Education Opinion

Sorry situation in NYC

By Diane Ravitch — April 18, 2007 3 min read
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Dear Deb,

I hope you won’t hold my Texas origins against me. I have lived in NYC since 1960—save for a 3-year detour to Washington, D.C.—and my first book was a history of the New York City public schools. I have been writing about these schools for about half my life, so, yes, I have a strong and continuing interest in what happens here. We don’t usually say, “As New York goes, so goes the nation,” but this is one of those instances where it might be appropriate to do so.

As you know, and our readers probably do not, the state legislature handed over control of the school system in 2002 to the Mayor, and he converted it to a city “Department of Education.” He sold off its historic headquarters (110 Livingston Street in Brooklyn) and moved it to the notorious Tweed Courthouse, next door to City Hall. (It was something of a delicious irony that Boss Tweed himself had persuaded the State Legislature to eliminate the independent Board of Education and establish a NYC Department of Public Instruction in 1871.) The 2002 legislation abolished the central board of education and all community school boards. Although the legislation was silent on the structure of the school system, the Mayor abolished the city’s 32 community school districts and replaced them with ten regions, each with a superintendent in charge of about 100,000 children.

Since 2002, there have been three reorganizations of the school system. The first totally centralized the district, so that all instructional mandates came from “Tweed” (as people now call the DOE), and everyone was expected to be on the same page with balanced literacy, Everyday Math, and the workshop model. In the second reorganization, the DOE created something called the “Empowerment Zone,” where schools could escape the micromanagement of the first reorganization—and 332 schools, about one-fourth of the total, chose to escape and become autonomous of the regions.

Then this past January came the third reorganization, and this one was a doozy. The Mayor and Chancellor announced that they had decided to abolish the 10 regions (that they had created in 2003) and re-establish the 32 school districts (that they had abolished fin 2003). They described this as a natural evolution of their plans. Now every principal is tasked with choosing one of three options: 1) become an empowerment school and be sort of autonomous (the pedagogical mandates are still in place, even for “empowerment” schools); 2) affiliate with one of four “learning support organizations, each headed by a former regional superintendent who has no power to supervise the principal; or 3) affiliate with a private management organization to help them achieve their goals.

There is no template for the new structure. Apparently what is intended (though it is hard to know what is intended) is to abolish the school “system” and to rely on principal ingenuity and hard accountability to produce hundreds of quasi-independent schools, all meeting performance targets. The threat of firing hangs heavy over the heads of the principals, as this sanction has been repeatedly invoked for those who don’t get the right test scores.

You quite rightly noted that the Mayor, in his press conference, belittled people who preferred his first reorganization to the last one. It has become something of a mantra in this regime to belittle critics, to castigate them as “defenders of the status quo,” and to dream up other choice epithets for anyone who is not completely supportive of the leadership, whatever it may do.

You also rightly noted that the Mayor and Chancellor have mobilized quite an impressive base of foundations, universities, and business groups, in part because so many of these organizations have contracts or charter schools or want contracts or charter schools. The only groups that they have thus far been unable to bring into line are parents, teachers, and administrators. The administration thinks that these are “special interest groups,” and of course they are; parents, teachers, and administrators do have a very special interest in seeing the schools get better, far more special and urgent I would say than the foundations, universities, and business leaders.

The sad fact is, Debbie, that dissent has been all but silenced in this city while our school leaders dissolve what used to be known as the New York City public school system and take a bold leap into the unknown. Apparently they hope that letting 1,500 or so flowers bloom will work. One need not be a seer to predict that the Matthew Effect will take hold in this educational marketplace, that the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer.

It is all very sad.


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