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Levy's Study Doesn't Add Up
By Sol Stern
Shortly after Harold Levy took over the school system, he told me the worst thing he discovered was that policy is almost never based on accurate data. He has said many times that he is determined to install modern management driven by solid research. And yet, this week we've learned by his own admission that he fudged the numbers on the school construction budget. Earlier, I learned from personal experience that his office had played fast and loose with statistics on teachers going to the suburbs.
Earlier this year, one of Levy's number-crunchers, Andrew Rein, called to ask about articles I had written in City Journal and the Daily News debunking the United Federation of Teachers' claims that teachers were leaving in droves for the higher-paying suburbs. Rein wanted to know how I arrived at my estimate that no more than 700 teachers per year were going to the suburbs. After explaining my methodology, I directed Rein to University of Missouri Economics Prof. Michael Podgursky, who calculated that fewer than 400 city teachers left for the suburbs in 1997-98.
Based on what Levy had said, I expected his staff to get this one right. Imagine my surprise, then, when a New York Times story in mid-April opened: "The exodus of New York City teachers to better-paying suburban districts has accelerated sharply, according to a survey conducted by Schools Chancellor Harold Levy. Nearly 1,700 teachers left the city to teach elsewhere last year, more than four times as many as in 1997-98, the survey found."
So was this an example of gold-standard research? Though Levy's office would not provide it, I eventually obtained the document — seven pages of tables and charts — that had been sent to The Times. The numbers were based solely on anecdotal testimony by more than 1,000 principals who were asked where teachers who left their schools had ended up. But teachers aren't required to tell their principals where they are going. When principals did know, they often did not have a record or were told "Westchester" or "Nassau," making the information impossible to verify.
The chancellor's office did nothing to discourage The Times reporter from confusing the 1,700 or so teachers recorded as going "outside N.Y.C." with the teachers taking a job in the suburbs.
In the tables, more than a third of the departures "outside N.Y.C." included places such as Florida, Georgia, California and 22 foreign countries. The reporter then compared the "outside N.Y.C." category with Podgursky's figure of 400 teachers going to the suburbs in 1997-98 and erroneously concluded that suburban flight had increased fourfold. The chancellor's office knew The Times was comparing apples to oranges, yet apparently let it stand.
I can only guess why Levy chose to pass on this worthless survey knowing full well that it would strengthen the UFT's hand. I do know that if a private-sector CEO who was engaged in contract negotiations with his unionized employees dared do something similar, he would face a stockholder revolt for neglecting the company's interests.
A longer version of this will appear next month in City Journal, where Stern is a contributing editor.
©2001 New York Daily News
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