New Yorkers do not like their public schools. A recent New York Times poll reveals the depth of their dissatisfaction: Only 12 percent of those surveyed had “a lot of confidence . . . that their child could get a good education in the public schools.” In fact, New Yorkers were twice as likely to express “a lot of confidence” that they could safely walk the local streets at night than that the local schools could do their job.

New Yorkers’ fears about public education are well-founded: Only 54 percent of New York City schoolchildren (compared to 73 percent of students nationwide) graduate from high school within four years. New York City students’ total SAT scores average about one hundred points less than either the state or the national average. In 1991, just slightly over half of New York City public school students read at or above grade level. Sixty percent of all students now score at or above grade level in mathematics, but only 44 percent of eighth-graders do, suggesting that the city’s public school students are mastering basic arithmetic but not more advanced math.

In short, the schools are not providing the education parents want for their children. Unresponsive government—government that cannot or will not deliver the services citizens want—is not unusual; indeed, it often seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Yet in the case of education, it ought to come as a surprise.

There are several reasons why the education bureaucracy should be one of the city’s most responsive: PTAs, local school boards, and parent-teacher nights all make for much more citizen involvement in schools than is to be found, say, in the subways or sanitation. And what parents want their children to get out of the school system is fairly simple: mastery of the skills and knowledge they need to get good jobs and become active citizens.

That parents know what they want and are close enough to the system to communicate what they want should be a big plus. More than two decades of education research consistently shows that simply knowing the goal is an enormous advantage in getting there.

The research of the “effective schools” movement demonstrated that the qualities that make for successful schools have little to do with smaller classes, increased spending per pupil, higher teacher salaries, or any of the other usual material solutions. What distinguishes effective schools is that they are run by enthusiastic teams united by clear goals: strong principals capable of leading the faculty, teachers who are enthusiastic about their role on the team and think of themselves as professionals, and students who become an active part of the school’s culture.

Most important, a good school team has a clear vision of what the school stands for and aims to accomplish. The details of that vision may vary, but only schools that make academic achievement their primary goal consistently succeed in producing it. In fact, the chief message of the effective schools research, vindicated in study after study, is that the way to get good academic performance is to build a school culture that encourages everyone on the team to think about and work toward that goal constantly and to avoid distractions, particularly those common to any public institution—political infighting and bureaucratic red tape.

The people who run the New York City school system know this. Most of the reforms attempted in the last twenty years either were based on or anticipated the effective schools research. Educators here as elsewhere realize that centralized bureaucratic management tends to keep individual schools from forming effective teams. Rule books and reams of regulations all stand in the way of the “can do” attitude that makes for good schools. Centralized systems, responding to the commands of the hierarchy rather than the needs of their clients, easily lose their sense of mission. Because many administrators, parents, and community activists know this, the history of New York school reform—from decentralization to school-based management—is littered with unsuccessful attempts to shift power and autonomy down to individual schools.

So why are New York City schools still failing? The answer is clear: The school system we have now simply cannot undertake successfully the kinds of reforms it has pursued in recent decades. It cannot truly decentralize itself, nor can it allow schools to devote themselves single-mindedly to the goals that parents, children, and most citizens value.

For the individual student, parent, educator, or school, the prime goal of the public schools is obvious: academic achievement. But when these same students, parents, educators, and schools are combined into something called a “school system,” that focus is quickly lost. With more than nine hundred schools, a transportation system that moves roughly 600,000 students each day, a cafeteria system bigger than all but a few of the national restaurant chains, 123,000 employees, and a budget of over $7 billion, the New York City school system has developed a bewildering variety of often conflicting goals. Some are political, some bureaucratic; many make sense only when viewed from the peculiar perspective of the system itself. What parents and educators would treat only as means to an end or as problems to be overcome, the system almost inevitably transforms into goals. Over time, these “system goals” necessarily dilute and often actually trump the primary mission of public schools.

