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Asking Too Much of Decentralization

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Let me begin by saying that after more than 39 years in public education, including the last two years in New York City, I remain an optimist about the prospects for large urban school districts. Urban school systems are neither too big, too poor, too political, nor too complex to succeed. If urban school systems can stay focused on teaching and accountability, then they already have what it takes to do their jobs.

In fact, the New York City public school system, with over 1,100 schools and more than 1 million students, is an example of how even the largest system can succeed. Over the past two years, we have cut administrative costs by 30 percent; students have raised their citywide math and reading scores; we have developed a new curriculum framework; gun-related incidents have dropped 25 percent; we have issued school report cards for the first time; and a significantly higher number of students are passing high-level math and science courses. Across a variety of criteria, New York City students continue to outperform other big-city counterparts.

Yet, all of these improvements have occurred under extremely challenging circumstances. In order to balance its budget, City Hall has mandated almost $1.3 billion in education cuts over the last two years, while opposing any teacher layoffs. At the same time, enrollment has grown by more than 20,000 students each year, and Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's largely exaggerated criticisms of the schools have distracted attention from the real challenges and created an unnecessarily antagonistic relationship with the board.

If New York City public schools can improve even under these circumstances, there is no reason that other urban school districts around the country cannot do the same. But many people find it hard to believe that large urban school districts can succeed without dramatic restructuring. To address this, I would like to answer some of the most common questions I am asked about my experiences here and in California: What type of person should lead a large urban school system? How should large urban school systems be reorganized? Can the urban school system be saved?

A superintendent must, above all, be an educator. Here in New York City and elsewhere, administrative or private-sector experience is being touted as a key qualification for school leadership. However, I believe that even in the largest school systems an effective district leader must first and foremost have a strong background in education. Knowing what happens and what works in the classroom and in school buildings is essential, regardless of the size of the district.

An effective leader also knows how to make use of available resources and expertise. That's why I frequently solicited business involvement and picked staff with extensive city administration and private-sector experience to help run New York City's $8 billion school system and make its operations more service-oriented for classrooms and schools.

Decentralization is a popular idea in New York City and in other large urban districts. Over the last two years, I have supported the creation of a number of small schools and endorsed proposals to give more responsibility--and accountability--to districts, principals, and teachers.

However, despite the potential benefits of decentralization, my main concern is that we may be expecting too much of it. Decentralization should be focused on improving teaching and learning. But all too often it becomes the goal itself, or the means to a political end. And I fear that even the most well-intended decentralization efforts can hinder accountability, which is the single most important element to making schools succeed.

In fact, New York City is a good example of both the potential and the limitations of decentralization as a means to increased student achievement. With its 32 semiautonomous community school districts, New York City already has more widely shared authority than many other cities. The community school districts, each with its own independently elected board, administer the elementary and middle schools. The central board, made up of seven members (two of them appointed by the mayor), is responsible for setting systemwide policy and overseeing the high schools and citywide programs. Finally, the central board is responsible for distributing funds from the city and state to the districts and high schools.

In my experience, New York City's system of shared authority presents challenges as well as opportunities. For example, the community-district system is widely considered flawed, due to low local turnout for board elections and the boards' control over the hiring of school administrators. (In many other cities, where the elementary and secondary schools are separate, the superintendent and the central board retain authority.) And the dispersed financial authority among the board, the districts, and the city is not noted for enhancing the effectiveness of the schools. In fact, the ongoing dispute over who's in charge--financially and otherwise--has detracted from the schools' progress. A decentralized system, by placing more than one person in charge, can blur the lines of accountability.

Nonetheless, decentralization remains a popular idea--often accompanied by the observation that the generally well-regarded parochial school system is decentralized. However, while we can learn from the parochial system, the comparison is misleading. First, parochial schools have no mandate to accept all children, and many would be ill-prepared to handle the full range of public school students' needs. In addition, taxpayers might not accept the parochial system's tuition, teacher qualifications, and distribution of educational resources among schools. Most important, even the parochial system operates within a common set of parameters and principles, provided by the archdiocese. Therefore, the lesson from parochial schools is not that there should be no central guidelines but that these parameters should be minimal, fair, and uniform.

Another issue related to the decentralization argument is that it can lead to an overemphasis on specialized schools that may not be feasible for the entire system. While I applaud the success of the small schools in New York City (and have supported their proliferation), as chancellor, I have focused on solutions that may be replicated across the entire system. Although small schools play an important role in creating a spectrum of different educational offerings, they are not the answer to improving all the urban system's problems--such as large schools that are nonfunctioning. Still, we need both types--small schools that foster student identity and involvement and large schools that offer comprehensive academic programs.

Finally, one of the most important downfalls to emphasizing school decentralization is that it ignores the past. In fact, public schools in New York used to be more decentralized until poor results became all too clear, and the system was reformed. Until the mid-1960s, for example, public school principals could expel high school students with broad discretion, without due-process hearings to ensure fairness. And public school principals used to hire their own teachers, write paychecks, purchase supplies, and even hire contractors. The system was centralized to reduce fraud and improve accountability.

For all these reasons, I believe that we may be asking too much of decentralization and that decentralization efforts should clarify the lines of accountability, not cloud them.

Can the urban school district be saved? Based on my experience, the answer to this question is a resounding yes. People said that New York City schools could not improve academically, could not be managed effectively, could not be streamlined, and could not engage parents. However, we proved the naysayers wrong.

While many factors contributed to our success, the element that made the difference was hard work all around: teachers teaching, children being held accountable to learn, administrators providing leadership, and parents and the community being involved. If urban schools can keep their focus on teacher and student accountability, they can succeed.

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