Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Education
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The Topic
"Education" refers to the organization and performance of the public schools and public support institutions established for teaching children from pre-K-12th.
The Context
NYC's public education system is the nation's largest. Over a million pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade students attend its 1,100-plus schools. The head of the school system is the chancellor, who is appointed by the mayor. The chancellor is advised by the Panel for Educational Policy on which sit five parents appointed by the borough presidents and seven mayoral appointees. The city's elementary and junior high schools are administered by 32 community school districts, each with its own superintendent who works out of Department of Education offices in the Tweed Courthouse. The district superintendents and each borough's high schools superintendent all report to the chancellor. There is extraordinary variety across the system: schools of every size and stripe, and at every echelon from first-rate to failing. Less than half of each high school class graduates in four years--and, even with extra time, only 70% of NYC kids can count on a diploma.
The Reporter
Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and Director of Policy Development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition working to reform New York State's education finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York City. The views expressed are her own.

by Joseph Wardenski, Guest Writer

Chancellor Klein's Right-Hand Woman: Who is Diana Lam?

In another time, 54-year-old Diana Lam would probably have been a prime candidate for the job of chancellor in the New York City's public schools. However, in a city that today values corporate experience over an education background, Lam recently accepted a job as second-in-command. Lam will serve under Joel Klein, the newly appointed chancellor and former Justice Department official, whose only previous education experience was a several-month teaching stint three decades ago.

She will be the only educator among Klein's recently appointed senior-level advisors. As New York City's first deputy chancellor for teaching and learning in the newly-formed Department of Education, Lam will be the city's chief instructional leader and will undoubtedly be charged with providing the experience, knowledge, and energy that will drive reform across the city. Her efforts will be the yardstick by which Michael Bloomberg, the self-proclaimed "education mayor," will be judged.

So who is Diana Lam?

She is an experienced educator with a record of raising student achievement results in urban districts across the country, and her no-nonsense style has made her a widely sought-after reformer and popular with the business community. Lam's national reputation is due to the fact that she has, in the last 15 years, been at the helm of urban school districts in virtually every region of the United States.

Other city districts have wooed Lam both for her record of turning around dismal student achievement and for her firm belief in the ability of low-income and minority students to learn. "Your life should not be determined by your zip code," Lam once told the Christian Science Monitor, "Sometimes I'd hear from my staff that we can't do any better with these kids. I'd say, 'Wait...I was one of these kids.'"

Through the years, Lam's style has remained constant. She shakes up school systems with entrenched patterns of failure, implementing multiple large-scale systemic reforms at once, and criticizing those who prefer smaller, incremental changes. As she once remarked during her time as San Antonio's schools superintendent, "Change is messy. You can't have change without controversy."

Lam is certainly familiar with controversy. Her term as superintendent in Providence was overshadowed by long-term, bitter contract negotiations with the teachers' union. Her four-year tenure at the helm of San Antonio's public schools was cut short after "philosophical disagreements" with school board members there that resulted in an $800,000 buy-out of the remainder of her contract. Despite promising Providence in late July that she was in for the long-haul, her abrupt departure from that district to accept the New York post is surely linked, at least in part, to still-tender relations with the community and teachers there.

In the late 1980's Boston University, which took over control of the failing Chelsea, Massachusetts school system, chose Lam to be the first superintendent in this unusual public-private partnership. She was described by colleagues in the Boston schools as "a young star" who was "very savvy at motivating people and bringing reform." However, she also earned a reputation, with some, of "driving too hard and being too outspoken."

In Chelsea, Lam actively promoted school restructuring as a major reform tool. She also worked to expand teacher and public engagement in school decision-making. Her reforms, fueled by grant money she attracted to the district, included breaking up the city's high school into smaller schools within a school, instituting school-based health services and individual coaching programs for failing students, and cutting both teachers and programs she found ineffective.

While the scope of the reforms rattled some, Lam was named state superintendent of the year in 1991, and test scores and attendance rates both rose during her time there.

Shaking things up and moving on quickly became Lam's style.

Lam then moved on to Dubuque, a medium-sized, largely white city in Iowa that, demographically speaking, was in stark contrast to the other mostly low-income and minority cities in which she had worked. Two years later, Lam moved to San Antonio, regarded at the time as the worst district in Texas. She stayed in San Antonio for four years and for most of that time she had the support of the community, the local business community, and the majority of the school board.

During her four years in San Antonio, Lam accomplished a great deal. In 1994, 42 of the city's 95 schools were labeled "low-performing" by the state; in 1998, the number was down to six. As before, she promoted the "small school" philosophy, and in a controversial move split a large high school into four smaller schools. She instituted a district-wide school uniform requirement for students, and extended the school year to a year-round schedule. Basing her reform agenda on curricular reform, she mandated that every school in San Antonio adopt instructional reform plans from a range of options that fostered teacher collaboration.

