Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Shaking Up the School System

Acknowledging that New York City provides an inadequate education to most of its schoolchildren, Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a speech on Martin Luther King, Jr.´s birthday announced a set of dramatic changes to the city's school system. Intended to bring educational opportunity to every child, these changes, part of the New York City Department of Education's "Children First" reform agenda, include restructuring the administration of the school system; adopting a uniform curriculum in all but the best 200 of the city's 1,200 schools; and creating new initiatives to improve parent involvement in the schools. (For more background and details, as well as initial reactions to the plan, see the Gotham Gazette's guide to the mayor's program.) The mayor also called for the whole city to take responsibility for the schools and to make the financial, moral, and political commitment necessary to improve them.


Bloomberg's reform plan does away with many of the school system's current administrative structures. The city's elementary and middle schools are now divided into 32 separate community school districts, each administered by its own district office, superintendent, and community school board. This system, originally designed to give local communities a greater role in the running of their schools, has resulted in notoriously uneven educational opportunities for children from district to district. The city's high schools are run separately in five borough-wide superintendencies, and the lack of administrative continuity has been blamed for many rough transitions from middle school to high school. A separate administration, the Chancellor's District, manages the city's lowest performing schools. Under the restructuring announced, all of these administrative entities will cease to exist.

In their place, the mayor and his hand-picked chancellor, Joel Klein, have created 10 new "instructional divisions,". Each of these encompasses from two to four community school districts. Each of the 10 newly named regional superintendents, veteran educators chosen from within the school system, will supervise instruction in all the elementary, middle and high schools located within their assigned division. The regional superintendents will report to the deputy chancellor for instruction, Diana Lam. Within each division, there will be 10 deputy superintendents called "local instruction supervisors" in charge of instruction for a network of 10 to 12 schools.

School operations -- including budgeting, human resources, purchasing and the like -- will be handled separately by six regional operations managers in "back-office support centers." These managers will report to the deputy chancellor for administration, Kathleen Grimm. The mayor expects major savings from centralizing operations services.

Though they plan to close community school district offices, the mayor and the chancellor have not sought to dismantle the districts officially, a step that would require legislative approval. This move, though, did apparently not appease a group of Republican state senators from New York City. They have challenged the restructuring plan, saying that it violates state law.


Stating a commitment to providing quality instruction in every city classroom, the mayor and the chancellor have also announced plans to implement a uniform curriculum in all but the 200 most successful schools. In place of the dozens of different approaches now being used in the city's schools, they plan a coherent, system-wide approach using reading, writing and math programs that they insist are not "cookie cutter" methods but will provide direction to teachers while still allowing them to be creative. Bloomberg and Klein have also committed to providing ongoing professional development for teachers with reading and math coaches in every school.

The new reading and writing curriculum, which includes extended periods of reading and writing every day, classroom libraries from which students can chose their own books and supplementary phonics instruction, will start in September 2003. The new math curriculum was chosen to balance basic math skills with "conceptual, problem-solving capabilities." Most schools are expected to adopt it by September 2004.

The Department of Education has not yet announced the top 200 schools that will be free to use their own curricula, nor has it revealed how it will choose them. This is a matter of concern to some education advocates who worry that, if choices are made on test scores alone, many innovative schools will be forced to compromise successful programs.


Finally, the mayor's reform package includes plans to improve parents' involvement in their children's education and to generally make schools more "parent-friendly." To this end, the chancellor has said that he intends to hold all principals accountable for engaging and being responsive to parents. Every school will have a "parent coordinator." Klein plans a parent academy that will do outreach and offer workshops a parent support center in each instructional division with extended and weekend hours to accommodate working parents. He has also pledged his support for strengthening school leadership teams, the school-based planning groups comprised half of parents and half of school staff.

To replace the community school boards, scheduled for elimination at the end of June but now expected to be extended for another year, the chancellor has proposed "parent engagement boards." Only parents of children in the schools could serve on these boards. Klein envisions a board for every community school district, though these districts will in practice no longer exist.

The duties and responsibilities of the boards have not yet been fully spelled out. The chancellor has said that the boards would serve an "ombudsman function" for parents and would "comment on" school and district educational planning and budget priorities, as well as on proposed changes in the geographic boundaries determining which children attend what schools. Parents and advocates have raised questions about the proposal. Some criticize the exclusion of community members other than parents, as well as the lack of independent authority it confers on the boards.


Days after the introduction of his system-wide reform plan, Bloomberg announced that the city will file a friend of the court brief in support of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity's school funding lawsuit, CFE v. State, which will be heard on May 8 by the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court. According to the New York Times, the city will file its amicus brief this month and argue that the Court of Appeals should uphold the trial court decision (pdf) that found the state's school funding system unconstitutional for failing to provide all students with the opportunity for a sound basic education.

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.

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