On a warm day in June 2002, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg stood in a Harlem schoolyard and announced that he had won something previous mayors had only dreamed about: full control over the city's public schools. Mr. Bloomberg had persuaded Albany lawmakers -- frustrated by dismal academic performance and community school board scandals -- to allow him to pick the chancellor and run the schools, as he would any other city agency.
But while Mr. Bloomberg continues to say that his stewardship of the schools has led to improvements in student achievement, the latest results of state proficiency tests are further indication that the change he has been hoping for has largely been incremental, rather than transformational.
City students continue to lag in performance behind the statewide average, with 47 percent of third through eighth graders proficient on their English language arts exams this year, compared with 59.5 percent in the rest of the state.
Yes, that figure is 3 percentage points higher than last year, and the rest of the state went up by only 1.9 percentage points. Yet less than half of the students who had been tested can read, write and answer questions on a level appropriate for their grade.
Still, Mr. Bloomberg saw it as "very positive" progress.
"Virtually every single grade, three through eight, virtually every single ethnicity or special group, showed improvements this year," he said at a news conference at the Tweed Courthouse, the Education Department's headquarters. "If this doesn't put a smile on everybody's face, I don't know what on earth you can do. This is the future of our children and of our state and our city and country."
In previous years, the mayor has been joined at news conferences trumpeting gains in student achievement by the union leaders representing city teachers and principals. Sometimes the announcement has been made at a public school.
But the mayor has a frosty relationship with both unions now, as they feud in court over his plan to remove thousands of staff members from 24 struggling schools and remain deadlocked over the implementation of a new teacher evaluation system. On Tuesday, the mayor was surrounded only by Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott and the city's chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, whom the mayor jokingly described as "African-American" because he was born in South Africa.
After 10 years of taking questions on educational matters, the mayor has become more comfortable with the subject, leaning much less than in the past on the chancellor and other officials.
When asked about the one group of students that lost ground in achievement -- English language learners -- he explained that this group was actually getting smaller, as more students become proficient. "So it's not like you're comparing the same students every year," he said, adding that students are also coming from different countries now.
The results show that one group of schools, charters, which are privately managed but publicly financed, have flourished under his watch and continue to perform better than the regular public schools on the state's English and math exams. In math, 72 percent of New York City charter students were proficient this year in grades three through eight, compared with 67.4 percent for the rest of the state and 60 percent for the city's regular public schools.
But Mr. Bloomberg treated the news like a parent who doesn't want to admit to having a favorite child.
Asked if the charters were encouraging traditional schools to improve by creating competition -- a premise underlying his support for them -- the mayor responded: "The other schools are doing better as well. I don't know if it's because of competition. Common sense says it should be because of the competition."
Mr. Bloomberg was clear about one thing:
"There is a difference between charter schools and noncharter schools, or traditional schools as we call them," he explained. "And we would argue that those differences favor the outcomes in charter schools because they are better able to tailor the product that they deliver to the needs of their customers, if you will. Namely, their teaching gets better or more appropriate for the students that they have. We are the biggest believers in charter schools. I think they demonstrate again and again and again that that model delivers superior results."
The mayor was asked what improvements he envisioned 10 years ago, when he first took over the schools.
"I guess if you ask me to dream it would have been that everybody's ready for Harvard, Yale or Princeton when they got out of high school," he said. "I don't think that's realistic. But it's like crime -- how low would you wish crime go? You hope it goes to zero."
He went on, "There's always going to be a bottom 20 percent. And one of the big problems in education in this country is the demands in society for a better education are going up at a phenomenally rapid rate. Much more so than the improvements in the country, and I fear even more than the improvements in New York, which is doing much better than the country.
"We are the poster child for improving," he said. "But the skills you need in society for jobs keep going up."