Gotham Gazette

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Judging School Reform

This month's opening of the public schools in New York City may well be the rockiest in memory. The city's long-troubled school system is in the midst of a top-to-bottom overhaul not seen since decentralization in the early 1970s. Most students will return to schools that are adjusting to both major administrative and instructional changes.

Key to the reforms enacted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and put into place by Chancellor Joel Klein is a reallocation of power to a clearly defined and publicly accountable management team, leadership training and more budget autonomy for principals, and a uniform early-grade curriculum for all but the highest performing schools. These types of changes raise alarms for those who held power in the old system, and so it is clear that there are vipers waiting in the grass for this reform and this group of reformers to stumble.

New Yorkers should not rush to judgment on the changes made in the school system. With 40 district offices now consolidated into 10 regional centers and with a new curriculum being implemented in most city schools, no one should be surprised to hear of missteps in the first weeks and months of school this year. Those inevitable missteps will not be reason to return to the old ways of doing business. The old ways may have served certain interests well, but it routinely failed some 60 percent of the city's students who each year are unable to meet state-set standards.

In any such large-scale turnaround, there can be a tension between enacting swift reform to create urgently needed changes and taking the time needed to smooth the way by seeking the opinions and winning the support of those who will be affected by the changes. With children's futures slipping away with each month of the status quo, Bloomberg and Klein can justify opting to create reform as quickly as possible, even if by fiat. But with minimal effort at fostering community buy-in, they have to expect a lot of resistance.

In the present case, the pace of change has launched numerous complaints about decision-making secrecy and top-down control, as well as grave worries about the impotence of competent educators to make decisions about the schools and classrooms for which they are responsible. For now, these real anxieties should be tempered with an understanding that such means may be necessary in this early stage of reform. There may be no other way to turn the battleship around except through many hands working together on orders from on high. And there may be no other way of ensuring that issues that arise on the decks during the turnaround are reviewed and addressed for their system-wide ramifications.

City schools vary enormously in their capacity for quality leadership and instruction. Klein and company insist that they are committed to managing these different schools differently. This is wise. Functional schools should run themselves; dysfunctional schools should be managed carefully. Parents and others need to be vigilant here to make sure that autonomy is granted to the schools, leaders, and school leadership teams who demonstrate that they are accountable to their students.

And no one should confuse what is needed to make the important structural reforms now put into motion and what is needed for continual improvement of the quality of teaching and learning in classrooms. This includes a collegial environment, experienced pedagogues to provide instructional leadership and mentoring, investment in effective professional development, shared planning time for teachers, and long-term consistency.

New Yorkers will get an opportunity to express themselves on the overhaul of the school system in the November 2005 mayoral election.   It will be fair to judge the Bloomberg-Klein reforms at that point.
At that time, the voting public should be prepared to look not just at test scores but beyond to other important indicators of school-level and system-wide improvement. 

• Are teachers and principals getting ongoing training and support?
• Is the quality of the professionals in the schools improving?
• Are qualified faculty staying put, especially in the schools that need them most?
• Is a plan underway for systematic class-size reduction?
• Are there more pre-kindergarten seats?
• Has a capital plan been adopted to create sufficient additional safe, healthy, up-to-date facilities?
• Are schools more responsive and inclusive of parents?
• Is accurate, timely information about the school policies and practices readily available?
• Are struggling students receiving more support?
• Are more kids staying in school?
• Is the graduation rate rising?

In the short term, New Yorkers need to remind themselves how bad the school system had become before these reforms were put in place.  Since the mid-1980s, the school system has been tracking high school students and reporting on their graduation success.  In all that time, the high school graduation rate, arguably the bottom line indicator of success, has remained at just about 50 percent.

The school system is still drastically underfunded, overcrowded, and, subject to policies, like teacher transfers, that put the needs of adults over the needs of children. City and school officials must tackle these. State lawmakers must make good on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity school-funding decision and ensure that the city schools have adequate resources with which to accomplish their goals.

There is still much to be done. But the current reforms, combined with others already in progress, such as the initiative to create more small high schools should be given a chance to play out for the benefit of the city's schools.

Raymond Domanico is senior education advisor to the Metro NY Industrial Areas Foundation.

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 their own.

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