What is a “system goal”? Putting education aside for a moment, consider how an office works. Perhaps there is someone in your office who is a fanatic about preparing monthly reports. He is constantly expanding them, fiddling with the formats, rearranging the data. You probably think he’s a pain in the neck, but you really should have a little compassion for the guy: He is very confused. He has devoted so much time to those reports, he has actually forgotten that filling out reports is not the real goal of the office, which, if it is like most offices, is really supposed to be concerned with delivering services and making money. In other words, he has taken a necessary evil of a large organization and turned it into a goal in itself. It is a “system goal” because neither the clients nor most of the people in the office really care about it. Only the inertial dynamics of a large organization transformed it into a goal that rivals, at least for some employees, the real purpose of the organization. It is an artifact of the system.

Peter Drucker said this better a long time ago: In most large, not-very-well-run organizations, 90 percent of the time and energy goes into solving or averting problems and only 10 percent goes into taking advantage of opportunities.

Consider, to take just one example from the schools, the very real problem of corruption. Eliminating corruption has been the most consistent justification for tightening central control over New York City schools. A large portion of the frustrating restrictions facing good educators stem from the well-intentioned efforts of bureaucrats to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.

Most good principals, for example, would like to have much more discretion over how they spend money, craft programs and policies, and recruit staff to suit the particular needs of their school. But at present, not only is there little room for discretion in most public school budgets, but even the most straightforward requisitions for things like school supplies are made tiresomely complex and time-consuming. Most of these restrictions were conceived in response to some scandal. True, the lack of discretion over hiring comes mostly from the union contracts, but even here the fear of corruption operates. One reason it has been so difficult to put real merit pay systems into place, or to give principals the authority to fire bad teachers, is the fear that some principals would abuse such discretion to punish teachers they do not like.

In the name of fighting corruption, the school system has imposed rules that are often in conflict with the goal of providing a good education—the goal that should be paramount. Yet the system has not been terribly effective in preventing corruption. In part this is because large-scale corruption is itself an artifact of the system. The New York City school system spends more than $7 billion each year. When there is that much money floating around, the temptation to divert part of it to private use will periodically prove irresistible. If New York’s schools were truly decentralized, corruption would likely decrease, since stealing is less profitable in small organizations. Corruption is also easier to detect in a small organization, one in which people know each other personally. And a locally run school is likely to be more vigilant in fighting corruption because the costs are felt more directly than in the centralized system. But for the system truly to decentralize, returning power and accountability back to schools and parents, would be systemic suicide. This is not a system goal.

System goals do not necessarily reflect the desires of people who run the system. Most New York administrators do not really believe that necessary evils like fighting corruption should be allowed to rival education as the system’s purpose. But apart from the intentions of those who run it, the very nature of the system makes it highly susceptible to outside pressures that divert it from its real purpose and constantly tempt it to create new system goals.

At 940,000 students, New York City’s enrollment is larger than the total student enrollment of 37 states, and 58 percent larger than the nation’s second largest system, Los Angeles. The sheer size of the New York City school system makes it an attractive target for various special interest groups, who attempt to define schools’ goals through the lens of their own political objectives. Teachers, administrators, custodians, and other school workers lobby the board for the best possible deal. As one observer has noted, everyone who enters a school building in the morning has a contract protecting his rights and privileges—except the children.

Ideological pressure groups, too, attempt to impose their agendas on the central board—agendas which, however worthy in themselves, distract schools from their primary goal of academic achievement. The groups, in effect, seek to generate new system goals. And because many of these interest groups are powerful and single- minded, simply pacifying the groups also becomes a system goal.

Lumping schools into a system almost guarantees unnecessary and expensive battles over principles, such as the recent bitter and divisive fight over whether to distribute condoms in city high schools. If schools were freed from the system, children’s education would not be dragged into such highly charged citywide battles. Rather, individual schools could determine their own policies, and parents would be free to accept or reject schools on the basis of such policies. The same would hold true for other politically charged issues, such as bilingual education, separate schools for boys and girls, and multicultural curricula. Educators and parents with similar views could put them into action at individual schools without having to capture the entire system.

