Changing the Culture of Urban Public Education

Joel I. Klein*

For decades, school reformers have been searching for quick fixes and silver bullets. In the quest to fix American education and help our country’s young people acquire the skills and knowledge they need, politicians, academic researchers, union leaders, and school superintendents have proposed everything from new curricula to smaller class sizes to hiring more certified teachers.

Sadly, these initiatives have been largely unsuccessful.

We’ve known for a long time that our country and city’s schools are not accomplishing what they must. On December 14 of last year, a new report, the new commission on the skills of the American workforce’s “Tough Choices or Tough Times,”1 highlighted many of the problems we face: In 1971, our country spent an average of $3,400 a student in 2002 dollars. In 2002, we spent an average of $8,977.2 Fourth-grade reading scores, a key indicator of academic progress, have only inched up slightly.3 As our students’ achievement has stayed relatively constant, their international peers have become increasingly competitive.4 Inside our borders, we don’t just face low overall achievement; we also face a staggering achievement gap, which separates our white and Asian children from our African American and Latino children. Across our country, African American high school students are, on average, four years behind white high school students.5

These numbers are depressing and shocking. They should also sound an alarm for every American. This is a time for real, indeed, for radical, change. Experience has taught us that tinkering around the edges will not work.

In this article, I will explain what Mayor Bloomberg and I are doing in New York City to tackle the monumental challenge of reforming education.

I would like to begin, though, with a story of a recent situation in a New York City public school a few years back. This is both a metaphor for the problems in reforming urban education and an actual example of what must change in our schools if we are going to revolutionize the way we deliver public education – and transform the outcomes that we are able to achieve.

My story is based in a public school in Washington Heights, not far from the George Washington Bridge, in upper Manhattan. The school was built decades ago and had developed a leak in the roof over the auditorium. When it rained, water dripped through the roof onto the wood floor below. Over time, the floor buckled.

The principal filed the appropriate work orders – one to fix the leaky roof and another to install a new floor. These requests worked their way through the system until, eventually, they wound up on centralized work lists. Then, one day, the floor contractor showed up to replace the floor, even though the roof had not yet been fixed. The school’s principal was concerned about what was about to happen, but the floor repair guys said they were just following orders. The principal made a few phone calls up the chain of command, but no one seemed to know who was in charge of floors and who was in charge of roofs. One of the regional administrators supposedly knew, but he was not returning messages. It seemed that nobody was sure when the roof would be repaired.

The punch line of this story is predictable (and not really funny): the buckling floor was replaced with a brand new one, and a year later, the roof had still not been fixed. It still leaked and soon the floor re-buckled and had to be replaced again.

It’s unbelievable that in a system of scarce resources, we would allow a wasteful thing like this to happen. But we did. This story is a sad tale of an incompetent and inefficient bureaucracy, and it is also a metaphor for school reform more broadly.

Ever since 1983, when a federal commission unveiled “A Nation at Risk,”6 which warned that our public education system had become mired in a “rising tide of mediocrity,” public school systems have been in constant reform-mode. The reforms that have been implemented, however, have been just as effective as installing a series of floors under a leaky roof. In the past two decades, we’ve experimented with a long list of reforms. The only things that have remained virtually untouched are the structures and the cultures that define our school systems.

Taking on the structures and the cultures of public education is the next frontier.

Fixing education anywhere is not easy – but it’s particularly difficult in New York City. New York City has the largest school system in America, serving about one and a half times the student population of the next biggest school system. We have 1.1 million students in 1,427 public schools.7 Ours is an incredibly diverse student population. Our students speak more than 150 languages and come to us from around the world. We have tens of thousands of teachers and a budget of more than $15 billion a year.8

When Mayor Bloomberg took office in 2002, our school system was divided up into 32 community school districts with 32 community school boards and 32 superintendents. Above them, there was a seven-member Board of Education whose members weren’t elected by anyone, but rather were appointed by each of our five borough presidents and the mayor. The Board, in turn, appointed the chancellor. When something went wrong, the local school board would blame the Board of Education, the Board of Education would blame the state, the mayor would blame the chancellor, and so on. We had local school districts that used their own reading and math curriculums. We had 32 budget specialists, 32 reading specialists, and 32 attendance clerks. We had a wasteful and duplicative system that was practically designed to make sure no one was accountable for anything. And the results were not surprising. Test scores were awful; graduation rates were even worse. Year after year, schoolchildren were simply moved along from grade-to-grade, often unable to perform basic academic tasks, and therefore not remotely prepared for the world of adult work.

The mayor did something that is extremely rare in the risk-averse world of modern politics, and in so doing, he began the process of changing the culture of our system. In the 2001 mayoral race, he asked voters to hold him accountable for education, and in the months immediately after he was elected, he asked our state Legislature to give him authority over, and hold him accountable for, a school system that didn’t know what accountability was. Mayor Bloomberg said the schools would serve the students of the city, rather than serving appointed and elected government and school board officials or the employees of the school system. The Legislature passed a law granting the mayor control of the New York City public schools until the end of 2009.

