Macchiarola Will Carry On Work for N.Y. Schools

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

New York--On a recent Friday morning, while legislators and other state officials were making financial decisions that would make the difference between retaining and immediately laying off 1,000 of New York City's public-school teachers, Frank J. Macchiarola did what, in almost any other case, would be described as switching hats a few times.

The chancellor met with staff members from the Board of Education, including his deputy, soon-to-be Acting Chancellor Richard F. Halverson; he held talks with officials of the New York Partnership, of which Mr. Macchiarola is the new chief executive; and later in the the day, he had lunch with a high-powered group of business and civic leaders.

But for Mr. Macchiarola, who last month resigned as the city's schools chancellor to head the Partnership, a coalition of business and civic groups launched by David Rockefeller, former chairman of the board of Chase Manhattan Bank, the transition is in many ways an extension of some of his dearly held beliefs: that people and institutions will perform if asked to do so; that creative responses can mitigate the impact of fiscal hardship; that society's needs can be met only if everyone, from the public and private sectors alike, pitches in.

In accepting the $150,000-a-year position with the Partnership, which absorbed the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, Mr. Macchiarola nearly doubled his salary. Yet he does not view himself as "another public-education person who got picked off by the private sector."

He characterizes his appointment to the new position, in fact, as a maturing recognition of the need for human-capital development and as a compliment to the school system: "It's not businesses saying, 'Here's a corporate type who's going to create a link to the public sector.' They decided that a public-sector person who has been successful in that enterprise can do things for us that we need to have done. It's an important step; it demonstrates a shift in the past position that characterized the relationship between schools and the private sector."

During his five years as head of the nation's largest and perhaps most difficult school system, Mr. Macchiarola became known as a hard-nosed manager who unhesitatingly reassigned principals if he felt they were not performing, suspended community school boards for balking at his policies, and enforced academic standards through the highly publicized "Promotional Gates" program.

An Outsider

He was an outsider, an academician with little experience in government and less in elementary and secondary education. Indeed, state requirements had to be waived in order for him to be licensed for the job.

Widely perceived years ago primarily as a strong manager for some of the district's most difficult years, he has surprised some observers with his more philosophical side.

He notes, pointedly, that schools of education are not the only places to form opinions about elementary and secondary education: "I went to law school thinking I was going to teach," he says. "I've been on a faculty [at the City University of New York] since 1964. I've been an advocate of the liberal arts in a number of areas. I was on a community school board. I've always been something of a theoretician in a practical way."

A month last year as acting principal at Jamaica High School in Queens bore out what he has long sensed (and what recent research has confirmed): "I learned that most people are capable of doing more than we usually ask them to do, and that was across the board. I had suspicions about it in a classroom setting, I had suspicions about it in a business setting. But I had never run a whole institution in a way that I could see it happen.

"The first thing you have to do is feel good about yourself. You have to feel that what you are doing is important, that you're a piece of something very special. That's nothing to be trifled with. That's very profound. I think that's the first thing you have to realize: Many, many people don't know that they're as good as they are. You've got to tell them. You've got to encourage them."

Although he earned the enmity of some politicians and the citywide principals' organization, representatives of the school boards, parents' groups, and the United Federation of Teachers have spoken highly of Mr. Macchiarola's ability to obtain the best from his subordinates.

The "can-do" attitude, his admirers say, has trickled down to many schools; for the first time in 10 years, more than half the students tested in the city performed above the national average in reading and mathematics, and an evaluation of the stringent "gates" program indicates that it has been successful in stemming the practice of social promotions, although the program continues to be branded as a wasteful gimmick in some quarters.

Underlying Mr. Macchiarola's demand for high standards, he says, is the conviction that some customary school practices insult the intelligence of students--and the students consequently lose respect for the institution.

"They're smart," he says. "Half of them drop out because we're not doing the job. They want to make it. But you've got a society in which a kid with a high-school diploma is unemployed. You can't tell a kid, 'You stay in school and you're going to get a job.' All the evidence that a kid has, which is more trustworthy than your words, all that evidence tells that kid you're joking."

"Making heroes" is a persistent theme in Mr. Macchiarola's discussions. Although he talks of making heroes by rewarding industrious students, he acknowledges a strong social pull in the opposite direction: ''We legitimate anything anybody wants to do without seeing how serious it is and how much it contributes," he laments. "Anybody can be a hero in this culture without contributing a damned thing to the glue of the culture."