New York is not only one of the largest school systems, it is also one of the most diverse. Black students account for 38 percent of enrollment; Hispanics, 34 percent; whites, 19 percent; and Asians, 7 percent. Twelve percent of New York City students are classified as Special Education students, entitling them to a broad range of additional services. Another 12 percent are classified as Limited English Proficient, entitling them to special language instruction. More than 34 percent of the system’s students come from families on some form of public assistance.

There is no reason to believe that one type of school best suits all of these students, or all 66,000 of the city’s teachers, and no reason to hold our children’s education hostage to system-wide battles over which type of school will prevail. In New York, more than anywhere else, there is a pressing need for real educational pluralism.

Instead, the school system represents interest group politics at its most extreme, with many constituencies vying for control of the $7 billion centralized education pie and the power that goes with it. In the ensuing wars between competing interest groups, schools are battered by political infighting, factionalism, and the endless distractions of public controversy. And when the issues are finally settled, there comes yet another round of directives, regulations, policies, and budget decisions made with an eye toward some goal other than improving students’ academic achievement.

For many years, for example, Hispanic activists, aided by the courts, have pushed for more bilingual education. The stated goal was to allow children to make academic progress in their native tongue while making the transition to English. The real aim of many activists, however, was bicultural education: They wanted the schools to maintain Spanish culture and “help” Spanish-speaking children resist assimilation.

It was when children began the transition to English that the real agenda of the activists became manifest. Successful bilingual programs began moving children from bilingual to English-only programs. The New York City school system responded to these intimations of success by radically expanding the definition of what it meant to be Limited English Proficient so that fewer kids would graduate to mainstream programs. The new definition doubled the number of students targeted for bilingual education even though there was (and is) a serious shortage of bilingual teachers, and recruiting such teachers has become very expensive. Thus the major goal of schools—academic achievement—was subordinated to a sectarian and debatable goal—fostering allegiance to Hispanic culture.

There is little evidence that the parents whose children were pushed into bilingual classes shared this goal. As articles in this publication and others have shown, Hispanic parents have been fighting to keep their children out of bilingual classes, not to get them in.

Originally it seems that one powerful motive for pushing bilingualism in New York was simply to increase the number of teaching jobs. This is just one example of one of the most powerful system goals: “please the teachers,” and especially the teachers’ union. A happy, highly motivated teaching force is crucial to educational success. But in New York pleasing the teachers has become a goal in itself—one with little relevance to academic achievement.

“More teachers” is sometimes a legitimate educational policy, even though we now know that class size is not nearly as important a factor in educational performance as has commonly been believed. But “more teachers” is always a union goal, even if the new teachers are not actually teaching, because more teachers mean more union members. Thus in recent years the system has created many positions for teachers outside of the classroom. Teacher trainers, mentors, and staff developers are all positions held by licensed teachers. Between 1937 and 1990, the number of teachers employed by the system increased by 6 percent, and student enrollment remained constant. Yet average class size fell by only 2 to 3 percent. Many of the added teachers never made it to the classroom.

This tendency to increase the number of teaching jobs without regard to the real purpose of teaching continues to this day. Faced with a budget crisis largely created by its own decision to award salary increases the city could not afford, the current school administration, headed by Chancellor Joseph Fernandez, chose to offer a retirement sweetener to senior teachers rather than accept layoffs. In effect, the system traded more experienced teachers for inexperienced ones in order to maximize the number of warm bodies in its employ.

Perhaps the most consistently destructive of system goals is the school system’s commitment to “equity”: equalizing the quality of education in its many member schools. Unfortunately, the New York City school system often finds it easier to equalize downward than upward.

Equity is a goal that makes sense only from the systemic point of view. Every individual student, like every individual school, has a stake in getting (or providing) the best possible education. Not only do good educational teams seek excellence rather than equality; equality to them is hopelessly abstract. They know one school, not a dozen or a thousand. On a day-to-day operating basis, the directive “be equal” has no meaning for them whatsoever.

Only when many schools are stuffed into one system subject to a single central authority does equality become a powerful interest, for those who hold the central authority may have to defend themselves against charges of favoritism and unfairness. The result is a pure system goal and often a vicious one.

