How Should Big City School Districts Be Governed? The Yet-to-be Elected Next Mayor Will Be Faced with a Complex Dilemna.

Who should run a school system?

The elected officials, the mayors and/or the city councils who provide the funding and who have to answer to voters at the polls?

Schools boards directly elected by the voters, be they registered voters and/or parents?

Or, school boards appointed to fixed terms by mayors and/or city councils that can only be removed for “bad conduct”?

Perhaps a highly credentialed educator answering only to a policy board that cannot interfere in day-to-day operations?

Does the governance model matter? Does governance determine policy or the person/people at the helm?

Over the decades as we moved from one governance model to another: does the model make a difference, or, is the impact of poverty so great that leadership cannot turn around a school system?

In the New York City we have operated under just about all of the options: a little history lesson.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century the wealthy elites of the day strongly supported removing from electeds the power to appoint constituents to jobs, eliminate the “spoils system” and replace it with “civil service reform.” Newly elected presidents and governors and mayors, upon election, would attract long lines of office seekers, supporters who expected in return for their support a job in the administration. In July, 1881 President James A. Garfield was shot by a deranged office seeker  and died some months later. The assassination laid the groundwork for the passage of the Pendleton Act  in 1883 establishing a civil service system within the federal bureaucracy.

At the state level the “reformers” of the era pushed for state legislatures and local governments to adopt similar reforms. New York City in the post-Civil War years was dominated by Tammany Hall led by William Marcy Tweed. The notorious Tweed reaped millions in bribes and kickbacks and used political patronage liberally. He also served on the Board of Education for a time (he supported raises for teachers and aid to Catholic parochial schools).

In 1898 the Great Consolidation, the merging of the boroughs and the formation of the City of New York (Read David Hammack, Power and Society: Greater New York at the Turn of the Century for an depth analysis) was a victory for the reform movement. The creation of the city was accompanied by the consolidation of the school systems into the Board of Education and an independent Board of Examiners that tested applicants and established rank order lists which determined eligibility for appointment to teaching and supervisory positions.

For more than seventy years prospective teachers and supervisors were required to pass tests to be eligible for appointments to positions in the school system. During the depression of the 1930’s the rigorous exams limited those entering teaching to truly the “best and the brightest.”

Test takers eagerly awaited the results published in the New York Telegram, the rank order list – yes – your name and your score. The exams: a written test, short answers and an essay, an intense interview and a teaching test, the process took more than a year.

Tutoring programs sprung up, acronyms to assist in writing essays; practice in interviews, which tutoring course had the best results, the path up the ladder was merit-based.

An appointed policy board selected superintendents who had worked their way up the system. In eras in which skilled and semi-skilled blue collar jobs were plentiful leaving school to earn money was commonplace. City College, founded in 1847, provided a free college education, with rigorous admission standards for high school graduates who sought a higher education.

The school system was a jewel that created a path to the middle class and beyond.

In the late 1950’s and the decade of the 60’s the Board of Education came under attack from many sides. A new teacher union seeking recognition, then contracts, the civil rights movement calling for school integration and better schools, parent groups opposing school busing and the anger over the growing war in Vietnam. The rise of a national civil rights movement championed by Martin Luther King and the rise of Malcolm X in New York City. David Rogers in 110 Livingston Street: A Study of Politics and Administration in the New York City Schools described the school system as “bureaucratic pathology,”

“I would conclude, then, that there may be no solution for the failures of big cities and urban education over the short run, and that conditions will probably get worse before they improve … The structure of the school system itself must be changed.”

The Board of Education could be compared to a lump of silly putty – no matter the blows, no matter how many fingers poked at the lump, no matter how deep, the lump slowly regained its amorphous shape. Nothing changed.

The election of John Lindsay in 1965, a reform mayor, presaged the end of the Board of Education/Board of Examiners system.

Los Angeles Watts riots of 1965 and the Detroit riots of 1967 raged, cities across the nation were burning as Lindsay fought to keep New York together.

