- Sarah Crean on Exclusive: Proposed policy would allow industries to self-audit pollution-generating activities
- David Howard King on Bronx senator's health quest
- Cristian Salazar and Carla Murphy on Stops lawsuit given class status
- Cristian Salazar on NYC Council passes banking bill
- David Howard King on Senate Dems Look to Nat'l Issues
Reorganizing the Schools (Again)
by Gail Robinson
The adjustments to the city’s school system announced by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his State of the City speech – empowering principals and making them more accountable, reforming tenure and changing the school funding formula -- are “profoundly important changes that will shift the way we think about education,” Schools Chancellor Joel Klein told a group of business leaders the next day.
The administration mounted a public relations drive for the changes, complete with a press briefing and the speech to business leaders in a spacious conference room at the Time-Warner Center. But parents may be hard-pressed to understand how the plan will affect their children and could easily wonder why the mayor did not talk about smaller classes or keeping high school students from dropping out. “There’s nothing there about teaching or learning,” said Tim Johnson, chairman of the Chancellor's Parent Advisory Council.
And the plan surprised many people. The pre-speech releases from the mayor’s office focused on tax cuts, the other main topic in the speech, and apparently did not mention education. Robert Jackson, chair of the City Council education committee, said he had not been consulted on any of the ideas and, according to him, neither had parent councils set up by the Department of Education as part of mayoral control.
“We need more transparency. We need to be more involved not at the tail end but at the beginning,” Jackson said.
Numerous questions about the plan remain, such as where parents will go for what information, who will oversee the high schools, the cost of the proposals and the role of different parts of the education bureaucracy, including the largely moribund district offices, which may have gotten a new lease on life. “The big problem at this stage of the game is that there are no details to speak of and there are more questions than answers,” said Brian Gibbons, spokesman for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators.
In an effort to fill in some of the blanks, Jackson will hold oversight hearings on the proposals Thursday, Jan. 25 at 1 p.m., though he conceded that the council has little authority to stop the plan from moving forward.
THE MAYOR’S PLAN
Amid all the questions and uncertainties, the plans set out by Bloomberg and explained by Klein, has several key parts:
Power to the Principals
Building on the system of empowerment schools, whose principals have control over key issue in their buildings, all principals will have more autonomy next school year. Under the new regime, Bloomberg said, “The principals will be in charge of what's best for their students, always.”
And Klein said, “No longer will principals be the agents for the bureaucracy where principals were told what that needed—whether they wanted it or not.”
The principals will choose from among several systems – or school support organizations, as the education department calls them – to help them run their schools. The school can become an empowerment school, with the administration getting assistance from a network of other principals. Others principals will select from among four Learning Support Organizations to be created by former regional superintendents, the details of which have not yet been determined. Or the principal can chose to work outside the school system with a so-called Partnership Support Organization, a private group such as a nonprofit agency or university.
In all instances, the school will determine its staff, manage its budget and decide how to teach. The Department of Education will set standards, hire and fire principals and allocate money to the school. The support organization – public or private – will provide professional development, help principals interpret test results and other data, and identify teaching approaches that may prove helpful.
The chancellor took pains to say that the schools would remain public and under the control of the Department of Education. Prior to Bloomberg’s address, reports said he planned to put significant parts of the system in private hands. After the speech, which tamped down some of those fears, concerns remained that further efforts at privatization lurk under the surface of the administration’s rhetoric.
The effect this new structure will have on what goes on in classroom remains unclear. Some experts question whether giving principals greater control will improve troubled schools. Norman Fruchter, director of the Community Involvement Program at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and the author of a report highlighting problems afflicting New York’s middle schools, said he did not think the changes would improve the situation in those schools. Autonomy is not a virtue in and of itself, he said. “If you’re living in an abandoned building, you have lots of autonomy,” he said. “What you need isn’t autonomy” but help.
Accountability for the Principals
In return for their increased power, the principals will have to succeed, based on an array of test scores and other rating techniques. Those “grades” will be accessible to parents. “Personally, I can't think of a better way to hold a principal's feet to the fire than arming mom and dad with the facts about how well or poorly, their children's school is performing,” Bloomberg said.