Thus, rather than celebrate the successes of such schools as the Bronx High School of Science, the board denounces them as elitist and disrupts their recruiting efforts. Similarly, rather than design apprenticeship programs to provide job training for the 30 percent of the students who will never graduate from high school, the system resists tracking students into vocational education because tracks are supposed to be inequitable. It seems unlikely, however, that those who finish their high school years with neither a diploma nor a marketable skill regard their education as a triumph for equity.

When Colman Genn and his colleagues planned the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics to replace the disastrous Benjamin Franklin High School, they decided to add an extra period to the school day to accommodate the rigorous college prep math and science curriculum they had developed. Students signing up for the Manhattan Center had to agree to this longer school day. There were, of course, marginal costs associated with the plan: Teachers had to be paid for the extra time.

The new high school proved a smashing success, not only graduating every student in its entering class but sending every single one of them on to college. How did the education bureaucracy respond to the Manhattan Center’s success? By insisting that the school slash its extra period because it was “unfair” to students in other schools. But where had the defenders of equity been when the school was graduating only 7 percent of its students?

The case of the Manhattan Center is not an isolated incident, but a consistent dynamic of the system. Just this winter a school board in Queens’s District 27 refused to allow educators to set up a special alternative school for emotionally troubled students. The new school would have incorporated a wide range of social services and would have been in session from 8 A.M. to 7 P.M., providing an alternative to other costly and ineffective special education programs. The school’s proponents agreed that all extra costs would be raised privately. Yet the school board turned the proposal down flat, saying it would be “unfair” to allow children at this school to receive special services children at other schools did not get. As a system goal, equity sabotages quality because failing schools are always improved individually, one at a time. But each new success, in the system’s perverse view, creates an inequity that can be resolved quickly only by dragging down rather than pulling up. Thus in New York City, thanks to the system’s perverse preoccupation with system goals such as equity, bad schools are allowed to drive out good.

The New York City school system is full of dedicated educators who recognize the futility of the system and its goals and who have striven mightily to shift the balance of power away from the system and back to the schools so they can concentrate on giving their students a good education. The paradox confronting New York’s education reforms is that persistent, sincere efforts to delegate real power to the schools have not only failed, but have consistently reinforced the centralized power of the education bureaucracy.

In 1971, the school system inaugurated its first grand attempt to decentralize itself. The 1969 decentralization law, which divided power over the city’s schools (up through junior high) among 32 local school districts run by locally elected boards, aimed to liberate schools from the stifling grip of a single bureaucratic command-and-control center and to put control of education back into the community. But that experiment in decentralization, like all subsequent efforts, failed to truly decentralize the city’s schools, and therefore failed, in the end, to improve them.

Part of this failure was due to circumstance: In 1975, the city plunged into a deep, prolonged fiscal crisis. As resources shrank, the tendency to put power back in the central board’s budget office grew. In the early years of decentralization, each community school board held budget hearings and put together a budget request to the central board, which then incorporated these requests in its own request to city hall. When the fiscal crunch hit, the central budget office assumed responsibility for meting out the cuts. In order to increase its control over school spending, the central bureaucracy also began to collect data on how school districts spent money. The need for fiscal control swamped decentralization, and the central board grew more powerful than ever.

Though the fiscal crisis hastened this outcome, it was probably inevitable. All the money comes from the central board; it is hardly surprising that the board wants to watch its money. Not to do so would be irresponsible. Unfortunately the process transforms “saving money” into a system goal, with whole offices and hundreds or thousands of employees, armed with numerous forms and procedures, spending all their efforts and energies on saving money—and undermining decentralization in the process.

If a single autonomous school faced hard times, it might be forced to pinch pennies. Saving money would then become an important concern. But no member of an effective school team would ever list “saving money” as one of the purposes of the school. Nor would parents choose a school that listed “saving money” as one of its fundamental purposes.

But saving money, or watching the money, is one of the fundamental purposes of the system; it is one of the chief reasons the system exists in its present form. Schools spend public monies, and public monies must be accounted for. The way we do that job at present is through an enormous administrative apparatus largely constructed for this purpose.

