A Bloomberg-Era Reform Worth Saving?

In the waning days of the Bloomberg administration, when many of the mayor’s controversial education ideas are once again under attack, one chief target of critics has been the school network structure, which broke up the geographically organized school districts and allowed principals to self-select into one of about 60 support organizations.

These days, just about everyone from the principals’ union (the Council of Supervisors and Administrators) to Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the NY State Board of Regents, to Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio are targeting the networks for elimination. Tisch recently charged that the networks have “basically failed children” who are English Language Learners and have special needs. Last January, de Blasio said: “I am dubious about whether this current network structure can be kept.”

But now, a group of 120 principals has issued a plea, in the form of a letter, in support of the network structure. The letter, which is reproduced below, was sent to Mayor-elect de Blasio, the UFT, the CSA, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and Shael Polakow-Suransky, the Senior Deputy Chancellor last Friday. It says the networks offer the following supports, which were not “necessarily” provided through other more traditional structures at the Department of Education:

1.      The gathering of schools of similar visions or purpose: the internationals, special ed reform focused, collaboratively structured, and schools committed to alternative assessment. This enables these schools to work more closely together and support each other towards better meeting their missions.

2.      Shifting the supervisory structure into an advisory and support structure. It makes all the difference in the world that the network leader and team members are not the principals’ rating officer. Our networks have been responsive to us and in many cases network principals have had a say in the selection of network staff.

3.      Networks support professional development that better meets the needs of the teachers, administrators, and other support staff in our schools and that allows for cross-pollination across our schools.

4.      Because of racial and economic segregation by neighborhood in New York City, geographic districts are often segregated as well. Self-selected networks offer the option of racially and economically diverse schools working together and benefitting greatly from this collaboration.

The networks go to the heart of what might be the most important education initiative of the Bloomberg years: An effort to turn principals into educational leaders by giving them both greater autonomy and support in exchange for increased accountability. Under the network structure, principals were no longer just accountable to superintendents. The networks represented a countervailing power designed to support principals—and, through them, the needs of students in each individual school—by providing information and advice on everything from budgets to professional development. Principals could—and did—vote with their feet if they were unsatisfied with the services they got from their networks.

Recruiting, training and retaining high-quality principals continues to be a challenge for the DOE. But the concept of the Principal-as-CEO unleashed a kind of grassroots entrepreneurialism at the schools where it worked best, energizing teachers and benefiting kids. The pedagogical creativity that has flourished at schools like Global Technology Preparatory in Harlem, West Side Collaborative on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and the Staten Island School of Civic Leadership, which were led by a cadre of new, or newly empowered, principals, offers a powerful argument for betting on the ability of traditional public schools to innovate. These principals experimented with curriculum and sought input from teachers to develop creative new ways of teaching. They enlisted private-sector partners to help support everything from technology initiatives to after-school programs. And, along the way, they ignored mandates that they felt got in the way of their schools’ missions. I’ve written about some of these principals and schools here and here.

This is especially important at a time when privatization and the charter sector are being held up by many education “reformers” as the best way to transform education. Indeed, these schools generally offer a broader range of educational choices than do charters. And, in many cases, the schools have flourished with a much more challenging group of kids than neighboring charter schools. To name just one example, at Global Technology Preparatory, a four-year-old Title 1 school that has gotten only As and Bs on its school report cards and rave reviews from parents and students, 40 percent of the students have special needs, double the rate at nearby charter schools.

You do not have to believe that public schools are “broken” in order to acknowledge that every school (indeed, every institution) needs strong leadership and constant improvement. The only question is: Who is best equipped to drive that improvement—distant bureaucrats, a superintendent, or the schools themselves? One lesson of my favorite management theorist, W. Edwards Deming, is that improvement comes from those closest to the system. In the case of schools—from principals, teachers, parents and even students.

The network structure grew out of an experiment known as the Autonomy Zone (sometimes also referred to as the Empowerment Network,)  which initially included 29 schools. “We didn’t need to be told by the powers-that-be what the right thing to do is for kids,” recalls Julie Zuckerman, who was one of the original Autonomy Zone principals (at highly regarded Central Park East)—she recently launched the Castle Bridge School in the Washington Heights–and helped draft the letter in defense of the network structure. “We also disagreed with the punishment paradigm in supervision. It’s no carrot and all stick. And that is absolutely not what we think is good for kids, ourselves, our colleagues.”

