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2nd August

First Published in The New York Sun,  August 2, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

Mayor Bloomberg may have thrown the educrats a curve ball when he named trust buster Joel Klein as the new chancellor of the city’s public schools. A parade of chancellors with an educational background have passed through New York in recent years and each has failed. The one non-educator among the recent chancellors, the thankfully departing Harold Levy, was very much a part of the city’s educational establishment, since he served as a member of the State Board of Regents before he took over at 110 Livingston Street. Given this history, I find Mr. Klein’s lack of educational experience a hopeful sign.

My advice to Joel Klein is to ignore for the most part the educational “experts” who theorize about running schools and teaching kids from the comfort and insulation of the central board bureaucracy, district office fiefdoms, schools of education, and private foundations.
He needs to get his advice directly from principals and teachers, the real foot soldiers in the battle to educate our kids.That does not translate into just speaking with the head of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, Jill Levy, or United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. They are both delightful people, but they run unions, not classrooms.

Teachers in New York recently won an increase in salary in exchange for working an additional 100 minutes a week. But this will prove an empty promise since lameduck Chancellor Levy has come up with an inane top-down policy. Though the deal hinged on the explicit assumption that the time would be spent in the classroom, Mr. Levy has announced that most teachers will work two extra 50-minute periods each week, one of which will be spent on socalled professional development instead of teaching children. Mr. Levy mandates that the remaining period be spent tutoring the “most challenged” students in small groups on a non-compulsory basis. But this is a zero-gain situation, since this period will substitute for an after-school program already in existence.

A veteran Bronx middle school teacher, Kenneth Chorzewski, has come up with a better plan. Take the 100 weekly minutes, he proposes, and add 20 minutes to each school day. Shave a couple of minutes off each of the current eight periods, and you will have one entire new period of instruction each day for every single child. Because the school day will be lengthened for all, it will then, by law, become compulsory for all. This new time could be used for subjects that many teachers concede are simply being glossed over, subjects which include not just art and music, but also science, history, and geography.

The first initiative to come from Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein is the anticipated moving of the 40-odd superintendents to the new Department of Education complex at the Tweed Courthouse adjacent to City Hall. This is a brilliant idea, as evidenced by the responses from such spokespersons for the status quo as Washington Heights council member Robert Jackson (of Campaign for Fiscal Equity fame), who promptly started screaming bloody murder.

Mr. Bloomberg has hit on something important. The superintendents are virtually independent tsars of self-contained fiefdoms that burn money at an alarming rate, while often duplicating citywide functions.

These districts are much too big to allow for real day-to-day supervision of principals and schools, so each district has established a significant bureaucracy to do the job that the individual superintendents can’t. In some districts this has meant the establishment of a paramilitary hierarchy of “lead” principals, a dozen of whom are pulled from the difficult job of running their own buildings to spend time overseeing the work of their colleagues.

With huge bureaucracies to do their bidding, does it really matter where the superintendents sit? What Mr. Bloomberg is really doing is taking the necessary first step in demonstrating that the school districts, as they now exist, can be scrapped.

The model for their replacement is suburban school districts, which typically contain five or six schools and fewer than 5,000 students. Compare this to districts like the Bronx’s District 10, with its 55 schools and 45,000 students. Districts should be small enough so that a superintendent can have some degree of familiarity with every teacher.

In New York City such “charter districts” could be composed of one or two middle schools, along with the elementary schools that feed into them. I call these charter districts because their small size will help us work toward the kind of educational innovation that is the promise of the charter school concept.There could be as many 200 of these new charter districts, with superintendents reporting directly to the new Department of Education.

But this won’t mean an orgy of new hiring. We already have more than 200 superintendents, deputy superintendents, and assistant superintendents on payroll.These positions simply would be redeployed to the battlefield, away from the comfort and insulation of the now unnecessary district offices. The new supers would work out of the schools and be stripped of the thousands of staffers who now populate the district bureaucracies, sucking tens of millions of dollars from classrooms.

Money would go directly to the schools on an equitable per-capita basis. The dirty little secret that folks like Mr. Jackson will not discuss is that there is often more of a disparity in how funds are allocated within the city, and even within districts, than there is between the city and upstate, as charged by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity in its lawsuit. Because of their more manageable size, each charter district would more closely mirror actual neighborhoods. A board composed of parents, teachers, alumni, and community leaders would counsel the principals and the charter district superintendents on a purely advisory basis.

The willingness of Mr. Klein and the mayor to think outside the box, already exhibited in the plan to relocate the district superintendents, is a harbinger of positive results. A month after it went out of business, we seem to have gotten along just fine without a central Board of Education, which had long been defended by the educrats as “essential.” There should be no sacred cows in the crusade to return our schools to the kind of reputation they enjoyed when Joel Klein was a student at William Cullen Bryant High School.

© 2002 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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