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10th January
2003

First Published in The New York Sun, January 10, 2003
By Andrew Wolf

Despite some of the abuse that has been heaped on Joel Klein in this column from time to time, it is not hard to see that the new schools chancellor has made real progress — despite his ear too often being bent by the city’s educational establishment, led by the universities and foundations.

Mr. Klein and Mayor Bloomberg have already made a difference, if only in that they have shaken up the most calcified and entrenched bureaucracy in the city. Even when they have proceeded clumsily, such as leaking the principals’ report cards to the press before informing the principals themselves, they have let everyone in the education establishment know that the bad old days are finished.
Next week, the mayor and Mr. Klein will announce the details of their “Children First” initiative. This will include the virtual dismantling of the 32 community school district offices and a total restructuring of the way that the city’s 1,100 or so public schools are supervised.

To put it mildly, this will be a good thing. The decentralized district system has bred a despotic bureaucratic culture that has destroyed the authority of principals to run their own schools and yet allows them to be blamed for all failures. This culture has permitted third-rate educrats to impose faddish curricula on a patchwork basis. It also has added a layer of unneeded bureaucracy to school discipline, as well as to payroll, personnel, and budget matters.

The idea of breaking down the large districts into clusters of 15 schools, one of the initiatives expected to be announced next week, will be a step in the right direction. I suggest that even 15 schools may be too many. These clusters would be much larger than the typical suburban school district.

The trimming of thousands of paper pushers, staff developers, and other educrats from district offices will enable the Department of Education to continue to cut its budget without, for the time being, affecting classroom instruction. I suggest that Mr. Klein look next to the hundreds of millions of dollars in consultant and professional development contracts that are sucking the system dry. When the Department of Education pays as much as $1,000 a day to send an outside staff developer into a single school, as happens regularly, something is wrong.

Unfortunately, this is the kind of boondoggle that the foundation types who were brought in to direct the Children’s First project will insist on saving. Unless Mr. Klein makes it clear that the gravy train has made its last run, we are in for many more years of unfulfilled promises. If Mr. Klein takes the same educational direction that the system has followed in the past (“balanced” literacy, fuzzy math, and bilingual education) he will insure the same result.

Mr. Klein is headed in the right direction with his plan to pay experienced principals a bonus to lead the most troubled schools. But he is deluding himself if he believes that the best principals in the system are the ones in schools with the highest scores. This simply is not the case. Some of the worst, least creative principals are sliding by in schools where children come into kindergarten knowing how to read. The parents in these schools provide every conceivable support to insure their children’s success.

I guarantee that if some of the socalled top principals in District 2 (Manhattan’s Upper East
Side) and Dis (Bayside, Q were put into t profoundly fai ing schools of th South Bronx, th wouldn’t last a d
Rather than fer incentives principals to m which will on
result in lurin some principals looking to pad their pensions before they retire, why not simply pay higher salaries in schools with large numbers
of children at risk? This could lure more applicants to positions that now attract few candidates (in truth, even the number of applicants for principal positions in the best schools is shockingly low).

If left to stand, the ham-handed rating of principals that was leaked to the press last week probably already has undone any chance Mr. Klein has to attract serious applicants to the toughest posts. There is no doubt that among the 1,100 or so principals there are at least 50 who should be terminated. And Mr. Klein is correct to insist that the hard-won right to remove failed principals is exercised. But he must insure that it is the right principals who are asked to move on, not simply those with the greatest challenges to overcome.

The Department of Education has rated the principals using an A to F scale on 11 criteria, over three years. Eight of these criteria are tied directly to test scores; the other three measure attendance, special education referrals, and suspensions. The lowest 20% in each category gets an F, the next 20% gets a D and so on. Not surprisingly, all of the failures are in the most difficult schools.

Even the old Board of Education knew better. They established a “similar schools” comparison report that takes into account the poverty of the student population and the percentage of special education students, English language learners, etc. These are factors that legitimately can have an impact on a school’s performance. Using this type of report, even some of the higher scoring schools, whose principals easily dodged Mr. Klein’s bullet last week, earn ratings of “far below average.” 

Better still would be the establishment of value-added testing,which would reveal which y succeed at eduhildren. Those e the ones where gain the most over the school ardless of where arted out. Sude may see that our genius prind even superinhave clay feet. mportantly, the will be forced se tests to evalute the growth of individual children. That is an important step on the road to improvement. After all, schools don’t fail tests, children do. If success is to come, it will only come one child at a time.

Mr. Bloomberg’s legacy will be determined largely by what happens to the school system. Thus far, much of what has been accomplished, including Mr. Bloomberg’s hiring of Mr. Klein, has had a positive effect on a system that desperately needs radical change. All of us who care about the future of our children and our city will be watching to see what Mr. Klein pulls out of his hat. 

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

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