Searching for the Golden Ring: The Merry-Go-Round of Education Policy Initiatives

It was the early nineties, and my school was held up as an example of school turnaround, more kids graduating; more Advanced Placement classes, all the metrics were increasing. The principal praised the staff, talked about curriculum changes, and somehow failed to mention he had hired a bi-lingual Russian guidance counselor and the resulting influx of new Russian immigrants. On the first day of classes as I entered the classroom a hand shot up, “Does class have to stand when professor enters room?” Kids with halting English were taking Calculus; the principal probably forgot to mention how changing the student body impacts outcomes.

Another principal funded one-to-one tutoring for kids in the 40th to 49th percentile on previous state tests, paid teachers to give up their lunch to tutor kids during the school day, test scores for the school zoomed.

They were innovative principals, although maybe a touch outside the lines.

Each new mayor tries to sweep away the past, erase predecessor’s policies with his/her imprint.

Bloomberg savaged decentralization and created mayoral control, de Blasio introduced pre-K and 3-for All, over 70,000 students in early childhood classes for three and four year olds and our new Mayor and Chancellor are searching for their golden ring.

Bloomberg’s legacy, mayoral control is under attack, closing 150 schools and creating over 400 small schools is controversial,  (See discussion of Bloomberg “School reform” here), de Blasio’s effort to repair stumbling schools, Renewal, was a failure. (See Assessment here)

The leviathan, the massive New York City School bureaucracy, is like a lump of silly putty, it can be shaped and re-shaped and slowly, inexorably returns to the original amorphous mass.

Hiding in the corners are incredibly innovative schools, schools that managed to survive and prosper in the monstrous bureaucracy as other “innovations” were sweep away.

The Internationals Network, one high school created in the late eighties to serve newly arrived immigrant children has grown to eighteen schools supported by a unique model, a not-for-profit essentially running schools within the school system.

City-As-School, using experiential learning and internships has thrived for fifty years; Founder Fred Koury described CAS, “Curiosity is the key that opens the door to adventure … students coming to CAS changed their perception of education. Students who once hated school had new inspiration and motivation.”

Manhattan Comprehensive Day and Night High School, serves a commonly abandoned cohort of students,

We are a school community that is dedicated to providing high school Regents diplomas to older, under credited students whether they are long-time residents of NYC or recent immigrants. We also aim to prepare them to succeed at college and employment after they graduate. With classes offered from 8:00 a.m. – 9:35 p.m. Monday – Friday, we provide students who have adult responsibilities a schedule that meets their needs …  We are fortunate to have Comprehensive Youth Development (CYD) as our non-profit partner which provides free, on-site student support including tutoring, college advisement and placement, scholarships, career exploration and internships, legal assistance, referrals for housing and medical issues, and post graduation services.

On the other hand innovations have been crushed by school leaders with no vision, sadly depriving kids of the excitement that explodes from classrooms. The planetarium and astronomy program at E. R. Murrow High School, created by Sam Storch; a truly exemplary teacher and union leader, sadly saw the program dismantled by a new incompetent school leader.

The Vertical Transportation (elevator maintenance) program at Park West High School was a victim of the school closing, depriving kids of wonderful, high paying union jobs.

Chancellors search for the “golden ring,”

At his first major address Chancellor Banks reviled the school system he now leads,

In some of his most fiery comments, Banks said the city’s students have enormous promise but are stymied by a system that often doesn’t serve them well.

“Every young person who attends our schools across the city is filled with brilliance, potential promise, and gifts,” he said. “They exist in a school system which is fundamentally flawed.”

Banks has described the school system as “broken” and “dysfunctional” with a list of changes, some organizational and others substantive.

His predecessor created another level between schools and the chancellor called executive superintendents, Banks is eliminating the position, in addition all superintendents have to reapply for their jobs.

Banks criticized the use of Lucy Calkins Whole Language-based reading/writing program and favored phonics programs. Carmen Farina, de Blasio’s first chancellor was a strong supporter of Calkins, experts I asked suggested, “It’s the teachers not the program.”  The Reading Wars are education’s hundred years war.

Among the “tidbits” Banks was cheered when he mentioned increasing autonomy for innovative principals (how do you define “innovative”?)

The New York Times reports,

Banks said he would create a system for granting autonomy to certain “innovative” principals. Former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg made empowering principals, rather than higher-level administrators, a cornerstone of his education agenda. One of Mr. Bloomberg’s top education advisers, Daniel Weisberg, is now Mr. Bank’s top deputy chancellor.

