Should Networks Survive? How Should the Next Mayor Design the School Support/Instructional Delivery Model?

“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.” David Rogers, 1968

In the decade of the 60’s the Board of Education was under attack, it struggled to survive as a new teacher union emerged, grew and flexed its increasing power. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), for the first time provided federal dollars to low income schools. The Civil Rights Movement, led by Martin Luther King, fought for school integration, Malcolm X argued for an acknowledgement of the Black contribution to America as well as an increased role for communities. Other groups railed against busing and advocated the continuation of neighborhood schools. These battles are well documented in David Rogers, 110 Livingston Street: A Study of Politics and Administration in the New York City Schools,

This is a rigorous sociological examination of “bureaucratic pathology within the school system.” … he presents a full history: unofficial blocking of desegregation, inefficiency, fragmentation of functions, failure…, Rogers also examines the allied factors of client pressure, their increasing expectations, ghetto pathology, insufficient planning, and the generally ailing agencies of city government. The disease: in- action. The prognosis clearly not very hopeful … But there is a prescription for at least partial cure: decentralization of operations and greater centralization of planning. “”The structure of the school system itself must be changed.”” In a sense, then, Rogers calls for major surgery.

The 1967 Ford Foundation “Reconnection for Learning ” Report provided a blueprint for a new decentralized school system, The foundation, somewhat akin to the current Gates Foundation, was the driver of education reform.; however, the authors made every attempt to be as inclusive as possible. A summary of the Report,

This Report (The Bundy Report) proposes a plan for decentralization of the New York City School System which would allow for greater community involvement in school policy-making and for educational innovation and administrative flexibility. To achieve these goals the report recommends that the school system be organized into a federation of 30 to 60 largely autonomous community schools districts and a central education agency. The local school districts, which would serve between 12,000 and 40,000 students would be responsible for “regular” education within educational boundaries and would be governed by local boards composed of community residents chosen by parents and the mayor. The boards would receive annual allocations of operating funds to be used at their discretion, provided that state education al standards and union contract terms were met. The local boards would determine their own personnel polices but would preserve all tenure rights of existing personnel.

The Bundy Report was vigorously debated in the NYS Legislature and in 1970 an iteration of the Bundy Report became law.

From 1970 until 2002 the City School District functioned under the decentralization law. In a number of middle class districts school boards operated very much like school districts around the nation. Well-attended meetings, vigorous debate, and, in a few districts highly innovative practices, from District 2 in Manhattan which made a significant investment in professional development to District 22 in Brooklyn that fully implemented a school-based budgeting, school-based management model. At the other end of the spectrum the poorest districts suffered under deeply corrupt school boards frequently run by local electeds. Only a handful of voters participated and the central board regularly removed boards and appointed trustees.

In the early nineties the central board created the Chancellor’s District, the fifty or so lowest achieving schools in the city were removed from community school districts and run by the Chancellor. The district worked closely with the teacher union and provided a highly proscriptive approach – “Success for All,” a well regarded national program.

The last twelve years have seen twists and turns – from ten Regions, K-12 districts run by Regional Superintendents, to Learning Networks with amorphous authority to Empowerment to Networks. The fifty-five (originally sixty) networks are affinity-based – the principals choose their network regardless of geography, (a number of not-for-profits, mainly PEA-CEI and New Visions, are part of the network structure), the Networks provide instructional and administrative support, the geographic superintendents rate principals, assess teachers for tenure and conduct quality reviews. The Community Education Councils (CEC), the replacement, sort of, for Community School Boards, has little or no connection to the networks.

In the current mayoral race all the democratic candidates oppose the network structure (Quinn waffles – she says she wants to study the issue).

Geoff Decker, at Gotham Schools, unearthed, a plan by the department to redesign the network structure – they employed the Parthenon Group, who provided a number of other reports for the department. A summary of the plan,

A gradual series of organizational changes reflected several consistent trends: toward increased flexibility for schools on matters of curriculum and instruction; toward greater autonomy for Principals in selecting their own support structure; toward tighter integration of instructional and operational support; and toward clearer performance management of the support structure itself. Today’s structure – in which schools select a Children First Network of their choice, blending instructional and operational support – is meant to embody the administration’s fundamental principles of empowerment and accountability.

There is a broad sense among DOE leadership that many of the shifts of the past decade – to strip away burdensome requirements, layers of bureaucracy, and channels for local political interference – are essential to preserve.

Within this vision and categorization, it will be important to address several particular issues that we can anticipate will be important to a future administration. For example:
• The role of geography in determining network affiliation
• The role of the community superintendent relative to the network
• The role of the network in receiving or addressing parent issues
• The needs of elementary vs. middle vs. high schools
[The report will provide],

• A pilot or pilots to test differentiated, higher levels of empowerment for some Principals
• A pilot or pilots to examine alternative ways of structuring the Superintendent-Network relationship
• Internal communications: Increasing Principal support of the networks to bolster their defense of the aspects of the structure that are most valuable
• External communications / transparency: Building awareness and understanding of key aspects of the network model among stakeholders in the field and the community

Read the entire plan here

Let’s take a look at the proposal and reality:

    Has the goal of the network structure, “…to strip away burdensome requirements, layers of bureaucracy,” been achieved?