Beyond attracting the ire of parents, principals whose schools do not succeed could lose their jobs, see their schools restructured or even have their schools close. Schools that do well could get bonuses in the form of additional funding.
This has raised concerns at the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the principal’s union. In a statement, union president-elect Ernest Logan applauded the mayor for reaffirming “his belief that great principals make great schools” and said the union had long urged that principals receive more power and resources to improve their schools. But Logan said a number of issues had to be addressed, including how the changes would affect the union contract. The council’s contract with the city expired more than three years ago.
To determine the principal’s performance, the school system will use a number of measures, many of which were initially announced last spring. These include:
-- a letter grade for each school based on test scores, student attendance, safety and so on)
--evaluations conducted by a team that will visit schools to observe classes and interview people
--increased testing (called interim assessment) of students
--new ways of reporting and interpreting all that data.
Such techniques, Klein said, will “take the guesswork out of what good teaching looks like.”
The mayor sees the combination of autonomy and accountability as bringing corporate tools to the schools. "Schools have traditionally not felt that they had to work for the students," Bloomberg reportedly said at a conference. "Very seldom are they being held to the standard of having to provide a good service or losing their job, which is exactly what most people who work in the private sector face every single day."
But some educators question such reasoning; "What does the mayor know? He knows how to establish a good corporation," Jacqueline Ancess, co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching, has said. "They don't really respect educators … but the only people who know about teaching and learning are the educators, and so there's no emphasis on teaching and learning anymore."
Reorganizing the Reorganization
When Bloomberg took control of the city’s school system he virtually closed down the community school districts, doing away with the community school boards and stripping the offices of most of their power. They remained in existence largely to satisfy state law.
In their stead, the mayor created 10 education “regions.” But now, only four years later, the regions are going the way of neighborhood high schools, the Board of Education and typing classes. “With this reform,” Bloomberg said, “the regional offices that we established four years ago to stabilize a failing system will be eliminated now that their job is done.”
The elimination of the education regions, Klein said, would free up money for individuals schools. But he left questions as to how high schools, currently under the regional offices, would be administered and how admissions for middle schools would be handled. Would parents needing a form have a local office to go to – or would everything be at the centralized Tweed courthouse.
“It’s scared parents,” said Johnson. “They barely have time to adjust to these reorganizations before they do them again.”
The move surprised many, none of whom could recall that Bloomberg had ever indicated the regions were intended to be temporary. “I was stunned,” said Fruchter.
Klein has long criticized the system under which after three years on the job teachers generally receive tenure that makes it extremely difficult to remove them from their jobs. Now, he said, the department, wants to collaborate with the United Federation of Teachers and toughen standards.
This is part, Klein said, of an overall move to improve teacher quality, which has included salary increases, a program for experienced “lead teachers,” and a housing bonus for teachers whose area of expertise is in short supply, such as special education specialists. He would also like to make it easier to remove teachers “who stand in the way of student success.”
He noted that 99 percent of teachers who seek tenure get it. “We want to make tenure a well deserved honor, not a right,” Klein said. “We want to make sure teachers earn it with good teaching, not the passage of time.” But critics say the 99 percent figure is misleading – and does not include the thousands of teachers who quit the system before becoming eligible for tenure.
Calling tenure, “a vital protection,” teachers union president Randi Weingarten said in a statement that tampering with it would not improve teacher quality. Instead, she said, “Let’s work on the things good teachers tell me they need, such as lowering class size, making safety important and giving educators the latitude to tailor instruction to the needs of their students.”
Any sweeping changes in the tenure system would require consent from the UFT – something no one thinks the union would readily provide. And since the union and City Hall recently agreed on a new contract running until October 2009, no negotiations on tenure are likely to occur soon.
A New Funding Formula
According to the mayor, the system for allocating funds to individual schools is needlessly complex, replete with political calculations and unfair. Bloomberg hopes to replace this with a formula to “fund the child.” Every school will receive $3,0000 to $3,750 for each student with additional money added for anyone who is poor, does not speak English, is in special education or performs at a low academic level. Funds might be added for gifted and talented kids as well.
Such a program “has succeeded across the country and drawn broader political support – because it’s good common sense,” wrote John Podesta, who advised Klein on the plan.