Part of the solution, he believes, lies in schools' strengthening their ties to what he calls the "real world" and motivating students by rewarding qualities that will lead to long-term success.

'Big Lie'

"You get around that 'Big Lie' by putting into schools programs that give kids jobs and by identifying kids for jobs who are successful in school. You make heroes, in terms of jobs, out of those people who reward the best kids. By 'best,' I don't mean simply 'smartest.' I mean 'best' in a contract way: Who does this, who does that, who's in extracurriculars, who put out? Who puts out should get.

"And there should be in the school a system that makes you reward the things you want to have in society--that makes them important components in the kid's life: trustworthiness, honesty, integrity, character, all those things. You reward them in a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old, and chances are you'll hire them in a 40-year-old and a 43-year-old and a 50-year-old. Those are the things we have got to reward."

Educators, he notes, have often viewed jobs "as something that pulled kids away from the diploma." By integrating work and schooling, he believes, schools can retain potential dropouts and give them tangible rewards for their academic efforts. At his request, one of the Partnership's projects will be to help schools tailor their curriculum to the job market.

Mr. Macchiarola rejects the notion that his ideas are at odds with recent trends toward narrowing the school's mission to academics alone. Like many of his counterparts, he believes the schools have been asked to take on too many social problems, and that planning has been "scattershot."

He contends, however, that, given more time and better coordination, schools are the proper place for providing a wide range of services to children.

"The good schools are broadening their focus," he insists. "If they're not, then they're not good schools. You've got to have an after-school program, a lunch program that works, a connection to jobs, more drug counseling, more sex education, more adults coming into the school, more volunteers, more links to the real world. All these things have to be built around the school because other institutions in society don't have those kinds of communities in place.

"If the schools are doing less, they're not doing the job. Any school that's doing less and going back to simple 9-to-3 activities without dealing with all these other problems is not reaching children. I don't care what kind of school it is, it is not being taken seriously by the kids."

An outspoken critic of what he calls the "Philistine mentality" of the Reagan Administration's policies toward support for education and the arts, he believes nonetheless that urban school systems are beginning to compensate for the loss of financial support.

"The groups of urban superintendents who were there when I became chancellor, many of them were going through a period of fighting reality--just kicking and screaming. The group that's there now, by and large a different group of urban superintendents over five years, is more accepting of the constraints and more understanding of how to make do with less.

"There was, five years ago, more of a focus on doing your own thing and doing it your own way and less of a commitment to hard-and-fast methodology and things that worked. [Ronald Edmonds's study of effective schools] finally took shape and said the school was the most important change agent. It really puts it squarely on the shoulders of the people who run the schools, and it says that you can't use socioeconomic facts to explain away why the job hasn't been done."

Schools Can Make A Difference

The realization that schools can make a difference, he adds, requires that the adults in charge change the way they think and behave.

"I believe we've lost some of the common sense and practical values," he says. "People have walked away from the value of dialogue; they're obsessed with internal monologue and discourse. Dialogue is not practiced in formulating educational policy, so they're talking to each other instead of trying to reach some kind of consensus. What should a liberal-arts student take as core-course requirements to certify that he or she is civilized? Whatever he or she wants. The community sense, the discourse, the standards are all lost. And it affects kids. They're talked at without being paid attention to, and they're not given subject matter of substance.

"There are other things that go along with it. The loss of authority is an important part of the age. We've got high-school students who can't tie a knot. That's ridiculous. By the time they're in high school they ought to be able to tie their own ties. They're going to be grown up, they're going to go out, they're going to have to be able to put a tie on. They ought to be dressing like grown-ups.

"But we're not asserting any authority. We don't tell them. We don't tell them the difference between right and wrong. We don't tell them the difference between good and bad. We don't confront them as serious people. So there is a cheapening of life, of culture--life as it's lived and life as it's observed."

The situation can be improved, Mr. Macchiarola says, but only "if you get people to take students seriously, to take their jobs seriously, to take their responsibilities collectively, and to develop a sense of teamwork, cooperation, sharing, caring, and loving."

Vol. 02, Issue 21

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories