How Will deBlasio and Mulgrew Dance? The Complexities of Changing School and School District Cultures

Gotham Schools reports that Mayor-elect Bill will not make his chancellor selection until next week. The rumors that the Commissioner of Education in Finland is taking a crash English course are unsubstantiated.

To date the appointments of deBlasio have been vanilla, solid, professional choices; a police commissioner who knows New York with a sparkling resume and other choices that upset no one – no more Sandinista supporters.

The talking heads, the newspapers, the blogs all speculate: why the delay? Is it Farina? And on and on … Just remember: when Mayor Bloomberg selected Joel Klein the response was, “Who?”

After deB defeated Thompson, the union’s first choice, union president Mulgrew and deB bonded. Perhaps bonded is too meek a word- it was a lovefest, Mulgrew praising deB to the sky and deB praising teachers.

After January 1 the dance begins.

The mayor-elect must get off to a good start.

The somewhat stumbling beginning, not selecting a chancellor for weeks has led to endless idyll speculation. Why the delay? The delay has led to suspicions.

The soon-to-be mayor must consolidate/invigorate his core supporters: parents and teachers.


deB: “I am imposing an immediate freeze on co-locations of charter schools in public school buildings. I am asking the chancellor to establish guidelines outlining a co-location process that includes parents, establish a period for public comment- we hope to have regulations in place within sixty days.”

deB: “I am directing the chancellor to enter into discussions with the union – the Absent Teacher Reserve – called the ATR pool – 1200 pedagogical employees who rotate from school to school each week is a waste of taxpayer dollars. We will return these employees to full time teaching positions within license as expeditiously as possible.”

The Department of Education is a $24 billion corporation with 120,000 employees – making changes is like changing the direction of the Titanic – it takes miles to slow down and make changes in direction, and, beware of icebergs.

The new chancellor, whoever she is (don’t assume anything from the use of “she,” I use it to make up for decades of female deprecation), will have to change a culture (Read “How to change school culture,” here)

In the last decade, the education standards movement has taught us that policy change without cultural change is an exercise in futility and frustration.

The greatest impediment to meaningful cultural change is the gap between what leaders say they value and what they actually do. Staff members are not seduced by a leader’s claim of “collaborative culture” when every meeting is a series of lectures, announcements, and warnings. Claims about a “culture of high expectations” are undermined when school policies encourage good grades for poor student work. The “culture of respect” is undermined by every imperious, demanding, or angry e-mail and voice mail coming from the principal [or superintendent or chancellor]l. Leaders speak most clearly with their actions. When staff members hear the call for transformation from a leader whose personal actions remain unchanged, their hope turns to cynicism.

How many school and school district leaders stand on the stage and lecture teachers about making their classes more interactive? How many leaders warn about change, or else, i.e., school closings, staff changes, etc?

The next chancellor must both reflect the views and feelings of parents and teachers and well as lead. I was a guest at a School Leadership Team meeting – a teacher made a proposal that the team, parents and teachers, thought was a good idea. The principal responded, “I don’t think this is going to work, obviously I’m in the minority, convince me I’m wrong, make it work.”

I worked in a school-based management, school-based budgeting district, school budgets required signoffs from the principal, the parent and union leaders. The superintendent’s mantra: you can do whatever the school SLT thinks will work, if it doesn’t, it’s my way.

de Blasio, the new chancellor and the union president must work to create school cultures that both lead and respect the views of all stakeholders.

Sometimes we will “agree to disagree,” sometimes we will reluctantly agree to go along, other times we will all be on the same page. As long as we live in a culture of respect we can prosper.

Moving from a culture of conflict, a culture that encouraged grenade tossing to a culture of collaboration is akin to moving from a Yankee fan to a Mets fan – not impossible – really, really hard.

It was far easier to blast away at Bloomberg in meeting after meeting, to rip the soon to be ex-mayor in TV ads and union meetings, than to slow dance with the new guy.

Maybe we all need dance lessons.

4 responses to “How Will deBlasio and Mulgrew Dance? The Complexities of Changing School and School District Cultures

  1. While it would be nice to see and hear a Lady Chancellor, the fact remains that whatever the gender, the new Chancellor will immediately be confronted by a generation of school leaders ( Principals) who were groomed @ The Bloomberg Academy. Their signature strategy is a mastery of how to dismiss teachers without a clue on how to develop them. This process started 10 years ago, and its disciples are so entwined in our schools that I fear it may well take another generation to rid that mantra from what a Prinicpal’s prime directive should be to wit: Have a strong Staff Development program which translates into novice development, and high eficency in terms of Instructional Delivery. The 2nd quality that I feel must be on the next Chancellors “to do” list has to be the courage to acknowledge that going to school isnt fun for our children as it once was, and what is wrong with fun..? In the Elem school we find that many of the aesthetic preps no longer exist..we find that fewer and fewer class trips are scheduled. Children having fun while experiencing learning is truly a wonderful site to behold. I believe that the new Mayor “gets it”, and understands that the way you move a system in a positive direction is not by denigrating it.


  2. Sadly Ken is right. The entrenched leadership of the school system is all about test scores and little else. The Danielson frameworks are being turned into checklists and the “talent coaches” are pushing hard for the “gotcha” mentality that is the hallmark of all eductional reform since No Child Left Behind. (See the NYTimes piece on the Bumpy Start for the new system where only the talent coach is critical of a minor detail in practice that maty or may not be applicable to the students in that class. )

    The real issue as Ed points out is changing the culture. This requires reform above (changes in the evaluation process) and reform below. Proincipals should be empowered (and required) to begin working with teams in their schools to rewrite the Danielson rubrics to make them more objective and clearly focused on teacher behavior and not so much on student responses). Principals need to be required to provide SAVE rooms and establish meaningful discipline policies in every school so that we can reach the students who are failing and acting out in class. Guidance services need to be in place for students (and families) that are struggling.

    The best way to shake up the culture in the schools may be to disempower principals. We can move away from the nineteenth century model that currently describes principals as all knowing and all powerful and move to a professional system where schools ar etun at the local level by a team of parents, teachers, and adminsitration who must work together by consensus and receive help from the central bureaucarcy. This is what SLTs were supposed to do before Klein imposed his corporate model (Every principal a CEO). Empowering school teams also empowers parents and teachers and brings more expertise to bear on the problems in an individual school than any top down management system can.

    The question is does deB have the courage to try a truly progressive approach to remake the system?


  3. I agree with you Peter and both Ken and Marc. Wille de Blasio really do what he claims? I certainly hope so.


  4. I strongly urge that statements from Mulgrew and DeBlasio that are made for public consumption and that are what are minimally acceptable when a new Mayor comes into office not be confused with “bonding.” I doubt very seriously that Mulgrew and DeBlasio have “bonded” in anything but the most minimal and public way. Mulgrew made a serious mistake by draping his arm around “Billy Thompson’s” shoulders with such bro-fundity and BDB has never been known, nor has any politician since Pericles, to “forget” or “remember” who was with them and when.

    This does not mean that BDB doesn’t sincerely want to improve relations between the DOE and teachers. It just means that there are difficult labor negotiations coming soon and that the UFT will necessarily bear the consequences of having very publicly and obsequiously backed the wrong horse in the race.


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