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.
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Last Updated (Mar 15, 2013)