The answer of a resounding “no,” there are more layers of bureaucracy than in the past. Under the former district/superintendent structure principals worked under the supervision and guidance of one person, the superintendent, currently the network, the superintendent and Tweed hover issuing a never-ending stream of edicts – compliance documents that figure into an accountability metric. The network structure may have had the goal of “striping away burdensome requirement,” in reality it has achieved just the opposite. BTW, ask any principal!!

    Has the network structure provided, “increased flexibility for schools on matters of curriculum and instruction?”

Tweed, the central administration, has issued, as it does annually, a tight blueprint for the upcoming school year – called 2013-14 Instructional Expectations (Read here and here.

These documents are perfectly appropriate, but to assert that schools have “increased flexibility” is, to be polite, dissembling. The Common Core State Standards are a prescriptive approach to teach, there is no choice for schools, everything is driven by the new CCSS-based tests, soon to be PARCC-based tests, and schools are scrambling to purchase the “right” reading and math programs to match the exam. The Danielson Frameworks are the one and only instructional guide – there is no choice in any school in New York City, and, while the frameworks are undoubtedly an excellent professional development tool, the frameworks are an evaluative tool. “Flexibility?” one must be joking…

    Should a goal of the new structures be to “strip away …channels for local political interference?”

A high school places a new student in a general ed class even though his IEP requires a self-contained class – the school ignores parent complaints – when local elected calls the principal he’s chastised for “interfering.” After a threat of a press conference on the steps of the school the “error” is resolved. The oversight of electeds, who, after all, fund the school system, is part of the democratic process. The current education leadership is tone deaf, not by accident, they created a system to exclude public scrutiny – from parents and elected officials. If an electeds “ask” is out of bounds, inappropriate, it must be refused. What is called “political interference” should be viewed as part of the division of powers, part of the democratic process, part of the transparency that forces decisions to be scrutinized before they are imposed.

From the new mayor, to the City Council to Albany – the “new” system will be far more transparent and the department leadership will have to gear up to both include and defend policies to elected officials, parents and the public.

    How will the department address the role of geography, networks and superintendents?

For the most part network schools are widely separated – frequently in two or three boroughs – the promise at the beginning of the network system: we will service your needs at your school. The reality: either network staff spends hours driving around the city or principals drive to network offices across the borough or in other boroughs.

Geographic superintendents are district-based and frequently deal with many network leaders. Superintendents are required by state law. For elementary and middle schools geographic districts should never have been abandoned.

    What should be the role of the network in receiving or addressing parent issues?

Currently the role of networks is to deflect parents’ issues – send the parent to the superintendent – the reason the overwhelming percent of parents are highly critical of department policies is clearly due to the disdainful attitude of the department toward parents.

Schools belong in communities, schools are part of communities, the network structure ignores the obvious, and you cannot isolate a school from its own neighborhood, and, too assume, somehow, the superintendent can provide community support is illusory.

The Parthenon Group is drafting a political document – how do we save us from ourselves, how do we hold on to a deeply flawed structure? Do we really need not-for-profits who serve the same purpose as parallel department structures? Yes, some schools and groups of schools should clustered in, for want of a better term, networks, i.e., alternative schools, perhaps common theme-based schools, schools with instructional strategies that differ from the norm, etc., most schools are better served within a geographic setting.

The essential question is not how to save networks, the essential question should be: how do we create a school management/support structure that allows some schools to be innovative, requires others to work in more proscriptive settings, reward high-growth schools by relieving them of mandates, and, to support schools as part of communities. Any ideas?


2 responses to “Should Networks Survive? How Should the Next Mayor Design the School Support/Instructional Delivery Model?

  1. Right on the money. The myth of principal “empowerment” has resulted in the destruction of the spirit of community that is the real hallmark of a successful school. The ultimate irony was when the architect of this signature Bloomberg initiative that now “must” be saved at all costs, was passed over for the chancellorship by someone the mayor thought was even smarter — Cathie Black. Once the mayor is gone, the fog will lift and and people will begin to look back on the Bloomberg era as the disaster it was. No matter how much private money is thrown at spinning a dozen wasted years as some kind of triumph, you can’t hide failure.


  2. In a Democracy the people elect the person they feel will be the best leader. S(H)e will choose the next Chancellor. Therefore buy definition politics and education are inextricably interrelated. When the new Mayor and the Chancellor answer some basic questions we’ll get a better idea of how they view the relationship between City Hall and Tweed; how they define an “effective” or “successful school; what criteria and metrics will they use to evaluate; who will help to shape those evaluations and metrics; what is the definition of “community” , geographic or common needs; the de facto segregation of the public school; the support and the time line to implement and evaluate Danielson; the role of the District Superintends and the power distribution between them and Tweed; and the roles, relationships, and responsibilities of the various stakeholders. When and “if” these questions are addressed and answered in real language as opposed to election language will we have a chance to judge whatever “design” these questions fit into.


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