About Andrea’s Blog

Welcome to my periodic musings on the state of American education, business, journalism, the consumer experience, women and food—how it is grown, cooked and eaten. A systems thinker since I wrote my first book, The Man Who Discovered Quality by W. Edwards Deming, most of my ideas and writing are informed by a systems view of the world.

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Charter School Refugees–A New York Times OpEd

Late last month, the New York State Legislature struck a deal ensuring that charter schools in New York City would have access to space, either in already crowded public school buildings or in rented spaces largely paid for by the city. Over the next few years, charters are expected to serve an increasing proportion of city students. Which brings up the question: Is there a point at which fostering charter schools undermines traditional public schools and the children they serve?

In this OpEd for the New York Times, I explore the experience of Harlem, where nearly a quarter of students are enrolled in charter schools and where here is a marked disparity between the special-needs populations in charter and traditional public schools, according to the city education department’s annual progress reports. In East Harlem, data for the 2012-13 school year shows that most of the public open-enrollment elementary and middle schools have double, and several have triple, the proportion of special-needs kids of nearby charter schools. The charter schools also often serve fewer poorer students.

My OpEd argues that if charter schools are allowed to push out existing public schools, they should, at the very least, be subject to the same accountability measures for enrollment, attrition and disciplinary procedures, to ensure that the neediest students are being treated fairly. We should not allow policy makers to enshrine a two-tier system in which the neediest children are left behind.

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The Emotional Life of Children: Reflections Of A New York City Educator

Jeanne Rotunda recently retired as the principal of West Side Collaborative MS250, a respected, innovative middle school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Here are some of her reflections on what it means to be a public school educator. Appropriately, given our data-driven, measurement-obsessed world, she writes about one of the important “unmeasurables”.

Jeanne Rotunda recently retired as principal of a leading New York City middle school

Jeanne Rotunda recently retired as principal of New York City’s West Side Collaborative

The Emotional Life of Children

By Jeanne Rotunda

At a summer workshop several years ago, the participants were asked to write in a few words what, as educators, they were passionate about.  Without hesitation I grabbed a blue marker and wrote “the emotional life of children” on my sketch paper. I ultimately left the workshop with a visual map expressing my values and journey as a school leader.  I have thought about that activity often and recently took the visual map off my office wall as I prepared for retirement after 19 years as the leader of a small Title I middle school.  

So often, when visitors toured our school, they commented on the focus and engagement of our students.  I would share with them that behind so many of the children was a heartbreaking story, regardless of the appearance of calm.  It was a testament to the resilience of the child and the relevance of the learning environment teachers created that a particular student could work in such a thoughtful way.  It was difficult for visitors to imagine that the child they just engaged with was struggling with sometimes overwhelming challenges at home.  

Recently, an eleven year old named David, made a presentation  to fifteen visiting educators, sharing his math activities using teacher-created online systems to show his work, self-assess and manage his progress. The visitors were very impressed.  Was this a screened school that stellar students like David sought out, they wondered?  

 What they didn’t know was that David’s life was in disarray.  Nothing he did seemed to gain his mother’s attention.  He had learned early that the only thing she finally would come to school for was an event so disruptive that she had no choice but to respond.  Neither the accolades from teachers nor his habitual troublemaking, could get a response from her. When we finally could arrange for a meeting, we learned even more.  

David’s home life was dysfunctional in many ways.  His mother was overwhelmed by two older siblings, one who was a substance abuser and behaved irrationally.  The home was filled with anger and the adults and his siblings were not able to manage their emotions.  The housing authorities were threatening the family’s removal from the project if the family couldn’t manage their older daughter and the group of friends she brought around.  They were hanging out in the halls and stairwells, starting trouble.  David’s mother was overwhelmed, obese and despondent.  She was also surprisingly reflective.  At one point I asked David to leave the meeting because I needed to talk to his mother privately.  I wanted her to see how from the moment the meeting started, she had only negative words to say about her son, even when I was praising David.  It was as if she just couldn’t find the space in her weary heart to see what parts of her son’s life were working.  This incredibly smart and desperately sad woman had nothing left to give at this point in her life and this brilliant, charismatic and engaging young man bounced from excellent student to provocateur of fights and outbursts.  This is the challenge so rarely discussed as we hold forth about which standards, which curriculum, which organizational structure will “reform” education.

