Gotham Gazette

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Giving Principals More Control

This spring, the city's 1,400 principals got a choice: Do you want to stay with your current boss? Or do you think you could run your school better on your own, without supervision?

In a far-reaching experiment that represents the second radical reorganization of the school system since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002, nearly one-fifth of the city's principals have been invited to have their school leave their current districts and become what are called "empowerment schools." Starting this fall, if all goes as planned, these 331 schools will be able to decide everything from the starting time of the school day to the vendors from whom they will buy books -- as long as they follow state laws and existing union contracts.

More Money, More Accountability

What this means for parents, teachers and students is still unclear. In theory, the principal will have more discretionary money -- roughly $150,000 per year -- to spend on projects that the school community deems important, such as a new music teacher or extra library books. Principals will no longer be required to attend meetings at their district or regional office, potentially freeing up time to work directly with students and teachers. In exchange for the new freedom, schools must prove that their students are making progress. Empowerment schools will be required to conduct "interim assessments" of all students every six to eight weeks. They will undergo annual "quality reviews" and receive grades of A to F from inspectors who spend two or three days evaluating them. (For more on the new assessment program, see “Grading Students, Grading Schools.”)

"We believe schools are most effective when decisions are made by people closest to the children," principals and teachers, rather than regional administrators, said Eric Nadelstern, a seasoned and respected school leader who has been named chief executive officer of the empowerment schools. "Principals will no longer be able to say 'my hands are tied,’'' he said.

The Department of Education hopes the number of empowerment schools will grow each year, Nadelstern said. And, according to its plan, by the 2007-2008 school – whether or not they become empowerment schools -- will be required to conduct interim assessments every six to eight weeks and undergo quality reviews.

The Response

The initiative has created lots of controversy. The leadership of the principals' union, which has been without a contract for three years, is livid. The union, the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, plans to sue the city for violating state law that governs school districts, its president Jill Levy said in a telephone interview. In a memo sent to principals, she said the initiative is "an attempt to break the back of this union."

Recently, three well-respected senior administrators -- Carmen Farina, deputy chancellor for instruction, Lori Mei, chief accountability officer, and Michelle Fratti, superintendent of Region 7 in Brooklyn and Staten Island -- have announced their retirements. While they have not publicly criticized the initiative, some colleagues speculate that the three did not want to stay on to carry it out.

Teachers are divided, particularly on the issue of interim assessments. While one Manhattan kindergarten teacher told Inside Schools that interim assessments, or frequent testing, will help her gauge how her students are doing, a fifth grade teacher said "It will drive me bonkers." The teachers' union seems cautiously supportive. "For many schools, the greater flexibility may be a good deal since it will allow educators to get away from some of the micromanaging that has been the bane of teachers for the last few years," according to New York Teacher, the newspaper of the United Federation of Teachers.

Some parents are opposed, while some are taking a wait-and-see attitude. "People believe it's just going to result in even more testing," Sam Greenberg, a Queens parent, told The New York Post. But Tim Johnson, chair of the Chancellor's Parent Advisory Council, a panel of parent leaders, said the new assessments are "potentially a good thing" that may prove to be as benign as a weekly spelling quiz and be a useful way to learn how a child is doing before the end of the semester or year. "I want to know how my daughter is doing and I don't want to wait for three months," he said.

A 180-Degree Turn

But for better or worse, the initiative does represent a dramatic shift in the way the Department of Education has done business since Bloomberg took office in 2002. Some are calling this latest change a mid-course correction.

After Bloomberg persuaded the state legislature to give him control of the schools in 2002, he dismantled the discredited Board of Education and consolidated 32 districts into 10 regions. In Bloomberg's highly centralized system, most decisions about curriculum were made at the top. Some principals and teachers complained that every detail of school life -- from the placement of a rocking chair in a kindergarten class to displays on bulletin boards -- was dictated from on high.

But now he empowerment schools seem to represent a move from radical centralization to radical decentralization. "It's a complete 180, a correction of the top-down stuff," said Johnson of the Chancellor's Parent Advisory Council,. "But you won't get them to admit that centralization didn't work."

Nadelstern, who opened several dozen small high schools in the Bronx, said the empowerment schools merely expand on the "autonomy zone," a network of schools that have operated outside the control of the regional offices for several years. He said centralization was necessary in the early days of the Bloomberg administration to bring order to a chaotic and unequal system, but that greater autonomy will liberate principals and teachers to do their best work.

Principals are divided. Some agree with Nadelstern, while others fear the new system will leave them worse off than before.

Why It Might Work

Carol Stock, an experienced principal of the successful PS 199 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, said she decided 199 should become an empowerment school in part because she believed the "staff development" or training she was able to offer her teachers in-house was superior to that offered by her region. She said the fewer meetings she had to attend outside the school, the better. And Stock said she believes the interim assessments and the quality review (the annual report card in which schools are graded from A to F) will be useful for teachers, parents and administrators.

Empowerment schools will be able to design their own interim assessments she said, as long as they can show students are making progress. The assessments may take the form of computerized bubble tests. But they could also include a one-on-one interview of the child by the teacher, or a test, similar to a pop quiz, devised by teachers. With the help of such assessments, Stock says, teachers will be able to how their students are doing as the year progresses and will be able to adjust their techniques before it's too late,

PS 199 was one of a small group of schools selected this past year for a pilot quality review. Inspectors contracted by the education department spent two and a half days in the school, talking to everyone from cafeteria workers to parents. Their report included descriptions of the school's tone and climate that went far beyond a recitation of test scores, citing, for example, the school's dance program for children in wheelchairs. "I think it is a good faith effort to measure how schools are doing," Stock said. "How it will actually play out, I don't know."

And What the Risks Are

For principals who have chosen to stay within their regions, however, the risks outweigh the possible benefits. For them, their current supervisors, called "local instructional superintendents,” are not oppressive bureaucrats but trusted colleagues; their regional offices are a source of support and good advice.

Sharon Hill, principal of the well-regarded Manhattan New School, who chose not to become an empowerment school, said her local instructional superintendent, Anna Marie Carillo, is “fabulous….She used to be a principal. She understands instruction, and she understands the rules and regulations. I take care of the school, and she takes care of me. She is a shoulder to lean on. I have a great support system at the regional office. Why would I give that up?"

Hill also suggested that the amount of money offered, which varies according to the size of the school, might not be enough to compensate for the services the empowerment schools would have to take on, such as staff development.

Levy, of the principals' union, said the new initiative is part of a "corporate model" of education. She predicted that principals of empowerment schools would spend an excessive amount of time "concentrating on the management and business [aspects] of schools" and would have less time to focus on instruction. She said details are now handled by the regional offices, such as negotiating with vendors, would now be handled by principals.

The 10 regional education department offices still have some authority over empowerment schools. They will continue to determine student placement for special education, gifted and talented programs, and services for English language learners, Nadelstern said. But Nadelstern's office -- not the regional office – will have the power to hire principals.

-- Clara Hemphill, is project director of project director and author of “New York City's Best Public Elementary Schools: a Parents' Guide,” “Public Middle Schools: New York City's Best, “ and “New York City's Best Public High Schools.” This topic page has been adapted from an article that originally appeared on the pages of our partner,, an independent guide to New York City public schools sponsored by Advocates for Children.


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