We knew that reforming a system that had been in decline for decades couldn’t take place overnight. We decided reform would need to be a two-part process:

First, we would stabilize and bring coherence to an unruly system, a system that had failed hundreds of thousands of students. Second, once we built leadership capacity and once people in the system were able to take on greater responsibilities, we would unleash the potential of our schools – and create the kind of system we believed could produce the kind of results we all want for our children.

This two-part reform effort is called “Children First.” This name is not inconsequential. We are throwing out a system that puts adults first and creating a system that truly puts children first – a system that differentiates teaching for each child, a system that provides the options that students and their families demand, a system capable of helping all kinds of students make progress, whether they enter school at the top of the class or the very bottom. Putting children first and putting the schools that teach them at the top of the education hierarchy will encourage innovation rather than stifling it. It will encourage adults in the system to come up with solutions rather than making excuses and taking shortcuts. And it will discard the existing structural arrangements, which often help adults, sometimes at the expense of students.

During the first phase of New York City’s Children First school reforms (2002-2006), we created a new centralized governance structure, which organized the city’s schools into 10 regions. The leaders of the regions, the regional superintendents, reported to the deputy chancellor, who reported to the chancellor, who reported to the mayor. This system was intentionally top-down. The goal was taming the system and bringing all of the teachers, principals, and administrators onto the same page. In this phase of the reforms, we implemented a new, uniform curriculum, we created interventions for struggling students, and we ended the “social promotion” of failing students who were unprepared for the next grade. We also introduced choice into the system, creating 184 new small secondary schools, six new elementary schools, and 36 charter schools for New York City’s children. These schools started to provide the kinds of options that New York’s students demand and deserve, and they are producing results. Almost 80% of students graduated on time last year from our small secondary schools, almost double the graduation rates of the schools they replaced.

Even during this first phase of Children First, when the central goal was stability, we started to infuse the system with leadership, empowerment, and accountability, the core principles that we believe will drive real, fundamental change in the system. We created a “Leadership Academy” to train strong school leaders. Today, 166 of its graduates are serving as principals in New York City public schools, many in our most challenging schools. We reformed the teachers’ contract, giving principals substantially more power over selecting their own teams and creating new inventive programs that allow excellent teachers and teachers who teach in shortage areas like math and science to earn more money. Our Lead Teacher program, for example, allows schools to pay successful teachers an extra $10,000 a year to teach students as well as fellow teachers. This program recognizes that we cannot attract talented educators to our schools if we pay all people the same, regardless of the special skills and talents they bring to the classroom. We also began empowering principals through a pilot program called the “autonomy zone,” which launched in 2004. Principals in these schools had substantially increased decision-making power in exchange for agreeing to be held accountable for meeting specific performance targets. In the first year, 85% of schools in the program met their targets. In the following year, the zone approximately doubled in size and 93% met targets.

These initial changes led to substantial improvement in student academic results, including higher standardized test passage rates. But while incremental improvement in the results and school culture are critical, they are hardly sufficient. The end goal, after all, is not adequacy but excellence. The schools must be capable of preparing all students to lead gratifying and successful lives. Currently, however, even after four years of progress, the city still faced a daunting challenge: not nearly enough of our students are at grade level in reading and math.

Incremental change cannot bring New York City schools from where they are now to where they must be. Just as no amount of hard work could have made an Apple IIGS do what a modern day MacBook can do, no amount of effort, no program, and no initiative could transform New York City’s schools into the kind of schools that the city’s students need and deserve. The New York City public school system was built for another time, a time when a different population filled its classrooms and a time when we had different expectations for students and educators. It is a system that tells school-level officials what to do rather than asking them what they need to be successful. It is a system built on compliance, not performance and progress. It is a system that treats everyone uniformly, even if they have very different needs and abilities. For decades, teachers with the same level of experience, or “seniority,” were paid the same, regardless of their performance; students who were at the same grade level are taught the same, regardless of their individual strengths and weaknesses. The public school system is set up to reward those who win favor with extra resources or other perks – creating a funding system divorced from reality in which some schools receive far more than others.

Working within the constraints of the current system cannot lead to substantially different outcomes across the City. The only way to break through to a new level is to think differently, to reshape education and to create a system of schools that is set up for success rather than trying to fix a system that has proven incapable of giving New York City children the high-quality education they need and deserve.

The second phase of Children First will create the kind of schools that New York City and its students require.

The second phase of the Children First school reforms is based on three principles: leadership, empowerment, and accountability.

Leadership: Strong school leaders are at the center the reforms. They make key school-based decisions – from how to assess and improve student learning to how to spend their schools’ budgets.

Empowerment: Strong leaders cannot thrive in a system that ties their hands, so principals must be empowered with the authority and the resources to make decisions about what happens inside their schools and classrooms.