Lam's self-described "sense of urgency" achieved results, but with a critical sacrifice: the trust of the city's teachers. The San Antonio teachers' union president said in 1998 that "teachers are overwhelmed with all the changes" and that "we can't dance any faster." Another union official described her management as "a totally top-down style of leadership."

Lam then moved on to Providence, where she was again widely praised for her work. However, similar run-ins with teachers and board members haunted her throughout her time as superintendent, and the Providence teachers' union vilified Lam during contract negotiations last year.

With funding from the Carnegie Corporation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Providence is massively restructuring its secondary schools. Lam also implemented a principal development program, a comprehensive professional development program for teachers, and a major literacy initiative in the city's elementary schools. The high school redesign efforts, in addition to major foundation support, attracted the support of the local business community -- so much so, that when Portland offered Lam its job as superintendent earlier this summer, Providence business leaders came together to fund a pension package for her to keep her in the city.

Last summer, Lam wrote in an op-ed piece that she wanted to stay in Providence to see the fruits of her work. That was, of course, until New York City Chancellor Joel Klein offered Lam, in her words, "the chance of a lifetime."

Lam clearly has her work cut out for her in New York City. Her record of success has been achieved in small city school districts, the largest of which, San Antonio, had 60,000 students. In New York, Lam will face a school system with over a million students.

But, if anything, the conditions in New York City are well aligned to draw the best out of Lam and avoid some of the downfalls she faced in other places.

First, as the handpicked choice of Chancellor Klein, with the full support of Mayor Bloomberg, Lam has the political support necessary for big changes. Her work in restructuring high schools into smaller schools also played a likely role in her consideration for the post. Finally, as the city's chief instruction officer and not its chancellor, Lam can focus on curricular reform -- considered her "genius" -- without the burden of other management and contractual issues that earned her the most enemies elsewhere.

In other locations, resistance to change stymied Lam's efforts at education reform. In New York -- with a new mayor, a new school governance system, and a new chancellor -- change is already here.

Joseph Wardenski, Senior Research Analyst at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc., is currently researching and co-editing a book on the national education adequacy movement. The views expressed are his own.

Sites For Beginners:

  • NYC Board of Education - By far the easiest way to get information from the Board of Education. Check out this site for NYC public education facts and figures, policy details, and "school report cards" -- annual reports on the performance of each NYC school. Also available are the results of the Board of Ed.'s 2000-2001 survey of parent satisfaction.
  • NY State Department of Education - Lots of info here about state policies that now drive city reform efforts -- learning standards, assessment requirements and results, universal pre-K, charter schools, registration review and more. The Office of NYC School and Community Services page posts city-specific info. Also available: curriculum resource guides to help teachers and families ensure class work is aligned with state learning standards.
  • NY State School Boards Association - A good place to check for the status of the state budget and up-to-date information on legislation and legal issues important for public education. Also culls newspapers statewide for school-related articles.
  • Education Week on the Web - Great site for national coverage of education issues. Includes daily digest of education articles from newspapers around the country. "In Context" section decodes jargon and provides background for the week's education news.

Other Recommendations:

  • Campaign for Fiscal Equity - Learn about the coalition that successfully filed suit against the New York State to secure adequate resources for a quality education for all NYC public school kids. Skim Justice DeGrasse's decision, read editorials from around the state urging Governor Pataki to bring fairness to school funding, and learn about CFE's upcoming public engagement programs.
  • TeachNet - A resource-filled website from Impact II: The Teachers' Network, which works to help teachers become policymakers in their schools.
  • NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy - The Institute studies and is working to improve public education in NYC and other US urban areas. Its current projects include policy studies, evaluations of school reform initiatives, and community involvement programs. Its website provides details of its work and links to important local, state and national education data.
  • Educational Priorities Panel - The current mission of this 26-year-old organization is to improve the quality of public education for New York City's children so that there is no longer a performance gap between city schools and those in the rest of the state. EPP's website is a gold mine of research and information on the New York City public school system. Want to know who was chancellor in 1901? It's here under historical facts. Can't figure out the difference between a CPT and an IEP, there's a useful "Lingo Translation." Plus, there's a whole library of EPP and other important reports and publications, including up-to-date and easy-to-understand education budget information.
  • National Center for Education Statistics - Comparing schools in different areas around the country is difficult, but NCES can help. Download "The Condition of Education, 2001" for performance trends, educational attainment data, and stats on school quality around the United States. If you're a believer in standardized tests, check out the Nation's Report Card at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) website.
  • United Federation of Teachers - The teacher's union, never shy about its opinions on current policy issues, maintains a wide-ranging site.
  • Least Restrictive Environment Coalition (LREC) - This group of organizations advocates for New York City students with disabilities; its website offers important resources for parents, educators, and advocates.

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