Soon, in one of many Bloomberg-era reorganizations, every school in the city became part of a network.

The two most obvious benefits of the network structure was that “you could break through the old patterns of patronage and corruption that existed for years,” argues Eric Nadelstern, a long-time New York City educator-turned-top-Klein lieutenant who spearheaded the networks. Nadelstern, who is now a Visiting Professor of Practice at Columbia University’s Teachers College, notes that local politicians had, for years, used schools as a job bank for loyal constituents.

Then, too, by stripping away the bureaucracy, Nadelstern estimates that the DOE saved $565,000 per school through the network structure. In his recently published book, Ten Lessons from New York City Schools, Nadelstern estimates that school superintendents who managed 20 schools under the old district structure and employed 120 staff members, “skimmed” an estimated $650,000 per school in management fees. By contrast the networks, which work with 25 to 30 schools each and employ only about 15 people, cost about $85,000 per school. The balance of that savings has largely gone back into school budgets, says Nadelstern.

By giving principals power of the purse and allowing them to choose their networks–and switch if they weren’t happy—network leaders were expected to serve more as coaches than bosses. “Schools find this arrangement of working with other schools and building professional relationships much more useful than the old superintendencies,” says Nancy Mann, the principal of Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx, and one of the letter’s signatories. Mann also says she was able rely on network staff for technical help and advice, especially as budgeting has become “more complex”; but, she adds: “I’m the one who decides” how to allocate the budget.

 Yet, after a decade of business-minded reforms, even the staunchest defenders of the networks concede that the going is getting tougher—because of the dizzying reorganizations and policy changes of the Bloomberg years, because of new government mandates and because of the centrifugal force of the DOE bureaucracy.

One key problem that has undermined the networks and principal autonomy is the Bloomberg administration’s failure to resolve the tension between its desire for fast-paced change and the reality that long-term improvement requires a measure of stability–especially for schools and kids.

The constant ferment of school reform has been exacerbated by the Bloomberg administrations penchant to distrust and devalue the expertise of educators, which was exemplified by Klein’s botched succession and the short-lived appointment of Cathleen Black, a Hearst executive with no education experience; the appointment of Dennis Walcott as caretaker-in-chief; and the exodus of key architects of the Klein reforms.

About a year ago, Walcott ended the practice of allowing principals to roll over money from one year’s budget to the next. The freedom to roll-over budgets was seen by principals as a key tool for forward planning; for example, money saved one year could help pay for a major technology purchase the next.

New Federal and state mandates, including new standardized tests pegged to the Common Core State Standards and a Byzantine new teacher-evaluation system, are giving principals less and less room to maneuver. In the process, the networks have become more focused on compliance than on helping principals solve problems. “The irony is that the vehicle used to decentralize the system proved equally effective when the folks at the top decided to recentralize,” says Nadelstern.

The far-flung networks, which sometimes bring together schools across different boroughs, also have come under fire for not being responsive enough to local community concerns. But Zuckerman says parents don’t realize that they can call on networks directly. A bigger problem, she says, is the DOE’s “patronizing and top-down approach” to opening and closing schools. “None of that planning begins in communities,” says Zuckerman. “No one has come out and said: What do you want and need? That’s not the fault of networks.”

Nevertheless, some principals have begun to lose faith in the networks’ ability to serve as a buffer against the bureaucracy. “The DOE system, as I experience it, represents a hierarchy that promotes the standardization of curriculum, teacher and student evaluations and school organization,” wrote Jeanne Rotunda in an email explaining why she declined to sign the letter in support of the networks. “The networks, while providing professional development and sympathetic ears, are increasingly pressed to keep their schools in compliance and ‘good standing’ based on test scores.  If we were able to return to the Empowerment Networks [aka Autonomy Zones] where principals had autonomy, while being held accountable, then that is a letter I would have signed.”

Meanwhile, Global Tech’s principal, Chrystina Russell, left the DOE this fall, citing the growing bureaucracy as one reason for her departure. Had she remained at the DOE, Russell says she would have signed the letter if only because “all of the energy put into changing the system will take away from pushing forward on the priorities within the schools that need to be addressed.”

Indeed, returning to the old power-structure will not be easy. The new administration might disband the networks and return the schools to district control. But if the de Blasio administration envisions restoring the power–and budget control–of the superintendents, the schools are sure to resist.

