, but also that they were short of the skills required for success in the workplace. While sporting a high school diploma, graduates lacked motivation and basic work skills such as being polite, conscientious, and able to work with others.

“It is almost impossible to hire competent clerical and/or entry-level help for administrative work from the New York City Schools,” an ad agency’s financial officer wrote on a questionnaire, noting that “recent successful hires” had come not from New York City but Illinois, Toronto, Ireland, and other places.

“These are devastating ‘product evaluations’ from employers whose businesses would not survive with similar results,” concluded the Public Agenda survey report, commissioned by the New York City Partnership and Chamber of Commerce.

In a statement responding to the survey, Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew said the results reinforced his view that student success required higher standards, mastery of basic skills, more rigorous accountability, and “greater investment from the public and private sectors.” Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani told the New York Times, however, that it would be four or five years before the business community saw the benefits of the changes that Crew has instituted since 1995.

“We can’t wait that long,” said Daniel B. Walsh, president of the Business Council of New York State Inc. “Neither can tens of thousands of children,” he added, asking “whether the state has a right to force [children] to stay in schools that don’t perform and don’t improve.”

Two out of three employers viewed the problems as widespread throughout the city. More than half agreed that fundamental changes–such as requiring higher standards and imposing more discipline–were needed to improve the schools. A majority of employers, not content to rely solely on Chancellor Crew’s efforts to reform the schools, agreed that school vouchers would be one way to improve the quality of the city’s high school graduates.

“Plainly, taxpayers don’t believe they’re getting value for their money from public education,” noted an editorial in the New York Post, which first reported the results of the survey on August 27. Otherwise, the editorial continued, “the voucher idea (along with charter schools) simply wouldn’t be achieving any political traction.”