Repairing a Leviathan in Flight: Rebuilding a School System

 Urban school systems can be compared to a lump of silly putty, amorphous in shape, easily molded, and slowly but surely returning to the original amorphous lump.

For twenty years (2002- present) mayors (Bloomberg, de Blasio, Adams) have been molding the school system, and for twenty years the school system has shrugged off the “reforms.”  Yes, we’re moved from 110 comprehensive high schools to 485 small high schools on multiple school campuses, from thirty geographic school districts to ten mega-districts, to empowerment to affinity networks back to geographic districts, the list goes on and on; the one item that hasn’t changed are school cultures and classroom instruction in spite of bold initiatives by mayors and chancellors. School systems remain autocratic structures, the “orders” are heralded with the cries of trumpets (press releases), each ukase praised and leadership saluted, and as the drumbeats rumble the “orders,” the touted innovation fades into the dustbins of history. Lurking in the corners, are the gems, schools and clusters of schools that manage to survive and prosper. At times, a gifted leader, or, hopefully, leaders who develop enduring school cultures.

Over the past few weeks clarion calls, schools for dyslexic children, a chaotic system to assign students to high schools,  $215M cuts in school budgets  (, the firing and hiring a new swath of superintendents  as another year fades away, and, probably not soon enough.  In January a four year extension of mayor control was “in the bag,” in the waning days of the Albany legislative session a two year extension, a reconfiguration of the school board and, totally unexpectedly a law requiring the lowering of class size in New York City schools.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of teachers are being “greeted” with letters of excess, the reductions in school budgets mean a reduction in staff, what will happen to the excess teachers?  And, doesn’t the reduction in class size require additional teachers? 

Ironically, the chaotic ending of the school year does not mean a respite for the teacher union and management leaders, contract negotiations are beginning. And, although the contract expires at the end of September under PERB rules the current agreement remains in full force and effect until the new agreement is ratified.

Mayor Adams quickly, very quickly, completed a “handshake” over the city budget and averted the tsunami of folks advocating over the restoration of school budget cuts.

The contract negotiations are an opportunity, for both the mayor and union. A long time ago, as a neophyte union activist I was a member of the fifteen member negotiating team, today the negotiating team has 400 union members.  Lucille Swaim, an economist, was the director of negotiations, a brilliant woman.  We met with the Board of Education team every few days, reviewing the union demands and the Department demands, yes, management also has demands.  Sub-committees reviewed, asked questions, reconfigured language, and eventually moved to almost around the clock negotiations.  In the current set of negotiations a core question: what will be the percent salary increase?  With rampant inflation, economic uncertainty and PERB “negotiation guidelines” (“ability to pay” and “pattern bargaining”) the negotiations are, lets say, “clouded.” The Citizen’s Budget Commission (CBC) an independent self-proclaimed budget watchdog suggests,

The tight job market and high inflation may increase municipal unions’ demands. Raises totaling 3% annually would cost about $1.5 billion in the first year, increasing to $4.3 billion in the third year. While a portion of a PEG for Productivity and higher tax revenue could defray some collective bargaining costs, much more will be needed, otherwise raises will be unaffordable.

While school personnel begin teaching summer school, taking required courses or simply decompress after a hellacious year the union and management, Mulgrew and Adams, will spend their summer attempting to craft an agreement.  It’s impossible to predict negotiations outcomes, although the union was primarily responsible for Dinkins election he allowed the contract to expire and waited months to eventually complete a contract, alienating teacher membership, the union made no endorsement and Giuliani was elected mayor. As Bloomberg’s hostility toward the union escalated the union waited, the contract remained “in full force and effect” and Mulgrew negotiated with the new mayor.  Although the union endorsed Thompson the in primary they negotiated two agreements with de Blasio, full back pay reasonable salary increases and a number of innovative contractual initiatives.

Mulgrew and Adams can lob brickbats or repair the bruises of the Albany and New York City budget tussles. School can open in September with hundreds of excess teachers, thousands of oversize classes and hordes of unhappy parents and no contract agreement.

On the other hand, are Adams/Banks/Weisberg considering the restructuring of the Department: much greater authority delegated to Community Education Councils, superintendents and teachers and moving the Leviathan into dozens of education villages.

Fiona Carnie in an article entitled, Rebuilding Our Schools from the Bottom Up, writes.   

We live in a democracy and yet our schools are far from democratic. Decisions made by central government, … and are rarely scrutinized or debated by those whose daily lives are significantly affected by them. Little surprise then that there is so much disenchantment on the part of teachers, disaffection of young people and disengagement by parents, many of whom feel powerless in the face of current education policy. … schools can transform their culture by strengthening voice, participation and the understanding of what it means to be part of a learning community. Giving examples of schools where teachers are encouraged to explore new ideas and discuss the challenges they face, where parents are actively involved and supported to help their children, and where young people are genuinely listened to and able to contribute to decisions about their learning and their school, a new way forward is charted, one which recognizes the power of developing a shared sense of purpose and a common vision. It proposes transforming our schools from the bottom up.

The path for Chancellor Carranza was testing, periodic tests with speedy results, Instructional Leadership Teams (ILT) in schools using the test results to modify instructional practices, with no evidence of any modification of school instructional practices. Testing and more testing is a failed gluey strategy, it hangs on.

There are glowing examples: involving the school community in targeted initiatives, Norm Fruchter and his team at the NYU Metro Center point to examples (Equity Audits: Stakeholders Making Education Policy),

Over several decades, a variety of teacher-based and data-driven collaborations have developed more participative school reform processes. An example of this participative school reform process can be observed in the efforts of UChicago Consortium on School Research. Their initial analysis of students’ on-track academic performance, beginning in the ninth grade, for example, has evolved into a process of data analysis and strategic intervention that engages school staff in continuous improvement efforts. This participative school reform effort has resulted in significant increases in the Freshman On-Track rates in Chicago high schools, as well as correlating with improved graduation rates. These improved student outcomes are consistent across all racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups, genders, and incoming academic achievement levels.

Read full essay here.

Windows open, windows close, we are in that moment in time, an opportunity to turn the Leviathan around, to move from a plodding lump to stakeholder driven villages with a common purpose.

Dan Weisberg, the deputy chancellor, led the New Teacher Project and is undoubtedly aware of the research favoring the stakeholder role in policy creation and implementation.

Maybe, a fruitful summer and a “new” Department of Education.

One response to “Repairing a Leviathan in Flight: Rebuilding a School System

  1. Pingback: The End of a School Year: “Free at last, Free at Last …” | Ed In The Apple

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