Here is the full text of the letter in defense of networks:

In support of the network structure option

 As people anticipate restructuring at the Department of Education in the next administration, we want to establish our support for keeping networks that work and allowing principals the choice as to whether they stay in those networks or not.

 Networks provide particular kinds of support for schools that many of us have found to be invaluable, and that were not necessarily provided through the district, region and ISC structures. These support features are: 

1.   The gathering of schools of similar visions or purpose: the internationals, special ed reform focused, collaboratively structured, and schools committed to alternative assessment. This enables these schools to work more closely together and support each other towards better meeting their missions.

2.      Shifting the supervisory structure into an advisory and support structure. It makes all the difference in the world that the network leader and team members are not the principals’ rating officer. Our networks have been responsive to us and in many cases network principals have had a say in the selection of network staff.

3.      Networks support professional development that better meets the needs of the teachers, administrators, and other support staff in our schools and that allows for cross-pollination across our schools.

4.      Because of racial and economic segregation by neighborhood in New York City, geographic districts are often segregated as well. Self-selected networks offer the option of racially and economically diverse schools working together and benefitting greatly from this collaboration.

 We are deeply committed to our networks and do not want ours to be dismantled because some are not working well for others. We can imagine some kind of hybrid system that allows successful networks to exist and offers more geographic-based structures for those who want that—more like the early days of the Empowerment Zone.

 

Robin Williams,  East Village Community School 01M315

Dyanthe Spielberg,  The Neighborhood School  01M363

Alison Hazut,   The Earth School  01M364

Mark Federman,   East Side Community High School 01M450

Laura Garcia,   The Ella Baker School  02M225

Erin Carstensen,   Essex Street High School 02M294

Brady Smith,  The James Baldwin High School 02M313

Peter Karp,   Institute for Collaborative Education  02M407

Alicia Perez-Katz,   Baruch College Campus High School  02M411

Stacy Goldstein,   School of the Future High School  02M413

Caron Pinkus,   Landmark High School  02M419

William Klann,   Vanguard High School  02M449

Herb Mack,   Urban Academy Laboratory High School  02M565

Jeannie Ferrari,   Humanities Preparatory High School  02M605

Lindley Uehling,   Central Park East I  04M497

Naomi Smith,   Central Park East II  04M964

Camille Wallin,   Muscota New School  06M314

Valerie Valentine,   Hamilton Heights School 06M368

Julie Zuckerman,   Castle Bridge School  06M513

Sue-Ann Rosch,   Community School for Social Justice  07X427

Brett Schneider,   Bronx Collaborative High School  10X351

Nancy Mann,   Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School  12X682

John O’Reilly,  Academy of Arts and Letters  13K492

Laura Scott,   P.S. 10  15K010

Rose Dubitsky,   P.S. 24 15K024

Rebecca Fagin,   P.S. 29  15K029

Elizabeth Garraway,   Maurice Sendak Community School  15K118

Maria Nunziata,   P.S. 130  15K130

Anna Allanbrook,  Brooklyn New School  15K146

Jack Spatola,   P.S. 172  15K172

Sharon Fiden,   P.S. 230  15K230

Zipporiah Mills,   P.S. 261  15K261

Elizabeth Phillips,   P.S. 321 15K321

Dawn Valle,   The Math and Science Exploratory School 15K447

Alyce Barr,  Brooklyn Secondary School for Collaborative Studies 15K448

Jill Smith,  Sunset Park Elementary School  15K516

Jennifer Spalding,   Sunset Park Prep  15K821

Celeste Douglas,   M.S. 57  16K057

Alexander White,   Gotham Professional Arts Academy 16K594

Courtney Winkfield,   Academy for Young Writers  19K404

Sarah Kaufmann,   School of the Future Brooklyn  19K663

Bernadette Fitzgerald,   P.S. 503  20K503

Donna Taylor,   Brooklyn School of Inquiry  20K686

John Banks,   Origins High School  22K611

Meghan Dunn,   Riverdale Avenue Community School  23K446

Kiersten Ward,   Riverdale Avenue Middle School  23K668

Isora Bailey,   NYCi School  02M376

Mandana Beckman,  P.S./I.S. 217 02M217

Monica Berry,  P.S. 87  03M087

Jenny Bonnet,  P.S. 150  02M 150

David Bowell,  The 47 American Sign Language & English Lower School  02M347

John Curry,   Community Action School  03M258

Judith De Los Santos,   Collaborative Academy of Science, Technology and Language Arts Education  01M345

