Education Opinion

Looking Beyond Legal Problems in New York: Accountability, Autonomy Vital for Effective Schools

By Dale Mann — February 01, 1989 6 min read

Once again, New York City’s schools are in turmoil. Recent allegations against school officials of such offenses as selling jobs, stealing, drug abuse, and sexual exploitation have appalled everyone concerned with education in the city--including many young people.

But preoccupation with such problems--which are relatively easy to control--will distract educators, policymakers, and the public from the real scandal of New York’s public schools: how little is taught and how little is learned. While there is no certain remedy for this scandal, the treatment most likely to bring improvement is accountability among school leaders.

Currently, nine agencies are investigating charges of school corruption in New York. The district attorney springs into action when someone steals a vanload of supplies, but who moves against a school where virtually no 4th graders read on grade level? We are chilled to discover that a principal may be using drugs, but remain unconcerned when a school leader dismisses students’ low achievement and high dropout rates by pointing at the parents, the neighborhood, the central board of education, television, and any other cause outside the school. We are outraged that able adults should have to pay bribes for jobs, but we overlook the reality that able students are not taught because of their skin color or their parents’ language.

Both legal and educational corruption are bad, but only the latter is killing the children.

And while it may be tempting to dismiss New York’s experiences as unique to the nation’s largest school system, accountability for educational outcomes--as distinct from accountability for money--is in fact an unsolved problem everywhere.

In New York, such accountability presently consists only of fingerpointing. School people say they want to do better but cannot--because of the budget or the teachers’ union or the local boards or the state legislature or the chancellor or the students, and so on.

Under the present system, principals in New York City are tenured not only in their rank but also in their respective schools: No matter how low the achievement of a given school, its principal is guaranteed stable employment there.

Public-school educators believe that they are already accountable because they have a public responsibility and they care about students. Certainly, many work hard, and all struggle in difficult circumstances, but real accountability exists only when consequences are attached to performance.

In the private sector, managers are promoted, transferred, even demoted according to their performance; shielding leaders from the consequences of their decisions is considered irresponsible.

In school administration, however, we have come to the opposite conclusion. Job tenure does shelter administrators from some unfairness. But vulnerability ensures responsiveness--and for this very reason, New York does not tenure district superintendents or the chancellor. Reforms in school-board election procedures and the due-process guarantees of collective bargaining can provide adequate job protection for school-building administrators.

Some principals resist being held accountable for the academic performance of their school by suggesting that some important factors in educational outcomes are beyond their control--that, for example, the school cannot help children from first-generation, non-English-speaking families, from broken homes, from violent neighborhoods. (Blaming the victim is a standard defense in education, if not in court.)

If this argument were sound, orphans would never learn and there would be no Horatio Alger stories. The conviction that poor children cannot be taught denies the premise of public schooling and, worse, creates the reality that rationalizes more failure. It also ignores the fact that schools dealing with similarly disadvantaged, “at risk” students vary greatly in their effectiveness. Some are marvelously successful--and more would be if their leaders stopped blaming others and moved aggressively to improve their own institutions.

Yet that progress is often stymied by a muscle-bound bureaucracy: We ask principals to lead and then handcuff them with regulations, mandates, and categorical budgets. A newsletter for parents proves to be a disallowed use of state dropout-prevention money. Inspectors file 40-page reports on the temperature of cafeteria steam-tables. Principals have to make schools work with whatever adults show up to cover classes in September.

A promising approach to reform was proposed last year by a citizens’ committee appointed by the New York State Board of Regents: The “conditional deregulation” it recommended for New York City schools would add both freedom and accountability to the system.

Under conditional deregulation, the state would determine new performance targets for each school--at a level higher than the school’s current achievement. The state would require a response to poor performance by a school, but the choice of remedies would be the city’s: The failure of a school to hit its targets by the end of two years would result in either the removal of the principal or the reorganization of the school and reassignment of teachers.

But new resources for schools would accompany these measures of accountability. Conditional deregulation would, for instance, allow principals, teachers, and the school community to negotiate individual objectives and broader performance criteria in such areas as student achievement and teacher morale. At the same time, the state and city would relax some of the regulations and reporting requirements that are so burdensome: Standards of performance presently “guaranteed” through mandates would instead be assured through negotiation of goals plus accountability.

State aid now comes to the city through more than 40 categorical programs, each imposing its own strictures. To broaden principals’budgetary discretion, conditional deregulation would repackage some of this funding as block grants.

And the state and city would join the teachers’ union in encouraging waivers from certain provisions of the union contract--for example, limits on class size--that can hinder effective teaching. Almost 50 schools have already seized this opportunity for innovation.

Finally, conditional deregulation would downsize and decentralize both the state department of education and the city’s board of education headquarters into a 500-person resource pool available directly to schools.

Chancellor Richard R. Green has said that he is committed to a small8er central bureaucracy, broader measures of school performance, and more authority and accountability at the school-building level. Conditional deregulation would realize these goals while preserving community school boards that would participate in setting objectives and judging performance.

The possibility of abuse will, of course, remain. In a public-school system the size of New York City’s--with a budget of $5 billion, 60,000 employees, and 1,000 sites--some amount of corruption is unavoidable.

But the more important challenge is transforming urban schools so that they can support the polity and the economy of the 21st century. Integrity is important, but so is leadership.

School principals deserve the autonomy necessary to do their jobs properly, and the public deserves an accountability system guaranteeing that schools will have leaders who can deliver educational results. Conditional deregulation is a trade that benefits everyone.

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1989 edition of Education Week