But it could be hard to put into effect. One thing that accounts for funding disparities now are teacher costs: Schools with large numbers of senior teachers, who make more money, have a higher spending level. To reduce spending, they could get rid of some well-paid staff. But that could violate aspects of the teachers contract and would be sure to enrage parents.
Some fear tying funding to the student could set a precedent. “The money will follow the child and that’s opening the way for the legislature to say it’s not going to the system,” Jackson said. That, he said, could pave the way for a voucher system, which would allow students to use their “allocation” at a private or parochial school.
WHAT BLOOMBERG DID NOT SAY
Although Bloomberg made education a focus of the State of the City speech, the address was as notable for what it did not say about education as what it did say. The mayor did not mention many other changes supported by lots of education advocates and backed by many parents, such as reducing class size, creating more free pre-kindergarten programs and expanding vocational education. Fruchter, for example, said he did not think the changes would improve the city’s middle schools.
The omission of new classroom programs seemed particularly striking since the city is expected to receive at least $1.9 billion in additional state funding – the result of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity suit on school financing – sometime this year. Bloomberg did not mention that windfall, other than to say the money might help the city readjust the funding formula for individual schools.
Not only did the mayor fail to mention any new classroom programs but some experts say his tax cuts (see related story) mean the city will not have the money to support such improvements as a significant reduction in class size.
The mayor’s omissions seem particularly striking when contrasted with Governor Eliot Spitzer’s State of the State speech delivered earlier this month. In his address, Spitzer called for smaller class size, a longer school day and year, more after school programs, better technology in school libraries, and universal pre-kindergarten programs for four–year-olds. Agree or disagree with these ideas but they are a lot easier to understand than creating “school support organizations” to build “system-wide empowerment.”
WILL IT WORK
In putting forth his latest proposal, the mayor cited what he has accomplished so far: better test scores, a smaller “achievement gap” between racial groups and improving the graduation rate. But while the mayor has shaken up the school system – closing schools, creating new ones, establishing a more standardized curriculum, setting stricter standards for promotion and so on – many observers questions whether the results have been as promising as he would claim. Test scores here have risen, but they also have gone up in other cities in the state. The state education department has indicated the city overestimates its graduation rate, and the number of failing schools in the city, again according to the state, has increased slightly this year. While there have been some gains in elementary scores, said Fruchter, it’s “not translating into middle school gain.” The school system, he said, “has not figured out how to build conceptual skills at the eighth grade level.”
And so some observers, surprised by the latest reorganization, have sought to interpret it. “The scrapping of the Bloomberg/Klein plan unveiled just four years ago should be taken for what it is – an admission of the failure,” wrote Andrew Wolfe. But the latest change won’t solve the problems either, he continued: “There is no evidence that the schools can ever be fixed by changing the structure.”
"It’s very peculiar to say how successful we have been but, ugh, even though we have been so successful, we are reorganizing again,” Meryl Tisch, a member of the state Board of Regents who supported Bloomberg’s earlier effort told the Times. “The whole concept of mayoral control was to bring some stability and order to the system…The more they continue to jimmy around with stability and order during a time when academic achievement has not been soaring, the more difficult it is for people to accept.”
Bloomberg and Klein would concede that many problems remain. Even using their contested statistics more than 40 percent of the city’s teenagers do not graduate from high school on time, 60 percent of eight graders cannot do academic work at their grade level and the achievement gaps persists. But, many believe, that does not mean he has failed. Making changes now, Bloomberg would say, is not an admission of failure but a way to build on success.
Discuss this Article
Other Related Articles:
Quinn Separates Herself From Bloomberg on Education (2012-02-15)
City Warns Against For-Profit Adult Education Scams (2012-01-31)
Council Defies Mayor on Parking Tickets (2012-01-19)
Cuomo Tries Out a New Role -- the Education Governor (2012-01-17)
The Council Addresses PCBs in Schools (2011-12-20)
When Will New York Have A Functioning Ethics Agency? (2011-12-12)
Pizza as a Vegetable and Other Roadblocks to Proper Nutrition (2011-12-06)
30 Years of Fighting AIDS: Much Progress, Many Losses (2011-11-28)
Visit the complete Topic Archives