Amy Lipson Ellis,   P.S. 175  11X175

Lauren Fontana,   P.S. 6  02M006

Nancy Harris,   Spruce Street School  02M397

Samantha Kaplan,  Yorkville Community School  02M151

Patrick Kelly,  Urban Science Academy  09X325

Marlon Lowe,  Mott Hall II  03M862

Dahlia McGregor,  Science Skills Center High School for Science, Technology and the Creative Arts  13K419

Veronica Najjar,   P.S. 87  03M087

Tara Napoleoni,    P.S. 183  02M183

D. Scott Parker,   P.S. 452 03M452

Laura Peynado Castro,   University Neighborhood Middle School  01M332

Francesca Pisa,   New Design Middle School 05M514

Michael Prayor,   Brooklyn High School for Law and Technology  16K498

Mara Ratesic-Koetke,   P.S. 77 Lower Lab  02M077

Katy Rosen,   P.S. 199  03M199

Wafta Shama,   47 The American Sign Language and English Secondary School M047

Maggie Siena,  The Peck Slip School  02M343

Yvette Sy,   Pace High School  02M298

Cara Tait,  Frederick Douglass Academy VIII Middle School  19K452

Phyllis Ta,     M.S. 131  02M131

Stacey Walsh,   Brownsville Collaborative Middle School  23K363

Lily Woo,   P.S. 130 02M130

Paula Lettiere,  Fort Greene Preparatory Academy 13K691

Sarah Goodman,  Hunter’s Point Community Middle School  30Q291

Elizabeth Collins,  University Neighborhood High School  01M448

Henry Zymeck,  The Computer School  03M245

Keisha Warner,   The Cinema School  12X478

Elaine Schwartz  The Center School  03M243

Matthew Williams,   Bronx Design and Construction Academy 07X522

Jessica Long,  Crotona International High School  10X524

Bridgit Claire Bye,   Pan American International High School  12X388

Nedda de Castro,  The International High School at Prospect Heights  17K524

John Wenk,  Lower Manhattan Arts Academy 02M308

Peter Sloman,  The College Academy  06M462

Ruth Lacey,   Beacon High School  03M479

Donna Anaman,   P.S. 87  11X087

Jean McTavish,  West Side High School 79M505

Lisa Mandredonia,   P.S. 62  08X062 

Angelo Ledda,   Academy for Personal Leadership and Excellence 10X363

Eliamarie Soto,   P.S. 161  07X161

Rachel Donnelly,   P.S. 121  11X121 

Christine McCourt Milton,  Ampark Neighborhood 10X344

Sereida Rodriguez-Guerra,   P.S. 84 14K084

Rosa Maria Peralta,   P.S. 8  10X008

Carry Chan-Howard,   School for Global Leaders  01M378

Deanna Sinito,   Carroll Gardens School for Innovation  15K442

Janine Kieran, George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School 13K605

Lisa Reiter,   Peace Academy  13K596

Jillian Juman  School for International Studies  15K497

John Sullivan Coalition School for Social Change  04M409

Jodi Radwell

Mary Renny  P.S. 16  14K016

Lorna Khan P.S. 54  13K054

Annabell Martinez  P.S. 124  15K124

David Glasner Urban Assembly Academy of Government and Law  02M305

Mark Ossenheimer  Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation 12X372

Carlos Santiago  Pelham Preparatory Academy 11X542

Daniel Nichols  World View High School 10X353

Matthew Mazzaroppi  Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies 09X297

Dyanand Sugrim  The Heritage School  04M680

Sandra Burgos  11X299

Francisco Sanchez 11X544

Evan Schwartz  Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical High School  07X600

Sarah Scrogin  East Bronx Academy for the Future 12X271

Annette Fiorentino  Bronx Latin  12X267

Jessica Goring  The Bronx School of Law and Finance 10X284

Ty Cesene  Bronx Arena  07X600

Sean Davenport  Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change 05M670

Shadia Alvarez  Collegiate Institute for for Math and Science  11X288

LeMarie Laureano The Young Women’s Leadership School of the Bronx  09X568

 

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