Will the New Mayor/Chancellor Feign a New Path or Offer True Collaboration? Can the Union Move from Confrontation to Collaboration?

The announcement of the new chancellor is imminent … a few days.

Mayor de Blasio, the new chancellor, the teacher and supervisor union presidents Mulgrew and Logan and recognizable parent leaders will be standing on the podium. The newly selected chancellor will use the occasion to set a new path, the “right” statements about working together, the required platitudes, a new direction for a new administration.

Within a week or two the mayor and the chancellor will make “bold” announcements turning around a few of the Bloomberg initiatives. As I have written previously, maybe a freeze on co-locations and the end of the ATR pool, a number of concrete symbolic steps that tell the workforce we intend to turnaround the twelve years of Bloomberg.

Does turnaround mean devolving to the pre-Bloomberg past or setting a new path to the future?

For teachers the past is appealing, it’s familiar: geographic school districts, powerful superintendents, policy set from Central, a paramilitary structure, and a noblesse oblige attitude toward teachers. The Klein administration came to power and imposed a new structure; moving from 32 community school districts to five regional K-12 regions; over the years the Bloomberg regency morphed to four “knowledge” networks, to quasi-independent empowerment schools, eliminated the position of deputy chancellor for teaching and learning and established sixty affinity-based 25 school networks, it was dizzying. Bloomberg/Klein were purposefully disruptive, the goal to destroy the past, in essence “burn the books.” burn the memories.

Where will the new chancellor take us?

Mike Petrilli, a the incoming president of a the Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank, in the NY Daily News, urges,

… de Blasio needs to come to grips with a simple truth: Any gains provided by a massive new investment in preschool will quickly fade away if he doesn’t also tackle New York City’s mediocre elementary schools.

What makes them mediocre? It’s the curriculum, stupid — or the lack thereof. When Bloomberg and Joel Klein exploded on the scene in the early 2000s, they were famously agnostic about what kids actually learn in the classroom day-to-day. To Klein’s credit, he eventually came to see the errors of his ways, and in his last years as chancellor he embraced the Core Knowledge program — a coherent, content-rich curriculum that is a model for what kids in New York, and nationwide, need if they are going to become strong readers.

What’s so special about content knowledge? As scholar and Core Knowledge creator E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has argued for 30 years — and as more recent cognitive science has confirmed — knowledge is the building block of literacy. Once students learn to “decode” the English language, their ability to comprehend what they read is all about what they know.

Should the new chancellor “require” an elementary school curriculum, be it Core Knowledge or another curriculum? How many decisions should come from on high? If curriculum is decided by the school district leaders, if classroom instruction methodology is also mandated, as it is in requiring the Danielson Frameworks, do we squelch innovation?

Should the new core principles be developed with the participation of the stakeholders?

Should the new school district leader, as Joel Klein did, embrace a curriculum for the entire city? Bring coherence; create a rigid Chancellor’s District approach for every school?

Or, is Eric Nadelstern right? “The more authority you share, the more influential you become.”

Jonathan Molofsky, a nationally recognized professional developer avers, “The answers are in the room.” The answers are not in the distant aeries of Boards of Education, the answers are not in selecting the “right” reading program or in hiring the “right” consultant, the answers in are in the hearts and minds of each and every teacher. The challenge is to move teachers from benign followers of the ukases from on high to instructional partners, partners with colleagues working under the direction of a strong leader.

Randi Weingarten, in the Winter, 2013-14 issue of the American Educator writes,

Students and educators benefit greatly from effective partnerships between teacher unions and school districts … unfortunately, without partners on both sides of the labor-management equation willing to put students in the forefront of their concerns, significant progress will be impeded, if not impossible.

Frankly collaboration is harder than confrontation. Many people are more comfortable with the us-versus- them posture … While some see collaboration as capitulation what it does is the seeding of trust and good will, not the ceding of authority and responsibility. It’s not easy, but it is effective.

For some inside the ranks of the union, collaboration does mean capitulation, and the firmest defenders of every comma in the union contract are frequently the union activists.

Will the union leadership willing to negotiate a new contract based on collaboration?

