Let’s not romanticize the past.
Joel Klein has moved from mega-regions, to school support organizations to empowerment to the current sixty 25 school networks with attached CFNs (mini district offices) at a dizzying and destabilizing pace. Teachers still respond to “where do you teach” with the district number. Districts are headed by superintendents, and they only exist because the governance law requires it, superintendents’ powers are meager and difficult to define.
The letter grades are a sham and the entire Report Card system has fostered turning the city schools into test prep factories. Klein’s drum beat: charter schools, scries denigrating seniority and tenure, pay for performance, are attacks on teachers and their unions.
Teachers, parents and school advocates see the Klein agenda as an assault on public education, the just announced test score debacle only points to the utter failure of his eight year regency.
Let’s be honest, it’s not like the pre-Klein years were anything to be proud of. Central boards were the servants of the borough presidents, far more concerned with the spoils of politics than education policy. Chancellors walked on egg shells trying to satisfy the political needs of the central board and their own educational agenda. School districts ranged from highly functioning districts with true parent and teacher involvement to corrupt boards concerned only with pillage.
High school leadership was generally out of the political fray but was somnambulant, drop out mills were scattered across the city. An unannounced policy seemed to be to send the least able neediest students to the most dysfunctional schools, an education triage that protected some at the expense of others.
The pressure on teachers was minimal, no rubber rooms, no ATR pool, no charter schools. Chancellors came and went every few years, new initiatives were started, faltered, and abandoned by the next chancellor.
In spite of the captive dailies (NY Post/NY Daily News) and the market solution driven Wall Street Journal, Klein has achieved what was once considered impossible, he has united a wide ranging opposition: a new, untried union president wins his election with 90% of the vote, the NAACP and a host of local community and educational advocacy organizations have banded together to resist Tweed.
Rather than abhorring Joel Klein the “opposition” should come up with a clear agenda, and it must not be a return to the not so “good old days.”
* A well respected chancellor with educational credentials.
Respect is a key to leadership, you are far more likely to try ideas that you may not feel comfortable with if you respect the originator of the ideas. Pedro Noguera, Kathy Cashen, Irma Zadoya or Barbara Byrd Bennett, currently outside the system all have impeccable credentials, and a few folk, best left anonymous, currently within the system, would begin with a high level of trust.
* A central board not influenced by day-to-day politics, a policy board, working with a chancellor, can set a direction, perhaps modeled after the Board of Regents or the CUNY or SUNY boards.
* Return to geographic districts, including high schools, with ultra thin district offices that both support and supervise schools. Schools are integral components within communities, to remove them and insert them into networks with no geographical affinity is foolish. It ws done to lessen local political influence, instead it has isolated and marginalized schools. Elected school boards have a vital role, perhaps setting aside parent seats, the wider community must have an opportunity to serve, although their powers must be clearly defined.
* High functioning schools (we’d need a definition) should be given wide latitude while struggling schools closely monitored and heavily supported. No school must be allowed to become a “failed” school.
* A “thin” contract alternative, through a School-Based Option (SBO) staff vote, should be made available to high functioning schools.
* Rather than pay for individual performance, a differentiated staffing approach, lead teachers, master teachers, team leaders, etc., a range of clearly defined titles, selected in a collaborative manner, with additional remuneration would both reward the exceptional teacher and keep them directly involved in the direct teaching-learning environment.
All these changes can occur within the framework of the current governance law, or would require a few minor changes, although some would require negotiations with the unions.
The “turnaround” district, the eleven schools selected could become a fulcrum for change, the model calls for a high level of collaboration, and, if Race to the Top funds are forthcoming the Regents and the State Ed folks may be inclined to play a more aggressive role in New York City.
A mayor increasingly concerned about his legacy should seize the opportunity to move the school system in a different direction before his twelve years are framed by his educational missteps. John Lindsay’s eight years can be condensed in into one word, “strikes.” He may have saved the city from racial anarchy, his legacy is the mayor that caused/ignored a two month teacher strike that polarized the city, and, ditched Lindsay’s presidential ambitions.
The “buzz” is not falling crime rates, or building middle income housing or quality of life, the “buzz” is school policies increasingly rejected by the populace, as evidenced by a $100 plus self-funded mayoral campaign centered around education policy that almost crashed and burned.
For the mayor, and the children of the city, a clock is ticking.