An Open Letter to Ramon Cortines: Good Luck. Think Small.

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Welcome to your new job as New York City schools chancellor. We believe this is a great opportunity for you if you are willing to lead the system through massive change.

Abrupt institutional change is accelerating throughout the world. It has toppled governments in Italy and Japan, where governing parties abused their positions of trust. It has changed whole nations in Eastern Europe. In this country, companies with seemingly entrenched leaders have discharged them summarily--General Motors, I.B.M., American Express, and Westinghouse in the last year alone.

The nature of this revolution is to remove leadership which has not listened to, or has misdefined, its constituency. Although the institutions are varied, the problems were similar. Isolated bureaucracies festered in their old ways, remaining distant from the people whose interests they were in office to serve. Cocooned in their positions of power, these leaders resisted change or pretended it was impossible.

One can do away with the government of East Germany or depose the chairman of G.M., but change the New York City education system? It has begun to happen in small ways. We have started the Beginning With Children School in partnership with Pfizer Inc. and the New York City Board of Education. (See Education Week, Dec. 4, 1991.) We are not alone. Small schools are springing up around the city. Several new high schools are starting this fall. Initially, we considered ourselves guerillas--succeeding in spite of the system, not because of it. But significantly, we are implementing change from within the system, and our numbers are growing.

Although each of these new schools is different, they share common characteristics. They are small. They are filled with students, teachers, and staff members who want to be there. They reflect the needs of their community, not some central prescription for what every school should be. They have a vision. They welcome and often require parent involvement. Through various kinds of outreach, they are bringing back to public schools programs eliminated over the past generation--music, art, laboratory science, and health care. Many are open longer hours and offer summer programs. We are a vibrant underground.

Can this revolution apply on a broad basis to an institution as big as the New York City Board of Education? At General Electric, which has annual revenues of $62 billion, the chairman of the board, Jack Welch, stated recently that "small companies ... thrive on passion and ridicule bureaucracy. They need everyone, involve everyone, and reward or remove people based on their contribution ... small companies dream big dreams and set the bar high. ... What we are trying relentlessly to do is get that small-company soul--and small company speed--inside our big-company body.''

Chancellor, this requires a new definition for your role. You must be the leader of this change. No longer should you be primarily an administrator of a large staff reliant on others to filter through to you what is happening in the field. Every person at the central board should have as their mission serving the public. Every function should be examined to see if it is necessary. If, as we have read, the average textbook is 19 years old, why do we have centralized acquisition of textbooks? Why not let schools purchase their own supplies? Do you need a department of telephones or food service at the central board? Ask the people who use these services.

Your challenge is to empower those who directly serve children--principals and teachers--and then require performance from them. Our experience is that most teachers care deeply for children but end up frustrated and drained by unsafe conditions and pointless regulations. Many teachers pay for books and supplies themselves rather than go through an unworkable system to obtain them. We believe the unions will participate in change if the bargain is fair. Former Chancellor Joseph Fernandez was able to abolish building tenure for principals and scrap the board of examiners.

Finally, you must bring in those outsiders who are anxious to help. There is a tremendous concern for the children of New York City among businesses, foundations, and committed private citizens. It is very difficult to give time, money, talent, and facilities to the schools. It must be made easier. And you must sell this new attitude to City Hall and Albany. Every politician wants to be a partner in success, but you must let elected officials know that you will not allow our children to be held hostage.

Good luck. Think small, not big. Lead, don't administer. Enable, don't regulate. And serve children, not politicians and bureaucrats.

Vol. 13, Issue 02, Page 32

Published in Print: September 15, 1993, as An Open Letter to Ramon Cortines: Good Luck. Think Small.
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