With the constant focus on testing, the latest standards, data that presume to quantify everything important about a good education, we rarely discuss the important unmeasurables, including the emotional life of children.  Yet, who among us is not aware of how our own childhoods have impacted our adult lives?  Do we not think about how we feel about situations in our lives and try to manage our stress levels?  Aren’t we dealing daily with the complexities of relationships and choices?  How can we expect a child like David to focus his energies fully on learning?  How can we think a child knows how to express feelings appropriately and ask for what he needs when the closest relationships in his life are so damaged?  The trauma of growing up in a home with enormous stress from finances, violence, drugs, and other dysfunctions, cannot be underestimated.  How is it that we rarely create the space and time to truly understand how these complex emotions shape the children we educate and our designs for their learning environments?

Being aware of and responsive to a child’s inner life can be painful for the adults who venture there.  But responding with anything less than a dedication to understand and help the child navigate their young but fragile lives, is to not be fully present to their reality.  Schools that are sensitive to the whole child and build meaningful opportunities to nurture and grow the emotions of children, are schools we should look to for guidance and inspiration.

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Grandmothers as Global Change Agents: How India’s Barefoot College Seeks to Transform the World’s Poorest Villages


Bunker Roy, the founder of India’s Barefoot College, likes to say that he got the best education in the world and it almost destroyed him. But instead of becoming a doctor or an engineer as his parents expected, he moved instead to a remote village in Rajasthan, in arid west India, and founded the Barefoot College, a “university” for poor, mostly illiterate men and women.

While 40 percent of Barefoot College students are men, the majority are women–primarily grandmothers—whom Roy considers “the ideal change agents in a traditional rural society” because they will take their knowledge back to their local villages and teach the young, rather than seek opportunities for themselves in cities.

“One lesson we learned in India was men are untrainable,” quips Roy. “Men are restless, men are ambitious…Why? Because they want to leave the village and go to a city looking for a job. So we came up with a great solution—train grandmothers.”

Founded in 1972, the Barefoot College builds on Gandhi’s philosophy and lifestyle of simplicity, self-sufficiency and egalitarianism. Gandhi argued that the solutions to the problems that face India are to be found in its villages. Similarly, the Barefoot College seeks to identify the knowledge and wisdom of villagers that can be tapped for their own development; only when that know-how is insufficient do you bring in knowledge from the outside.

One key example of how the college taps “village wisdom” is its approach to developing reliable sources of drinking water. At first, the college promoted the drilling of wells in desert villages, which required relatively expensive hand pumps and, over time, drilling ever deeper wells. Eventually, Roy consulted village elders who suggested an alternative that had been used in Rajasthan for hundreds of years—collecting rainwater. The barefoot college now promotes the development of rooftop systems for collecting rainwater.

I recently visited the Barefoot College’s twin campuses in the village of Tilonia as part of a two week tour of Rajasthan–my first trip to India. As a longtime student of the top-down, hierarchical culture that characterizes many American institutions—from corporations to schools—I was intrigued by the Barefoot College’s emphasis on bottoms-up solutions. I was also taken with its focus on both the grandmother-as-change agent and the wisdom of elders. (After all, in the U.S., experience is not always valued–in business, politics or education where K-12 “school reform” often means staffing schools entirely with 20-somethings, from the principal’s office down to the classroom.)

To get to the Barefoot College, our group traveled an hour and a half from Jaipur, the last several miles down a rutted dirt road amid wheat and mustard fields. We found an 80,000 square-foot campus of neat single-level buildings built around tree-shaded courtyards. The tree-lined roads and pathways of the campus are almost completely devoid of the refuse that mars almost all of India’s towns, roads, waterways and even many of its most beautiful monuments. The campus was built–and continues to be upgraded–by mostly illiterate architects and engineers who have installed a fully sustainable solar-based electricity grid capable of powering, among other things, over 500 lights, fans and at least 30 computers.

constructing cookers

parabolic cookers2

At the college, we found a beehive of activity, much of it centered around electricity generation.  A key idea behind the sustainable electrification program, is to make villages completely independent in meeting their electrical needs, including installation, maintenance and repair. Villages that have invited Barefoot College to provide electrification agree to pay a modest monthly fee to support maintenance and repair, in addition to selecting a local resident—usually a grandmother—who will spend six months at the college receiving training.