Lindsay’s efforts were hailed as saving the city; he basked in the glow of the “intelligentsia,” the policy elites, the editorial writers at the New York Times and the university scholars. His star burned bright and faded into oblivion. (Read Tamar Jacoby, “Someone Else’s House: America’s Unfinished Struggle for Integration,” and Vincent J. Cannatto, “The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay’s New York and the Crisis of Liberalism.”).

Lindsay targeted an assault on both the Board of Education and the Board of Examiners. Place the power in the hands of local communities and far from City Hall.

An Appellate Court  ruled that the Board of Examiners exam system had a “disparate impact” on minority test takers and failed to pass scrutiny under the “job related” rule established in the Griggs_v._Duke_Power_Co Supreme Court decision.

Using a Ford Foundation study, the impact of three demonstration school districts (Two Bridges on the Lower East Side, IS 201 in East Harlem and Oceanhill-Brownsville in Brooklyn) and the 1968 40-day teachers strike Lindsay persuaded the legislature and the governor to support a school decentralization plan.

A seven member central board (one appointee by each borough president and two by the mayor) and 32 elected community school boards (using a complex proportional representation system), each board with the authority to hire teachers, superintendents and principals.

Schools boards in middle class districts thrived while the poorest districts were torn by voter apathy, corruption and neglect by one city administration after another. District Two and Three in Manhattan, Districts Fifteen (Park Slope) and Twenty-Two (Sheepshead Bay, Marine Park) in Brooklyn and District Twenty-Five and Twenty-Six (Bayside) in Queens involved parents, selected, for the most part high qualified superintendents and principals, and thrived.

In the poorest districts voter turnout was infinitesimal, electeds were morally and actually corrupt, jobs were sold or traded for favors, and Mayor Koch chose to ignore the cesspool.

High schools remained under the aegis of the central board. In the late eighties the department began to close high schools. The system was unofficially but clearly divided into effective and ineffective schools by zip code.

Forty years of school reforms: Are schools in the poorest neighborhoods any better?

In Boston a mayor and a superintendent worked closely under a mayoral control system and improved a school system. In Los Angeles an elected school board, at times sharply divided leads a school system that has stumbled for years.

There are no easy answers, no models that stand apart.

A humble suggestion: leave education to the educators.


2 responses to “How Should Big City School Districts Be Governed? The Yet-to-be Elected Next Mayor Will Be Faced with a Complex Dilemna.

  1. There are no models that stand apart because education takes place in classrooms. The system can be run by a good manager with the assistance of good educators (NYC stands out for having neither) or by a seasoned educator with the assistance of competent middle managers. That does not make a difference to the teacher in the classroom. I have known good teachers who did not recognize the Schools chancellor when he walked through their buildings.

    Educational reform starts by creating an attractive workplace so you can find and retain highly qualified teachers.

    In throwing out the Board of Examiners, which was clearly biased against minority teachers who were often failed for speaking with an accent, the reformers also threw out a system that did make sure teachers (and supervisors) knew their pedagogy and their subject before they got licensed. Wholesale scrapping of the past dooms reformers to repeat the errors of their predecessors.

    Once you have highly qualified teachers you have to give them the professional freedom to work with the students in front of them. Teaching is an attractive profession for many (myself included) because it is not routine work. No two days are alike and no lesson works the same in every classroom. A teacher is constantly challenged by his/her students to think and respond to new demands, from class to class, day to day, and year to year.

    The role of supervisors is to motivate and stimulate teachers to keep reaching for their best, to create a setting where morale is high, and to provide assistance when teachers hit roadblocks they cannot solve.
    Where this is the model, students thrive and teachers strive.

    Where, as we do in NYC, there is a top-down model that dictates how to teach (workshop model), where teachers are regularly blamed for the failings of the system to provide real opportunities for students, and where test scores are the main measure of competence for teachers and administrators we cannot and are not making progress,


  2. I wonder if the corruption that has occurred under centralization vs decentralization is only because it’s of a different type and on a different scale.
    Chicago’s decentralization coincided with the one and only period in which even test scores improved–see Tony Bryk on Chicago reform.
    etc etc


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