Thompson was head of the DOE from 1996 to 2001. I don't know all the facts but I was teaching then, as I am now, so I do have some insider information. I am also a New York City resident and the mother of two children who attended public schools in that era. My daughter graduated in 1998 and my son in 2000.
First and foremost is that there were major problems with the education system as there are today. There were unruly kids then as there are now and there were kids who could not learn then, as there are now, but that is where the similarities end.
My children got real educations in school. My son completed three years of Spanish and the only reason he did not complete a fourth year was he wanted to take an extra math class (AP statistics, along with his honor pre-calculus class.) My daughter took a full four years of Spanish (her last one was on a college campus, paid for by the city and to be fair, this still happens) and she took three years of Latin. Except for a select few, most kids don't get to study language this way. My children took real math courses, courses that terminated with real regents exams, exams where getting a 90 meant you really knew your stuff. Differentiated learning happened with tracking so the honor classes my children were in were truly honor classes and the teachers were able to teach to the highest kids in the class. My son's friend's were not always the best math students, they were not remedial students either. They took the same classes, grouped with kids of similar levels and also got through the class, passing the regents. The kids were taught concepts and understanding, not how to push a button so they could show mastery of 34% to receive that passing grade. My children, and their friends, graduated high school and went on the be successful in college. They didn't need remedial classes. When his friend Michael failed algebra the first time, he was forced to retake it as the same rigorous course. He was bright enough to realize he had to put the work in and passed the second time around and as a result did not need the basic classes in college. Under Bloomberg and NCLB, all the kids are grouped together. There is no doubt in my mind that the 54 Mike got the first time he took the Sequential I math regents would have equated to an 80 on the Math A or Integrated Regents, he would have been pushed ahead and would not be the success he is today.
Again, to be fair, all this is not Bloomberg's doing, NCLB is a national problem. But, as the Education Mayor, he is in a position to make changes, changes he never thought were necessary.
Now, from a teacher's point of view. In the 90's, there were options for kids who were not ready for higher learning. Kids came into high school (as they still do) unable to read. We provided reading classes, classes which were successful. We provided arithmetic classes. I will always remember Angela, a young girl from Guyana who started in one of these and graduated at the head of her class with an advanced regents diploma. She successfully completed all the regents requirements and even took a year of pre-calculus. If not for that first course, she might have been lost forever. Yes, kids were tracked but they needed to be tracked to educate them. Late is better than never and by giving them a foundation they manage to make their destinations, should they so desire.
Under Bloomberg, everyone is college material. Even if you can't read, you are required to study Shakespeare, because that is what is being covered in class, you are required to plan out a geometric proof even if you scored 200 on the verbal section of the SAT and have no reasoning skills. You are required to study algebra even if you can't add 6 and 3 without counting on your fingers. Teachers are in the middle. They are told that something is wrong with them if too many kids fail. So, standards must be lowered to get the kids to pass. After all, even teachers have families to support, bills to pay and ideals just don't do this. The top kids get cheated because teachers are being forced to teach to the middle and the bottom. Kids come into my Advanced Placement Calculus class and get the shakes when I don't let them use a calculator for simple arithmetic and basic trigonometry relations, things they not only should know but are capable of knowing but have never been taught.
Also, schools like mine were not as overcrowded in the 90's. Neighborhood schools, while not all great, were better than they are today. Parents could and did send their children to the local schools. No problems have been solved by closing schools. The problems that existed then have just been shifted to new locations.
I think I am starting to ramble here but I get so angry when I hear Bloomberg comparing his education record to Thompson's, He talks about comparing apples to apples and that is just what I wanted to do here.