The Barefoot College has electrified 600 villages in India alone, according to Roy, as well as about 25 other countries, including Afghanistan.

Another important ancillary business involves building solar cookers that are stunningly elegant in their simplicity. Roughly half of the world’s population relies on coal and biomass fuels, including dung, for home cooking and heating. Yet, methane emissions (from dung, for example) are the second largest cause of climate change after carbon dioxide, according to the Global Alliance of Clean Cook stoves.

dung cooker                             A dung-heated cooker in another Indian village

By contrast, the cookers built at Tilonia–large hula hoops of thin, hammered metal piping, which frame convex quilts of cheap commercial, sun-and-heat-absorbing mirrors wired together and connected to a box lined with an aluminum-foil-like material—are completely green. The cookers heat up to over 350 degrees farenheit.

The college provides training in virtually all the skills needed for village self-sufficiency. Our group met students of dentistry and acupuncture (who treated the chronic knee pain of one member of our group.) Students also are trained in midwifery, water testing and weaving. Recently, the Barefoot College has begun to train handicapped women in building educational toys and manufacturing sanitary napkins.


Civic engagement, empowerment and good citizenship–including environmental care—also are a major focus of the Barefoot College. Its communications department includes puppeteers, snake charmers and musicians who build on the ancient Rajasthani art of puppet making. While traditional Rajasthani puppet shows tell chivalric tales, the Barefoot College uses paper mâché puppets (made of “recycled World Bank reports,” says Roy) to stage humorous educational skits aimed at teaching villagers about their rights, as well as new social ideas.

For example, in one skit, a menacing over-sized puppet head of a policeman arrests a villager, and explains, mockingly, that a fine will cost 1,000 rupees with a receipt, but just 100 rupees without one; transparency and fighting local corruption are key aims of the college’s educational efforts. A kindly, wise farmer-puppet, meanwhile, imparts useful information about farming techniques and the dangers of global warming. Then there is Moofat, “Mr. Outspoken,” who raises controversial issues, such as domestic violence and the importance of sending children to school.

puppet police2

The puppet shows also are used to make villagers aware of the minimum wage—$2.18 and $3.40 per day, depending on the region in India. In one instance, the Barefoot College helped villagers bring a case against the Indian government, which resulted in a precedent -setting Supreme Court case in support of the minimum wage.

In keeping with Gandhian principals of austerity, most of the people who work and teach at the Barefoot College make little more than minimum wage.

Participative democracy is another core value. Villages that apply for help from the Barefoot College are expected to form committees to brainstorm solutions to local problems (women are expected to make up one-half of the members of the local councils.) The women who train at the Barefoot College are often selected by these village committees.

The college defies many local traditions and respects neither religious nor caste barriers. Initially, says Roy, the college faced some resistance when Dalits, so-called untouchables, were assigned cooking tasks. But Roy insisted they overcome their reluctance.

Pragmatism also informs many of the college’s programs. For example, recognizing the realities of village life, the college has developed a “night school” educational system for children who work, for example, as shepherds in traditional villages and who would, otherwise, not be educated at all. Electrification, of course, is a key requirement for the night schools.

Some 215 students work and learn at Tilonia’s two campuses, which are situated about 1.5 kilometers apart. Most of the women are between 35 and 55–officially the maximum age allowed by the Indian government. (The women who come to Tilonia for training from outside India–mostly Africa–come via a government-sponsored Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme of the External Affairs Ministry.)  As a practical matter, since many students, who come from as far away as Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone, don’t know their ages, a number of the women are older. Instructional videos and sign language help bridge the language barrier among the students who hail from a dozen countries.


This student from the Comoros Islands is studying electrification

I couldn’t help wondering about the challenges faced by women who return to their villages with their new-found knowledge and self-confidence. Since they usually arrive home several weeks before the electrification equipment that they are in charge of assembling, they face much skepticism at first, concedes to Meagan Fallone, who heads global strategy and development for the college. Though, Fallone insists, that skepticism evaporates as soon as they get their first projects up and running.

