The NEW Department/Board of Education: A Musing on Philosophy Before Road-Building.

In the modern day equivalent of smoked-filled rooms candidates for the full range of 2013 elected office, parents, advocates, charter schoolers; the full range of “players” or wannabe players are discussing what the “new” Department/Board of Education will look like.

Over the next few blog posts I will explore the range of possibilities.

While most are emphasizing a governance model I feel that a philosophy must precede any discussions of structure.

Diane Ravitch in her seminal, “The Great School Wars: A History of the NYC Public Schools ” traces the meanderings of education politics in New York City over the last hundred and fifty or so years. (Bet you didn’t know that Boss Tweed served on the Board of Education)

.The reform movement of the last quarter of the nineteenth century was an attempt to rid governments of patronage hiring. The 1883 Pendleton Act  created the federal civil service system.

The Pendleton Act provided that Federal Government jobs are awarded on the basis of merit and that Government employees be selected through competitive exams. The act also made it unlawful to fire or demote for political reasons employees who were covered by the law. The law further forbids requiring employees to give political service or contributions. The Civil Service Commission was established to enforce this act.

The reform movement in New York culminated in the Great Consolidation, the joining of the five boroughs into one city, and the combination of the school systems and the creation of a Board of Examiners, a system to award jobs on the basis of merit through competitive civil service exams.

The newly created Board of Education was appointed by the mayor and selected a superintendent of schools.

In the 1960s the Board of Education and the Board of Examiner systems came under fierce attack from the right and the left. Busing programs to promote integration were attacked as well as the civil rights movement attacking the Board for inaction on failing schools and a Board of Examiner system that appeared to disproportionately exclude minorities. David Rogers, 110 Livingston Street: Politics and Bureaucracy in the New York City School System is a must read for a detailed description of the disintegration of a system confronting the stresses of a changing America.

Faced with a law suit and political pressures the city agreed to abandon the Board of Examiners and move hiring of teachers and administrators to the local level.

The Appellate Court wrote.

The appeal comes to us in an unusual posture. Since plaintiffs attacked the method used to fill supervisory positions in the school system of the City of New York, one would surmise that their primary opposition would come from those in charge of that system, the Board of Education of the City of New York and its Chancellor, Harvey B. Scribner, both named as defendants in this action. However, although the Board of Education appeared below, it did not actively oppose the motion for a preliminary injunction and has not appealed from the district court’s order. The Chancellor has done even less. In a memorandum to the Board of Education, quoted by Judge Mansfield in his opinion, Mr. Scribner stated “… that to defend against plaintiffs’ case would require that I both violate my own professional beliefs and defend a system of personnel selection and promotion which I no longer believe to be workable.”

After two teacher strikes and intense pressures the mayor, John Lindsay proposed a plan to decentralize the education system – to move most decision-making to elected local school boards overseen by a central board – one member appointed by each borough president and two by the mayor. School boards hired superintendents, supervisors and teachers who achieved state certification, without a civil service appointment system.

The effectiveness of the system ranged from corrupt and incompetent, to corrupt and competent to both highly competent and transparent. (Read, David Rogers, 110 Livingston Street Revisited , 1984)

In 1996 Chancellor Rudy Crew created the Chancellor’s District; the lowest performing schools in the city were clustered and placed directly under the chancellor. The district closely proscribed everything, from day-to-day operations to hiring to classroom instruction. An NYU study praised the results of the district  that was disbanded by Joel Klein.

In 2005 twenty or so schools were formed into an “Autonomy Zone” by Deputy Chancellor Eric Nadelstern (read discussion here),

.. the Autonomy Zone isn’t an initiative to forward everyone’s agenda. What it is, most narrowly defined, is an opportunity to demonstrate that if you give principals a chance to make the important decisions that they and their teachers need to make about how kids learn best, then more kids will be more successful. It’s an opportunity for school faculty to be prepared to be held accountable for those results.

The Autonomy Zone moved to Empowerment Schools and on to sixty or so networks of twenty-five school each, the network leader was selected by the principals and, in theory, the schools worked together under the supportive guidance of a network team. Decisions impacting teaching and learning would be made by those closest to the kids – the supervisors and teachers in each network.

While the NYC iteration flirted with the idea that decisions should be local it rapidly morphed into a top-down, politically driven system.

Read detailed description here.

The core question:

Do we want a school system driven by a strong chancellor, or, a system that encourages decisions to be made at the local level, or a combination, and what would that combination look like?

Traditionally school district leaders have established policy, with the approval of a Board and everyone down the line saluted and to one degree or another followed the instructions. The Chancellor’s District, Region 5 and a few other examples exhibited clear growth as measured by test scores while many others under the same model stumbled badly.

The local autonomy model increased graduation rates, albeit with some serious questions; the dropout mill schools are for the most part gone.

The Chancellor/Board of Education system was politicized and results, in retrospective, were abysmal in high poverty schools. There were examples of success. Should we move to a system with strong central leadership? Can the lessons of the Chancellor’s District be scaled to an entire school system? How do we avoid a system in which politics drove dollars and failure, in too many instances, was accepted?

Bottom up decision-making is attractive, is it a rational possibility in a million children school system? While we philosophically believe that the best decisions are made by school leaders, teachers and parents, those closest to the kids, do school leaders and teachers have the capacity?

Does the teacher union want a seat at the table if the discussion is about accountability and consequences?

Until we know where we’re going it’s hard to design a road to get there.


3 responses to “The NEW Department/Board of Education: A Musing on Philosophy Before Road-Building.

  1. Eric Nadelstern

    Those are the important questions. Thank you.


  2. Olivia Koppell

    There must be flexibility for the teachers and principals – but the schools will only become successful if there is a true curriculum that is the same for every school – one that includes music, art, phys. ed., home ec. and shop along with the academics – one that resembles that of the 50’s adapted for the 21st century. However the problems in the schools are complex, so the solutions must also include revamping how a person arrives at being a teacher, and of great importance is parent involvement. The support, or complete lack of support in some kids homes is of paramount importance in outcomes. It is the passion for the subject the teacher shares with the students that inspires learning – that really is the bottom line – ask any kid.


  3. Peter Goodman’s excellent survey of this knotty and enduring controversy is informed by praxis. As a former union leader, Goodman brings a vast store of experience to the table. Clearly, school boards exhibited flaws: patronage, corruption, and hidden agendas. On the whole, however, decentralization contributed to the Jeffersonian ideal coupling democracy and public education despite the Madisonian fear of factionalism.


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