But highly centralized administration of an enormous system means that responsibility for spending money is diffuse, and decision-makers are not held accountable. Thus, the school system has proved very bad at saving money. In equipment purchasing, for example, one would expect that a large organization could take advantage of economies of scale to procure equipment at low cost. Instead, individual schools are forced to buy equipment at prices far higher than they could negotiate on their own and to endure long delays before delivery.

Centralization also ensures that other system goals receive as much protection as possible from budgetary constraints, maximizing the harm to essential educational goals. Indeed, school officials sometimes use the budget as an excuse for their own confused priorities. For example, after two students were shot to death in February at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, Chancellor Fernandez complained that he had requested $50 million from the city to pay for security guards and metal detectors, but had only received $2.5 million. Under pressure from city hall, the chancellor admitted that the city had, in fact, provided the system with $30 million for added security, but he put it to other uses. In any case, it should not be too difficult, in a $7 billion budget, to find some extra millions to pay for something as essential as school safety. Of course, an autonomous school, directly accountable to parents, would take quick and effective steps to deal with any security problem that arose, lest parents, fearing for their children’s safety, pull out of the school.

The current grand scheme to shift power to the schools already seems to have met a fate similar to that of earlier efforts. In 1990, Joseph Fernandez left his post as superintendent of schools in Dade County, Florida, to become chancellor of New York City’s public schools. Both in Florida and in New York, Fernandez has championed “School-Based Management” (SBM), which seeks to empower schools to design their own improvement efforts. SBM represents the system’s most explicit recognition to date that effective educational teams have to be built by schools themselves—not created from above. Yet the program already seems to have been undermined by the same dynamic that crippled previous reforms.

In theory, School-Based Management is supposed to shift power from the central system to individual schools, giving them the power to innovate and try new ways of improving education. In practice, however, the system cannot really let go. The procedures the SBM teams follow are largely prescribed by the chancellor’s office, which can veto just about any innovation the teams propose.

The only real power shift brought about by SBM happens within the schools. Upon his arrival in New York, Fernandez made a major concession to the teachers’ union, taking significant administrative powers away from principals and giving them to teachers and their union representatives. Yet if the effective schools research on which SBM is supposedly based has proved anything, it is that strong leadership from principals is essential to a school’s success. By choosing to placate one of the system’s most powerful interest groups, and by holding onto the power he was supposed to redistribute, Fernandez has undercut his own reform. SBM was run off the track by two system goals: “please the teachers” and “hold on to power.”

So New Yorkers now face the disenchantment already experienced by Dade County parents. Last year, the Dade County school system released its long- awaited evaluation of Fernandez’s School-Based Management there. Not only did student achievement fail to improve in participating schools, but teachers in SBM schools reported they no longer liked or believed in the reform.

In the last twenty years, ten men have served as chancellor or interim chancellor of New York City’s schools. Each new chancellor has been greeted with great fanfare and high hopes that his particular style or set of initiatives would turn the New York City school system around. The successive failures of serious efforts over two decades suggests that the problem is not in the good-will of the administrators but in the design of the system. The solution, therefore, lies not in a new chancellor but in a new paradigm for running New York City’s vast network of schools.

The repeated failures don’t come for lack of trying—or lack of money. Over the last ten years, the system’s per-pupil spending has gone up by some 30 percent, after adjusting for inflation, with the biggest share of the increase coming from more state spending on education. And though the city’s schools are not as lavishly funded as those of some nearby suburbs, they have far more to work with ($7,100 per student) than most American schools. There have been repeated efforts at reform: SBM; the 1971 decentralization; the “School Improvement Project,” which offered failing schools extra resources and expertise; and the promotional policy, which required students to pass standard achievement tests before being promoted but did not otherwise dictate to schools how achievement should be increased.

These reforms were based on some good ideas. But they failed because they did not alter the essential dynamic of the system that controls nearly one thousand schools by rules and regulations issuing from a central bureaucracy. They failed in part because they did not challenge the interest groups that hold power in the system. Interest groups favor centralization because it increases their power. But centralization also transforms citizens into interest groups because it creates a concentrated jackpot of money and power over which political factions can, and often must, do battle.