While the Barefoot College has won global recognition—Bunker Roy received the Clinton Global Citizen Award for 2013–it operates on a relative shoestring. The college’s assets totaled $3.4 million in fiscal 2012.

Interestingly, while the Barefoot College receives funding from a range of international organizations, it says it does not seek funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Among the college’s “non-negotiables”, says Fallone: She won’t divert funds for the costly grant-writing process necessary for securing Gates funding. Nor does the college believe in Gates-style “measurement of deliverables.” It would be “absurd for us to reorganize ourselves to fall into their complicated reporting requirements,” says Fallone. Instead, she says, Barefoot College dispatches volunteers to villages around the world to assess their impact.

I am hoping to learn more about how the Barefoot College assesses its impact.

I’m also curious to learn more about the extent to which the Barefoot College provides a rebuttal to the top-down solutions imposed on schools, families and educators by American education reformers. Instead, the Barefoot College is based on faith in the “competence of ordinary people” to help solve their own problems.

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What A New IBO Study on Special-Needs Kids in NYC Says About Charter v. Public School Comparisons

A new study by the New York City Independent Budget Office offers fresh insight into thorny questions about charter school demographics and performance. The study compares student attrition rates at charter schools with nearby traditional public schools and finds that charter schools not only enroll relatively low numbers of special-needs students, over three-quarters of the special-needs kids who do enroll at a charter school in kindergarten have left by the third grade.

Across almost all demographic groups, kids enrolled at charter schools are less likely to leave during their first three years of schooling than are kids at traditional public schools, with one key exception: Students with special needs “leave charter schools at a much higher rate than either general education students in charter schools or special education students in traditional public schools,” the study found.

While 70 percent of the students who enrolled in a charter school in kindergarten were still at the same school in third grade; only 20 percent of special needs students from the same cohort remained at the same charter school for three years. By contrast, 61 percent of all students in nearby traditional public schools attended the same school three years after kindergarten; and 50 percent of special-needs students remained at the same public school for their first three years.

Attrition rates are an important indicator of how well kids will perform in school. Children who stay at the same school—whether charter or traditional public—do better on standardized tests than kids who switch schools. “The achievement gap between stayers and movers was considerably larger for those who left charter schools and the gap was larger in math than in reading,” the study found.

Equally important, the study suggests important questions about how the performance of traditional public schools are impacted not only by having disproportionately high numbers of special-needs kids, but also high numbers of special-needs transfer students—including those who started school at charters—who, according to the IBO study, are doubly disadvantaged: first because they have special needs, second because they have switched schools.

Consider what Stanford University’s oft-quoted CREDO study of charter school performance in New York City says about the performance of charter schools relative to traditional public schools and what it omits. When the CREDO study was published last February, headlines trumpted the study’s finding that, in reading, 22 percent of New York City charters “outpace the learning impacts”of traditional public schools, and 63 percent did so in math. By contrast, 14 percent of charters did significantly worse than traditional publics in math, and one-quarter of charters did significantly worse in reading, according to the study. [CREDO also made cautious—and much qualified—comparisons between the performance of special needs students at charter schools and traditional publics.]

But in evaluating the “learning-impacts” of charters and traditional publics, the CREDO study does not seem to take into account the significant discrepancy in the special-needs populations of different kinds of schools. While CREDO estimates that only 12 percent of charter school students are classified with special needs, 17 percent of traditional public school students have such designations. [Carol Burris, a respected Principal at a school in Rockville Center, L.I. finds other problems with the CREDO study here.]

Indeed, the CREDO numbers don’t tell the whole story. In Harlem, which has close to one-quarter of the city’s charter school students, and where charter schools showed some of the biggest learning gains, according to CREDO, the city’s public schools appear to have a disproportionate number of special-needs students. For example, Global Technology Preparatory, a Harlem middle school, opened four-years agowith a special needs population of about 30 percent. The schools special-needs population is now about 40 percent. The school, which was founded by educators who had a strong commitment to “mainstreaming” special-needs kids, takes kids who transfer in from nearby charters, including many kids with “IEPs” (individualized education programs). The school prides itself on integrating kids via so-called “inclusion” classes, which are taught by one general-education and one special-education teacher. Shael Polakow-Suransky, the city’s chief academic officer, has called so-called “self-contained” classes, which segregate special-needs kids from the general-ed population “an academic death sentence.”

