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16th May

First Published in The New York Sun, May 16, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

Because I write frequently about education, I try to keep up with all of the latest literature in the field.The former head of General Electric, Jack Welch, has been named chairman of the board of the new, private entity established to train our next generation of New York City educational leaders. So, when I found out that he gave away copies of his book to the recently appointed local instructional supervisors, I knew I had to bring myself up to speed.

I headed right out to Barnes & Noble and picked up a copy of Robert Slater’s “29 Leadership Secrets From Jack Welch,” apparently an abridged, Cliff Notes version of Mr. Welch’s book. Since Cliff Notes worked just fine for me when I was a student at the Bronx High School of Science, I figured I’d spring for this version so I could really get in the swing of things, fast.
I learned a lot from Mr. Welch, but not what I expected. I thought that Mr.Welch’s “leadership secrets” were the blueprint that was guiding Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Bloomberg’s education strategies, but I was either wrong or there are 29 different leadership secrets in the longer version.

Let’s start with Leadership Secret No. 3: Managing less is managing better. This means decentralizing decision-making. This can’t possibly be right. Mr. Klein and company are creating what may be the most topheavy, centralized structure ever seen in public education. Everyone I know in the school system tells me that the words they hear most frequently are: “I can’t do anything until I clear it with Tweed.”

It seems also that Leadership Secret No. 4 is being violated. This one states that you shouldn’t pursue a central idea, but instead set general goals as your business strategy. Wouldn’t the imposition of the uniform curriculum seem to be a centralizing strategy? Wouldn’t it be better, as Mr. Welch suggests, not to “try to set a detailed game plan for every situation,” but instead “make sure there is room to maneuver”?
Leadership Secret No. 12 is one that I advocate: “Inculcate the best ideas into the business no matter where they come from.” To me the
best idea out there is E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum, which assumes that there is a body of “core knowledge” that every student needs to master to succeed. It hasn’t been tried here in New York. But we have tried all of the strategies that are being adopted, and for the most part they have failed miserably. Month-by-Month Phonics failed to do the job in the Bronx’s District 10, and according to the Daily News, districts that used Everyday Math posted lower test scores than the districts that used other programs. Somehow, we seem to have stumbled into inculcating the worst ideas.

“Remove the boundaries,” is Leadership Secret No. 17. Currently, principals report to a superintendent and the superintendent reports to the chancellor. Under the Bloomberg-Klein restructuring, the principal reports to a local instructional supervisor, who reports to one of the 10 regional superintendents, who report to the chancellor. But if the principal needs to deal with a transportation or school lunch or other such problem, he or she must deal with one of the six administrative units being created by the chancellor. Parents, who used to simply deal with their child’s teacher or the principal, now will go to a “parent coordinator” who will deal with the teachers and the principal. That seems like a lot of additional boundaries to me.

And what of Leadership Secret No. 19? “Listen to the people who actually do the work.” The teachers, the vast army that is the true educational front line, have now broken with the chancellor and his plan. Ditto the principals. Why? They claim the chancellor isn’t listening. According to Mr. Welch, a manager should “enable people to speak out freely.” But this message hasn’t sunk in with Mr. Klein, who severely restricts discussion at the Educational Policy Panel meetings. As for the employees, I wish I had a nickel for every one of them that has offered me a nugget of information with the proviso of not mentioning their name. Department of Education employees live in constant fear of reprisal. The example for this is set at the top, where processes and information are so closely guarded that reporters can obtain it only by a deliberate leak or a petition under the Freedom of Information Law.

The real lesson here is that the school system is not a business.There are no 29 easy secrets to success, nor is there one best curriculum, or 200 top schools, or 50 lousy principals whose departure will turn our schools around instantly.

Morale in the system is at an alltime low. The restructuring will cause enormous disruption.The instructional reforms are just warmed over versions of what we’ve tried in the past. This is change for the sake of change.

The worst thing of all is that less than a year ago the mayor achieved control of the school system and had everybody behind him, ready to roll up their sleeves and work together for our children. That hopeful moment has been squandered. That is the tragic theme that will run through the historical accounts of this past disastrous year — in my book, if not in Mr. Welch’s.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.


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