“We have long advocated for greater autonomy for principals ,,,  and sharing best practices throughout the system, so we were pleased to hear him raise these subjects among his priorities,” Mark Cannizzaro, the president of the city’s principals’ union, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said in a statement.

Deja vue, again?

 Phillisa Cramer at Chalkbeat reviewed Joel Klein’s tenure as chancellor as he left his role as chancellor in November, 2010.

A key pivot away from pure centralization happened in 2004, when Klein placed a handful of schools into what he called an “autonomy zone.” The idea was the brainchild of Eric Nadelstern, a former principal and district official who became one of a small number of old-guard educators to come into Klein’s confidence. The curious alliance between Klein and Nadelstern, who had been a fierce critic of testing and centralization, seemed to shift Klein’s thinking.

The autonomy-zone schools tested a Nadelstern-designed formula of giving schools more flexibility in curriculum and budgeting in exchange for greater accountability if they didn’t succeed. 

The “autonomy zone” moved to “empowerment” and on to “affinity districts,” granting schools and clusters of schools “flexibility”; de Blasio’s new chancellor, Carmen Farina moved the system back to the pre-Bloomberg era, community superintendents with a top-down accountability philosophy.

Chalkbeat reports.

 Eric Nadelstern, one of the architects of the city’s previous experiment to empower principals, said he has recently been in touch with officials in the Banks administration. Education department officials did not immediately comment on conversations with Nadelstern.

“I think he understands the benefits of it. I think he’s experienced the benefits of it,” said Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor under the Bloomberg administration … “I think he’s in the process of, ‘How to do it again and more effectively?’”

You can’t mandate “innovation” and it’s a difficult term to define.

The literature on personal and organizational change is voluminous, and two of the tenets are,

  • Imposed change is perceived as punishment
  • Participation Reduces Resistance

I worked in a school district that was totally committed to school-based management, school-based decision-making and school-based budgeting. About a third of the schools jumped in enthusiastically, a third dipped toes in the water and a third were perfectly happy to continue doing whatever they were doing.

I came to realize it wasn’t the “innovation” it was the sense of ownership. School staffs designed the “innovations” and were committed to assuring “success.”

Schools had the opportunity to craft action research tools to assess the efficacy of their innovation as well as teacher designed methods of assessing student progress.

A shinning light in a decentralized district, reviled by Bloomberg.

The superintendent asked the chancellor, Rudy Crew, to be considered a “charter district,” provide the funding and allow the district to function under state regulations and the union contract without interference from the central bureaucracy. Crew was quick to deny the request and the enthusiasm at the local level began to wane.

Will Banks continue to rule from the aeries of Tweed, or distribute leadership?

  • Allow districts to determine whether or not a district will offer a Gifted and Talent program?
  • Encourage districts to design integration plans?
  • Provide extensive training for CECs and School Leadership teams.
  • Grant a role for CECs in the approval/expansion of charter schools?
  • With the teacher union, continue to support “school-based options” and the expansion of PROSE?

(PROSE is about school-level innovations. It offers schools the ability to alter some of the most basic parameters by which they function including the way teachers are hired, evaluated and supported; the way students and teachers are programmed; the handling of grievances; and certain city and state regulations. Schools in the program explore and implement a variety of innovations at their schools).

Days are getting longer and warmer, maybe we’ll be returning to pre-COVID normalcy or another wave of an Omicron variant will consume our schools, the war in the Ukraine casts dark clouds, and the baseball season offers a beam of sunlight.

We await the era of Banks.

One thought on “Searching for the Golden Ring: The Merry-Go-Round of Education Policy Initiatives

  1. Most if not all of these pissing contests (mostly incompetent, and maybe narcisistic alpha males/females) trying to prove something and almost always failing — they arrive bragging loud and leave quietly) would end if public money only went to community based public schools with locally elected school boards and all private sector schools (minus all public funds) had to also obey the laws created for public schools.

    Then one more tried and true element (this is what Finland does): Turn innovation over to public school teachers working in subject area teams that determine what’s best for THEIR students with final decisions always left up to each teacher for THEIR students.

    Oh, and no more mandatory rank-and-punish standardized tests (this is also what Finland does) Heck, no more standardized tests, period.


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