Research has shown that kids in inclusion classes are much more likely to graduate than those in segregated classrooms, without adversely impacting general-education kids. Moreover, African-American boys are often over-identified as special needs because of behavioral problems, not because of learning disabilities. Some city educators argue that it is precisely kids with behavioral problems who are least likely to succeed in the no-excuses culture of charter schools.

Global Tech’s approach presaged special-education reforms in New York City, which were initiated about two years ago and intended to integrate more special-needs kids into regular public-school classrooms and to allow all but the most severely impaired children to enroll in neighborhood schools.  Having developed a reputation for being “good at” educating special needs students, says David Baiz, Global Tech’s new interim-acting principal who was also a founding teacher at the schools, Global Tech gets referrals from parents and even Department of Education headquarters.

Global Tech has won cudos for its innovative teaching methods. But when it comes to standardized tests, the measure used by most studies, including CREDO and IBO, public schools like Global Tech almost certainly can’t compare to schools with significantly lower special-needs populations. The IBO study helps explain why.

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When Schools Get Caught in the Red Tape of Education Mandates

As cities and states across the country scramble to adopt the latest education-reform remedies, including the Common Core State Standards and new evaluation systems that are intended to hold educators accountable for the performance of their students, schools everywhere are reeling.

The mandates are driven by strong federal incentives, especially Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s competitive grant program. A dozen states received Race to the Top grants to adopt the new teacher-evaluation systems, and the program provided incentives for the 45 states that adopted the Common Core.

Either mandate alone would be a heavy lift, education experts say. A recent government study, “States Implementing Teacher and Principal Evaluation Systems Despite Challenges,” found numerous problems with how teacher evaluations are working on the ground. Among the concerns were “ensuring that principals conducted evaluations consistently.” The report, released in September, also cited the challenge states were having in “prioritizing evaluation reform amid multiple educational initiatives.”

In this story, “Schools caught in red tape generated by new education mandates” for Al Jazeera America, I explore the impact that mandates are having on public schools, including two high-performing schools—one in New York City and one in Massachusetts—that have thrived on grassroots improvement efforts. These two schools suggest that some of the best “education reform” is happening at the grassroots level. They also raise the question: Does education need more grand ideas (and mandates) or practical ways to disseminate and grow what’s already happening in pockets around the country?

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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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Talking About Turnarounds-Done-Right At Old-Fashioned Public Schools, EduShyster and I Chat on Bloomberg Radio

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Jane Williams, host of Bloomberg EDU on Bloomberg Radio, together with Jennifer Berkshire, who is also known as Edushyster, an insightful education blogger and contributing writer to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Our segment, which featured us as two “new voices” covering education and the often misguided corporate education-reform movement, followed an edifying interview with the actor Mark Walhberg, who only just completed his high school education; Wahlberg discussed why his “biggest regret” was not completing his schooling earlier. Among Wahlberg’s more important observations was the role that sports and other extra-curriculars play in motivating kids and keeping them in school. (Wahlberg’s school had no sports and very limited non-academic programs, such as art and music.)

EduShyster and I, meanwhile, discussed school turnarounds-done-right, including those at traditional public schools like Charlotte M. Murkland Elementary School and Brockton High School in Massachusetts, neither of which have received as much attention as they deserve. (To see what I’ve written on Brockton, please see here and here and here. Here is Edushyster on Murkland.) EduShyster and I share an interest in how you change school culture organically, from the bottom up and the inside out. As EduShyster put it, “We’re interested in slower moving, deeper investments in the teachers and staff, versus turning the school upside down, shaking it and hoping for the best.”

We talked about how many of the most popular strategies that education reformers are using today—including canned curricula (an assembly-line approach to education), favoring inexperienced teachers (deskilling) and punitive performance appraisals instead of those that help teachers improve–were discredited in the business world years ago. And we discussed how the best examples of school transformation and improvement are driven by consistent leadership, a clear and coherent strategy and teamwork. These are the management lessons that education reformers should be learning. To hear more please click here.

Posted in Business, Education | 1 Comment