Accountability: In a world free of checks and boundaries, empowerment could yield chaos – some schools would succeed while many others would fail. So, empowerment must be married to accountability. Schools must have the tools they need to track student performance and they must be responsible for outcomes. Just like the mayor, who told voters to hold him accountable for results, principals and teachers must show that they are able to help students make progress. Schools that are failing students cannot be allowed to continue failing students.

The system that we are creating is distinct from the system that currently exists. It will be built on different pillars, it will have a different culture, and student results will be in a different league.

We formally launched the second phase of our Children First reforms in January 2006 when the mayor, at his inauguration, said:
Our mission over the next four years will be: To create – from pre-school through high school – a public education system second to none. We will strengthen the three pillars of our school reform: Leadership, Accountability, and Empowerment, putting resources and authority where they belong: in the schools of our city. And because the eyes of the nation are on our efforts, our successes hold the promise of hope for schools across the land. What a wonderful gift for New York to share with the rest of our country.
Since then, we have taken three key steps: we drove more dollars from the bureaucracy to the schools, we launched a major accountability initiative, and we devolved increased decision-making power to the schools.

Money is most effective when it is in the hands of people who know how to spend it well. A principal knows what her staff needs and what her students need to succeed – and is better equipped to allocate dollars than someone outside the school making assumptions about what’s best for the people inside. That’s why, in the first term of the Bloomberg administration, we cut more than $200 million from the bureaucracy, which we redirected to schools and classrooms. The mayor and I are working to devolve at least an additional $200 million by 2009. Since we launched the second phase of our Children First reforms, we have redirected $73 million directly into schools’ budgets.

Our accountability initiative, which launched in April 2006, will allow schools to monitor the performance of individual students and it will give the department the tools it needs to hold schools accountable for helping students achieve at high levels. The initiative has four key components: First, it will give schools tools such as diagnostic assessments that they can use to monitor students’ performance throughout the school year. Second, it creates a comprehensive data and knowledge management system so we and the schools can analyze student results, pinpoint areas of excellence and areas for improvement, and share effective practices. Third, starting this year (2006-2007), all schools in the system are receiving Quality Reviews, which assess how well they are using data to help individual students and teachers improve. Finally, starting in the fall of 2007, all schools will receive a grade (A-F) based on performance, progress, and school environment (which includes attendance as well as the results of student, parent, and teacher surveys). This will supplement the state’s accountability system, which, for example, compares this year’s fourth-graders. New York City will now identify progress using a value-added system capable of tracking individual student gains and losses from year to year. Schools can use this information to identify trends and intervene to help individual students and teachers grow and learn. The DOE can use information from these systems to assess schools. Schools that score high on the City’s accountability metrics will receive rewards while schools that do not will be penalized. Principals who fail to help students achieve at high levels or make progress face consequences – from interventions and support to the loss of their jobs and school closure.

Finally, we dramatically expanded empowerment, giving principals the power to make the core decisions in their schools. Last spring, we re-branded the “autonomy zone,” calling the empowered schools “Empowerment Schools” and invited principals to apply. All of the principals selected to enter this program agreed to sign a “performance agreement,” in which they agree to meet standards or face serious consequences. This year, 332 schools in our city are Empowerment Schools. These principals received, on average, $150,000 in new resources and $100,000 in newly unrestricted resources, which used to be tied to specific mandated programs. Principals have hired more than 300 new teachers with their additional resources, substantially reducing class size, as well as buying other important resources like books and training for teachers. The empowerment schools formed into networks of their choosing and hired support staff to guide and help them. Starting in the 2007-2008 school year, we are taking empowerment system-wide: We are empowering all principals with the power of choice. All schools will receive additional discretion over their budgets and all schools will be able to choose what kind of support system is most likely to help their students succeed.

The mayor and I are committed to devolving resources and authority to schools and we are committed to continue holding schools – and ourselves – accountable for performance and progress.

In 2002, when Mayor Bloomberg asked the State Legislature to grant him control of the schools and then asked the people of New York to hold him accountable for the performance of schools and students, he was not asking to drive the system in the same direction in which it had been heading for decades. He knew it was time for a major shift. The first phase of Children First set the groundwork for the current changes. The second phase of Children First might seem radical, but the reforms rest on the foundation built over the past five years. These reforms have the potential to create a new culture in New York City schools and provide to the City’s students the opportunities and the education they need and deserve.

What we need in America is a major shift in the culture and the practice of education. In New York, I believe the steps we are taking will lead our city and our country in that direction. Major change is not easy – not for the people orchestrating it and not for the people implementing it – but it is both possible and critical to our students’ success and the success of our cities and our nation.

* Joel I. Klein is the New York City Schools Chancellor.
[2] Id. at 4.
[4] TOUGH CHOICES OR TOUGH TIMES, supra note 1, at 14.

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