If, instead of seeking to influence a single system, interest groups had to influence a thousand individual schools, education would provide a much less attractive target for the endless political battles that have proven so destructive, and schools would be able to concentrate single-mindedly on education. Only when the interests of parents and students become paramount will the system satisfy its clients. That requires radical reform, a true shift in power: the effective abolition of the system and its distracting goals.

Two such radical reforms are now being tested in various forms across the country: Chicago-style school governance and public school choice.

Many of the research and advocacy groups concerned with the New York school system appear to prefer the Chicago reform. Under this system, voters elect a governing council for each school, with a certain number of seats reserved for parents and a lesser number assigned to teachers, administrators, and other citizens. This governing council is empowered to set policy within the school and, most important, to hire the principal on a performance-based contract. A number of major public interest and good-government groups at the Temporary State Commission on New York City School Governance last year lobbied for this type of school-level governance. Although the commission did not explicitly endorse the Chicago reforms, it did recommend, in general terms, the establishment of school-level governance councils with undetermined powers.

The commission also endorsed the concept of school choice, though giving it less prominence than the Chicago reform. Under choice, teachers and educational leaders are given maximum freedom to innovate in pursuit of excellence, even starting new schools-within-schools. But parents get to choose the schools their children go to; schools that fail to attract enough students are closed down. School choice has been fully implemented in New York City’s District 4, in East Harlem, with great success. A number of other school districts, most notably District 3 on the Upper West Side, are also moving toward choice.

These two types of reform have much in common: Both seek to shift educational authority to those closest to the students. School-level governance assures parent representatives a controlling interest on a politically elected governing board. School choice would allow parents the ultimate freedom of removing their child from a particular school if they were dissatisfied with it. But a comprehensive system of school choice would have to create a new school governance scheme to replace the existing centralized structure and, while some supporters of the Chicago concept disagree, school-level governance reform probably requires some elements of parental choice.

What both advocates and opponents of choice often overlook is that choice in itself is not a program for reform, but a fundamental precondition of reform. The bureaucracy is there for a reason: public accountability. It is not enough merely to displace bureaucracy; we must replace it with a system that makes the schools accountable without creating distracting system goals.

It is all very well to say that schools must be liberated from bureaucracy and have the freedom to innovate, to fail on the way to succeeding, to experiment, and to replace the rule books with an “anything that works” philosophy. But while the schools are off doing as they please, who is watching the money? Who is watching out for student interests? In one of his novels, C.S. Lewis, commenting unfavorably on a school attended by one of the characters, remarks that none of the school administrators referred to it as an “experimental” school, since no parent in his right mind would consent to turning his child into an experiment. Quite so. And by what right do the principals and teachers at an innovative school use public money to experiment on students required by law to be there?

It is this crucial concern that has prompted the central bureaucracy to pull back every time it has attempted a reform that would have returned power to the schools. The bureaucracy’s job, after all, is to watch the schools on behalf of the citizens, to make the system accountable. But the power the bureaucracy wields as a result is at the root of most of the system goals that distract schools from their primary task of educating.

Choice replaces bureaucratic accountability. It does so simply by saying that no parent can be forced to send his child to a school he does not like. That little escape clause, that political pressure valve, solves all by itself the conundrum of allowing innovation and leadership while retaining public accountability. Choice simply makes the schools directly accountable to the public they serve rather than indirectly accountable through thousands of bureaucrats, lobbyists, and activists, and decades of accumulated political gridlock.

Choice does not, of course, guarantee academic achievement. It does not even guarantee that schools will make academic achievement their prime mission, since there may be parents who want other things from schools. But it does guarantee that schools will come significantly closer than they do now to satisfying those who use them and raising the quality of life of parents, children, and other citizens. It does this because schools that do not please their clients will lose students and the money that goes with them; most importantly it does this because, having dispensed with the need for bureaucratic governance, the schools will no longer be distracted by goals only a system could love.


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