There is abundant research to support a culture of collaboration. Glen Anrig in “Cultivating Collaboration: The Science behind Thriving Labor-Management Relationships,” points us to a study by the highly regarded Chicago Consortium on School Research,

“… the most effective schools, based on test score improvement over time, …developed an unusually high degree of ‘relational trust’ among stakeholders [and] developed five key organizational features,

1. A coherent instructional guidance system, in which the curriculum, study materials and assessments are coordinated within and across grades with meaningful teacher involvement;

2. An effective system to improve instructional capacity, including making teachers’ classroom work public for examination by colleagues and external consultants, and to enable ongoing support and guidance for teachers;

3. Strong parent-community school ties, with an integrated support network for students;

4. A student-centered learning climate that identifies and responds to difficulties any child may be experiencing; and.

5. Leadership focused on cultivating teachers, parents and community members, so that they become invested in sharing overall responsibility for the school’s improvement.”

The tendency will be to follow the lead of John King, the State Commissioner, and issue regulations and requirements and press releases and declare victory, to see the principals and teachers and their organizations as “special interests” and simply move forward, after all that’s what school district leaders have been taught to do.

There is an opportunity in New York City to do what no chancellor has done, to change the direction of a school system with the union as a partner. It is risky for the union.

Perhaps begin by carving out a space – a collaboration zone with a “thin” contract?

After the press conferences fade and the initial elation ebbs, will the stakeholders engage? Will the new chancellor seek to engage with the union? Will the union take the risk of dragging along recalcitrant members?

From Washington to state capitals to Boards of Education, from the Broad Academy model, from Los Angeles to New York City the script has been the same: school choice, aka charter schools, school closings, accountability, aka testing and evaluating teachers based on dense algorithms, the Common Core, the denigration of senior teachers, aka Teach For America, and, generally viewing teachers and their unions as obstacles to progress.

Will de Blasio and his new chancellor break the mold and will the unions take the risk of moving to a collaborative model?

A new mayor with new ideas offers the possibility of institutional change, offers the possibility of creating new school cultures; windows for change are only open for a while.

FLASH: Newspapers and twitter announce de Blasio has chosen Carmen Farina as the new chancellor.

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3 responses to “Will the New Mayor/Chancellor Feign a New Path or Offer True Collaboration? Can the Union Move from Confrontation to Collaboration?

  1. Those are certainly the right questions, and as Thurber admonished, “It’s better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.”

  2. Vincent Gaglione

    During the Battle of Sicily, under very heavy artillery barrage in the central mountains, a private unknowingly addresses General Omar Bradley, the man in charge of the battle, who has his back to the private:
    (Private): What sorry son-of-a-bitch is in charge of this operation?
    (Bradley): I don’t know, but they ought to hang him.

    For the grunts in the classrooms of New York City, who have always been expected to follow blindly the battle plans of every Chancellor, Superintendent, and principal under whose aegis they worked, only with rare exception have there been leaders who spoke as honestly as General Bradley.
    Collaboration indeed is the beginning of success. It requires leadership, however, which is as comfortable with allowing classroom teachers to suggest and implement strategies as it has been with ignoring the failures of their own strategies.
    A product of the old system, let’s hope Carmen Farina is that kind of leader!

  3. The widely accepted myth seems to be that NYC elementary schools never had a curriculum. Not true!

    Back when there was an active Division of Curriculum and Instruction, there were, as the NY Times would put it, “curriculums” in most elementary subject areas, including ELA, math, and science; I particularly remember the K-6 Science curriculum. It was published in several formats, including smaller booklets for each grade as well as books for each general area across the grades; a master book included it all. The books described the theories as to the objectives of each unit and the skills students should develope, as well as plentiful suggested lessons and hands on activities. All, IMO, seemed well-thought out and researched.

    When I showed them, some years after they’d disappeared, to a professor of science education (unconnected with the NYC BoE) he said he thought them admirable.

    But came the budget crunches, and the whole Division of Curriculum & Instruction all but disappeared; teachers started getting sets of texts with little overall direction other than the teachers guides, usually incorporated into the Teachers’ Editions, and with supervisors’ admonishments that the guides did not constitute a curriculum. Probably the worst of these would have served better than having none at all, at least having some coherent plan.

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